Pound and Pumpkin Tales 2

by Never2muchpinkie

First published

The continuing adventures of the now seven years old Pound and Pumpkin

Pound and Pumpkin had quite a year with their six year old selves, dealing with bullies, fearing storms, running away from home, solving friendship problems, and making friends. What awaits them in their seventh year?

1: Our own rooms

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“Hee hee heeeee!” Pound was flying in big circles around the edge of his room. Ever since he had accomplished his first real flight he had seldom been on the ground when he could help it.

“Oh, yeah! Look at me! Who’s the best in the world?”

Pumpkin bit her lip. Pound had been insufferably proud all day of his accomplishment. As aggravating as it was to hear him constantly hyping himself she kept her patience. Her brother had had to wait far longer than her before he started to make significant progress in his racial ability.

“Future Wonderbolt in training here! All bow before my greatness!”

She took a deep breath. He would get over it in time.

“What? You thought I was ugly? Well, how are these swan feathers looking to you now? Jealous? You should be.”

She rolled her eyes. At least she sure hoped he would.

“Rainbow Dash? Who’s that?”

She was fairly certain his bragging would be cut short the next day when he ran into Drill Bit. From what she gathered Pound had only gotten himself onto the level of his least talented classmates. When he was forced to confront the reality that he still had a long way to go she was sure his humility would return. So she would let him have this day absorbed in his victory.

‘Besides,’ she thought, looking up at him with a silly grin, ‘the two of us both wished for this. The two of us both have humongous potential within us, and every day we’re getting a little bit stronger.’

She put a hoof to her horn. ‘My magic has gotten strong enough that I can lift up other ponies for a short while. At first I struggled just to lift up a pencil. I wonder what Pound will be capable of with more practice?

‘Who knows? Maybe one day people really will forget Rainbow Dash for him.’

“Pound, Pumpkin!” Cup called out from downstairs. “Come over here. We need to talk to you."

“We didn’t do it!” Pumpkin responded as they walked into the kitchen. “Well, I know I didn’t do it. Pound probably did, though.”

“Hey!” Pound said, “I didn’t do it either.” He looked at his mom. “So what’s ‘it?’”

Cup genially rolled her eyes. “You’re not in trouble.”

“That’s right,” said Carrot, sitting next to her. “Take a seat, you two. There’s something important we need to discuss with you.”

The twins looked at each other, wondering what it could be. “What you think?” Pumpkin whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

“Maybe we’re going on a vacation,” he responded back.

“One way to find out.” The two of them grabbed a chair and sat down in front of their parents.

“Okay, so what’s up?”

“Well, both of you have been growing up-”

“We know that!” Pound said excitedly, unable to stop himself from flapping his wings and hovering over his seat for a few seconds. “We just turned seven!”

“Exactly,” said Carrot. “And with more age comes more privileges.”

“Ooh!” Pumpkin said, liking where this was going. Pound was similarly excited.

“Now, the biggest thing of all is something that you might not want, which is why we’re leaving it up to you.”

“Why wouldn’t we want to be allowed to do more cool stuff?”

“Because it would mean a pretty big change in your lives.”

Pound shrugged. “We’ve been going through some big changes anyway. That’s life.”

Carrot chuckled. “Listen to him. He sounds like he’s our age.”

“Well, enough with the suspense already,” said Pumpkin. “What’s the big surprise?”

“Well, it all comes down to a simple question. Pound, Pumpkin… how would you two like your own room?”

The two glanced at each other before turning back to him. “What are you talking about, Dad?” asked Pound. “We already have our own room. We’ve had it since we were born.”

Cup was the one snickering now. “No, you silly kids. What would you say to not having to share a room anymore? You would have your own individual rooms.”

“How would that work?” asked Pumpkin. “All the rooms are already taken. Well, I guess you could always put Pound in the pantry closet.” She smirked at him.

“HEY!” he complained, but then his gaze turned thoughtful. “Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. Reading comics by flashlight, a lot of privacy, and if I want a snack there will always be one right above my head. I don’t even have to go to the kitchen.”

Pumpkin’s head snapped toward him. That actually sounded kinda cool. “Hey! Who said you get to decide? I want the closet.”

“Well, too bad. You offered it to me, and I accept. So there.” He stuck his tongue out at her.

“Yeah, well, what are you gonna do about your giant dog? Tiger Lily is small, so she’d fit perfectly with me.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, what are you gonna do about her litterbox? You want that thing sitting on your bed? And I can so share my bed with Champ. I already do it every night.”

“I’ll just put it on a higher shelf. Cats like to be high up anyway.”

Cup and Carrot both just stared at their argument before they put their hooves to their heads and started laughing. Their kids were another year older but just as ridiculous.

“No one’s moving into the closet!” Cup said incredulously. “Honestly!”

The twins abruptly stopped their argument, then immediately paired up again. “Probably just wants the closet for herself,” Pound muttered under his breath to her.

“What, is she that tired of Dad?” she muttered back.

Carrot rolled his eyes. “Your mother happens to love me a lot, thank you very much. Now can we get back on topic?”

“Fine,” said Pound, crossing his hooves, “but I better not catch either of you sleeping in the closet.”

“You have my word,” said Cup, trying not to sound too sarcastic.

“So what’s the plan, then?” asked Pumpkin. “Like I said before we’re already using all the rooms. The bottom floor is for the shop and the living room, me and Pound share a room and so do you two, and Auntie Pinkie has the top floor.”

“Well, a little bit of work will fix that. Your room is fairly large to start with, so what do you say you divide it in half and call it your own? We’d have a wall installed between your halves of the room and install another door so that Pumpkin can get out.”

“But why would you do that?” asked Pound, pouting a little. “What’s the point? I thought you wanted us to be close. Why are you trying to separate us?”

“This would give you both some extra privacy. When the two of you are angry at one another one of you always avoids your room if the other one is in there, and it’s hardly fair to either of you when it’s where you keep all your stuff.”

“And,” said Carrot, “while your personal friends get along with each other, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the ability to just hang out with them alone. Not every hangout has to involve the both of you. “

“Now,” added Cup, “the two of you are still young, so this isn’t much of a concern yet, but the two of you are a boy and a girl. Like, say Pumpkin wanted to braid Peppermint’s hair. That doesn’t seem like an activity Pound will be very interested in as a boy, but if he’s in the room he’ll have to listen to you girls talking about things he’s not interested in. However, with a wall between you it will drown out the noise so it doesn’t force Pound to go elsewhere.”

The twins looked at each other. “That… doesn’t sound so bad,” Pound admitted. “But me and Pumpkin are super close.”

“Yeah,” said Pumpkin. “We’ve lived together since we were born. I don’t know if I want a big wall put up between us if I’m not angry at him.”

Carrot snorted. “This from the kids who were just arguing about who gets to move into the closet.”

The twins laughed awkwardly. “Well, I just got caught up in the moment,” said Pound. “I don’t think I’d actually want to live in the closet.”

“Yeaaaah,” said Pumpkin, “same here. It might be fun for a day, but then it would get annoying."

“Anyway," said Pound, "what happens when the two of us want to play with each other? We have one closet on my side and a toybox on Pumpkin’s side. Do we have to keep running back and forth between rooms just to grab something we want? It seems really annoying.”

“Hmm… I can see your point there," said Carrot. “How about this? It won’t be an actual wall dividing the room.”

“Then what?” asked Cup.

“You remember the gym in high school, Honey-Bun? To accommodate for two classes scheduled at the same time it could be divided in two.”

“Oh! Right.”

“How does that work?” asked Pound.

“Foldable panels.”

“Think of it like a huge sliding door that’s hooked up to a track on the ceiling,” said Carrot. “When it’s open the panels stack neatly at the end. When you want to close it you just pull on the end of it and push it until it reaches the other end of the room and clicks into place.”

“Oooh,” said Pumpkin. “That sounds cool. So when we want to play with each other we can, and when we want some privacy we pull the wall closed. ”

“Right,” said Cup. “So both of you are on board?”

They nodded.

“OKAY, THEN!” came the joyful voice of Mayhem as he poofed into sight, making the twins jump.

“Whoa!” said Pound, catching his breath. “Where did you come from?”

“Oh, I was a bug on the floor.”

“Why?” asked Pumpkin.

“Well, your parents told Daddy about their idea, and he was fine with it, but he knows that the three of us are good friends so he sent me instead. AND he gave me an extra bunch of magic so I can make your ideal room for you.”

He grabbed the two of them in a hug. “It’s only been a day, but I was already missing you two anyway.”

The two of them hugged him back. “We love you too, Mayhem,” said Pound warmly.

“Same here,” said Pumpkin.

Mayhem grinned widely. “Well, let’s get to it!” he cried out as he went to teleport them upstairs, but then stopped.

He walked up to Cup and Carrot, bowing to them. “I just wanted to thank you again for giving me another chance to be a better draconequus. I know the first time we met I was a mean, spoiled brat who didn’t understand about love and friendship.” He put his arms behind him, levitating the twins until they were on either side of them, putting his arms around them. “But now I do, and I couldn’t be happier about it.”

Cup grinned down at him. “I saw you were being very mature at the party.” She patted his head. “Keep up the good work, Mayhem.”

He beamed, flashing his teeth at her, before vanishing with the twins.

They arrived in Pound and Pumpkin’s room. “Alright, you two!” He cracked his neck, then his hands. “Let’s begin. To start with…” He snapped, creating the foldable panel walls that Cup and Carrot had been talking about.

Pumpkin observed it, then tried it out. When folded up it didn’t take up too much room. Only about six feet wide, and four feet long.

When it was deployed it did what it was supposed to: put up a barrier between the two halves of the room.

“What do you think, Pound?”

“I think it needs a few little changes,” he replied.

“Like what?”

“Well, for one, I think it needs to be able to lock in place when it’s out. Otherwise, if we’re in a bad mood, it just needs a little push and we can just come right in to annoy each other.”

“Makes sense. What else?”

“I think the panel near our beds should have a door. Then we can still visit each other without moving the wall.”

Pumpkin frowned. “Then what’s the point of having the wall lock? And doors only open one way. Even if we put a lock on the door too one of us is always going to be able to come in to bother the other.”

“Oh…” Pound sucked on his cheek. “Yeah, I see your point.”

Mayhem chuckled. “No worries. I got you covered.” With another snap he created a place for the panels to lock into as well as the door. “Go on the other side and try it out.”

So she did. Now there was a wall between her and Pound. She opened the door by her bed, only to still see paneling blocking her from crossing over.

A few seconds later the panel opened, and now she could see Pound’s side of the room.

“Both of you get your own door that locks,” said Mayhem. “Only when both of you open the door can you go through. It’s the same with the place where the panels lock in.”

“That’s a smart idea,” said Pound.

“Thank you, thank you,” he replied with a little bow. “Anything else?”

“Oooh!” Pound exclaimed, his eyes lighting up. “Can you decorate our ceiling?”

“Sure. What’cha want?”

“I want me in a Wonderbolts costume! Oh! And I’m riding a dragon! Ooh, ooh, ooh! And I’ve got adoring fans cheering for me. And-and nearby is some other horrible monsters that I’ve taken care of. Like a hydra, and an Ursa Minor. ”

Pumpkin stifled a laugh. He really was going overboard with the little bit of talent he had discovered, but she was determined to let him have his moment. Maybe it would inspire him to keep going on if he had a bad day.

“Done, and done!” Mayhem summoned paint cans, opening them up and pouring them down his throat. He took in a deep breath, his body swelling up a bit, then he exhaled hard, paint flying up at the ceiling.

At first it was just a goopy mess, but even as they watched the colors separated until they became exactly what Pound had described.

Pumpkin blinked. She hadn’t expected it to look so cool. It was almost three-dimensional, like it was coming out of the ceiling. “My turn, my turn!” she said impatiently.

Mayhem grinned. “You bet.”

“Um, um, um… hmm…” She tried to think of what would be cool enough. Pound had made something completely ridiculous, so she figured she might as well too.

“I got it! Make us and our friends into superheroes with cool costumes, like the Power Ponies. And Tiger Lily and Champ can be our sidekicks.”

“I like that one!”

Pound watched, interested to see what he would do with the idea. His idea had been simple, but Pumpkin’s would require some creativity.

Mayhem scribbled in the air for a bit, before hitting it with both arms like a volleyball set. It hit the ceiling, forming an image.

Pound and Pumpkin just stared at the ceiling for a little while, before letting out a little, “Woooow.”

Their costumes were based upon their names. For the most part that just involved their namesake being tattoed all over the costume. Peppermint got candy canes, Tree Leaf had foliage. Masky had different masks scattered across it. The twins had cake launchers strapped to their wrists.

Tiger Lily was also dressed up, floating next to Pumpkin. Pound was on Champ’s back, little after-images of the pair behind them, as if Champ had super speed.

Even Flurry Heart was there, a Crystal Heart mask on her face and her wings even larger than before, wrapped protectively around the air in front of them.

“That is so awesome!” said Pound.

“You said it! I didn’t think it would look this cool.”

Mayhem chuckled appreciatively, a smug look on his face.

Pound’s head tilted. “Hey, wait a minute. Where are you, Mayhem?”

He laughed evilly. “I’m glad you asked, Pound.” Swirling his finger in circles he made a mini hurricane, which blew away a dark part of the ceiling, revealing Mayhem on the opposite side, wearing a dark costume and a simple bandana with eyeholes cut out in front of a dark castle, his arms crossed and his cape blowing dramatically in the wind. Lightning was coming out of clouds above the castle, illuminating dozens of creatures behind him.

Pumpkin’s eyebrow went up. “So… what? You turned against us? Why are you all evil looking?”

“Because!” he said simply. “When I first met you I wasn’t a good person. A good friend fights for you, to pull you out of the darkness. Just like Mommy, and all of you.”

Pound nodded. “I get it. So we’re fighting to rescue you from yourself?”

Mayhem nodded too, hugging the two of them. “Yep. Because all of you are my best friends, and I know that you would do whatever it takes to help me.”

The twins thought back to Pinkie’s Pinkie Promise to them. She promised that even if they turned evil she would still believe in their goodness, and it was that belief that allowed them to overpower Mayhem when he tried to make them destroy the ones they loved. They could understand that feeling perfectly.

With their ceiling murals done not much was left to do. Pumpkin got her own door and Pound got his own closet. After that they both got to pick out their own colors for their sides of the room. Pound picked orange, while Pumpkin picked green.

With their rooms suited to their style, the twins took a few minutes just to appreciate the changes. They had shared the same room since they were born, and as babies had shared the same crib sometimes. Now they were growing more independent and responsible. Their room now felt like their own. Now they could choose not to share it with each other if they didn’t feel like it.

Since he had gone through all the trouble of helping them out they played with Mayhem for a while until he left to go visit Fluttershy.

After that they showed off their redesigned rooms to their family, who were quite impressed.

For a time both of them sat on their beds, looking at their ceiling murals, feeling quite content.

“Hey, Pound?” said Pumpkin from her side of the room.

“Yeah?” he responded.

“Being seven is already awesome.”

Pound chuckled. “It sure is.”

“And you remember what our parents said? They said that this was the biggest change. That means there’s other stuff we’re gonna get to do too.”

Pound beamed. “You’re right. I wonder what other privileges we’re gonna get. Maybe we can stay up later.”

“Who knows? Right now this is enough.”

“I agree. We got to style up our room exactly how we wanted it. We picked out our own colors, own ceilings, we have our own door, and we can have privacy whenever we need it.” He let out a sigh. “Today was just awesome.”

Pumpkin sighed too. “Hey, Pound?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

Pound was in too good a mood to playfully react with disgust. “I love you too, Pumpkin.”

When it was time for bed both of them embraced the chance to test their new boundary.

“Rah! I hate you,” Pound said jokingly.

“Grr! I hate you too,” Pumpkin replied in the same tone.

“That’s it! I want a wall between us.”

“You got it!”

Smiling widely at each other the whole way they pulled the paneling until it locked into place and they couldn’t see each other anymore.

“Goodnight!” they called to each other, going to their beds.

Cup, Carrot, and Pinkie found it a little odd to go into a separate door to say goodnight to Pumpkin after seven years of their only being one door there.

When the lights went out the two of them were delighted to find that their murals glowed in the dark. It didn’t have as much detail as it would in the light, but it was like having a constellation on the ceiling.

Once more they just stared at their ceilings, glad for what they had been given. Both of them now had their own, private rooms.

‘This is the life,’ thought Pound, his hooves behind his head. ‘Just me, all by myself.’ He lifted his head a bit. ‘And Champ too, of course.’

‘I’ve got my own room now,’ Pumpkin mused. ‘It’s all mine, and I don’t have to share it with anyone. Well, except for Tiger Lily.’ She rubbed the cats head, getting an appreciative purr in response.

Pound turned on his side, staring at the new wall. Pumpkin did the same.

Later on, as Cup was heading to bed, she noticed both of the twins doors were open. She peeked into Pound’s room, an eyebrow going up. His bed was empty. The bathroom was empty too.

She walked over to Pumpkin’s door, pushing it open more, and her heart melted at the sight. Champ was curled up around Tiger Lily at the foot of the bed, while Pound and Pumpkin were under the covers, snuggled up close to one another.

A warm tear came down her cheek, and she quietly shut the door as she went to her room, her heart light as a feather.

2-1: A friend in need

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Pound was in a giddy mood as he arrived at school. He quickly said goodbye to Pumpkin as he headed for his pegasus classes.

When they went outside for practice Pound said loudly, “Hey, everyone! I have an important announcement to make.”

“What’s that?” asked Ms. Nimble.

Pound unfurled his wings, flapping hard and rising up, going in a circle around the area. “I can finally fly!” he said, beaming.

“Way to go, Pound!”

Drill Bit chuckled. “Well, it’s about time, you dork! I thought I was gonna have grandkids before you got there.”

“Sorry, you’re not that lucky,” he responded with a giggle. He landed on the ground. “Race me!”

Drill Bit rolled his eyes, then shook his head. “Getting kinda ahead of yourself there, aren’t you? Do you actually think you can beat me?”

Pound shook his head, giving a hearty, “Nope! I know you’re gonna wipe the floor with me without even trying.”

Drill stated at him blankly. “Okay, well, if you understand that then what’s the point of the challenge?”

“For the experience!” he replied, giving Drill a smug look. “Sure, right now you’re way better than me, but I work hard when I’m motivated. Each time we race I’m gonna get a little better, make you work a little harder, until one day I’ll blast you out of the school.”

At first Drill frowned, but then his grin slowly expanded. “Really? Is that how you see things going?” He shrugged. “I guess every kid needs to have a dream, even if it’s an impossible one.”

“Enjoy your time in the winner’s circle while it lasts. One day you won’t even be on my level.”

Even though, skill-wise, Pound was far below him, Drill still felt that thrill that comes from the thought of being pushed to the limit and still coming out on top. Pound acknowledged his own weakness, and showed a desire to make up for it. He had come far from the self-pitying, talentless loser he used to be. Perhaps Pound was starting to get a thirst for competition after all, and that made him interesting.

“Well, boys,” Drill said to his friends. “If Pound wants a race we’ll give him a race.”

They lined up in a row, Drill Bit pointing out several landmarks to use to mark their trail. “Three laps around. And we’ll even give you a handicap to keep it fair. You only need to do two laps.”

Pound thought about protesting, but he knew he’d probably lose regardless of their generosity.

The race began, and Pound took off, the other five leaving him in the dust easily. He pushed himself, but he barely managed to finish his first lap before the others had finished their three.

Drill Bit came up to him. “Well, that went about as expected. For your first race you could have done worse.” Drill gave him a pat on the head. “Keep practicing, newbie.”

Though others might see it as being condescending Pound didn’t take it that way. Drill was teasing him like he did with his friends. In his own way Drill was showing him respect. Through the rest of class and his recess he kept practicing his flying, trying to get used to his new freedom.

When they got home they did their homework as usual, but when they went to do their own thing their parents sat them down again.

“What’s up, Mom and Dad?” asked Pound.

“Do you remember what we said about new responsibilities yesterday?” said Cup.

The twins instantly sat up straighter, their attention focused.

Carrot chuckled. Their eyes were practically sparkling. “Now, this is something your mother and I have been discussing a lot. We’re not sure if you’re ready yet, but we have decided to give you a chance.”

They both nodded a few times, moving forward in their seats.

Cup left the room for a moment, returning with something in her hoof. Sitting down she pulled the white things apart, letting them unfurl, revealing two small aprons. “How would you two like to help out in the shop?”

Both of them practically leapt out of their chairs. “Really?” said Pumpkin.

“You mean it?” asked Pound.

Cup nodded. “I figure once a week we’ll allow you to assist us.”

Their eyes were bright with joy.

“However!” she continued sternly. “There are some rules you have to follow. You break any of these rules, and you’re done. That’s it. No second chances. Am I understood?”

They nodded. “Rule number one is that you don’t touch the cash register. No giving money. No taking money. We don’t want to be losing money because you miscounted or someone ripped you off.”

“Rule number two,” said Carrot, “No touching the oven. The oven is, obviously, very hot, and we don’t want to risk you getting burned.” Carrot let out a quiet groan. “Although…” He stopped, clearly not wanting to say the next bit.

He sighed. “Unlike the rest of us Pumpkin is a unicorn, and thus she doesn’t have to be concerned with burning herself because she can take the product out with her magic. Even so, we would still prefer it if you let us handle the hot things. Even if you can’t get burnt we don’t want you to burn anything else because you set the tray down in a bad spot.”

“And rule three is the simplest but most important of all,” said Cup. “Listen to us! We’ve been in this business since before you were born. If we tell you only three spoonful’s of sugar then only put in three spoonful’s. If you’re going to help out we need to keep our products at the same level of tastiness and edibility.

“And if you’re on the floor then put the products where we tell you to put them. We have some general rules about what gets displayed where. If you have an idea about doing something differently then feel free to bring it up, but we might tell you no.

“I think it’s also prudent to bring up that this is completely optional. With school, pets, and practicing your talents you already have plenty of responsibility on your plate. You won’t be forced to help out, nor denied any privileges if you choose not to do so.”

“Why wouldn’t we want to help out?” asked Pumpkin. “That sounds awesome!”

“Yeah! Yeah!” Pound added right after. “We’re the Cake family, and now we can work together as one every day.”

“Well, it’s good to see you’re enthusiastic,” said Cup, “but I think once a week is more than enough. You’re growing up, but you’re still children. Enjoy this time of being young while you still have the chance to.”

“We weren’t sure what your response would be,” said Carrot. “We asked today to give you a few days to think about it. Me and your mother agreed that if you said yes your work day would be on Fridays.”

That made both of them frown. “Why’s that?” Pound whined.

“Because that’s the last day of the school week.”

“And?” said Pumpkin, crossing her hooves.

“And I don’t want any excuses.”

“Excuses for what?”

“Like saying you’re too tired to go to school because you worked the day before,” said Cup. “Or that you couldn’t do your homework because you were too busy working. Or maybe you’ll stay up later than you should because you feel you didn’t get enough fun time during the day so you want to catch up on it, which ties in with the first excuse.

“We’re not saying you would do that, but we don’t want to take the risk of interfering with your school life by asking you to work.”

Pound let out a huff, crossing his hooves too. “Well, that’s messed up. Getting us all excited and then telling us we can’t have it for a few days.”

“Mmm.” Carrot felt they had a point. “How about this? You can stay up an hour later tonight as long as you spend it in a quiet activity.”

The twins still had sour faces, only looking slightly mollified.

“Oh, no!” Cup said dramatically. “We seem to be overstocked on chocolate ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, and brownies. Who could we possibly get to help us get rid of some of these things on such short notice?”

It only took a few seconds before their angry expressions faded and they started salivating. They almost never got ice cream as an after-school snack. That was usually reserved for dessert. They could forget their anger for a bribe that good.

“Okay,” said Pound. “I forgive you.”

Pumpkin nodded. “Me too.”

The pair eagerly waited as their mother warmed up a brownie for them before scooping ice cream and whipped cream on top of it, and then pouring some hot fudge over it. They were practically drooling as she brought their bowls over.

Grabbing some spoons the two eagerly dug in, all annoyance forgotten. The warmth of the brownie contrasted with the cold of the ice cream made for a delicious combination. If wasn’t long before their bowls were empty, and they both patted their stomachs, feeling very satisfied.

Over the next few days Pound still spent most of his free time practicing.

When it was finally Friday afternoon the twins eagerly trotted home with Pinkie.

Their eyes were sparkling as they could finally put on their aprons.

Even though they were Cakes neither of them knew much about baking, so they spent their first work day in the back, watching how the treats were made. It was odd to see how a few ingredients mixed together that started as a goopy mess could turn solid and delicious.

Under their father’s supervision Pound made a batch of cookies, while Pumpkin made some cupcakes and frosted them. For the most part Carrot just observed them after giving them their instructions, feeling like he should let them make some mistakes along the way.

Usually once a batch of product was done it was taken out to the floor and put in one of the display cases. However, the food they made was kept in the kitchen.

Their father explained that he wanted to be sure their food was up to their usual quality before they started putting it out for customers.

At first they were disappointed, but that faded pretty quickly when they were told they could keep their own work, and that was fine with them. They grabbed a few glasses of milk, the two of them sharing their own snacks with each other.

Pound ate one of Pumpkin’s cupcakes, finding it to be a little heavy on the icing, but otherwise pretty good. Pumpkin felt the same about Pound’s cookies. They were warm and tasty, but he had added too many chocolate chips.

Even with the slightly off taste the both of them didn’t complain, because free dessert was fine in their books.

After their dad’s latest batch came out of the oven they went out onto the floor to put them in the display case.

Here they were left to their own devices, Carrot figuring that if they went searching for where the items went on their own it would stick in their memories more than if they were just told where to put them.

The two hours passed by pretty quickly. Before they knew it the shop was closing down. Pound went around to wipe down the tables, while Pumpkin did the same for the display cases.

Once everything was cleaned up the two of them beamed at each other, hoofbumping.

“That was fun,” said Pound.

“I think so too.” They turned to their parents. “How did we do?”

Carrot and Cup walked over to their children, holding them close. “For your first time you did a pretty good job with everything,” said Carrot.

“I agree,” said Cup. “You were great.”

Both of them smiled as they held their parents back.

Things fell into a fairly normal pattern for the next month. Pound practiced his flying as often as he could, and every Friday they helped out in the shop for a few hours. Every so often they would invite a friend over.

One afternoon Pound and Pumpkin were in their room, playing a board game together, when their attention was drawn by vibrating noises on both sides of the room.

“Ooh!” said Pound as he looked toward the noise, seeing a glow coming from his saddlebag. “It’s a message from one of our friends.”

The pair hopped up, going to their bags and pulling out their magic journals. Opening the book they went to the proper page, reading the words.

Their excitement turned to frowns as they set their books down.

“You know what this means, Pound?” asked Pumpkin.

“Yep,” he responded.

The two headed downstairs. “Auntie Pinkie!” the two said in unison.

“What’s up?” she responded, looking up from filling a display case.

“We need to see Twilight as soon as possible,” said Pumpkin.

“One of our friends is in trouble,” said Pound.

Pinkie turned to Cup at the register. “Well, Mrs. Cake?”

Cup playfully rolled her eyes at her children’s expressions. “You don’t have to give me the puppy-dog eyes. If there’s a friendship problem to solve then by all means go get it solved.”

The two of them ran up to her and hugged her. “Thanks, Mom! I love you!” they both said.

Cup rubbed their heads. “I love you too. Now hurry up and help your friend.”

“We will!” They ran for the exit. “Come on, Auntie Pinkie!”

Pinkie trotted after them.

Ten minutes later they arrived at Twilight’s castle, both of them slamming on the door until it opened.

“Gee whiz, you guys,” said Twilight. “There’s no need to try and knock my door down.”

“Yes, there is!” said Pound strongly. “Flurry is in big trouble.”

Twilight’s exasperation immediately turned to concern, her heart starting to race. “What happened?” she asked, her head moving forward toward them.

“Flurry wrote us a note in the magic journal that she’s still having trouble making friends in the Crystal Empire.”

Twilight let out a breath, relieved she could dial back her concern from physical danger to a major inconvenience. “I’m sorry to hear that, but what would you like me to do?”

“We’re getting to that,” said Pumpkin. “Flurry thinks if she can just make one real friend back home that they can help convince some of the others that it’s safe to be friends with her.”

Twilight nodded. “Mmm-hmm. Makes sense.”

“There’s one pony that she really thinks she can win over, but that filly is having a hard time with the whole ‘more than just a princess’ thing. Since we’re friends with her, Flurry thinks that we can help convince her that Flurry is just a pony like anyone else.”

Twilight sucked on her cheek. “Flurry is my niece, and I know that Shining and Cadance both trust me with Flurry’s well-being, so it wouldn’t be much of an issue to teleport her over here for a day.

“However, I’m not sure how the filly’s parents are going to react to me asking to take their daughter halfway across the continent just for a playdate.”

Pound rubbed his head awkwardly, forcing a smile. “They’ll say yes, of course, because a request from one princess, let alone two, is going to terrify them into accepting it no matter what they think about it.”

Twilight let out a deep sigh. “I wish I could say I disagree, but you’re probably right. If Princess Flurry Heart wants to bring her friend to Ponyville for a day at the request of Princess Twilight, that’s probably the exact reason they’ll allow it to happen.”

Pumpkin let out a groan. “I’m sorry you have to go through this.”

Twilight could see both of them looked bad. “Look, you guys, it’s just something that I have to deal with. I already feel awkward enough about it myself. You don’t have to feel awkward on my behalf.”

“But it’s not fair!” said Pound. “So many ponies don’t know how amazing you really are.”

“That’s true, but there are enough ponies that know who I really am, like you two.” She put her hooves out, and the two ran up to her and hugged her. “I love you two!” she said warmly.

“We love you too, Twilight!” they responded.

Releasing them she asked, “I do have to ask why you made it seem so dramatic, though. I thought Flurry was ill, or got into an accident or something. I’m glad to know she isn’t in danger.”

“But she is in danger!” said Pumpkin. “Flurry sounded really discouraged in her letter. She's been trying really hard, and after all the pain she was in we don’t want to see her give up again."

“That’s right!” Pound said strongly. “I still remember what you told me about Moondancer. I don’t want to see her give up on friendship.”

“And we still remember how sad you were at the party about Flurry’s problems. We don’t want to see you crying anymore.”

Twilight’s eyes grew shiny. “I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” she said in a croaky voice. She pulled them to her again. “Thank you both so much for caring so strongly for my niece. She’s lucky to have friends like you.”

“Anytime, Twilight!” said Pound with a big grin. “It’s our jobs to help spread joy and friendship like you and Auntie Pinkie.”

“So we’re gonna do all we can!” Pumpkin said strongly.

Pinkie beamed. They had come so far since last year.

Returning home they waited for their mother to finish with a customer.

“Mom, Mom!” said Pound.

“How did it go?” Cup responded.

“It didn’t go anywhere yet.”

“Can we bring Flurry Heart over tomorrow?” asked Pumpkin.

“I guess so.

“Are you going to fill me in on the problem?”

They nodded, explaining the situation.

“So Flurry is still having trouble finding a keeper, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Pound. “She thinks that her friend will be more comfortable around her if she’s hanging out with other normal ponies, instead of just an alicorn. I figure we’ll grab all our other friends and make her feel really welcome.”

“Mmm…”

She took care of another customer before getting back to them. “I would advise against that plan.”

“Why?” asked Pumpkin. “It seems like a good idea to us.”

“The reason you went to your room to deal with Flurry was because you felt there would be less pressure than if she was in the party area. If your goal is to show Flurry interacting with others like a regular pony then having the two of you there is enough to accomplish that.

“You throw in too many ponies, and it’s only going to increase the likelihood she’ll put on an act or wind up feeling ostracized from the group.

“The whole goal is to help Flurry become better friends with this filly, not for her to learn to interact with a group. You don’t want to wind up driving a bigger wedge between them because you’re overwhelming her with meeting so many new ponies at once."

The twins got thoughtful looks on their faces. “I guess you’re right,” said Pumpkin.

“Well, our mom is pretty smart,” said Pound. “She married Dad and let Auntie Pinkie live here.”

Cup blushed slightly at the praise. “And then I had you, who are working hard to spread friendship.”

“Oh, yeah!” He pumped his hoof. “Future heroes of Equestria right here.”

"I believe it. You do what you have to do to help Flurry, and I'll support you one hundred percent."

"You know it!" said Pumpkin, the two of them putting their hooves around each other.

2-2: Sharing of hearts

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Pound and Pumpkin were standing by the front entrance to the shop, waiting for their guests to arrive. Twilight had told them that Flurry and the filly’s parents had both given their approval.

They wondered who the filly was, and what she was like. What had drawn Flurry to her compared to some of the other possible friends she could have made? They were eager to find out. After all, before they had started school the only friend they had around their own age was each other, and now they had four peers and Mayhem.

It was all very exciting. They had barely been able to do their homework.

At about three o’clock the door opened, and the twins eyes lit up as they saw Twilight.

Behind her were Flurry Heart and a filly they had never seen before.

“Flurry!” they called out, running toward her.

Flurry met them halfway, all three of them hugging. “Hey, you guys!”

“We missed you,” said Pound.

“I missed you guys too. It’s so good to see you again.” After a few seconds Flurry released them, pointing behind her to the filly. “This is the friend I was telling you about.”

Pound gave a little bow. “Hello, there. I’m Pound Cake.”

Pumpkin mimicked the gesture. “I’m Pumpkin Cake. Nice to meet you.”

The filly looked around furtively, like she was trying to find a place to hide. She gulped, then said in a near whisper, “I’m… C-Crystal Mine.”

Crystal was a light white. Being outside of the Crystal Empire, her coat didn’t have the usual shine that was common of crystal ponies.

Looking at Crystal the twins were strongly reminded of when they had first met Flurry. She looked for all the world like she would rather be heading home at that moment.

“There’s no need to be nervous,” said Pound. “Our home is your home.”

Pumpkin gestured around to the display cases. “Just look around. Our family runs a sweet shop. Cakes, cookies, pies, ice cream sundaes; you name it, we probably got it. What would you like?”

Crystal still looked on the verge of bolting, but gradually she walked forward, taking in the store. She looked up at Pinkie. “C-could I get a slice of strawberry pie?”

“Yeparooni!” Pinkie said cheerfully. Winking at her she said, “I’ll even let you have two.”

Once all of them had a snack the quartet headed upstairs to the twins room.

Sitting on the floor they began digging into their desserts.

Crystal looked slightly less uncomfortable now, no longer looking like she was about to have a panic attack. It was a good sign. They thought that it was likely because they were away from Twilight. An adult alicorn she hadn’t met before was probably more scary than one around her age she had met a few times. Even so, she was still very subdued.

The twins shared a meaningful look, nodding at each other. They had already discussed a course of action for this. They weren’t going to confront her about her feelings. They were just going to treat this like a day with any other friend, and wait for Crystal to come around on her own.

When they finished their snacks Pound moved the plates against one of the walls to bring down later.

“Do you like animals?” asked Pound as he sat down again.

Crystal gave a timid nod. “Y-yeah.” She looked at Tiger Lily sitting on the bed. “I… I like your cat.”

“That one’s mine,” said Pumpkin. “Her name is Tiger Lily.” Pumpkin gave a little whistle. “Come here, Tiger.”

Tiger opened an eye, considering Pumpkin for a moment.

“Come on, Tiger Lily. Introduce yourself to our guest.”

She got up, stretching, before hopping off the bed, her tail elevated as she walked over. She rubbed up against Pumpkin as she passed, giving a sniff to Crystal.

The filly tentatively gave her a pet.

Tiger crawled up onto her lap, spinning in a circle and curling up. That brought a small smile to the filly as she started petting Tiger Lily, causing her to purr.

So far, so good, they thought.

Champ walked up to her as well, causing the filly to jerk and push him away with a cry of surprise.

“Hey,” said Pound calmly. “What did you do that for?”

“Cats and dogs fight, don’t they? I don’t want them going at it on my lap.”

“Oh. No worries there,” said Pumpkin. “The two of them are good friends. We got both of them from the same mare, so they’ve been together for a while.”

As if to demonstrate Champ licked Tiger’s cheek, and she nuzzled him in return.

Champ then lay down next to her.

“Aww, they like you,” said Flurry.

“I guess they do,” Crystal responded. “What’s the dog’s name?”

“Champ,” Pound responded. “He’s mine.”

“I don’t have a pet. I suppose my parents might let me have one if I asked. I just never spent enough time with animals to think about it.”

Pumpkin giggled. Her horn lit up, and from across the room a brush came to them. “Tiger will be your best friend if you give her a good brushing. It helps to get rid of loose hair and just makes her so happy.”

Crystal took the brush, gently bobbing as she brushed the cat. Tiger’s purring grew louder, her eyes closing.

Pumpkin grinned widely. Things were going great. Crystal looked as content as Tiger Lily. It was a good start.

“We haven’t had our pets too long,” said Pumpkin. “Just a little over two months.”

“Yeah,” said Pound. “But even though they’ve only been in our lives a short time they’ve brought us both so much joy. Having a pet to cuddle up with at night feels great.”

“The thing is, we didn’t even want pets in the first place.”

“Why not?” asked Crystal.

“Well, the day before we got our pets Flurry’s parents brought her newborn sister over here.”

“Why?” she asked, looking a little less enthused as they got onto the topic of princesses. “That seems an awfully long way to travel just to show off a baby.”

“That’s simple,” said Pound. “Princess Cadance is married to Shining Armor, and Shining Armor is Twilight’s brother, making Flurry and Skyla Twilight’s nieces. She wanted her family to meet her new child.”

“Oh. I didn’t know they were all connected like that. Guess that explains why Princess Twilight came to ask about this hangout instead of Princess Cadance.

“So where do you two fit into this?”

“Twilight is friends with our family, so we were one of the first ones to meet Skyla after she was brought here,” said Pumpkin.

“Well, that ties everything up. So you met Skyla and Flurry then.”

She shook her head. “No. We didn’t meet Flurry until our birthday party. She didn’t feel like coming then.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, we played with Skyla, and she really took a liking to us. We played and cuddled and sang, and it was really fun.”

“The next day,” said Pound, “we were playing pretend, where me and Pumpkin were a mommy and daddy, and we decided we didn’t want to just play with a stuffed animal baby. We wanted the real thing. But our parents said it would be too much of a hassle, and even if they did say yes it still would take a long time for the baby to arrive.”

Crystal caught on. “So they let you adopt some pets instead?”

They nodded.

She extended a hoof, running it through Champ’s fur. “That sounds like it was fun. They seem really well behaved.”

“Well, our friend is really good with animals,” said Pumpkin. “She can actually talk to them.”

Crystal’s eyebrow rose. “Anyone can talk to animals.”

“I guess you have a point there, but Fluttershy can understand them like they’re speaking our language.”

Now her eye’s widened slightly. “That sounds like a cool gift.”

Pound moved over, petting Champ. “Well, even if we can’t hear animals like she can the two of us still understand our pets pretty well.”

“So how did you meet Flurry?” asked Pumpkin.

“We met at the playground near my house.” Once more Crystal’s enthusiasm leaked out of her. “She had fallen off the swing, and I went to check up on her.”

“That was nice of you.”

“Turns out that pushing yourself with magic is a little harder than I thought,” said Flurry awkwardly. “I tried pushing the swing, and accidentally went and shoved myself right out of the seat. I had been holding onto the bars, but that only slowed me down a second before my weight pulled me off and I fell right on my knees. “

“She wasn’t really hurt,” said Crystal. “She thanked me, and then we started pushing each other on the swings. At the time I didn’t even realize who she was. Or what she was.”

What she was?” asked Pound.

“An alicorn,” she responded. “I certainly didn’t expect a princess to be just casually hanging out at the regular old playground.”

That caused both of them confusion. “Wait,” said Pumpkin. “You never knew what Flurry looked like?”

“It’s not too surprising,” said Flurry. “I don’t go out too often, and when I did it was usually with Uncle Sunny or Aunt Starlight. Neither of them are as well-known as my parents.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”

“I needed a break from studying, so I asked Uncle Sunny to take me to the playground to play.”

Crystal moved Tiger Lily off her lap and curled up, putting her head on her knees. “It was fun. We went on the swings, chased each other around, and went up and down on the teeter-totter. Everything was good.

“When I had to leave she left with me to find out where I lived, and we agreed to play together again.”

The twins confusion only grew. Crystal had already spent time with Flurry as a regular kid, and they had had a blast. So what was different? What had changed?

“So what happened?” asked Pound. “It sounds like the two of you got off to a great start.”

Crystal held herself a little tighter. “Imagine my surprise when the next time Flurry came over to hang out it was with her mother. I had the leader of our entire kingdom in my living room. And that was when I realized we had been having so much fun together we had never asked for each other’s names.

“I already felt pressured to keep Flurry happy, but I screwed up. Only a short while into our playdate I went to bring her a drink. I tripped, getting it all over her.” She let out a sigh. “After that she just glared at me for a bit and stormed out. That was the last I heard of her for over a month.”

Flurry got an awkward look on her face.

“And then she suddenly returned to apologize and ask if we could start over.” Turning her head away she said, “Well, who was I to refuse a princess's demand?”

“Twilight asked us if Flurry could come to our birthday party because she was having trouble making friends,” said Pound. “They knew there was something eating away at her, but they couldn’t figure out what.

“It took a little time to get her to trust us, but eventually she opened up and told us her secret, and it was a pretty big thing. It wasn’t your fault. Once we helped her through her problems she felt ready to give friendship another shot. That’s why she came back to you.”

Crystals' eye's moved toward them, narrowing. She took in a sharp breath through her nose.

Pumpkin noticed her cold expression, wondering what the cause of it was. Maybe it was time to back off. They had the basic picture of how the two had met and been broken apart. Now it was time to mend that friendship.

“Well, I think that’s enough talk. Why don’t we play a game together?”

Pumpkin went into the closet, pulling out a few board games. “How about this one?” She lifted up Hungry, Hungry Parasprites. “Flurry enjoyed this one the last time she was here.”

“Okay,” said Crystal, her gaze becoming more neutral.

Taking out the board she put it in the middle of the four of them. “This game is really simple. We drop the marbles with food items on them onto the board, and everyone tries to get as many as possible into the parasprites mouth. The one who collects the most marbles wins.”

Crystal stared at the little parasprite, gently pushing the switch that made its head go forward to 'eat’ the marbles.

Pumpkin levitated the bag of marbles over the board. “Ready?”

Flurry nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

“Let’s do it,” said Pound.

“I guess I’m ready too,” said Crystal.

“Okay,” said Pumpkin. “Three, two, one… GO!”

She emptied the bag onto the board, and there was a flurry of activity as they all hit the switches.

The other three were fully into the game, doing their best to win. Crystal, however, was more anxious, holding back. She didn’t want to beat Flurry. They didn’t notice.

When the game was over they all counted up the marbles.

Crystal came in last, then Pumpkin, then Flurry, and Pound won by a single marble.

“Argh!” Flurry called out, collapsing to the floor dramatically. “So close!”

“Not close enough!” said Pound with a triumphant expression. “The winnerrrrrrrrrrrrr!” Pound pumped his hooves.

Flurry put him in a headlock, giving him a noogie. “I’ll get you next time.”

“Yeah, right,” he called out, wrestling with her, both of them laughing.

Pumpkin playfully shook her head. “Just look at those two,” she said, looking at Crystal. She noticed Crystal looked on the verge of tears. She patted the filly’s head. “Aw, come on,” she said comfortingly. “Everyone loses sometime. Cheer up.”

That made Flurry and Pound disengage. “Don’t be sad,” said Pound. “You’ll do better next time.”

“I don’t care about the game,” said Crystal.

“Then what’s wrong?” asked Flurry. “I thought we were having fun.”

Crystal didn’t answer, turning and petting Champ, who was still lying nearby.

None of them were sure what to say.

“Excuse me, you guys,” said Flurry, clenching her back legs a bit. “I need to use the bathroom.”

“Okay,” Pumpkin responded. “You remember where it is?”

She nodded. “I remember.” She got up and left the room.

Crystal let out a long sigh, her body relaxing a bit. “How do you do it?” she asked quietly.

“Do what?” asked Pound.

Do what? You know what! How can you just act like it’s no big deal having royalty in your house?”

He shrugged. “Because it’s not.”

Crystal blinked, giving him a dirty look. “Oh, it’s not, huh? I suppose this store is just packed everyday with the most important ponies in the world. I’m sure yesterday all the Wonderbolts stopped here after training for a quick snack. And Princess Celestia needed some cake. And Princess Luna stopped here for some moon pies.”

Pumpkin felt like they were getting to the issue. It was a fine time to talk to her one-on-one. Or two-on-one, considering Pound was there too. “We’re not that well-known, but we do have some important ponies in our lives. You remember the pink-coated pony at the register who gave you the pie?”

“Yeah...”

“That’s our Auntie Pinkie Pie. She’s one of the Elements of Friendship.”

Crystal’s eyes widened, her mouth hanging open a bit. “Her?” she asked incredulously. “What is one of the most important ponies in the world doing ringing up customers?”

“Auntie Pinkie is a hero, sure, but when she’s not out saving the world she’s just a pony like the rest of us.”

“She’s the Element of Laughter,” said Pound. “And her life’s goal is to make as many ponies happy as possible. So, like Pumpkin said, when she’s not doing important stuff for the world she’s doing what’s important to her: throwing parties and spreading joy.”

“And because the other Elements of Friendship are, obviously, her friends, we’ve met all the rest of them a bunch of times. One of them is a fashion designer, one of them is an animal caretaker, one of them is a flight instructor, and one of them is an apple farmer. It’s the same with them. They just go on with their normal, everyday lives until they’re needed.”

“And then, of course, is Princess Twilight. She’s super cool.”

Crystal shook a bit. “I know who she is. She’s the one that took me here. What else was I supposed to say when I had two princesses asking me to come out here?”

“You could have said ‘no,’ you know?”

Crystal gave a humorless laugh. “Oh, yeah! Just say no. No way that would have backfired, right?”

“What do you think would have happened if you declined?” asked Pumpkin.

“Who knows? I didn’t feel like finding out. If I went and upset their daughter again Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor probably would have made things hard for my family. Better to play it safe.”

The twins looked at each other, sharing a sad look. Twilight had told them they didn’t have to feel bad on her behalf, but they couldn’t help it. Pound had been teased and bullied for being different until he finally flew. Pumpkin hadn’t experienced ostracizing herself, but she had seen the effect it had on Pound, as well as Flurry Heart during their birthday party. Both of them understood the painful feelings Twilight and Flurry had to go through, even if indirectly.

“What do you think about Flurry Heart?” asked Pumpkin.

“I don’t know,” she said, starting to fidget. "She’s a princess, and an alicorn. What else do you want me to say?”

Pumpkin shook her head. “That’s just stating facts about her. I asked what you think about her.”

“Do you think she’s smart?” asked Pound. “Funny? Interesting?”

“What does that matter?” Crystal asked, getting up and starting to pace a bit.

“It matters because there’s more to Flurry than being a princess or an alicorn. In fact, those are the two least important things about her.”

Crystal stopped her pacing, looking at Pound like he had three heads, her head tilting. “What is the matter with you?”

“I could ask the same to you," Pound replied defensively. "Why do you think Flurry’s parents or Twilight are some evil ponies that would ruin your life just because you said you didn’t want to play with Flurry? The Princess of Love and the Princess of Friendship. These are the ponies you think you need to 'play it safe' with?”

Crystal flushed, looking away.

“Flurry is a nice pony,” said Pumpkin. “She wants to be friends with you. What’s the big deal?”

Crystal’s face went crimson as she glared at them. “What’s the big deal? Maybe it escaped your notice, growing up and being besties with important ponies like the Elements of Friendship, but not everyone is that lucky.

“Not everyone feels comfortable just casually visiting Princess Twilight’s castle to hang out, or has them living in the same house as you. I don’t expect you to understand my feelings. How could you?

“Maybe it’s not a big deal to you just having royalty in your house, but it’s a big deal to me!”

That gave Pound and Pumpkin pause. They couldn’t exactly dispute that. If Auntie Pinkie hadn’t moved into Sugarcube Corner they might never have had any real, personal interaction with most of the Elements of Friendship, let alone Princess Twilight.

Having grown up with it, that sort of thing was normal to them. They didn’t think twice about treating Twilight like they would anyone else the majority of the time.

“You’re right,” Pound said slowly. “We don’t understand how you feel.”

Crystal’s glare grew less pronounced.

“However,” said Pumpkin, “you don’t understand how Flurry feels either.”

“And how does she feel?” she responded.

“Flurry wrote to us about how she was having difficulty making friends. She really wanted to make things work with you. That’s why she went to all the trouble of bringing the both of you here. She was hoping that being around some other regular ponies doing regular things would help you see she’s more than just her outward appearance.”

Pound put a hoof to his chest. “That’s what I meant when I said those were her least important qualities. Being a princess or an alicorn doesn’t make someone good or bad. What’s the most important is their heart.

“I know you feel afraid of Flurry because of her status, but if that wasn’t an issue does she seem like the kind of pony you’d want to be friends with? I mean, you said before that before you knew who she was you had a great time together.”

“I… I don’t know,” Crystal replied, looking awkward now. “The few times we played together after she apologized I was always nervous about screwing things up or upsetting her again. Even though it’s gone well… I just don’t feel close to her. I can’t really call her a friend. Even so, she keeps coming to visit and asking for us to play together.” She shrugged. “I don’t get it.”

“I get it,” said Pumpkin. “The reason she keeps coming back to visit, the reason she brought you here… it’s because she believes you’re a friend worth fighting to keep.”

Crystal winced hard, her eyes clenching shut as she let out a quiet sob. “Why? What does she care? I’m just some nobody. She could have picked any kid in the Crystal Empire and she-”

“AND she chose YOU!”

Crystal was panting. “L-like I said, I’m not like you two. I didn’t grow up hanging out with important ponies like princesses. I was just some kid. And then to my surprise Princess Flurry Heart stopped me by the playground and asked if I wanted to play with her.” She sniffed. “That time it didn’t really matter to me that she was a princess, but then she came to my house. I just wanted everything to go right... but of course things never go right.

“I brought some snacks and juice for us to enjoy, and I wound up tripping over something on the floor, both cups going flying and landing right on her, soaking her mane and coat.”

She clenched again, quietly sobbing. “I felt so horrible, and I just grew so afraid. She just stared at me for awhile, and then without a word she just stormed off.”

She sat down, hugging herself. “Sure, I thought we could be friends, but she didn’t come talk to me again for like two months after that. She must have been furious at me. What kind of friendship would we even have if she’d get so mad we wouldn’t speak for months just for a simple mistake?

“Then she tells me she wants to try again? What’s different now? I know I’m not perfect, so now I’m just waiting for the next mistake to break our ‘friendship’ for good.”

“I’m sorry, Crystal,” came the voice of Flurry from the door.

The filly jumped, her head turning rapidly to the noise.

Flurry had a guilty look on her face. “I didn’t know that’s how you really felt.”

Crystal was trembling again. “H-how long have you been listening?”

“From the beginning. I didn’t actually need the bathroom. I just knew you wouldn’t be honest about your feelings as long as I was in the room.”

Crystal wasn’t sure how to respond, so she defaulted to anger. “Spying is a bad habit, little princess!”

Flurry just met her gaze, and said again, “I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”

“Well… well, you did! Okay?”

Flurry sat on the ground in front of her. “If you don’t want to hang out with me again after this that’s okay, but can you at least give me the chance to explain myself?”

Crystal was letting out some heavy breaths through her nose, but after a minute she sat down too. “Fine, then. Talk.”

“I was going through a really bad time in my life that day. I was feeling so stressed out that even little things like spilling some juice was too much. I just needed some time to cool off.”

Crystal crossed her hooves. “And then what about later on? You never came back.”

Flurry closed her eyes. “I just… I just couldn’t deal with things then. You were terrified of what had happened. You even told me yourself to just pretend we had never met.”

Crystal bit her lip. She had said that.

“I was just giving up on everything that didn’t involve studying and learning magic. I didn’t have the strength to try and convince you it was okay.”

“So what was going on? Why were you so frazzled?”

Flurry sighed. “I felt like I was being crushed by pressure. Everyone had so many expectations for me, like taking my mother’s place, or fighting threats to the Empire. I was feeling so overwhelmed.

“I put on a brave face, but I was so scared every day. Since I was born an alicorn, and each alicorn is a ruler of something big, I was afraid of not only losing my parents, but then being put on the throne myself, and at my age.

“That’s why I was so busy studying. I felt like I had to be prepared, so I had to know as much as I could. Every so often my mind would get so filled up I felt like I couldn’t take in any more. I’d want to unwind, so I tried to make some friends, but each of them ended badly, only making me feel worse.

“Most of the time it was my fault. With the pressure I was under I just wanted a perfect friendship, so when something bad happened I just let the friendship go. I couldn’t take any added stress, and I didn’t want to get into a shouting match with anyone. The last thing I wanted was to lose control.

“I didn’t really care that you spilled juice on me. Accidents happen. But I knew if I stayed I would only make you feel even worse, because I didn’t think I would be able to keep my temper.”

“So that’s it, huh?” asked Crystal, her expression inscrutable.

Flurry nodded. “I was living in fear every day, hoping with all my heart that nothing happened to my parents.” She let out a huff. “If only I had told my parents how I was really feeling I wouldn’t have had to go through so much pain.”

“So… why didn’t you?”

“Like I said, when my head got too full I wanted to just relax and have fun. I was afraid if I told my parents about my feelings they would even take that privilege away, and tell me the only thing I was allowed to do was study and learn. I already felt guilty when they didn’t say it.”

“That’s ridiculous! Why would your parents ban you from having fun?”

Flurry sniffed. “I was so stupid. I didn’t know what to think. It sounds crazy now, but back then even the possibility they might say it was too much.

"My parents brought me to the twins birthday party because Aunt Twilight thought they could help me. I was being pretty loud when I opened up, so my parents heard my true feelings, and they told me that all the things I was afraid of had already been planned for and taken care of, so I didn't have to worry about them. It was a huge weight off my shoulders."

Crystal took in a sharp breath. “A birthday party with three alicorns, a prince who is also the captain of the Royal Guard, and probably all the Elements of Friendship?” She put a hoof to her head. “Makes me dizzy just thinking about it.”

“Four alicorns, actually. My baby sister was there too, even though she slept through the whole party.”

Crystal's eyebrow went up. “Was that supposed to make me feel better about things?”

“Mmm.” She thought that maybe that wasn’t the best time to be corrective. “Well, the whole point I was trying to make is that all of them came for two ‘regular’ ponies.”

“Well, good for them, but like I told those two behind you they’ve grown up with these ponies. It doesn’t surprise me that Pound and Pumpkin are in good with Princess Twilight if one of her best friends lives here.”

Pound gently tapped one of his hooves. He wanted to say something, but he held himself back. This was between the two of them. Now that they had made their dent it was time to stand aside and not interfere.

“It wasn’t only big shot ponies there, you know? They also invited a few of their peers, and none of them made a big fuss because they had all met Aunt Twilight before, so they knew what she was like.

“Just like Pound and Pumpkin said, when they’re not on-duty they’re just regular ponies. Even Aunt Twilight likes to just read books and learn new things.

“I’m not any different, but people treat me like I am because I’m an alicorn. I probably like the same kinds of things you like, but you’ll never know that if you don’t give me a chance to prove it.”

“What do you want from me?” asked Crystal.

“I don’t want anything from you except for you to treat me like you would anyone else.”

“How can I? We have a difference in status. No matter what happens in our life you’ll always be a princess, while I’ll just be a subject.”

A tear came down Flurry’s cheek. “But that’s not the way I want it to be! Don’t you get it? I want us to be closer than that. Just like Aunt Twilight has earth ponies, pegasi, and a unicorn as part of her Elements of Friendship I want you to be part of mine.”

“Why?” she responded heatedly. “Why me? What makes me so special? Of all the ponies in the Crystal Empire why pick a nobody like me?”

Flurry stomped a hoof. “Because I don’t think you’re a nobody! I think you’re really cool.”

“Compared to you, I doubt that.”

Flurry let out a scoffing noise. “You want to try this? Tell me how ‘cool’ it really is to be an alicorn. After a few days you’ll be begging to be regular again. Everywhere I go, having to endure the stares and the mocking.

"Knowing that my mother and my aunt both did something incredible to be transformed into alicorns just makes me feel so unworthy of these wings. I haven’t done anything special. I was just born this way.”

Flurry’s eyes clenched shut as she let out a sob. “Pound and Pumpkin and their friends went out of their way to help me, just because Aunt Twilight asked them to. They didn’t know me then. They had no reason to care about my feelings, but even though I was being rude and dismissive they still helped me to face my problems and get rid of all the stress I was going through.

“That’s the kind of friendship I want to have with you.” She looked into Crystal’s eyes, her own shimmering. “I've had several friendships fail because they couldn't see me for me. I picked you because, even though you were scared of me, you seemed like the most real pony out of all my potential friends. I was sure that if you could just look past your fear we could become close friends. I brought you all the way to Ponyville so you could see me just being a regular pony.

"I don’t want you to treat me like a princess, or as someone who’s better than you just because I have a few extra appendages. I want us to treat each other like equals, just like Aunt Twilight does with her own friends. I don’t look down on you for being an earth pony, so I don’t want you to put me on a pedestal because I’m an alicorn. I mean that. The both of us… we’re just ponies.” She put a hoof over her chest. “And I want to fill this hole in my heart with you.”

Crystal blinked, her mouth hanging open slightly. She looked down at the floor. “I don’t know if I can do that,” she said quietly.

“Like you said, you’re not like the twins. I understand it won’t be as quick to get to that point as it was with them.” She blinked the tears out of her eyes. “But can we give it a shot? I’m willing to wait until we build up our relationship. I want you to be real with me. I want you to feel safe getting angry or upset with me. I want us to be true friends, so I’ll wait as long as it takes for you to trust me.”

Crystal was quiet for about ten seconds, then turned away from her, curling up and putting her head on her knees.

Flurry wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. All she knew was that it would be good to give Crystal a little time to think.

Pound could feel Pumpkin squeezing his shoulder, and he knew that she was as eager as him to see Flurry make things work with her friend.

A few minutes passed, and the tension felt thick in the air as the three of them waited for Crystal’s response.

Flurry was biting her lip. Should she say something, or just keep quiet? Was there anything left to say?

She noticed Crystal start shivering, one of her hooves going up to her mouth as she bit it. Before she could ask if Crystal was alright the filly jumped up, turning around toward her with a heated expression.

“You know, you’re not the only one who has feelings, PRINCESS!” she said angrily. “I tried to make the best of things, having someone so high up on the social ladder as a friend. I don’t care if you were going through problems at the time. It still didn’t make the way you treated me right! Some friend you were!”

“Pound!” Pumpkin said sharply as she saw him start walking forward. “We can’t.”

Pound stopped, though he didn’t want to. Even though Crystal deserved to express her feelings he still felt his natural protective instincts kicking in seeing the hurt look on Flurry’s face.

“You complained that no one saw you for you, but you’re a stinkin’ hypocrite, because you certainly didn’t see me for me. You didn’t care about friendship. You only tried to make friends to take some of the pressure off yourself.

“And you know what? I GET that you left because you didn’t want to take your problems out on me. But you still couldn’t even do me the courtesy of apologizing to me until months later, when you made some other friends who helped you.”

She took a step forward, tears coming down her eyes. “If WE were supposed to be friends then why didn’t you trust ME like you did them? Why didn’t you tell ME about all these horrible things you were going through so that I COULD BE THERE FOR YOU? If you had done that maybe you could have gotten through this without their help.

“You think I don’t understand why you brought me here? Even after you fixed your problems you still didn’t trust me enough to tell me about your true feelings. And then you make your friends solve your problem for you because you were too much of a coward to do it yourself?

“What makes you think you’re even worthy of being my friend? Huh? Do you really think I want to be friends with someone who treats others like you do?” She panted slightly.

Pound was now the one squeezing Pumpkin. He felt like they had royally blown it.

Pumpkin had her head against his, both of them quietly crying. They couldn’t force Flurry and Crystal to be friends, but they had hoped they could make it happen.

Flurry looked into Crystal’s eyes, tears coming down her own eyes as well. She stood up, bowing her head. “I understand,” she said quietly. “I wasn’t being a good friend to you at all. I’m not going to make any excuses.”

She sniffed, wiping her face. After a few seconds she said, “I’m a filly of my word. I said you didn’t have to hang out with me again after this. I won’t keep you any longer. I’ll get Aunt Twilight to take you home.”

Pound's teeth clenched. Was it really going to end like this?

Flurry walked a few steps toward the exit, then stopped and returned to Crystal. “Crystal?”

“What?”

“I just... I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’ That’s all.”

That got all three of them looking at her strangely. “Why are you thanking me?” Crystal asked incredulously.

Flurry got a sad smile on her face. “It does hurt to know that I ruined our friendship, but at the same time… I just feel… so happy.”

“Happy?”

“Even if you don’t want to be friends, I really appreciate you being honest with me about your feelings. You did what I wanted you to do all along: treat me like a pony instead of a princess. You called me out on my bad behavior, talking to me like my equal.” Her eyes shimmered, her smile becoming more genuine. “I can’t tell you how good that feels.”

She shook her head, letting out a little laugh. “Oh, forget it. I’m just being silly. Let’s get you home.” She walked with her head held high. If she had gotten nothing else out of today she was grateful that she had finally gotten Crystal’s respect, even if it had come about in a negative way.

The twins felt an odd sense of respect for Flurry. She had taken rejection in such a mature fashion.

Crystal just stared at her oddly. That certainly wasn’t the reaction she had been expecting. “Flurry, wait!” she called out, trotting towards her.

Flurry stopped, turning around. “Yeah?”

Crystal took in a big breath. “Do you know how scary that was for me, saying all of that?”

“I bet. And that’s why I admire you so much for doing it.”

“Look… I’m not really angry at you, alright? I know you were going through some rough times, and you weren’t at your best. I understand that you were confused and scared and you screwed up. I just… I had to know.”

“Know what?” Flurry responded.

“You said that you want us to treat each other like equals, and be honest with our feelings. I was really scared of upsetting you or getting you angry, but I knew we couldn’t really be friends until I let out the anger in my heart toward you and saw how you responded. I didn’t know if you were gonna blast me off the face of the earth, or throw me in a dungeon, but I had to see what would happen if I yelled at you, and see if you really meant what you said.

"I was feeling jealous of Pound and Pumpkin, the way they were so casual with you. I was jealous how the three of you seemed so close. I want us to be like that. We both shared our hearts with one another, and I think it's the first step to a true friendship.”

Crystal smiled, tears coming down her eyes. “I forgive you, Flurry.” She hugged her. “Let’s be friends. For real this time.”

Tears welled up in Flurry’s eyes, and she began wailing as she returned the hug. “Thank you!” she cried out. “Thank you!”

The twins put a hoof around each other, seeing another bond of friendship forming.

2-3: Close friendship

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Twilight was pacing around back and forth, letting out some heavy breaths from time to time.

“Do try and calm yourself, Princess,” said Cup. “There’s no point in getting yourself all worked up like this.”

Twilight paused for a moment, started to pace a few steps, then stopped again, turning to the mare. “How am I supposed to be calm? My niece is struggling with friendship. I grew up without the benefit of real friends until I came to Ponyville. I’m just afraid Flurry is going to go through the same thing. That’s the last thing I want for her.”

Cup chuckled. “What happened to your faith, Twilight? After going above and beyond for Flurry during their party do you doubt Pound and Pumpkin’s ability to succeed now?”

“No!” she said strongly. “I do believe in them, but… but just because I believe doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. Some ponies just can’t be won over.”

Cup walked over, putting a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “I know it’s hard, Princess, but you just have to have faith.

“My children broke the hardness of Flurry’s heart, allowing her to make friends with them. Even if this friend can’t be won over Flurry won’t be alone. Pound and Pumpkin will continue to fight for her, along with the rest of their friends.

“There’s nothing to worry about.”

Twilight slowly smiled. “You’re right. They’ve all exchanged a part of their hearts with Flurry. Even if it’s hard I’m sure the two of them will succeed.”

As Flurry and Crystal released each other they looked into their eyes, smiling. “Thank you,” Flurry said calmly. “I really mean it. I haven’t decided yet if I want to take over as the new ruler of the Crystal Empire when I grow up, but I need ponies by my side that aren’t afraid to call me out when I do something stupid.”

“I want to be a good friend to you,” said Crystal, “but you have to do the same for me. I want to hear about the things that are bringing you down so I can help send those rainclouds away. I couldn’t have done anything about what you were afraid of, but I could have listened to your problems and hugged you tight.”

“I know. I had a hard time opening up to everyone, but when they proved themselves to me I started to trust them and let them see my pain.

“Because they had already helped me with my problems I didn’t think it was important to bring it up to you. I’m sorry if you thought I didn’t trust you. I was only trying to move on and not dwell on the past.”

“That’s okay.”

“I’m glad the two of you made up,” said Pumpkin. “I didn’t want to have to tell Twilight we had failed.”

Crystal looked over at her. “Oh?” she said curiously. “Why’s that? I thought you weren’t afraid of her.”

“We’re not,” said Pound. “But she’s still a friend of ours, and we didn’t want to deliver bad news.

“When we first met Flurry she drove one of our friends away in tears shortly after showing up.”

Flurry winced, letting out an awkward laugh. “Yeah, not the best first impression.”

“What did you do to them?” asked Crystal.

“Well… I said something quite unkind. Their friend was… different. They weren’t a pony. They were a creature called a draconequus.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a being made of different animal parts put together.”

“That sounds weird.”

“It was, at first. I wound up calling him a freak, and he left because he was afraid of doing something bad to me if he stayed.”

“Anyway,” said Pound, “after that me and Pumpkin were understandably angry. We brought Twilight into the kitchen and basically told her to throw Flurry out before she upset any more of our friends.”

“Twilight took us by surprise,” said Pumpkin. “She actually bowed to us and begged us to give Flurry another chance.”

Crystal’s eyes widened. “She didn’t!”

“Well,” said Pound, “she told us that knowing that her niece, her brother, and her sister-in-law were all hurting made her hurt just as much, and she felt like we were all she had to rely on to get through to her.”

A tear came down Pumpkin’s eye. “And seeing Twilight hurting over all of them made us hurt as well, so we agreed to try again. And it all worked out in the end.”

“She even said that it wasn’t an order from a princess, but a request from a friend. Twilight is really humble and has taught us great lessons on friendship. That’s what makes her our favorite princess.” After a moment he added, “No offense, Flurry.”

Flurry waved a hoof. “I know my aunt is super-cool. At my age I can’t expect to compare to her yet, but I’ll get there someday.”

Crystal got a troubled look on her face again. “Doesn’t it bother you at all? I know that Princess Twilight is your friend and all, but she’s still a princess.”

Pumpkin was about to say no, but then she got a thoughtful look on her face. “Honestly, yes. There have been times when we’ve been at our worst that we thought like you do. I accidentally put Pound in the hospital when I lost control of my magic, and I swore off ever using it again.

“Our parents went to Twilight to help me past that fear, but when I first saw her in my living room I felt for sure that she was there to banish me.”

“If you want proof that Twilight is very forgiving,” said Pound, “then you should know that I threatened to attack her if she did anything bad to Pumpkin, and she just brushed it off.”

Crystal’s eyes widened.

Pumpkin’s smile became strained. “Threatened, nothing. On a different occasion I actually attacked her.”

Her mouth was hanging open now. “Why?” was all she could get out.

“Well, I had just gone through my first heartbreak. I found out that the colt I had a crush on had just been pretending to love me, and I went and attacked him in my rage. Twilight put me in a magic bubble to stop me, but I was too mad to stay there, so I used my own magic to make her faceplant and break her concentration so I could hit him some more.”

Crystal let out a whistle, shaking her head with a look of wonder. “And how did that turn out?”

Pound let out a sigh. “That was the scariest moment of my life. I had never seen Twilight so mad. I really was afraid that Pumpkin was going to be banished at that moment, or something else horrible. I bowed and begged for forgiveness for Pumpkin, knowing that it was the only thing I could do.

“She understood that Pumpkin was acting out because she had lost control of her feelings, but she was still really mad, so she sent the colt home before letting Pumpkin free. She reassured me that nothing bad was going to happen to Pumpkin, and she knew she was too mad herself to handle matters with a clear head.”

“That’s just crazy to me,” said Crystal.

Flurry looked slightly incredulous too. “Oh, boy. I can’t believe you actually hurt Aunt Twilight.”

Pumpkin got a guilty look on her face. “I feel terrible about it now, but I was so hurt by what he did to me I didn’t care about the consequences. I just wanted to see him in pain, and I wanted to do it with my own bare hooves.”

“So I guess we slightly understand what you’re feeling,” said Pound. “But even as bad as what we did was Twilight still kept her temper and focused more on helping us improve than punishing us.”

“And that’s what makes her such an amazing princess.”

“C’mon,” said Flurry, taking Crystal’s leg and pulling her up. “We need to continue your growth.”

“What do you mean?” said Crystal.

“I think you should talk to Aunt Twilight. You’ve seen that I am just a pony, so I think you need to see that Aunt Twilight’s the same.”

Crystal groaned. “Do I have to? Isn’t it enough that we became friends?”

“And because we are I’ll be by your side the whole time so you won’t be as afraid.”

Crystal looked into Flurry’s encouraging smile and let out a breath. “Okay,” she said, reassured.

As the quartet came down the stairs Twilight looked to see how everyone appeared. “How’d it go?” she asked.

“Piece of cake!” said Pound, grinning.

Flurry had a bright expression on her face. “It turns out that what we needed wasn’t her seeing me being a regular pony, but for us to share our hearts with one another. When she found the courage to get mad at me and express her feelings it broke the barrier that was stopping us from truly connecting.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Twilight.

“Now I have the first member of my Crystal Empire Elements of Friendship.”

“So you do.”

Crystal interlocked one of her legs with Flurry’s before saying, “I’d like to talk to you about something.”

Twilight sat down. “Sure.”

“How did you feel when the twins were attacking you? Pound said that he threatened you when he thought you were coming to banish Pumpkin, and Pumpkin said that she actually attacked you to get to this colt she was mad at.”

“Hmm.” She got a thoughtful look on her face. “Before I answer your question I have one of my own.”

“Okay.”

“From what I can tell you and Flurry dissolved the wall between you, allowing you to treat each other like equals. If you understand that being a princess doesn’t make one so different from you then why do you still seem wary of me?”

“Because you’re different than Flurry. Flurry is a kid like me, and she hasn’t done anything world-changing like you have.”

“Aah.” Twilight closed her eyes. “I suppose our age difference and experience do make me and Flurry quite different from one another, but it doesn’t change that I’m simply a pony like her.

“How did I feel? Pound back then was quite aggressive when it came to his sister. Though I don’t agree with his behavior I could understand his fear that I had come to punish Pumpkin, so it didn’t bother me much.

“Pumpkin’s attack on me did get me pretty angry, but again I understood the root cause. One of the reasons I left was so I didn’t lose my temper and set a bad example. It was one of the only times that Pound switched from talking to me like Twilight to talking to me as just a princess. That shift in tone, addressing me like a stranger, only made it clearer that I wasn’t in the right state of mind to address the issue.”

Twilight opened her eyes. “A few months ago Pumpkin’s friend Peppermint came to me, wondering the same sort of things I’m sure have gone through your head. Before we got into the matter I had her pick out a short comic for us to read together. Before long we had hit it off, and I told her the comic reading was so she could see me as a regular pony. It was the same sort of idea the twins had for you to help you bond with Flurry.”

Crystal looked at the ground. “It’s just… hard for me to think of you like I’m starting to think of Flurry.”

“Is there a specific reason why, or is just what you brought up before?”

Crystal looked up into her eyes. “You… you saved us all. I mean, I wasn’t born yet when it happened, but you defeated King Sombra and saved our entire kingdom. All of us crystal ponies are forever in your debt.” A few tears came down her eyes. “And I don’t have any way to repay you for saving my parents.”

Twilight smiled warmly, closing the distance between them. She took Crystal’s free hoof in her own. “I don’t do good deeds like that for fame and to inflate my ego. I do it so that other ponies can live in happiness and friendship, and love can flourish.

“Just look at your other leg. You’re holding onto a friend for support, and she’s gladly providing it. That’s all I ever want as ‘repayment.’ It has nothing to do with Flurry being my niece. This joy I feel applies to everyone who can form meaningful connections with one another.”

“But doesn’t it mean anything to you at all?” she asked, looking at Twilight’s hoof in her own. “How can I treat you like anyone else when you’ve done so many amazing things?”

“Come on, Crystal,” Pound said gently. “Can’t you see how Twilight is?”

Twilight sat down on the floor, back legs crossed and her front extended. “Come here, Crystal.”

Crystal stared. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Twilight, but in order to sit on Twilight’s lap she’d have to release Flurry. After a few seconds she said, “Stay close to me, okay?”

Flurry gave a big nod. “I will.”

Releasing Flurry she immediately felt more vulnerable. She missed the connection already.

She sat on Twilight’s lap, feeling uncomfortable. Flurry sat behind her, hugging her neck. That gave her her feeling of security back.

Twilight grinned to see how they were supporting each other. “I’d like to tell you something, Crystal. You’ve heard of my world-saving exploits. I’ve defeated terrible threats, and saved the Crystal Empire. That’s true. However, you’re blinded by my accomplishments because it’s what is most associated with me.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“You always hear about my successes, making me seem perfect and beyond your understanding. What do you know about my failures and mistakes?”

Crystal stared at her a few seconds. “I… don’t.”

“Exactly. I’ve done much in my life, but not all of it is good.” She gestured to the twins, who came to stand on either side of her. “Look at these two. What would you say if I told you they taught me a very valuable lesson about friendship? I had screwed up, and they called me out on it.”

Crystal got an interested look on her face. “I’d like to hear that story.”

Twilight could already see the pedestal Crystal had placed her on starting to come down. Not in a negative way, but simply that the filly was starting to see her in a more realistic fashion. “Pumpkin told you about the accident where she hurt Pound, and I recommended them to school so they could learn to master their magic and flight.”

Pumpkin let out a little sigh. “The two of us got into a physical fight with some of the other kids when they began insulting our sibling, and we got kicked out of school.”

Twilight nodded. “I got an angry letter from the principal about their behavior, and I came to scold them after arguing with the principal for a while about not kicking them out for good, managing to talk her down to a week’s suspension.

“After being scolded by the principal, their parents and Pinkie, and finally me, the twins were emotionally exhausted. They believed they weren’t loved or wanted anymore, and they ran away from home.”

Pound sighed. “It felt so horrible.”

“Thankfully, my friend Fluttershy spotted them, and provided enough comfort for them to speak their minds, allowing us to renew our bond.

“Now, I am not completely at fault here. I was simply the breaking point after being scolded by everyone else. But what they said made me realize that I needed to change the way I approached discipline with small children. I was, rightfully, angry at their behavior, but my response to them was belittling and critical. I was the one that pushed them over the edge, when I could have been the one to stop them from falling into despair and thinking they had to leave.”

She sniffed, a tear coming down her eye. “And even if I know it wasn’t all my fault, there was still a period of time where I felt annoyed rather than concerned when I heard they had ran away.”

Crystal blinked. “Annoyed?”

Twilight nodded. “I thought they were running away from their punishment. My friend Pinkie got mad at me for that, until my friend Spike pointed out that what they did was similar to something that happened with him. He had once had a situation where he felt unwanted by me, and had ran away. That made me realize I had gone too far.

“Even though we searched the twins eluded us, and then it began pouring rain, making it all but impossible to find them. All of us were miserable.”

Pumpkin beamed. “After we got everything settled with our parents and Auntie Pinkie we were still nervous about Twilight. That was another time we were afraid of her princess status.”

“She showed us her Friendship Journal,” said Pound, “where all of them wrote down the lessons on friendship they learned, hoping that it could help someone going through the same thing one day.

“Twilight wrote down what she learned on one page, and then asked us to write down what we learned on the opposite page.”

“Twilight felt that even kids as young as us could have important lessons to teach, just as important as a princess’s, and what we learned is that everyone makes mistakes, even princesses.

“But even if you make a really, really big mistake you still deserve to be loved.”

Flurry said, “That’s pretty fascinating. I didn’t know about that.”

Crystal hesitated, then said, “I can understand that ponies can say mean things when they’re angry, but Pound and Pumpkin did do something really bad, and you said yourself that you were just the last person to scold them. That doesn’t really seem like a failure on your part. Just bad luck that you were the last one.”

“Fair enough,” said Twilight. “So let’s continue.

“I spent the week of their suspension trying to teach the twins about peaceful conflict resolution. Pound had an overprotective streak that stopped him from remaining calm when he felt his sister was being hurt.

“When we all went to the beach Pound met a colt named Tree Leaf. Although they hit it off pretty well they still hit a major snag in their friendship when he threw sand in Pumpkin’s eyes deliberately.

“Pound did manage to stop himself from being violent, but only because Pumpkin’s pain made him put caring for her over hurting Tree Leaf. Once Pumpkin was being cared for Pound expressed regret for not beating the colt up.

“When Fluttershy talked to them she was patient, letting them open up on their own time. When she heard about their behavior she was understanding, not condoning their behavior but still loving them all the same. I knew I needed to do the same.”

“Twilight was pretty amazing there,” said Pound. “Even though I yelled at her and called her names she never lost her temper, only focusing on getting me to change my mind.”

“And wouldn’t you know it? When I succeeded in showing him the way his thinking was flawed-”

“By threatening to beat me up!” Pound said with a chuckle.

Crystal and Flurry’s eyes both went wide. “You what?” said Crystal.

“Why would you do that?” Flurry asked.

“She wasn’t really going to hurt me," said Pound, "but she acted like she was to help me understand.”

Twilight nodded. “Pound’s logic was that if he beat up those that hurt Pumpkin they wouldn’t do it anymore, but because he himself at times hurt Pumpkin it meant he should be beat up too.

“Anyway, once everything was settled he told me I had passed my retest with flying colors.

“I thought that I had learned my lesson about small children, but what happened next showed me I still had a long way to go.”

“What happened?” asked Crystal.

“As I’ve told the twins I can’t show special treatment to my friends, so just like I helped Pound I wanted to help Tree Leaf. However, because of my ignorance I wound up causing the both of them unnecessary pain.

“I thought the best course of action would be to get them together to talk out their problems. Pound was tired of the bad feelings that had been going around, so I pressured him into going because I believed it was best. Tree Leaf didn’t even know we were coming, so he got pretty steamed when we showed up.

“What happened next was a total disaster. I completely failed at keeping things under control. The two of them spent the majority of their talk insulting, belittling, and yelling at each other. They were only interested in ‘winning.’ That is, seeing who could cause the other to break first. Sometimes they would talk about the issue, but they were both so heated up nothing was getting done.

“Finally, Pound said the magic word that pushed him over the edge, and Tree Leaf demanded that he leave, expressing the notion that friendship was a lie and he didn’t need any.”

Flurry let out a breath. “As the Princess of Friendship I’m sure that must have been hard to hear.”

“It was even worse, because I had just got through telling Pound about a friend of mine named Moondancer that I had hurt who did give up on friendship for a long time because of my carelessness.”

“So then he was left alone?” Crystal asked somberly.

“I didn’t want to forgive him,” said Pound, “but when I thought about Moondancer I knew I didn’t want him to end up like her. And seeing how upset he was finally allowed me to stop being angry and just… talk with him.”

“The two of them were able to renew their friendship,” said Twilight, “after which he apologized to Pumpkin as well, and they’ve been friends ever since. But what if I hadn’t told him about Moondancer, thus allowing him to empathize with Tree Leaf’s situation? It was just a matter of luck that my friend brought up her name, and that Pound happened to ask about her right then.

“What happened between them would have turned out better if I had been more considerate of both their feelings before arranging for them to meet. As it was, both of them called me out for getting in the middle of their problems and trying to force them to settle their differences, and they were absolutely right.”

“I couldn’t imagine doing that,” said Crystal.

“But you just did!” said Pumpkin. “You yelled at Flurry because she had hurt you.”

Crystal squirmed a bit. “But she’s a child too.”

“Well, no one said you have to yell at me,” said Twilight. “The point I was trying to get across with these stories is to show you that I’m not perfect, and I’m not afraid to admit when I screw up. I would like to be respected for the things I’ve accomplished, but not if it means you put me so high up you forget that I have a negative side too.

“Even I am still learning. When the twins ran away from home it made me realize I knew little about small children, and I used that experience to help Pound change his thinking. When it came to him and Tree Leaf it made me realize that I was looking down on them, thinking their feelings were too simplistic. Those two events helped me to adjust the way I treated them, and ever since that day the twins haven’t run away again, nor have they taken issue with my behavior.

“Even if indirectly, these children taught me something I needed to learn, filling in a gap in my education.

“As I said to the twins, I can’t teach others to overcome their own issues if I pretend that I don’t have any myself. I want you to have a realistic view of me, and that means acknowledging that even our heroes are capable of great errors.”

“Mmm.” Crystal put her hooves over Flurry’s. “I think I understand now. Even though she explained it I still didn’t really get why Flurry thanked me for yelling at her.”

Flurry gave her a little nuzzle.

“All that being said,” said Twilight, “I do think it’s prudent to bring up that not everyone will want to interact with you at ‘eye level.’ Me and Cadance and even Flurry want to treat everyone like equals despite our status, but not everyone is like that.

“A perfect example is King Sombra. He thought his position entitled him to treat his subjects like slaves. He definitely looked down on them as being lesser than him.”

Crystal nodded.

“But not everyone is out to rule the world in their ego. Some have just been petty, or arrogant, thinking too much of themselves but otherwise mostly harmless.

“If you make an assumption about someone you may put an unnecessary barrier between you that doesn’t need to be there, but it might also lead to anger if they’re not as friendly or forgiving as you think. The only advice I can give is to find a balance between caution and openness, and the best place to start is to observe the way they talk and act first, and then form your own opinion on the kind of pony you think they are.”

“When I first met Flurry at the playground I didn’t know who she was. She kept her wings folded up, so I didn’t even notice she was an alicorn. It wasn’t until her mother came to drop her off that I even realized who she was.”

Crystal let out a little sigh. “Now I know how badly she was hurting back then, and I just wish I could have done more to help.”

Flurry gave her a little squeeze. “No worries. Even if it hadn’t been for that little accident I don’t know if I could have opened up to you. Aunt Twilight told everyone that I had a problem that needed solving, so the twins and all their friends were ready for me.”

She laughed awkwardly. “There was a reason I kept them at my side.”

“What’s that?”

She blushed, still self-conscious as she released Crystal. “Look for yourself.”

Crystal spun around in Twilight’s lap, waiting.

Flurry took in a deep breath. “This drove some of my other friends away, or at least caused them to make fun of me.”

Crystal waited, but Flurry still just stood there, blushing and making nervous gestures. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m… a little scared. I just started a real friendship with you, and I don’t want to ruin it now.”

“Flurry,” said Twilight, “you won’t be able to avoid it forever. Eventually she’ll see it. If it’s enough to drive her away from you then you might as well get it out of the way now rather than stick around her. And if it isn’t, then all you’ll be doing is worrying yourself over nothing. Either way it goes, showing her now is the better option.”

Flurry looked into her eyes. “I… I know, but…”

“Do you remember what you said the day after our birthday?” said Pound. “You said that if someone can’t accept you for all of you like me and Pumpkin do then they’re not the kinds of friends you want to have.”

Flurry groaned. “I know that! And I meant it, but I still… I mean, it’s easy to say that when nothing’s going wrong, but after everything we just went through to get this far-”

“Then you should trust your friend that she will love you the same, just as she asked you to do,” said Pumpkin. “Unless, of course, you don’t believe in her?”

Flurry winced.

Crystal looked between everyone. Everyone seemed to know something about Flurry that seemed devastating. Did she have a horrible scar that she kept hidden? What could possibly be causing her such distress?

“I want to know!” she said firmly. “I don’t want to be the only one not in the loop. And if everyone else here still cares about you despite knowing your secret then I can too! I trusted in your words enough to be honest with my feelings. Please… trust me too.”

Flurry took in a deep breath. They were right. They were all right. It wasn’t something that could be avoided forever. “Forgive me, Crystal. I should have trusted you more.” With one last steadying breath she unfurled them, showing her oversized wings.

Crystal just stared. Every single pony in the Crystal Empire was an earth pony. The only exceptions were Shining Armor, Cadance, the two unicorns that had taken Flurry to the park, and the members of the Royal Guard that had been transferred over from Canterlot, most of which were all unicorns.

Thus, she didn’t exactly have much of a frame of reference for average wing size. But even so, she could tell that they weren’t right. They seemed way too large for her body. She thought it was no wonder that Flurry always kept them concealed.

Flurry had her eyes closed. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t trust Crystal, but a lot of children had mocked her for them.

Crystal could see the shameful look on Flurry’s face. Flurry’s sensitivity to them had to come from somewhere, and she could only guess that there was a time when Flurry showed them off regularly before being teased to the point she always kept them at her side.

Standing up, she closed the difference between them, and gave Flurry a big hug. “I think you’re perfect just the way you are! Thank you for showing me.”

Flurry sniffed, tears running down her eyes as she hugged her friend back. “Thank you.” She extended her wings, hugging her with them too. “I was right to choose you. You’re an amazing friend.”

Crystal blushed.

Twilight was glad that Crystal was such a good fit for Flurry. As Cup had said to her before, the twins and the rest of their circle of friends would still be there for Flurry even if this didn’t work out, but even if they could communicate across long distances through the magic notebooks it still wasn’t the same as a hug in person. Flurry needed a friend at home to be there physically for her, and it was clear that Crystal was a perfect choice.

Pound whispered in Twilight’s ear. She nodded.

Her horn glowed as she concentrated, several objects appearing: a quill, a bottle of ink, and a book. “Flurry, Crystal!” she said brightly.

They broke apart from their hug. “Yes, Aunt Twilight?” she asked, wiping her eyes.

“The both of you have had a big day today, so I think you should take advantage of it.”

“What do you mean?” asked Crystal.

Twilight opened the book to two blank pages. “This is our friendship diary, where we write down all the important lessons we learn. I’d like both of you to write down what you learned today about the magic of friendship.”

“Okay,” said Flurry.

Crystal looked uncomfortable. “I… I don’t think I can.”

“Why not?” asked Pumpkin. “You’re not still thinking you’re worthless compared to Flurry, are you?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s not that, but… I don’t know how to write all that good yet.” She moved one of her hooves in small circles. “I don’t know how many ponies go through that book, but I don’t want everyone looking at my mistakes.”

“That’s no problem, “ Pound said brightly, throwing a hoof around her shoulder. “When me and Pumpkin wrote our entry into the friendship journal Twilight wrote it for us. You just tell her the words you want her to write down, and she’ll take care of the rest.”

“Oh.” She looked reassured. “In that case it’s fine.”

“What about you, Flurry?” asked Twilight.

Flurry sucked on her cheek for a few seconds. “Well, I do a lot of studying, and I understand a lot of words, but I’m not so good at writing them myself, so I think it would be better if you wrote mine too.”

Twilight nodded. “Very well. I can do that.” Dipping her quill into the ink she said, “Who wants to go first?”

Flurry pointed to Crystal. “She’s the guest, so I think she should choose.”

Crystal let out a little whimper. “You can go first… you know, so I can see how it’s done.”

“Well, this is new to me too, you know.”

“Mmm.”

Twilight set her quill down. “You don’t have to worry so much about doing it ‘right.’ You don’t have to write in a certain way, or make it super long. Just express your heart. But maybe it would be helpful if you read a passage or two to get a feel for it.”

She browsed through a few pages before stopping on one. “I think you’ll find this one appropriate. It’s the one that the twins and I wrote.”

They read both sides. Twilight’s expressed her ignorance of little kid’s feelings, and how it led to her hurting them, as well as the desire to plug that gap in her education not to make the same mistake.

Pound and Pumpkin’s admitted their screwup, and how a bad pony is different from a bad action, and that as long as you feel guilt over your wrongs you still deserve love.

When the two finished and looked up at her again she said, “The twins felt quite unworthy of their page, considering it was right next to mine, but lessons can come from anywhere. There are things they’ll experience that I never will, which means that they can help in a situation that I can’t.

“It reminds me of the Cutie Map.” That got questioning looks from them. “The Cutie Map is a special part of the castle in the throne room. Every so often our cutie marks will glow, telling us to visit it. The thing is, except for our first time, it very rarely calls all six of us. Usually just two at a time, and the map tells us what location is in need of a friendship lesson.

“For example, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash were sent to the homeland of the griffons. They were once united by a statue that filled them with pride and stopped them from being so greedy and self-serving. When it was stolen that unity broke.

“During the course of their adventure they actually found the idol, and one of the griffons, an old friend of Rainbow’s named Gilda, was put in a situation where she had to choose between saving the idol or saving her friend, as one of them was going to fall into an abyss, and she chose her friend. That selfless action, combined with some encouragement, allowed Gilda to make friends with another griffon, and thus they found something else to bond over.

“I wasn’t sent there, even though I wanted to go. How do you think things would have been different if I had gone?”

“Well,” said Flurry, “you have magic, so you could have just poofed it and the rest of you out of there.”

“And you can fly,” said Crystal, “so you wouldn’t have to worry about falling to your doom.”

“Exactly,” said Twilight. “But if I had done that it wouldn’t have solved the problem. Bringing back the idol might have allowed them to be united once more, but it would only last until the next thief stole it, or some accident caused it to break. Then they would be right back where they started.

“What was needed was something to replace the idol, something that wasn’t a physical object that could be broken or stolen. Hence, despite all my magic and skills I wasn’t fit for the job, but my friends were.”

She pointed to the book again. “And that’s why the twin’s words are just as valuable as mine, because they dealt with a problem far different than I did. And that means they could help someone in a way that I can’t.”

Flurry smiled. “The same way that they helped me open up about my problems.”

Twilight nodded. “Exactly.”

Crystal slowly shook her head. “Everything feels so different than what I expected it to be. Did you really bow to them and beg them for help?”

“Indeed I did. I learned my lesson when it came to Pound and Tree Leaf. I couldn’t force them to make friends with Flurry, and it was rather rude to expect them to deal with her issues during their birthday party. So it was the only option I had available to me. They had to freely choose to do it, so I opened my heart and showed them how much I was hurting, allowing them to get over their bitterness to give Flurry another chance.

“I know that doesn’t sound very princess-like to you, so if it makes you feel better it isn’t the kind of thing I’d do outside of my close circle of friends.”

“I guess it does.”

“So, anyway, let’s get your friendship reports.”

“I’m ready,” said Flurry.

Twilight readied her quill.

“Life can be difficult for me sometimes. It can be hard when you feel like you’re different than everyone else. I was born an alicorn, and my wings are adult sized even as a child. I’ve had ponies call me a freak, and it was very hurtful.

“For a while I was scared of all the pressure put on me, until my awesome Aunt Twilight brought me to a party with friends that loved me just the way I am. They helped take the pressure of me so I could just be a kid and goof off.

“I learned that real friends accept you for who you are, no matter what you look like. I also learned that sometimes we can hurt our friends without realizing it.

“My friend Crystal got mad at me for not trusting her enough to tell her my secrets like I did with everyone else, and she told me off for it. Luckily, she accepted my apology, and now we’re both getting closer.

“So my advice to anyone reading this is to keep searching for your real friends, and be honest with them once you find them.

“Signed, Princess Flurry Heart.”

Twilight nodded in approval. “Very good, Flurry.” She looked toward Crystal expectantly.

Crystal let out a little sigh. “I’m ready, I guess.

“I… I never spent much time around royalty, or famous ponies.” She hesitated, blushing slightly. “I thought that they were almost from a different world, stuck-up or scary. Before I knew Flurry was a princess everything felt normal, but as soon as I realized who she was it felt like a huge wall went up. I didn’t feel safe around her. I… I thought horrible things would happen if I got her mad.

“Even though she tried to be nice to me I just couldn’t relax around her, until she brought me to play with some of her other friends. I couldn’t understand how they could act like it wasn’t a big deal to have a princess in their house. They made it look so easy, and it made me kind of… jealous.

“I liked Flurry, but… I just didn’t know how to treat her like Pound and Pumpkin did.

“In the end, we finally talked things out. I had felt hurt and angry towards her, but I didn’t realize it because I was too scared. When I finally showed her my feelings she surprised me by thanking me for it, telling me it’s how a true friend should act.

“Even though it was one of the scariest moments in my life, I did it because I wanted to trust Flurry, and be by her side.” She sniffed, a few tears coming down her eyes. “I wanted to be her friend, someone that she can rely on. Even if I didn’t feel I deserved it, she had chosen me out of everyone else, and I wanted to prove myself worthy of being a true friend.”

Flurry put a hoof around her shoulder, putting a wing around her as well.

Crystal put her head against Flurry’s, nuzzling it a bit. “I learned that even ponies that you think are scary have feelings too, but if you can get past those differences that’s where the light of friendship truly starts to shine.

“I’m glad that the two of us opened our hearts to each other, and even though we might fight sometimes, I hope we remain friends the rest of our lives.

“Signed, Crystal Mines.”

Flurry was the one crying now. “Me too!” she said in a croaky voice. “I hope we’re friends forever too.”

Crystal put her hoof around Flurry’s shoulder, pulling her closer, their eyes closed as they held onto each other.

Twilight felt her own tears start. She didn’t know what the future would hold for them, whether their friendship would remain strong in the years to come, but she sure hoped it did. Regardless, the future was in the distance. Right now, before her eyes, she could see the bright spark of friendship between them, and that was enough.

2-4: A true, true friend

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“Mmm… come on, Crystal,” said Flurry. “Do we really have to do this?”

“Yes!” she replied strongly.

Flurry sighed, her cheeks rosy.

“Just relax. All we’re doing is going for a walk.”

“It’s not ‘just a walk’ and you know it!”

“It will be if you’d stop making such a big deal out of it!”

“But… but you know how I feel about this.”

“Exactly! And that’s the point!”

Flurry groaned, a tear coming down her eye. “But it’s scary.”

Crystal hugged her. “And that’s why I’ll be by your side the whole time, so that it won’t be as frightening.

“Yelling at you was scary, but it allowed us to be real with one another, and made us true friends. And as your friend I don’t want you to let this one thing bring you down. I told you already: I think you’re perfect just the way you are. And if anyone can’t see that then it’s their problem, not yours.

“You got that?” She nuzzled Flurry’s cheek with her own. “You have nothing to be ashamed of for being who you are, so be more confident in yourself.”

Tears came down Flurry’s eyes as she hugged her friend back. “Thank you, Crystal. Your words mean a lot to me.”

“You chose me out of everyone else, and that means I have to show I’m worthy of calling myself your friend. And it all starts with helping you through your problems.”

Flurry was quiet for a while. “O-okay. I… I trust you.”

***

Things had been strange for Crystal since the day they had gone to Pound and Pumpkin’s house. She had seen the depths of Flurry’s heart and learned about the pain she had been going through, and her conversation with Twilight allowed her to see how skewed her thoughts were.

She had somehow seen the princesses as perfect, incapable of mistakes. Calling out Flurry had been the first step to seeing that her beliefs were wrong, and then hearing Twilight be real with her about her own errors towards the twins further dispelled that notion. Although their status did put some distance between them they were still ponies in the end.

When they returned to the Crystal Empire Flurry took her to properly meet her parents. It was somewhat scary, being in the presence of the rulers of their entire empire, but it wasn’t as terrifying a prospect as it had been before. She kept in mind that they were ponies too.

Without her bias coloring her thoughts she was able to interact with them fairly normally, but she just wasn’t as comfortable with them as she was with Flurry. She needed some more time.

She also was properly introduced to Flurry’s caretakers, Sunburst and Starlight Glimmer.

Having resolved her issues with Flurry the two of them had become fast friends, spending every few days together.

As they had spent their days together Flurry told her about her previous attempts at making friends and about some of the hurtful words lobbed at her, as well as about the crazy birthday party where she had made friends with the Ponyville ponies.

Crystal was especially interested in Mayhem and Discord. Their power to change reality to suit their whims sounded incredible, but scary. That kind of power could be used for great good, but also for great evil. She was glad they were on their side.

Flurry opened her wings halfway, moving them in front of her. “Mayhem actually offered to shrink my wings to a normal size, but I turned him down.” She sighed. “Maybe I should have accepted his offer.”

“Why didn’t you?” Crystal asked.

Flurry rubbed her hoof across one of her wings. “All of my Ponyville friends still loved me even after they saw them. I felt like if I had to change who I was just to be liked then it wasn’t worth it to be friends with those kinds of people.”

She let out another sigh, folding her wings up. “It’s easy to say in front of a whole bunch of people that already care about you, but I just don’t feel as confident about it now. A part of me would rather just be liked.”

She rubbed her front hooves against each other in small circles. “It feels like I’m always going to have to put in a huge effort with everyone just to get past those barriers, just like it did with you.” She hung her head. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just be more normal to make friends easier?”

Crystal’s eyes narrowed. “Sure it would, but would those friends actually care about you like I do?”

Flurry looked up, surprised at the venomous tone in Crystal’s voice now.

“You were right the first time! A true friend cares about you and loves you for all of you! If you changed your wings just to be liked then the whole time you’re interacting with others you’re going to know it’s a friendship based on a lie!”

“But-”

“No buts!” She hopped up, walking in front of Flurry. She extended her hooves, pulling on Flurry’s wings until they opened. “This is you! These wings are a part of Flurry Heart. They make you unique.”

A tear came down Flurry’s eye as she pulled her wings out of her grip and folded them back up. “What if I don’t want to be unique?” she said quietly.

“Then you’re being foolish. If you’re not unique then you’re common and boring. It’s the ways we stand out that makes us who we are. Didn’t you say you chose me because you thought I was different?

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Flurry.” She pulled on Flurry’s wings again, extending them as far as she could. “Just like I said when I saw them it doesn’t change how I think about you at all. I still think you’re an awesome pony, and as your friend I don’t want you fussing over something so unimportant.”

She could see a fire in Crystal’s eyes. “I’m glad it doesn’t make you look at me differently, but not everyone feels that way.”

“WHO CARES?” she shouted. “You didn’t choose to be born with big wings. If they look down on you for something you can’t help that’s their problem, not yours!

“I don’t care what it takes, but I’m helping you past these feelings about your wings, because that’s what being a good friend means to me.”

Despite herself, Flurry smiled. Crystal really was everything she had hoped she would be.

***

Flurry’s heart was pounding as they went out onto the streets of the Crystal Empire, Sunburst keeping his distance but being observant.

“Come on, Flurry,” Crystal said sternly. “You know what you have to do. Once you find confidence in yourself then you won’t care what they think.”

Flurry let out a heavy breath, gathering her courage, and then unfurled her wings. She already felt awkward.

Her face felt red hot as they walked. She could hear the mocking words of ponies she had tried to befriend, calling her a freak. It felt like every passing pony was looking at her derisively.

Flurry groaned. “Crystal, ponies are staring at me!”

“Then let them stare,” said Crystal comfortingly, rubbing Flurry’s head. “They’re probably just jealous, anyway, that they can’t have wings as awesome as yours.”

Flurry let out a tiny laugh. She couldn’t imagine anyone envying her giant wings, but Crystal’s suggestion did make her feel a little better.

Even with Crystal’s encouragement she still couldn’t go longer than five minutes before she felt too embarrassed to continue. Crystal congratulated her on the effort.

That became their daily routine. Flurry came to dread Crystal’s appearance for a little while, knowing what was expected of her.

Slowly, so gradually she didn’t notice it at first, she began to lose the stigma she had attached to her wings. It began to feel more natural. She could go longer and longer before her embarrassment got the better of her.

Crystal was endlessly encouraging throughout it all.

Eventually she got to the point where she barely noticed it, and her and Crystal would just chat as they walked, her wings out for the whole world to see.

She started to feel that Crystal was right. What did it matter what the rest of them thought? She had a close friend that was dedicated to seeing her improve, someone that was willing to fight for her and was comfortable with her. It was everything she could ask for in a friend.

She remembered her Aunt Twilight’s words. “Out of a hundred children you may only find three that see the true Flurry and appreciate you for all you are, but you’ll treasure those three far more than three hundred pretenders.”

Crystal really was a true friend, broadening her horizons to help her stay true to her own words. She was who she was, and she would rather put more weight on the words of her friend that loved her than on the jerks who treated her like trash just for being a little different.

In the end, she was still Flurry Heart, big wings and all. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

After their latest walk Flurry was surprised they had been walking for a whole half hour. In the past it had feel like every second was an hour, all her attention outwardly focused on the ponies they passed. Nowadays her attention was focused on Crystal and just being with a good friend.

As they reached Crystal's house the pair went inside. "Hello again!" Flurry said politely to Crystal's parents, her cheeks flushed with joy. Their walk had felt so invigorating.

"Hello, Princess," they replied, giving her a little bow.

Flurry laughed. "Come on, now. I told you like a dozen times. You don't have to bow to me. I'm just a pony like your daughter. i don't need special treatment."

Crystal put a hoof around her shoulder, laughing too. "Aw, they'll understand one day, just like I did."

They went to Crystal's room. "That was fun!"

"Wasn't it, though? Don't worry about my parents. I can understand how they feel because I used to be that way too." She rubbed her chin. "Maybe we should have a picnic with your family and mine."

"That sounds cool. Our families can get to know each other."

"My parents still find it hard to believe that I netted a princess as a friend. They even asked me some of the questions I asked, like how could I be so relaxed around you?" She let out a small sigh. "That's why this picnic is important. I want them to see you the same way that I do."

“These things just take time,” Flurry said, shrugging. “I have you here with me, and that’s enough for now.”

She extended her wings out and up. “I’m sorry for being so weak before.”

“What do you mean?”

“I told you about how Mayhem offered to shrink my wings. Even though the offer was tempting I said no because I’ve seen ponies that cared about me regardless, and I thought the friends I choose should be the same way.

“I was so self-conscious about these things that a part of me felt like I’d rather just be whatever made people like me, even if it meant not being true to who I was.”

She smiled. “You were right. I was being foolish, and I shouldn’t regret my decision to keep my wings the same size. You’ve shown me how much you care about me, by yelling at me again.” Joyful tears came down her eyes. “I truly appreciate what you’ve done for me, and I am honored to call you my friend.”

Crystal smiled back, her own tears starting. “That’s what friends are for, Flurry.”

“You know, these wings are really good for one thing.”

“What’s that?”

She extended them towards Crystal, pulling the filly to her. “They make for great hugs.” She put her hooves and wings around her.

“I love you, Crystal!”

Crystal let out a quiet sob, holding back with all of her strength. “I love you too!”

3-1: Burnout

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“Come on, nerd! Keep up!” Drill Bit called out.

Pound was panting slightly as he tried to keep pace with the colt.

Drill did a loop-de-loop, allowing Pound to get in front of him, before quickly retaking the lead. “Not too much further now.”

Pound gritted his teeth, ignoring the ache in his wings as he pushed with his last bit of strength, touching down at the edge of the gate. He was breathing heavily now, his wings drooping. He couldn’t even lift them up to close them.

“Better,” said Drill. “Much better.”

Pound wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead. “N-nothing to it,” he said weakly, lying down to catch his breath.

“Well, I think that’s enough practice for today. You look wiped. I’m gonna go race with the real competition,” he said with a wink before taking off.

He was wiped. Drill Bit kept pushing him to his limits. Maybe it was pride, or maybe it was because he had finally gotten off the ground, but he didn’t want to turn down any opportunities to challenge Drill Bit.

He was quickly learning there was more to flying than just moving up and down or turning. He wanted to learn some of the advanced tactics Drill knew, but the colt told him he had to focus on building up his skills first.

He turned over onto his back, looking up at the sky. Drill Bit had been a lot nicer to him lately. His insults were now like friendly banter, used to pump himself up and dare his opponents to muster the energy to challenge him.

He tried his hardest, but he knew his weakness wouldn’t just disappear overnight. He had already made decent progress. There wasn’t anything he’d say he was particularly gifted at, but there was always time to find where his talents lie.

Weeks passed, and it felt like with every day his determination to knock Drill Bit off his throne increased. With every bit of improvement he felt like another one of his duck feathers fell off. It might take a year or more, but he would throw off his ugly duckling status and become a swan. He would prove himself worthy of Drill Bit’s time.

His stamina had increased, letting him go longer without running out of breath, as well as his wings not burning so badly as he pushed himself.

One day they were racing again. Drill Bit was in front of him, flying around. As he went between two swings he turned sideways, lowering himself and extending a hoof, pushing off and doing a full rotation before getting back in the air.

Pound didn’t trust himself to do such a maneuver. He had improved, but he wasn’t nearly that skilled yet. Still, he wanted to try something interesting. As he flew past the swings he curved himself upward and tried doing a loop-de-loop. Although he was successful he wasn’t used to the mechanics of upside-down flying, and he quickly went off course as he came back down again.

He let out a yelp, trying to slow or stop himself, but for all his efforts he still crashed face-first right into one of the poles stabilizing the swing-set.

For a few seconds everything went dim, until he felt something gently but firmly slapping him.

“Hey! Hey! Are you alright?” Drill Bit asked.

Pound groaned, putting a hoof to his eye. “That didn’t feel fun.”

Ms. Nimble trotted over, pushing Pound’s hoof aside to check out his face. “Ooh. I think you’re gonna have a bit of a bruise there. I need to get you to the nurse so she can get you an ice pack.”

“I got it, Ms. Nimble,” said Drill Bit, helping Pound stand up. “No need to disrupt the whole class for one student.”

She thought it over for a few seconds. “Very well,” she replied.

The two walked inside, Drill Bit supporting Pound as they walked. Drill Bit chuckled. “That was some crash. I’m impressed.”

Pound groaned. “You don’t have to rub it in.”

He laughed again. “Don’t take it personally. You pulled off your maneuver perfectly on your first try. You only lost control after you were done. You’ll get it with some more practice.”

Pound winced as his face throbbed painfully. It passed after a few seconds. “Since when are you so nice?” he asked.

He adjusted his position a bit. “Hey, I’m not completely heartless. You at least attempted a stunt, and you’ve proven you’re not so much of a loser as I thought.”

Pound gritted his teeth, letting out a low moan. “D-don’t think I’m gonna let you get the better of me forever. Once I get some more experience I’ll take you down.”

Drill chuckled. “Come on, brat. Just drop the bravado for now and walk. Although, I do appreciate it a little. It’s better than the whining you used to do.”

Pound laughed weakly. “I’m finally coming into my own. I don’t want to whine anymore. I have to be tougher if I ever want to win.”

“Glad to see you’ve got the right idea. Challenge me as often as you’d like until you get it into your head that I’ll never let you surpass me.”

Pound’s eyes shut as another wave of pain went over him. He was losing interest fast in being macho. He just wanted to get to the nurse and lay down.

Another few minutes later he was lying down with a soothing ice pack over his face. It was a relief. “Thanks, Drill Bit,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” he replied.

“I’ll be fine. You can go back to class.”

“Nah. I’ll stay for a little while.”

Pound gave him an odd look. “Don’t you have better things to do than hang out with a wounded loser?”

The colt shrugged. “Sure I do. But I’m curious how you’re going to take this accident. Is it going to affect your drive and determination, or make you hesitant to try out tricks in the future?”

“No way!” Pound said strongly. “Unless I lose one of my wings nothing is going to stop me from growing up and kicking your butt.”

Drill chuckled into his hoof. “Still on that, huh? Glad to hear it, but words are cheap. You’ll have to prove it the next time we go out there.”

“Hmph. Well, you’re not going to get the answers to your questions by watching me in a bed. So why are you really staying?”

Drill shrugged again. “Honestly, I don’t know. There’s something about you that intrigues me. I talk big, but I have the skills to back up my words. You acknowledge that you’re weak, but you sure brag about what you’re going to be like in the future. I wonder if you really mean what you say.”

He looked down at his knees, an uncharacteristically somber look on his face. “If you want to be the best it means a lot of hard work and effort. It takes sacrifice and being willing to take pain.”

Pound looked at him quizzically. “So are you telling me you weren’t a naturally gifted flier?”

“Everyone has potential. Some people just have more of it than others. But potential means nothing if you don’t put forth the effort to master it.

“All my other friends were already skilled before I got there and started competing with them, but you’re different. So far you’re managed to jump over all the hurdles put in your path and keep running, and it’s interesting to see how you’ve grown since then.”

Pound shook his head. “So I’m just a joke to you? Someone to waste time with before you get a real challenge?”

“I didn’t say that, did I? Look, it’s a fact that you’re inexperienced, and you still have a long way to go before you catch up to me. I guess it just reminds me of how determined I was to become a better me. Even from a young age my parents pushed me to be my best self. I feel like it made me strong. And it shows! My room is littered with awards for contests I’ve won.”

He leaned back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling. “Even if I don’t want to admit it a part of me is actually jealous of you.”

Pound looked at him strangely. Twilight had once told him that their time together was having an effect on Drill Bit, even if he didn’t realize it, but he certainly never expected the colt to actually say such a thing. “Jealous?”

“Hmph. Listen to me. It feels like your weakness is infecting me.”

Pound wasn’t going to let it go. “Why would you be jealous of me?”

“You’re getting better all the time, but nobody has any expectations for you.”

“That’s not true!”

“Sure it is. It was the same thing when you were trying to fly. Our teacher, your parents… everyone was patient with you. They told you to just wait, and that you’d fly when you were ready. There was no pressure from them to fly. It was just something you wanted.

“It’s no different here. If you were put in a contest for flying or whatever I’m sure you’d just be told to do your best, and that it wouldn’t matter what place you came in as long as you had fun. I’m not so lucky.

“Being a loser sucks, but being the best isn’t easy either. There’s a lot of pressure to excel. People have certain expectations of you that you’re expected to meet.”

Pound closed his eyes, trying to focus. Something about that sounded really familiar. He was sure that he had heard that somewhere before.

He was jerked out of his thoughts by a hard slap on his side. “Ow! Hey! What did you do that for?”

“Because,” Drill Bit responded, “you took a hard hit to the head. I wanted to make sure you weren’t passing out on me.”

Pound felt oddly touched. “I’m alright. I was just thinking.”

“Well, don’t strain yourself. You’re supposed to be relaxing, dummy.”

“Right.” It grew quiet between them for the next minute. He found that he couldn’t take it. Laying down and being silent only made him want to close his eyes and rest, and he didn’t feel like being slapped into alertness again.

“Do you actually like competition?” he asked.

Drill Bit looked at him curiously. “What kind of question is that? Have you not seen what I do every day? Shoot, even you have started to enjoy the thrill of competition, or so I thought.”

“I don’t know. It sure sounds like you think something is missing in your life. You said that you felt jealous of me because your family has high expectations for you and mine don't. It sounds like you’re growing tired of it.

“Really, just the fact that you even told me that is strange. It’s not like you.”

Drill Bit put his head on his hoof. “I love competition. There’s just a thrill that comes from it that I can’t get with anything else. Each loss pushes me to see where I went wrong, and where I need to improve. That’s why all of us are always challenging each other.”

“Except lately all your focus has been on me. Ever since I succeeded in flying you’ve been spending every day training me. You train me until I'm too exhausted to get off the ground anymore before you go to your other friends. When did I become so important?”

Drill Bit leaned back, staring at the ceiling again. “I don’t know. Messing around with those guys has just gotten a little… predictable. It’s more interesting to help you develop your skills, because I really do want to see how far you’ll go.

“Will you continue to push past every boundary, or will you give up? Every single day that question must be answered.”

Pound just stared at Drill Bit, trying to figure out what had gotten into him. He was acting so different from his usual persona he didn’t know how to respond to him.

Masky’s face flashed in his mind. When the colt had first showed up he had put on this cool, aloof persona in order to hide his inner pain. Maybe Drill Bit was putting on an act too. Without his friends around perhaps Drill Bit felt he didn’t have to put on his invincible façade.

“Hey, Drill Bit?” That made him turn his head. “I think you make for a fantastic teacher. I wouldn’t have come this far without you. Thank you so much for pushing me.”

Drill Bit’s expression became unreadable, before he looked back up. “You’re welcome, I guess. Don’t look too deeply into it. I’m only helping you because I was bored.”

Pound didn’t believe that. The more he thought about it the more sure he was that Drill Bit was hiding his true feelings. “You don’t really care about competing anymore, do you? It might have been important to you once, but now you’re putting so much time on me.”

“And?” he said dismissively. “There isn’t much point in competing with my friends. There are no awards for that. There’s no proof of my victories.”

“And why does that matter? If you know you beat one of them in a race why do you need a medal to prove it?”

“I told you already that words are cheap. It doesn’t cost anything to say you’re the best. The medals are proof that I excelled and trounced everyone else.” He leaned forward, his hooves crossed. “A real competition is a blast. When you have someone of similar skill to fight with, and come out on top, it just feels so satisfying. Everyone cheers for you as you walk up to get your trophy, and my parents are always overjoyed when they see me win.

"But… I guess a part of me just wants to take a break from all that for a little while. That’s why I’m training you. You’re far below my skill level, so I don’t have to worry about losing. It’s a refreshing change of pace to do something besides competing.”

Pound knew something was troubling the colt. He couldn’t put his hoof on it, though. “Hmph. I offered you that before I started flying. I invited you to my birthday party, remember?”

Drill Bit looked over at him again, looking more like himself. “Don’t tell me you’re still bitter over that? Grow up.”

“No, I’m not. I’m just pointing it out. Although given the crazy stuff that went on you surely would have had a blast.”

“Is that right? And what 'went on' there?”

“Why should I tell you?” He stuck out his tongue. "If you had gone you would have known all about it."

Drill Bit sucked on his cheek, seemingly unable to decide whether to be annoyed or amused. “Whatever.”

Pound chuckled.

Drill Bit just rolled his eyes.

Pound found their conversation to be quite interesting. He kept reflecting on it throughout the day. He was glad when school was over and he returned home, giving him some privacy. He quickly pushed himself through his homework and went to his room, closing the panels to divide his side from Pumpkins.

Even though they had the option now they rarely used it. They hadn’t gotten into a big fight for quite a while, and they still enjoyed playing with each other most of the time.

Now that he didn’t have any distractions he was free to really think. Drill Bit had dropped his guard around him. Just the way he talked seemed off.The colt always seemed strong and untouchable, but Pound was starting to think that he was right about Drill being like Masky.

When he had talked to Twilight about Drill turning him down to his party she expressed the thought that maybe his parent’s valued his accomplishments more than they valued him. He spoke of being under a lot of pressure to succeed, and that he enjoyed training together because he, Pound, wasn’t a threat at his skill level, allowing him to take a break from competition.

Maybe his fantasy had been right, and Drill Bit's parents only treated him lovingly when he was victorious. And when he wasn't...

Whether his theory was true or not didn't really matter. It was more about what Drill Bit believed. Just like Masky he probably never brought up his feelings because he didn't think there was a point.

He knew that Drill and his four friends hung out together outside of school, considering that time they confronted him at the park, but he didn’t think that any of them were close like he was with his friends. Competition and showing off seemed to be the only thing holding them together as a group. Of course, he could be wrong about that, seeing as how it was only one occasion, but he didn’t think he was too far off the mark.

Twilight had told him that just because he hadn’t won over Drill Bit back then didn’t mean that he hadn’t changed at all, and that, given more time, it didn’t mean he wouldn’t change even more.

Drill Bit really did seem to need a close friend, the kind he could share secrets with, or hug when he was feeling down.

As long as Drill Bit was his teacher it provided them time together where the colt could just take it easy, and for the moment that was how he could be a friend to him. Drill had already opened up to him, even if he didn’t intend to, and if he was patient he was sure he could pass the test of making him a better pony this time.

He thought about Mayhem forgiving Flurry Heart for her hurtful words. Mayhem said that he knew there was a good pony inside of her that could only come out when she got the bad things out, just like Fluttershy did for him and Pumpkin and Masky. Maybe he could do the same for Drill Bit.

It was going to take some more work, but he would succeed.

3-2: Practice and pressure

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“Hey, Pumpkin,” said Pound. “Could you help me out with something?”

Pumpkin set down the book she was reading. “Sure. What do you need?”

“I want to practice doing some loops, but I’m not comfortable doing it by myself.” He pointed to his face, where he had a nice black and blue from where he had crashed into the swing set pole. “So I figure you can use your magic to stop me from going out of control.”

“I can do that.”

The two of them went outside.

Pound took off, going about twenty feet before turning and heading back toward her. As he was about to pass her he angled himself upwards, staying in that position as he looped around. Or tried to, anyway. He tried making too big of a loop, and didn’t wind up making the full rotation, leaving him flying upside-down ten feet in the air.

Pound gulped, feeling slightly dizzy, unsure of how to correct himself so he just kept flapping before spinning around and heading straight toward the ground.

Pumpkin focused, stopping Pound’s momentum until he could regain control.

Pound let out a sigh of relief, giving her a grateful smile. Pumpkin returned it.

Pumpkin was patient with him, spending a full hour helping him with his practice. She didn’t want him to get another large bruise.

Pound went slower through the motions, counting on Pumpkin’s magic to keep him airborne as he got more used to the process.

When they were through he ran over to her and gave her a big hug. “Thanks so much, Pumpkin!” he said brightly, nuzzling her face. “I love you!”

Pumpkin hugged him back. “I love you too, Bro.” She let out a little sigh. “I’m glad that you’re doing so much better with your flying, but I'd appreciate it if you spent a little more time with us at school. Me and Masky feel kinda lonely without you.”

“Oh,” he responded, pulling away to look her in the eyes. “I didn’t think of that, but we spend our last class together.”

“I know, but it would be nice if you’d stop working until you drop during lunchtime. You spend the rest of recess exhausted.”

Pound bit his lip, looking away for a few moments before turning back to her, putting his hooves on her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Pumpkin, but this means too much to me. Now that I’ve gotten off the ground and I’m finally making real progress I can’t slow down now.”

Pumpkin mimicked his action, turning away before returning her gaze to him. “I understand, Pound. But why is it so important that you beat Drill Bit?”

“I don’t know. I just…” He looked down at the ground. “I felt like a total loser before I started flying. I was jealous of my classmates and jealous of you. I guess I’m just scared that if I slow down I’ll be exactly like I was before.”

“It’s good to take a rest to recharge yourself every so often, you know?”

“I know, but that’s not the only reason.”

“What else is there?”

He told her about his conversation with Drill Bit in the nurses office. “Something is off in his life, and I think I can get to the bottom of it. Just like you helped Masky to confront his parents over his real feelings I think I can do the same with Drill Bit.

“I felt terrible when Drill Bit turned me down about going to our birthday party and then said he didn’t get what his brother changed for. I went to Twilight because I felt like a failure again. She cheered me up by telling me she was proud of me for doing my best, but I feel like I’m going to get a second chance to do things right this time.”

Pumpkin chuckled. “You’re such a dork.” She hugged him again. “But that’s what I love most about you.”

Pound smiled. “Thanks for understanding.”

He let out a little sigh. “It’s not going to be easy. Drill Bit has a lot of pride. If I try to just ask him about things he’d say nothing was wrong. I have to wait for the right opportunity.”

“Well, if anyone can do it then I know you can, Pound.”

“Thank you, Pumpkin.”

Pound continued his training over the next two weeks, with Pumpkin devoting time after school to help him stabilize when he practiced his upside-down flying. Knowing Pumpkin was there as a safety net allowed him to put all his focus on mastering doing loops, because he knew she wouldn’t let him fall. It took the better part of a week before he felt he had it down.

Although he waited his prime opportunity didn’t come. Drill Bit hadn’t disclosed any more of his real feelings to him.

As unfortunate as that was he was still proud of his growth. As he thought of his ugly duckling philosophy again he reflected on who had taught him about it in the first place, and he knew there was something that needed to be done that was way overdue.

He went up to Pinkie Pie and asked, “Can you take me to visit Scootaloo?”

***

“Hey there, Pound,” said Scootaloo as she opened the door. “What’s up?”

“Are you busy?”

She shook her head. “No. Not right now.”

“Cool. Can we go for a walk?”

“Sure.”

Pound was walking with his head held high, so Scootaloo didn’t think he was upset about anything. Still, she didn’t break the silence, letting him decide when to talk.

“Scootaloo?”

“Yes?”

He looked up at her warmly. “I just wanted to say thank you.”

“Thank me? For what?”

“Do you remember the last time I came over?”

It took her a minute, but the memory came back to her. “Oh, yeah. You were feeling down because you were being teased about not flying.”

Pound nodded. “I don’t actually want to go for a walk.”

She looked at him questioningly. “Then why did you bother asking?”

Pound giggled, unfurling his wings. “I actually want to go for a fly!” he said, jumping up and gaining air, hovering near the roof of a house.

Scootaloo’s eyes widened a bit before she returned his warm expression from earlier with one of her own. She took to the air, getting on his level. “So you finally did it, huh?”

He nodded. “I actually started flying the day after my birthday, but I’ve been working really hard to make something of myself. A lot’s been going on recently. I made sorta-friends with my bully, and now we’re sorta rivals with each other. He’s the one that helped me get the hang of things until I could start doing it on my own. And now that I’ve started flying he’s finally really interested in me.”

“Very cool. So you want to tell me about it?”

“Sure.”

As the two flew around Ponyville he gave her the rundown of his history with Drill Bit, how Pumpkin had framed Drill, how he had impressed the colt with offering to take the beating he wanted to give to Pumpkin, and how Drill Bit accepted his offer to train him.

“It was a big mess for a while, honestly. Even with his help I didn’t seem to be getting any better. It felt like every time I tried to get into the air I just panicked because I was too nervous about falling. So one day he gets his friends to fly up in the air holding me above them, and then he had them suddenly let go of me.

“It worked… for a few seconds, but just that little bit of hovering by myself was all I needed to give me a huge confidence boost, because I knew now that my wings weren’t defective. I was just getting in my own way. It was all downhill from there. And then the day after my birthday it finally happened for real. I could hover and glide, but before that but I couldn’t gain air.”

Scootaloo chuckled. “I’m glad to hear that. Like I told you when you came to talk to me I was almost twelve before I started flying for the first time. I nearly gave up so many times, but you know Rainbow Dash. She wouldn’t let me quit. She told me that I just had to keep trying and practicing, and eventually I would capture my destiny, and she was right.

“The very first time I flew… it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Like with your story, just a few seconds of true success was all it took for me to get inspired to soar higher and higher.”

Pound landed, Scootaloo following. Pound’s eyes grew misty as he looked at her. “I owe it all to you, Scootaloo. That pep talk you gave me did more for me than you’ll ever know.

“You were right. I was an ugly duckling, and only I could make myself shed those duck feathers to become a swan. Whenever things started getting hard and I felt like quitting I just had to keep reminding myself that it was my responsibility to make myself grow.”

He threw his hooves around her. “I love you, Scootaloo!”

Scootaloo let out a breath, warm tears coming down her eyes as she returned the gesture. “Love you too, kid. Keep on kicking butt.”

He looked up at her with a toothy grin. “You got it. My classmate is running circles around me no matter how hard I try, but I know one day I’ll take him down.”

“I sure hope so.”

***

“Come on, Drill Bit,” said Sound Barrier. “You don’t want to be late.”

“Yes, Mother,” Drill replied.

“Shouldn’t be much trouble for you, huh?” said Finish Line.

“No, Dad. I’ll be sure to win the race.”

Finish looked at him oddly. “Something wrong, Son? You don’t look that fired up today.”

Drill just shrugged. “It’s boring to always win. And I’m just more interested in other things these days.”

“Nonsense!” said Sound. “Your future awaits, and it’s only going to be as great as it should be with those accomplishments on your record. Your brother will soon be going back to the Royal Guard, and not long after he’ll be the new captain. If you ever hope to take his place one day it all starts now.”

“Your mother’s right. Drill,” said Finish. “You’ve been a champion since you were a toddler, and the more you win the better your odds of attaining your dreams. Whether it be for a sports scholarship, the Wonderbolts, or the captain of the Royal Guard, it’s your resume that is going to catch their eye. It proves your determination and skills before you even walk in the door to apply.”

“And,” she winked, “it gives us plenty of opportunities to brag about you.”

Drill smiled a little at that.

His father rubbed his head. “Our son isn’t going to grow up a loser. You’re worth far more than that.

“We don’t have great wealth or connections to make things easier, so all we can do is help put you on the right track to achieve your dream on your own merits.”

“And honestly,” said Sound, “it’s better that way. Victory should be achieved through your hard work and nothing more. And you definitely have the skills for that.”

Drill felt conflicted. He enjoyed the praise, but something just felt wrong and he didn’t know how to explain it.

His smile became a little more forced. “I won’t let you down.”

Both of them beamed. “We know you won’t, Son.”

He let out a quiet groan as he headed toward the starting line.

3-3: Need to be great

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At school the next day Pound was in high spirits, ready for another day of training. But when they all went outside for practice he noticed that Drill Bit looked bummed out.

“Morning, Drill Bit!” Pound said brightly to catch his attention. “You feeling all right?”

Drill let out a dismissive noise, turning away from him as he started his warm-up exercises.

Pound followed suit, deciding not to push him for the time being. Once they got going and the adrenaline started pumping he was sure Drill’s mood would improve.

He did his wing rotations and his wing-ups, feeling in great condition. When he finished his warm up he decided to start practicing on his own for a little bit, figuring Drill would come along when he was ready.

He took to the air, making his own little obstacle course for himself. He went around trees, bushes, and the playground equipment, incorporating some loops into the mix before he descended back onto the ground.

“That was pretty good,” came the voice of Drill Bit behind him, still sounding down.

Pound turned and smiled. “Thank you.”

“I guess I never really thought about it much, since we always trained together, but you really have come a long way from where you started. Watching you flying solo like that makes me feel like you’re almost ready to be on your own.”

Pound chuckled. “No way. I need you.”

Drill blinked. “Why?”

“To be the tall wall I need to fly over. You keep me on my hooves, and that keeps me inspired to keep going.”

“I see…”

“Come on.” He gestured upwards. “Let’s take to the skies. I don’t know what’s got you upset, but I’m sure the exercise will make you feel better.”

Drill let out a heavy breath. “My parents enrolled me in another race yesterday. I won first place again.”

Pound looked at him oddly. “You don’t sound very happy about it.”

“I guess that’s because I’m not.”

“I thought winning was what you lived for. What, was there no good competition?”

“Not really, but that’s not the real problem. I’m… confused.”

“About what?”

As Drill started to answer Ms. Nimble called out to them. “Come on, boys,” she said, slapping her hooves together. “This is class time. You’ll have plenty of time to talk at break.”

The vulnerable look on Drill’s face vanished, and he looked grumpy again. “Well, let’s go, loser!” He took to the air.

Pound looked after him, a curious look on his face. He wanted to know the answer to his question. Now he was going to have to wait, which meant that Drill would have to suffer longer.

He did his best to keep up with Drill Bit as they went through their daily routine, but it was obvious Drill wasn’t going to wait for him today. It seemed like he was trying to outrun his feelings.

Although he ached inside he knew there was nothing else to be done for now. Because everyone had different skill levels and they were only in kindergarten there wasn’t any structured lessons. You were just expected to keep on the move. It didn’t mean you weren’t allowed to rest, but there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities to just sit and talk.

It was obvious that it was what Drill Bit needed, though. As much as it stunk that he had to wait maybe this was the golden opportunity he had been waiting for, the chance for Drill Bit to lower his defenses and speak honestly about his feelings again.

Drill Bit spent most of class just pushing himself relentlessly until he was gasping for breath and had to sit down to catch his breath.

Pound just continued feeling worse and worse, wanting to help relieve his distress.

When lunch time arrived Pound grabbed a tray and stuffed some food into his mouth without really tasting it or even processing what he was eating in the first place.

Pumpkin noticed he looked down in the dumps, but he just told her he didn’t want to talk about it when she asked. She did notice his eyes keep moving over to a certain part of the cafeteria, and she could see Drill Bit looking glum as he slowly ate his lunch.

It didn’t take much thought to put the pieces together. Either the two of them had had a fight, or Drill Bit was having a problem and Pound felt sympathetic to him. All she could do was be supportive and adhere to his wishes.

When Pound finished his lunch he went to a relatively secluded part of the playground area and waited for Drill Bit to come out. Luckily he didn’t have to wait too long.

Drill Bit looked around, seeing Pound sitting off by himself, seemingly waiting for him. It annoyed him.

He flew over towards Pound, saying, “Don’t give me that look,” he said angrily. “I don’t want your pity.”

“I’m not pitying you,” he responded. “I just care about your feelings, that’s all.

“You said you were confused before. What are you confused about?”

Drill Bit gave him a glare. “Why should I tell you? You think you understand what I’m going through?”

“Maybe not, but I can listen.”

He gave Pound a shove. “It’s none of your business, now back off!” He stomped away about twenty feet and sat down, crossing his hooves.

Pound groaned. Having to hold in his feelings for most of the day Drill had had time to bury them behind a tough façade, much like Masky.

He walked over and sat down next to Drill, but gave him some space so he was out of shoving range, and he just waited, knowing he’d have to let Drill come to him on his own time.

He was reminded of how Pumpkin became friends with Peppermint. She had had to be patient to allow Peppermint to drop her guard.

He didn’t know how long he waited, but eventually Drill spoke again.

“This is your fault, you know that?”

Pound glanced over at him. “What did I do?”

“You’ve always been a weak pony, and my parents told me to stay away from the weak ponies with no motivation. Look where it’s gotten me. I’ve gotten so weak lately.”

“Helping other ponies isn’t being weak. That’s what we have teachers for: to teach us the stuff we haven’t learned to do ourselves.”

“That’s not what I meant. I’m training you because it’s easy. It lets me take a break from trying or putting in real effort.”

“Everyone needs a break from time to time.”

“I’m not allowed to take breaks,” Drill said darkly. “The only way I can move is forward.

“I never used to have a problem with my life. I thrived on competition and winning. It was so much fun. The only thing that has changed in my life is you, so it has to be your fault I’m not happy anymore.”

Pound took in a breath and let it out. “When you took me to the nurse you said that you were getting tired of competing. Maybe you’re just seeing that there’s something you’d rather do with your life.”

“That isn’t an option for me!” he replied sharply. “My parents want me to be the best. Even though I’m just a kid right now they’re thinking of my future, and if I ever want to make it big when I grow up it all starts now!”

He scrunched up a bit, burying his head in his knees. “I can’t be a loser. My brother is already in an extremely important position as the second-in-command in the Royal Guard. I have to be at least that good someday. My parents certainly expect me to take over when my brother retires.”

“But is that what you want?”

“It was… but now I’m not so sure. My brother used to just be another opponent to beat. I knew the only real thing he had on me was age and experience, and I would crush him too one day.

“But then he changed. He told me that story about how some worthless loser saved his life when he got too full of himself and buried himself in a rockslide.

“For the longest time I didn’t get it. I started training you at first because you stuck up for your sister, and because I thought it would help me understand my brother, but nothing changed… at least at first.”

Looking up towards the sky he continued, “I thought my brother was an idiot for changing because of one weakling. Now… now I feel like I’m starting to understand it. With my other four friends what brought us together was fighting against each other and the spirit of competition that pushed us to be our best.

“But our relationship is completely different. I hated you when I first met you. I kept trying to push you to see what you were made of, but all you did was cower and cry. It annoyed me so much.

“Then I started training you, and you still annoyed me because of your lack of progress. My brother pushed me to keep at it, but even when you started making progress I still didn’t think it was a big deal. It was nice to see you stop being such a huge loser, but that was about it. I certainly didn’t consider us friends. We just had a common goal in mind.”

Pound moved a little closer. “Like I said earlier, you had a good point about everyone else. They just expected me to be patient. You were the one who pushed me to become who I am now. I couldn’t have done this without you.

“You’re a little rough on me, and it can be a little uncomfortable sometimes, but I’m only this good now because of the way you are. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and just work hard, accepting there weren’t any shortcuts to becoming great. That’s why I said I want you to keep training me. Without you to keep me on my hooves I might start slacking off, and I won’t become as great as I could be. You’re a great teacher.”

Drill glanced over at him. He looked like he wanted to say something, but then he turned his head away.

“What’s wrong?”

He let out a huff. “I’m… actually… enjoying training you.”

Pound blinked. “Really?”

“I guess there’s something more to it than just me growing weaker. When I think of where you started out compared to how you looked when you were practicing alone I felt… well… I don’t know how I felt. I guess… I just… felt good seeing your progress, knowing I helped to bring it about.”

Pound could see him blushing slightly. “It’s okay to feel proud of yourself for other things than just beating other ponies, you know?”

Drill let out another huff. “So what? It doesn’t change anything. I’m still just slacking off.”

“OR you’re starting to see that there’s other things you want to do with your talents than just destroy everyone in your way. Twilight, as the Princess of Friendship, works to teach other ponies how to make friends or repair friendships. In the same way you’ve been teaching me because you’re the most qualified to do so.”

Drill growled, standing up. “Just forget it!” he said angrily. “This sappy talk is OVER. I need to be great. I don’t have any other choice, so there’s no point in talking about this. I can’t believe I’ve been wasting my time with this nonsense.

“Just leave me alone! You’re on your own from now on you stupid weakling!”

He opened his wings, taking off towards the other side of the playground where his circle of friends were hanging out.

Pound watched him go, feeling an ache in his heart. It wasn’t his words that got to him. Drill regularly insulted him, if usually in a joking way. No, what got to him was seeing the disconnect between what he wanted and what he thought he had to do that was causing him such distress.

He was starting to get it. Drill’s pressure stemmed from family expectations. Or, at least, what he thought his parents expected of him. Drill’s brother being a personal protector of Princess Celestia herself had to weigh on Drill’s mind. He probably didn’t think he could ever compete with his big brother, or that his parents could care about him as much as his important brother. Not unless he did something just as amazing.

He didn’t know Drill enough to say for sure, but having grown up around dominating others in competition he probably equated victory with love. He wondered if Drill only got affection from his parents when he won a contest. He thought that would be pretty sad if that was true.

Just like the last time he talked to Drill he had a familiar feeling, like he had heard this before. He thought it was just about Masky, but there was definitely someone else he was thinking of.

Pressure, high expectations, the thought of taking over a family position…

The answer came to him then. He knew just where he had heard this from. When he came to that conclusion he thought of his talk with Twilight where she told them about how the Cutie Map only chooses certain ponies because they’re the ones best suited for the job. Even though he sympathized with Drill’s situation he really couldn’t understand what he was going through, because he hadn’t gone through it himself.

Sure, there was a time he felt like his parents loved Pumpkin more than him because he hadn’t flown yet while she could use magic, but just like with Drill neither of their real issues really had to with their siblings. He hadn’t been bothered by Pumpkin’s magic until he started getting bullied for not flying. He had been fortunate enough to be reassured by his mother that she loved him regardless of his accomplishments, or lack thereof.

The only thing he knew for sure was that he wouldn’t be as helpful to Drill Bit as she would.

As soon as he returned home he grabbed his magic journal and started writing.

“Dear Flurry Heart…”

3-4: Flurry returns

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Pound went to school the next day in high spirits again. After helping her twice with personal problems Flurry was all too eager to return the favor. And when he told Twilight about the situation she agreed to teleport Flurry over after school so he could implement his plan.

The only thing left to do was get Drill Bit to agree to meet Flurry. Obviously it couldn’t be at school, so it had to be afterward. He didn’t think it would be too difficult. He just had to present him with a challenge.

As he expected Drill Bit ignored him when they started class. He left the colt to his own devices, focusing on practicing his flying.

During lunch Drill was messing around with his friends, and he thought it made the perfect opportunity.

He flew over to the group. “Hey, Drill Bit!” he called out.

Drill gave him a dirty look. “What do you want, nerd? I’ve got better things to do than waste my time with you.”

“There’s a friend of mine who wants to meet you.”

“Why should I care?”

“She’s heard about how good you are, and she wants to test herself against you.”

Drill rolled his eyes. “Again, why should I care?”

“Well, I think it would be good manners to at least meet her. After all, she is a princess.”

That got his attention. “A princess?”

He nodded. “Her name is Flurry Heart. She lives in the Crystal Empire, and she’s the daughter of Princess Cadance and Shining Armor.”

Nimbus whistled. “Wow.”

“Seriously?” asked Sandstorm.

Pound nodded again. “Yes, indeed.”

Drill gave him an odd look. “You’re telling me she’s traveling halfway around the country just to challenge me to a race?”

“Well, the distance really doesn’t mean anything. Twilight can just teleport there and back with her. Even so, I think it’s a great honor that you’ve captured her attention.

“You said that you want to be great and impress your parents. Trouncing an alicorn in a race would do wonders for your rep, don’t you think?”

“Go for it, dude,” said Cumulus, slapping Drill on the back.

Pound knew he had to accept, if for no other reason than it would make him look bad in front of his friends.

Drill shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. “Eh, sure. Why not?

“She any good?”

Pound shrugged now. “I don’t know. I’ve never actually seen her race someone. As you can expect, the difference in locations makes it hard for us to see each other too often, even with Twilight’s help.”

“How do you know her, Pound?” asked Heavy Downpour.

“My aunt is good friends with Princess Twilight, and Twilight’s brother is the father of Flurry. So it’s a friend of a friend kinda deal. She came over for my birthday party.”

“Pretty cool.”

“And where did I come up in this?” asked Drill Bit, sounding a little suspicious. “How does she know about me?”

“That’s easy. If you remember I only started flying right after my birthday, so I told her about my training and how you’ve been training me.”

“And how old is she?”

“She’s six. It would hardly be fair if she was an adult.”

Drill got his game face on. “Sounds interesting. An alicorn as an opponent.”

He sat out on the competing for the rest of lunch, wanting to save his strength for the race.

Pound mentally pumped his hoof. That had gone smoothly.

The only thing he was concerned about now was Flurry. He knew how sensitive she could be about her wings. And, honestly, he had no idea how a race between the two of them would go. Her bigger wings might give her better acceleration, but he didn’t know if she had any flying talent.

Of course, he knew the race itself was unimportant. It was just the means to bring the two of them together outside of school. However, Drill might not listen to Flurry if she lost. Or if she won, either. That might just anger him to the point he stormed off. The only thing he could do was wait and hope that everything turned out okay.

After their final class ended and he went outside he was glad to see she was already there, along with Twilight.

“Hey, Pound!” Flurry cried out as she ran over and hugged him. “It’s nice to see you again.”

“Same here,” he replied, hugging her back.

Flurry’s horn glowed, pulling Pumpkin over and including her in the hug as well.

“I’m here too!” Crystal Mines said as she trotted over.

“Oops,” said Pound as he released Flurry. “I missed you.”

“That’s okay.”

“What brings you here?” asked Pumpkin.

Crystal put her hoof around Flurry. “Hey, she’s my best friend. Where she goes, I go.”

Pumpkin grinned, glad that their friendship was still going strong.

Drill kept his distance, sizing Flurry up. Regardless of her personality she was still an alicorn. Her potential was almost unlimited. The only question was how much of it she had tapped. Was she naturally gifted and pulled off stunts like nothing since she got off the ground, or was she someone who had to spend every day training to make something of herself?

He could feel his heart beating in his chest, a sense of tension through his body. It was the anxiety that always came before a big race. Train or teleportation, she had travelled so far just to meet and race with him. There was no way he couldn’t be nervous.

“Something wrong, Drill?” asked his mother.

Drill blinked, pulling his gaze away from Flurry. “I’m not going home today,” he said. “I have a big race to take care of.”

“Oh?” she asked curiously. “But we haven’t signed you up for any competitions today.”

“I know, but someone went out of their way to challenge me, so I have to go take them down.”

Sound Barrier looked towards where Drill had been looking before, and her eyes widened. “I sure hope you’re not talking about Princess Twilight.”

He shook his head. “Nope. The one with the blue and purple mane.”

His mother sounded a little skeptical as she said, “Her?”

“According to my classmate she’s Princess Twilight’s niece and the daughter of Princess Cadance.”

His mother’s eyes bugged out as her head whipped back toward him. “Are you serious?” She looked back at Flurry with newfound wonder. “That’s hard to believe.”

“Well, it’s true.”

She stomped a hoof in frustration. “I really do have to be getting to work. I was just supposed to bring you home real quick. I can’t believe I have to miss such a fine test of your skills.”

Drill’s eyes looked away. He wouldn’t say it out loud, but he was glad she wasn’t going to be there.

Pound directed Flurry towards Drill Bit. “Hey, there!” he said to Drill. “I want to formally introduce you to Princess Flurry Heart of the Crystal Empire.”

Drill respectfully bowed. “Hello there,” he said in an unnaturally stiff voice. “My name is Drill Bit.”

Flurry playfully rolled her eyes. “You can drop the forced politeness bit. I’m no snob. Just treat me like you would treat your other classmates.”

Drill eyed her suspiciously, wondering if this was some kinda test.

Flurry chuckled at his look. “Look, the way I see it I’m only a princess through birth. I haven’t earned it by doing amazing things like my mother and my aunt. So I don’t need special treatment.” She gave him a playful shove. “You got that, loser?” She winked.

Drill frowned at first, but then his smug grin quickly popped onto his face. “If you insist. Just don’t blame me when I send you home crying.”

“No problem.”

He gestured to his mother. “This is my mom, Sound Barrier.”

Flurry bowed her head. “Nice to meet you.”

Sound sighed. “Wish I could say the same. Nothing to do with you, Princess, but I have to get to work so I’m not going to be able to watch the two of you go at it.”

“That’s a shame, but from what Pound tells me your son is already a champion. Do you really need to see yet another victory?”

Sound look pleased with that statement. “I guess not, but aren’t you selling yourself short?”

Flurry shrugged. “I’ve never raced Drill before, so I have no idea how his skills match up to mine. That’s partially why I’m here.”

“That’s quite a ways to travel for just a race.”

“Well, I’m friends with Pound and Pumpkin, and my Aunt Twilight can just teleport me out here when I want to play with them. I figure since I’m here already I might as well see what Pound’s trainer is like.”

“Trainer?” she asked, her eyebrow going up and her expression growing haughty.

Pound saw Drill freeze. Now wasn’t the time for this kind of confrontation.

Laughing awkwardly he put his hoof behind his head and rubbed it. “I keep challenging Drill when he’s not busy trouncing his friends, but I stink right now. I haven’t beaten him once.”

He wasn’t sure if he said the right things to defuse the situation, but Drill looked slightly less uncomfortable.

Sound had a bit of a dismissive look on her face as she gazed down at him. “Perhaps you should consider challenging someone more among your own skill level then. Drill is trying to reach his full potential, and he can’t reach that without the toughest opponents. He doesn’t have time to pick up someone else’s slack.”

Although her voice was polite enough, her wording made it clear that she thought he was unworthy of Drill’s time.

He knew he couldn’t afford to get hotheaded. This wasn’t about him. This was about Drill’s happiness.

Flurry seemed to grasp she had said the wrong thing, because she didn’t pursue the topic.

Twilight approached. “Hello there,” she said, addressing Sound Barrier. “I hope you’ll entrust your son to my care for the next few hours.”

The disdainful expression on Sound’s face faded, and she inclined her head respectfully. “Of course, Princess. I know you’ll take good care of him.”

She let out a rough sigh before forcing a smile on her face. Putting her forehead on Drill’s she nuzzled him, saying, “Do your best. I’ll be waiting for the good news. Sure wish I could see it, but I guess I’ll have to live with the thrilling tale.”

With a kiss on the top of his snout she said, “I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom,” he replied dully.

“Aw, there’s no need to be nervous. I have absolute faith in your abilities.” She gave him an encouraging smile.

Drill felt like his mind was being pulled in two directions. He loved her praise, but it also gave him a sense of anxiety.

He tried to smile back, but he didn’t quite manage it. It was overwide and not very convincing, but she didn’t notice before she said goodbye and flew away.

Flurry put her hoof over her heart as a tear rolled down her cheek. It was like looking at a real life version of her deepest fears. It was no wonder Pound had sought her out specifically. She could practically feel his inner turmoil.

There was only one thing to do, and that was to show him a different path. She had no desire to see someone sinking in the same pool of despair she had been submerged in not too long ago. It was time to start earning her alicorn status.

3-5: Self confidence

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The group went to Ponyville Park, the best place for a race. Drill Bit’s friends got permission from their parents as well to join them, considering it wasn’t every day a princess drops by to hang out with one of your friends.

When they reached a fairly open area they stopped. “Aunt Twilight,” said Flurry. “You go sit down and let me take care of this, okay?”

“Of course,” Twilight replied. “From what Pound said you understand better about his feelings than I do, so you’re the best candidate to get through to him.

“I’ll keep my distance and let you handle things the way you think is best. After all, I’m aware of how prideful that colt is. I know he’s not going to make it easy and I expect he’ll hold back on his true thoughts if I’m too close by.”

She leaned over and kissed Flurry’s forehead. “Don’t push yourself too hard, Flurry. I’ll try not to interfere but if things seem like they’re getting out of control I’ll have to step in to bring things back in order.”

“No problem, but I won’t be needing your help,” she said confidently. “I’ve grown a lot since you’ve last seen me. I’m not the same weak filly I used to be.”

“I never thought you were weak, Flurry. You had to be strong to hold in all those terrible feelings for so long.”

“I guess so, but Crystal has helped me so much to become stronger than I ever thought I could be.”

“Is that right?” she asked warmly. “I guess you chose well.

“Well, everyone’s waiting for you, so I won’t keep you any longer.” She retreated to a safe distance where she could keep an eye on things while still giving them privacy.

Drill called out to her. “Hey, you done stalling over there?”

Flurry turned to him and closed the distance between them. “Are you in that much of a rush to lose?”

Drill chuckled. “Sassy. I know alicorns are skilled with magic, but they’re not really known for their flight capabilities. Do those wings of yours even work?”

She chuckled back. Without hesitation she unfurled her wings, extending them out as far as they could go. “Yeah… I think they do.”

Drill Bit and his friends gaped at her. Her wings were gigantic.

Pound and Pumpkin were shocked too. Even with her wings out she hadn’t lost her smile. She wasn’t blushing or trying to hide them. She looked perfectly at ease.

“Something wrong?” Flurry asked smugly. “Don’t tell me you’re intimidated already?”

It took Drill a moment to refocus. He shook his head, getting his brain back in order. “Those are some wings. You steal those from your mother?”

Flurry gave them a few flaps. “Oh, these old things? They’re nothing special. Sorta like you.” She winked at him.

“Ooooh,” Cumulus said, his eyes twinkling. “I think she just said she’s ready to throw down.”

Drill quietly growled. He knew she was just trash-talking, but for some reason it got him heated up.

“What’s wrong?” asked Flurry. “I thought you were going to send me home crying? Where’s that fire you had just a short while ago?”

He didn’t know himself. For some reason he couldn’t get himself to respond. There was just something about her that was throwing him off, and he didn’t know what. Was it because she was an alicorn, or that she was royalty? Was that making him subconsciously hold back, even though she told him to just treat her like any other kid?

“Oh, I see,” she continued. “You’re intimidated by my inner strength.”

‘No way!’ he tried to yell out, but it was only in his head.

“You see, Drill Bit, Pound’s told me about you. I’ve walked the path you’ve walked.”

“What are you talking about?” he responded, finally finding his voice again.

“I saw it before, when you were talking to your mother. She didn’t approve of you training Pound because I guess she feels you could be spending your time on ponies she feels are more worthy of you.”

Drill let out a huff.

“I used to be the same, holding in my real feelings and hiding who I truly was. Pound and Pumpkin helped me to talk to my parents about the way I really felt, and Crystal helped me to become comfortable with who I was.” She flapped her wings a few times.

She put a hoof over her heart. “Those two things helped me to achieve a sense of inner peace and self-confidence. I’m Flurry Heart, from my head to my tail, and I refuse to be ashamed of something I can’t help.” She pushed her wings out as far as she could again. “I’m proud of who I am, these wings included, and no one can take that away from me.”

“Flurry…” Pumpkin was impressed.

Crystal let out a joyful giggle.

Pound was speechless. She was like a whole different pony. He knew he didn’t have to worry about her being self-conscious anymore.

Drill Bit and his friends couldn’t respond either.

Flurry folded her wings back up. “How about you? Do you have that sort of confidence in yourself?”

Drill was feeling frustrated again.

“The thing is, your weak confidence can’t begin to match up to mine. As long as you remain chained to expectations and don’t confront your fears nothing will ever change. So I can already say for certain that it’s impossible for you to beat me.”

He gritted his teeth, quietly growling. He hated the way she talked like she could see right through him.

“When I finally got the courage to confront my parents they showed me that I had had nothing to fear, and they told me I could walk my own path. Now I know that if I’m going to rule the Crystal Empire it’s going to be because I chose to do so of my own free will, not because it was forced on me or because it’s what everyone expects me to do. It was a huge relief, and I couldn’t be happier now.

“How about you? Do you have the guts to face your fears like I did? Not right now you don’t. Even if you win this race it won’t make a difference. You’ll still be scared of losing and letting your parents down. The only thing you can do is win and win, because losing is unacceptable. After all, you don’t want to be a loser.”

Drill was shaking a little, a bead of sweat coming down his face. Why couldn’t he stand up to her? He kept yelling at himself to confront her, but still he just stood there… afraid? No! He wasn’t scared.

Leaning forward a little she continued, “But it goes further than that, doesn’t it, Drill Bit?” She extended a wing, putting it under his chin. “I know you feel like walking a different path than the one you’ve been walking, but you’re terrified that it’s going to be a lonely path. After all, your parents worked so hard to make you into a champion. Maybe you’re scared they wouldn’t care for you anymore if you decided to do something else with your life? How sad would it be if your parents love wasn’t waiting on that other path?”

A cold chill went through Drill Bit, a sharp, shaky breath escaping him as he shuddered. Mindful of the massive display of weakness he just showed in front of his friends he felt his frustration turn to rage. “ENOUGH!” he yelled, swinging his hoof toward her.

Flurry could have stopped him with her magic, but she chose not to. She recoiled a bit as he connected.

“Hey!” Pound called out.

Flurry put a hoof in front of Pound to quiet him down.

Drill was huffing. “Enough of this! Enough! I’m sick of you and your stupid words. You don’t know anything about me! I came here for a race, not a conversation. Now shut up and get ready, or just go home! I’m done listening to this.”

Flurry shrugged. “Very well. But we both know it won’t make a difference. Even if you beat me here you won’t get the victory you’re looking for.”

Drill took to the air, breathing heavily and muttering to himself as he looked around. He returned to the ground a minute later.

With barely contained rage he created a course for the two of them to follow for five laps, then ignored her as he did his warmup exercises far more aggressively than usual.

Pound did a countdown for them when they were ready, and watched as they took off.

Even from the very start Drill did poorly. He was so distracted he took off without flapping his wings, landing heavily on his stomach. Blushing heavily he stood up and set off.

The colt just didn’t have the sharp skills he always did. He wasn’t as fast as he usually was, and messed up tricks that he had done flawlessly hundreds of times. He crashed into a bush as he went to loop around it, then he skimmed his wing on a tree branch and came within a hair of slamming his head into a tree before he corrected.

“What is going on with him?” Cumulus asked with some exasperation.

“I guess Flurry really got under his skin,” said Heavy Downpour.

“I guess so,” said Sandstorm. “He’s never been this pathetic before.”

“I can’t really blame him,” said Nimbus. “Flurry threw me off too. If Drill Bit was an iron wall, she seems more like diamond.

“Her power just seemed to radiate off her. I guess that’s an alicorn for you.”

“Of course!” Sandstorm said strongly. “No pegasus could reduce him to this mess.”

“You think what she was saying is true?” asked Cumulus.

“Who knows?” Nimbus replied. “It doesn’t seem likely, given how the five of us have been competing with each other for so long. I mean, if he doesn’t want to be a racer any more then what else could he possibly want?”

“No idea,” said Heavy Downpour. “He certainly hasn’t mentioned anything to us about wanting something new in his life. The only thing that’s changed is that he spends time training Pound every day before we go at it.”

“I just think the pressure got to him. It’s pretty rare to race a princess. And with his mom expecting him to win it’s no wonder it’s throwing him off.”

Cumulus shook his head. “Well, it’s obvious he’s going to lose with this sorry display he’s putting on. He won’t even be able to tell her it was a close race. It’s just sad.”

“No kidding,” said Heavy Downpour. “I expected so much more out of this.”

Sandstorm and Nimbus nodded in agreement.

It made Pound feel like crying to see Drill fall so far. Flurry had really gotten to him. Although he could be really obnoxious at times Drill was one of the strongest kids he knew. He was naturally gifted and always striving to improve himself.

Maybe it had to be this way for Drill to understand, but it didn’t make it any easier to see. It was like he had lost all confidence in himself. And with every error he only seemed to grow more frustrated and frantic.

It wasn’t hard to see what was on Drill’s mind. His mother expected him to win. He might not have realized it before, but Flurry had illuminated his deepest fears to him, bringing them to the forefront. The more he tried to excel the more the pressure got to him.

Even if it was for Drill’s own good, he couldn’t escape that Drill was so flustered because of him. All of his friends were there, watching him fail. They had heard Flurry reveal what lied in his heart, and they were only there because he had pressured Drill to come by posing the challenge in front of them so he couldn’t turn it down without losing face with them. It was exactly what Twilight had done to him to get him to meet with Tree Leaf.

He didn’t know if Flurry was holding back, but at the speed she was going he didn’t think she was faster than Drill Bit. She finished her fourth lap as Drill finished his third, and he seemed to be on the verge of just bolting or giving up on the race altogether.

He couldn’t take it. He couldn’t bear to see Drill go down like this. “DRILL BIT!” he yelled. “As my teacher you’ve never backed down from a challenge, and you’re not going to start now! GOT THAT?

“You’re better than this, now get it in gear. I know you can win! I believe in you!”

Drill Bit paused for a moment as he turned towards Pound, taking in his words.

He felt a strange warmth in his chest at Pound’s determined expression. What was he doing, getting so worked up over an opponent’s words? He was setting a bad example for his student. Pound had confidence in him, and he couldn’t let that down.

He took in a few deep breaths. Personal issues were for their own time. When he was competing nothing else should matter but him and his opponent.

He silently thanked Pound, feeling renewed confidence. He would come from behind to win for Pound. He was finally feeling that tingling thrill of anticipation that came from an uphill battle. If he was going to win now it would take all his skill.

As Drill took off again Pound saw a markedly different pony. Drill was almost a blur as he flew around now, pulling off precision moves as he zoomed past their group, finishing his fourth lap and rapidly closing in on Flurry.

“Wow,” said Pumpkin. “You really got him fired up, Pound.”

Pound let out a sigh of relief. Even if he lost now he wouldn’t look too bad to his friends.

“About time,” said Cumulus. “I thought we had lost him for a while there.”

“I won’t lose this!” Drill said with gritted teeth, heading between braches as he folded his wings for a moment to avoid clipping them before opening them back up. He did this for the next three trees.

He pushed himself to his utmost. The race was almost over. There was no need to hold back. He didn’t even know if Flurry was aware of how close he had gotten. She hadn’t tried to speed up since Pound had shouted his encouragement, but if she was so assured of her victory she wasn’t paying attention to her opponent that was her own fault.

The finish line rapidly approaching he ignored the stitch in his side and focused all his attention solely on winning. There would be time for breathing later.

Flurry glanced behind her, and saw Drill Bit rapidly gaining on her. She quickly set her face forward, but Drill wasn’t going to let her get away with her lapse of attention.

He pushed himself still harder, to the point even his wings were burning, something he couldn’t remember happening for a long time.

He blew past Flurry just as she started to speed up. With her larger wings they carried her further with less effort, but with the lead he now had it remained to be seen whether it would be enough to let her claim the win.

She was closing the distance on him now as she pushed herself. Drill’s reckless disregard for anything but victory started catching up to him. He began slowing down.

He was starting to feel a little lightheaded, but the finish line was so close. Just a little bit further. He took in one final breath, as much as he could, and used everything he had left for that final push.

Pound had no idea who was going to win. Drill Bit had definitely overexerted himself, and Flurry was quickly catching up to him.

Seconds passed, his heart beating hard, and Drill Bit just barely crossed the finish line first, too tired to stay airborne. He landed hard, his momentum carrying him as he went rolling over and over and he nearly slammed into a tree before a pink aura from Twilight stopped him.

Drill Pant was gasping for oxygen, turning over onto his back. The pain of the crash felt like nothing with adrenaline running so high.

Pound ran over to him. “Are you alright?”

Drill didn’t answer at first, too focused on getting oxygen back in his body. When he could finally speak a few words the first thing that came out of his mouth was a slurred, “D-did I… win?”

“It was a photo finish, but you won by a hair.”

Drill Bit let out a delirious laugh, feeling slightly lightheaded as he kept taking in big gulps of air. He hadn’t pushed himself like that in ages. There was nothing like a hard fought conquest, snatching victory from the grasp of defeat.

Drill’s friends trotted over, congratulating him on his win. He didn’t have the energy to respond. He felt too dizzy at the moment, closing his eyes as he recovered.

It took a few minutes, but Drill Bit finally rose to a sitting position, and then a short while later he stood up, his breathing steady. His heart was still hammering, but it was also slowing down to a more natural rhythm.

Flurry walked over now, putting a hoof out to him. “Well, it looks like you won. Good job.”

Drill Bit stared at her outstretched hoof, and for some reason he started to get irritated again. He met it regardless. “Good race.”

“Oh, well. I wasn’t really expecting to win. You have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. I’ve always spent most of my time focusing on magic rather than flying.”

“You weren’t expecting to win?” Drill dropped his hoof, his eyes narrowing. “What kind of attitude is that? Don’t you realize that victory is the only thing that matters?”

“Back on that, huh? Maybe in a life or death situation like Equestria being in danger, sure, but you can learn as much from your failures as your victories. Do you feel satisfied now?”

“No! As a matter of fact I don’t. The only reason I struggled with you is that I let you get into my head and let it interfere with my performance. It’s obvious you don’t have what it takes to compete with me. If I had flown at my best from the start I would have creamed you without breaking a sweat.”

Flurry shrugged. “Probably.”

Drill Bit growled. Her nonchalance over the whole thing just annoyed him more and more. “Don’t you even care that you lost?”

“Why should I? I had fun. And after all it’s not like I have someone back home expecting me to prevail.”

Drill tensed. “Well, good for you. And honestly this was all just a big waste of time. I got my victory, so we’re done here.”

“Hold on!” Pound called out.

“Save it, loser! In my world the winner is the one who wins, obviously. Flurry lost the race, so whatever junk she said before is meaningless.” He lifted his hoof, laughing. “No one cares about the words of a loser.

“Later!” He took off without another word, a little wobbly as he flew from pushing himself so hard earlier.

“Eh, tough luck there, kid,” said Cumulus. “But our boy can’t be beat.”

“See you around,” said Sandstorm, the four of them going on their way.

Pound felt a sense of gloom as Drill Bit vanished into the distance. He had failed again. And worse, it was all his fault. “I’m sorry, Flurry,” he said sadly, tears coming down his eyes.

“Why’s that?”

“I ruined everything! If I had only kept my big mouth shut this wouldn’t have happened. He would have lost, and then he would have had to accept what you were saying.”

Flurry smiled, unfurling her wings. “I told this to Crystal before, but you know what these wings are great for?”

He didn’t know why she was asking, but he shrugged. “No.”

She extended them towards him, pulling him close as she wrapped them around him. “They’re great for giving hugs.”

She lifted her hooves, hugging him with them too. “Don’t feel down, Pound. Just like I told him, winning or losing didn’t matter. I’ve already succeeded in what I came here to do.”

“But if he had lost-”

“Then he would have felt humiliated and embarrassed in front of all his friends, and terrified of the reaction of his mother. In fact, it’s better that he won. Now he can’t use that as an excuse to turn away from his true feelings.

“Now no more tears. You did what you felt was right in your heart, and you can’t do any better than that.”

Pound settled into her hold. “How did you do it, Flurry?” he asked. “You’re calm and relaxed and confident. I don’t feel any of those things.”

“It wasn’t easy, I assure you. Every day Crystal made me go for a walk with her with my wings out for as long as I could stand it.”

She released him, standing there with her wings unfurled. “It was so embarrassing and humiliating at first, and all I wanted to do was hide. But she kept pushing me and pushing me, and eventually I stopped paying attention to the stares.

“As our bond grew I knew that I had a friend I could trust to the end, so what did their hurtful words mean to the love that we shared? I became determined to make myself a better pony, so that when the time comes I’ll be able to protect my friends.

“Not all villains are mindless and destructive. Feeling humiliated by my wings left a large weakness that could be exploited. I had to ask myself a hard question: would I be willing to let harm come to my friends because of my shame toward my wings? The answer, of course, was a big NO!

“So, as difficult as it was, I knew I had to overcome that weakness, and learn to accept myself for everything that I am. I chose to keep my wings this size when Mayhem offered to shrink them, and I want to stay true to the reason I did so.

“Good day or bad day, success or failure, I want to love myself through it all.”

“Wow, Flurry,” said Pumpkin, beaming. “I think that’s really inspirational.”

Flurry chuckled. “I still don’t know whether I’m going to be the ruler of the Crystal Empire or not, but I am an alicorn princess. I might not have all the feats that the other princesses do, but I feel that the main role of a princess is to inspire others to do better and be feel confident, and I can’t teach others to feel that way if I don’t feel it myself.”

Off to the side Flurry heard clapping. She turned and saw Twilight sitting nearby, a dreamy expression on her face. “Oh, Flurry, you’ve matured so much since I last saw you.” She let out a little sigh, her smile fading a bit. “I remember how much you were suffering just a few months ago. Just look at you now.” A tear came down her cheek.

“Well, Aunt Twilight, I couldn’t have done it without the support of all my friends.

“As for you, Pound, I stand by what I said before: I think you did the right thing. If you hadn’t shouted out when you did he would have felt all alone, humiliated and ashamed.

“Sooner or later Drill Bit is going to have to face his heart, but it’s nearly impossible to do that all alone. You showed Drill that you were on his side regardless of whether he was behind or ahead. I think that will be crucial in the days ahead.

“I can’t promise any particular result, but we’ve done all we can. The rest is up to him. He has to be the one to make the choice, just like I did.”

She looked towards the sky. “You haven’t failed to help him change. You just haven’t succeeded yet. You told me that in the past he was just a bully, but then you stood up to him, and he started to train you. Then he told you that the time you spent together didn’t mean much, but you said that he’s been spending more and more time focusing on you. Whatever his mouth is saying, it just doesn’t line up with his actions. He definitely is changing, whether he wants to admit it or not.

“I’m sure that today is no different. You can’t force him to change, but you can be supportive of him as he does. So long as you do that you have something to be proud of.”

Pound slowly smiled. “I was feeling pretty bad before when he took off, but you really did help me to feel hopeful that Drill Bit can still be saved.

“Your words… they kinda remind me of Twilight’s. When Drill told me that our time together didn’t help him understand why his brother changed I felt like a failure for letting Twilight down. She told me that the only thing I could do was to give it my all, because I couldn’t force his mind or his actions to change. So she told me that as long as I did everything I could she’d be proud of me.”

“And I still am,” said Twilight. “I also told you that with more time Drill Bit might come around. He still hasn’t reached that place yet, but he seems a lot closer to it than the last time you spoke about it with me.

“We’ll just have to see what the next few weeks hold.”

Pound was feeling calm. Flurry was right. Drill Bit had gone through a lot of changes since he first started school. He just had to be patient, and hope that Drill Bit got something out of their race.

***

Drill Bit landed in front of his house, his wings dully aching. He let out a sigh as he folded his wings up. His mind had been curiously blank as he had took off for home, but now he felt a weight in his stomach.

He just stood there, unable to bring himself to open the door. Why was he acting like this? He had won the race and his mother wasn’t even home.

Where was the sweet thrill of victory? Where was his sense of accomplishment? If he had won, then why did he feel like he lost?

He let out a sigh, his head drooping.

3-6: Brother to brother

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Drill Bit was just staring aimlessly at his front door, feeling paralyzed. What was wrong with him lately?

“Drill Bit?” called out a familiar voice.

The colt turned to see his brother trotting toward him. “Noble…”

“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry?” he responded, confused.

“Mom told me you were going to be gone a few hours. I thought I could slip out for a little lunch. Hope you weren’t waiting long.”

“Oh. No. I just got here a few minutes ago.”

“That’s a relief.” He went up to the door and unlocked it, going inside. He waited to hear the sound of the door closing, but when he didn’t he turned around to see his brother still in the same spot, his gaze unfocused. “Hey, Bro. You alright?”

“Huh? Oh.” He walked inside, shutting the door behind him.

“You got home pretty quick. I thought you were going to be gone longer. You leave early because you finally lost one?”

That snapped Drill out of his stupor. “No! I won! She wasn’t worth my time. It was boring.”

Noble gave him a searching look. “If you won then why do you look so out of it?”

Drill Bit glared at him. “None of your business, loser! Your bones are healed up, so why don’t you just get back to your Royal Guard position already?”

Noble knew something was bothering his brother, but he wasn’t sure what. Him losing his race was the only thing he could think of that would get his brother so worked up.

He smiled down at Drill. “I guess I just exaggerated my injuries so I could spend more time with my family.” He grabbed Drill in a hug. “After all, I’ve been living in Canterlot for the past few years in pursuit of my dream, and I rarely get the time for an extended stay with all of you.”

Drill wanted to get mad and shove him away, but he couldn’t. He had enjoyed having his brother back for the past few months. He had expected Noble to leave over a month ago, and didn’t complain when he didn’t. “Well, that’s good for you, but I’m feeling a little tired, so I’m gonna go to my room.”

“Of course.” Noble let him go.

Drill went to the kitchen first to grab some water and refresh himself before heading towards his room.

“Hey, Drill Bit?” Noble said as Drill walked past him.

“Yeah? What is it?”

“If you need to talk you know I’m here for you, right?”

Drill paused, looking like he wanted to say something, then let out a huff and his expression grew cold. “Whatever.” He continued walking around the corner, his door opening and closing.

Noble watched the area he had just been standing at, knowing his brother probably needed a good talk. He couldn’t help but think of how it was for him growing up. He had had to be tough, and opening up wasn’t easy.

Drill Bit sat on his bed, looking aimlessly at it. “Flurry Heart,” he muttered out loud. Just saying the name made him see red for a moment. “Stuck up snobbish jerk! Thinks she’s so hot just because she’s royalty.”

She had nothing on him. Nothing! He couldn’t believe he had ever let her words get to him. She had no talent, so her words weren’t even worth thinking about. She had failed and he had won, and that was all that mattered. It was all that ever mattered.

So then why… why couldn’t he get her out of his head? Why did he keep hearing her words? He grabbed one of his pillows, squeezing it as he bit the corner. He had never felt this irritated after winning before. She didn’t even care that she had lost. She was so casual, acting like it didn’t even matter. Even though she had lost she didn’t act defeated. She was completely indifferent to it, and that irritated him even more.

Where was his sense of satisfaction? Winners were the ones who won, so why couldn’t he feel that way? Why did it feel like Flurry had won? It didn’t make any sense.

‘It has to be because Pound helped me,’ he thought. ‘Stupid idiot should have kept his mouth shut. It wasn’t his place to interfere.

‘I didn’t need his help. I should have been on top of my game from the beginning.’

“Something wrong? Don’t tell me you’re intimidated already?” He growled as her voice echoed in his mind. “Oh, these old things. They’re nothing special. Sorta like you.” He squeezed tighter on his pillow. “Oh, I see. You’re intimidated by my inner strength.” He let out a large snort through his nose. “The thing is, your weak confidence can’t begin to match up to mine. So I can already say for certain that it’s impossible for you to beat me.”

He threw his pillow across the room. “SHUT UP!” he yelled. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” He was breathing heavy. “You lost! I won! I want my victory! I want back what you stole from me!”

He jumped off his bed, grabbing whatever was nearby and throwing it as hard as he could. Why couldn’t he get her stupid words out of his head?

Again her words echoed in his mind. “Maybe you’re scared they wouldn’t care for you anymore if you decided to do something else with your life? How sad would it be if your parents love wasn’t waiting on that other path?”

A hard tremor went through him much like before. He screamed, punching his dresser. “Get out of my head! Get out! Get out! Get out!” He yelled again.

“Drill Bit!” Noble called out as he opened the door. “What in the world is going on in here?”

His brother looked on the edge of a nervous breakdown, panting heavily as he looked toward the door, not knowing how to react.

He closed the door behind him, picking up his unresisting brother and sitting on the edge of his bed. “We need to talk, Bro.”

Drill didn’t respond.

“Look, I know that our parents put a lot on your shoulders, but every so often you’re going to lose one. There’s no need to freak out like this.”

“I didn’t lose…”

“Drill Bit-”

“But I feel like I did.”

“Why?”

“Flurry Heart…”

“Flurry Heart? Is that the name of the pony you raced?”

“She wasn’t anything special as a racer, but…” As he thought of her words again he felt like raging, but he couldn’t muster up the energy. He put his head on Noble’s chest. How long had it been since he had been on someone’s lap? It felt nice.

He let out a long breath. “Ugh. It feels like everything I’ve ever known has turned upside-down. A strong pony stands on their own and doesn’t rely on others more than they have to. I’ve always been skilled and strong, but I can’t make myself leave your lap.”

Noble felt a pain in his heart as flashes of his past came back to him. He moved Drill Bit so he was sideways on his lap, and then put his hooves around him in a hug. “No one is strong all the time. Even the princesses have had moments of weakness.”

“Mom and Dad would be ashamed if they saw how pathetic I’m being right now.”

“Look, Mom and Dad are both working right now, so it doesn’t matter what they think. It’s just the two of us, so you feel however you want to feel. I’m here for you, Drill.”

He was too weak to resist, so he just enjoyed the feeling. “This Flurry pony… she talked to me like she knew me… like she could see deep inside my heart. I didn’t like it.”

“And what did she say?”

So he explained the gist of her comments. “She was so confident in herself. Nothing I did fazed her. Even when I beat her she wasn’t bothered at all. I’ve never faced an opponent like that. And I… she…” He blushed. “I was afraid of her. She seemed like she was in control the whole time.

“And what she said… it really got to me.” He squirmed in embarrassment. “When I tried to take off at the start I forgot to flap and landed right on my face, and I was a total wreck during most of our race. I’ve never been that bad at anything.”

“But it seems you rallied at the end.”

He let out a sigh. “No, I didn’t.”

“So then how did you win?”

“Well… you remember when you first showed up here, and I told you about that colt from my class? You told me how you got injured and said that you owed your life to a weak pony.”

Noble nodded. “Yes, I remember.”

“Well, I took your advice. I kept on training him. I discovered where his weakness lied, and with some adjustments he started improving. He’s been flying for a few months now.

“I… I’m starting to see what you were talking about back then. Throughout our training I’ve belittled him and insulted him. It was more serious at the start, but not so much now. You’d think he would have been happy to see me get knocked off my pedestal and suffer a crushing, humiliating defeat.”

Some tears hovered in his eyes. “And yet he didn’t. The weakling came to my aid. Instead of standing up for his princess friend he chose to encourage me instead. He shouted out that I wasn’t the type to back down from any challenge and he knew I could win.

“His words… they got me fired up, and I pushed to my utmost, coming in a hair ahead of her. It just annoys me that I had to rely on his help to win a race I should have won on my own.”

Noble rubbed his back a bit. “I think it goes deeper than that. What you experienced is just like what I did. Hawkeye taught me what it meant to be part of a team, standing up for me despite the way I treated him. He stood up for you because you needed it. Had this Flurry pony been behind he would have likely shouted encouragement to her instead.”

Drill let out a huff. “And that’s the problem! I was acting like a total loser! I shouldn’t have needed his help in the first place.”

“And yet you did. No one is strong all the time. And when you have to face that reality it’s always nice to have someone by your side to help lift you up.”

“No! Not me! There’s too much riding on me! I can’t afford to be weak! EVER!”

“Look, Drill, I grew up in the same house as you and with the same parents. I get exactly what you’re talking about. I always pushed myself to my limits and beyond. For the longest time I thought that made me happy, but looking back it wasn't as glamorous as I thought it was.

“It was hard and uncomfortable, but I put all my self-worth into my accomplishments, feeling like I could never slow down or stop or something bad would happen. This was the first time in my life that I’ve been forced to stop. With my recovery it’s allowed me to just spend time with my family without any expectations. It’s really helped to let the message sink in that there’s more to life than being the best.

“From what you told me that filly overcame her weakness to find true strength. Until you can temper that pride of yours and truly own your own failings you’ll never overcome her.” Drill grimaced. “Or me, for that matter. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my future as I’ve healed. I had to decide whether I wanted to continue being part of the Royal Guard or if there was something else I wanted. For the longest time I made that my goal for our parents sake. Of course I enjoyed the prestige that came as I rose through the ranks, but I was a different stallion back then.

“The conclusion I came to is that I want to go back. My team is waiting for my return, and it would be a waste of what I learned if I quit. In the past I wanted to become the captain of the guard because it would make me look good and to show off. Now, I want that position to help others and for the good of our country. It’s something I’m choosing to do on my own terms, not just because it’s what’s expected of me.”

“Well, that’s all good for YOU!” Drill Bit replied. “You don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to. You could do something else even if Mom and Dad hated you for it. I can’t.”

Noble could see what was troubling him now. “Well, Drill, what is it you want? If you desire to focus on something else then what are you going after? You know the way our parents are. If you tell them how you’re feeling and they ask what else you want to do you can’t very well say ‘I don’t know.’ That would only anger them.”

“I know that much.” He nuzzled his brothers chest, thinking back to the time before his brother left for the Royal Guard. They had been so close. He looked up to his brother as the coolest pony around.

He had shown natural skill in flight at only three, but it wasn’t until he was five that his parents started putting him in races. As he began winning and his brother was getting ready to leave he considered it a bit of a betrayal. He didn’t hate his brother for it, but he was jealous. He wanted the same amount of recognition and attention his brother got, and so he declared Noble his rival, determined to usurp him one day. He couldn't admire an opponent. His only goal was to knock them out of their position and take it for himself.

Before that competitions were mainly for fun. His parents encouraged him to win, and he knew every win would bring him closer to toppling his brother.

Everything had made sense then. His parents liked to see him win, and he liked to win. What made them happy also made him happy. He grabbed friends who had the same interest when he was enrolled in school.

Where had everything gone so wrong? He was doing something his parents didn’t approve of in taking the time to train Pound, and Flurry called him on it like she knew exactly what he was thinking. She dug deep into his heart and frightened him with her composure. He hadn’t been able to find any weakness in her to exploit, and everything she said got under his skin. Now he was freaking out, unable to enjoy his victory, having had to rely on someone else to help him get it. And he was letting himself be cuddled.

Maybe Flurry was right. Maybe he really was weak. The thought of confronting his parents was too scary to consider. It felt like she was towering above him, crushing him with her power.

“Drill, what’s on your mind? You’ve been pretty quiet.”

“I… I know what I want, but… I don’t know if I can tell them about it.”

“Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, why don’t you tell me about it?”

“At first training Pound was something I did for amusement, or to make myself feel superior. As he’s grown, though, I’ve found myself dedicating more and more time to him.

“I like training him to find his potential, but you should have seen the expression on Mom’s face when Pound mentioned it. He played it off as him just challenging me all the time, but it was obvious Mom thought he was trash.”

“From what you’re saying it doesn’t sound like you’re too far off from where I am. You’re helping him grow, and you’ve even inspired loyalty in him considering he went out of his way to root for you when you needed it. It sounds to me like you’re beginning to understand true teamwork.”

“But what does it matter? Our parents don’t approve of me wasting time helping out some loser when I should be challenging the best in the world.”

“Then it falls on you to talk them down. It’s like Flurry said: unless you find the courage to be honest about your feelings then nothing will change.”

Tears brimmed around his eyes again. “B-b-but what if she’s right?” He sniffed. “What if I tell them and they ruin my life? What if they hate me for not being what they want? What if they pull me out of school to force me to train more and to keep me away from Pound?

“I’m scared! I don’t want to be a loser. No one could love a loser!”

He clenched, trying to hold back his feelings. He had learned pretty quickly that the less he cried the happier his parents were with him. Tears were a sign of weakness. As he trained his crashes fazed him less and less, because he knew sympathy wasn’t waiting down that route.

He had grown tough, dismissing his tears until they just stopped showing up entirely. The overwhelming feelings bubbling up inside were pushing him over the edge. Though he screamed at himself to stop before he showed a shameful display of weakness he couldn’t stop himself from sobbing.

Noble felt a sympathetic tear come down his eye as Drill broke down. How long had it been since he had cried like this himself? He squeezed tightly to his brother, glad that their parents were out right now.

He quietly endured the pain, knowing he needed to be strong for his brother now.

When it started to grow quiet Noble said, “I love you, Drill Bit. No matter what happens I’ll protect you, you got that?”

Drill was still too busy dealing with his feelings to respond, though Noble’s words were comforting.

“My team back in Canterlot is important to me, but they can always find another leader if it came down to it. You’re more important to me than any of them, and it’s obvious you need me more right now. I’d quit in a heartbeat for your sake.”

Drill wiped his eyes. “You can’t do that!”

“Sure can. I want to blaze my own path now, and I want you to do the same. I want you to take your fate into your own hooves, just like Flurry Heart, and accept yourself for who you are. If our parents can’t accept you just because your interests are different than theirs then that’s their loss.

“If it comes down to that then I don’t mind becoming your guardian. We’ll get our own house where you’ll be free to be the you that you want to be.”

Drill looked at him wide-eyed. “You can’t be serious.”

Noble met his gaze. “Do I look like I’m joking? I grew up with the same parents you did, and it wasn’t until I had a world-changing experience where I was shown how foolish my worldview was that I started to change. I don’t want you to spend your life feeling the same way I did. So, yes, I’m dead serious.”

Drill opened and closed his mouth a few times, unable to vocalize his feelings. He used to worship his brother for being so cool before dismissing him as just another rival. Now he was starting to remember why he looked up to him so much. He was willing to be hated by their parents and quit one of most important jobs in the world, simply for his sake.

He still wasn’t looking forward to confronting his parents, but just knowing that his brother was on his side and that there was a backup plan made things seem not as scary. In his heart he really hoped their talk went well. He loved his parents, and didn’t want to be separated from them.

For the moment he didn’t want to think about it. He set his head on Drill’s chest, nuzzling it a bit as Noble kept a comforting hold on him. Without a doubt, his brother was the most awesome pony around.

3-7: A bad start

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After some time passed Noble moved his brother so they were eye to eye. “So do you have a plan?” he asked.

“Not exactly,” Drill responded, looking unsure.

“Well, why don’t I get the ball rolling, then?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll talk to Mom and Dad first, preparing them to talk to you. I can’t do all the work for you, but I’ll let them know that you want to look into other interests.”

“You’d do that for me?”

“Yes, of course. But… there is a catch.”

“You blackmailing me here?” Drill asked with a touch of amusement.

“It’s the opposite, actually. I’ll help to bridge things so you can have your talk, but that’s all that I can do. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Not really.”

“If Mom and Dad don’t approve of your choices I can’t come in and rescue you, even if it’s thoroughly miserable for you. As you said yourself my wounds are already healed. If I interfere in your conflict they might push me to leave and get back to the Royal Guard. If that happens I won’t be able to protect you.”

Drill stared into his brothers eyes. “I thought you said you would take me away if it came down to that.”

“I said that, and I meant it, but that is the absolute last resort plan. If things can be worked out over time that would be for the best. I’m sure you don’t want to have to leave home and avoid our parents the rest of your life?” Drill shook his head.

“I don’t expect the first talk to go well, or even the second. I won’t interfere during your conversations, but if things go poorly I’ll be there to comfort you when it’s over. That’s the most I can do for you right now.”

He put a hoof on his brother’s shoulder. “Just know that I’ll never abandon you. Brothers have to stick together, you know?”

Drill gave him a small smile. “Thanks, Noble.”

The two of them went out for a walk. Drill knew he wouldn’t be able to just sit still the rest of the day. The tension already felt unbearable.

“Yknow, the two of us have never trained together,” said Drill Bit.

“That we haven’t,” Noble responded. “Though you had a natural talent for flying to start with, so there wasn’t much for me to do.”

“It feels like that would be fun to do for a day. I wouldn’t mind spending more time with you. Too bad I pushed myself so hard at the end of the race. My wings are sore.”

Noble chuckled. “Wow, I hardly recognize you without that rampant pride of yours. How long has it been since you talked to me like your idol instead of as just a rival?”

“Hmph!” Drill turned his head away. “Don’t kid yourself! I just want to train with you so I can trounce you. The only thing you’ve got on me is your adult body. If the size of our wings was equal I’d have no trouble taking you down.”

Noble good-naturedly shook his head. “Come on, Bro. Can’t you just drop the macho act for a little while?” He put his head under Drill’s stomach, throwing his brother onto his back before taking to the skies.

Drill glanced down at Ponyville passing by beneath him. “Am I supposed to be impressed? I’m not the little brat who was impressed by everything you did back then. I’ve grown up since then and started walking my own path.”

“I know you have. It doesn’t mean we can’t just spend some time together as brothers. I can’t put off going back to the Royal Guard forever, and once I’ve left there’s no telling when I’ll be able to come back again.”

Drill got a melancholy look on his face, protesting no more. “I know.”

They went to grab some ice cream, Noble talking about some of his exploits in the Royal Guard, while Drill talked about his history with Pound.

Noble noticed Drill looked pretty down. “What’s on your mind, Bro? Our parents getting you down?”

Drill shook his head before putting it on his elbows. “It’s been too long since the two of us have been able to just have time together like this. A part of me hated you for leaving, so I stopped thinking of you as a brother and made you only into an opponent.

“I’m starting to remember the good times we shared… which only makes it harder knowing that eventually you’ll be gone again.”

Noble aimlessly stirred his shake. “I know it’s hard for you. It isn’t any easier on me. I’ve missed all of you terribly as I’ve steadily risen through the ranks, but to accomplish one’s dreams requires sacrifice. As unpleasant as it is both of us have to just take the hurt and keep moving.

“I do have to say, though, that I have no intention of leaving until you can resolve things with our parents. I know for now you need me more than Equestria does, and someone who can abandon their family when they’re in need is someone who is unworthy of protecting the world.”

“Mmm… that only makes me want to put things off even more, so that you’ll never leave.”

“Buuuuut I know you won’t do that.” He gave Drill an encouraging smile. “You’re a tough kid, Bro, and you’re not the type to ever back down from a challenge, no matter how difficult. So I know you can handle this.”

Drill gave him a half-smile back. “Personally, I think I’d rather face down a monster than our parents.”

Noble’s head tilted back as he laughed. “I feel you there. No worries though. All you have to do is believe in yourself.”

Drill’s smile became strained. “Except that’s becoming harder to do these days.”

Noble spooned some of his shake and chucked it at Drill.

The colt recoiled as he felt the cold. “Hey!”

“Stop whining, or next time the whole shake goes.”

Drill gave him a dirty look before giving him an evil grin. “Oh, is that how you want to play? Well, ONE OF US has to be the mature one here, so I shan’t retaliate.” He grabbed a napkin, cleaning his snout.

Drill got so wrapped up in his time with his brother that he forgot all about his impending talk with his parents for a while. They just went around town until it started getting dark.

It wasn’t until they came upon their house that it all came running back to him.

His dad was home, but he was surprised to see his mother there too.

“Hey there, Drill… Noble,” said their dad.

“Hi,” Drill responded. Turning to his mother he asked, “What are you doing here, Mom? Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”

His mother looked a little giddy. “Oh, I know I should be, but I made an excuse to come home early.”

“Why?”

“For you, of course! I wanted to hear all about your big race as soon as possible.”

Drill’s face fell a bit. “Oh… right.”

“Your mother told me that you had an alicorn from the Crystal Empire as an opponent,” said Finish. “Sounds pretty exciting.”

“Eh-heh.” Drill’s expression grew strained. He wasn’t ready for this yet. Noble hadn’t even gotten them prepared for what he wanted to say. And yet… they were both here talking to him. If he put it off it would only be more difficult.

“Soooooo?” His mother was moving up and down. “Tell us the good news.”

“Oh, well, uh… I won.”

His father pumped his hoof. “Of course you did!”

They were both looking at him expectantly, but when Drill didn’t keep talking their expressions grew curious.

“Well, come on!” said Sound Barrier. “Details, details! I didn’t get out of work early just to hear the obvious.”

“Your mother’s right,” said Finish Line. “We want to hear all about it.”

Drill gulped. There wasn’t anything he wanted to tell them about the race other than that he won. “I’m sorry, but there really isn’t much to tell. Alicorns are skilled in magic, but her flight abilities weren’t much. The only thing she had going for her were her special wings.”

“Special wings?” Sound asked, an eyebrow going up.

“Seems she was born with gigantic wings. Like, imagine your adult wings on me.”

“That sounds pretty strange, indeed,” said Finish.

“I… I just couldn’t get into the race,” Drill said, being careful about the way he worded things. “I expected so much out of her considering how far she came to challenge me. Even holding back and with her having a whole lap ahead of me I still got my two laps in before she got her one.

“I mean, really, you didn’t miss anything worth seeing.” He smiled awkwardly.

Sound sighed. “That’s a shame. I was really expecting more. I thought I was going to hear a tale of incredible skill and a match too close for comfort.” She shrugged. “I guess alicorns should just stick to magic.”

She sighed again. “What a disappointment. I bailed on work for nothing.

“Oh, well.” She walked over and kissed his forehead. “At least you got your bragging rights. I suppose that’s enough. I knew you could win.”

She looked at the clock. “I suppose I should get back to work, then. I’ll just tell them everything was fine.”

Drill quietly groaned as his mother started preparing to leave. If he didn’t do this now…

“Wait!” he called out, conscious of Noble behind him. He knew his brother couldn’t interfere, but it was still a comfort knowing that he was behind him. “I… I… I need to talk to you two.”

Sound stopped. “Well, sure. I mean, I don’t think they’re expecting me back anyway. What’s a few more minutes?”

“What’s on your mind, squirt?” asked Finish.

Drill gulped, feeling their gazes like they might tear him apart, even though they were both relaxed and curious.

He took in a deep breath, gulped again, and said, “I… I’ve been thinking…”

Sound waited, but he didn’t continue. “Thinking… about what?”

Noble put a hoof on his shoulder. “The two of us were talking today, and Drill expressed a desire to try out other things. He’s starting to lose the spirit of competition.”

Drill’s heartrate went up as he waited for their reactions.

Finish said, “You expressed this sentiment before your competition the other day. I suppose if you’re growing bored it’s only because you don’t have opponents that match up to you. If even an alicorn couldn’t match you I don’t blame you for feeling a little lackluster.”

“Unfortunately there’s not a whole lot we can do there,” said Sound. “I think you might have some fun challenging some foals a few years above you, but unfortunately most competitions have age ranges to keep things ‘fair,’ not realizing that the naturally talented can take down those above their ages.”

“It’s not just that,” said Drill. “I just… I don’t care about that much anymore. I… I want to do something else with my life.”

Their attitudes quickly shifted. “Is that so?” asked Sound, her eyes narrowing. “And just what is it that you want to do?”

Drill remained silent. He thought of the way his mother had interacted with Pound once he had mentioned that he, Drill, had been teaching him, and he knew he couldn’t say what he really wanted to.

“Well?” asked his father. “We’re waiting.”

“Well,” he started quietly. “I… I don’t know yet.”

Both of them rolled their eyes. “You don’t know?” Finish asked with annoyance. “Really? You express the desire to throw away everything you’ve been working toward your whole life, and you have no clue what it even is you’d like to be doing?”

“Honestly!” said Sound. “Is this supposed to be a joke? Because it’s not very funny. In any challenge, you should always play to your strengths, and your strength is in flying. There’s absolutely no question about that. Your trophies and medals are testaments to that.

“As we’ve told you countless times your future starts now. We know you have the skill and talent to be part of the Royal Guard just like your brother, and there’s no higher of a position you can be in than that, protecting the ruler of all of Equestria from harm.

“And yet you want to discard all of that for nothing? You have no plan, no thoughts other than just ‘I don’t want to do this anymore?’ You can’t even come up with an idea?”

Finish shook his head, letting out a sigh. “This is ridiculous. It’s a colossal waste of your skill and capabilities.

“Well, when you find something that you’re just as talented at you be sure to let us know. But, then again, considering how you’re just throwing away everything you’ve strived for now what’s to stop you from doing the same for your new, unspecified hobby? Hmmm? You planning to just ran back and forth your whole life, never committing to anything?”

Sound turned away. “Let us know when you’ve come to your senses. By all means, explore other areas of expertise. I think you’ll quickly find that nothing you aspire to will come out as well.”

She shrugged. “But, hey, maybe you’ll prove us wrong. Maybe you will find something you have even more talent for than flying.

“You do that, and we’ll support you just as vigorously as we did for your flight. But, as your father said, what’s to stop you from just throwing your new hobby away if you get tired of that? Really, I expect so much more out of you.”

She let out a huff, grabbing her bag. “I have to get back to work.” Her steps were heavy as she walked towards the front door, slamming it behind her.

His dad just shook his head, leaving the room without another word.

Drill Bit stood there, quietly crying.

Noble sighed. “Drill Bit…”

He tried to hug his brother but Drill slapped his hoof away. “Don’t touch me!”

“No can do, Bro.” He pulled Drill close as his brother fought the contact. “I told you I was gonna be there for you, and I’m not going to break my word. I know you need me now.”

Drill slowly stopped fighting him.

“I warned you, Drill. I told you if you didn’t have a plan of action that out parents were going to react this way.”

Drill sniffed. “I know.”

“But you had a plan. You told me it yourself earlier. Why didn’t you bring it up?”

He wiped his face. “Because I know they wouldn’t approve.”

“Having a plan they dislike would still be better to them than no plan at all.”

Drill slowly shook his head. “You don’t get it.”

Noble ran a hoof through his brother’s hair. “What don’t I get?”

“I’ve been training Pound. If they told me I wasn’t allowed to do it anymore then what would that fool do? It’s like I told him at the start when he first asked me to train him: he’s such a loser that he’d never accomplish anything without me holding his hoof the whole way.

“He still needs a lot of training to become decent, and no one else is going to push him like I do.” He sniffed again. “He needs me. And if I was going to be yelled at either way at least this way I can keep on helping him make something out of his pathetic life.”

Noble closed his eyes, gently smiling as he hugged his brother. He knew his brother didn’t mean his harsh words. Drill just didn’t know how to turn down his pride enough to say he cared for someone else.

“Y’know, Drill Bit, choosing to suffer for someone else’s sake is the essence of self-sacrifice. It’s an ideal leadership trait. I had to nearly die to learn that lesson from one of my subordinates, but you’ve already begun to grasp the concept in your heart. Looks like you’ve blazed ahead of me in that department.”

Drill glanced up at his brother, unsure what he wanted to feel. He didn’t know if he was ready to be coaxed out of his sad feelings. Hearing Noble admit he had beaten him at something did make him feel better though.

He wasn’t in the mood to brag at the moment. He snuggled in close to his brother, saying, “Well, I guess that’s because I had a good teacher.”

He suppressed a chuckle at hearing his brother actually be humble. He opened his eyes, getting a serious look on his face. “Right there, what you said before that, hold onto that with all of your might.”

Drill got a questioning look on his face. “What are you talking about?”

“This Flurry Heart you told me about. She found something to hold onto that gave her true courage and self-esteem. She’s found pride in who she is, regardless of what anyone else thinks. It seems to me that you’re starting to find your own path. So, like I said, hold onto that thought tightly and don’t let it out of your grasp. I think you’ll find your courage there.”

Drill still wasn’t quite sure what his brother was talking about. So he had taken some heat for concealing he was training his classmate. His mother had already made it clear she didn’t approve of that when she met him. It was just pragmatism that he didn’t speak up about his new ambition.

Everyone else was too easy on Pound. Only he could train the colt properly. It wasn’t anything more than that.

Even so, he couldn’t help but think about Pound training alone when he was in a bad mood. Once more he felt that odd warmth inside. It was an odd sensation, feeling pride for someone else’s accomplishments.

Noble could see a carefree smile on his Drill’s face now, feeling like he knew what was on his brother’s mind.

Now that Noble had brought her up Drill couldn’t help but think of Flurry Heart. He needed to talk to her again. He thought it might help him understand what to do.

3-8: The rematch

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The following day Pound was anxious as he walked into school. He wondered whether Drill’s talk with Flurry had done any good at all, or if he was only going to become more stubborn.

He knew he couldn’t have a proper talk with Drill Bit during class time, but Drill Bit seemed normal enough. They went through their usual warmup routine before they began practice.

When they went outside for lunch Drill Bit approached him first. “Hey there, Pound,” Drill started in a pleasant tone.

Pound gave him a quick wave. “Hey.” Then he waited.

“I believe you told me that the distance between here and the Crystal Empire means nothing, right?” Pound nodded. “Well, you tell that Flurry Heart that I want another go at her.”

“Mmm.” Pound wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. “Already? What’s racing again going to accomplish? You already said she wasn’t worth the trouble.”

“Hmph. I’m a competitive colt. Racing isn’t all I succeed at. It’s not in my nature to remain a loser.”

Pound stared into his eyes, trying to understand what he was getting at. “Okay, so then what do you want to challenge her to?”

“It’ll be a clash of ideals. She presented herself as a powerful filly. It threw me off a bit yesterday, but now I’m prepared. I’ll see whether she really means what she said. I’ll test her worth for myself.”

Pound just stared again. “Look, I… I don’t think this is a good idea. You played it off, but I know yesterday wasn’t pleasant for you.”

Drill nodded. “Sure it wasn't. I don’t need you to tell me the obvious. Haven’t had a challenge like that in a long time. But, as I just told you, it’s not in my nature to lose. I understand my opponent better, so there’s no way I’ll let her take the win again.”

“What are you trying to accomplish with this? What if you don’t ‘win’ this time, either?”

Drill shrugged. “Well, that’s not something you have to worry about, is it? This isn’t between the two of us, after all. This is between me and her.”

“And I care about both of you!”

Drill smirked, patting his chin. “That’s cute, but I’m not going to back down from this. Besides…” He got right in Pound’s face. “What you’re really saying is that you don’t think I can handle it. I don’t want your pity.”

“That’s not what I-”

“Be quiet!” Drill said sharply, frowning now. “Your alicorn friend didn’t care one bit about the race. It was obvious it was just a deception to get us to fight with our minds instead. And because I lost that contest now you’re worried about me.”

“And what if I am? Maybe you don’t consider me a friend, and that’s fine, but I care about your well-being. I don’t want to see you hurt again.”

Drill smirked again, rolling his eyes as he released Pound and walked a few steps away from him. “It seems like you’re a big fake, Pound.”

Pound eyed him curiously. “What do you mean by that?”

Drill shrugged. “I thought you were supposed to believe in your friends and encourage them. And yet here you are, being discouraging and telling me you don’t believe I have what it takes. Is that the form your ‘care for me’ takes?”

Pound felt a weight in his stomach. “T-that’s…” He let out a little moan. “That’s not what I was trying-”

“WELL!” he said, speaking over him. “If you actually DO believe in me then just do what I tell you and get Flurry over here. And make sure she brings that friend of hers, okay?” With that he took off, going to his friends.

Pound just stood there for a few moments before his legs got weak and he sank to the ground. What was he supposed to do? Not for the first time he felt conflicted about the nature of right and wrong.

Yesterday Drill had fallen short against Flurry, requiring him to encourage the colt to give him his confidence back. But today, when he had the chance to encourage him, he had hesitated. It wasn’t his intention to make Drill feel bad, or to give the impression he didn’t think Drill could handle it. In trying to spare Drills feelings he had inadvertently driven the colt away.

Guilt began blossoming in his stomach. He was supposed to be the one that Drill could turn to, but he had let the colt down. Even though Drill didn’t sound angry or upset he didn’t stay to train him during their lunch hour as usual.

He thought it over during the rest of recess, but he kept coming to the same conclusion, and that was he had to consent to Drill’s request. He just feared for what Drill would do. If Drill ‘won’ their contest it meant that Flurry was going to get upset. And if Flurry ‘won’ then Drill would feel like a loser. Either way it went someone was going to be miserable.

And yet he knew he had to let it happen. He didn’t like it, but he knew he couldn’t help Drill in the same way that Flurry could. She understood him and his situation more.

So, with a touch of reluctance, he wrote to Flurry and told her Drill wanted to talk with her again. He could only hope that things would turn out better this time.

He didn’t wind up hearing from her until school was almost over. She told him she’d be glad to come again.

After school was over Pound saw Pinkie was there to pick them up, as well as Flurry, Crystal, Twilight, and Cadance.

“Hey, Pound!” Flurry said brightly as she hugged him.

“Hi, Flurry,” he said glumly.

“Aw, c’mon! Cheer up! Everything is going to be fine.”

“I sure hope so.” He looked up at Cadance. “How are you, princess?”

“I’m doing great,” she responded. “Seeing my little girl so happy recently fills my heart with joy. Thank you again for all you’ve done for her.”

That got a small smile out of him. “You’re welcome.”

Drill Bit walked over. “What’s up, Flurry?” he said genially. “Hope it doesn’t bother you getting dragged out here again?”

“Not at all,” she responded, though she found his pleasant attitude odd. She figured there would be a barely hidden rage in his forced politeness, but he looked pretty calm. She didn’t think he was faking. Still, she sensed something was off. It was like he was too calm. Given his competitive nature she thought he would be more, well, competitive.

Then again, from what Pound had said he wanted to challenge her personally, making it a contest of egos or self-control. In that regard he couldn’t let his emotions get to him or he’d already be at a disadvantage.

“Well, it’s a nice day out. It would be a shame to spend it cooped up indoors. Why don’t we go to the park again?”

“That’s fine with me.”

Twilight looked around. “What about your parents?”

Drill’s relaxed attitude faded for a moment, but he quickly brought it back. “Well, me and my parents didn’t exactly see eye to eye yesterday. They’re a bit upset.”

Twilight frowned. “So they were just going to leave you to walk home by yourself?”

“Well, Masky used to walk home by himself all the time,” said Pumpkin.

Twilight glanced over at her. “Be that as it may, there’s a difference between not picking up your child because you’re working and ignoring them because you’re mad at them.”

As if on cue, a pony suddenly came out of the sky, panting. It was Noble. “H-hey! Sorry I’m late. Lost track of time.”

Drill chuckled. “Well, there you go. I guess you got upset for nothing.”

Twilight let out a breath. “I guess I did.”

Turning to his brother he said, “You can go home, Noble. I have business to attend to.”

“Like what?”

“Would you be… Drill Bit’s brother?” asked Twilight.

Noble turned to her. “Yes, I am. And who-” He paused as he saw the two alicorns in front of him. “Princess Twilight and Princess Cadance.” He bowed to them. “It’s an honor to meet you for the first time.”

“Same here,” said Twilight. Turning to Cadance she said, “Noble here is a part of the Royal Guard in Canterlot, and he’s risen up to be second in command of the whole thing.”

“That’s impressive,” said Cadance as Noble stood up.

“Well, it’s my ambition to take the top spot. Frankly I felt I’ve deserved it for a while, but because of a situation a few months back I finally found out what it was I was lacking.”

With a serene grin she said, “I suppose now that I’ve stolen my husband from the Canterlot Royal Guard you actually have a chance.”

“I sure hope so.” A flash of recognition went through him, as he remembered Drill telling him how Flurry and Cadance were related to Twilight and how Pound knew her. He glanced down, seeing a filly and yet another alicorn, and he knew instantly that she had to be the Flurry Heart that Drill told him about.

“Pleasure to meet you, Flurry Heart.” He inclined his head toward her.

“Thank you,” she replied. “I have a lot of respect for the Royal Guard. They put their lives on the line to keep the princesses safe. And, of course, my daddy is the head of the guard in the Crystal Empire.” Her brow furrowed. “But if you’re such a hotshot in the Royal Guard what are you doing here in Ponyville?”

“Couldn’t be helped. During a training exercise I got into a bad accident and nearly died, so I’ve been recovering at home.”

“Oh!” She slapped a hoof over her mouth. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Well, I’m not… much.”

She looked at him oddly. “Why would you say that?”

“Well, the pain was no fun, obviously, but it was a learning experience. It woke me up and taught me a lesson I desperately needed to be taught about what being a team leader really means. And it was that lack of knowledge that stopped Princess Celestia from thinking of letting me be the captain of the guard.

“So, all things considered, I think things worked out pretty well.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re able to see the bright side of things, Noble,” said Twilight. “There’s always a meaningful lesson to be learned in anything if you think about it.”

“Okay, okay!” said Drill Bit, a little annoyed. “Can we please just get down to business? I’m tired of waiting.”

Noble looked over at him, getting serious. “And just what are your intentions here, Bro? You told me about your confrontation yesterday, and now you want to go at it again? For what purpose?”

Drill shook his head. “It’s nothing nefarious. Me and Flurry just have some unfinished business, that’s all. I just want to match myself against her and see where I stand.

“I mean, she trounced me yesterday. The only reason I bounced back was because of Pound yelling his support.” He lifted a hoof, shaking it. “I can’t just let that go. So after thinking on it yesterday I want to see something.”

“See what?”

“To see if Flurry can actually take the heat. She claims to have gained self-confidence in who she is and she wouldn’t be ashamed of the things she can’t help, but is that really true? If she really thinks that she’s that powerful inside then I’m going to put her to the test.”

Flurry looked at him thoughtfully. Was that what he really wanted? She didn’t know what angle he would take. She had lost her shame over her wings through repeated exposure and Crystal’s support. Besides that she was a perfectly normal pony appearance-wise, so she didn’t think he’d make any headway there. He also didn’t know about her personal life besides that she was friends with the twins and Crystal, so what exactly was he going to test her on? Was his plan to simply insult her in every way he could think of repeatedly, hoping to wear her down?

She didn’t mind going through with his little test, but she couldn’t help but wonder what he would get out of it. Was it really nothing more than pettiness that made him want to see her falter emotionally? She couldn’t tell.

Noble was thinking along the same lines. He didn’t think it was a wise idea, but if Flurry and the other two princesses had no objections then he wasn’t really in a place to argue.

Pinkie said, “Well, there’s still work to do at the shop, so if you’re going to look after the twins for me then I’m gonna go back to work.” With some goodbyes Pinkie left.

As they began their walk towards the park Pumpkin asked Cadance, “Are you coming with us, Cadance?”

The mare nodded. “I don’t get to see my sister-in-law too often, so I figured I’d hang around for a little while and see how this all goes. After all, my daughter filled me in on what’s been happening. Seems that Drill kid is in need of some guidance.”

Pumpkin nodded.

Noble remained behind Cadance and Twilight as they walked. He wasn’t in uniform, or under the employ of either of them, but he was still a member of the Royal Guard. Hence, he considered it his duty to protect them and keep an eye out for potential threats.

When they arrived at the park they got into much the same position as before, the adults giving the children space so Flurry and Drill could work things out. Twilight and Cadance sat down on a bench, Noble standing behind it and remaining standing.

Drill and Flurry were both looking each other in the eye, neither of them speaking.

Pound looked between the two of them, wondering how things were going to go. He found it a little odd how Drill had admitted so readily to Flurry coming out on top yesterday. Given his proud nature he didn’t think Drill would be able to accept losing.

Pumpkin tapped her hoof, slowly getting impatient.

Flurry finally spoke. “Well? You wanted me, so here I am. So why all the silence?”

Drill grinned. “A winning strategy takes time.”

“So what is this great strategy of yours? You know almost nothing about me, so how are you planning to get your ‘victory?’ Hmm?”

“Why, you’re going to help me, of course.”

Flurry’s eyebrow rose. “So… you want me to help you to hurt me?”

Drill shook his head. “Don’t be ridiculous. That would just be silly. I want to learn.”

“Learn what?”

Drill turned away. “I’ll acknowledge it. You thrashed me yesterday. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was intimidated by you and your inner strength. Having reigned supreme over the competitive circuit, and rarely losing at anything, it was a rare event to meet someone like you.

“I was furious when I went home yesterday. I had to rely on outside help to win the race, and I wasn’t satisfied with the end result. There was no feeling of victory. Your indifference to losing just made me angrier. So, all things considered, it was a total defeat on my part. I’ve never been destroyed so thoroughly, and boy was that a sting to my pride.”

He looked up towards the sky. “And it got me to thinking… what is it that she has that I don’t?” He spun around back towards her. “And the answer is that I just don’t know enough. I only got a few small details of your transformation. So that’s what I want to know. Where does this strength of yours come from?

“You may have beaten me yesterday, but that might just be because I’ve gotten too used to victory and have forgotten what it’s like to be actually challenged. I adapt quickly, though, so I’m ready for you. That being the case, I want to see which of us is actually right. Whether you’re the stronger one or me.

“So what do you say, Flurry? Are you down for another round, or are your morals so weak they won’t stand up to a little examination?”

Flurry stared at him seriously. It seemed that there was something more than just pettiness driving him. From what he was saying it looked like he wanted to test her resolve.

After a minute she said, “Very well.” She gave him a rundown of what her life had been like before she met the twins. How she was afraid to talk to her parents about her feelings and feeling crushed under incredible pressure and expectations, and putting all her time and effort into studying because she didn’t know what else to do.

The whole time Drill was sitting down, his eyes closed and listening hard.

When she got to the twins party she talked about the support they all gave her, but left out Mayhem’s reality-breaking antics, figuring it would be too distracting a topic.

“When Aunt Twilight came to take me home I felt better than I had in months. I knew now that it was okay for me to be a kid, and I knew I had friends who loved me for who I was.

“Getting Crystal on my side, though, was really difficult. I tried hard, but by myself I just couldn’t break down the wall she had put up between us. And so I brought her with me to visit Pound and Pumpkin, hoping that it would let her see me as the ordinary pony I was.

“It worked, just not in the way I intended. Crystal felt really jealous of the twins because of how casual we were with one another. She wanted that sort of friendship between us, but it wasn’t until she finally opened up with her real feelings of being upset with me and seeing I could accept that that we began to have the sort of friendship she wanted.”

She finished up with Crystal’s efforts to help her overcome her feelings toward her wings and how she didn’t want to let those feelings interfere with her protecting her friends.

“Thinking of how much all my friends meant to me I knew I couldn’t let those feelings stay. I wouldn’t be able to bear it if one of my friends was hurt because I was too shy about my wings. I might need to fly to rescue them, and if being mocked for them led me to not being my best I wouldn’t be able to forgive himself.

“At first I went along with Crystal because she basically forced it on me. I hated every moment of it, always feeling like I was being made fun of. Even though ponies didn’t say it out loud I was sure they were disgusted in their minds. Slowly, I got used to it until it meant nothing to me. It became a challenge that I embraced, because it was like asking myself how much was I willing to endure for my friends. The answer, of course, was anything.”

Drill Bit finally opened his eyes. “So you think your life has become better because of your friends?”

Flurry nodded. “Yes. My friends have helped make me stronger.

“So I told you my story. I explained how I’ve changed from the weakling I used to be. Now what?”

Drill Bit began walking around. “When it comes to competition there are two things you can do to give yourself an edge. You can find your strengths and use them to your best advantage, or you can find your opponents weakness and use it against them to diminish their effectiveness.

Flurry kept an eye on him. “Makes sense, but where are you going with it? I’ve lost the weakness I had.”

“Not quite.” He stopped in front of Crystal. “And what do you have to say about all this? What does Flurry mean to you? Do you actually care about her as much as she thinks you do, or have you helped her out just to enhance your own standing?”

Crystal’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Flurry told you about the colt that only tried to befriend her because his father wanted special treatment. I’m not like that. I hang out with Flurry because I like her and I want to see her succeed. I don’t have any other reason.

“If your plan is to try and put a wedge in our friendship to weaken Flurry then forget it.”

“Oh, I have no intention of doing that. If the two of you start fighting it will interfere with my competition with Flurry. It won’t get me what I want.”

He moved so he was standing next to her, putting a hoof over her neck. “Besides, this is a contest between our beliefs. I was brought up to believe that a pony should be strong and stand on their own four hooves without relying on others. And Flurry over there appears to be of the opposite viewpoint, that she needs friends to be at her strongest.”

“So what’s your point?” asked Flurry. “Where is this all headed?”

“Well, the thing is… I’ve figured you out. I know exactly where to strike to bring you down in this fight.”

“Okay. I guess in response I’ll say that I’ve overcome a lot of things to become who I am right now. I don’t think there’s anything you can do or say to me that would break me.”

Drill’s heart began beating faster. “Oh, I agree.”

Flurry looked at him in confusion. “Okay… so then-”

She gasped as Drill Bit suddenly whacked Crystal hard in the back of the head.

Crystal let out a cry of pain as she held her head, quietly crying.

Pound stomped a hoof. “What did you do that for?”

Flurry’s horn was sparking, and he could practically feel the rage pouring off of her in great waves. “How dare you,” she said darkly. “HOW… DARE… YOU!”

Pumpkin was feeling angry too, but it faded when she looked at the crazed look on Flurry’s face. She had too many memories of Pound attacking others in protection of her, and she couldn’t ever forget the time she had sent Pound to the hospital when she had lost control of her magic in anger.

Drill Bit got a twisted smile on his face, a bead of sweat coming down his cheek as he took in Flurry’s expression. She was mad, alright. ‘Now the real contest begins,’ he thought.

3-9: A clash of ideals

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Flurry was steaming. “You just whacked my friend hard enough to make her cry. And for WHAT? To get a reaction out of me? To see me lose my carefree attitude? For your so-called ‘victory?’ “

The sparks coming out of Flurry’s horn grew larger, her horn beginning to glow with a bright light.

Pound’s heart was thumping. He didn’t like where this was going. He couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu from the time Pumpkin accidentally sent a bookcase crashing onto him when she was mad.

“H-hey, Flurry!” Pound said, trying to sound upbeat. “It was wrong what he did, but revenge isn’t the answer. Twilight taught me YAAH!”

With a small flash from Flurry’s horn Pound was knocked on his back. “Shut up, Pound!” she said fiercely.

Pumpkin helped Pound up, both of them looking panicked. “What do we do?” she whispered.

Pound looked toward the adults. Twilight and Cadance were deep in conversation, Twilight laughing at something. “Use your magic,” he whispered back. “Give her a tug.”

Pumpkin nodded.

Twilight wiped her eye of a tear. “Oh, boy! I can’t believe Shiny did that! It’s so-huh?” She broke off as she felt something pulling at her hoof. She looked down, and saw a blue aura around it.

Glaring at Drill Bit Flurry said, “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t blast you into next week.”

Drill chuckled, still smiling despite his terror. “I guess I was right. I found your weakness. It hurts, doesn’t it?”

Flurry’s eyes grew fiery as she growled, wind whipping around her as her aura grew larger.

Twilight finally recognized the aura as belonging to Pumpkin, and as she looked up her eyes bugged out of her head. Flurry looked about to blow.

With a flash she teleported over to the kids. “What is going on here?” she said.

“Who asked you to butt in?” Flurry said nastily.

Cadance came over too, quickly followed by Noble. “Calm down, Flurry! What are you getting so worked up over?”

“Oh, nothing! That JERK just attacked Crystal and made her cry.” Unconsciously things around her begin lifting up around her, some of them changing into different things entirely. “I won’t forgive him!”

For Twilight it reminded her too much of her entrance exam to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. It looked like Flurry was so lost in her emotions she couldn’t even contain her magic.

“I’ve had ENOUGH!” she yelled at Drill Bit, who was still smirking. “Wipe that stupid smile off your face before I wipe it off for you!” She tilted her head forward, ready to shoot a spell at him.

Noble’s heart was racing, unsure what she was going to do to his brother.

Before Twilight or Cadance could intervene Crystal put herself between the two of them.

“Flurry!” said Crystal calmly, putting a hoof on her horn. “That’s enough.”

Flurry wanted to lash out, but Crystal’s relaxed expression made her feel calmer too. The intense glow from her horn slowly faded. “But he hit you for no reason!” she said angrily, stomping a hoof.

She shook her head. “No, you’re wrong there. He did have a reason, and you fell right into his trap. His actions may have been bad, but he was right that if you can’t hold onto your temper that someone can take advantage of that.”

Flurry averted her eyes. “Well, what was I supposed to do? This is the first time I’ve been in a position where I needed to actually protect someone. And after everything you’ve done for me, going so far out of your way, what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t stand up for you?”

“Look at me, Flurry.” When she complied Crystal continued, “I appreciate it, truly, but it seems obvious to me that he wants to provoke you. He’s challenging your ideals. I know you’re more than this, so don’t let him get to you.” She gave Flurry a big hug. “Show him the power we developed together. Show him the strength of your heart.”

Flurry took in a deep breath, slowly letting it out. She hugged Crystal back, feeling at ease again.

She released Crystal, standing in front of Drill Bit.

“Well!” Twilight said firmly. “Now that things have calmed down I guess I have to ask you, Drill Bit, why you felt the need to attack Crystal?”

Before he could answer Flurry said, “Aunt Twilight, please stay out of this.”

“Excuse me? You almost had a royal temper tantrum. I don’t think you’re in the right state of mind to be making requests here.”

“I let Drill get to me. I admit that, but this is still my battle. I want to finish it by myself.”

Cadance sat down. “If you’re determined to continue this then fine, but we’re staying right here for the rest of it. I can’t have you exploding on anyone with alicorn level magic.”

Twilight waited a few seconds, wondering whether to speak up. In the end, Cadance was Flurry’s mother, and she ultimately had the final say in her daughter’s behavior. So long as the two of them were there they could at least stop things before they began getting out of hand again.

Sitting down herself she said, “Very well. If Cadance has given her permission then I won’t stop this, but I agree that both of us will be monitoring this little contest of yours from now on.”

Sitting down, Flurry put a hoof over her heart. “Do or say whatever you want, Drill Bit. I won’t let you rattle me again, not so long as I have my friend’s heart with me."

The colt stared curiously at her. “Do you really believe that?”

“Yes!” she said without hesitation.

“It seems to me that nothing has changed with you. You’re just as weak now as when you started.”

Flurry now considered him as she lowered her hoof. “How do you figure?”

“You told me earlier that your wings used to really bother you. You weren’t able to overcome those feelings by yourself. You were forced to rely on someone else to help you do so.”

“What’s your point?”

“The ‘point’ is that you still have a massive weakness. Sure, through your friend’s help you got over your embarrassment about your wings. You knew you needed to be stronger because you didn’t want that to be a weakness an enemy could exploit.

“However, as you just showed, you’ve only traded one weakness for another. You traded sadness for anger, both of which can equally be used against you. All it took was one little slap to set you into a rage. You were on the brink of exploding.”

Flurry pulled Crystal closer to her to keep her cool. “So you’re saying that’s why you attacked her? To try and prove a point?"

Drill nodded. “What if I was a decoy, used to get all your attention on me so someone could attack you from behind? Your feelings would stop you from focusing on anything else but revenge, and a real enemy wouldn’t stop at something so slight as just a slap.

“So, had you had the strength to overcome your feelings on your own, you wouldn’t have either problem. You wouldn’t need a worthless friend dragging you down and holding you back from exerting your true strength.”

“Worthless?” Flurry clutched harder to Crystal, not wanting to rise to his bait.

“The truly strong are those who rise above everyone without relying on others, and develop their skills on their own merits.” He pointed at her. “People like you are held back by friendship. In fact, everyone is. You always expect friends to be your safety net when you fall, when sometimes you just have to land on your belly and dust yourself off."

He sat down, shrugging and shaking his head. “So long as you rely on friends you’ll always be a pathetic weakling, because one day your friends won’t be there to bail you out of a jam, and then you’re done for because you never learned to be independent.

“If you’re smart you’ll throw away that dead weight of a weakness you’re holding onto while you still can. She’s only going to hold you back.”

Twilight let out a huff of outrage. As the Princess of Friendship such words were deeply offensive to her, and she wanted to speak up right then and there to tell him how wrong he was. Even disregarding her title and princesshood she still would find it insulting to everything she stood for, as her friends had always been the ones to support her. She wouldn’t be the pony she was today without them.

Even so, she forced herself to keep her mouth shut. After all, Drill was obviously trying to get a rise out of Flurry. Or, at the very least, to put his worldview against hers.

If Flurry couldn’t defend her point of view she might very well be swayed toward his line of thought. And, while that was the last thing she wanted considering how much Flurry had grown, she knew that she had to let the two of them have it out without her interference. She couldn’t always be there for Flurry, and if her niece couldn’t hold true to her beliefs under pressure then it only meant that Drill was right that she had a glaring weakness to exploit.

She crossed her hooves, letting out another huff. She was finding it extremely difficult to retain her impartiality when the thing she wanted most was for Drill Bit to lose. She had to remind herself that this was the way he was raised to think.

Cadance shook her head. She had heard about Drill Bit from Flurry, but that he would take things this far…

She didn’t feel angry like Twilight, though. She was more disappointed.

Noble let out a small groan. After their conversation yesterday he really thought his brother was on the verge of a breakthrough. He truly believed his brother had started to internalize the lesson that he himself learned following his accident, but it seemed Drill was still holding true to the beliefs their parents instilled in him.

He could see the princesses weren’t pleased, and though he wanted to speak up himself he also held his tongue, hoping that Flurry could help him understand.

Pound wasn’t surprised by Drill’s words. Even though Flurry was the one who could best understand his situation he was the one who had spent the most time with him out of everyone there. He knew he couldn’t do anything else now that he had brought them together. All he could do was wait for Flurry’s response.

Like Drill had done earlier when she was telling him her story Flurry was sitting down with her eyes closed, taking in his words. Knowing what she did, about friendship, about her mother and her aunt, and about the closeness she shared with Crystal, she found she just couldn’t understand his beliefs at all.

“My friends… my friends…” She started shaking as she looked at the ground, her mind filling with memories. Pound, Pumpkin and all their friends pulled her out of a river of despair, helping her resolve the pain in her heart. They treated her like a pony instead of putting her on a pedestal, and gave her a magic notebook so they could always be there for her, no matter how far apart they were. Each of them had accepted her for who she was, and it brought joy and happiness to her life again.

The twins had helped her again, allowing her to dissolve the barriers that were preventing her and Crystal from becoming true friends, and ever since that day Crystal and her had been as close as could be.

Crystal had been by her side since that day, helping her overcome her shame over her body and teaching her to accept herself exactly as she was.

Maybe it was true that if she had been a bit stronger that she wouldn’t have had to suffer so much. She could have told her parents her true feelings earlier, and it would have saved her so much pain. Or maybe it wouldn’t have bothered her at all. But the truth was that, no matter how much she theorized about what she could have been like if she had been different, it didn’t change the face that she hadn’t been strong enough.

She had already tried going it alone, and found it a thoroughly miserable experience. Before befriending all of them she had suffered in solitude, avoiding her feelings by putting everything into studying. It had been so dark inside her heart until they had shown her the light. Even now she could feel them circling around her, encouraging her and smiling at her.

With tears streaming down her eyes she glared at Drill. “My friends ARE my strength! They’ve always done so much for me, helping to improve my life. I would NEVER consider them a weakness, and certainly never think them worthless. They mean EVERYTHING to me, and I would never throw them away. Not for anything in the whole world.

“And maybe you’re right that a friend can always be kidnapped or hurt in order to get to me, but no matter what it takes I’d do what I had to in order to get them back and save them.”

Drill stared blankly at her. “I see…”

Like the first time Flurry spoke to him about her feelings he could feel an immense power radiating off of her. It wasn’t magic. It was something different.

“You feel like your friends are your strength,” said Drill, “but what if one of them dies? What if you get into a terrible fight and break apart? You’re giving away a delicate piece of yourself that’s always at risk of being shattered. Wouldn’t it be better… not to take that risk?”

Flurry met his gaze for a short while before looking away. In a subdued voice she said, “You’re right. I’ve given a lot of my heart to Crystal, and while I sincerely wish we’ll always be friends I know there’s a chance that it won’t remain that way.”

“So,” said Crystal meaningfully, “are you saying you wish we had never become friends?”

Flurry shook her head. “Not at all.” Putting a hoof on her heart she said, “I told you that I wanted to fill the hole in my heart with you, and I did. You’re a true friend that I can’t replace with anyone else.

“Even so, I have to acknowledge the possibility that our friendship won’t last. But… even if…” She took a deep breath. “Even if something happens that destroys our friendship I might regret that I lost you, but that’s all. The memories we shared… the laughs… the smiles… even the arguments and the tears…” Even as she said that a few tears came down her eyes as she looked warmly toward her friend. “I’ll cherish them all forever.”

Crystal smiled back at her, putting a hoof over her own heart.

Turning back to Drill, Flurry said, “Maybe I wouldn’t feel the pain of loss if I had never went out of my way to develop my friendship with Crystal, but then I’d also never get to experience a whole new world of experiences either.

“Even if someone told me that in the future the two of us would get into a fight we never recovered from I wouldn’t care. I wouldn’t believe them. I’d hold onto my friendship with all my strength until that time came, if it ever did.

“I’d never have come as far as I did without her. Even now, I can feel her inside of me, giving me strength. So, no matter what happens, I will NEVER give up on our friendship, and I will NEVER regret having her in my life.”

Twilight was beaming. It seemed she had nothing to worry about, after all. Flurry did understand the value of friendship well.

Cadance was relieved as well. She was proud that Flurry understood the importance of friendship.

“If you want to spend your whole life alone, thinking it makes you powerful, then be my guest. I can’t stop you… but you’re going to be very lonely, and you’ll never be as strong as you can be. There are some things you just can’t overcome yourself. That’s where your friends come in. Even as alicorns my mother and my aunt both rely on and put their trust in earth ponies and pegasi, even if they have no magic.”

Flurry looked around her at her family and friends. "With the exception of your brother everyone here is close to me and help give me the courage to go on. They make me want to fight harder than I’ve ever fought. Without even saying a word in my defense I know they’re all on my side, and because of that I know I’ll never lose to someone like you.

“What about you? What do you have to fight for? What gives you strength? Another trophy as a monument to your ego?

“Like I told you yesterday I know there is fear in your heart towards your parents. Maybe things might be a little different if you actually had a few friends holding you up.

“So let’s hear your response. Let’s see you try to prove me wrong.”

Noble stared at his brother, wondering what he would say now. Surely he had to understand things a little better now.

Drill stood there, his face a mask. When he finally spoke he said just two words: “You’re wrong.”

Flurry waited, but he didn’t elaborate. When it became clear he wasn’t planning on saying anything more her eyes narrowed. “Hmph! After everything I said THAT’S all you have to say in return? I guess you HAVE to know you’re completely beat if you can’t even say anything more than just that I’m wrong.

“Honestly, I feel like bailing, just like you did yesterday. Either back up your statement with words or just admit you’re wrong with some grace for crying out loud!”

Drill sat down, looking at the ground. “My parents always pushed me hard to succeed. They saw my potential early on and trained me to be the best. They taught me to rely on myself, and not to whine when I had accidents. And I’ve DONE that! I’ve worked my butt off, winning competition after competition. When I’ve banged myself up I’d just suck it up or bandage myself up and get back to work. It was hard at times, but I pushed through it all.

“B-but… t-this… this goes against everything I was raised to believe.” He put his hooves to his head. “If you’re telling me this, and it’s right… if it’s right…”

Pound gasped as tears began coming down Drill’s eyes.

Drill’s voice grew croaky. “I thought they pushed me so hard because they cared for me and just wanted me to succeed. I thought they wanted me to be strong and independent, b-but if what you’re saying truly is correct, then… then…” His body clenched as he shrunk, his eyes closing as he let out a shuddering breath. “…then maybe my parents never loved me after all, and they wanted me to fail this whole time.” He held himself as he began quietly sobbing. “T-that’s why you HAVE to be wrong! You HAVE to be!”

All of them were at a loss for words. Seeing such a proud colt reduced to tears threw them off.

Noble recovered first, going over and giving his brother a hug.

Pound opened his mouth, wanting to say something comforting, but nothing came out. He didn’t know what he could say.

A tear came down Flurry’s eye as she looked at the ground, any animosity she had toward him vanishing as she remembered the reason they were going through all this in the first place. She had been brought here to help him. She knew his fears well, having lived with them for months. But his situation wasn’t exactly like hers, and she didn’t think her solution was going to work for him.

When she had brought up Drill training Pound his mother’s eyes had grown cold. It wasn’t that his parents were ignorant to his feelings, like her and Masky, but that they seemed to actively dislike them.

That being the case she didn’t know what to do. She could be his friend, but she didn’t know that it would be enough to help Drill get them to change their minds.

Twilight let out a heavy breath. She understood now what Drill was trying to accomplish. When Drill first met Flurry he won the race but was defeated by her inner strength, which she got from her close friends aid. It ran completely at odds with his upbringing, which said the greatest strength comes from one’s own self only.

All that he had done today in order to get under Flurry’s skin, she believed it wasn’t to triumph over her, but to try to understand. In truth, she felt like he understood since yesterday that Flurry was right about the greatest strength lying with the hearts of friends, and that there was a greater strength that can be obtained when fighting for others rather than yourself. But, as he had just said himself, if that was true then how should he feel about his parents who raised him to believe the opposite? That was why he couldn’t accept her philosophy.

In any case, she felt that Flurry had made her dent. She had gotten into his heart, and now that he was vulnerable she felt it was time for her to take over. Drill Bit definitely was in need of a friendship lesson.

3-10: The light of friendship

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Drill Bit was starting to settle down, still wrapped in his brothers hug.

Twilight noticed he wasn’t fighting the affection. “I see your brother cares for you quite a bit. It must feel nice to have someone to hold you as you cry.”

Drill Bit growled, pushing his brother away. “So what if it does? I wouldn’t need him if I wasn’t so pathetic.”

“Bro, you’re not-” Noble started.

“Oh, shut it!” He glared at Flurry. “You happy now? Did it feel nice to see me reduced to a crying mess?”

Twilight let out a sigh. Earlier she had been eager to see the colt get his comeuppance because of his words going against everything she stood for. Now, though, she could see the pain he kept hidden inside.

She had hoped to get to him while he was still vulnerable, but he was already throwing up his walls again. It couldn’t be helped. She still had to help him.

Twilight walked over, sitting down in front of him. “Drill Bit, I think we need to talk.”

“Hey!” said Flurry. “What about me? I can still handle this.”

Twilight looked over toward her. “Flurry, I think it’s about time we stop looking at this like a competition. This isn’t about winning or losing or who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about helping out a pony in need.

“The only true victory we’ll get out of today is by soothing Drill’s feelings. Since you spoke so passionately about relying on your friends for strength I ask now that you rely on me, and not stubbornly attempt to do everything yourself.”

Flurry couldn’t argue with that statement. “Okay, Aunt Twilight. I trust you.”

“Thank you.” She turned back to Drill. Were he not such a prideful type she would have sat on the ground and put him on her lap as she talked, but she didn’t think he would agree to such a thing. He had already exposed his weakness once. He wouldn’t want to appear weak a second time.

“I’d like to share my thoughts with you, Drill Bit.”

He made a show of snubbing her. “What makes you think I care what you have to say, jerk?”

Noble let out a huff. “Drill Bit! That’s now how you address a princess!”

“Noble!” Twilight said firmly, getting his attention. “His words are borne of his pain, and a pony in pain needs understanding and to be heard, not to be shunned and disciplined. He can say what he wishes. It doesn’t bother me.”

Noble looked like he wanted to argue the point, so she continued on, “As I’ve tried to emphasize many a time I consider myself just another pony who has more responsibilities than most. I want to help not because of my title but because I want to see him do better, and I know he can be. A few negative words in exchange for freeing him of his burden is a small price to pay.

“As you work for Princess Celestia I have no authority over you, but I ask that you put your trust in me and keep quiet while I work.”

He bowed his head. “Very well, Princess.”

Now that all the distractions were out of the way she could finally focus on Drill Bit.

Drill Bit got a twisted smile on his face again, much like before. “I can say what I wish, huh?” He chuckled. “I know some worse words than jerk. I’m sure I’ll start bothering you before long.”

Twilight shrugged. “I’m sure you do, but what purpose would it serve to be foul-mouthed? Ultimately, it would accomplish nothing other than to prove how much you need my help.”

He growled loudly. “I don’t need your stupid help! What makes you think you can do anything for me? HUH?”

“I can tell you that I believe your parents DO care for you.”

He recoiled a bit, his body clenching. “So then you’re admitting Flurry is wrong?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Not at all.”

“Then there’s NOTHING to talk about. If you’re right then my parents hate me.”

“Not everything is about winning, Drill Bit. Things aren’t always clear cut. Ponies can be partially right and partially wrong. It doesn’t have to be just one way or the other.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I don’t think your parents hate you. Based on what you’ve said I believe it’s quite the opposite. I believe your parents care about you very much. It’s just that their affection is very narrowly focused, and that is where your pain lies.”

She could practically see the question marks on top of his head.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with the lessons your parents taught you. It’s not the lessons themselves that are wrong, it’s that there’s a lack of balance that is sorely needed.”

He scratched his head. “I have no idea what you’re trying to say. Could you please explain it better?”

“Let me put it this way. I’m the Princess of Friendship. I love my friends and hanging out with them. But despite my title and the affection I have for them it doesn’t mean that I want friendship all the time. There are days when I like solitude and curling up with a good book and days when I feel like going out and hanging with them. That what I’m talking about with balance.

“Think of it like a scale. When one puts too much weight on one side of the scale it tips. If I spend too much time with my friends I can get burned out and feel annoyed by them. On the other hoof, if I spend too much time alone I can feel lonely and sad.”

“Okay…”

“Now let’s talk about your situation. To a certain extent your parents were correct. One does need to be self-sufficient to progress, but total self-reliance is impossible. Everyone can use help now and again.

“And while being able to pick yourself up and keep walking after a failure is an admirable trait, it should also be acceptable to cry sometimes. Everyone has a limit. When one seals away a part of themselves it stops you from being a whole pony and causes all of you to suffer in return.

“It is also true that if one wishes to excel in a certain category that it is beneficial to train with others who are around or above your skill level, but that doesn’t mean you should treat others who are below that level as trash unworthy of your attention. Pound told me you used to be quite the bully.”

Drill rolled his eyes. “Do you really want to bring that up right now?”

“I’m not saying that to make you feel bad, but I do have to point it out to show how that imbalance has led to you hurting others. Everyone deserves respect, even if you wind up losing at something.

“And speaking of behavior…” She looked up towards Drill’s brother. “I’d like to speak to you, Noble. In talking with Pound he told me you used to be the same way as Drill Bit.”

“I’m not proud of it. I just-”

Twilight put up a hoof. “I’m not here to judge you on the way you used to be in the past. If you found a fresh start that’s good enough for me. I’m not here to discipline, anyway. As I said earlier this isn’t about right and wrong. It’s about helping a pony in need.

“I don’t know your parents personally. I only briefly met your mother yesterday, and while it does seem to mesh with what I’ve been told, a first impression is hardly enough to judge a whole pony’s life on.

“So I ask you, Noble, what you think of my words. Based on your life growing up would you agree with me?”

Noble got a thoughtful look on his face. After a few moments he nodded. “Yes… I would. There’s no denying that I didn’t exactly have an easy childhood, but just like my brother I had an early talent for flying that they saw my potential for. They pushed me to excel, and I can’t say that it didn’t produce results.

“As you know I am the second in command of the entire Royal Guard, and Princess Celestia told me following my accident the main reason she wouldn’t allow me the top spot was because of my poor team attitude.”

He looked up thoughtfully again. “I suppose you could argue that they did it to mooch off my success or something, but I haven’t seen evidence of that. To me, they’ve always been proud to show me off and see me stand in the spotlight that they felt I deserved.”

Returning his gaze to Twilight he said, “I believe they meant well, but if I could do it over I wouldn’t want to live my life the same way.”

Drill Bit piped up. “I’ve been pretty successful myself. They told me they expected me to take over my brother’s spot once I grew up. It seemed like a great honor to serve as a protector to a princess. They like to tell me that my future is now.”

“Hmm… I remember getting that same line as I grew up.”

Twilight gently shook her head. “Another good life lesson ruined by the unbalanced nature of its implementation. It’s smart to think of your future, and to have a goal steady in your mind to work towards. However, it doesn’t do to focus so hard on the future you forget that there’s still a present to live through.

“At the end of the day, Drill, you’re still a child. Striving towards your future goal of being in the Royal Guard is fine, but there’s more to life than that.” Drill Bit was staring at her, and she could see a thought pulling at him. “Go on. If there’s something you wish to say then by all means.”

“What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense!”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“You told me you think my parents really do care for me, but you also said they’ve been teaching me all wrong. You can’t have it both ways. And in case you weren’t paying attention to what my brother was saying their methods worked just fine.”

Twilight met his gaze. “That may be so, but can you say that you’re truly happy? Just a few minutes ago you broke down out of your fear that your parents don’t really love you. That says to me that you aren’t.”

Drill Bit looked at the ground.

“In your mind success and love are clearly linked. When you’re successful you get praise and love. What happens when you lose? How do your parents treat you then?”

“They… they’re disappointed. They tell me I should do better. But I haven’t lost a competition for a while, so they’ve been pretty happy with me.”

“And yet from what Pound has told me you’re sick of it all. Lately you’ve lost interest in competition, which says to me that you’re searching for a new path in life.”

Drill Bit let out a sigh, his head drooping. “But how can I? My parents expect me to take after my brother. The whole reason my parents are mad at me is because I tried bringing it up.”

“I was there for that,” said Noble. “Since our parents are big on our success I told him they would get upset if he didn’t tell them about his plans. As it was, he kept silent about his new goal, making it appear as if he was just planning on wandering around aimlessly until he finally found something worthwhile.”

Drill glared over toward his brother. “And I told you that it came to the same thing if I did tell them.”

“And just what is it you’re after?” asked Twilight. “What is your new objective?”

Drill met her eyes, but he didn’t speak.

“Well, don’t keep her waiting,” said Noble.

“Oh, be quiet!” He turned his head toward Noble again. “It’s none of her business what I want to do.”

Noble got an exasperated look on his face. “Would you please stop being so rude-”

“That’s correct,” said Twilight, making both of them look over at her. “So long as you’re not harming others it isn’t my business to poke into your life or force answers out of you. However, Drill Bit… please remember that I’m only trying to help you.”

“Well,” Drill Bit started, “maybe I don’t believe you can help me.”

“And that’s okay. Help can be defined in a number of ways, though. Maybe I can’t change your parents or make them accept your new goal, but perhaps I can help you think of things a new way, which is what I was trying to do for you earlier.”

Though he tried to hide it his expression grew sad. “You really think… that my parents love me… or are they only interested in my accomplishments?”

“I don’t think your parents are trying to hurt you. They want to help you, but are just going about it the wrong way.

“Pound, Pumpkin?”

“Yes?” they responded.

“Tell him about your friend Masky’s parents.”

“Okay!” said Pound.

“Masky… he’s that unicorn kid Pumpkin’s always hanging around with, right?” asked Drill Bit.

Pumpkin nodded. “He was sorta like you. His parents and him traveled the world for business, but eventually Masky got sick of it because he kept losing friends and his parents didn’t pay enough attention to him. He was too scared to tell his parents, though.”

“And so,” said Pound, “he put on a ‘mask,’ and acted cool just to make the most of the time he had wherever they traveled, becoming quite popular.”

“Because of that act his parents thought he was fine, when really he was miserable.”

“And it wasn’t until he finally told his parents how he was really feeling that they realized how sad he was.”

“And so they stopped traveling and moved into Ponyville so he wouldn’t have to lose any more friends.”

Pound smiled. “So his parents weren’t trying to hurt him. They just didn’t know what he was really feeling.”

“Now,” said Twilight, “I expect that isn’t going to be enough for you, considering you already tried talking to your own parents.” Drill Bit nodded. “So let me continue with my story, because I believe it illustrates my point better.

“Think of a pony like a painter. You can only paint the colors you have. Could you imagine someone trying to do a painting of me without any purple? What would that even look like? Even if they had my hair and my tail down pat I wouldn’t recognize myself if they were forced to color me green and yellow. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Drill Bit looked around, his face furrowed in thought. “Yeeeessss… but what does that have to do with anything?”

“What I’m trying to get at is that even if there’s a genuine passion for what they’re doing the end result just won’t come out right without the right knowledge. And sometimes another issue comes from trying to paint another pony with the same brush as they used before. In this case, your parents tried to ‘color’ you the same way they did your brother.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your parents raised your brother a certain way. As he pointed out their methods got results, and your brother has gotten a high ranking position in one of the most important jobs in the world.

“And then you came along, born with the same natural talent for flying as him. Is it any wonder they colored you the same way, expecting you would be just as successful? Again, just like with him, you have gotten results and shown that their faith in your skills was not misguided, but for all your success neither of you are very happy with the way your lives have been going.

“I do not believe your parents acted with malice or ill intent towards either of you, but I also believe that they’ve put too much pressure on you.”

“So… then… what are you trying to say? Do you think they’re good or bad?”

Twilight let out a gentle sigh. “Let’s stop talking about them for a moment. I’d like to share a little story that I told to Crystal over there, because I feel it will help you understand what I’m getting at.”

“Okay.”

“Pound made a friend at the beach named Tree Leaf, but things went sour when Tree Leaf grew jealous of Pumpkin and threw sand in her eyes to try to get Pound all to himself. Naturally, Pound was pretty steamed.

“A day or so later I talked Pound into trying to patch things up with the colt. With a lot of bad things happening recently he told me he didn’t want anymore, but I overrode him, using Pumpkin to get him to agree.”

Drill Bit gave her a look. “That doesn’t seem very polite.”

“Well, I’m glad you’ve already spotted the issue, because it doesn’t get better from there.

“Tree Leaf and Pound are very similar ponies. They wouldn’t cooperate at all, and spent the entire talk fighting.

“In the end, they did manage to work things out, but the reason it went so poorly was because of me not taking their feelings into consideration. I thought I knew what was best for them, so I put them together to work things out without once stopping to think that it might not be the best method.

“I haven’t spent a lot of time with children. The only children I’ve spent a significant amount of time with are three fillies that are sisters of my friends. When I first met them they were nine. I assumed that nine year olds weren’t all that different from six year olds, but I was wrong. I tried painting them with the same brush as I did my friend’s sisters, with the end result being a giant mess that left everyone unhappy.

“I think you’re starting to get the picture, right?”

Drill Bit nodded. “You’re trying to relate my parents to your situation and Masky’s.”

Twilight nodded too. “In the end, it was never my intention to hurt the two of them, but it doesn’t change the fact that I did. And that pain came about because of my ignorance. But, now that I understand where I went wrong, I’ve been able to use the correct brush to paint situations with.”

Pound gave a hearty nod. “That’s right. Twilight’s been a lot better at understanding us. You remember when she came to our school for a week? That was the reason.”

“Oh.” Drill remembered that. She had talked about just wanting to watch their classes for a little while. He had thought she had to have better things to do, and couldn’t understand why she’d want to observe kids at kindergarten.

Drill stared so hard at her it was like he was trying to see through her. “So… you think… that my parents really do love me? And they’re only raising me like that because they don’t know there might be a better color to paint me with?”

Giving him an encouraging smile she nodded again. “They painted you with the colors they knew, doing what they thought was best for you. I believe they earnestly want to see you succeed and be someone great, but they’re going overboard. ”

Drill looked relieved. “So… what should I do?”

“I think you should sit down with them and just be honest. Maybe they won’t like what you have to say, but if you truly have another passion you want to go for then you need to let them know.”

‘What I want… is to just keep helping Pound with his flying practice. He was a joke when the year started, but because of my help he’s gotten pretty good. I don’t think he’s the worst in the class anymore.”

That got surprise out of everyone after he had so stubbornly kept it hidden before.

Pound took it more in stride because the colt had told him most of this before.

Twilight noticed that Drill Bit looked a lot calmer now. She had to guess he was being more open because he no longer felt his parents hated him, so he wasn’t being nearly as defensive.

Flurry smiled. “I think that’s a fine goal! The reason I was able to grow as much as I did was because I had a friend to show me the way.”

Drill sighed. “But you were there yesterday. You saw how my mom reacted when you mentioned it. That’s why I didn’t want to tell them.”

Noble put a hoof on his shoulder. “When you talked to our parents yesterday they said that if you found something you were just as skilled at as racing they would support you as hard as they did for that. If you can show your dedication and resolve I’m sure they’ll at least admire that, even if they don’t agree.”

Pumpkin put a hoof to her chin. “I don’t think there’s any reason Drill Bit can’t train Pound and be a part of the Royal Guard later on.”

“I guess the question that should be asked,” said Cadance, “is if he even wants to be part of the Royal Guard in the first place.”

“True enough,” said Twilight. “Is that what you actually want, or do you only want it because it’s what’s expected of you?”

Drill Bit looked uncertain. He had never thought about it before. He had mainly wanted it to show his brother up, but while that was the main job they had suggested for his future they had also entertained the idea of him being a Wonderbolt.

He looked over at his brother, thinking about what a comfort he had been recently. He had seen pictures of him in his Royal Guard uniform, and he had always thought he looked cool. That is, when he wasn’t dismissing him as just a rival.

He lifted and stomped his right hooves before saluting. “Being a Royal Guard sounds awesome! And if my brother stays there long enough maybe we could even work together. That would be so cool!”

Noble ruffled his mane. “Well, don’t think that means I’ll take it easy on you, bro.”

Flurry saw the way his eyes shined at the idea. He had become a lot less abrasive. It reminded her of herself and what had happened with Mayhem. Even though she was sensitive about being called a freak she had called Mayhem one.

Later on, when she went to make up, the little draconequus forgave her easily after seeing the pain she held inside. When she asked why he forgave her so quickly he had talked about a similar situation with Masky, where after taking his "bad things" away he had been able to see the good pony that lied underneath.

Drill Bit had done some mean things in the past, and even today he had hit her best friend to try to prove that friendship was a weakness, but she was starting to see the good pony he could be.

“Don’t forget,” said Cadance, “that just being talented in flying, in itself, won’t get you very far.

“Once you’re promoted past the bottom ranks one of the jobs of a Royal Guard is to help train the new recruits. That ties in nicely with your current goal. Thus, I see no reason they should object to it.”

“Oh!” Drill Bit blinked. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“As Twilight said it’s all about finding a balance. You can help Pound and still go to competitions. It falls on you to get your parents to understand that.”

Drill let out a sigh. “What if… I’m scared to?”

Flurry walked up to him. “That’s what your friends are for. Even when Crystal isn’t right next to me, I can still feel her heart with mine. She makes me want to fight, so it gives me courage.”

Twilight nodded. “I feel that the greatest strength of all comes from fighting for others. If helping out Pound is truly what lies in your heart, then I believe that you’ll find a way to convince your parents if you just keep that idea in your thoughts.”

Drill Bit thought of the time he confronted Pound at the park during his suspension. He had thought Pound was so pathetic until that point, but as soon as his sister was threatened he turned into a different pony entirely.

Just like Flurry, Pound’s aura had glowed ferociously as soon as he felt his loved one was in danger. When it was just between them Pound had looked pathetic, but as soon as he mentioned wanting to take out his anger on Pumpkin then Pound grew strong.

It was the first time he had ever felt intimidated by Pound. The ferocity in the colts eyes left him unable to match up. Pound had even offered to take a beating if it meant he’d leave Pumpkin alone.

Even Pumpkin had shown inner strength for the sake of her family, striking herself to make it convincing that he had attacked her.

Fighting for the sake of others was a bit of a foreign concept to him, but he had seen Pound’s transformation with his own eyes, and heard about Flurry’s.

Crystal stood next to Flurry. “All of us want to see you succeed, so we’ll add our hearts to yours. Right, Flurry?”

Flurry gave a hearty nod. “You bet!”

“Same here!” said Pumpkin.

“Training with you is awesome,” said Pound, “but I also just want to see you be happy.”

Pound, Pumpkin, Flurry, and Crystal all stood before him, putting their hooves on top of one another and staring at him expectantly.

“Teamwork, huh?” said Drill Bit, his eye growing misty. He could feel their support as he added his own hoof to the top. “I guess… just this once… I’ll let you help me.”

“Group hug!” Flurry called out.

“Group hug!” the other three repeated.

Drill Bit started to protest, but he was too late before he was covered in legs. From there his complaints died in his throat as he felt a sense of comfort he hadn’t experienced in a long time.

He closed his eyes, enjoying the love surrounding him.

Twilight beamed as they all hugged him, feeling like the spirit of friendship was being passed along to another.

4-1: Foalsitters

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Pound was sitting on his bed when he heard the buzzing of the magic journal. Opening it up he read it, his eyes lighting up.

Going to the door to their room he yelled out, “PUMPKIN!”

Pumpkin opened the door to Pinkie’s room. “What is it?”

“Come here! Quick!”

Pumpkin turned behind her. “I’ll be right back, Auntie Pinkie.”

“No problem,” Pinkie replied.

Pumpkin came down the stairs, seeing Pound practically jumping up and down in excitement. “What’s got you so hyped?”

Pound shoved the journal in her face, making Pumpkin back up a step before she took it in her hooves.

She scanned the few lines of text before she got that same ecstatic look on her face.

The pair ran downstairs. “MOM!” they called out.

Cup looked up from wiping down a table. “Yes, my dear children. What is it?”

They held up the notebook, and Cup set down the rag she was using to take it in her hooves and read it.

“Hey, you guys. It’s Flurry Heart.

“My mom and dad want to come visit Aunt Twilight this Saturday. Since you got along so well, and since you didn’t get to play with her during your party, they want to know if you’d be interested in babysitting Skyla for a few hours.

“No pressure. Uncle Sunburst is free to watch her, but they figured you might want to play with her again.

“Let me know as soon as possible.

“Flurry Heart.”

Cup lowered the book, seeing the bright, anticipatory looks on her children’s faces. They didn’t even need to say anything.

She wasn’t too worried about their ability to take care of a baby. They had done a fine job of that the last time they had cared for Skyla. But…

She took in a small breath. “I have complete confidence in your ability to watch over Skyla.” That made both of them beam. “However, I do have some reservations.”

That made their faces fall a little. “What do you mean, Mom?” asked Pound. “What’s the problem?”

“The problem is that she’s an alicorn.”

Pumpkin scowled. “Are you still on about this problem with royalty?”

“Honestly!” Pound said exasperatedly. “How many princesses have you had in this house? Just get over it already.”

Cup shook her head. “No! That’s not my issue. What I’m trying to say is that we have no way to control her if she starts getting rambunctious. You were the same way, Pumpkin.

“Oh, sure, if Skyla is as agreeable as she was the first time you three played everything will go great, but what if she’s fussy? Or goes on a tantrum? I’m just a little nervous about having an alicorn baby here without a means to rein her in.”

The twins looked mollified by her explanation. “Is that all?” asked Pumpkin calmly. “That’s not even an issue.”

“How do you figure?”

“It’s simple. All Flurry has to do is loan Cadance her magic notebook. If there’s trouble we just jot a small note asking for help, and Cadance or Shining or Twilight can poof over here to take care of the problem.”

Cup sucked on her cheek. “Mmmm…” After a few moments more she said, “Alright, then. I grant my permission.”

The twins got their look of joy back. “WOOHOO!” they both yelled, slapping each other’s hooves. Both of them started dancing in excitement, making Cup chuckle.

She let out a small sigh. She was still a little anxious, but at least this hangout was occurring on the weekend, when the store would be closed.

The twins wrote back to Flurry, giving her the good news, and the next day the two of them were sitting in front of the entrance, waiting anxiously for the trio to arrive.

It was a little after nine. “What do you think is taking so long?” asked Pound.

“I know. I thought they’d be here by now.”

Pinkie chuckled. The two were like stone statues. “Come on, you guys. Have some breakfast.”

“Breakfast can wait!” Pound said strongly.

“Yeah!” Pumpkin replied right after.

Pinkie walked over, sitting in front of them. “Keep in mind that they have to take the train all the way from the Crystal Empire. That’s quite a trip.”

“Why? The two of them can teleport, can’t they?”

Pinkie nodded. “Maybe so, but do you really think they’d be comfortable teleporting the baby?”

Pound opened his mouth, started to answer in the affirmative, then stopped. “No. No, I don’t.”

“Babies are delicate,” said Pumpkin. “I wouldn’t want to risk Skyla’s health just to save some time, so I don’t think they would either.”

Pinkie hugged the two of them. “I’m glad that the two of you are so eager to commence your duties, but you’re not being very responsible right now.”

“Why not?”

“As a caretaker it’s your job to watch after Skyla.”

“But she’s not even here yet!” said Pound. “So how are we being irresponsible?”

“It certainly is very important to care for the baby, but that all starts with taking care of yourself. If you’re too distracted being hungry it might cause you to miss something that Skyla does that’s dangerous.

“You want to be at your mental and physical best so you can best watch over Skyla.” Releasing them she continued on, “Wouldn’t you agree?”

The twins looked at each other, then gave a nod. “You’re right, Auntie Pinkie,” said Pumpkin.

“I want some waffles!” Pound said excitedly.

“Sounds great.”

As they started walking toward the kitchen Pinkie suddenly paused, making the twins stop too.

“What’s wrong?” asked Pumpkin.

Pinkie looked at her flank, seeing her buzzing cutie mark. “Mmm. I was hoping to play with the baby too, but I guess the map has other plans.”

“Aww, that’s too bad. Maybe you’ll be lucky and you won’t have to go too far.”

Pound bit his lip. “The map always calls at least two ponies. If Twilight is one of the ones its calling then our plans might be ruined already.”

Pumpkin’s face fell. “Oh, no! That would stink.”

Pinkie smiled. “And why would that be?”

Both of them looked strangely at her. “Isn’t it obvious? If there’s no Twilight then they don’t have any reason to be here.”

“And? After spending a few hours on a train I don’t think they’re going to be eager to get right back on. They’ll probably be hungry after their trip, so I don’t see any reason you can’t play with Skyla for a few hours while they eat.

“I doubt they’d want to waste this trip, so I think they’d just hang out here while you took care of Skyla.

“Buck up. Everything will be fine.”

They looked a little uncertain, but they weren’t as worried as they were before.

She went to Cup to tell her that she had been summoned by the Cutie Map and to start breakfast for the twins before departing.

Pumpkin went into the kitchen. “Hey, Mom.”

“Hello, Sweetie,” she replied. “Pinkie told me your brother wanted waffles for breakfast. What about you?”

Pumpkin got a thoughtful look on her face. “Mmm… I could do waffles too.”

“Okay. Coming right up.”

After about ten minutes the two were at the table eating their breakfast.

As Pumpkin speared a piece of waffle she said, “Wow. It feels like it’s been forever since we’ve seen Skyla.”

Pound nodded. “It’s been a few months, yeah.” He put a piece in his mouth and chewed. When he swallowed he said, “I mean, she was at our birthday party, but as Flurry said she slept through the whole thing.”

“Just think about it, Pound. If it wasn’t for Skyla we wouldn’t have our pets.”

Pound chuckled. “I don’t know so much about that. It was more like Mom just found it easier to get us some pets instead of having another baby.”

Pumpkin rubbed her waffle in syrup, lifting up her fork. “Yeah, but we wouldn’t have gotten the idea to ask for her to have another baby if we hadn’t played with Skyla first.”

As Pumpkin ate her latest piece Pound shrugged. “I guess you’re right. We sure proved how responsible we could be.”

“And we’ve kept proving it since then. Even on our bad days we always make sure to take care of our pets.”

Cup smiled. “No doubt about it. You two have showed your growth magnificently over the past few months.”

The two beamed.

When they finished their breakfast they washed their own dishes and silverware before going back to sitting near the front door.

It was about twenty minutes later that they heard the knock on the door. The two of them exploded with energy, rushing to open the door.

“Hello!” they said pleasantly at the sight of Cadance, Shining, and Skyla. Both of them were trotting in place.

Cadance could easily see how overjoyed they looked. After how well they got along last time she wasn’t worried about letting them watch over her daughter again.

Pound’s smile got a little strained. “I have an important question.”

“Yes, Pound?” asked Shining.

“Can we still watch Skyla if Twilight is busy?”

“What do you mean? Of course she’s going to be busy. With us.”

Pound let out a breath. “Well, Auntie Pinkie got called by the map a little while ago.”

“And we don’t know who else it called,” said Pumpkin. “It might not be her, but it could be.”

Shining and Cadance looked at each other. “Mmm…”

Shining’s horn began glowing. “Well, better get this settled right now. Either way, we made this long trip, and we wouldn’t want to let you down by taking this opportunity away from you.”

Looks of relief crossed the twin’s features as Shining vanished.

Cadance levitated Skyla off her back, setting her on the ground in front of the twins.

“Hello, Skyla!” Pound said with a big grin.

“Do you remember us?” asked Pumpkin. “I’m Pumpkin.”

“And I’m Pound.”

“We played together.”

“And then we sang you a lullaby and held you until you fell asleep.”

Skyla looked at them uncertainly, though a vague memory stirred inside her.

Cadance rubbed her daughter’s head. “She’s still a baby, so her memory isn’t that good yet. You only interacted with her once, a few months ago. It’s not too surprising that she doesn’t remember you.”

They weren’t deterred. “Well, then!” said Pound.

“If she doesn’t remember us,” said Pumpkin, “then we’ll just have to jog her memory!”

Lifting her up in her magic she set Skyla on Pound’s back.

At first Skyla looked a little frightened, but once Pound took off trotting Skyla let out a squeal of delight. She leaned over, holding onto Pound’s neck. “Fas’er, fas’er!” she called out.

“No worries, bro,” said Pumpkin. “I won’t let her fall.”

Pound nodded before he started running around, Skyla giggling joyfully.

Cadance grinned, glad they were already getting along.

After a minute Shining returned with Twilight in tow.

“Hello, there,” said Twilight to the twins.

The two trotted up to her. “Hi, Twilight!”

Skyla frowned as Pound stopped. She tapped his head. “Run! Run!”

“Hold on, Skyla,” he replied.

“Well,” said Twilight, “I don’t want to keep you from your fun, so I’ll give you the good news. Fluttershy was the other pony called by the map, not me.”

“Woohoo!” they shouted out, jumping into the air.

“Wah!” Skyla called out as she went into the air for a moment, her loose grip bucking her off of Pound’s back.

Twilight quickly enveloped her in her magic before gently setting her back down on the floor.

Pound blushed deeply. “Sorry! Sorry!” He hoped he didn’t just ruin everything.

Cadance took a deep breath. “I understand that in your excitement you had a lapse of memory that you had a guest riding on you, but do try to keep that in mind in the future. I am counting on you to keep Skyla safe while I’m with Twilight.”

Pound gave a nod, his face still red.

Pumpkin, wanting to change the subject, asked, “So what about Flurry Heart? I figured she’d come along too to play.”

Shining said, “Of course, but she said that she already gets plenty of time to play with Skyla, so she didn’t want to take that time away from you two.”

Pound took a deep breath and stood up straight, saluting. “I promise I’ll do better. I certainly don’t want to see Skyla get hurt.”

“That’s all we can ask for.”

Cadance and Shining both gave Skyla a kiss. “We’re going to go out with your Auntie Twilight for a little while, Skyla,” said Cadance. “So you get to play fun games with Pound and Pumpkin, okay?”

Skyla gave a big nod. “Play! Play!” She unfurled her wings and took to the air for a moment before landing on Pumpkin’s back. “Run! Run!”

“I think they’re got everything under control,” said Twilight as she looked at the happy trio.

Shining nodded.

Cup came out of the kitchen, also watching her children for a short while before giving a quick bow to the princesses. “Greetings.”

“Hello there, Mrs. Cake,” said Twilight. “Everything is on track, so we were just getting ready to go.”

“Well, you three have a good time. We’ll be fine here… hopefully.”

Cadance’s horn glowed, a notebook coming out of her saddle bag. “As per your suggestion we have the magical notebook with us. If Skyla starts getting out of control just give us a quick message and we’ll come as soon as we can.”

Cup nodded. “Sounds good. From what I’m seeing so far things are going to go much as they did the last time Skyla was here.”

Twilight grinned as all of them turned to look at the three children again, having a blast. “Looks like it to me.”

“Which I’m glad for,” said Shining, “considering it’s the reason we made this offer in the first place rather than just leaving her with Sunburst.”

Cadance bowed her head. “Even if they wanted this I still want to express my gratitude to you for agreeing to this.”

“Oh, it’s no problem, Princess,” said Cup. “After all, our children have gotten increasingly more responsible lately. They’re really growing up.”

“And Flurry’s doing the same, thanks to the help of your kids. As a parent, it’s a lovely feeling, isn’t it?“

Cup nodded. “It sure is.

“Well, you three have a good time.”

“We’ll try our best,” said Twilight.

With a few more goodbyes the three of them left.

Cup closed the front door as Twilight, Cadance, and Shining left. She didn’t feel there was anything for her to do. The twins were having a great time, and she knew they wouldn’t deliberately do anything to put Skyla in harm’s way. She also had a feeling they weren’t going to share her without a fight, so she just had to check in on them every now and again.

“Kids, can you come over here for a second?”

“Now, Mom?” asked Pound.

“The quicker you come the quicker you can get back to your fun.”

“Come on, Skyla!” Pumpkin said brightly, levitating the alicorn over to her so she could hold her. She gave Skyla a kiss. “We need to go see our mama real quick.”

“Mama?” said Skyla, looking around the room.

Pound gave Pumpkin a gentle slap in the back of the head. “We don’t need to remind her that her mom isn’t here. Don’t go upsetting her now, dummy.”

“I wasn’t trying to upset her,” Pumpkin replied, throwing Skyla up in the air to distract her. That got a laugh out of the foal.

Pound looked up at his mother. “Yes?” he said impatiently.

“I just wanted to remind you that Cadance did bring that notebook from Flurry, so if Skyla starts getting out of hoof then you just have to write her and she’ll come and help.”

Pumpkin nuzzled Skyla’s face. “I don’t think we’ll be needing help with this little angel.”

Cup rolled her eyes before shaking her head. “You’ve heard Pinkie’s story about you two. Babies can be very problematic when they get in the right mood.”

“We’ll keep that in mind,” said Pound. “Can we go now?”

Cup let out a little sigh. “Fine.”

In moments the sound of laughter rang through the room as Pumpkin threw Flurry up in the air again.

“I really would prefer it if you didn’t do that. If Skyla gets hurt you’ll see what I mean about baby temper tantrums.”

Pumpkin said dismissively, “Oh, come on, Mom. It’s fine. I’ve got my magic.” She threw the baby up in the air again, catching her to another round of giggles.

“Hmph. That’s fine if you feel you’re going to miss her, but one wrong move and you might headbutt each other, or you might scrape her with your horn. An accident is one thing, but if you deliberately do something that’s dangerous for the baby, and you have to call them back, then Cadance and Shining might feel you’re not mature enough to care for their daughter.

“You don’t want to lose this opportunity to have fun with her, do you?”

“No, Mom!” they both said quickly.

“That’s fine,” said Pound. “There’s plenty of other stuff we can do with her.”

“Yeah!” said Pumpkin, setting the foal on the floor.

Pound trotted away. “Here I come!” He let out a little roar. “I’m gonna get you!”

“Eek!” Pumpkin cried out. “Come on, Skyla.”

“Eek!” Skyla said before laughing, her and Pumpkin trotting away from Pound.

Cup felt they had things under control now. She looked around the shop. Weekends were usually devoted to family time, as well as preparing things for their Monday opening. With the kids looking after Skyla family time was out, so it made a prime opportunity to start the set-up process. She just wasn’t in the mood to do it.

She felt like she was always working, whether it be the shop or at being a mother or a good wife. She could use a little unwinding time.

She directed her gaze back to her children. Would they be alright without her? She reminded herself that if things got out of control they always had the magic notebook. There was no need to worry.

“Pound, Pumpkin?” Cup called out to her children.

“Yeah, Mom?” they replied, not breaking from their chase.

“Would you mind if I went down to the spa for a few hours? I could go for a little pampering.”

“Sure!” said Pound, pouncing on Pumpkin.

“Oh, no!” Pumpkin cried out dramatically. “He got me.”

“Oh, no!” Skyla said right after. “Punkin!”

“Have fun, Mom,” said Pumpkin as Pound got off her and she got back up.

Skyla scraped her hoof on the floor a few times before barking like a dog. “I monstah! Heres I come.”

“Oh, no!” the twins said as they began to run away with her, Skyla continuing to bark as she ran toward them.

She went upstairs to get some money, hearing the sound of the shower as she passed by it.

When she went back downstairs she called out to her children again. “Pound, Pumpkin, your father is in the shower so just tell him where I’ve gone, okay?”

“Sure, Mom!” they replied as Skyla caught them.

“I gots you!” Skyla said happily, letting out another bark.

“You sure did!” said Pound, pulling her into a hug.

Cup smiled. If things stayed like this she thought that she wouldn’t need another spa trip right after this one.

“Bye, kids.”

“Bye, Mom!”

Pumpkin began to roar now. “Grrrr! I’m a dragon.”

Pound gasped. “Uh-oh!”

“Uh-oh!” said Skyla. “Gotta wun!” Pound and Skyla got a small head start before Pumpkin began to chase them.

“Ah, to be young again,” said Cup as she walked out the door.

A few minutes later Carrot left the bathroom, feeling refreshed from his shower. He walked downstairs, following the sounds of happy children.

He looked at his two children playing with the baby. Skyla was smiling and laughing like crazy. Everything seemed under control.

He went up to his kids. “Hey, there.”

“Hi, Dad,” they replied, barely giving him a look.

“Look, it’s a pretty calm day so I’d like to go out and do some shopping.”

“Okay.” Once more they were barely paying attention, having too much fun.

“Just remember that if things start getting out of control you can always call on Cadance.”

“We remember,” said Pound.

“Bye, now,” said Pumpkin.

“And make sure to tell your mother where I’ve gone,” said Carrot.

“O-kay!” said Pound.

“Bye, now!” Pumpkin said with a touch of impatience.

Carrot giggled before gently shaking his head. They were completely entranced with the baby, but he didn’t think there was any need to worry, as Skyla seemed to love them too.

He gathered his money and a few things and headed out.

Five minutes passed before the realization hit.

“Hmm?” Pound suddenly stopped trotting after Skyla, getting a confused look on his face.

“What’s wrong?” asked Pumpkin.

“Is it just me, or did Mom and Dad just leave us all alone?”

Now Pumpkin had an odd look on her face. Sure enough, she remembered that their parents had both left, thinking the other parent was there.

Pound crossed his hooves, a thoughtful look on his face. “Well, this isn’t good.”

Pumpkin went to the front door, opening it and taking a look around. There was no sign of their father anywhere. She closed the door. “I don’t see him.”

“Mmm.” Pound tapped a hoof on the floor. “You think we should call Cadance?”

“Hey!” said Pumpkin. “We’re responsible children, right? We’re just gonna do the same stuff we were already doing anyway.”

Pound’s eyebrow went up. “I guess…”

“And since we are responsible kids that means we have to do all we can to keep taking care of Skyla until they return, and that starts with making sure she’s safe.” She went to the front door and locked it. “There. Now no one can get in. We don’t open the door for anyone unless we know who they are.”

Pound gave a hearty nod. “Right.”

“Besides that…” Pumpkin put a thoughtful hoof to her chin. “Hmm, I guess there’s just more playtime, right?”

Pound nodded again. “That sounds good to me.”

4-2: Babies

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Skyla trotted over to the twins, seeing they weren’t continuing their chase game. “Hungwy!” she said with a whine.

Pound gave Skyla a hug. “No problem.”

He went over to the diaper bag, pulling out some formula and a bottle. He read the label. “This looks simple enough. A little water, a little formula, mix it up, and bang! One bottle for the hungry filly.”

Pound went to the kitchen as Pumpkin kept Skyla calm. Following the instructions he mixed up the bottle, humming to himself.

When he returned to the living room he held up the bottle. “Here we go. One full bottle.”

Skyla let out a whimper. “Hungwy!” Her horn lit up.

The bottle flew out of Pound’s hoof and towards Skyla.

“Hey!” Pumpkin cried out as she saw the speed at which the bottle was heading towards them. She put her hoof in front of Skyla’s face, wincing at the impact as the bottle slammed into it.

“Are you alright, Pumpkin?” asked Pound.

Pumpkin shook her hoof. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.

“You have to be more careful, Skyla. You hurt me.”

Skyla was distracted for a moment. “Huwt?” She kissed Pumpkin’s hoof. “There! All bettah!”

Pumpkin couldn’t help letting out a laugh. She’d seen it before when they were chasing each other around, but Skyla was definitely copying the people in her life.

Pound grabbed the bottle off the floor, checking the nipple for dirt and wiping it off. “Well, I don’t know if kissies alone are gonna be enough for that hoof. I think I should feed her.”

“Okay,” said Pumpkin. Her hoof was still stinging a bit.

Pound sat down, pulling Skyla onto his lap. He put the bottle by her lips. “Okay, Skyla. Open up.”

Skyla eagerly complied, her eyes closing as she began to drink.

Pound smiled down at her. She was so adorable. He gently rocked back and forth.

Pumpkin stared at the pair, feeling something strange.

A few minutes later Skyla finished off her bottle, and Pound lifted her up over his shoulder, patting her back until she let out a little burp.

“Good girl, Skyla!” Pound said as he pulled her back and nuzzled her nose.

She nuzzled him back, looking content, before she let out a little yawn.

“Aww, looks like someone is a little tired after running around and eating.” He set her down into the crock of his front legs and began to rock her. “And here’s a little something special to help you go to dreamland.”

He cleared his throat before he began to sing. “Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to lay your sleepy head. Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to go to bed.”

As Pound continued singing Pumpkin began to feel worse, that feeling inside her intensifying.

When Skyla began to snore Pound lifted her up and gave her a little kiss. “Goodnight, little Skyla. Well, it’s the middle of the day, but let’s ignore that.

“Hey, Pumpkin? Can you go grab a blanket and pillow for Skyla?”

“Huh?” she replied. “Oh, um… sure.” She got up, heading upstairs. A minute later she returned, setting them on the floor in front of Pound.

Pound heard a deep sigh, and turned to look at his sister. Pumpkin had a forlorn look on her face as she stared at Skyla.

“What’s wrong, Pumpkin?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I was just thinking.”

He continued to rock Skyla as he asked, “Thinking about what?”

“I don’t know… it’s kinda hard to explain.”

Gently setting Skyla down on the blanket he said, “Try me.”

She rubbed one of her hooves in a small circle on the floor. “I guess… I was just thinking that it wasn’t too long ago that we were still babies.”

Pound’s eyebrow went up. “That was five years ago.”

“Not really. I’m not talking about age here. You’ve said the same thing yourself, you know, about how things have gotten so complicated ever since we started going to school.”

Pound moved Skyla a little so her head was on the center of the pillow. It took him a little while to respond. “Yeah, I guess so. But… what’s your point?”

“I guess… I mean…” She looked around, trying to think of the best way to explain herself. “Looking at you taking care of Skyla… it reminds me of a simpler time, when things were easier. Back then it was just the two of us, playing without care. Except for keeping our room clean or taking our dishes to the sink we didn’t have any responsibilities. We’d fight, sure, and we’d get in trouble, but it was always over quickly.

“Now, though, things are so difficult. Tree Leaf, Peppermint, Masky, Flurry… we’ve helped a lot of ponies and made some lifelong friends, but it feels like every single one took so much effort. It was very painful.

“A part of me just… misses that simpler time, you know. For just a little while I want to go back to that.”

Pound gave her a searching look. “So what are you saying? You want to be a baby again?”

Pumpkin blushed slightly, but she nodded. “I mean, our parents and Auntie Pinkie are out. It’s only us here. I know we can’t actually get rid of our responsibilities, but… I mean… maybe for like the next two hours or so I can pretend like it’s like it used to be.”

She let out a sigh. “Even then, it’s not going to be how I want. I just want to be taken care of, you know? Get the back rubs and the lullabies and just not care about anything, but it feels too embarrassing to ask our parents for something like that.”

Pound just stared at her for a little while.

Pumpkin wondered if he was going to make fun of her.

Pound finally got a devious grin on his features. “Well… alright, then, Baby Cake. If you want to be a baby again then by all means. I’ll play along, ‘daughter,’ but if you’re going to do it you’re doing it properly.”

Pumpkin’s head tilted, an eyebrow going up as Pound went towards the bag with Skyla’s supplies in it. “What does that mean?”

Pound pulled something out of the bag, then before she could react he had shoved her to the ground.

“Hey!” she complained. “Whoa!” she said right after as Pound lifted her back legs. She felt something going up her legs. “What are you doing?” After a few more seconds he released her, and Pumpkin looked down to see he had put a diaper on her.

“Oh, no way!” Her face was now beet red. “I’m not wearing that!”

Pound got in her face, his grin wide. “You’re the one who said you wanted to be a baby again, so you need a diaper.”

“Why? So you can tell everyone in school? Or take a picture so you can blackmail me?”

The devious look on Pound’s face faded. “Oh, come on! You know me better than that.” Pumpkin just gave him a flat look.

Pound rolled his eyes. “Give me a break. We’re siblings, which means whatever affects one of us affects the other. You think I want to be known as the colt whose school-age sister was wearing a diaper? It would be just as humiliating for me as it would be for you.”

Pumpkin considered that, and thought it sounded plausible, but she still wasn’t sure.

Pound let out a sigh, shaking his head. “Fine.” He moved his hooves in the usual way. “I Pinkie Promise I won’t tell anyone at school about this. Now can I just get to enjoy this? You’re ruining the hilarity.”

That was that. If Pound had Pinkie Promised that meant she was safe. Even so, the idea of wearing a diaper wasn’t too appealing, but it was for the game. “Fine.”

“Finally!” Pound said. His annoyance faded as Pumpkin stood up and he began chuckling to himself.

Pumpkin tried to ignore him, but she couldn’t help but blush a bit.

Pound had a big grin on his face. He had no intentions of publically humiliating Pumpkin for this, but he thought he’d personally enjoy this sight for a long time.

Getting his merriment under control he said, “Well?”

Pumpkin pulled her eyes from her diapered rear. “Huh?”

“You’re a baby now, right? I mean, that’s what all this was for, right? So act like a baby.”

Pumpkin sucked on her cheek. She was starting to regret this. With Pound’s Pinkie Promise she knew he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about this, but from his mocking grin she had a feeling he wasn’t going to let her live this down regardless.

But wasn’t that the point? To let go of everything for a little while? If she didn’t follow through then she had put herself through this embarrassment for nothing. She had gone this far, she might as well take it all the way.

She began crawling on the floor, hoping that this wasn’t going to go horribly.

“Aww, isn’t that cute?” said Pound, walking up to Pumpkin and rubbing her head. “You’re just precious.”

Pumpkin resisted the urge to bite him. She forced a smile, copying Skyla as she said, “Hungwy!”

“You too?” He let out a sigh. “And you just ate a little while ago. You’re gonna get fat. Well, fat-TER.” He laughed at himself until Pumpkin’s horn lit up, knocking him onto his back.

“Oh, no!” she said sarcastically, still trying to keep her baby voice. “Magic surge. Oops.”

Pound stood up, a smug look on his face. “Magic surge, my flank.” He slowly shook his head. “Maybe the naughty baby needs a spanking to remind her how to behave.”

She stuck her tongue out at him, her horn lighting up as she hovered in the air. “If you can catch me.”

Pound unfurled his wings. “Have you forgotten? I can fly now.” He took off, charging toward her as Pumpkin’s horn stopped glowing and she landed on the ground.

As Pound flew over her she took off toward the kitchen, laughing.

“Get back here!” Pound called out, chasing after her as Pumpkin went through the sliding doors.

He avoided the doors entirely, flying over them. He looked back and forth, not seeing any sign of his sister. “Hmm… now where could the naughty baby be?”

He heard the creaking of a cabinet door. “Aha!” He flew towards it, opening it only to find some pots and pans.

On the other side of the room he heard another door move, and raced towards it, only to once again see no sign of his sister. It occurred to him that he was being played for a fool. She was using her magic to move the cabinets.

He sucked on his cheek for a few moments before getting an idea. “Oh, forget it!” he said loudly, flying towards the sliding doors and bucking them open. He quickly flew to the top of the fridge, landing soundlessly.

He only had to wait a short while before another cabinet opened, and Pumpkin came out, laughing victoriously to herself.

Pound smirked as he began to flap his wings and hovered until he was in a good position behind her, then he descended.

“Got you!” Pound called out as he grabbed his sister, making her let out a scream.

His triumph didn’t last. He wasn’t used to flying with the weight of an extra pony on him, and he quickly fell to the ground, both of them tumbling over and over a few times.

Both of them were feeling a little sore from the impact. It only got worse for Pound when Pumpkin gave him a hard smack.

“Pound, you dummyhead!” she said angrily. “What did you do that for?”

Pound wiped his cheek. “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t think it would be so hard to fly with another pony.” Despite the pain he couldn’t help but chuckle. “It’s been forever since you called me dummyhead. You’re really getting that baby mindset going, huh?”

Pumpkin glared at him.

“Alright, alright!” He looked back towards the kitchen. “Why don’t I get you some nice chocolate chip cookies and milk?”

“Hmph! Fine!” She stomped off to a kitchen seat.

“Mmm. She’s pretty mad.” Unfurling his wings again he went to one of the upper cabinets to grab a plate and an empty glass. Not for the first time he was glad he could fly. It just made doing things so much easier.

Once he had everything ready he set it on the table in front of Pumpkin, who began digging in silently.

After a few cookies Pound said, “I’m sorry, Pumpkin. I guess I just wasn’t thinking. I’m still getting used to this. I didn’t think it would be so difficult to stay airborne holding another pony.”

Pumpkin didn’t respond. He waited for a little while until it became obvious she had no intention of speaking, then he left the kitchen to return to the living room.

He sat down in front of Skyla, seeing her still sound asleep. He let out a sigh as he gently ran a hoof through her mane. “Babies have it so easy, don’t they?”

Pound got a strange look on his face, much like Pumpkin did earlier. He felt like he was starting to understand what Pumpkin had been talking about. He had gone through a lot of stress when he first started school. He had to endure constant teasing from bullies about the fact he was the worst in his class. Then he got into that big fight with Pumpkin and felt like he never wanted to go back to school again.

He had been the one who felt like he had lost the most. He had felt so outclassed by his sister, when earlier he had been the leader.

Now Pumpkin was mad at him for accidentally hurting her. No one would stay mad at a baby for making a mistake like that. It wasn’t like they could help what they did.

A few minutes later Pumpkin returned to the living room too. She was in a better mood now.

She could see he looked pretty bummed out. “Hey, you big dummyhead,” she said cheerfully. “I guess I forgive you. I mean, it’s not like you can help being stupid.”

He knew she was joking with him, and that made him feel a little better.

“Hey, Pumpkin?” he said.

“What’s up?”

“I… well, I, um…” He blushed slightly. “I guess I want to play too.”

Pumpkin blinked, a little surprised. “Really?”

He nodded. “It would be fun to go back in time for a little bit.”

“Aw, Pound.” She gave him a hug. “I’m really glad to hear that.”

“You are? Why?”

Pumpkin’s horn started glowing, a diaper coming out of the diaper bag. Much like he had done to her she pushed him onto his back as she grinned down at him, sliding the diaper up his legs. “Oh, I feel SO much better now.”

“Hey!” Pound complained.

Pumpkin put her face right in front of his, looking at him smugly. “Hey, if you’re going to pretend to be a baby then you’re doing it properly.”

Pound got a sour look on his face as she repeated his words from before. He crossed his front legs. “You better watch out or I’ll mess myself. How’s THAT for doing it properly?”

Pumpkin backed up in disgust, her tongue sticking out her mouth as she fought not to gag. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

Pound sat up. “Duh! That would be completely gross. I’m not THAT interested in playing the part of a baby.”

A few seconds passed, then Pound said, “Well, now what? If we’re both babies who is supposed to be the parent here?”

“Why do we need a parent? We’re babies, remember? We do whatever we want without thinking of the consequences.”

“Well, I don’t mind getting a little wild and crazy, but I think we need to agree that Skyla must come first.”

Pumpkin nodded. “If anything bad happened to Skyla then Flurry would probably kill us.”

“Yeah.” After a few seconds Pound chuckled a bit. “You look ridiculous.”

Pumpkin giggled in return. “Same to you.”

They both began to laugh harder.

Pound wiped a tear from his eye. “So now what? I don’t feel like making a huge mess because we’re gonna have to clean it up anyway and we don’t know when Mom and Dad are gonna be back.”

Pumpkin scratched her head. “I get what you mean. I started all this because I wanted to get away from our responsibilities for a little while, but most of the stuff I can think of would be harmful or make a mess. And we definitely don’t want either of those if we ever want a chance of foalsitting Skyla again.”

Pound tapped a hoof. “This would be easier if there was someone around to annoy. What’s the point of doing bad things if there’s no one around to get mad for it?”

“Well… babies don’t really do ‘bad’ things. They just don’t know any better yet. That’s why they can’t get in trouble for anything.”

“I guess…” Pound slowly moved his head around. “Well, let’s just do whatever comes to mind. We’re thinking about it too much. Babies don’t really think. They just do stuff.”

They began chasing each other around, doing baby talk, but it didn’t take long before Pound came to a stop, causing Pumpkin to do the same.

“What’s wrong, Pound?”

He shrugged. “This isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. I mean, I want to let go and just not care, but I can’t.”

“Hmm…” Pumpkin walked over to the diaper bag and began rummaging through it. “Yeah, I get what you’re saying. It’s just not as much fun if both of us are pretending to be babies.”

She stood up, her horn glowing as she turned back to him. “So I got a solution for that problem.”

“And what’s that?” he asked. “Mmph!” Pound backed up as something suddenly went into his mouth. He looked down and saw that Pumpkin had levitated a pacifier over to him.

“There you go! A good way to settle down the whining baby.”

Pound gave her a dirty look as she laughed at him.

The expression on his face only made Pumpkin laugh harder.

Pound tried to pull the pacifier out of his mouth, but Pumpkin’s magic held it in place.

“Aww, wook at da widdle baby with his widdle pacifier.”

Pound growled.

“Uh-oh! Da baby is getting mad. I guess that pacifier’s not working too well. Maybe the grumpy baby needs a nap.”

As Pumpkin’s head went back with her laughter Pound tackled her to the ground. When Pumpkin’s magic faded he spat the pacifier at her, hitting her on the head. “Is it still funny now?” he asked fiercely.

Pumpkin returned his angry look. “You sure you want to do this?”

Pound got his face right in hers so their forehead’s touched. “You bet, coward.”

“Coward?” she asked, confused despite her annoyance.

“All you unicorns are stinking cowards. Us pegasi and earth ponies have to use our own strength to fight, but all you do is light up your stupid horn because you don’t have the guts to fight yourself.”

Pumpkin met his stare for a few moments before she suddenly lifted her back hooves and flipped him off of her.

He landed on his back, quickly standing up as they once more glared at each other.

Pumpkin’s horn lit up, pulling him closer until their foreheads touched again. “You talk like I need magic to beat a loser like you. So have it you way. No magic it is.”

Pound got a smug look on his face. “You just lost.”

Pumpkin got into a ready stance. “Bring it on. Mom and Dad aren’t here to save you today.”

The pair began to wrestle, both of them trying to get up top.

Pound growled as he pulled his sister to the ground, both of them rolling around.

Eventually Pound got the upper hand, sitting on top of Pumpkin as she lay on her stomach, pulling on her front legs painfully with his own.

Pound let out a victory laugh. “Come on, Pumpkin! Let’s see that magic of yours. You know there’s no other way to way to beat me.”

Pumpkin let out a cry of pain as Pound gave another yank to her legs. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of surrendering or using her magic, but in the position she was in she didn’t have any good leverage.

“Give up!”

She refused. After another bit of pain as he pulled on her again she got an idea. She tilted her head, scraping her horn against his leg. It wasn’t sharp, so it didn’t cut him, but it did hurt enough that he released her.

With one leg free she pushed off and turned, knocking Pound onto his back again. The lingering pain from his rough treatment of her legs made her lose restraint, and she socked him one.

Pound rubbed his cheek for a moment, but then the pain only added fuel to his fire.

Now it was just a straight-up fight. Both of them grunted and yelled and cursed as they strove for dominance.

After a minute they both became aware of a rumbling on the floor, though at first they paid it no mind.

That quickly changed as a scream came from nearby. “BE QUIET!”

Turning to look their eyes went wide as Skyla began flying in the air in a sphere of magic, lightning coming off of it and her eye’s pure white. Her growl of frustration sounded magically amplified, echoing like there were two of her.

The pair gulped as they realized their fight had woken Skyla from her nap, and she clearly wasn’t happy about that.

4-3: Caught

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Skyla was steaming, magic pouring off of her as she floated in the air.

“Uh-oh,” whispered Pound. “We woke the baby.”

“Not good, not good,” Pumpkin whispered back.

She quickly scanned the area. “Um… the notebook?”

Pound grimaced. “I left it upstairs. I didn’t think we were actually going to have any trouble.”

Pumpkin let out a whimper. “Pound, if we get out of this alive remind me to call you a dummyhead.”

Pound gave a timid nod. “You bet.”

They both began to tremble as Skyla got a little closer to them.

“C-can’t you go get the book?” asked Pumpkin.

“I-I-I’m scared to move,” he replied.

“I don’t blame you.”

Pound looked around again, spying Skyla’s diaper bag. “Um, um… Pumpkin, grab the bag with your magic.”

“Why?”

“Flurry told us she had a favorite stuffed animal as a baby, and I think I spotted one in there before.”

“I sure hope you’re right.” She gulped, hoping that her horn’s glow wouldn’t draw Skyla’s fire.

Instead of pulling the bag over Pumpkin tilted it on its side, causing most of its contents to spill out.

Skyla’s head whipped around at the noise. “QUIET!” she screamed, making both of them flinch.

Pumpkin was slowly panting, her heart racing a mile a minute. She quickly rummaged through the stuff as quietly as she could until she uncovered a stuffed dog.

She lifted it in the air, putting it near Skyla. It took three tries to get her voice to come out as more than a whisper.

Pound was holding tight to Pumpkin, hoping this would work.

Finally, Pumpkin was able to adopt a silly voice as she made the dog dance, hoping that Skyla wouldn’t fry them both once she began talking.

“Oh, Skyla, why so sad?” She began moving the dog left and right, and Skyla followed its progress with her head. “I think someone needs a big hug to make them smile. Smile, smile, smile.”

Both of them waited with bated breath, still shaking all the while.

Slowly, the sphere of magic surrounding Skyla vanished and her eyes returned to normal. She hugged the dog to her as she slowly sank down to the ground, and then started crying.

Pound and Pumpkin sank to the ground, getting oxygen back in their systems.

Pound wiped sweat off his brow. “C-crisis averted.”

“Y-yeah,” Pumpkin replied. “Oh, boy. That was scary.”

Once they caught their breath they returned their attention to Skyla, who was still crying loudly and hugging her stuffed animal.

“We broke our word,” said Pound guiltily. “We said that Skyla would come before our game, but we were both being so immature we woke her up. And now she’s really sad.”

Pumpkin hung her head too. “Well, we made a mistake. Now we can start making up for it.”

They approached Skyla.

Pound adopted a sugary-sweet voice. “Oh, Skyla, I didn’t mean to wake you up. I’m so sorry.”

Pumpkin took on the same tone. “I’m sorry too. We’ll be quiet now.”

Skyla suddenly stopped crying and glared hard at them, freezing them in place again.

She got up, stomping over to them. She lifted the twins up in the air, putting them into separate corners. “You fight. Fight bad! Now you sit in the cornah an’ tink about what you did!”

The twins looked at each other, shrugging. If that was the worst Skyla did to them then that was fine.

Pound turned towards Skyla, seeing her sitting down with both sets of legs crossed, fuming.

It was kind of awkward, being punished by a baby, but neither of them wanted to set Skyla off further. She was definitely cranky after being woken from her nap.

For a few minutes they stood there, staring into the corner, hoping that Skyla would fall back asleep. Or, at the least, calm down.

They got their wish soon enough. They were suddenly floating again as Skyla set the two of them down in front of each other. “Now you say you sorry!”

Pound bowed his head. “I’m sorry, Pumpkin.”

“I’m sorry too, Pound,” said Pumpkin.

“Good!” said Skyla. “Fight bad! No mo’ fight!”

“Okay, Skyla,” Pound said soothingly. “We won’t fight anymore.”

He picked up the filly and began to rock her much like before. “I’m sorry we woke you up.” He nuzzled her face.

Skyla didn’t return the gesture, looking like she wasn’t sure whether she was ready to be coaxed out of her bad mood. She pushed his head away, saying again, “Don’ fight.”

“We won’t.” He threw her up into the air, catching her on the way down. That got a small laugh from the foal, but nothing like the barrel of laughs it got before. He knew his mom had warned him about the dangers, but he had to do something to get her in a happy mood again.

She was looking a little less cranky, at least.

“You want to go back to your nap now?”

“No!” she said, giving him a sour look. “Want to play!”

“Okay, then.” He set her on the floor.

“Why don’t we be animals?” said Pumpkin. She got into a squatting position and began to hop. “Ribbit!” she called out.

Pound copied her.

Skyla watched the two of them for a short while before she got into the same position. “Dibbit!” she said as she hopped, looking a little happier.

She wasn’t used to hopping, and so on her third hop she fell flat on her face.

The twins got panicked looks on their faces.

Skyla got a grumpy look on her face again as Pumpkin lifted her back to a sitting position.

“Oh, no!” Pound said, holding onto her. “You fell down.” He rubbed her forehead, desperately hoping she wasn’t about to have another meltdown.

“No want be frog!”

“Okay, okay!” Pumpkin said quickly, scared of setting Skyla off again. “Would you like to go for a ride again?”

Skyla glared at her for a few seconds before giving a small nod.

Pumpkin helped Skyla onto Pound’s back, and Pound took off.

At first Skyla was stone-faced as Pound trotted around, but as Pound went faster she began to smile, and it wasn’t long before she began giggling again.

Skyla ran the pair ragged. Every time they stopped to catch their breath she would get furious. She wasn’t nearly as cooperative as before, having little patience for not getting what she wanted immediately. They were too frightened of angering Skyla to try and talk her out of her fun.

They began switching off when they’d grow tired, Pumpkin using her magic to quickly swap Skyla between her and her brother.

They were the ones doing all the work now, so any hope they had of Skyla tiring herself back out didn’t seem likely.

Eventually, even their combined efforts proved too much. Pound flopped to the ground with Skyla on his back, exhausted. He was panting up a storm.

“Hey!” the foal complained. “Giddyup! Giddyup! Wanna run!”

“Too… tired.”

Pumpkin tried to lift Skyla up in her magic, but she was pooped too. “C-come on, Skyla.” She lay on her belly near Pound. “We need a break. I feel like I need a nap now.”

Skyla moved back and forth on Pound a few times, still trying to get him to continue running around with her, but he remained immobile.

She pouted as she got off Pound’s back, and went to grab her stuffed animal, hugging it to her. All the running around had gotten her into a better mood now, so she wasn’t as explosive as before.

As she stared at the twins she thought of what Pumpkin had said about needing a nap. Memories of things her mother had done for her surfaced, and she got a little smile on her face.

She set her toy down and walked over to the overturned diaper bag, grabbing a few things.

The twins had been glad for the brief reprieve, but that went right out the window when Skyla lifted them up in the air.

They glanced at each other in a panic, thinking Skyla was about to do something bad to them, but it quickly changed to confusion as Skyla began to gently rock them back and forth in the air.

Pumpkin let out a cry of surprise when she suddenly had a pacifier in her mouth.

Pound did feel a certain sense of satisfaction after the stunt she pulled earlier that started their fight in the first place, but it didn’t last when Skyla pushed an empty bottle in his own mouth.

Skyla began to gently bob back and forth as she began to sing.

She didn’t know half the words and her singing voice wasn’t that good, but they both recognized it as the lullaby they had been singing to her earlier.

The two shared a look. There really wasn’t anything they could do. Skyla was finally allowing them to rest, and they didn’t want to kick up a fuss when they were so tired from the exercise.

Pound pretended to drink from his empty bottle, while Pumpkin absentmindedly sucked on the pacifier, too tired to think about what she was doing.

Her eyes began to droop from the constant gentle rocking and her own fatigue.

***

Cup was feeling refreshed as she walked home. That spa treatment had really done the trick. She just felt so relaxed.

She turned the final corner to her home, and she paused for a moment at what she saw.

Carrot had completed his errands. He had a few things in his saddlebag neatly tucked away. He turned the corner to Sugarcube Corner, and stopped.

“Cup?” he said in surprise

“Carrot?” she responded back.

The two began quickly walking towards each other.

As they reached their front door they stopped, and began talking at the same time.

“What are you doing here?

“I went out for a little while.

“But I thought you were home!

“Didn’t the kids tell you I left?”

The two of them stared at each other for a few moments. “Wait a minue,” said Cup, a rising horror building up inside. “If we both went out then that means that Pound and Pumpkin were-”

They gasped, Carrot grimacing and Cup putting a hoof to her mouth as they realized they had left their children all alone.

Carrot tried the door, finding it locked. He let out a sigh of relief. “Well, at least they were smart enough to do that.”

Cup went into her bag, pulling out her key as she unlocked the door.

Opening the door the two of them went inside.

They started to call out to their children when they stopped dead, confusion and bewilderment on their faces.

They expected to see their kids still playing with the baby. What they didn’t expect was seeing them acting like babies themselves, with the actual baby seemingly taking care of them.

Skyla was levitating them in the air, gently rocking them and, while she didn’t really know the words, was seemingly singing them a lullaby.

Neither of them were sure whether the twins were pretending or if Skyla had done something to them.

Cup put a hoof to her cheek, amusement playing across it now as Carrot restrained himself.

“So who’s the baby, and who’s the foalsitter here?” asked Cup, causing the twins eyes to widen as they glanced towards their parents, their cheeks turning crimson.


4-4: Humiliation

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The twins were mortified. Their parents had just walked in on them looking like babies and being rocked to sleep by Skyla.

Carrot began laughing as Cup shook her head. “I guess the baby really is in charge here,” said Cup.

“Which one?” asked Carrot, making both of them laugh.

Skyla stopped her singing as she set Pound and Pumpkin onto the pillow, saying, “Nigh-nigh, Pound. Nigh-nigh, Pumpkin.”

The twins jumped up, Pumpkin’s horn glowing as she tried to covertly remove her and Pound’s diapers.

Carrot smirked. “Y’know, Pumpkin, that doesn’t help much when you still have the pacifier in your mouth.”

Pumpkin blushed red hot as she spat it out. She felt like she was going to die of embarrassment.

“Well,” said Cup, “it sure seems like you found a way to entertain yourselves while we were gone, although I thought I left two kindergartners in charge of a baby, not two other babies.”

Neither of them answered her, too humiliated to speak.

Pound let out a groan, covering his face with a hoof.

Skyla began to grow angry. She didn’t quite understand what was going on, but she did understand that the twins were getting upset.

She put a hoof to her mouth. “Shhh! You makin’ too much noise.”

That got everyone looking toward Skyla.

Pound and Pumpkin let out a yelp as they were placed back on the floor, the blanket following. “Is nap time. Have’ta go seep.”

“Skyla,” started Cup, but she wasn’t able to get out any more.

“SHHHHHHHH!” she said, louder. “You is gon’ wake dem up. They go seep now!”

Pound sat up, his face still burning like the sun. “Skyla, I don’t feel tired anymore.”

“Me, neither,” said Pumpkin, sitting up as well. “I can’t sleep now.”

Skyla’s eyes widened and her mouth hung open for a few moments. Then her eyes narrowed as she glared at Cup and Carrot. “Now wook what you did! When pony go seep they need QUIET! You did a bad!”

Skyla’s horn began glowing, and Cup and Carrot were lifted into the air.

“Hey!” said Pound, uncertain of what she was going to do.

But their panic was unfounded, as Skyla simply put their parents in a corner like she had done to them. “You do bad! Now you sit in da cornah and tink about what you did!”

The twins began to laugh a little. They still felt embarrassed beyond belief, but seeing Skyla be the disciplinarian towards their parents did take the sting out just a bit.

Cup chortled to herself. “You aren’t really expecting us to let a baby tell us what to do, are you?”

Pound rubbed the back of his head with a hoof. “Well, Skyla almost had a meltdown earlier when we woke her from her nap. She’s been pretty cranky ever since. I wouldn’t anger her.”

Carrot playfully rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Well, you two get back to your nap and your diapers, then. We’ll be here.”

The twins both groaned. Pumpkin had thought it was bad enough when just Pound knew about this.

They flopped to the ground, letting out sighs.

Skyla saw the miserable looks on their faces, and she started feeling sad. She turned her head, lifting up her stuffed dog and bringing it over to her. She hugged it to her, hesitating for a few moments, before she held it out to them.

“Is Woof Woof. You hug. Make you feel bettah.”

A hint of a smile crossed Pound’s mouth for a moment. Skyla didn’t understand the cause of their distress, but she was still trying to cheer them up. It quickly faded. He might have taken her “Woof Woof” if only to humor her, but he didn’t want to give their parents any more reasons to mock them.

Pumpkin was feeling much the same. She rubbed Skyla’s head. “Thank you, Skyla, but Woof Woof is your toy. You keep her.”

Skyla frowned as she hugged Woof Woof to her.

After a minute Cup asked, “Have we been punished enough, Skyla?”

The foal looked over, distracted by the twin’s sadness. “Say sorry.”

Cup and Carrot went over by the twins. “So sorry we woke you,” Cup said in a humorous voice.

“I just feel terrible,” said Carrot in the same tone.

The twins were so subdued that neither of them had it in them to keep teasing them.

Cup gave Pound a kiss on the forehead. “We’ll let you get back to your business.”

The pair went upstairs.

Pound and Pumpkin played with Skyla for the next half hour, but their hearts weren’t in it anymore. They put on a brave face, acting cheery on the outside for her sake, but on the inside they felt terrible.

It was a relief when Twilight, Cadance, and Shining came back earlier than they expected.

“Hello!” Cadance said when Pound opened the door.

Skyla’s head whipped around at the sound of her mother’s voice. “MAMA!” she said happily, her horn glowing as she zoomed toward her.

Cadance pulled on her with her own magic to reduce her speed so the foal didn’t knock her over. She held Skyla to her, kissing her forehead. “Hello, Skyla,” she said lovingly. “Did you have fun?”

Skyla gave a big nod. “Uh-huh! Big fun! Run ‘round. Go fast.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Cup peeked down the bottom of the stairs. “Did someone knock?”

Twilight called up. “Hey, there! We’re back.”

“Hello, Princess!” She walked down the stairs. “How was your day?”

“Just great.” She grinned widely. “It’s always lovely to spend time with my brother and the world’s best foalsitter.”

Carrot left his room and came down the stairs too.

Shining took his daughter from Cadance, nuzzling her nose. “Hello there, my beautiful Skyla.”

Skyla giggled as she nuzzled him back. “Daddy!” she said happily.

“So did everything go well?” asked Cadance, looking down at the twins.

“Just fine,” said Carrot. “These two really know how to get into the mindset of a foal.”

Cup snorted, putting a hoof to her mouth.

The twins faces went red, both of them silently praying their parents weren’t about to spill the scene they had walked in on. To their relief their father didn’t continue, so they thought they might be safe.

Cadance gave them a questioning look, feeling like she was missing something. “Well, Skyla seems perfectly fine and happy, so it seems you did a great job.”

“No,” said Pound, hanging his head. “We were terrible foalsitters.”

“Come on,” said Twilight. “I doubt it was that bad. The house is in one piece.”

Pumpkin shook her head. “That’s only because we got lucky. We were supposed to be responsible and mature, and we screwed it up royally.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Shining.

“We were too busy playing to pay attention to our parents, so we were left alone for a few hours when they each left the house to do some stuff.”

“What?” asked Cadance, her eyes going wide.

Pound sighed. “We were supposed to tell Dad that Mom had left, but we didn’t even realize it until a few minutes later, and by that point it was too late.”

Pumpkin continued, “And Skyla almost went on a rampage when we woke her from a nap because we were annoying each other and fighting.”

“Come on,” said Shining. “Do you really think you’re the only ones that have woken her up from a nap? There’s no need to beat yourself up over that.”

Cadance flipped through the magic notebook. “Did we miss your message?”

Pumpkin shook her head. “There wasn’t any message. Skyla was so happy and fun that we didn’t think she would be any trouble, even though Mom warned us about the things we did when we were babies.”

“I left the notebook upstairs in our room,” said Pound. “And with Skyla looking like she was going to go berserk we were both too afraid to move.”

Cadance did a quick sweep of the living room. “From what I can tell Skyla didn’t cause any damage to the store.”

Pumpkin shrugged. “Pound remembered a stuffed animal in the diaper bag, and I pulled it out and did a silly voice with it. It calmed her down before she could destroy anything. She didn’t want to go back to sleep so we gave her rides until she cheered up.”

“So what’s the problem?” asked Twilight. “You were left alone, but you thought on your hooves and stopped a disaster before it happened. It sure seems you made the best of a bad situation. I don’t know how many times I have to remind you, but no one is perfect, especially not me.”

“Twily is right,” said Shining. “I’d never call myself a perfect parent. I remember a time when Cadance had just gotten Skyla to sleep, and I came in excited and loud. Cadance got pretty mad at that. These things happen.”

Cadance turned Skyla to them. “Skyla said she had a lot of fun with both of you. She clearly thinks you did a good job, despite your mistakes.”

Pound bowed. In a subdued voice he said, “Thank you for your words, but it doesn’t make me feel better. What happened with Skyla isn’t even the real issue.”

Pumpkin bowed too. “Yeah, that has little to do with what we’re feeling.”

“So what is the issue then?” asked Twilight curiously.

Getting back to an upright position neither of them answered the question. “Goodbye, everyone,” said Pound, turning towards the stairs and heading toward them.

“Goodbye,” said Pumpkin, following him. “Thanks for letting us watch Skyla.”

“Hey!” said Twilight. “Hold on now. If there’s a problem you have let’s work on it together.”

Pound stopped and shook his head. “But you can’t help us. This isn’t a problem you can fix.”

Pumpkin stopped as well. “What was it you said to Crystal? That there are problems you can’t solve because you’re not the right person for the job?”

“Yes,” said Twilight. “I said that. But even if I can’t solve it myself I might be able to direct you to someone that could.”

“But they’re already here,” said Pumpkin. “And we’re not sure we want to talk to them right now.”

Cup and Carrot glanced at each other, guilt upon their faces.

“So that’s it,” said Pound. “We’ve done our job, so we’re going.”

As the twins began to walk again Skyla pulled out of her father’s grip and flew in front of them holding Woof Woof.

She lifted it up in her magic. “Why so sad?” she said in a silly voice, making it dance. “Smile, smile, smile!”

The pair stared at her. Even in the midst of her breakdown earlier she still remembered Pumpkin’s words enough to copy them once again.

Both of them sat down, hugging Skyla. It did make them feel a little better.

Skyla smiled as she hugged them back.

When they released her they had small smiles on their faces. “Thank you, Skyla,” said Pumpkin. “We needed that.”

“Thank you,” said Pound, rubbing her head.

Seeing them smiling made Skyla happy. She waved to them. “Bye, Poun’. Bye, Punkin’.”

They waved back. “Goodbye, Skyla,” they replied as she ran back to her mother.

With that out of the way they continued where they left off, going upstairs to their rooms.

When they were gone Twilight turned to Cup and Carrot. “So what’s going on? Going by their words it seems like they have an issue with you that needs to be settled.”

Cadance had a thoughtful look on her face. “I noticed that when you mentioned the twins being good at getting into the mind of a foal that Cup laughed and the two of them looked uncomfortable. I thought it was odd, but now I’m thinking it has something to do with this.”

Cup sighed. "Well, me and Carrot both came back at the same time, and when we walked in Pound and Pumpkin were…” She stopped. After a few moments she said, “Well, I don’t want to say what it was, but they were in an embarrassing position. It was so unexpected we couldn’t help but laugh at it. It seems they’re taking it harder than we thought.”

“So they’re feeling a bit humiliated?” said Twilight.

“It seems that way,” said Carrot.

Twilight closed her eyes for a few seconds. When she opened them she said, “As Pound and Pumpkin said it doesn’t seem I have any role to play here. This seems like the sort of thing that needs to be sorted out between the four of you, so we should go and let you take care of that.”

“Right,” said Cup with a nod.

“Good luck,” said Shining. “And thank you again for looking after our daughter.”

“You’re welcome,” said Carrot. “Farewell.”

Once the four of them left Cup and Carrot began to walk up the stairs towards their children’s rooms.

4-5: Intimacy

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Cup and Carrot were standing outside Pound and Pumpkin’s room.

The door wasn’t closed, so they peeked in. Both of their children were on their bellies facing away from them.

Carrot gave a gentle knock on the door. “Hey, there,” he said in a quiet voice. “Can we come in?”

He didn’t get an answer, but they weren’t barred from entering either, so they walked in, both of them sitting on the edge of the bed. Cup sat on Pound’s bed, while Carrot sat on Pumpkin’s.

“Listen,” said Cup, “we’re sorry if we upset you earlier, but we couldn’t help laughing.”

“I’m sure everyone else got a great big laugh out of it when you told them,” said Pound, sniffing.

“We didn’t tell them anything,” said Carrot.

“Why not?” asked Pumpkin emotionlessly. “Was the crowd not big enough? Or did you just want to do it in public so everyone can laugh at us forever?”

“Come on, now,” Cup said gently, putting a hoof on Pound’s back. “I’m sure if you came home from school and saw us in diapers you’d be laughing your heads off about it.”

“Probably,” said Pound. “So what’s your point? You gonna tell all your friends about it so they can laugh at us too?”

“Of course not, Pound! We didn’t tell Twilight and the rest. What we walked in on will stay between the four of us.” She stood up and went to the side of the bed so he could see her, and moved her hooves in the usual way. “Pinkie Promise.”

Pound turned his head, moving to a sitting position but not looking at her.

“Pinkie Promise,” said Carrot, also going through the motions.

Pumpkin let out a sigh of relief before she too got to a sitting position.

Cup looked at her sons face. “Even though we’ve said that you still don’t look too happy about it.”

“You just don’t get it!” Pound said angrily.

“I know we don’t. So please talk to us.”

“That was so humiliating!” Pumpkin said in frustration, tears welling up in her eyes. “And you don’t even know why it happened.”

“So tell us,” said Carrot, gently rubbing Pumpkin’s head.

“Earlier, when Pound was making formula for Skyla she got too eager and nearly smacked herself in the face with her bottle and I blocked it with my hoof, and it hurt, so Pound had to feed her. And as I was watching him, feeding her and rocking her and singing to her and just being so loving, I just… I started feeling kinda jealous. Or, I don’t know, that I missed being a baby.”

Carrot hesitated a moment, then he reached his hooves out and gently tugged at her. For a second it looked like she was going to throw his hooves off of her, but then it passed and she let herself be picked up and put on his lap.

Cup saw Pound staring at his sister, and sat down again. Without any prompting from her he quickly climbed up onto her own lap.

“So go on,” said Cup as she put her hooves around his belly.

“The whole diapers thing wasn’t our own idea,” said Pound. “When Pumpkin said that I forced one on her because I thought it would be funny. And later on when I said I wanted to play too she returned the favor.”

“The pacifier and the bottle were Skyla’s idea,” said Pumpkin. “Trying to imitate her mom she took care of us like Cadance does for her.”

“Well, going by her behavior earlier we can definitely see that Skyla’s at the age where she’s copying everything she sees,” said Carrot.

“So what does this all come down to?” asked Cup. “What is the main issue?”

Pound sighed. “We just… wanted to get away from responsibility for a little while. We already went through this with me, back when me and Pumpkin got into that huge fight the day she got her glasses. Everything just feels so different now that we’re going to school. I took forever to fly, and things are so much more complicated.”

“We’ve made a lot of friends,” said Pumpkin, “but only after a lot of pain and sadness.”

“And even if I was the one who asked for it, I still had a princess giving me an order to reform someone.”

“And it’s not only that!” Pumpkin shivered. “During Fluttershy’s party, when Mayhem was still evil, he took over us and tried to use us to kill you!”

Pound winced, tears coming down his eyes. “We almost lost you forever, and the only way to stop him had US almost dying.”

“We’ve just been through so much since last year, and things are only going to get harder.”

“Sometimes it feels like it’s too much to take!”

Cup and Carrot both hugged their children tightly. They had seen Mayhem’s growth with their own eyes, his affection for Fluttershy outweighing his desire for destruction. And so, while they didn’t hold his past against the little draconequus, they also couldn’t forget the day he had come into their lives.

It was the closest they had ever came to death, and Mayhem had tried to use their own children to do it. They had been able to get the twins to overcome his influence through encouragement, but the kids knew they couldn’t maintain that control for long and so shrunk from their giant sized forms to regular size, hoping an overload of magic in their bodies would kill them and deprive Mayhem of a host.

They could easily say that was the worst day of their lives. Their six year old children, putting their lives on the line… trying to sacrifice themselves. They could still remember the screams of agony coming from them as Discord’s magic began to take its toll on their bodies.

Even after Discord’s magic had been purged out of them they had still taken an extensive amount of damage, burns covering their body.

“You have been through a lot,” said Cup. “You’ve been through things no kid should have to suffer through.”

“But how long have you been feeling this way?” asked Carrot. “I hope this isn’t something you’ve been keeping buried for months and months.”

“No,” said Pumpkin. “It really only started today.”

“We already know that we can’t go back,” said Pound. “There’s always another pony that’s going to need help, after all.

“We just… wanted to get away from it all for a bit, even if it was just pretending.”

“But… it didn’t really make me feel better. Acting like a baby wasn’t that much fun.”

“Yeah.” Pound nodded. “It didn’t give us what we wanted.”

Pumpkin sighed. “I don’t blame you for laughing when you came home. You’re right. We would have found it hysterical if we saw that.” That did get a small chuckle out of her as she tried to imagine it, but like earlier the brief happiness didn’t last.

“I agree. It would have been funny to see, but you laughing at us, and being scared you were going to tell everyone… it just added even more stress.”

Carrot took in a slow breath. “Are you mad at us?”

“What?” said Pumpkin, looking surprised at the question. “No… no. We’re not mad. It was just really embarrassing. And since you Pinkie Promised not to tell anyone else there’s no reason to be mad at you.”

It was quiet for a few moments.

“Let me give my thoughts,” said Cup.

Pound looked up at her. “Okay.”

“From what you’re saying it seems to me like you feel something is missing in your lives. As you yourself said just acting like a toddler didn’t alleviate the uncomfortable feelings inside of you.

“If I had to guess I’d say you feel there’s a shortage on intimacy.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Pumpkin.

“Pinkie is a delight, and we’re thankful for her being in our lives every day, but you have to admit that there isn’t a whole lot of quiet time with her. Our weekend family time is usually packed to the brim with fun activities. There’s nothing wrong with that, since it’s always a blast, but it does seem you’re both craving more personalized attention.”

“Think about it,” said Carrot. “What stared off this whole foal behavior? Pumpkin said it herself. She saw the personal, tender care Pound was giving to Skyla, feeding her and rocking her and singing to her, and she became a little jealous.”

“It seems to me that what you were really after wasn’t to be babies again, but just to be babied. Does that make sense?”

“I… I don’t know,” said Pound. “Maybe?”

“As you say, you’re growing up,” said Carrot, “and things are different. But maybe for today we can suspend some rules to give you what you want.”

“Like what?” asked Pumpkin.

“Well,” said Cup. “Your brother mentioned the huge fight you got into last year, and I think he’ll remember how much joy he got while you were off visiting your friend.”

“Hmm?” Pound’s head tilted. After a moment his face lit up. “Oh! Oh, yeah!”

Pumpkin looked over at Pound. “What? What happened?”

“Since I was so sad they put me in charge for a while. I put on a crown and pretended I was a king, and they were my servants.”

Pumpkin chuckled. “That seems pretty silly.”

“Yeah, but I like to think I made a good king.”

“You did,” said Carrot.

“Aw, it’s a shame I missed out on that,” said Pumpkin.

“Well, you wouldn’t have got to play anyway,” said Pound. “The only reason they gave me that privilege was because they knew I was going through a harder time than you.”

“I wouldn’t mind playing that game for a while,” said Pumpkin. “But I don’t get it. I thought you said we needed more intimacy and less playtime together.”

“I did say that,” said Cup, “but I wasn’t talking about King Pound earlier.”

“You weren’t?” asked Pound.

She shook her head, giving Pound a tender smile. “Don’t you remember what happened in the middle of our game?”

Pound gazed into his mother’s eyes, feeling a sense of comfort and security. A memory came to him, and he gave a teary nod. “Oh, so that’s what you meant.” He blinked tears out of his eyes. “I sure wouldn’t mind having that again. “

Now Pumpkin was really curious. “So what-”

There was a sudden slamming of a door downstairs, causing all of them to look in that direction. After a few moments there was a stomping up the stairs.

Cup and Carrot each held tighter to their children, unsure what was coming up the stairs.

Their worry vanished as Pinkie passed by. She stopped and backed up a few steps, turning to them with an uncharacteristic frown.

“Hello!” she said in a high-pitched strained voice. Without giving them a chance to greet her back she continued, “I’d just LOOOOVE to tell you about the adventure I went on today.

“What’s that? ‘You’re very busy, and I should tell you tomorrow?’ That’s a darn shame. I guess I’ll just go to the bathroom and take a nice long soak, then go to my room and try to forget today ever happened.”

She let out a loud huff as she stormed off.

The four of them glanced at each other, and after a few seconds all of them started laughing awkwardly.

“I guess Auntie Pinkie had a hard time of it today,” said Pumpkin.

“Sure looks like it,” said Pound.

Cup looked down at Pound, then back towards the door. “Well… let’s give her space like she asked. If she wants to talk to us we’re all here.”

The twins were still staring at the doorway. They always hated it when Auntie Pinkie was sad.

Eventually Pound let out a sigh. “You’re right, Mom.”

Pumpkin looked toward Cup as well. “So what was it you were talking about before she came home?” She asked more to distract herself than anything else.

“Come here, Pumpkin,” she replied.

As Pumpkin hopped off her bed towards Pound Cup asked, “You don’t mind if your sister starts things off, do you?”

Pound shook his head. “No. I think it’s only fair after being the only one to get it last year.”

Pumpkin got on the bed, trying to get on her mother’s lap like Pound, but Cup lifted a hoof to stop her, gesturing to an empty spot on the bed. “On your belly, Pumpkin.”

Pumpkin gave her a questioning look, but complied wordlessly.

Pound knew he’d be in the way, so he left his bed and went to sit on his father’s lap.

Pumpkin put her head on her front hooves and waited.

Cup adjusted her position, and much like last year when she did this for Pound she started to get nostalgic memories.

Lifting her front hooves she placed them on Pumpkin’s back and began gently moving them back and forth.

It only took a few seconds before Pumpkin went, “Oh! That’s what you were talking about.”

She had seen her mom give her dad back rubs before, and he always seemed to enjoy it so much. Pound clearly did too. And now that she was experiencing it herself she had no disagreement. Her mother was gentle yet firm. It only took a minute for her mom to find the perfect amount of pressure to maximize her enjoyment.

Within another minute she found the stress of the day just melting away into calm relaxation, her mind going blissfully blank.

Pound squirmed a little. Even so long ago he could still remember how much he had enjoyed his massage. He really didn’t want to wait for his turn.

He looked up at his dad. “What about you?” he asked.

“Hey,” Carrot replied, “I get plenty of massages. This is about you two right now.”

Pound shook his head. “No, silly! I mean why don’t you give me a massage?”

The question took him by surprise. “I doubt you’d enjoy it, Pound. I don’t have the years of practice your mother does, nor the gentle touch of an angel.”

Cup paused in her massage to grin broadly at her husband, flattered by the compliment. After a moment, at a dissatisfied noise from Pumpkin, she continued on. “Well,” she said lightly, “there’s no harm in trying if he’s asking, right? You don’t have to be perfect.”

Pound moved onto his belly, looking expectantly at Carrot.

Carrot took a deep breath. He just didn’t think he was cut out for this. All the same he tried putting his hooves on Pound’s back.

Cup glanced at him, seeing him unmoving. “Don’t think so hard about it, Dear. A massage is almost literally about body language. You just have to pay attention.

“A massage is about relaxation. Start gently, gradually increasing the pressure. If he starts tensing up it means you’re being too forceful and should dial back your strength. It’s basically as simple as that. The rest, as I said, is just about being mindful.”

Carrot looked at his wife, watching her lovingly caring for Pumpkin. He looked back down at Pound and resigned himself, beginning to move his hooves.

It took him a while to get into the spirit of things. He was so nervous about messing up that he was very slow and overly gentle. Pound had to keep telling him it was okay before he adjusted his pace and force.

He reminded himself that he didn’t have to be perfect. It wasn’t like this was going to be an everyday thing he needed to master.

As he thought that he frowned, his mouth going to the side as he sucked on his cheek. “You know, now that I’m here doing this it occurs to me that you’ve been doing all the giving, honey-bun.”

Cup glanced over at him, not stopping her motions.

“After a long day of baking it feels great to unwind with a nice massage from you. Thinking of trying to do right by Pound here I realize that my inexperience comes from never offering you the same.”

Cup looked unperturbed. “Well, you’re free to disagree, but I feel you have the harder job. You’re stuck back in the hot kitchen most of the day, doing the majority of the baking. I just have to grab the stuff the customers want and socialize. And I usually have Pinkie helping out on busy days.

“It makes me happy to care for you like I do. It helps me to wind down as much as it does for you.”

“Even so, I want to start returning the favor. I guess I should start with Pound. No better time than the present.”

Pumpkin wasn’t paying attention to anything but the feel of her mother’s hooves. It was no wonder their dad always looked so relaxed when work was over.

Carrot put all his focus on Pound. As his wife had said the secret was about the language of the body. He just had to see what worked and what didn’t work. He shouldn’t need words to understand what Pound needed if he just paid attention to his reactions.

Carrot slowly got into his groove. While it did start to feel nice Pound couldn’t deny that his mother did it better. It wasn’t surprising, since he just didn’t have the experience she did, but he wasn’t horrible at it either.

For his first time Pound thought his dad did very well.

After a few minutes Pumpkin reluctantly switched with Pound. She didn’t want to move, let alone get up.

Pound gladly took his sisters spot, eagerly looking back at his mom with a bright smile.

As Cup used her magic hooves on him it only took a few seconds for him to melt into a puddle of joy. It was just as good as he remembered. The “gentle touch of an angel.” His dad had certainly pegged it right. Just like with Pumpkin he felt his stress melting away until all he could think about was how relaxed he felt.

Pumpkin was a little unenthusiastic. She didn’t hold it against her dad that he wasn’t used to giving massages, but going from her mom to him…

She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so she didn’t say anything, but she was quietly counting the seconds until she could switch with Pound again.

When the twins heard the sound of a door opening and then hooves going up the stairs they both seemed to make a decision at the same time.

Getting up, Pound said, “I think we should postpone this for now.”

“Oh, really?” asked Cup.

“Yeah,” said Pumpkin, getting up as well. “I’m really enjoying it, but…”

Pound looked up into her eyes. “But it just doesn’t feel as good as it should with Auntie Pinkie in a bad mood.”

Carrot smiled down at them. “I understand.”

Cup rubbed Pound’s head. “Go on, then.”

4-6: Comforting

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Leaving their room they went upstairs. Pinkie’s door was wide open, probably because she just didn’t feel the energy to close it.

They saw her on her belly on her bed. Even as they watched she let out a big sigh.

Pound knocked on the door. “Hey, Auntie Pinkie,” he said quietly.

“Can we talk to you?” said Pumpkin.

As they approached Pinkie turned onto her side. “I thought I hinted strong enough that I don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s okay, Auntie Pinkie. You don’t have to.“

“We just didn’t want to leave you all alone up here,” said Pound.

“I just want to go to sleep,” said Pinkie.

Pound got an awkward look on his face, a slight tinge coming to his cheeks. “You don’t have to go to sleep sad. Would a laugh at our expense help? We had a bad time of it ourselves.”

Pumpkin turned to him. “Oh, Pound. You aren’t really going to tell her about that, are you?”

“Why not? I mean, if it was anyone else I wouldn’t want to, but Auntie Pinkie really needs some cheering up.”

Pumpkin crossed her hooves, blushing herself now. “I guess so."

Pinkie showed a little interest. “I guess I missed something big.”

Pound climbed up on her bed, pulling Pinkie to a sitting position before plopping himself on her lap. Pumpkin quickly followed.

Before they got to storytelling they each gave her a big hug. “I love you, Auntie Pinkie!” the pair said in unison.

A tear came down Pinkie’s face. Just that little bit made her feel a little sunnier. “I love you too.”

Taking a deep breath they began to talk about how their day had gone.

As Pumpkin began to talk about her jealous feelings towards Skyla she hesitated to continue. “Auntie Pinkie, can you promise not to tell anyone else what we’re about to tell you?”

Pinkie moved her hooves. “Pinkie Promise.”

Pumpkin blushed again, then told Pinkie about Pound putting a diaper on her.

Pinkie snorted hard, covering her mouth with her hoof. “Really, Pound?”

Pound chuckled. “Oh, she got me back for that. When I told her I wanted to play she threw my words back at me and put me in one too.”

Pinkie closed her eyes, shaking her head. “You kids are crazy!” She continued to snicker as she tried to imagine that.

The two of them were glad Pinkie was looking less stressed.

They talked about waking Skyla and how they had managed to calm her down, then about how they had utterly exhausted themselves trying to keep her in a good mood, ending with Skyla treating them like babies just as their parents returned home.

“So wait,” said Pinkie, barely suppressing her mirth, “in walked Mr. and Mrs. Cake, and there you were, wearing diapers, sucking on a pacifier and drinking from a bottle as Skyla was trying to rock you to sleep?”

Pound let out a little huff. “Yep.”

Pumpkin nodded, an awkward smile on her face.

Pinkie burst out into hysterical laughter, flopping onto the bed. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!”

If it had been anyone else they might have been bothered at that, but they knew Auntie Pinkie wasn’t laughing at them so much as she just found the concept hilarious.

It took a while for her to get herself under control. Every so often she’d stop for a few moments before losing herself again.

When she finally got all the giggles out she wiped the tears from her eyes and caught her breath. “Whew.” She sat up, looking down tenderly at the two of them. “Thanks, you guys. I… I really needed that.”

They both grinned at her.

Her smile faded. “I know…” She stopped, looking away. “I know I’m usually the happiest, joyful, fun-loving pony around, and I don’t really let stuff get to me, but every so often I just feel… sad.” Tears hovered in her eyes.

The twins began to tear up at seeing her doing it. They thought that she was fine now but it seemed she still needed more cheering up.

“Me and my friends have been given a big responsibility, traveling around the world to help ponies desperately in need of our guidance.

“Sometimes the pressure just gets to me, and I get scared that I’m going to fail. I feel scared that I’m not enough, and because of that fear I made things so much worse. If I had only listened to Fluttershy things could have been resolved so much faster, but I kept pushing when I should have held back, and it hurt to see how my actions wound up causing even more pain.

“In trying to help I caused a big accident, and everyone got mad at me for a while, and the fighting grew harsher.” She sniffed, her tears starting to flow freely. “I was heartbroken. My life’s goal is to make other happy, but I wound up making everyone even more miserable.

“I almost gave up. I felt like I didn’t have any place there anymore. But Fluttershy…” She closed her eyes. “Well, do I even have to say it?”

They shook their heads. “Us and Mayhem and Masky,” said Pound. “Fluttershy is really good at helping ponies with their mistakes and cheering them up.”

Pinkie nodded, her eyes opening again. “Her encouragement made me get back on my hooves and try again.” She stared at the ground for a little while. “Everything did work out in the end. We solved the problem and got to go home, but I still feel bad for how majorly I screwed up.”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry you have to see me like this.”

The two immediately hugged her again. “Don’t be silly, Auntie Pinkie!” said Pound. “Everyone gets sad sometimes.”

“And we screw up really badly,” continued Pumpkin.

“But, as we said in the Friendship Journal, making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad pony. You feel guilty about what you did, so we know for sure you’re still a good pony.”

“And hey!” Pumpkin said brightly. “The Map wouldn’t have chosen you if it didn’t know you were the best pony for the job. So forget your dumb mistake. You made up for it and fixed everything in the end.”

Pinkie’s lip quivered, letting out a little sob as she held them tight. After letting out a few breaths she said, “I know I’ve said this a hundred times before, and I’ll say it hundreds and hundreds times more, but I love the both of you so much. You’re always there to lift me up when I’m feeling down. Your love is like a bright light, pulling me out of the darkness.”

“And that light will never go out!”

“That’s right!” Pound said strongly, squeezing harder. “We’ll always be there to brighten your day.”

Pinkie’s body grew more relaxed. “I love all of my friends, but I really feel the two of you helped make me the mare I am more than any other. Watching you two grow, wanting to be the best caretaker I could be, it made me become more responsible. I know I wasn’t as stern as your parents, but as I watched you grow from little babies to the mature foals you are today… I just feel a sense of joy and pride that I was able to play a role in that.

“I’m not a mother, but the two of you are as close to my heart as any child could be to their parents.” She kissed each of them on the forehead. “Thank you, truly, for being an irreplaceable part of my life. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

They looked up at her, their eyes shimmering, as they each kissed her on the cheek. “The same to you, Auntie Pinkie,” Pound said blissfully. “We’d be lost without you.”

“And we hope that you stay in our lives until the day we die,” said Pumpkin.

The three snuggled against each other. No more words needed to be said.

4-7: Togetherness

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Having resolved Pinkie’s feelings the twins were feeling much better.

“We know about pressures and responsibility,” said Pound calmly. “It’s what got us into that crazy situation in the first place.”

“Yeah,” said Pumpkin. “We were feeling a little overwhelmed by everything earlier, but I wouldn’t trade our experiences for anything.” She grinned up at Pinkie. “After all, it’s everything we’ve gone through that allows us to help you as much as you help us.”

Pound nodded, then giggled. “Well, a nice massage from Mom certainly helped.”

Pumpkin chuckled too. “Can’t deny that. She’s really good at that.”

Pinkie shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I’ll just have to take your word for it.”

“If you’re feeling stressed I’m sure Mom wouldn’t mind giving you one too.”

Pinkie laughed. “Maybe not, but I’m not feeling stressed anymore. Not after the two of you went out of your way to help me.”

They both grinned widely.

“Why don’t we go make some dinner? Now I’m starting to feel hungry.”

“Okay, Auntie Pinkie!”

The three of them went downstairs, the twins smiling at their parents as they passed by their room.

As usual, Pinkie found a way to make things fun.

“Go long!” she called out to Pound, throwing a head of lettuce in his direction.

Pound jumped for it, but it suddenly went up a foot out of his reach, enveloped in a blue glow.

Pumpkin grabbed it. “And Pumpkin with the steal!”

Pound just chuckled as Pinkie threw a tomato at him, and he caught this one.

Pinkie grabbed some zucchini, and together the three of them began making a salad.

After chopping up the zucchini Pinkie grabbed some tofu burgers out of the freezer, setting them on a pan on the oven. She turned on the heat, humming to herself as she worked on them.

When the food was done they called down Cup and Carrot from upstairs and had dinner.

After hearing about Pound and Pumpkin’s day, and destressing, Pinkie felt ready to talk about her own day.

When dinner was over they cleaned up and went to the living room to relax by the fire. The twins stayed by Pinkie to ensure her continued better mood.

After a few hours of quiet family time it was time for the twins to go to bed.

All five of them went upstairs. Pinkie kissed them both at the door, and they hugged her back as they said good night.

As the twins headed for their beds Cup called out to them and they turned around.

“What is it, Mom?” asked Pound.

“That was a very nice thing you did, spending so much time with Pinkie after her disaster of a day.”

“It’s only fair,” said Pumpkin. “She’s always been there for us.”

“We wouldn’t abandon her,” said Pound.

“You told us that you had been growing tired of your responsibilities,” said Carrot, “and yet you focused only on Pinkie instead of coming back to ask us to continue with your massage.”

“We already explained that. What are you getting at?”

“A good deed deserves a nice reward, and since you were so mature we’ll allow you to be babies for tonight.”

That made both of them raise their eyebrows. “What does that mean?” asked Pound. “We got a little down before, but we’re already over it. We don’t want to go back to acting like babies.”

“Is that right?” asked Cup genially. “So would that mean you wouldn’t accept if we offered to let you sleep with us tonight?”

The twins eyes widened a bit, before they both began crawling around doing baby talk.

“Goo! Goo!” said Pound.

“Wanna sweep wit you!” said Pumpkin.

Cup and Carrot both began to laugh. “I love our children,” said Cup.

“Me too,” replied Carrot.

The twins dispensed with the theatrics and ran over, hugging their parents.

“This is so awesome!” said Pumpkin.

“Got that right!” said Pound. “We haven’t gotten to sleep with you since last year.”

Pumpkin looked toward her brother with a sly expression. “I know, right? That was when they became, like, the worst parents. ‘Oh, you’re terrified of that mean old thunder? Well, deal with it, losers.’ “

Pound snorted. “So mean. I guess it’s good we never convinced them to have another child. They’d probably make the newborn find its own house after a week. What terrible parenting.”

“Oh, is that how it is?” Cup said with fake anger, pushing Pumpkin away from her. “Since we’re so horrible I don’t see why you’d want to sleep near us.”

Carrot turned around and began walking away. “Come on, honeybun! I am hurt.”

Cup started walking away too. “Goodnight, losers! Deal with it!”

It only took a few moments for all four of them to burst into laughter. When they got themselves under control a little the twins jumped up onto their parents’ backs and went to their room.

Standing in front of their bed Carrot and Cup looked mischievously at each other before lowering their back halves and bit and lifting them hard, sending their children flying off their backs onto the bed.

They screamed at first, but began laughing once they landed and bounced. They screamed again as their parents hopped onto the bed with them, towering over them with evil expressions.

“Let’s see just how horrible we really are,” said Carrot, lifting a hoof, pulling a few stray feathers from his pillow and handing one to his wife.

“I’m game,” said Cup as she bit down on the nub.

The twins tried to run, but it was no use. As the feather tickled their skin they couldn’t help laughing. They’d squirm and pull out of their parent’s grip, only to quickly be captured again.

After a few minutes of “torture” they were finally allowed to rest and catch their breath, wiping away the tears in their eyes from laughing so hard.

Cup and Carrot laid on their sides next to their children, Cup next to Pound and Carrot next to Pumpkin, and pulled them close.

Pound and Pumpkin turned on their sides, hugging them back. The fun and games were over, but that was okay. They loved it when their parents were a little immature and just let go, but they also loved their affectionate side.

Cup nuzzled Pound’s nose. “Not so horrible now, hmm?”

Pound nuzzled her back. “No way.” He squeezed a little tighter. “I sure missed this.”

“Me too,” said Pumpkin.

“It’s nice,” said Carrot, “but don’t get used to it. This is a special exception.”

“We’ll see-ee!” said Pound in a sing-song voice.

“Oh, no, mister,” said Cup. “I’ll send you to your room right now if you’re gonna start that.”

Pumpkin let out a little sigh. “It’s not fair that we can’t do this every night. It makes us happy. It makes you happy. So what’s the big deal?”

Carrot sighed in return, rubbing her back. “It’s always nice to snuggle with you two, but while we’ll always be there to provide our love and support, a part of growing up is distancing yourself from us to become your own ponies. It’s about maturing and becoming more independent. It’s the same way that we don’t give you showers or baths anymore. It’s something you can handle yourself.”

“I don’t get it,” said Pound. “It’s fine for Champ to sleep with me, and we can sit on your lap as much as we want, even sometimes falling asleep there. So why is it bad for us to sleep with you?”

Cup kissed Pound on the forehead. “You already know the answer, Pound. You’ll never outgrow affection, but you do have to outgrow relying on us just to go to sleep.”

The colt pouted. “But it’s not ABOUT relying on you to fall asleep. It just feels nicer to have you nearby.”

Cup gently shook her head. “But that is what it’s about, Pound. If you’re saying that being in someone’s hooves makes it easier to fall asleep you’re saying that you’re uncomfortable sleeping alone.

“I admit, we could have done a better job at helping you past your fear of thunderstorms before making you stay in your own rooms. I mean, Pinkie managed to get Pumpkin over her fear, and then Pumpkin in turn taught you. Regardless, the reasoning for that was to get you to deal with your fears on your own, and not just run to us for help the moment you got scared.

“Sleeping with us helped you feel better about your fear of storms, but it was only temporary. And given how easily Pumpkin got over that fear permanently simply by changing the way she thought about storms it becomes clear that you never really needed our help in the first place. You only thought you did.” She put a hoof over Pound’s heart. “That power was in you all along. You just needed to learn how to bring it out.”

“But… we… you…” Pound stopped, unable to think of a good counter-argument.

“Pound,” said Pumpkin, “just give it up.”

Pound turned his head towards his sister.

“Just think about it. The more you try to argue she’s wrong the more right you make her look.”

Pound let out a huff. He didn’t want to admit it, but Pumpkin was right.

Scootaloo’s words came to him. She had told him that there was nothing wrong with asking those you cared for for their assistance. It only became a problem when you began to use their strength as a substitute for becoming stronger on your own. If the ones you relied on weren’t around then all that courage and strength would disappear with it.

As much as he would have loved to be in his mother’s loving hooves forever, he knew there was no way he could if he ever wanted to continue growing.

“I understand,” he said. “Our friends were all difficult to get, but we only were able to help them with their problems because we had grown up enough and learned enough to do it.” He nuzzled his mom’s chest. “I can’t go backwards now. But for tonight…”

Cup nuzzled his cheek. “Yes, for tonight you can stay with us.”

“And tomorrow,” said Pound, making Cup snort.

“Pound Caaaaake!”

Pound giggled. “I’m just kidding.”

“I know.” He looked into her eyes, feeling all his love for her blossoming. “I love you so much, Mommy.”

Cup got misty-eyed. “I love you too, Pound.”

“What about meeeeee?” Carrot asked, sniffing.

Pound turned his head. “Eh, you’re alright. Your massage game is kinda weak. Come back when you’re as good as Mom.”

“Oh?” Carrot’s eyes narrowed a bit. “Is that how it is?” He sat up, picking up Pumpkin and setting her on her mother’s side. “Here. Take Pumpkin, honeybun.”

“Uh-oh,” said Pound as his dad reached for him.

Carrot stood up, holding Pound with one leg as he slowly started walking for the door. “Oh, Pumpkin?”

“Yeah, Dad?” she replied.

“Congratulations! You’re about to become an only child. I’m taking your brother to an orphanage.”

“Cool! Can I have his dog too?”

“You sure can!”

“Noooooo!” said Pound. “You can’t do this to me. Mom! Stop him.”

Cup just shook her head. “Sorry, Pound. You shouldn’t have insulted his massage game. You know how sensitive he is about that.”

“Pumpkin, please! Help me!”

Pumpkin sighed. “Stop, Dad!”

Pound let out a sigh of relief.

“Why should I?” said Carrot.

“Because it’s too late. The orphanage isn’t going to be open.”

“Aww,” Carrot said, disappointed. “Can’t I just leave him in a basket or something outside their door?”

“Well, yeah,” said Cup, “but then we’d be out a basket. And we all know that that basket is worth more than our son.”

“Hey!” said Pound.

Carrot turned around, heading back towards the bed. “Ugh! I GUESS you can stay here one more night.”

“Darn right!”

“Hmph!” He dropped Pound on the bed. “I already Pinkie Promised not to tell anyone about today, but there must be some way to get my revenge.”

“That’s easy,” said Cup. “I just have to find some old photos of the babies.”

“Oh, really?” Carrot said deviously, rubbing his hooves together. “What did you have in mind?”

“Hmm… well, we were supposed to save those for when the kids were teenagers and had their first relationship, but I’m sure we have some of Pound’s old potty training pictures somewhere. We can show them off to all his friends.”

Carrot put on an evil smile. “Oh, yes. That sounds wonderful!”

Pound sputtered for a few moments. “You better not!”

Cup suddenly began laughing hysterically.

“What’s so funny?” asked Pumpkin.

When she got herself under control she wiped a tear away. “Oh, boy! I just remembered the funniest and yet grossest memory of your brother ever.”

Pumpkin smiled widely. “What? Tell me?”

Pound wasn’t sure if he was ready for this.

“Well, there isn’t much to tell. When you were old enough we bought both of you potty chairs. The first time Pound went number one successfully he was so proud of himself that he decided to wear the seat as a crown.”

Carrot put a hoof to his face, laughing. “Oh my gosh! I remember that! Got himself completely soaked.”

Pumpkin stuck her tongue out in disgust, but after a few moments she began to laugh as hard as her mother had been. She rolled off her mother, barely even noticing when she fell onto the floor. “That’s great!” she said between laughs. “I don’t know whether to laugh or barf.”

Pound was blushing.

Cup looked up thoughtfully, putting a hoof to her chin. “Hmm… I really should go look for that.”

Pound jumped on his father, attempting to twist his hoof. “Burn it! BURN IT!” he yelled. “You’re not showing anyone! Destroy that photo or I swear I’ll burn this whole house down!”

Carrot only chuckled, easily overpowering Pound and pinning him down. “Relax, Pound. We were too grossed out to actually get a picture of that.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Cup. “It’s funny now, but at the time it was horrifying. I quickly scooped you up and threw you in the tub.”

Pound looked between them. He thought they might be telling the truth. “You promise?”

“Pinkie Promise,” they both said.

Pound gently panted, feeling relieved. He went back to his mother, hugging her. He was subdued now. “Please,” said Pound quietly. “No more teasing.”

“Alright, Pound,” said Cup as she hugged him and he snuggled into her hold.

Pumpkin got up and back onto the bed. “Aww, does that mean I can’t threaten Pound with telling everyone that story?”

Pound frowned.

“Well, sure you can,” said Carrot. "You can tell anyone you want."

“Dad!” Pound said angrily.

“But then it would only be fair to show them a picture we did actually take of Pumpkin hoofpainting.”

“Okay?” said Pumpkin.

“What’s supposed to be embarrassing about that?” asked Pound.

"It was just supposed to be a fun little activity for the two of you. We put paper over the floor, and showed you what to do. Dip your hooves... then put it on the paper." He mimed the action. "Everything was going smoothly at first, until we got distracted by someone at the door. Classic early parenthood mistake. We thought you'd be fine for a minute or two."

Neither of them could tell where this story was going. "So Pumpkin made a mess, or fell in the paint?" Pound said in a dull voice. That was nothing compared to his story.

"Oh, it's worse than that. We got caught up in a conversation, and it was only when we heard Pound crying that we realized how long we had left you alone."

"Okay... and?" Pound was fuming. "Get to the juicy stuff already."

"Oh!" Cup said suddenly. "Oh... oh. Now I remember." She began to laugh. "Go on. You can tell it."

"Thank you," said Carrot. "Pound was upset because Pumpkin stole the large piece of paper with the paint on it. We focused on him first, getting a little bit of paint on us as we held him, but it was washable."

"Pumpkin was laughing in our room, and we kept hearing several bangs in a row. We left your room, and all we saw all over were two large circles right next to each other. It was bigger than your little hooves, so we weren't sure what you were dipping into the paint.

"We were trying to remain calm from the gigantic mess, but as we said it would wash out with a little scrubbing."

Cup began to snicker again.

Pound was getting interested. Pumpkin had no clue what was supposed to be embarrassing here.

Carrot continued on. "So we go in, and we gasped at the number you did on our room. On the floor was the paper with the paint on it. Before we could yell Pumpkin did something that I'll never forget."

"What? What?" said Pound, really intrigued now.

“Well, Pumpkin decided that hoofpainting wasn’t for her, so she’d paint with something else.”

“Like what?”

Cup chuckled as she put a hoof to her mouth. “Like her butt!”

“What?” Pumpkin said, her eyes bugging out.

Pound began laughing. “Really?”

Carrot began laughing too. “She sat down right in the middle of the paint, getting it nice and wet, and began to slam her behind against the wall. So, yeah, she made imprints of her rear end all over the second floor and our room, laughing all the while at her masterpiece.”

Now Pumpkin was blushing and Pound couldn’t contain his laughter.

"That's great!" Pound said, kicking his back legs. "And you got a picture of that too?"

“So, Pumpkin,” said Cup meaningfully, “do you still want to share your brother’s story?”

The filly shook her head hard. “No! No! That memory can go in the corner and be forgotten FOREVER! Thank you!”

“Glad to hear it,” said Carrot, grabbing her and lying back down.

“Wow,” said Pound. “We were pretty crazy babies.”

“Yep,” said Pumpkin. “Let’s never go back to that time.”

“You said it.”

“Oh, fine,” said Carrot. “Just be boring.”

“I’m fine with being boring,” said Pumpkin. “I’d like to just enjoy being here with you.”

Pound nodded. “Same here. We can talk about embarrassing stuff any time. If this is going to be the last time I want to make the most of it.”

“Aww,” Cup said sadly. “But there are so many funny stories I can tell.”

“NO!” the twins yelled.

Now she put on an angry voice. “So, what then? Am I expected to just huggle and snuggle and talk about how much I love you? Is THAT what you want?”

“Yep!”

“If I must.” She kissed Pound a few times before squeezing him and saying tenderly, “I love you.”

Pound let out a happy sigh. “I love you too.”

Carrot kissed and squeezed Pumpkin as well. “I love you, Pumpkin. WAY more than your brother.”

Pound sucked on his cheek. “That’s fine, ‘cuz I love Mom way more than YOU!”

“Come on now,” Cup said gently. “No more teasing.”

“Yeah!” said Carrot, blowing a raspberry. “Listen to your mother.”

Pound blew one back, and they repeated this a few times before Pound left his mother and jumped onto his dad, both of them laughing. He hugged his dad around the neck. “I love you too, Dad.”

“And I love you, Pound.”

“Help me, Mom!” said Pumpkin dramatically, holding out her hoof. “Save me from these immature boys.”

Cup pulled her over. “We girls have to stick together. After all, boys have cooties. I have to brush my teeth every time we kiss.”

Pumpkin chuckled.

That caused Pound and Carrot to both blow raspberries in their direction. Pumpkin gave one back in return.

Just when it looked like things were about to devolve into wrestling and playtime again Cup said firmly, “Enough!” With their attention on her she dropped back into a casual tone. “This is fun and all, but it’s bedtime. No more playing around, okay?”

“Okay, Mom,” the twins said reluctantly.

Cup and Carrot lay on their backs next to each other, Pound and Pumpkin on their bellies.

Pound nuzzled his dad’s chest as he rested his head. “Dad makes a good pillow.”

“So does Mom,” said Pumpkin as she followed suit.

“Glad we’re so squishy,” said Carrot, rubbing Pound’s back.

“Hey, Mom!” said Pound.

“Yes, honey?” she replied.

“Let’s make the most of our last night.”

“What do you mean?”

“Pumpkin wasn’t there that day you gave me a massage. She got to experience that before, but she never got the other half of the package.”

“Hmm?”

“Do I have to spell it out for you? I want to hear you sing!”

Cup blushed slightly. “Come on, Pound.”

“But your voice was so beautiful, and Pumpkin never got to hear it.”

Pumpkin turned to Pound. “Quick, Pound. Activate puppy dog eyes.”

Cup good-naturedly rolled her eyes as their eyes began to shimmer and their lower lips quivered. “Alright. Alright. But this is the last time. Got it?”

They nodded.

Cup already knew that Pound loved her singing from a few months ago, so she knew her voice wasn’t bad, but it was still a little embarrassing.

She closed her eyes, cleared her throat, and gently moved her head side to side as she began to sing one of their old lullabies.

For Pound it was just as good as he remembered. Pumpkin thought she was fantastic, closing her own eyes as she put her head back down.

Once she got past her nerves Cup fell into the groove much like she had with Pound, going back in time to when the twins were smaller.

When she finished her first song the twins applauded before looking at her expectantly for more.

She was more comfortable now. Her children were happy and safe. What more could she ask for?

Pound and Pumpkin blissfully drifted off to sleep and began quietly snoring.

Carrot let out a gentle sigh. He loved his wife’s voice too. “That was great.”

At first there was no response, but then he heard a sniff coming from her. He turned his head, expecting to see a look of joy, but she looked devastated. “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” He put a hoof around her neck. “What’s wrong?”

“Why does it have to end, Carrot?” Tears streamed down her face. “Would it really be so bad to just let them sleep with us all the time?”

Carrot started to speak, but then he realized she was just getting nostalgic. He didn’t think she really meant what she said.

“I-I-I mean, we only have a limited time to spend with them. Before you know it they’ll have jobs and partners and start going on dates and then they’ll move out of the house forever and have their own families and never visit and-”

“Easy there!” said Carrot, putting a hoof over her mouth. “Just breathe.”

He moved the hoof to her cheek. “They’re only a little over seven. There are still many years ahead for us to spend time with them before they’re adults. Your baby birds aren’t leaving the nest any time soon.”

Carrot’s words slowly wormed their way into her mind. She wiped her eyes. “I… I know. I just got a little lost for a few moments there.” She looked at her daughter. “The time just seems like it has gone so fast. I want them to grow up, but there’s also that part of me that wants to pull them close and never let them go.”

It was quiet for a few seconds, then she added, “I guess I still have some growing up to do myself.”

Carrot kissed her. “I don’t think you’re that bad. It’s something every parent has to go through at one point in their lives.” He looked at Pound. “All we can really do is cherish the time we do have, and be proud of what we’ve helped our children to become.”

Cup lifted one on her legs, putting it around his neck as well as she nuzzled his cheek with hers. “I agree. Unless they grow up to be supervillains. Then we’ll deny all responsibility.”

Carrot had to put his hoof to his mouth to stifle his laughter. Once he got himself under control he said, “Sounds like a plan. But if that did happen you know what we’d have to do, right?”

“Of course. A good parent is supportive of their children, so we’d have to join them in their conquest of the world and become the evilest family team. The two of us would get Canterlot. Pumpkin could have the Crystal Empire, and Pound could have Ponyville.”

Carrot shook his head. “I was gonna say try to get them back on the side of good, but I guess your plan works too. Alicorns are overrated, anyway. Earth ponies all the way.”

The two of them met eyes, and then had to cover their mouths to avoid waking the twins as they laughed.

Cup began rubbing Pumpkin’s back. “Ah, I needed a good laugh to get me back in the right state of mind. Thanks for that.”

“You’re very welcome.” Carrot began doing the same for Pound.

“Well, I think that’s enough excitement for one night. Tomorrow everything will go back to normal, but for tonight let’s just enjoy the wonderful feeling of being a parent.”

“And a husband.” He kissed her cheek.

Cup kissed him back. “A handsome stallion, an enthusiastic, optimistic mare, and two wonderful children; I have all the ingredients I need to have the perfect life.” She kissed him again, giving him a tender smile. “Thank you, Carrot, for being a part of it.”

A tear came down his eye. “And thank you for being a part of mine. I love you, honeybun.”

“I love you too, snuggle bear.”

They put their heads together, closing their eyes as they began to join their children in sleep.

5-1: The unexpected visitor

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Pound was crouched, a confident expression on his face.

Champ was mimicking his pose, his front half on the floor, letting out tiny growls and wagging his tail.

Pound hopped forward a few inches, making Champ jerk back and let out a bark.

He pounced, pulling Champ down to the ground, laughing as he wrestled with his dog.

Champ licked his face all over.

After a minute of fun Pound disengaged, standing up. He hugged Champ’s neck. “I love you, Champ!” he said tenderly, rubbing his hooves over Champ’s back. “You’re the best dog a colt could ask for.”

That got him another lick.

Standing up, he looked down at his dog with all the affection in the world. “It’s hard to believe it’s only been three months that we’ve been together. It feels like you’ve been with me forever.

“You started out as a broken dog no one wanted, but I knew there was a fighter inside you. Just look how far you’ve come... how far we’ve both come from the weaklings we were.”

Pound felt a bit of sadness as he recalled the reason he even had Champ in the first place. His former owner had left him behind because of his leg. He couldn’t imagine doing that. If Champ was hurt he’d stay by his dog’s side and care for him. That was what love meant.

He chuckled afterward. “You remember when we first met? I tried calling you over. ‘Here, boy!’ But you wouldn’t come. So I tried again. ‘Here, girl!’ ” He put a hoof to his mouth, laughing. “You didn’t like that very much.”

He sighed, his mirth fading. “Back then I didn’t know why you wouldn’t come to me. I got annoyed when you went to Fluttershy right away. Back then you were…” He thought for a moment. “Your name was Butch, right?”

That made Champ let out a whine.

Pound could see the sadness in Champ’s eyes, and he mentally kicked himself. Why did he bring that up?

He hugged Champ tightly. “Listen to me, boy! I love you with all my heart. You’re my super amazing dog, and I promise I’ll never abandon you. Never! You and me, we’re together for life! You got that?”

Champ let out another whine, but licked his face all the same.

Pound walked over to his closet. “Come on, boy! Let’s go for a run. The exercise will do you good. Maybe today you can finally catch that squirrel you’ve had your eye on.”

That made Champ growl, trotting over to him and sitting down. There had been a squirrel that seemed to be teasing him near the park. Despite his best efforts the creature always evaded his grasp.

Pound attached the leash, the two of them going downstairs. His parents had taken Pumpkin to a doctor’s appointment, but Pinkie was still around, sprucing up the store for the Monday rush. He told her where he was going, then headed out.

As Champ jogged around, sniffing at things, Pound felt a sense of melancholy. He hadn’t given much thought to the life Champ had before they were together, but he knew that his dog once had a loving relationship with someone else. How could they think they loved him if they abandoned him?

A part of him tried to justify it. Fluttershy had said the mare had come to her rather than a vet because she was poor and couldn’t afford proper medical care.

It wasn’t so much that she had left him behind that angered him so much. If his former owner thought she couldn’t take care of him anymore then leaving him with Fluttershy was the best move.

No, what bothered him was that she never came to check up on his condition. He supposed that maybe she didn’t want Champ to see her, because then he’d be expecting her to take him back, but she still could have let Fluttershy know.

A tear came down his eye. Didn’t she understand? The worse off ones were the ones who needed the most love and care. He thought of his mother, promising that she didn’t care whether he flew or not. It didn’t diminish the love she had for him. That, plus what Scootaloo told him, was all he needed to excel.

That was why he had chosen Champ in the first place. He understood the pain of feeling like everyone was passing him by. Even if he hadn’t made that promise to Fluttershy he wouldn’t act any different.

He couldn’t take away the past. All he could do was what he had been doing all along: helping Champ find a happier future with him.

***

Fluttershy hummed to herself as she watered the flowers around her yard.

“Hello!” came a voice in the distance, making the mare turn around.

She set the watering can down, seeing a yellow coated mare approaching her. She didn’t recognize the mare, but she waved regardless. “Hello,” she said genially, walking toward her.

As the two came face to face the mare said, “Oh, Fluttershy. Long time no see.”

“Um…” She quickly cast her mind around, but she was drawing a blank.

The mare continued on, “I’m so, so sorry I haven’t kept in touch. I never intended for it to be so long, but after I last left you on that rainy day I tripped and fell down a ravine. I hit my head on a rock on the way down, and I was lucky someone found me. According to my parents I was in a coma for a good long while.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” she said empathetically, though she still couldn’t remember who the mare was.

The mare subconsciously rubbed the back of her head. “Oh, I’m not too concerned about myself. I’m back on my hooves now and I’ve moved on, getting my life back on track.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“I know it’s been a lot longer than you expected, but I’ll be sure to compensate you for all your hard work.”

Fluttershy sucked on her cheek, her eyes moving around. “Um… I’m really sorry, but, uh…”

The mare’s cheery attitude vanished. “Oh, no! Did something happen?”

Straightening up she decided to be blunt. “Forgive me, but, uh, who are you?”

The mare looked confused for a moment, but then comprehension dawned on her. “Oh! Oh, right. The last I saw of you I was wearing a hood, so it’s not surprising you don’t recognize me, and I don’t remember if I ever told you my name. I had more pressing matters to deal with than niceties then, so why don’t we do things properly this time?”

She extended her hoof out. “I’m Lemon Zinger.”

Fluttershy met it. “Well, you already know who I am. Could you please refresh my memory on our last meeting?”

“Well, the last time, or rather the first time, you met me I was basically in a blind panic because I had an animal in need and I was too poor to afford a proper vet.”

Something about that stuck out in her mind. She had an image in her mind of a stormy, windy night where someone was pounding on her door, and a mare in considerable distress. Something about that memory made her feel very uncomfortable. She had this sense of foreboding that was confirmed with Lemon’s next words.

Lemon continued on, “My dog had had an accident and broke his leg. His name was Butch, a golden retriever. I’m sure that’s enough for you to remember now.”

Fluttershy let out a loud squeak, a strained smile on her face.

“Now that I’m all better I’ll be glad to take him back. ” She glanced around Fluttershy at the animals traipsing around. “Oh, where is my little Butch? I just can’t wait to see him.”

Fluttershy gulped, letting out barely audible awkward giggles. “Um… a-about that…”

5-2: Sacrifice

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“WHAT?” Lemon Zinger yelled. “You gave away my dog?”

Fluttershy shrank away, nodding.

“What were you thinking? What gave you the right? I entrusted you to him to take care of, and then you just threw him off to someone else?”

Fluttershy felt her outrage wasn’t completely unjustified. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I just thought it would be best for him.”

“BEST?” she snapped. “How could that be what’s best for him? You’re the magical animal caretaker. I think you of all ponies would be the best one to care for him.”

With difficulty, she met the mare’s angry eyes, tears forming in her eyes. “I wish I could have, but I was overburdened.” The mare’s glare softened slightly, but she didn’t reply. “Your dog’s leg healed up fine, but because you never returned he grew depressed. He needed proper exercise to get back to full health. Even though the leg healed up he still had a pronounced limp. I really wanted to do right by him, but I’m just one pony. I just didn’t have the time available to devote to him with everything else going on in my life.

“That’s why I let him be adopted, so he could go to a family that could give him the attention he deserved.”

Lemon kept glaring at her for a while, before her expression suddenly shifted, becoming sad. “So that’s it, then? I didn’t return, so you assumed I dumped him because of his bad leg?”

“Y-yes,” she replied.

Now Lemon looked on the verge of tears. “I love my dog. I love my Butch! I always have since I first got him. If I really didn’t care about him I could have just left him and run off when he hurt his leg.”

Fluttershy finally felt the tears come down her eyes. “I’m sorry. I know now that you were unable to return because of a medical issue, but you have to understand. I only wanted the best for your dog, and I knew I couldn’t provide that for him.

“Quite a few ponies passed him by once they saw his limp, and every time it broke my heart to see him grow so sad from another rejection. Then about a month or so ago the children of one of my friends came by looking to adopt some pets. One of them, Pound, chose him despite the limp, wanting to help him grow into his full potential.”

“And?” the mare said quietly.

“And he’s done exactly that. I saw Champ at their birthday party, and he's doing great.” The mare’s eyebrow went up. “Well, that’s what Pound named him.”

Lemon kept her mouth shut, but she felt a new burst of anger at Fluttershy allowing the name change.

“Anyway, from what I saw he’s back to one hundred percent. From regular exercise his leg is now fully healed. When he had Champ run to me I couldn’t see any strain or pain or any sign of a limp.”

Lemon let out a breath. That was a relief. “That’s good. And it’s even better that you know the pony who took him personally. It means you know where he lives.”

Fluttershy felt weak. Lemon was the dog’s proper owner. She had only given the dog away because she presumed that Lemon wasn’t coming back for him, and her reason for not returning was a medical emergency where she was physically unable to come visit or tell anyone else to check up on him, so it wasn’t like there was a valid reason to keep the dog away from her.

On the other hoof, though, she could only imagine how Pound was going to react. The poor colt would be devastated. The two of them had developed such a strong bond together, and she didn’t want to see it ripped apart.

***

Pound laughed as he put Champ's leash away. "Don't worry, Champ. That pesky squirrel can't avoid you forever.

“I think it’s time for your dinner.”

Champ immediately perked up at the mention of dinner. He grew excited, hopping back and forth and barking.

“Easy, boy. It’s coming.”

Champ followed him downstairs, and Pinkie helped him open a can of dog food. Champ eagerly devoured every bite when it was put in a bowl, then licked the bowl clean.

They went upstairs, where Champ jumped on the bed, laying down. Pound climbed up too, putting his head on Champ’s stomach.“You’re nice and warm.”

Pound nuzzled Champ’s fur, content and relaxed. He gently dozed, his mind going blank.

Something suddenly got Champ’s attention. He began sniffing the air. He hopped off the bed, running towards the door and scratching at it.

Pound moved to a sitting position, a curious look on his face. "What's gotten into you, boy?" he asked as the dog howled. Something sure had him riled up, and he wanted out.

Pound wanted to see what it was, but he didn't want Champ to do anything bad, so he reattached his leash so he could stop him if he got too out of control.

He opened the door, and Champ went racing towards the stairs, Pound flying right behind him. What had gotten into his dog?

Champ paused for a moment at the top of the stairs, letting out a happy bark. As Pound stopped to see what Champ was looking at the dog began running down, and Pound lost his grip on the leash.

"There you are!" said a mare as Champ ran to her and began hugging him, his dog jumping and licking her face all over.

Pound was definitely confused now. Who was this stranger, and why was Champ acting so familiar with her? He saw Fluttershy next to her, and she looked put out.

He suddenly put the pieces together. There was only one pony that he could think of that Champ would be so loving and excited for, and his eyes narrowed as his cheeks went red.

He flew down the stairs, and without a word gave the mare a light shove to get her off Champ before grabbing the end of the leash and pulling him away from her.

"Hey!" the mare cried out. "What do you think you're doing?"

“Get away from my dog, you monster!” Pound said angrily.

“How dare you!” the mare replied, just as angrily.

“Pound-” started Fluttershy, but Pound didn’t want to hear it.

“Shut up! How could you bring this beast to my house?”

“The name is Lemon Zinger, brat.” She glared down at the colt, annoyed that he was ruining her beautiful reunion with her dog.

“I don’t care what it is. Who do you think you are, coming here like you have any right? Your poor dog was suffering without you, but you didn’t care. I guess now that it’s convenient, now that all the work has been done for you, that your lazy flank wants to take him back.

I was the one who adopted him when no one else would. I was the one who walked him every day, making sure he got proper exercise. I was the one that showered him with love and affection and let him sleep in my bed every night. And I was the one who helped fix his broken heart when YOU ripped it out of him.” He pointed at her.

“Pound!” Fluttershy said strongly, to get his attention. “This isn’t what you think it is.”

Pound had never felt more betrayed. “You’re defending her? After what she did?”

“Pound, I know you’re upset, and I don’t blame you for that, but Lemon didn’t abandon her dog. She got into a terrible accident and wasn’t able to come check up on him.”

Pound rolled his eyes. “Could you stop being so gullible? What a pathetic cover story. How convenient that she was only hurt just long enough that her dog got all better. Give me a break.”

As frustrating as the colt’s attitude was, Lemon could at least understand where he was coming from. “Well, if my word doesn’t satisfy you we can go right down to Ponyville hospital so you can see my record for yourself.”

“I don’t care one bit if you were actually in the hospital or not. You’re not worthy of being his owner if you were so careless you got hurt right after he did. Champ is my dog now, so get out of my house.”

And with that any sympathy she felt for Pound was gone. She got right in his face. “Listen here, you little brat! That’s my dog, and his name is Butch!”

Champ let out a whine. Both of his owners were fighting, and he wasn’t sure what to do about it.

“Whatever!” Pound responded dismissively. “You probably just faked your injury anyway.”

Lemon’s eye twitched. She had never met such an aggravating child. “I LOVE my dog! You understand me? I was devastated when he got hurt, and it hurt even more knowing how long I had been away from him when I woke up.”

Pound just shrugged. “And while you were off being hurt I was doing your job. Champ loves me, and even if he did get to go with you he’ll always remember the time you left him all alone like the terrible excuse for a pet owner you are.”

“Pound!” Pinkie cried out.

Lemon’s eyes grew fiery, her dislike of Pound increasing with every word out of his mouth.

Fluttershy felt a little afraid. She honestly thought Lemon was about to strike him, but then suddenly her face grew slack.

“Fine, then,” said Lemon, getting a strained smile on her face. “If you really have that much faith in Butch’s love then why don’t we put it to the test?

“We’re just going to fight endlessly at this rate, so why don’t we make things simple? We’ll let him decide. The one he chooses is the one that gets to keep him, and that’ll be the end of it. How about that?”

Pound just stared at her blankly for a short while, before he gave a hearty nod. “Fine. I’m game.”

The two of them glared at one another.

Fluttershy felt uncomfortable. “Come on, guys. I really don’t think this is the way to settle this.”

“We both agreed to it,” said Lemon, without averting her gaze from Pound. “So why don’t you butt out?”

“Yeah,” said Pound right after. “Stay out of our business.”

Fluttershy bit her lip. Both of them were getting so hotheaded that they were beyond reason.

The two finally broke eye contact, going to opposite sides of the room.

"Come here, Butch!" said Lemon sweetly. "Come to mama."

"Come here, Champ!" Pound called out confidently. "You know how much I love you. I already promised I'd never abandon you, like a certain someone over there."

Champ heard his two owners calling out to him, and his heart was hurting. How could he possibly choose between Lemon and Pound?

Lemon had taken him in when he was just a puppy. She had been a most loving owner that always cared for his needs. After his accident, when she didn’t return, he had been heartbroken. Fluttershy had been the only one he trusted, especially when so many others turned him down because of his bad leg.

Then Pound had come into his life. By that point he had basically given up on being adopted. When Pound heard his story it touched the colt’s heart, because they had a similar issue. Those simple words he had said, “I want you to be my pet,” were a breath of fresh air in his misery.

Since the day that Pound had taken him home the colt had been just as devoted to him as Lemon had been. Pound’s love had given him a zest for life again, and he had overcome his bad leg because of it.

Lemon hadn’t truly left him behind. She had been hurt and wasn’t able to collect him. His history with her was strong, but…

But Pound, even if they had only been partners for a few months, made him feel special and loved too. And as Pound’s pet he had been able to help the colt through some bad days. Now that Pound had finally started flying he was a much happier colt, but he knew that Pound still needed him.

He loved them both! He was loyal to them both. The thought of hurting either of them was too horrible a prospect to think about.

He let out another whine and sank to the floor, putting his paws over his eyes.

Pound heard Champ whining, saw the distress on his face, and though it made his stomach hurt he knew what he had to do.

He didn’t care about the rules anymore. He walked over to Champ, getting on his knees and hugging the dog around the neck as tears came down his eyes. “It’s okay,” he said gently. “You should go with Lemon Zinger.”

Lemon stared at him wordlessly, an odd feeling in her chest.

“When I first met you and heard about how everyone turned you away because they didn’t want to deal with your injury it reminded me of how I felt when I couldn’t fly. It always hurt when that happened, and I felt like I was a broken pony who would never fly. Just like I’m sure you felt like you would never walk properly again. But we overcame that together, didn’t we? I’ve learned to fly, and your leg is all better.

“I promised that we would excel together. That’s why I named you Champ: because I knew one day you’d be a champion.”

Champ licked his face, giving a little whimper.

“You were special to me. You were my very first pet, and I thought we would spend our lives together, growing up. But… Lemon Zinger is your owner, and I’m sure she loves you even more than I do. It’s wrong to make you choose between us, and I don’t want to see you hurting anymore after you’ve come so far.”

Releasing Champ he gave the dog a push. “Go on, now. It’s been so long and you’ve missed her so much.” He let out a shuddering breath.

Champ just sat there, looking up at him.

Pound was trying to hold back his feelings, but it was difficult. “JUST GO!” he snapped. “I’ll be fine, so don’t make this any harder than it has to be! Just get out of here!” His eyes clenched shut as he barely avoided sobbing.

Fluttershy and Pinkie were crying themselves, feeling terrible for Pound. There was nothing they could do here.

Champ whined, but eventually stood up and slowly walked toward Lemon with his head drooped.

Pound walked over to the stairs, but didn’t go up them. Instead, he sat on the bottom step hugging himself.

When Champ reached Lemon he gave her a halfhearted nuzzle.

Lemon stirred at his touch, shaking her head to focus. She looked down at Butch, seeing the pain in his eyes.

She then looked over at Pound, and felt her previous anger at him gone. She understood him far more than she thought. She couldn't just let things end like this.

With an exhale of breath she walked over towards the stairs where Pound was.

5-3: Compromise

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Lemon Zinger sat down next to Pound at the bottom of the stairs.

Pound didn’t acknowledge her presence.

With her front hooves on her knees Lemon said in a forlorn voice, “I understand what you’re feeling.”

Pound felt a brief flash of anger, but it was overwhelmed by his sadness. “No, you don’t,” he said in a quivering voice. “You get to keep your dog.”

Looking forward towards the wall she felt a reminder of the past. “When I was a filly I always wanted a dog, but my parents were always opposed to the idea. Dogs were my favorite animals, and I was sure I could take care of one well, but no matter what I did or tried they always said no. They’d never give me a reason, but I guess they just didn’t like dogs.

“When I moved out and got my own place the very first thing I did was buy a dog.”

Champ walked over to the pair, laying down against Pound’s legs.

Fluttershy wasn’t sure what was going on, whether Lemon was telling him a story to make him feel better or because she was going to relinquish her dog to him. Either way she wished there was a way for both of them to be happy.

Pound leaned over, rubbing Champ’s side.

“Butch was just a puppy then. He was a tiny little thing, only three months old. We were together for six years, through the good times and the bad. When I was having trouble he was always there to make me feel better.”

Leaning over she said despondently, “Then came a string of bad luck. They began cutting my hours at work, and Butch broke his leg. I was lost! I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t afford an expensive vet bill, and I couldn’t just let Butch suffer either. That’s when I remembered our resident animal caretaker: Fluttershy.

“I begged for her help, and she assured me she would care for him and get him back on his paws. She didn’t want any money from me. Her only concern was for him. It was such a relief.

“However, on the way back home…”

Pound paused in his petting of Champ, glancing in her direction.

“Because of the heavy downpour I lost my footing. I slid into a big mud puddle that carried me right into and over a guardrail, and on the way down I hit my head on a big rock.”

Pound winced.

“I lost consciousness. The next thing I knew I woke up in the hospital. Once the next few days I started to remember things. Eventually I remembered Butch, and my heart grew heavy. I had been out for so long and I knew he had to be suffering without me, but I was stuck in the hospital, and I knew I couldn’t have a dog there.

“When I was released from the hospital I wanted to get him then, but my parents had made their stance on dogs perfectly clear, so I couldn’t retrieve him then either. I had to work my way up from nothing. I had to reach a point of financial stability that I could get my own place and be able to care for him again. I pushed so hard for that, knowing that showing myself to him before then would only cause him distress when I had to leave him behind again.

“So what about you? How did you come by him? What’s it been like for you?”

Pinkie was grateful that things had quieted down, but no matter what happened someone was going to be devastated.

Pound looked down at Champ, thinking of their first meeting. In a subdued tone he said, “We got to play with a baby one afternoon, and we had such a blast that we wanted our parents to have one so we could play with them all the time. However, they said it would be difficult and take too long, so they offered to get me and my sister a pet instead.

“We each went our separate ways when we got to Fluttershy’s place to pick out our own pet. At first the only animal I was interested in was a hawk, but then I spotted Champ off by himself. Fluttershy told us that any animal that was presenting itself was up for adoption, but he initially ignored my attempts to make friends with him. He immediately came to Fluttershy when she called, though.

“That’s when I first saw the problem with his leg. He was limping. When I asked Fluttershy about things she told me about his accident and how she thought that you abandoned Champ for it. She also said that all the other ponies that looked at Champ passed him by for the same reason, and every time it hurt him so much inside.” A tear came down his eye.

“She said that other ponies looked down on him for being different, or not being as good as other animals. That reminded me of how much I was suffering in school. Everyone in my class was so much better at flying than I was, and I had a group of bullies always mocking me for it. It hurt so much.”

Scooting forward off the stairs he hugged Champ’s neck. “That’s why I picked him. I knew right then and there that there wasn’t any other pet I wanted as much as him. Like I told Fluttershy, I named him Champ because it was short for Champion. I promised her that both of us would excel together, and I made that come true for both of us. I can fly now, and I’m pretty good at it. And because of the daily walks and play we have together Champ’s leg eventually grew strong and he stopped limping.”

Champ licked his face.

He closed his eyes, quietly sobbing. “I th-thought we were going to grow up together. We w-w-were supposed to be an unstoppable team blazing a path of glory. B-but that’s all over now. Now it’s time to say goodbye.

"But I don’t want to! I don’t want to lose Champ!” He buried his head in Champ’s fur as he began wailing.

Champ whined.

Lemon felt that familiar sensation again as she watched the colt with her dog. When he quieted down a little she stood up herself and kneeled over him. “I can tell that you love Butch with all your heart. I’ve been so immature, competing with a child in such a heartless contest, trying to force him to choose me over you. I regret it.”

Pound glanced over at her with a tear stained face.

“I have no excuse for it, but I feel like that was the filly in me that had always longed for a dog growing up coming out. She couldn’t accept it.

“I had my time with him, loving every moment. Now… I guess it’s your turn. Take good care of him for me.”

Then without another word she started heading for the door.

“Huh?” Lemon’s sudden turnaround took Pound by surprise. Quickly wiping his eyes he hopped up. “What are you talking about? Champ is your dog.”

She didn’t answer.

“Wait!” Pound called after her. “This isn’t right!”

She paused, but didn’t turn around. Shaking her head she said, “No. As you said yourself things will be hard enough. Why drag them out?”

“B-but…” He let out a little huff of breath. “You had him since he was a puppy. You raised him for almost his entire life until you had your accident. I’ve only had him for a few months. And when me and Pumpkin were searching for pets I made sure to ask Fluttershy if taking any of them would mean taking them away from their families. I can’t hold onto Champ when I know that he has an owner that’s been waiting just to see him again.

You should keep him. I… I can-can always get… another d-dog.” His lip quivered.

Fluttershy groaned. After both fighting so fiercely for him now the both of them were trying to get Champ to stay with the other, knowing how deeply both of them cared for him.

She looked over at the dog, her heart breaking. Dogs were always known for their loyalty, and Champ’s love for both of them meant he had to let someone down no matter who kept him in the end.

Lemon sighed. She turned to look at him. “I’ve seen the bond you share with Butch, and as someone who grew up wishing I had had a dog to grow up with me I’d never be able to forgive myself if I took Butch away from you. That’s all.

“You can get to experience all the things that I always wished I could have had as a child but never got to.”

She took a few steps toward him. “You know, the reason I took Butch was basically the same as yours. Butch was the runt of the litter, and even his own littermates seemed to snub him. When I saw that it immediately made me want him, to show him how wonderful the world can be with a loving owner that truly cared about them.

“I know you’ll take care of Butch right, and love him the way I always did. His happiness is all that really matters to me.” She met eyes with Butch, seeing his mournful expression. Forcing a smile she said, “Goodbye… Champ. Look after Pound for me, okay?” She gave him a wink.

Pound still felt funny about this. He just couldn’t find the right words to describe it.

As Lemon headed for the door again her steps became a little wobbly as memories began surfacing. Telling Pound of how she had gotten Champ reminded her of that very first day.

A mare with a litter of puppies was selling them. She had looked at the eight puppies, seeing the potential in all of them. Most of them were full of energy, like they were eager to find an owner. Her attention was drawn to one that was off by himself. The other pups would wrestle or play with one another, but none of them seemed to join Butch in with their games.

For that reason alone she had thought he was the perfect dog for her. When she stepped around the other puppies and picked him up, declaring her intent to adopt him, his expression immediately perked up. He let out a little happy yip, and began licking her face. In that moment she knew she had made the right choice.

She had done all she could to ensure he grew up properly. She didn’t feed him too much or too little, she made sure he got plenty of exercise, and she gave him oodles and oodles of love. It was everything she had always imagined it to be. They were partners; companions; friends. He was as much her family as her mother and father.

He brought so much joy into her life… and then on the same day tragedy struck them both. Butch broke his leg, and she hit her head and went into a coma. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she couldn’t help but think that if she had only had more courage they wouldn’t be in this position right now. As much as she didn't want to admit it, in a way she had abandoned him.

When Champ had hurt his leg she knew she couldn’t afford a vet and took him to Fluttershy as a last resort… but why hadn’t she stayed? She couldn’t bear to hear Butch’s whimpers and pained yips, so after Fluttershy agreed to get Butch back in shape she had left reassured.

In the most painful time of his life she had deserted Butch. If only she had stayed by his side back then… if only…

Even with the guilt she now felt in her heart she still didn’t want to leave him behind. They had too much history together. She could spend the rest of her life making it up to him if they could be together again. Ever since she had gotten discharged from the hospital there wasn't a day that went by where she wasn't pushing herself to be self-sustained. Everything she did for the past few months was just so she could have Butch back in her life again.

As she reached the entranceway her legs gave way as her emotions overflowed. She practically collapsed against the side of the doorframe, starting to wail.

Tears came to Pound’s eyes. He couldn’t do this. He loved Champ with every fiber of his being, but he just couldn’t take what it would do to Lemon.

Pinkie let out a heavy sigh, crossing the room to help Lemon up. It seemed like there was nothing to do. Her life was dedicated to making others happy, but both Lemon and Pound had good reasons for keeping him by their sides. Was there really no way to resolve this quandary?

After a few seconds eyes suddenly lit up. “Ooooh!” she said joyfully. “I might have the best idea ever!”

Lemon sniffed, glancing over at Pinkie. “L-like what?”

“You’re working now, right?” Lemon nodded. “Do you have a set schedule?” She got another nod.

Pound was staring hard at Pinkie. He didn’t know where these questions were headed, but he trusted her to find a way out of this mess.

“Now, then…” Pinkie let out a quick breath, her heart beating hard in anticipation. This was the most important question of all. Everything hinged on this point. “Do you work in the mornings or the afternoon?”

Lemon similarly didn’t know what the point of these questions were, but she answered, “I usually work from three to eleven. Why?”

Pinkie let out a happy squeal, hopping up and down. “YES! Oh, that’s the exact answer I hoped you would give! Problem solved!”

Everyone looked at Pinkie questioningly. “How does that solve the problem, Pinkie?” asked Fluttershy.

“Pound, come over here,” said Pinkie. “You too, Champ.”

The pair rose, standing in front of Pinkie. “So what do you have in mind?” Pound asked.

“There’s no need to fight over Champ. He doesn’t have to just be your dog or her dog. He can be a dog with two owners because the timing is absolutely perfect.”

“What do you mean, Auntie Pinkie?”

“Yes, what do you mean, Pinkie?” asked Lemon, a hopeful expression on her face.

“Lemon, when are you free during the day?”

“Um… the mornings?”

“And Pound? When do you go to school?”

“The morning,” he responded.

“Exactly!” said Pinkie with another hop. “Because the kids are at school and we’re working during the mornings Champ is usually stuck upstairs most of the day. When we get some down time I take him out to go to the bathroom and for a little exercise, but it isn’t until Pound gets home that he gets a lot of attention.”

Lemon was starting to catch on, a smile returning to her face. “I see what you’re going for. I’ll have Butch while Pound is at school, and Pound will have Butch while I’m at work. This way we both get to spend equal time with him and he’s always got someone nearby to shower him with love and attention.”

Pound gave a quick look at Lemon, then looked back at Pinkie. “That’s brilliant!” He quickly hugged her. “You’re amazing, Auntie Pinkie!” All the tension in his body went out of it. Now nobody had to be sad.

Pinkie hugged him back. “We’ll have to iron out some of the details, like weekends and holidays. And I’m sure there will be nights that Lemon will want Champ to sleep with her, but for now I think this is a fair compromise.

“Wouldn’t you agree, Champ?”

Champ let out a hearty bark, running in small circles.

Fluttershy came forward. “I don’t want to rain on your parade right after you’ve settled things, but what about his name?”

“What about his name?” asked Pound, letting go of Pinkie.

“Both of you gave him a name.”

Lemon chuckled. “Oh, that. I’m not concerned about that at all. If he’s going to be our dog I see no reason why he can’t have two names. Besides, Pound said that Champ is short for Champion. ‘Champion Butch’ is a name to be proud of, wouldn’t you agree?”

Pound nodded. “Yeah! I don’t want to fight over something as small as a name after we’ve settled where Champ is going to be staying.”

Fluttershy smiled. “I figured as much, but I thought it was better to bring it up now so you didn’t wind up fighting about it later.”

"Come on!" said Pound, grabbing the end of Champ’s leash. “Let’s go for a walk together, Lemon. You can tell me about what he was like as a puppy.”

Lemon beamed. “Sounds great.”

He offered Lemon the leash, and she eagerly took it. The dog’s tail was going a mile a minute.

The trio went out the door. Pinkie went outside too, but didn’t follow them.

Fluttershy came outside too, her eyes teary as she hugged Pinkie. “Oh, Pinkie!’

Pinkie held her back. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing at all now. When Lemon came back I was terrified. She was furious that I gave away her dog. I thought for sure this couldn’t end without one of them thoroughly miserable, but just look at them now.”

Pinkie giggled. “I know what you mean. I felt the same way.”

Although the dog was excitable, Pound and Lemon seemed to be in no rush. They gave Champ a lot of slack as they walked around, and she could hear them exchanging stories about Champ, talking like old friends.

“Everything is fine now.”

As she watched the trio she pledged to do whatever it took to keep this joint ownership business running as smooth as possible. She’d get a house key from Lemon so she could pick Champ up or drop him off if Lemon was unable to do so herself.

"Everything will be just fine."

6-1: Boredom

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Knock knock knock.

Cup Cake opened the front door, seeing Fluttershy on her stoop. “Hello, Fluttershy,” she said genially. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” she replied. “Sorry for coming over so early, but I needed to see you as soon as possible.”

“What can I do for you?”

“Well, it’s about Mayhem.”

Her pleasant attitude faded a bit. Just like with Discord she had gotten used to him, but she couldn’t deny that a part of her was uncomfortable with him. It had nothing to do with appearance or attitude. In fact, Mayhem was far more tolerable than Discord. No, what gave her disquiet was the power he wielded.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“I… well… mmm…” Fluttershy tapped her hoof a few times on the ground. “I don’t quite know, actually. He’s gotten very cranky lately, mouthing off to Discord. He still treats me with respect, but I can tell he feels the urge to yell at me as well.”

“Has anything happened recently that might cause him to act this way?”

Fluttershy tapped her hoof again. “If I had to take a guess, I think it’s because the answer is ‘no’ that he’s acting up. Nothing has happened recently, and I… I think he’s growing bored of me.”

“You?” Cup shook her head. “Not a chance. He adores you! I mean, he calls you his mother.”

“Well, I don’t mean in the sense that he wants to be rid of me for good. I believe Mayhem probably wants some time away from me to see his friends, but he’s too afraid of upsetting me to be honest. He doesn’t want to hurt my feelings, so he won’t say what’s on his mind.

“I’m hoping a playdate with them will help him settle down. It’s the weekend, so the twins don’t have any school. The twins might be enough, but the more the merrier.”

“Well, as long as he behaves himself I don’t have an issue with it.” Cup tapped her hoof now, looking awkward. “Look, I know that being random is part of his thing, so I know he’s gonna use his powers like he did at the twins birthday party. Just… I don’t know… can you tell him to tone it down this time? I mean, it sure spiced things up, but I don’t think my living room should become a carnival.”

“I understand.”

Cup turned towards the stairs, yelling out for her children.

A short while later they appeared at the top of the stairs, wiping the sleep out of their eyes.

“Hey,” said Pound with a little groan. “This isn’t noon.”

Pumpkin yawned. “Yeah. It’s the weekend. We want to sleep in.”

“Hello!” said Fluttershy, walking to the bottom of the stairs.

Pound opened his eyes a little wider, focusing. “Oh, hi. How are you, Fluttershy?”

“Good, thanks.”

Pumpkin looked like she had dozed off standing up.

“I need the two of you to solve a friendship problem.”

That got their attention. Pumpkin stood up straighter, forcing herself to alertness. “Who’s in trouble?”

“Well, this is the mother of all simple problems. I just want you guys to play with Mayhem today. I think he’s feeling a little cooped up from spending so much time with me, so I was hoping a day out with you and your friends will perk him up.”

The twins looked at each other, big smiles coming to their faces. “Oh, boy!” said Pound. “It’s been a while since we got the crew together.”

“Mom!” said Pumpkin.

“I already gave my permission,” Cup said, expecting their question.

“Sorry for waking you up so early,” said Fluttershy, “but I wanted to make sure I had the greatest chance of plans not already being made. The longer I waited the greater the odds they would make some.”

The twins trotted down the stairs, hugging Fluttershy. “Aw, no worries,” said Pumpkin, her eyes twinkling.

“Yeah! A day with all our friends and a chance to help one of them feel better? That’s great. Sounds like a perfect day.”

“Yeah. What could go wrong?”

The twins ran upstairs, writing down their request in the magic notebook. Over the next two hours they got confirmations from all their friends, even Flurry.

Soon enough the six of them were all together again. All that was left was Mayhem.

About ten minutes later there was a knock on the door, and when it opened Pound saw Fluttershy, with Mayhem on her back.

“Hey, Mayhem!” said Pound.

The draconequus floated off of Fluttershy, hovering in front of him. “Hey,” he said dispassionately.

“We’ve been waiting for you.”

“We?”

“Yep.” Pound began hovering, taking Mayhem’s claw and pulling him towards the stairs. “We got the whole crew here today just to hang out.”

That seemed to generate a little interest. “Really?”

Pound nodded. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? You should really come over more.”

“Why should I? Your mother doesn’t like me, right?”

Pound paused for a moment. “Why do you say that?

Mayhem landed on the top of the stairs. “Mommy said I shouldn’t use my powers today all that much.”

Pound landed next to him. “She just isn’t used to your powers. She’s the same way with Discord.

“Don’t let it get to you. We can still have plenty of fun together without changing reality.”

Mayhem didn’t look convinced. “I guess.”

They went into the twins room, where everyone greeted him.

Mayhem smiled for a few seconds, but then he sighed. He and Pound sat down with the rest of the group.

“So what’s wrong, Mayhem?” asked Flurry. “We heard you’ve been feeling down lately.”

“I’m bored and irritated and I just feel tired of it.” He let out another sigh. “I must be a pretty terrible person, huh? To be looking down on my mother after all the time she’s spent on me.”

“Nonsense!” said Tree Leaf, mussing up his hair a bit. “Everyone gets bored when they do the same things over and over. Nothing wrong with doing something new once in a while.”

“That’s why we’re all here,” said Peppermint. “So we can take that boredom away from you.”

Mayhem didn’t look too enthused. “Whatever. Let’s just get this over with.”

Pound and Pumpkin looked at each other uncertainly.

The group tried playing games with the little draconequus, but he showed little interest. Over the next hour they tried everything they could think of to entertain him, but to no avail. Within minutes of every game he’d just complain that he was bored and refuse to keep playing.

“I’m bored!” Mayhem said angrily.

Pumpkin was losing patience with him. “We’ve been doing our best to help you feel better, but you’re never gonna improve if you sit there whining all day.”

Mayhem let out a little growl.

“Saying that you’re bored over and over isn’t going to make you less bored, so either do something about it or just shut up already.”

Mayhem stood up, stomping over to Pumpkin with his eyes blazing.

Pound was feeling uncomfortable. Mayhem looked like he was about to snap. He got between the two of them. “Pumpkin, that’s enough! Let’s all just calm down. We don’t need to be fighting.”

Mayhem paused, his body clenching as he snorted. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped, and his attitude shifted. A calm smile came to his face. “You know what? You’re right, Pumpkin. You’re so right.”

Far from being reassured, Flurry felt a sense of foreboding from Mayhem’s shift in disposition.

“I’m tired of feeling bored, and I’m not going to stand for it anymore. From now on I’m doing things MY way.” He lifted his arms.

All of them reacted with shock as a dark orb came out of his hands, expanding rapidly. It passed harmlessly by the children, but everything else that touched it grew rotted and decrepit, as if it had been abandoned for decades.

The light from the sun quickly faded, making it look like nighttime.

Peppermint looked out the window, and saw that the effects had spread throughout town. The grass was brown, and all the houses were crumbled and decaying.

“Wha-what… what did you do?” asked Pound.

Mayhem snickered. “I’m not holding myself back anymore. I’ve decided that the rules have bored me long enough. I’m making this world mine.”

Masky gaped at him. “Mayhem! You can’t be serious.”

Mayhem slowly shook his head. “It seems you still don’t get it. I’m over a thousand years old. There’s no reason I should ever be bored.”

His head stretched from his neck until it was right in front of Pumpkins, their noses touching. “And I believe it was you who told me to either do something about my boredom or shut up about it, right?” Pumpkin’s eyes widened. “Taking over the world entertains me. As long as I don’t push too far I can gradually accomplish it.”

“You’re an idiot!” Flurry said strongly.

“Oh?” Mayhem chuckled. “And why is that?”

“We know all about you. Namely, your biggest weakness. You don’t actually exist.”

Mayhem’s eyebrow rose and he frowned slightly, but he didn’t speak.

“All you are is living magic. And when that magic runs out you vanish. You’ll have to use magic to enact your plan, and you’ll run out eventually. After that you’ll be locked away. Discord won’t ever let you out again.”

Mayhem glared at Flurry for a few moments before he smirked and pulled his head back to his body. He began to laugh, harder and harder. “Oh, that’s a good one. Did you really think I forgot about that?”

Peppermint didn’t like where this was going. On the day she met him she had been wary of what a power like his could do if he turned to evil.

“I think YOU’VE forgotten that I’m considered reformed. All I have to do is ask good old daddy dearest for more magic, and he’ll give it to me.

“I mean, really, the only thing that could stop me is if you went and blabbed my plans to everyone. But now… now you’re in my world. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Unless you beat me here you’ll never be able to go home, and that means you’ll never be able to talk.”

All of them stared at him, looks of horror on their faces.

“And what about Fluttershy?” Pound asked angrily. “Your ‘mommy?’ What about her? When she hears that me and Pumpkin have gone missing she’ll be miserable. And she’ll be even more sad because Twilight will be miserable at hearing that us and her niece have vanished.”

Mayhem’s expression grew cold. “Unfortunately for her she will have to experience some sadness, but I have no intention of harming her. Of course, she’ll still have me by her side to comfort her. And she’ll want to comfort me too. How SAD must I be that all of my friends mysteriously vanished?”

Pumpkin began to tremble. “C-come on!” she said. “This is just a joke, right?”

Mayhem lifted his claw. “Mommy will be safe. Everyone else, though, is fair game. Want to see?”

With a snap, cauldrons of what looked like boiling lava and acid appeared.

With another snap all of them gasped. With the exception of Cadance and Shining Armor all of their parents appeared, blindfolded and their ears blocked.

“Mom! Dad!” Pound yelled. “What are you doing?”

“I told you,” Mayhem said darkly. “I’m not playing around. You don’t seem to be taking me seriously, so I guess I have to show you I mean business.”

Their parents were put into position over the cauldrons. “Here we go!” he said gleefully.

“No! Stop!”

“Don’t!”

“Mayhem!”

Flurry, Pumpkin, and Peppermint’s horns began to glow, but Mayhem simply took them away, ropes coming out of the ground and binding them to the floor.

Tears were coming down all their eyes as they tried to break free, but they were held too strong.

“Say goodbye, but make sure you do it quickly before they melt!”

With that, all of the adults began falling.

“NOOOO!”

Right before they hit the cauldrons they became transparent, all of them falling through them harmlessly.

Mayhem chuckled. “Oh, come on. You didn’t really think I was going to kill your parents, did you? That’s just crazy.”

The kids were released from their bondage, their horns returned.

Flurry let out a long sigh. “Mayhem, that was a very, VERY poor prank. You went too far.”

“Prank?” said the little draconequus. “It seems you misunderstood me. Chaos can only be experienced when you’re alive. A dead pony can’t react to it. That’s why I have no intention of killing anyone.

“I just wanted you to understand this wasn’t a big joke. However, if you’d like to keep testing me, I might just be forced to give a demonstration.”

He lifted the parents over the pots again. “Go ahead and pick one. I mean, I might be joking, but… do you really want to take that chance?”

Their hearts were racing. Masky shook his head hard. “No! I don’t! I believe you! Leave my parents out of this.”

Mayhem smirked. “What about the rest of you?” He received murmurs of affirmation. “Very good. We don’t need these anymore.” With a snap all of the parents disappeared.

Pound let out a sigh of relief. He could feel beads of sweat coming down his face.

“What do you want?” asked Pumpkin, still trying to get her racing heart under control. “Getting rid of six kindergartners isn’t going to help you take over the world.”

Mayhem shrugged. “I know that. I just wanted to play a game with my dear old friends. All of you are going to fight me. If you win, I’ll return you home to your dear families, I’ll return to Discord, and you’ll never have to worry about me again. If you don’t, well… then you’ll become my playthings. I’ll use you for when I want to play games, and I know you’ll always be available because you aren’t going to be able to go anywhere else.”

All of them poofed outside to the middle of Ponyville. It was completely deserted, and now all the rest of them could see the state it was in.

Mayhem chuckled. “This is just a game to me. Right now this Ponyville is just pretend. But unless you defeat me this will eventually happen to the real Ponyville.

“I’ll be back soon. I have to go prepare things for our battle.”

With that he disappeared.

Flurry felt like she was having trouble breathing. She was never going home! Her only real means of combating him, her magic, could be rendered useless with a flick of his thoughts by removing her horn. None of them had a chance against him. They were powerless, and he knew that.

Even if, by some miracle, they could stall Mayhem long enough that his magic ran out, all that would happen is that he would vanish, taking their only means of escape with him. And because no one would have any idea that Mayhem had gone bad they would see no issue in letting him back out.

All of them were thinking on roughly the same lines. The six holders of the Elements of Harmony barely beat an adult Discord. The six of them didn’t think they could do much against a baby version.

“What are we supposed to do?” Peppermint asked, her voice cracking. “He’s unstoppable!”

“He’s only going to toy with us,” said Pumpkin, hanging her head. “You saw what happened earlier. He captured all six of us with ease and took away our magic to boot.”

“I’m sorry,” said Flurry. “In times of crisis like this ponies will turn to an alicorn to lead them, but I don’t have any ideas on what to do either.”

Tree Leaf put a hoof on her. “Come on, Flurry. Are you still on about that? You’re a kid like us, remember? There’s no sense in beating yourself up.”

Pound felt on the verge of tears. He had no idea what to do either. The idea of never playing with Auntie Pinkie again, or being hugged by his mother and father, was a terrible thought.

Pumpkin glanced toward Masky, seeing the odd look on his face. His brow was furrowed in thought. “A bit for your thoughts, Masky?”

The colt took a few seconds to answer. “There is… one way. To beat him, I mean.”

That got everyone looking at him. “What do you have in mind?” asked Flurry. “Any idea is better than none.”

“It’s pretty simple, really. We treat this as just another game.”

“What do you mean?” asked Pound.

“Let’s just forget about the threat Mayhem poses and play his game to the best of our ability. After all, when it comes down to it we’re not really fighting him. We’re fighting his boredom.”

Tree Leaf raised his eyebrow. “You mind explaining what’s going on in that head of yours?”

Masky gently tapped his hoof, trying not to get impatient. “Look, there are only two possibilities here. Either Mayhem is just messing with us and just wants us to give it our all fighting him, or he really did turn against us. If he’s pretending then once we play through his game he’ll let us go home regardless of who wins. And if he’s being serious then he’ll want to prolong things as long as possible, because he knows he could end this game in a second if he wanted.

“I think it’s obvious to everyone that a serious Mayhem wins no matter what, right?” Everyone nodded. “That means the only possible chance we have of getting out of this is turning Mayhem into the former.”

“And how are we supposed to do that?” asked Peppermint.

“It’s like I’ve been saying: we play along and treat this like just another game.

“Mayhem turned against us because he was feeling so bored and irritated that he ceased to care about the rules or who he would hurt by breaking them. If we can relieve his boredom then he might just let us go once the game is over.”

Pumpkin got a thoughtful look on her face now. “If we don’t play along then he’s only going to be more bored and annoyed.”

Pound nodded, not feeling as scared. “So we make this the best game of his life and hope that it’s enough to bring Mayhem back to his senses.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Flurry. “But where do we start?”

Mayhem suddenly appeared nearby, making the ones who could see him jump back. Seeing this, the others turned around and backed up as well.

“Hey there!” the draconequus said with a wave.

“What now?” asked Tree Leaf.

“You’re boring. I want to spice things up. It won’t be any fun otherwise.” Mayhem snapped his claw, and he was now wearing a dark costume with a bandana mask and a cape.

He gestured to Flurry, and snapped again. She was wearing a costume too now, covered with Crystal Hearts. “You’re a talented alicorn, so you don’t really need any help, but since you’re so fond of those gigantic wings of yours you can now make them even longer.”

Flurry gave him a questioning look, feeling an odd desire to test that. She pushed her wings out, and with only a thought her wings extended out of her body another fifteen feet. She looked left and right, seeing the strange spectacle and unsure of what to say about it.

Mayhem crossed his arms. “Those wings of yours are sturdy, and they won’t even add to your weight.”

Tree Leaf was next. After getting his costume decorated with leaves Mayhem said, “You seemed to like the little transformation stunt I used on you when we first met, so that’s your gift. Turn into whatever animal you want.”

Despite himself Tree Leaf couldn’t help but get excited. With a thought he transformed into a dragon and let out a large plume of flame into the sky.

“Cute,” said Mayhem. “Pound and Pumpkin, you get elemental magic. Since you’re so into your whole twin thing you can only use them to their full potential together, otherwise it’ll be pretty weak.

“Masky, since you’re mysterious you have power over shadows.

“And Peppermint, since you’re named after a sweet you can stretch your body at will. Not quite like a peppermint, but I doubt you want to be brittle like one.”

The rest of them got their costumes, also decorated with their namesakes.

He gave a little wave. “Well, that’s it. Hope you enjoy your stay in my world.” With that he vanished again.

“Costumes and superpowers, huh?” said Peppermint. “This reminds me of the Power Ponies comic I read with Twilight.”

Pumpkin looked around at the others. “It’s more familiar than that. All of these costumes are an exact duplicate of the painting Mayhem did on our ceiling.”

That made the others look at everyone’s costumes.

Masky slowly shook his head. “So he’s really committed to this game of his.”

“Mayhem said that he created himself looking evil because he felt that if he ever went wrong that the six of us would be there to stop him,” said Pound. “And that’s what we’re going to have to do. We have to keep playing his game to bring him back to his senses, because that’s what friends do.”

Pound put his hoof out, smiling. “Let’s do it, everyone! Let’s get our friend back.”

All of them put their own hooves on top of his, giving their assent.

6-2: What makes a friend?

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Tree Leaf looked around. “So… what do we do first?”

Masky looked up. “Well, that dark, shadowy castle would be the obvious place to start, but I doubt it’s going to be that simple.”

As if in response to that statement they heard a scream of terror in the distance. That got all of them moving.

They came across several ponies seemingly passed out on the ground. They didn’t look injured, but their eyes were blank and unfocused.

“What happened?” asked Peppermint.

Pound got a curious look on his face. “I know this mare,” he said, pointing to one of them. “I think her name is Carrot Top. What’s odd is that she’s missing her cutie mark.”

Flurry looked around at the other ponies on the ground. “All of them are missing a cutie mark.”

There was another scream, and Pound and Pumpkin both gasped as a creature came into sight, walking away from them. “Tirek!” they called out in shock.

“Tirek?” asked Masky.

“He’s a creature that Twilight and her friends defeated,” said Pumpkin. “He has the power to absorb all of a pony’s magic.”

Peppermint’s eyes widened. “That’s horrible. So that’s also why their cutie marks disappeared?”

Pound nodded. “The stronger the pony the more powerful he gets if he captures them. However, he can’t absorb the magic of someone stronger than him, so Flurry should be safe. He’s not nearly as big as he was when Twilight fought him.”

“How do you know that?” asked Tree Leaf.

“When we got to borrow Discord’s power for a little while we went through Twilight’s memories to put on a joke history play. At his weakest he was only about as big as an adult pony, but once he got a hold of alicorn magic he was like twenty feet tall.”

“So we better fight him now while he’s still kinda weak,” said Masky.

Flurry nodded. “I guess this is the first ‘level’ of this game.”

“Sheesh,” said Pumpkin. “Starting us right off with a crazy boss like this. Couldn’t we get a warm-up first?”

Tree Leaf began laughing. He knew they were in a precarious position, but he had seen so much cool magic that he couldn’t help but feel excitement at getting to try some of it out himself. He turned himself into a dragon like before. “Let’s do it!”

He unfurled his wings and took off towards the monster.

As Tirek reached for another pony to drain their magic he let out a cry of surprise as he was suddenly rammed hard in the back, sending him flying.

“Who dares?” he said angrily as he rose and turned around. His anger turned to confusion as he saw a group of children standing before him. “Is this supposed to be humorous?”

Pound and Pumpkin lifted their hooves, putting one up towards him, and putting their other together. Out of their hooves came a large stream of lightning.

Tirek was knocked back a few feet, before he simply opened his mouth and began absorbing the magic they were throwing at him.

That quickly made them stop.

Tirek increased in size a few inches. “Hmph. Little children trying to fight me?” He shook his head. “Foolish.” He began charging at them. “At least you’ll make a good appetizer!”

He slammed his fist down as the group scattered. Peppermint stretched her body, headbutting him and knocking him off balance. Tirek grabbed for her, but Masky pushed her out of the way.

Tirek reared back, slamming his legs down upon him.

Pound let out a yell.

“Oops,” said Tirek. “I guess I won’t be absorbing your magic, then.”

Pumpkin bit her hoof. “No!”

Peppermint let out a quiet sob. He had sacrificed himself for her.

Tirek turned to them. “I’ll be sure not to make the same mistake on you. "

Flurry glared at him, but then all of the children were gaping as a shadow on the ground in the shape of a pony began moving toward all of them. When it reached their group Masky slowly came out of it.

“Masky!” Peppermint said happily.

“How’d you do that?” asked Tree Leaf.

“Mayhem told me that I had power over shadows, remember? I wasn’t quite sure what that meant at first, but good thing I figured it out.”

Tirek frowned. “What an odd group of kids.” He shrugged, then grinned again. “Oh, well. Once I absorb your magic I won’t have to worry about your weird abilities.”

He ripped a large piece of a roof off a nearby house, throwing it at them.

Flurry got into protective mode, creating a shield and extending her wings to wrap them around the group.

The roof broke harmlessly around her shield.

“Hmmm?” That certainly got Tirek’s attention. “A fifth one? There’s a fifth alicorn now? Unbelievable.” He began laughing. “Well, maybe I was wrong. Maybe one of you will make for a main course after all.”

“Not likely!” said Masky. “You’re not touching our friend!”

Tree Leaf turned towards the twins. “You two, shoot some magic at him and get his attention. I’ll take care of this.”

“Tree Leaf,” Flurry started worriedly, but the colt only smiled at her.

“You get it, don’t you, Flurry? We’re protecting you, not because you’re an alicorn, but because you’re our friend.”

Flurry smiled, nodding. “Right.”

Pound and Pumpkin both shot fire toward Tirek, this time without touching hooves.

Tirek gave a bored sigh as the small plume of flame reached him. “You call these flames? They’re barely even worth absorbing.”

They touched hooves now, and the power of the flames increased exponentially.

As the larger stream came toward him Tirek was grinning again. “That’s more like it. I’ll just absorb that.”

Peppermints bottom half was still on the ground, but her top half was stretched out massively behind them several hundred feet, Tree Leaf wrapped around one of her legs.

She stopped resisting, and with a twanging sound the pair were launched like an arrow, slamming full force into Tirek and sending him flying into a house, crumbling it to ruin.

Flurry laughed. “Oh, wow. That was awesome, you guys.”

Peppermint and Tree Leaf grinned before bowing.

With a scream of fury and an explosion of power the house exploded around Tirek, all amusement gone from his features.

“Oops,” said Tree Leaf. “That made him mad.”

“Enough!" yelled Tirek. "I will not be humiliated by a bunch of children.”

He shifted into a dragon again. “Come on, then! I’m bigger than you.”

Tirek slowly moved to the left, Tree Leaf following his lead. He lowered his head and charged, the colt doing the same.

As they were about to collide Tirek dodged to the side, keeping his momentum.

Peppermint gasped as she was suddenly face to face with the evil centaur.

Tirek smirked as he grabbed the filly in one of his arms. “Got you! All I had to do was get your transforming friend into alignment with another one of you.”

“Shoot!” said Masky.

Peppermint extended her body, trying to get out of his grip, but no matter how much she stretched she couldn’t escape.

Tirek opened his mouth, and the other five gasped as he absorbed her magic. Her body snapped back to its regular size as Peppermint went immobile in his grip, her eyes faded out.

“No! He got her!” said Pumpkin.

Flurry frowned, her eyes narrowing. She floated in the air, a sphere of magic surrounding her as her wings unfurled to their full length. “Give her back!”

Tirek shrugged. “She’s no use to me anymore now that I have her magic... but she’s someone you care about, isn’t she?” The area between his horns glowed brightly. “I want your magic, young alicorn, or I’m gonna destroy what’s left of this empty husk.”

Peppermint spoke, her voice barely audible. “You can’t. You have to run away. Don’t worry about me.”

Flurry closed her eyes for a few moments as she landed back on the ground, her horn no longer glowing. There was no choice to make. She knew her aunt, and she knew her parents. She was certain they would do the same in this situation. “I’ll give you my magic, if you leave my friends alone.”

“Sure thing. Your friend was barely worth the effort to absorb her magic. You’re the only one I’m truly interested in.”

Pound whispered, “We can’t let him have Flurry. If he gets her magic none of us will have a chance."

“We can’t let him hurt Peppermint!” Flurry said back. “I don’t care what the risks are.”

“I have a plan, so listen up.” He spoke quickly, knowing they didn't have much time.

Pumpkin got a hurt look on her face. “Pound, you can’t do that. If you do then you’re gonna…”

Pound smiled. “You know you can’t talk me out of it, Pumpkin. If you know me at all then you know I’ll always do whatever it takes to protect those I love.”

Pumpkin let out a heavy breath, turning away as a tear came down her eye. “Yes… I do know that.”

Tirek’s smug expression vanished. “What’s the holdup over there? I’m losing my patience!”

Peppermint let out a cry of pain as Tirek squeezed her in his palm.

“FINE!” Pound shouted, taking to the air and laughing up a storm, Tirek looking up at him. “Flurry will never surrender to you, because I’M going to take you down right here and now!”

Tirek just looked at Pound flatly as he approached, a bored expression on his face.

As Pound got within a few feet of him Tirek opened his mouth and absorbed his magic, sending the colt falling to the ground.

Tirek picked him up. “Now I’ve got two of your friends, alicorn. Any more stalling and I’ll destroy them both.”

Flurry bowed her head submissively. “Please… just don’t hurt them.” She started walking toward him.

Tirek was grinning again. “That’s better.”

When Flurry was in front of him Tirek opened his mouth and absorbed her magic, glee on his face.

As the alicorn collapsed to the ground Tirek looked toward the sky as he waited for the expected growth. A few seconds later he was frowning again. He had just drained an alicorn, and she was barely worth more than her two friends. He had really expected more.

He dropped Pound and Peppermint, bored now. What a waste of his time.

Behind some debris came an explosion of magic, making the ground shake.

Tirek got a look of delight on his features. Was it one of the princesses? His expression changed to confusion as Flurry Heart appeared, floating in the air, rage on her face. “What? The alicorn? But that’s impossible.” He looked down and saw that all three of the children were no longer there. He quickly looked around, spotting them near Pumpkin, seemingly being dragged along the ground toward her.

“The shadow brat!” Tirek said angrily. He noticed that Flurry was no longer on the ground. The third child was now Tree Leaf.

Tirek let out a yell. It was no wonder he had gotten so little magic out of Flurry. The transforming child had taken her place. How were they so good?

Tirek began laughing, before clapping. “Well, well, well. Not bad, kids. Sacrificing your friends to protect yourself? What a sad excuse for a princess.”

The aura around Flurry grew larger. “My friends are no longer in your grip. Now I don’t have to hold back.”

She disappeared, reappearing right in front of Tirek, blasting him point blank in the stomach with all the power she could muster.

Tirek tried to absorb her spell, but it was too much for him at his current size. He let out a long yell as Flurry’s spell fried him to ash.

Pound, Peppermint, and Tree Leaf all felt strength returning to them, and stood up.

Flurry was panting, and gave her friends a tired smile. “Pound, your plan was brilliant.” Her smile faded. “I’m just sorry you had to get hurt for it to work. You too, Tree Leaf.”

The two of them hugged her. “Don’t worry about it,” said Tree Leaf.

Pound nodded. “That’s right, Flurry. The reason the plan worked is that we trusted each other. I truly believed that you would save us, which is why I wasn’t afraid to throw myself at Tirek for you.”

Flurry got her smile back. “Thank you, Pound.”

“You’re welcome.”

They all heard laughter nearby, and turned to see Mayhem, a mile-wide smile on his face. “Ooooh! That was awesome! I really thought you guys were finished when he got Flurry’s magic, then it turned out to just be a disguised Tree Leaf. Then Flurry just went and wiped him out.”

The little draconequus was shivering in excitement. “This is it! This is the thrill that’s been missing in my life! Such magnificent chaos. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such fun!”

He began hopping up and down, clapping and letting out giddy laughter. “Fun! Fun! Fun!”

Peppermint looked towards Masky, thinking that his plan was working. Before Mayhem’s actions had been sadistic, pretending to kill their family. His laughter had been cruel, reveling in his malevolence. Now he sounded more like their old friend.

If they just kept entertaining him he would surely stop his bad actions and release them.

Mayhem floated in the air a few feet. “This is a real blast, but I think it’s time to up the difficultly level. I’m not satisfied yet.”

“Bring it on!” said Flurry. Just like Peppermint she could see that playing along with his game was getting him to come around.

“That’s right!” said Pound, putting a hoof around his sister. “So long as we’re together we can overcome anything you throw at us.”

Pumpkin grinned.

“Friends, huh?” He began walking in the air toward them. “And just what is it that makes you friends, hmm?”

“Are you trying to suggest we’re not actually friends?” asked Masky.

Mayhem stopped. “Oh, not at all. I’m well aware that you six are friends. However, I’m asking you what makes it so.

“It seems a pretty simple answer. Simply a combination of time and memories.”

“What’s your point?” asked Flurry.

“It’s impossible for you to defeat me. That much I think we can all agree on. However…” Mayhem looked up thoughtfully. “It was impossible for Discord to lose to Twilight and her friends, and yet he did. Even though he corrupted all of them and turned them against their true selves, in the end their friendship still managed to overcome him and turn him back to stone.

“And all it took was Twilight being reminded of her past with them to pull her back to herself. Then she went and did the same for the others.”

Mayhem looked down at them now, slowly weaving back and forth. “I’m not going to make the same mistake as Daddy did. I’m not going to let you do the impossible. I’m going to utterly crush your friendship so that you can’t use its power against me.”

Tree Leaf frowned. “And how are you going to do that? Even if you separate us, or turn us against each other, our friendship will endure.”

Mayhem laughed, and Peppermint felt her heart rate start going up. His laughter was again dripping with malice. She gulped, wondering what he had planned.

Mayhem shrugged, shaking his head. “Pay attention, would you? I didn’t ask my question before for no reason. In order to defeat your friendship all I have to do is ensure that you’re not friends.

“But how, you ask?” He smirked widely. “By striking at the root of it.” He lifted his arms, and several rectangles appeared, showing scenes of the twins with Masky, Tree Leaf, and Peppermint, as well as scenes from their birthday party.

“If friendship is the result of time and happy memories shared together then all I have to do is get rid of those memories entirely.”

They gaped at him.

Mayhem’s eyes slowly narrowed with a perverse pleasure. “Without those memories and experiences there is no friendship, and with no friendship there is no unity. How much of a fight can you really put up when your sense of teamwork is destroyed?

“Now all of you will become strangers to each other once again.”

All of them looked at him with horror.

“Y-you can’t!” Tree Leaf cried out. “You can’t do that!”

He lifted his arm, laughing. “Oh, boy! This is so much fun! I should have done this ages ago.

"Who cares about the boring old rules? I'm going to do whatever I want!” He put his claw into a snapping position.

“Stop it!” Pumpkin begged.

“Mayhem, don’t!” said Pound, trembling.

“Please… please stop!” Flurry called out, not wanting to go back to that cold, lonely place.

Mayhem was unmoved. With a gleeful laugh he said, “Say goodbye to the last year of your lives.”

The sound of the snap seemed to echo out across the world as the six children’s faces went blank.

6-3: Flurry vs Mayhem

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The blank faces of the children slowly returned to normal, only to quickly be replaced with confusion.

“Where are we?” asked Peppermint.

Masky lifted a hoof, before glancing around at the other children. “What are we wearing?”

“What’s going on here?” asked Tree Leaf, before roughly shoving Pumpkin. “What do you know about this?”

Pound’s eyes narrowed before he socked Tree Leaf one. “Don’t put your hooves on my sister, jerk!”

The colt grabbed his cheek, growling. As he went to tackle Pound Flurry unfurled her wings and put them between the two, pushing them apart. “Knock it off!” After a few moments she blushed and quickly put her wings away as she realized what she had done. She gulped, trying to get her composure back. “T-this isn’t the time to be fighting.”

Pound glared at her. “Oh, who asked you to butt in with your mutant wings?”

Flurry flinched, her old shame returning.

Pumpkin put a hoof on Pound’s shoulder. “She’s right, Pound.”

“Hmph! Whatever.” As he continued staring at Flurry his annoyance was replaced with curiosity. “Wait a minute. Are you an alicorn?”

Flurry gave a timid nod.

“How’s that possible?” asked Pumpkin. “There are only four alicorns, and all of them are adults.”

“I’m the child of Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor,” she replied with a bit of pride.

“We’ve met them before,” said Pound. “Our aunt is a friend of Twilight. But they’ve never mentioned you. Are you messing with us?”

Masky let out a little chuckle. “What would she have to gain from lying about her parentage? Even if she was it doesn’t change the fact that she’s an alicorn.” He let out a tsk. “Man, I wish I had my camera with me.”

Tree Leaf gave him a dirty look. “Don’t you think there are more important things right now? All of us have been kidnapped and forced into these stupid costumes.”

Pumpkin looked around. “This… sorta looks like Ponyville.”

“But it can’t be!” said Pound, unable to hide the worry in his voice. “This place looks like it’s been abandoned for like a thousand years.”

Peppermint gulped. “I sure hope my mom and dad are okay.” After a few seconds she reluctantly added, “And my little brother too.”

Flurry took in a deep breath. “Well, I can’t say I like this, but I am an alicorn, so I’ll watch over you while we try to figure out what’s going on.”

Masky asked, “So I’m guessing you have no idea how we got here either?”

Flurry shook her head. As she went to speak again she suddenly heard a chorus of screams of fear from several different directions, and all of the other children froze, recognizing it as belonging to their loved ones.

“Mom!” Pound called out, running off with Pumpkin right behind him.

“My parents!” Peppermint ran off too.

“Hold on!” said Flurry. “Where are you all going?”

“Where do you think?” asked Tree Leaf dismissively as he took off as well. “We’re going to check on our families.”

“Stop!” Flurry called out, pushing her wings out

Masky scoffed. “Who put you in charge? Are you trying to be intimidating with those freakishly large wings?”

Flurry blushed deeply, putting them at her side as Masky left with the rest.

“Oh, my. Looks like you’ve been left all alone.”

Flurry heard a voice above her. She looked up and screamed, jumping back a step. “What in the world are you?”

Mayhem chuckled. “I’m the one that started this whole game.”

“Game?”

“I brought you to my world, and now you’ll have to fight to get out of it. However, if you want to get in my castle you’ll need to get the rest of your party.”

“You mean those children dressed up like superheroes?”

“Those would be the ones.”

“What do you want?”

“I just want to ‘play,’ that’s all.”

Flurry put on a braver face than she felt. “So kidnapping and hurting others is what you do for fun?”

Mayhem put a claw in his ear and rotated it. “Something like that.

“I’m a draconequus, one of the most powerful beings in the world.”

Flurry put the pieces together. “So you went after me because I’m an alicorn, right? Those other kids were just collateral victims.

"It doesn’t matter how powerful you are. An alicorn is a threat to anybody.”

Mayhem pulled his claw out his ear, flicking away a piece of earwax. “Maybe. Maybe not.

“Either way, if you can’t overpower me with the help of your friends you’ll be stuck here for the rest of your life.”

“Friends?” she asked, confused. “I don’t even know those other ponies.” Her horn began to glow. “I’m not going to get a bunch of children involved in this fight, and you shouldn’t either. If it’s me you want then let them go!”

Mayhem shook his head. “Sorry. That’s not going to happen.”

“Fine, then! I’m not going to go to your castle when I can just take you down right here.”

Mayhem’s eyes lit up with excitement. “Oooo! Sounds like fun! Pointless, but fun.”

“We’ll see how pointless it is when I beat you.”

Mayhem stretched his body to the side as Flurry shot a blast at him. “Big words, but is that a tremble I see going through your body?”

Flurry didn’t want to admit it, but she was scared. And now that the creature had pointed it out to her she could feel the way her body was shaking.

She chastised herself. This was what she had spent all her time studying for. She had been preparing for a situation in which her parents weren’t around to help her.

She gathered up energy in her horn, shooting it at him.

Mayhem shook his head. “You’re just repeating the same move, and it’ll end the same way.”

Flurry smirked as she created what looked like a mirror behind Mayhem, and she reflected her spell back at him.

The draconequus heard a noise behind him, and dodged again.

Flurry gathered up a large concentration of energy, firing it right at him as she summoned more reflective surfaces.

Mayhem put his hands out, ready to catch her spell, when suddenly one of the mirrors objects moved in front of him, and her spell shattered into hundreds of different attacks as Flurry quickly drew all of them together into the shape of a heart.

“Crystal prison!” she called out. “You may be flexible, but even you can’t avoid an attack from all directions.

“Those attacks will reflect over and over. Even if you can dodge them in such a tight space you’ll eventually get tired. It’s only a matter of time.”

After a few minutes she dropped her spell, and the blackened body of the draconequus fell to the ground.

Flurry let out a breath. Keeping her spell active for that long had taken a toll on her reserves, but that was okay. She had won.

“I did it!” she said victoriously.

“Did you?” came the voice of the odd creature with a trace of amusement. He pushed up on his hands, flipping around until he landed standing up.

Even as Flurry watched his blackened skin returned to its normal color. “W-wha-” She blinked. “But how?”

Mayhem chuckled. “Oh, I just thought I’d have a little fun with you.” He smirked as her eyes narrowed. “Oh, come on! No need to make such a face.”

He floated into the air about twenty feet. “Well, I guess it’s my turn. Let’s play catch!” He lifted a finger into the air, energy forming into a small circle above it.

Flurry got into a ready stance, unsure what he was planning. Her eyes bugged out of her head as the magic sphere grew larger and larger, until it was about the size of a house. She shook, unsure if she could repel such a large amount of energy.

She forced herself to take a deep breath. ‘If he’s expending that much energy then he’ll surely be exhausted afterwards. If I can just avoid this then I’ll surely win.’

Mayhem lifted both arms, and the sphere changed shape a bit so it was more cylindrical than spherical. “Here we go!” He moved his arm backward, then threw it forward, yelling, “Catch!”

Flurry readied herself to teleport. She got a sour look on her face. If she did avoid it, then everything behind her would be totally wrecked. She couldn’t be sure this was really Ponyville, but there were likely other people around. At the very least, those other kids were all wandering about.

She had no plans to die to this thing, but she also couldn’t allow others to get hurt. She quickly skimmed her mind. Something came to her then. She had once read that the best ways to defeat an opponent is to turn their own force against them.

She closed her eyes for a few moments as she gathered energy into her horn. In front of her she created a circular space.

Mayhem laughed. “What’s that supposed to be? Hmm?” Even as he watched his spell disappeared into the circle. Another circle appeared near the ground underneath Mayhem. “Ah! I got it! A magic portal. You’re planning to launch my attack back at me.”

Flurry’s heart was beating fast. He hadn’t seemed to notice the second portal she had placed above him. “Take this!”

“Gladly!” said the draconequus, flipping upside down. “I knew what your plan would be from the start.”

Mayhem’s spell came out of the portal above him. He put his arms out. “There you are. Come to papa!”

Confusion came to the draconequus as his spell approached. It didn’t seem able to touch him.

His eyebrows went up as he noticed the reason: she had put another portal right above him, that funneled his spell into the portal beneath him, and he was too late to flip back around before his spell hit him in the back, sending him flying into the air.

“Gotcha,” she said quietly.

Up and up he went, his spell slowly getting smaller and smaller.

“This time… this time I got him for sure.” Her body tensed as his spell disappeared completely, leaving Mayhem floating there with his arms crossed with a cocky expression.

He rapidly dropped until he hit the ground. He began clapping. “Very good. I admit I fell for your little trick. Well done.”

Flurry was starting to feel afraid. “Are you immortal? Or do you have some kind of super-healing power?”

Mayhem shook his head. “Nope. Neither. That spell I used was just for show.” He created another gigantic sphere of energy, which he quickly sent at her.

She was a second too late to react, but when the sphere hit her all she felt was the equivalent of a static shock all across her body. Annoying, but not painful.

He put his hands to his mouth, giggling.

Flurry let out a quiet growl. “So you were just trying to get me to waste my energy?”

“It doesn’t really matter to me. You can’t beat me, anyway.”

Flurry had an uncomfortable feeling in her chest. Her parent’s faces passed in front of her, and she wished they were there with her. She’d even take Uncle Sunny and Aunt Starlight.

But… they weren’t there right now. It was only her, and she had to keep fighting. No one was going to save her, so the only direction she could go was forward.

She tried spell after spell, trying to remember all the different things she had practiced, but no matter what she did he always came out of it unharmed. He didn’t even bother attacking her again. He just let her do whatever came to mind.

The longer the battle went on the more scared she grew that she wouldn’t be able to prevail against him. And once she actually acknowledged those feelings she couldn’t get them out of her mind.

She shot a large fireball at him, which he casually spiked into the air like a volleyball, then took to the air and spiked it back at her.

She let out a squeak, teleporting away.

He laughed gleefully. “That was cool! Let’s keep playing.” He started hopping toward her.

“AH! Get back!” She made a shield of energy around her, expanding it. Mayhem stuck out a single claw, allowing himself to be pushed back. Once it stopped expanding he gave it a hard poke and the shield shattered.

Flurry was panting hard, unable to stop herself from shaking. What was this thing? He was smaller than her, but his power was far beyond hers.

The draconequus began walking toward her, a nonchalant expression on his face. He was completely at ease, and Flurry feared she couldn’t stop his approach.

There was only one thing left that might work. She lit up her horn, but she could barely focus on casting a spell. She was terrified of this thing. If this really was Ponyville then it likely meant that he had killed or captured Twilight. If she lost here she’d probably be next.

Flurry lifted up large chunks of dirt from the surrounding area. “Earth barrage!”

As expected, he began dodging. After a few jumps she manipulated the ground beneath him, and his feet sunk in.

He looked unconcerned as she gathered all the earth into one big ball in front of her and slammed it down.

A few seconds later Mayhem jumped on top of the mound of earth. “So close, and yet so far.”

Flurry grinned. “Closer than you think.”

“Hmm?” He tilted his head. “What do you mean by tha-WAH!” He was suddenly hit hard from behind.

With that moment of distraction Flurry manipulated the earth, grabbing his four limbs and holding him in the air.

“How?” he asked. “I didn’t see your horn glowing.”

“Duplication spell!” Flurry said confidently as a second Flurry appeared next to her. “It doesn’t last long, but it gets the job done.”

Mayhem growled. “That last attack wasn’t meant to hit me, was it? You just wanted to hide yourself from view for a few moments so your double could hide, right?”

Flurry nodded. “It’s over!”

“You think so? I can get out of this.”

“Do you really think I’m that weak?”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, let’s see what you think about this.”

“About what?” There was a rumble of thunder in the air, and his eyes went upward.

Flurry had quietly been gathering storm clouds while they talked, and she unleashed the payload upon him.

Mayhem screamed, then seemed to pass out.

Flurry let out a relieved sigh. “Got him.”

“You sure did!” came Mayhem’s voice right next to her.

Flurry went stiff as he put an arm around her. All her fear came rushing back. “H-how?” She looked up, and saw another Mayhem still held up.

“Pretty simple, actually. You’re not the only one with fancy duplication magic.” He extended his other arm, and the Mayhem in the air dissolved into a plaid blob that traveled to him as he absorbed it. “Tough luck, huh? Maybe you’ll do better next time.” He gave her a carefree smile. “Well, probably not, but the point is that you tried your best, and there’s no shame in that. Well done.”

Flurry began to gently pant, too scared to push him away. ‘I… I can’t win,’ she thought. ‘I can’t beat him.’ That knowledge hurt.

Mayhem rubbed her head. “You should really go look after your ‘friends.’ Hey, the more the merrier, right?” He floated up into the air. “I’ll be waiting at my castle, but I'll only let you in if there's six of you. See ya.” With that he disappeared.

She stared at the spot he used to be for about thirty seconds before tears began to come down her eyes. First one, then two, and it eventually grew to full-on sobbing as she sank to the ground, holding her stomach.

She had been completely useless. For all the different spells she had mastered none of them had done her any good. He was just too powerful.

He had taken over Ponyville, and her Aunt Twilight was nowhere in sight. He probably wouldn’t be satisfied with just that. Evil things like him never were. They always wanted more.

He would eventually make his way to the Crystal Empire. Would the Crystal Heart be able to keep him out? Somehow, she didn’t think so. If that happened, if he took over the Crystal Empire, what would happen to her baby sister? She wouldn’t be able to bear it if anything happened to Skyla.

She squeezed her stomach harder as it cramped up. What was she supposed to do? She didn’t have the skill or the power to defeat him.

Mayhem had told her to go after those other five ponies that had been by her, but what use would they be? None of them were alicorns. Three of the others were unicorns, but if she couldn’t defeat him there was no way the others could.

Although she dismissed them as not being of any use she still couldn’t help but dwell on them. She had no idea who they were, but there was just something about them...

The overwhelming fear that was threatening to engulf her no longer felt so terrifying. She couldn’t explain it, but somehow... thinking of them made her feel calmer.

She strained her brain, but to no avail. She was certain she had never met them before, so why couldn’t she let the idea of them go? Why did she have this strange sense of inner peace as she thought of their faces?

She slowly stood up, wiping her face. She looked at her hoof. She had stopped trembling.

It was a mystery for sure. If she didn’t know them then why did she feel like there was some kind of connection to them?

Ultimately, she knew that she didn’t want to be alone. It might just be as simple as that.

6-4: Pound and Pumpkin

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Flurry took to the air. This was going to be tricky. All of the other kids had run in different directions at the sound of screams from their family. There was a chance that all of them were in danger. Who should she go for first? If they were in trouble then she didn’t have time to debate it.

She decided on Pound and Pumpkin, if only because they had run off together. Two ponies were going to be of more help than one.

She looked around, trying to spot them. With the big battle she had just been in it was hard to remember which way any of them went.

She didn’t see anyone at first, so she went even higher. An odd buzzing noise caught her attention in the distance, and she saw a lot of black bug-like creatures swarming around. She had read about them. They were called Changelings. She did occasionally see Thorax, but he was a different kind of Changeling. Colorful and kind.

She could make out them going after something, and took off in that direction. Lightning bolts were going off in all directions, frying some of the Changelings. She put on more speed, eager to be of use.

As she got near the battle she could see the colt and filly holding hooves and shooting magic.

A large swarm of Changelings gathered above them. As they descended another group snuck up and hit them from behind, separating the two of them.

Queen Chrysalis laughed as the twins struggled to get out of their grasp. “Got you brats at last.”

Pound inhaled, his chest swelling a bit, before breathing out hard as a stream of air came toward her, but it was barely enough to ruffle her hair.

“Is that all you can muster, little freak? It seems like all your power is gone when you’re not actually touching. I don’t understand how you have such an ability, but I guess it doesn’t matter, does it? You’re finished.”

As she started laughing it was cut short as Flurry descended and kicked her in the back of the head, sending her crashing into the ground. She quickly followed it up with a large magic blast, leaving the queen a sizzled mess.

The rest of the army looked at the corpse of their leader. A few fled, but the rest hissed in outrage and went after her. Flurry teleported to the other children as they neared, pulling them next to her with her magic.

Flurry also didn’t understand it, but from what the queen had said these two children had elemental powers that only worked well when they were in physical contact. How they had those powers was irrelevant. Right now she would put it to use.

Her horn lit up, creating a sideways tornado.

“You two! Add your unique powers to this.”

They were still trying to catch up to what happened, and it took them a few seconds to react. They did understand that help had arrived, and, putting one set of hooves together, they put the other one right below the tornado, shooting a plume of fire into it.

Flurry expanded the tornado as the Changelings attempted to run, but ultimately they were all sucked into it, burning to ashes.

The twins lowered their hooves as Flurry stopped the tornado.

Flurry looked around the area to make sure it was safe, then sat down on the ground. She needed a little break to recharge her magic.

The other two children sat down across from her. “Thank you,” said the colt.

“Yeah. Thanks,” said the filly.

“You’re welcome,” said Flurry. After a few seconds she said, “So with all the craziness going on we haven’t been introduced to each other yet. I’m Flurry Heart.”

“I’m Pound Cake,” said the colt.

“I’m Pumpkin Cake,” said the filly.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you two,” said Flurry, letting out a breath.

“Are you all right?” asked Pound.

Flurry nodded. “Just a little tired.”

“I’m guessing we’re not the only ones to run into trouble, then,” said Pumpkin. She put her head on her knees. “Man, who would abduct little kids and put them through this?”

Mayhem popped into Flurry’s mind. “Another kid.”

“Another kid?”

“Before I came to find you I ran into this odd creature. It called itself a… draconequus, I think. I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked like it was made of ten different kinds of animals. A claw here, a hoof there…”

She sighed. “It claimed responsibility for doing this. I tried my best to fight him, but I couldn’t win.” A tear came down her eye. “He just toyed with me, treating the whole thing like a game. He didn’t even try to hurt me. He just let me use all my spells, and then went on his way.”

“Mmm…” Pound didn’t like the sound of that. “So even you couldn’t do anything, even though you’re an alicorn?”

Flurry put a hoof to her stomach. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Pumpkin. “No sense in beating yourself up about it.”

Flurry looked between the two children. “Tell me something. Have we ever met before?” They both shook their heads. “Well, I didn’t think so. Even so, it’s nice to see you anyway. I was feeling kinda lonely and scared after he left. I’m scared for my family.”

They both nodded. “I can understand that,” said Pumpkin.

“That thing… it said that if we wanted to go home that we’d have to go to the castle, and we’d only be able to go in if all six of us were there.”

Pound stood up. “So we team up, take this weirdo down, and we get to go home? Sounds good to me.” He got a confused look on his face. “But wait a minute. Ponyville is our home.”

Pumpkin got up too. “Well, this doesn’t look like the Ponyville we know. Even if…” She took a deep breath. “Even if he killed everybody in Ponyville how could we not know anything was happening? The last thing I remember we were at home.”

Flurry got up too. “Well… I really hope this isn’t actually Ponyville, otherwise it likely means Aunt Twilight is dead.”

“But if this isn’t Ponyville then how did he do it?” asked Pound. “Why go out of his way to make a broken-down version of our town?”

“I don’t know,” said Pumpkin. “All we can do is work together to bring him down.” She put her hoof out.

Pound put his on top of hers, and then they both looked at Flurry.

Flurry looked at their two hooves. “I suppose I might as well, considering I failed.”

“What do you mean?” asked Pound.

“I was studying so hard because I had a lot of pressure being put on me. Every time I went out I had someone putting an expectation on me of being great.” A tear came down her eye. “I started getting more and more afraid that something would happen to my parents, and force me to step up. After all, alicorns have always been rulers of something.

“Celestia and Luna control the sun and moon, and rule over Canterlot. Aunt Twilight is responsible for spreading friendship, and rules over Ponyville. And my mother is responsible for spreading love, and rules over the Crystal Empire.

“If something happened to her then who else would be chosen as a ruler than an alicorn?” Her eyes clenched shut as a quiet sob escaped her. “I’m just not ready! And even though I’ve worked my butt off preparing for a time like this it came out to nothing. That creature treated me like a plaything, and because I wasn’t strong enough I might lose my parents to him!”

The twins walked over to Flurry and hugged her. “There, there,” said Pumpkin, patting her back. “Don’t cry.”

“You saved our butts,” said Pound. “So now we’ll work with you to protect you too.”

Flurry glanced between the two of them, and much like before the crushing weight of despair began to dissipate.

She sniffed. “I’ve been afraid to make friends, because I’ve felt like I never knew when I might be forced to take my parents place, so I needed to be as strong as possible. Here, in this place, there’s no more time for any training.

"I lost to him by myself, but maybe, if we work together, we might be able to win.”

Pound smiled. “That’s the spirit. Let’s be friends.”

Flurry smiled back, but after a few seconds it faded. “Do you actually want to be friends with me?”

“Why not?”

She pulled away from the two of them, backing up a few feet, before hanging her head and unfurling her wings. “You didn’t want to deal with me before, and called me ‘mutant wings,’ remember?”

Pound flushed. “Hey! I’m really sorry about that.”

Flurry shook her head, crying again. “Don’t bother. I know how it is. I’ve dealt with it all my life. All the kids made fun of my giant wings. Why should you be any different?” She lifted them as high as they would go. “Well? Go on, then. Get your fill.”

Pound walked up to her and hugged her again. “I’m sorry, Flurry. I mean it! I was just mad before because that green kid pushed my sister. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.

“Believe me, I know what you’re going through.”

Flurry let out a scoffing noise. With a bit of magic she lifted his wings before pushing him away from her. “Oh, yeah. Sure. You really look like you understand the pain of having ginormous wings.”

Pound shook his head. “No… I don’t know about that. But…” He looked down at the ground. “I do, however, know the pain of being bullied over your wings.

“For the longest time I couldn’t fly. Everyone in my class could at least hover, but I was dead last. I used to be called the flightless wonder. I hated school because of it.

“One day, I got into a huge fight with Pumpkin for calling me a flightless loser, and I got to the point where I started to hate myself. I felt like I would rather have my wings removed and live as an earth pony than continue to be a pegasus.”

He looked up into her eyes. “I’m sorry, Flurry. I wouldn't wish that pain on anyone.”

Flurry could see the hurt in his eyes, and she felt he truly did understand something of the pain she had gone through. “So… you don’t think my wings make me a freak?”

Pound shook his head. “No way! If I had had wings like yours I probably would have been flying a long time ago.”

“We’re all different,” said Pumpkin. “I didn’t go through the same kind of bullying Pound did, but I got to see the pain he went through because of it. Whatever our differences, we’re all just ponies.”

Flurry got a warm smile on her face. “Thank you.” She put her hoof out. “Okay. Let’s go rescue those other ponies too and go home!”

The two of them put their hoof over hers. “Right!”

6-5: Peppermint Swirl

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As the children put their hooves down Flurry said, “I have a question for you.”

“What is it?” asked Pound.

“What was the Changeling queen talking about before? She said something like your magic only works when in contact with each other. I’ve never heard of something like that before, so can you show me?”

The two of them nodded. “Sure,” said Pumpkin. They each put a hoof in the air, concentrating. A tiny stream of fire only the size of their hooves went into the air. “So this is what it’s like when we’re alone.”

Pound smirked. “But then…” The two of them touched, and as Flurry watched the tiny streams turned into a small inferno.

Flurry gaped at the display. It wasn’t as though she wasn’t capable of making a strong flame herself, but the way they did it perplexed her. “But… but how does it work?” Double-checking Pound’s forehead she added, “You’re not even a unicorn!”

Pumpkin shrugged. “I don’t know how it works. We’ve just had this ability as long as we can remember.”

“The power of teamwork has done lots of crazy stuff,” said Pound. “I guess this is just another one of them.”

Flurry sucked on her cheek. This was definitely a mystery for sure. She knew her Aunt Twilight. She was the curious type. Surely she would have wanted to study this magic.

She shook her head. Why was she focusing on this right now? If the twins had been under attack the other children probably were too. She didn’t have time to figure it out.

“Oh!” Something came to her. “Did you find your mother?”

The bright spirits of the twins faded, both of them hanging their heads as they shook their heads.

“We followed the voice toward our house.” Pound pointed to a dilapidated Sugarcube Corner, "but when we found our mom it turned out she was just a disguised Changeling.”

“I’m sorry I brought it up,” said Flurry awkwardly.

Pumpkin wiped her face of a tear. “No. Don’t worry about it. Right now what’s important is sticking together. We can look for our family later.”

Pound nodded. “All I can do is protect Pumpkin… and now you.”

Flurry grinned at him. “Sounds good. Let’s go find one of the others.” As she went to take to the air again she heard a high-pitched scream in the distance that got all three of them moving.

Peppermint was running for her life. Right on her heels were a pack of Timberwolves. As one jumped at her she stretched her body out of the way, before flattening herself as another came by. She went running again, tears streaming down her eyes.

She turned behind her, and to her horror saw a bunch of them combining into one gigantic Timberwolf. With its increased height its stride carried it further, and it was quickly catching up to her.

She could hear the howls of the other Timberwolves, and as she turned forward again her eyes went wide as she saw she had ran right into a dead end. She skidded to a stop.

All she had to do was stretch her body upward and she’d be fine.

As she started to do that she heard a snapping sound right by her ear, and only narrowly avoided getting her head chomped on. She looked above her, and saw they had already swarmed the rooftops.

She was trapped. The giant Timberwolf licked its lips, slowly approaching the trembling filly. She closed her eyes, hugging herself as she waited for the end.

Suddenly, there was a colossal noise and the sound of splintering wood. The ground shook beneath her, knocking her on her back. She sat up and opened her eyes, seeing three ponies in front of her, facing away from her. In front of them was what looked like a gigantic ball of dirt.

There were hisses of displeasure from the Timberwolves, and they hopped off the roof to their fallen companion. What was left of the big Timberwolf began combining with all the other ones, creating one even larger than before.

Flurry set her face. “Pound, Pumpkin! I think it’s time we show this monster what it’s like to be firewood.”

The twins nodded hard. They each put their hoof on Flurry’s horn.

Peppermint gasped as the raging plume of fire from the three engulfed the Timberwolf in its entirety. It whined and cried before it collapsed to the ground and dissolved into ash.

Pumpkin walked over to her, putting a hoof on her shoulder. “Hey, there! You okay?

“There’s nothing to worry about now. I’ll protect you.”

The filly just blinked, in disbelief at what she just saw. After a few more seconds her eyes filled with tears, and she threw herself as Pumpkin as she began sobbing in relief.

“There, there,” said Pumpkin comfortingly. “We’re here for you. It’s okay now.”

She didn’t know who these people were, and she didn’t care. She was safe now. That was all that mattered to her at the moment.

After a few minutes, when she had calmed down, she let Pumpkin go. She sniffed, wiping her face. “Thank you,” she said gratefully. “I really thought that was it for me.” She hung her head, wobbling her legs like a snake. “So much for this power of mine. It was useless.”

“You have a strange ability too?” said Flurry curiously. “A pony that can stretch their body like taffy…” She got a dark look on her face. “So that’s it!”

“What’s it?” asked Pound.

To Peppermint she said, “I met an odd creature after all of you ran off. He took responsibility for bringing all of us here.

“This thing… this draconequus… it seems like it’s targeting children with unnatural abilities. I could be wrong, of course, but you three have them. I’m an alicorn, so he probably wants me out of the picture before I really develop into my full strength. My guess is that he wants to take care of potential trouble while we’re still young… before we can become a real threat.”

“That’s terrible,” she replied.

“So I’m guessing you didn’t find who you were looking for either?”

The filly shook her head. “I didn’t see him anywhere.”

Flurry got a thoughtful look on her face. “I’m starting to think that they were never here at all. Those screams we all heard were just a distraction to separate all of us so he could eliminate us more easily.”

“But I heard him!” said Peppermint. “I think I’d know the voice of my own dad!”

Pound sighed. “Our mother was actually a Changeling. He could have done the same for your dad.”

Peppermint looked like she was going to break down again. “B-but if my dad was just a fake then where is my real dad?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how much of this is real, but I do know one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“All four of us were under attack.”

“So that green kid who shoved me earlier, and that cute, dark coated one, are also probably being attacked,” finished Pumpkin. “That’s what you’re saying?”

Pound nodded. “As much as he annoys me for pushing you, I’d rather be the one slapping him then all these monsters running around.”

“So what’s your name?” asked Flurry.

“Peppermint… Peppermint Swirl,” she responded.

After the others introduced themselves Pumpkin asked, “So what are you going to do?”

“About what?”

“If those other two kids are in danger then we have to do what we can to rescue them. But if you’re too scared to fight then you can go hide somewhere and we’ll come find you later.”

“Are you nuts!” A shudder went through her. “You think I want to stay in this crazy place alone? I’m sticking with you guys. I’d feel much safer with an alicorn nearby. I don’t care how young she is.”

“Well, that settles that,” said Pound. “Let’s go find one of them.”

Peppermint let out a heavy breath, releasing the stress still inside her. “I… I am a little scared of fighting, but just knowing I’m not alone here makes me feel not as afraid.”

“I know that feeling,” said Flurry. “Whatever it takes, we’ll make it through this together.”

Peppermint looked around at the others, managing a smile. She nodded. “Yep! Let’s do it!”

Peppermint stuck by Pumpkin as they looked for one of the other two ponies. Maybe it was just because Pumpkin had been the first to talk to her, but she felt the most comfortable with her.

After another minute they heard evil laughter in the distance. Pumpkin saw a dark-coated pony floating in the air. “Up there!” she called out, pointing.

Flurry glanced up. The pony had an ethereal look about them, at least in their mane and tail.

“HA HA HA HA HA HA!!” laughed the pony again. “How long are you going to keep hiding, brat? Come out, come out, wherever you are.” Her horn glowed with a blue light, and countless small bolts of energy flew out it, bombarding the ground beneath her.

Peppermint gulped. “If one of those other two was down there…”

Pound let out a sharp breath. “I hope we aren’t too late.”

“It’s a shame that I wasn’t the one to cause this myself,” said the pony, “but that’s fine.” She looked upward, to the dark clouds obscuring the sky. “It looks like my wish has come true. It looks like the night will last forever now.”

Flurry gasped. “Is that… Nightmare Moon?”

6-6: Teamwork

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Flurry could hardly believe what she was seeing. She could understand Timberwolves and Changelings, but how on earth had that creature managed to get Nightmare Moon?

She bit her lip. “If she’s attacking someone it’s most likely one of those other two kids. She’s an alicorn that was so strong it took the Elements of Harmony to lock her up.” She gulped, not liking her chances of victory. Her adult alicorn sister couldn’t beat her, so did she have any chance?

She steeled herself, trying to ignore the fear blossoming in her chest. “At any rate, this is too dangerous for you kids. You stay here.”

As she went to take off she heard the clear voice of Pound. “No!”

She paused, looking behind her. “Excuse me?”

“No!” he repeated firmly.

She gave him a flat look. “You’re in over your head. I don’t think even I can win here.”

“And that’s why we’re coming with you!” said Pumpkin.

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t be stupid! I need you guys to stay alive if we’re going to get into the castle. Why are you trying to risk your lives? It’s not your job!”

“And it isn’t yours, either!” said Peppermint. “You’re a kid like us. You shouldn’t have to risk your life at your age.”

Tears welled up in Flurry’s eyes. “B-but who else will? I’m all that kid has to rely on.”

“And that’s why we’re coming along with you,” said Pound. “You saved me and my sister from the Changelings, so I’m going to be there for you during this.”

“And you saved me from the Timberwolves,” said Peppermint. “I may be terrified, but I’m gonna give it all I got too.”

Flurry’s eyes clenched shut as she let out a quiet sob. She really hadn’t wanted to go in alone. She just thought it was her responsibility not to put others in danger.

She wiped her face. “Okay, everyone! Let’s do it!”

They all nodded back.

Nightmare Moon surveyed the area. “You’re a stubborn little rat, aren’t you? You like to hide in the shadows, hmm? Well, that’s okay, because the shadows are what give me my powers too.”

She focused on an odd-shaped shadow. “Got you, little rat.” She lifted up a pile of rubble into the air. “There we go. Now you have no place to hide anymore.” She built up power in her horn.

The head of Masky started coming out of the bottom of the rubble.

“Too late!” Just as she was about to fire a light out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she saw a lightning bolt heading in her direction. “Useless!” She shot lightning out of her own horn, easily overpowering their spell.

The twins jumped out of the way, barely avoiding being fried.

That distraction was all it took for Masky to finish coming out of the rubble. As he started falling toward the ground Peppermint extended her hoof and caught him, setting him gently on the ground.

Masky looked at the group of kids gratefully, recognizing them as the ones from before. “Thank you,” he said.

Pumpkin blushed a bit. “You’re welcome.” After a few moments she pulled her mind back into the battle. She could admire his good looks later.

Nightmare Moon chuckled. “And what have we here? More volunteers to be slaughtered? So who should I start with?” Her horn lit up. “How about… you?”

Flurry gasped as Nightmare Moon looked upward and fired at her. She didn’t have time to teleport or shield herself.

Her body suddenly moved horizontally, avoiding the attack.

“What happened?” Nightmare Moon asked with confusion. “How did you do that?”

Masky chuckled. “That was me!”

Flurry looked at him oddly. Even as she watched his shadow separated itself from hers. ‘Another one,’ she thought. She was starting to think her theory was correct. The draconequus really was after children with special abilities.

“Well, that’s annoying,” said Nightmare Moon. “Ultimately, it makes no difference to me. I don’t care which one of you I take out first.”

With a flash she disappeared, reappearing in front of Peppermint.

The filly let out a squeal, hopping backwards as Nightmare shot a bolt of lightning at her.

Flurry clenched. She wouldn’t be in time.

Peppermint stretched her body unnaturally, avoiding the attack by a hair. A stray bolt still grazed her shoulder, making her wince.

“Peppermint!” Pumpkin said angrily, grabbing Pound and shooting a stream of fire at the mare.

The mare smirked, creating a shield around her and charging the pair. Though Pumpkin concentrated her hardest she wasn’t able to stop the mare’s advance.

Flurry aimed herself downward and shot at the space right in front of the twins.

Nightmare was a step faster than her, though. Upon reaching the twins she didn’t attack, but rather grabbed Pumpkin and threw her upwards right into the path of Flurry’s blast. “One down!”

Pound looked on in horror, knowing he could do nothing to stop it.

Peppermint stretched her upper half, grabbing Nightmare Moon and hurling her upward.

“Tsk!” Nightmare shot a beam of magic upwards, knocking away Flurry’s spell.

Pound flew upwards, grabbing Pumpkin out of the air. He still wasn’t used to the strain of carrying another pony while flying, but he could slow them down enough.

“Enough!”

When they were near the ground Pumpkin gasped as Nightmare appeared right in front of them, and she swatted her off of Pound’s back, knocking the breath out of her as she hit the ground.

“Pumpkin!” Pound said furiously, mindlessly charging at the mare.

“Two down,” she said as she gathered up energy in her horn and fired at him.

Flurry created a shield around Pound, but while she stopped the brunt of her attack she couldn’t stop it completely. Her shield shattered, knocking Pound to the ground right by his sister.

Tears came down her eyes. She knew this was a bad idea. Things were turning out exactly as she thought they would.

“Don’t give up, Flurry!” said Pound as he moved to a kneeling position, panting.

“T-that’s… right,” said Pumpkin as she did the same. “We… we-we’re…”

“G-going to protect you,” finished Pound.

His hoof shaking, he put it out towards Pumpkin, who met it.

“Why?” asked Flurry. “Why are you still fighting? You’re just going to get hurt again.

“Is it just because I’m an alicorn? Or a princess? You’re not a Royal Guard. It’s not your duty to protect me. So please… just stay down.”

Pound huffed. “We… we’re not doing this b-because you’re an alicorn. It’s because… because we don’t want to see you get hurt,” said Pound.

“Y-you’re our friend, Flurry. So… so we’re going to win this!” said Pumpkin.

Flurry blinked as lightning came out of their hooves.

“This again?” said the mare with a bored tone. “It’ll end the same way it did before.” She shot her own lightning at the pair.

Her body suddenly started moving on its own, like she was a rag doll. She glanced down distractedly, seeing that the shadow brat was messing with her. Well… she’d have time to finish him later, after she took care of the other two.

She heard a scream of fury beneath her, and saw Peppermint’s upper half rapidly heading towards her. “You’re not hurting my friends again!”

The filly slammed into her head, making her let out a scream of pain. The pain weakened her focus, and her magic faded, allowing the twins magic to reach her.

Flurry blinked. By working together, these four children were able to reach their foe. It seemed crazy, but they had really done it.

Nightmare Moon descended to the ground. She landed hard, though she stayed standing. She was no longer laughing. “You brats! That hurt! That HURT!” Her horn exploded with power. “Now you all die!” She fired at the others.

Flurry teleported behind the group, extending her wings and wrapping them around them, adding a magic shield on top of it.

She could feel her shield cracking again. It wasn’t going to last much longer, but no matter what happened she wasn’t going to move. They had risked it all for her, so now she was going to do the same for them.

Nightmare was laughing again. “Won’t be much longer now. Just a few more seconds and there will be five dead brats.”

Her laughter was cut short as she felt something tugging at her back hooves. She looked behind her to see that they were starting to sink into the ground. “W-what? What’s going on?” She pulled at the mysterious force.

Masky’s head popped out of the ground, chuckling. “You said you get your power from the shadows, right? So how would you like to become one?”

Nightmare growled. “How dare you!”

With Nightmare’s attention completely on Masky her spell lost the majority of its force. Flurry created one of her magic portals, sucking up her spell.

Nightmare heard the sound of something right in front of her, and gasped as the remains of her spell struck her point blank. Dazed and injured, she was unable to fight back as Masky completely pulled her into the shadows.

Flurry did as Nightmare had done before, pulling up the piece of ground holding her. She encased it in a crystal prison, hoping it would be enough to keep her contained.

Following that, she collapsed to the ground, exhausted.

“Flurry!” Peppermint called out, trotting over to her. “Are you alright?”

“I’m… I’m alright.” Her wings hurt, but for the most part she was just tired from fighting so many battles back to back. “I just… I just need a few minutes to rest.” After a few moments Flurry began gently snoring.

Peppermint thought it best to leave her be for the time being. After all, they were going to need her strength when they came across their next foe. Even so, she stayed nearby. Flurry was defenseless right now.

Masky walked over to Pumpkin. “Hey there. How are you holding up?”

Pumpkin blushed. “I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” She got up, nuzzling his face. “I’m Pumpkin Cake. What’s your name?”

“Masquerade Ball,” he replied. “Just call me Masky.”

“Ooh! Your name is cool!”

Masky felt a little uncomfortable with her attention. “Thanksssss.

“So who are you?”

“Pound Cake,” responded Pound as Masky turned to him. “That’s my sister.”

“And over there is Peppermint Swirl,” said Pumpkin. “And the alicorn is Flurry Heart.”

Masky got a cocky look on his face. “Well, thanks for your help and all, but I could have taken care of this myself.”

“Yeah, right!” said Pound. “We just barely managed to beat her with the four of us and an alicorn.”

Pumpkin patted his head. “Come on, you! You don’t need to talk big when you’re already awesome!”

Masky flushed a little.

“Yeah!” said Pound. “We couldn’t have done this without you. Pulling people into shadows? That’s such a cool ability.”

Masky grinned awkwardly. He didn’t want to get too attached to these ponies, but they were making it difficult.

Pumpkin looked at the crystal prison Flurry had created. She could see a shadow moving around inside it. “I’m glad we managed to capture her instead of wiping her out. I don’t know if she’s the real Nightmare Moon, but I don’t think Princess Celestia would be happy if we killed her sister.”

Pound shuddered. “You’ve got a point there.” Looking at Masky he asked, “I’m guessing you didn’t find who was screaming either?”

The colt shook his head. “No. I was looking all over for my parents, and then all of a sudden she came out of nowhere and started attacking me.” He let out a sigh. “If it hadn’t been for my shadow powers I would have been dead a hundred times already.”

The dreamy expression left Pumpkin’s face as she scanned his body. “Are you hurt?”

He shook his head again. “Her first attack missed me, but the impact sent me flying into a house. I was able to use my powers before I got hurt.”

Masky walked over towards Peppermint and Flurry, the twins right behind him. “Is she alright?”

Peppermint nodded. “Just a little wiped out.”

Pound tapped his hoof. “Well, we’ll give her a few minutes to restore her strength, but then we have to keep moving. There’s still that green colt we have to find.”

Masky stretched. “Well, why don’t you watch over her, and I’ll go look for him? Save us all some time.”

“No way!” said Pumpkin, hugging him. “You can’t leave us. We have to stick together out here. It’s too dangerous to go off on your own.”

“I really don’t think something as bad as Nightmare Moon is gonna be out there. And even if there was I can just stay in the shadows the whole time.”

Peppermint shook her head. “You don’t know that, Masky. If we hadn’t showed up when we did you would have died, and there’s no telling what else may be out there.”

“I agree with them,” said Pound. “If we want to get out of here we need to stick together.”

Masky scoffed. “Look, I don’t work well with others, okay?”

“You didn’t seem to be having any trouble working with us earlier.”

He averted his eyes. “Just… look, I can take care of myself. I don’t like to rely on others. They always disappear.”

“Disappear?” asked Pumpkin. “What do you mean?”

Masky was getting irritated. Normally he would just put on his cool, aloof act and pretend to have a connection with them, but he really did feel something for them, and he didn’t like how much he wanted to stay by them. So he would break that connection right now before it could blossom into something more. “It’s not something I have to explain to YOU!” Pumpkin got a hurt look on her face.

“It’s none of your business how I feel! I don’t care about making friends anymore! I never get to keep them! My parents are always moving around because of their job, and every time they do I have to leave someone behind.

“Every friend I make… gone! It’s always the same. I don’t want to feel that same pain anymore, so I don’t have any interest in being friendly with you guys.

“Now stop bothering me! I’m leaving!”

As Masky began to walk away there was a flash, and Flurry appeared in front of him, an angry expression on her face. He recoiled as she slapped him across the face.

“That’s enough out of you!” She had been trying to ignore what he was saying, but he had roused her from her nap.

Masky rubbed his cheek, glaring at her.

“We need you! I ran into the one who put us all in this situation, and he said he’ll only fight us if all six of us were together. If you go off on your own and get killed then all of us will be trapped here forever.

“So stop whining about things and let’s work together.”

“Go find someone else then, jerk! What would you know about my feelings, huh? Fancy princess alicorn. I’m sure you’ve been pampered and treated like gold your whole life. What do you know about feeling unloved?”

Flurry’s eyes narrowed further, and she stomped over to him until they were nearly face to face.

Peppermint felt a little scared. She really didn’t want them to start fighting amongst themselves.

Pound wasn’t sure if he should intervene.

“I know that feeling a lot better than you think,” said Flurry.

“Yeah, right!” said Masky.

“I’m treated like a joke by anyone who isn’t part of my family, because of these.” She unfurled her wings, and her self-consciousness tempered her anger a little. “When I was younger I used to show them off all the time, thinking my wings were cool.

“But as I got older I realized they just made me stand out. I began to notice the stares of others when I’d have my wings out. The adults were too respectful to say anything, but the kids ‘helped’ me by insulting me for them. I began to understand that the adults weren’t looking on with wonder, but they just saw me as abnormal.” She broke eye contact, looking at the ground. “A freak.”

Masky’s anger diminished a little.

“Even when I tried to make friends it always ended terribly. They’d always be too scared to ever be real with me, like I was gonna blow them up if they ever made a mistake.”

She looked up into Masky’s eyes again, tears brimming in them. “Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I could have done more to fight for my friends and keep them around, but I didn’t have time.”

“Didn’t have time?” Masky asked. “You telling me your parents give you royal duties at your age?”

Flurry shook her head. “No. But I knew they were coming. Walking around, with everyone putting pressure on me to be great, or to one day take my mother’s place as leader of the Crystal Empire... because I was born an alicorn I couldn’t escape the expectations of others.

“What would happen if my mother fell to disease or an accident or an attack? Who else would they expect to replace an alicorn leader than another alicorn? I had to spend all my free time learning new spells, or else I wouldn’t be ready for when that time came.”

Flurry fell to her knees, her eyes clenching shut as she hugged herself. “I spent every day in a state of near terror, never knowing when that moment would arrive. And even if my parents might not be dead, the moment I’ve been dreading my whole life is finally here.”

She covered herself with her wings as well as she quietly sobbed. “Here I am, in the middle of nowhere, with some freakish monster threatening all our lives, and I couldn’t beat him. All your lives are in my hooves, and I have to do my duty as a princess to protect you.

“I… I don’t have the strength to defeat him on my own. B-but maybe… if we all work together, we can take him down.”

She looked up into Masky’s face again, barely able to see him through her tears. “Please… don’t leave. I can’t do this myself. I know I might have seemed strong during our battle with Nightmare Moon, but I’m terrified.

“So please… stay with us.” She folded up her wings. “I can’t do this without you.”

Masky hadn’t wanted to listen to her before, but seeing her looking so vulnerable stirred something within him. He didn’t want to see her crying anymore.

He closed the distance between them and hugged her. “Alright,” he said quietly. “I’ll stick by you guys.”

Flurry sniffed as she hugged him back. “Thank you, Masky.”

Masky felt those old feelings creeping up, but couldn’t bring himself to release her. He might not ever see these children again after this adventure was over, but even so he wanted to keep them close by as long as he could.

When Flurry had composed herself she released Masky, giving him a grateful smile. She wasn’t at full capacity, but that bit of rest had done her good.

She was starting to feel really motivated now. “Alright! Just one more to go.”

They didn’t even have to look for him.

There was the sound of an impact in the distance, and a few seconds later the green colt from before flew backwards over their heads with a grunt of pain. Flurry stopped his momentum with her magic, gently setting him down on the ground.

The colt looked a little dazed, but after a few seconds he shook his head and seemed to come back to himself.

“It’s you,” he said, putting a hoof to his forehead and rubbing it. “Owwww!”

“Are you alright?”

“I… I took a hard hit, but I’m alright.”

“It’s okay now. I’ll protect you from whatever monster hurt you. Changelings, Timberwolves... what attacked you?”

“B-but… it wasn’t a monster. It was another pony.”

Flurry’s eyebrow went up. “But who would do such a thing?”

She heard the clopping of hooves behind her, and Tree Leaf tensed. “It’s her!”

Flurry turned her head, her horn glowing as she prepared to deal with this new threat.

Her mouth hung open as she took in who it was, the glow from her horn fading. “No! N-no! It can’t be!"

“So you’re still alive,” said the light-purple-coated pony. “Let’s fix that, shall we?”

“Why? No!” Flurry was shaking again. “A-Aunt Starlight?”

6-7: Broken

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Flurry was in shock. Starlight Glimmer had been the one attacking the green-coated colt?

The Starlight she knew wouldn’t do this.

Tree Leaf let out a squeal as he was covered in a magical aura and lifted into the air.

“Let’s finish you off now!” said Starlight.

As Starlight fired at him Flurry extended both her wings upward, and the magic deflected around him.

Her wings had always been unnaturally strong. Now that she came to think about it, she had an unusual ability herself. It was similar to Peppermint’s, but she could only stretch out her wings, not her whole body.

Tree Leaf let out a sigh of relief as Flurry set him back on the ground. “T-thank you,” the scared colt said.

“Get up, loser!” said Pound. “You can thank her later, after we defeat this one!”

Flurry’s head shot around towards Pound.

Tree Leaf got up, and moved next to Pound. “Think you’re a real tough guy, huh?”

“I think I could beat you.”

“Well, I’m willing to go at it after we take her down.”

“So what can you do? All of us have a special ability. You got one too, right?”

The colt nodded, transforming into a rhino. “I’ll get her attention,” he said in a quieter voice, “then you attack her.”

“Got it!” After a few moments Pound added, “That’s actually really cool. Stop making me like you when I want to hate you.”

Tree Leaf laughed, charging at Starlight. “Right back at you!”

Starlight shook her head. “I guess you didn’t learn from our last battle.” She levitated herself ten feet in the air. “Now what?”

The mare’s eyes widened as Tree Leaf appeared to continue his charge in the air, but it turned out to only be Peppermint lifting him up. She had tried to catch Starlight off guard, but Tree Leaf was just too heavy in his current state, and the two of them dropped to the ground.

Starlight began laughing, finding the spectacle hilarious.

“She’s off-guard!” Pound whispered loudly to Pumpkin. The two of them touched hooves, and shot a bolt of lightning at her.

Starlight noticed too late the attack coming her way, but just before it hit her a yellow shield appeared.

“Huh?”

Starlight’s magical aura was blue. The only one among them with a yellow aura was-

“Flurry!” said Pound, confused. “What are you doing?”

“Why are you protecting her?” Tree Leaf asked. “You saw what she did to me.”

Flurry looked ashamed as her spell faded. “I… I can’t let you hurt her!”

“What?” asked Pumpkin. “Why not? We have to beat her or-”

“NO!” Flurry yelled. “You’re not touching her!”

Peppermint felt like something was off. Flurry looked almost crazed.

“S-she’s part of my family!” said Flurry, tears coming down her eyes.

“And she’s trying to kill us!” said Tree Leaf.

“S-she wouldn’t! There has to be a mistake.” Starlight was the only familiar face she had seen since they started this crazy adventure. She trusted the mare with all her heart.

Starlight was also an extremely powerful unicorn. If they could just get her on their side then she’d feel much better about their chances of getting out of this.

Flurry teleported in front of Starlight. “Aunt Starlight! What are you doing? Why were you attacking that boy?”

“Flurry Heart,” said Starlight in a neutral voice.

Flurry nodded. “That’s right. It’s me.” She was shaking slightly. “I… I-I-I know. There’s been so much crazy stuff in this world that it’s hard to trust anything. I… I bet you felt like you had to attack everything around you, right? It was the only way to feel safe, right? Right?”

They could all hear the hopeful tone in Flurry’s voice.

Tree Leaf felt uncomfortable. Could it actually be true that this Starlight was just paranoid being in this alternate world?

Starlight floated toward her, rubbing her cheek. “Oh, Flurry. It’s nice to see someone I know.”

The fear went out of the filly. “That’s right. It’s okay now.”

“I don’t think it is.”

Flurry looked down at the ground. “Well… maybe not yet, but I’m sure if we all work together that we’ll find a way out of this.”

“Oh, that’s not what I’m talking about.” She stopped her rubbing motions.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m talking about THIS!” She lifted her hoof up, then socked Flurry in the face.

The surprised filly was unable to get her bearings in time to stop herself, and went crashing into the ground. She bounced off the earth once, landing on her stomach.

“Flurry!” screamed Peppermint, stretching her body to sit in front of her.

Tree Leaf turned into a mouse, hopping onto Peppermint’s shoulder. “Give me some momentum. I’ll transform mid-flight and get her properly this time.”

The filly nodded. She stretched her front leg back twenty feet, then tensed her limb before quickly releasing it.

Pound and Pumpkin also prepared a spell, shooting a stream of fire this time.

Starlight just laughed dismissively. “What are you expecting that to do? All I have to do is move a few feet.”

Masky growled. "No, you don't!" He stretched his shadow over to Starlight.

As she went to move Starlight found herself stuck in place. “Huh?”

Tree Leaf turned into a rhino again as he got near.

Pound was suddenly yanked backward, falling on his back. Without their connection Pumpkin’s magic weakened considerably, fizzling out before it reached the mare.

Tree Leaf slowed down mid-air, and gravity quickly brought him heading toward the ground. He transformed again, this time into a bird. When he touched the ground he returned to normal.

Flurry looked a little dazed, wobbly on her hooves as she stood up.

“Flurry,” Pumpkin said exasperatedly. “Knock it off!”

“No!” she replied strongly. She placed the five of them in close proximity, a sphere appearing over them.

Pound put his hooves out, finding it solid to the touch. “Flurry, what are you doing?”

“I… I can’t let you be part of this battle.”

“Flurry! I thought you trusted us.” He slammed his hooves against the barrier, but it didn’t give.

Flurry winced, tears coming down her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”

Starlight landed on the ground, watching them quietly.

Masky tried sinking into the shadows in order to escape, but Flurry had accounted for that. The shield extended underground too.

Peppermint gently put a hoof on the barrier. “If you’re sorry then let us out. We want to help you.”

Flurry’s body tensed. “I… I can’t. I can’t! Starlight… Starlight is a part of my family.

“I wondered why I was the only one that didn’t hear a family member screaming when that draconequus split us all up. Now I get it.”

“Get what?” asked Pound.

“I’ve known Starlight since I was a baby. I know she would never attack me. It might be just another Changeling, but a regular Changeling wouldn’t have magic like this. So that means it has to be mind control.”

Starlight began laughing, her head going back as she laughed and laughed.

When she got herself under control she wiped a tear from her eye. “Oh, Flurry. Flurry, Flurry, Flurry. You’re so charmingly naïve.” She smirked. “I’ve never been on your side.”

“Shut up! I know that’s not you talking.”

Starlight began walking toward her. “All those years ago, I hated Twilight Sparkle for taking my village away from me. I tried time travel, to ensure that Twilight and her friends never met up with one another.”

Pound blinked. Starlight had that kind of power?

Pumpkin just gaped.

“However, that didn’t work out too well. As frustrating as it was, Twilight and her cronies were necessary to Equestria. Without them to wield the Elements of Harmony it led to terrible worlds where other villains had conquered Equestria. The final stop on that journey led to an empty wasteland, where it looked like there were no survivors.”

Flurry hopped backwards to get some distance, and Starlight stopped her advance.

“In the end, I had to let time go as it should. Peace returned to Equestria, which is exactly what I wanted. I knew Twilight wouldn’t just leave me be, so I pretended to feel remorse. I told her that she could decide my punishment, knowing that the gullible fool would have to accept my apology.”

Flurry’s mouth felt dry.

Starlight snickered. “And of course she did. She bought my sob story just as I expected her to.

“Then it was just a simple matter of playing my cards right and biding my time. I let her teach me about friendship, earning her trust. Just as I expected, she eventually trusted me enough to let me go off on my own. My good old friend Sunburst was there, after all. What better excuse did I need to move into the Crystal Empire? And, as he was your crystaller, it also provided the means to allow me to get close to you.”

Flurry shook her head. “No.”

Starlight ignored her, slowly walking in a circle around Flurry, but keeping her distance. “Sunburst provided the perfect distraction to get the others to buy that my redemption was genuine. Your dear mother and father believed it so much they even began to allow me to be a caretaker for you. I got to be the one to help teach your magic while your parents were busy ruling the kingdom and training the Royal Guards.”

Flurry was twitching a bit, not liking where this was going.

“It was the perfect plan, really. Through Sunburst it got me in good with you. And through you it put me in a position close to your parents. It gave me the opportunity to find out everything I needed to know to crush the empire and take it over for myself. All I’ve been waiting for is the right opportunity… and it’s finally here.”

The filly was shaking now, unable to believe what she was hearing. “N-no. It’s… you… I don’t…”

I’m the reason you’re here, Flurry.”

“No!” Flurry said, finally getting some of her strength back. “It wasn’t you. It was him. That weird creature.”

“He was the one who brought you here, but I was the one who told him about you.”

Flurry’s eyes clenched shut. “No! I don’t believe it!”

“It was a long wait, but I found my patience. Over the years I’ve learned many useful things, like the guard schedules. Most important of all, I discovered a way to deactivate the Crystal Heart barrier without shutting off the function that keeps us all from freezing to death. With a kingdom of mostly earth ponies it should hardly be any trouble to take care of them.

“The only thing standing in the way of my conquest… is your dear old mom and dad.”

Flurry felt like she couldn’t get enough oxygen in her system. This was wrong. Everything was wrong!

Starlight chuckled, finally stopping her circling as she stood in front of Flurry, once more gently rubbing the filly’s face. “Everyone has a weakness. You know that, don’t you? And their weakness… is you.”

Flurry slapped Starlight’s hoof away, gasping for breath.

Starlight lost her smug grin for a moment, but it quickly returned.

Flurry covered herself in her wings, wrapping them around her like a blanket as she quietly sobbed.

Pound was slamming on Flurry’s shield as hard as he could, but all of them were still trapped within. He couldn’t stand listening to this anymore.

Tree Leaf was likewise going on the attack, transforming into different animals, but he couldn’t break her shield either.

Tears dripped down Peppermint’s face. She so wanted to give Flurry a hug.

“Oh, Flurry,” said Starlight in a condescending baby voice. “Does you want to come out and play?”

She poked her head over Flurry’s wings, but could only see the top of her head.

Starlight put her hooves on Flurry’s wings and pulled.

In a fit of panic Flurry screamed, shoving her wings at the mare and extending them twenty feet to get Starlight away from her.

Once more Starlight lost her smile, but like before it quickly returned. “Does it hurt, Flurry? Does it hurt knowing the truth?” Power started to build up in her horn. “Let me tell you what’s going to happen. Once I take care of you I’ll throw your body in front of your dear parents. They’ll be furious, but before that they’ll feel despair greater than any they’ve ever known. And that’s when I’ll strike.

“Without the Crystal Heart and those powerful shield users I’ll easily take care of whatever small threats remain, and become the undisputed master of the Crystal Empire. But take heart. I won’t harm your little sister. She’ll make a great apprentice. Aren’t I merciful?”

Flurry’s eyes had gone blank. How could this be? How had she been so foolish all this time? How could she not see what Starlight was like deep inside, after all the time they spent together?

She wasn’t naïve. She knew about Starlight’s past. In fact, Starlight herself had been the one to tell it to her.

Since she had been a toddler she had interacted with Starlight. Over the years she had bonded with her. Starlight had taught her spells, and was always there for her when she needed to talk.

During the rough days, when she hadn’t been able to make friends, Starlight had encouraged her and cheered her up. She had been there during the wedding, when Starlight had married Sunburst.

She trusted Starlight, and felt the same amount of respect for her that she did for her mom and dad and Twilight.

One day, after telling her how much she loved and trusted her, Starlight had looked uncomfortable.

***

Starlight sat down, asking her to do the same. “Flurry, I need to talk to you… about something important.”

“What is it, Aunt Starlight?”

Starlight sighed, steeling herself. “I’m very grateful that you love and cherish me so much, but-”

Flurry smiled. “Of course I do! You’re one of the greatest ponies I know. You’re smart, and good with magic, and you’re always nice to me.”

Starlight hesitated, then said, “I wasn’t always this way.”

“Hmm?” Flurry’s head tilted. “What do you mean?”

Starlight looked into her eyes. “I feel like… eventually… you will find out the truth about me. And… I would rather you hear it from me than somebody else.”

Flurry felt a little afraid, not liking where this was going.

And so Starlight told her about her beginnings, how she felt cutie marks just drive others apart, and that they were bad things. She told her about starting a town without cutie marks, how Aunt Twilight and her friends had disrupted everything she had built, and about her time-travelling revenge scheme to try and ensure Aunt Twilight never met her friends in the first place.

It was a lot to take in for the filly. She had only known the good Starlight. The Starlight she heard about seemed like a complete stranger. She couldn’t imagine that the one standing before her, and the one she was told about, were the same pony.

After what felt like forever she finally came back to herself, seeing Starlight waiting for her response. She had felt a sense of betrayal at the time, her eyes filling with tears as she smacked Starlight as hard as she could, and ran off crying.

Over the next few days she kept to herself, trying to process the enormity of the revelation she had been given. Starlight didn’t try to intrude on her, leaving her be.

Sunburst eventually came to see her. She had a soft spot for him. He had been her crystaller, after all, and always looked after her well-being since she was a baby, from before the time that Starlight came to live there.

“Starlight told me about what happened,” said Sunburst as he sat on the edge of her bed. He coaxed her over, and she eventually sat on his lap.

It was quiet for the next few minutes. Flurry eventually looked up into his eyes. “Did… did you know about what Aunt Starlight did, Uncle Sunny?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“S-she… she hurt Aunt Twilight. How should I feel about that?

“And you married her! You think it’s okay what she did?”

Sunburst ran a hoof through her mane. “The mare I married is different from the one that travelled through time and tried to hurt your aunt. She did some bad things, for sure, but she’s become a better mare now. She’s sorry for what she did, and wishes that she could take it back.

“I can’t make you forgive her, but she did go out of her way to tell you the truth. She risked having you hate her forever, simply because she wanted to be honest with you. She wanted to feel worthy of the love and respect you have for her, and she knew if you ever heard about her past from someone else that you would feel like she lied to you.”

Flurry wiped her face. “Do… do Mom and Dad know about what she did as well?”

Sunburst nodded. “They do, indeed. But just like Twilight herself, the one Starlight hurt the most with her actions, they knew that she had changed. Even knowing what she had done in the past, they still believed in the goodness she had inside, so once she moved to the Crystal Empire they let her watch over you too.”

Sunburst gave her a hug. “Starlight’s love for you isn’t fake. She truly cares for you, Flurry. If you trust me, then please... believe these words.”

***

And she had believed them. All the important people in her life had trusted Starlight despite knowing her past, so she had been able to put aside her own hurt and forgive her for her revenge plot.

It only took a few more days before she had basically completely forgotten about the confession and was able to be as close to Starlight as she had been before.

Starlight had done nothing to betray that trust since that moment… until now. She couldn’t fathom it. She couldn’t comprehend it. She had truly believed in Starlight, but now it turned out the mare had only been biding her time, waiting for the right moment to strike.

It was all too much to take in. Her mind didn’t want to accept it, but the evidence was speaking for itself. She had tried to kill Tree Leaf, and had attacked her.

“Well,” said Starlight, “it’s been fun, but I don’t have time to play around with you all day. I guess I’ll do my duty one last time for you. I’ll save you from this pain of yours, by ensuring you never feel pain again.”

The glow from her horn grew brighter. “Don’t worry. It’ll only hurt for a moment, then you’ll feel nothing at all.”

Flurry was trembling like a leaf, so deep into her thoughts that she couldn’t even focus on her shield spell. She was too distraught to respond as the mare fired at her.

“FLURRY!” yelled Pound. As soon as the shield faded he was on the move. Pumpkin, knowing the way her brother was, moved at almost the same time he did.

The other three were close behind them.

Pound threw himself in front of the attack, putting his hooves out protectively.

“Pound!” Pumpkin unconsciously threw up a shield.

Starlight’s spell crashed into Pumpkin’s shield. It held for a few seconds, but quickly shattered

Tree Leaf turned into a rhino again, throwing himself in front of Pumpkin. Peppermint and Masky covered Flurry as well. In a last desperate act to protect Flurry Peppermint grabbed her and threw her off to the side.

The five children were all caught in the blast, Flurry the only one who remained unharmed.

Flurry wasn’t even conscious of being picked up, but the pain from the impact of the landing jolted her back to awareness.

She felt her heart stop for a moment as she took in the battlefield. All the other children were injured and unmoving.

“Oh! Oh, no! No!” She comprehended what had to have happened. They had thrown themselves into the path of Starlight’s attack. They… they had sacrificed themselves to save her life.

In this horrifying situation, being close to them had been the only thing to give her hope. They were the only chance she had of getting into the castle and returning home. But because of her cowardice and unwillingness to protect them they… they were all…

Flurry’s breathing got shorter and shorter. She felt like her mind was breaking down as she grabbed her head and let out a long, somber scream.

6-8: True strength

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Flurry felt like her heart was dying. She had let the others down. They were all dead because of her. Without them she couldn’t go home. She was never going to see her family again.

Starlight shook her head. “Hmph. Well, that was a waste. They went so far to save you, but it will amount to nothing. You don’t have the will to fight anymore.”

Flurry saw power building up in Starlight’s horn again, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. At the moment she felt like she’d welcome death, if only to free her from the guilt she felt inside.

“Hmmmm…” The glow from Starlight’s horn faded, and she started walking towards Flurry, stopping in front of her. “You know, I changed my mind. I don’t want to kill you anymore.”

Flurry looked up into Starlight’s eyes, confused.

“I think you could be of much greater use to me alive. The Crystal Empire would be nice, but with you by my side I can set my sights even higher. If I can take down Celestia and Luna then the world will belong to me.”

She put a hoof on Flurry’s cheek like before, gently rubbing it. “You’re a little kid. No one would think anything suspicious of you, little Flurry. And as Cadance’s child it shouldn’t be difficult for you to see Celestia.”

Flurry was shaking again. Surely Starlight wasn’t suggesting… that she murder Celestia and Luna?

A green tinge appeared in the white of Starlight’s eyes, a purple aura coming out the sides. “Don’t be scared, Flurry. I don’t want to kill anyone else. You know about my ability to remove cutie marks and equalize ponies. If you weaken the princesses enough I can come in and remove their great powers, allowing me to come out on top.

“If I can get Canterlot and ascend to the throne then the Crystal Empire will mean nothing to me. I’ll leave it alone completely. Your mother and your father and your dear baby sister will all be safe. Now wouldn’t that be lovely? After all, you don’t want any more bodies on your conscience, do you?”

Flurry couldn’t look away from Starlight’s gaze. “N-no…”

Starlight gave her a tender gaze. “Very good.” She tapped her chin, before putting her hoof out. “Then we have a deal?”

Flurry looked at Starlight’s hoof, uncertainty going through her. If she did this she’d be betraying the whole world. Ultimately, there was no choice to make. Starlight had been living with her and her family long enough out to figure out all she needed to know about their weaknesses. If she didn’t do this then her parents were going to die.

Maybe it was selfish, but she didn’t want to see anyone else get hurt. It was the only way she was going to get out of this world. It was the only way she could guarantee the safety of her family.

They might be disgusted with her later on, but at least they would still be alive.

Her hoof gently rose.

“Thaaaaat’s it,” said Starlight. “Just trust me, Flurry.”

Again she hesitated, but like before she felt a sense of hopelessness outweighing her better judgment. She slowly extended it towards Starlight.

Just before her hoof made contact it stopped, and she felt like something was holding it.

“What’s wrong?” asked Starlight, seeing Flurry’s hoof shaking. “What?” She saw something coming at her out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t have time to shield herself, so she lifted her hoof to block it, sending her flying backwards.

Flurry saw Starlight get knocked into the air, recognizing the stretched out hoof of Peppermint. She glanced downward, seeing a shadow attached to hers.

Flurry squeaked as she felt a jolt, like a strong static shock on her side. The pain, while minor, brought her back to her senses, and she looked to the side, seeing the other children on their knees.

“S-stop… Flurry,” said Pound, putting his hooves down.

Peppermint and Pumpkin assisted Masky by using their levitation to pull Flurry backwards towards the rest of them.

“You… you’re…” Tears came down Flurry’s eyes. “You’re all alive!”

Starlight dusted herself off, annoyed. “I thought you were all dead. How bothersome. Just when I was about to finalize the deal.”

Pound strained himself, managing to stand up for a few seconds before he collapsed back to the ground.

“Hey!” said Flurry. “Stop! You’re too hurt to get up.”

Pound let out a weak laugh. “No. I’m not… too weak… for you.”

Flurry got a confused look on her face.

Once more Pound pushed himself, getting up on his hooves. Though it took everything he had, though it felt like his legs were tap-dancing from shaking so much, he managed to walk in front of Flurry, putting himself between her and Starlight.

“YOU!” Though his body was weakened by the attack, his voice was clear. “You… you’re not… going to touch Flurry.” He felt a wave of dizziness and almost collapsed again, but he moved his four legs out to steady himself. “You… you got that?”

Emboldened by Pound’s words the other four also found their strength, rising up onto their hooves and gathering in front of Flurry. Each of them was panting for breath and looked like they could collapse at any moment.

“Why?” Flurry said quietly, her own legs shaking. “Why are you doing this?”

A part of her felt like they were doing this out of obligation, because of her title or her status as an alicorn.

However, in her heart she knew the reason. Pound had said it to her before. It wasn’t because of what she was or who she was. It was because they considered her a friend.

Friends…

Flurry had thought that friends were useless to her. She didn’t have time for friends when her world could be over any minute. And even when she did try to make friends it always ended badly, so she thought she just wasn’t cut out for friendship.

Twilight, as the Princess of Friendship, had tried to talk to her about things, but she had brushed her aunt off. Her aunt didn’t understand the magnitude of her fears over friendship and her possibly suddenly being responsible for the well-being of the Crystal Empire, and she was too scared to talk about it.

Twilight had tried to tell her that true strength couldn’t be found alone… that it was only through ponies coming together and working with one another could true power be found, just like when she had worked together with her friends to defeat Nightmare Moon. She hadn’t listened to her aunt back then, figuring she knew what was best for herself. Her individual strength was more important than gathering up friends.

Starlight shook her head. “What a waste of my time. You’ll be lucky if you can just stay standing. How are you expecting to keep her from me?”

“I DON’T CARE!” Pound shouted. “I’m not moving from this spot! I don’t care about the danger. I always protect those I care about no matter what.”

“Well said, Pound,” said Pumpkin.

Starlight just rolled her eyes, an amused smile on her face as her horn lit up. “Oh, brother. It’s hardly worth the effort to finish you off.”

Flurry went stiff for a moment, before teleporting in front of Starlight and uppercutting her in the face.

The shocked mare was knocked to the ground, but she quickly got up. “Flurry?” she said angrily. “You…”

“No more!” said Flurry, her voice filling with purpose. “NO… MORE!” Her horn lit up with a bright energy. She wasn’t going to be a spectator anymore. She wasn’t going to just sit back and watch them die. She was going to be where she should have been all along: fighting beside them.

If the Starlight in front of her was just a fake then she had no reason not to attack. And if Starlight was real then she also had no reason not to attack, because it meant Starlight had only been using her throughout her whole life.

Starlight could see that Flurry was furious. She suddenly grabbed her head, letting out a cry of pain. She fell to the ground, spasming.

Flurry kept her distance, but she wondered what was going on.

When Starlight stood up again the green tinge in her eyes had vanished, as well as the purple aura around them.

She was panting, one of her eyes closed. “F-Flurry…” She took a few breaths in before continuing. “Thank you.”

Flurry got into a battle stance, but she didn’t attack. “What are you thanking me for?”

“That thing… that… whatever it is…” She shook her head. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? The little thing with the brown coat and the red tail.”

“What about him?” Her body was tense. She kept the buildup of power in her horn, not letting her guard down.

“He approached me a few days ago. He had heard about what I had done in the past, and was sure that I would love the opportunity to get my revenge. If you and your parents suddenly disappeared or died it would surely cause Twilight Sparkle pain, so he thought it would be exactly what I wanted.

“I refused to be a part of his evil plan, and so he attacked me. He told me he would make you suffer for turning him down… but I never thought that he would use me to do it.”

The glow in Flurry’s horn faded slightly. She wished it could be true, but something was off. “Why are you alright now? You… want me to believe that you suddenly broke free right when I was about to attack?”

Starlight got a bright grin on her face. “Why, it was because of you, of course.” Starlight took a step forward.

Flurry immediately hopped backward. “Don’t come near me!”

“Right, right.” Starlight sat down. “As I was saying, it was you that helped to free me. I gave up. I didn’t believe I had the strength to overpower him. His darkness was so strong, infesting me. All I could do was watch from the inside as he used my body to attack you and your friends.

“When you attacked me… it reminded me of the past we shared. I was a strong, influential figure in your life, always watching over you when your parents were busy. I saw that even in this wretched place that you were still willing to fight, and at your age. Yet here I was, a pawn of that despicable creature. I couldn’t let that stand, otherwise how could I ever expect you to look up to me again?

“I’m back in control of my body now, so let’s work together and take that thing out!”

Flurry stared at Starlight for the longest time, and eventually the glow from her horn faded as her eyes clenched shut and she began quietly crying.

“Flurry!” said Pound.

Flurry just shook her head. “Shut up, Pound.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” said Starlight. “I’m so glad you understand the truth.”

Flurry’s body clenched, and she looked up at Starlight. “Aunt Starlight, this is all a little much to take in, but it will be an honor fighting alongside you.

“But first… I could really use a hug. This has all been so scary.”

“Of course,” Starlight said gently. “I understand.”

As the two began walking towards one another Flurry’s movements suddenly stopped.

She looked behind her to see Masky holding her by her shadow. “Stop, Flurry!” he said.

“Come on!” said Pumpkin. “You’re not really going to trust her, are you?”

“After everything she did to us?” said Tree Leaf.

“SHUT UP!” yelled Flurry, and with a gentle burst of magic knocked all of them down. “I’ve lived my whole life with Aunt Starlight. I think I know her better than anyone! So you all just shut your mouths and stop talking about stuff you have no idea about.” She gently sobbed as she turned away from them and continued her walk towards Starlight.

Pound groaned. He was too weak to stand, but he had a bad feeling about this.

The other children felt much the same. Though they wanted to intervene they didn’t have the power. The only thing they could do was hope that Starlight was being genuine, and that Flurry wasn’t walking right into a trap.

By the time she reached Starlight Flurry had gotten herself under control. She sat down, extending her hooves. "I believe you."

“Very good, Flurry. I’m proud of you.” Starlight hugged her, Flurry returning the gesture.

Starlight smirked, a purple aura starting to come out of her eyes again as her horn lit up.

Peppermint was about to cry out to Flurry, but it proved unnecessary.

Starlight’s feeling of triumph was short-lived as Flurry suddenly pulled out of her grip and socked her in the stomach.

In that moment of distraction Flurry blasted her with magic.

Starlight was launched back twenty feet, landing hard on her hooves. She growled. “How dare you?”

Flurry’s warm expression had vanished. “I BELIEVE that you’re a giant phony.”

Starlight shook on her hooves, and the air around them began to shimmer. “D-darn it!” She put a hoof to her head. “C-can’t maintain…”

The shimmering stopped, and all of them gaped as Starlight was gone, replaced with a dark coated unicorn they didn’t know.

“Who is that?” asked Pound.

Flurry stared at the pony, a sudden flash of recognition going through her. The red horn, the royal regalia, the green sclera in the eyes with the purple aura coming out of them...

She had only read about him, but she knew who this was now.

“King Sombra!” she said fearfully.

He laughed. “Enough with these games. It’s time to finish you off.”

Flurry prepared herself as he gathered power, doing the same, but he didn’t aim his attack at her.

She gasped. “He’s after them!” She put herself between the attack, shooting her own magic.

Sombra chuckled. “Your concentration lapsed because of your concern for those brats. It’s over.”

She found it hard to concentrate through her fear. King Sombra had done so many horrible things to her people. Did she even stand a chance against him without the others?

It was the thing she feared the most. She was living her worst nightmare. She didn't think she had the strength to protect them, and if she failed here they were all going to die. She has already experienced their deaths once. The thought of it happening a second time was too much for her.

Too distracted by her thoughts Sombra's attack grew steadily closer to her.

Once more Twilight’s words came to her.

“Flurry Heart,” said Twilight. “A pony’s greatest strength is only found when fighting for others. I don’t consider my greatest power to be being an alicorn or a princess or my knowledge of magic. I consider it to be the trust and love I have for my friends.

“When they’re in danger… I just feel an incredible strength welling up inside me, like I can do anything it takes to protect them. No matter how scary the situation I’m facing is, the feeling of wanting to protect them is greater than any fear I have. It's because of that feeling that I'll never back down from doing what it takes to save them.”

She looked behind her at the other children. She pictured Pound and the others throwing themselves in front of Sombra’s attack. She saw them still finding the strength to get up and defend her despite their injuries.

Tears came down her eyes. She had been so foolish. She should have trusted Twilight from the start.

‘Please, everyone,’ she thought. ‘Please, take some of that courage you’ve gathered up… and give it to me.’

Before she had fighting for mostly selfish reasons: because she wanted to go home, because she was scared, because she was lonely, because she needed them, because it was her duty as a princess…

Things were different now. Now she understood what her aunt was talking about. She felt like she understood why they had been able to keep fighting despite their injuries… why they had come with her to fight Nightmare Moon despite the incredible danger.

This was no longer about duty or obligation or need. This was personal now, and she was going to protect these children no matter the cost to herself, because she knew they would do the same for her.

She turned forward to Sombra’s attack, newfound determination infusing her being. She spun around, breaking off her own magic, and grabbed the others in her wings before hopping off to the side, aided by her magic to get out of the path of Sombra’s attack.

She set them down gently before she began floating in the air, her horn exploding with power as a magic sphere surrounded her. “You! You took the form of someone I really cared about, tried to make me give up, and used my worst fears against me.”

She let out a scream of fury, the power building even further. “But even worse than that, you attacked and almost killed my friends? It’s absolutely UNFORGIVABLE!” Her eyes turned pure white.

King Sombra shook at the amount of power Flurry was generating.

With another yell Flurry fired all the power she had at her command, and with a scream of pain King Sombra was obliterated.

Flurry landed on the ground and collapsed to her knees, panting. She was all used up, but she didn’t care. King Sombra had enslaved her people and sucked them away into another dimension for a thousand years, then came back and nearly killed her parents and Aunt Twilight.

When she felt a little energy she forced herself up and walked to the others. They all looked speechless at the display of power she had just put on.

“A-are you all… alright?” She flopped to the ground on her stomach, unable to stand anymore.

“W-wow…” Tree Leaf shook his head in amazement. “Remind me to never make you mad.”

Flurry let out a little laugh, before looking sad. “I’m sorry, everyone.”

“For what?” asked Masky. “That was awesome!"

“I knew… I knew that Starlight was lying, but I had to make her think that I believed her.”

“How did you know?” asked Pound.

“It’s like I said… I grew up with her, and so I knew her best. He must have taken some of my memories to know what he did, but he didn’t do things I would have expected out of the real Starlight. She never used the nicknames she had for me, and I could just feel that something was off.

“The reason I was crying earlier… it wasn’t because I was relieved to know that she was alright and had fought off that things control. It was because I knew the truth, but I didn’t want to.”

“Didn’t want to?” asked Masky.

“From the moment we woke up in this world it’s been one scary thing after another. I truly wanted Starlight to be real, because it meant an adult I could trust would be in charge. Everything wouldn’t just be reliant on me.

“I heard that King Sombra’s greatest power was forcing a pony to live their greatest fears, and he certainly did that to me. Someone I trusted, turning against me. Being put in a position of power over others, and failing to protect them.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “I had to acknowledge that she was lying, which also meant acknowledging that it was all up to me, after all. I was going to have to remain in charge, for a duty I felt I wasn’t prepared for.”

“Oh, Flurry,” said Pound.

"But you're doing a fantastic job," said Peppermint. "We couldn't have gotten this far without you."

"And you're not alone, Flurry," said Masky. "Just because you're in charge it doesn't mean we're not all with you."

Flurry grinned slightly. "I... I know."

They heard clapping above them, and Flurry felt a chill go down her as she saw Mayhem floating in the air. She was completely exhausted, and the other children were barely able to move.

“Wonderful!” said Mayhem, lifting both his arms. Confetti went raining down upon everyone. “Absolutely spectacular. What a thrilling conclusion to the battle.”

“W-what is that?” asked Peppermint.

“Hey! You know what you all need? A reward for all your hard work.”

He lifted a claw, and the six kids began floating like him. His other arm went out, energy building up inside his hand.

Flurry felt panic going through her. She had nothing left. It couldn’t end here… not after the growth she had just went through.

She closed her eyes tight as beams of energy came out of Mayhem’s fingers.

Confusion went through her. She didn’t feel pain. In fact, quite the opposite. She felt strength returning to her.

She opened her eyes, looking at the other children. As she watched, their injuries vanished and they looked energized as well.

The draconequus set them on the ground. “There you go! All better now, right?”

Flurry eyed him suspiciously. “What are you up to? Why are you healing our wounds?”

Mayhem chuckled. “Well, that’s simple. It would be boring otherwise.”

“Who are you?” asked Pumpkin.

What are you?” asked Pound.

“Oh, so many questions,” said Mayhem. “The name is Mayhem. I’m a draconequus. I’m the one who brought you all here.”

“Mayhem,” said Masky. “Sounds appropriate, considering everything that’s been going on here.”

“How are you doing all this?” asked Peppermint. “Creating a dark version of Ponyville and getting all these old villains to fight for you?”

“That’s simple: because I have the power to. I am not bound to your pitiful magic rules. I do whatever I want, whenever I want.”

He slowly descended to the ground, seeing Flurry giving him a death glare. “Oh, Flurry. You’ve truly come into your own. When last we faced off against each other you were terrified while we fought. Just look at you now.”

“Don’t expect me to be grateful that you restored my energy,” she said coldly. “The only thing you’ve done is hasten your defeat.”

Mayhem smirked. “How cruel. You could at least thank me for healing the wounds of your ‘friends,’ hmm?” Flurry just continued glaring at him. “Ah, well.”

He put his hands to his eyes, pulling them out of their sockets.

All of them looked at him with horror. Even Flurry couldn’t maintain her stoic act at that.

He began juggling his eyes. “So… you’ve finally done it. You did what I asked. You got all six of you together. The final battle is nearly at hand.

“But not here. You have to come to my castle. We’ll fight there.”

His eyes hung in mid-air, and Mayhem pulled off his legs, starting to juggle them along with his eyes. “I had been feeling so bored recently, and this little adventure has been a blast. Watching all of you struggle has been quite the spectacle.”

His tail and his head came off, and he added those to his juggling. “Being bored is a terrible experience. I just want fun, and I want it all the time. That’s the reason I healed all of you. You were all wiped out, and it would have taken you hours to heal up enough to challenge me. That would have been so boring, waiting there with nothing to do.”

He threw all his body parts high into the air, and as they landed they went back in their proper places. “Don’t keep me waiting too long. If I get too bored I might just have your families play this game too.” He winked. “Hope to see you soon, friends.”

With that he put his arms into his mouth, and appeared to eat himself as he vanished.

None of them were sure what to say to that display.

Tree Leaf was the first one to speak. “So that’s… the one who put us through all this.”

“What crazy magic,” said Pumpkin. “It seems like his power goes way beyond unicorn or even alicorn level. I don’t think Twilight could just detach her body like that.”

Pound stomped his hoof. “I don’t care WHAT he can do! We’re taking him down!”

“Sounds good to me,” said Masky. “After coming this far together we can’t back down now.”

“Especially if he’s going to get our families involved,” said Peppermint.

“So who are all of you?” said Tree Leaf.

All of them introduced themselves to each other.

“I wonder… if we can really win,” said Peppermint, hanging her head. “I probably won’t even be any help at all.”

Flurry heard the doubt in the filly’s voice, and stomped her hoof. “Peppermint!”

Her head shot up. “Y-yeah?” She looked into Flurry’s eyes, seeing them fiercely blazing.

“I may have faltered before, but I’m done backing down. Mayhem is right. I was terrified when I first saw him. He easily overcame every spell I cast at him, and after he left I broke down, feeling hopeless.

“But then… then I remembered all of you. All of you… you give me hope. You give me strength. And I know I do the same for you, because you jumped right in with all the others to protect me.”

Holding her head high she said, “So don’t doubt yourself. You are strong!”

A tear came down Peppermint’s eye, Flurry’s words washing her uncertainty away. “Thank you.”

“That goes for the rest of you!” Flurry looked at each of them in turn. “You saved my life, helping me to discover my true strength. You helped to take away my fear.

“Now… now I’m putting my own life on the line. I don’t care what it costs me… I WILL protect all of you. And it has nothing to do with duty, or because I should. I want to protect you because all of you… are my friends.” Grateful tears came down her eyes. “And I know I can’t do this without you.”

That got the rest of them smiling and crying.

“You got it!” said Pound.

“Of course!” said Pumpkin.

“We’ll win this,” said Masky.

“Of course we will,” said Tree Leaf.

“Together… we can win,” said Peppermint.

Flurry could see that they all felt reassured, sharing in her newfound confidence. Now, there was just one thing left to do.

“Let’s go!” said Flurry. “To the castle!”

“Right!” came the replies from the others.

6-9: Into the castle

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The six children began their trek to the castle.

Flurry constantly scanned the area as they walked, but nothing attacked them on their way. It seemed like Mayhem had either run out of ideas for new foes for them to face, or, more likely, he was tired of being on the sidelines and wanted to fight them himself.

As they neared the castle doors alternating streams of lightning and fire lit up along the sides of the pathway.

“So this… is it,” said Tree Leaf.

“At least we’re getting a warm welcome,” said Pound with a trace of sarcasm.

“You are indeed,” said a mysterious voice.

The ground beneath them rose up, pushing them towards the door.

“Greetings!” The steel door itself bowed.

“And now a door is talking to us,” said Masky, shaking his head. “I’m not even surprised anymore.”

Hands made of bricks came out of the area to the sides, pointing to the ground where six circles of light lit up. “You may only get past this point with six heroes. Stand on these circles and state your names.”

Pound stayed where he was. “I don’t trust this. How do I know we’re not all gonna be fried when we step on these circles?”

Pumpkin felt that same apprehension.

“Well, someone has to go.” Flurry stepped forward and sat on the circle. “Flurry Heart!” she said determinedly. A circle of light rose up around her.

They all waited, but nothing else happened.

Masky walked forward too. “I don’t think that this is a trap. What would be the point? We can’t fight him if he wipes us out here, and that is clearly his goal.”

He sat in the circle and said, “Masquerade Ball!” Like with Flurry a circle of light rose up.

After a few more seconds of hesitation the other four walked forward.

“Pound Cake!”

“Pumpkin Cake!”

“Tree Leaf!”

“Peppermint Swirl!”

Now all of them were lit up.

“Very good!” said the door. “Come inside, heroes, to your final battle. My master expects you. Don’t keep him waiting.”

The door returned back to normal before opening, the light around the kids fading.

They crossed over the threshold into the castle, and the door closed behind them.

Candles burst into light, and all of them looked around in amazement. It was the oddest thing they had ever seen. The structure of the castle didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to it. Most of the décor was stuck to the ceiling or the walls, with some things just floating aimlessly around.

Pink clouds covered most of the floor, raining upward.

“This Mayhem sure has a weird sense of taste,” said Tree Leaf.

“What strange powers,” said Pound. “If he really can do anything then can we actually beat him?”

“Are you just going to give up then?” asked Flurry, glaring at him.

“Of course not! He hurt my sister, and nearly killed you.”

“Then thoughts like those are useless here! It’s all or nothing. Us or him. We have to fight with all we have. It’s the only option available to us now that we’ve come this far.”

“I know, I know!”

Pumpkin grinned. “You’re so cool, Flurry. You’ve become so tough since you helped us take down the Changelings.”

Flurry didn’t smile back. “I have to be! I’m done running and being afraid. I meant what I said before. I can’t ever forget the sacrifice you all made for me.

“That monster is going down! There’s nothing else to say. I won’t forgive him for what he did to you.

“No more talking!” Flurry began walking. “The sooner we end this the sooner I can get you home to your families.”

Peppermint liked this new Flurry. She had grown so confident, and it made her feel like she was going to win too.

They all followed Flurry through the oddest experience of their lives.

They’d be walking forward, and suddenly they’d be walking upside-down as the corridor twisted, or they’d go through a door and find themselves walking sideways on the wall.

While the other children felt a sense of wonder at these things Flurry had no interest in it at all. She was fairly sure there weren’t any traps waiting for them. The only thing she cared about now was stopping Mayhem from causing any more havoc.

After walking for about ten minutes Peppermint asked, “Are we even getting closer to him? This place is so weird I can’t tell if we’re even going up or down.”

“Shoot!” said Pound. “If he wants to fight us so badly then you’d think he’d give us a shortcut or something.”

The ground suddenly crumbled beneath their hooves, and they all landed inside a cart.

“I had to open my big mouth!”

Protective seat belts strapped them in, and they began heading downwards on a track.

What followed was the wackiest and scariest roller-coaster ride they had ever been on.

Spikes barely avoided skewering them, making Peppermint shriek.

The track suddenly broke in front of them, and the cart flipped several times before landing on another section.

A giant shark bit off the front part of their cart.

A dragon barely avoided burning them to a crisp before they turned a corner.

Bolts of lightning danced over their heads.

It finally ended with a nearly vertical fall, the cart going faster and faster to what looked like solid stone.

Flurry kept telling herself that this was just a trick. It was all just to get them riled up. Their lives weren’t in any actual danger yet.

The cart and the ground suddenly disappeared, and it looked like they were in space. Their descent slowed, and they were surrounded by pretty colors and calming images.

They gently landed on a pile of pillows.

Peppermint felt pretty frazzled after all that, so she just took in deep breaths as she focused on the scenery.

“Where are we now?” asked Flurry with a huff. “I think we’ve all had enough of this welcoming party.”

The space scene vanished, replaced with an ordinary looking dining room. The six were lifted into the air and set down gently in the most comfortable chairs they had ever sat on.

In front of each of them was a covered dish. The covers lifted, revealing each of their favorite foods.

“Eat!” came the voice of Mayhem, echoing throughout the room. “You are my honored guests, after all. The least I can do is offer you a pleasant last meal before taking you down.”

Flurry didn’t want to ingest anything that Mayhem created, but she could feel her stomach rumbling. They had been in Mayhem’s world for a few hours now, and though he had restored her energy she had been pretty active. As much as she didn’t want to play along with him she knew she needed to keep her strength up if she hoped to protect the others.

“Is this safe?” asked Pumpkin. As much as her mouth was watering she had her doubts about this.

“He won’t be able to fight us if he poisons us,” said Pound, stuffing some food in his mouth.

“He probably doesn’t feel like he has to do such a thing to win,” said Tree Leaf.

“True enough,” said Masky, also starting to dig in.

Soon enough all of them were stuffing their faces. The food tasted excellent, and more food kept appearing until they were full.

“See now,” said Mayhem. “I am a most gracious host for my guests.”

A door appeared in the middle of the room. “When you’re ready, then please come in. I’ll be waiting for you.”

Pound patted his stomach. “Oh, boy. That was good. I’m ready to fight.”

Pumpkin nodded. “Same here.”

“I think I need a few minutes,” said Peppermint, and her chair suddenly reclined.

Flurry was trying to figure out Mayhem’s intentions. Using his subordinates he had tried to kill them all without any qualms. Now that they were facing him directly he seemed to be too accommodating. Was he being nice to try and get them to drop their guard? Or to get them to hold back?

Most likely, he didn’t consider them a threat, and so he didn’t see any issue in making sure they were at their best. What difference would it make to him? She started to think he just wanted to give them false hope.

For a moment she started to doubt herself, but she shook her head and pushed those thoughts away. As she had said to Pound they had no business here. They still had to fight regardless.

Flurry hopped out of her chair, eager to get things over with. “Come on, everyone! Let’s do this.”

She could see that all of them had some trouble leaving the comfort of the chairs, but they all obeyed.

Standing in front of the door she opened it, seeing nothing but black.

Before she could do anything else a strong gust of wind pulled them forward, and they all began falling.

Flurry growled, tired of these tricks.

As she was about to levitate all of them they landed in something wet. It seemed to be a pool of water. It was perfectly visible even in the complete darkness.

The water only went up to their stomachs, and they all climbed out. Giant hair driers appeared, getting the moisture out of their coats.

“Ugh!” said Tree Leaf. “What is with this crazy place? It doesn’t make any sense!”

They heard the laughter of Mayhem nearby. “Oh, but what fun is there in making sense?”

“Enough of these games!” Flurry yelled. “Come out! Stop hiding in the dark.”

“Are you sure you’re ready for this? After all, you have no idea what I really am.” With every few words his voice seemed to be coming from a different place. “I have merely been toying with you for my own amusement. Are you sure you want to see my true form?”

“It can’t look any worse than the face you have now,” said Pound.

“Ouch! Harsh!” With a laugh he said, “Very well. Gaze upon my true strength.”

The room suddenly lit up, and more of the crazy architecture reared its head. The room appeared to go on for miles, although aside from some pillars and carpeting on the ground the place was barren, making it seem even larger.

“So where are you?” asked Pumpkin.

“You’re in my throne room,” said Mayhem, his voice still appearing to come from everywhere. “Just follow the red carpet.”

“No!” said Flurry. “I’m done playing along with your games.”

“Oh, Flurry.” Mayhem’s voice grew deeper and more serious. “You really should play along. After all… I hold your lives in my hands.

“But very well. Just look up.”

All of them complied. It took them a few seconds to comprehend what they were seeing.

Mayhem was absolutely gigantic, sitting on a throne as large as him. He had to be at least eighty feet tall.

Peppermint collapsed onto her knees. Pound and Pumpkin began shivering, holding onto each other. Masky gulped. Tree Leaf just stared. Flurry blinked several times, her mind having trouble accepting what she was seeing.

“Hello there, friends,” said Mayhem, staring down at them with a pleased expression. “Just listen to all of you, talking so confident.

“Well? Go ahead and attack.”

None of them moved.

He shook his head. “Oh, come on. You guys are too easy.” He lifted his two arms away from each other. As he put them closer together the scale of the room shrunk until it looked closer to the size of an actual throne room. Mayhem shrunk along with it until he was his usual size.

“Well, that was fun. The looks on your faces were priceless.”

Flurry was getting her composure back. It had only been another one of his tricks.

A crown appeared in his hand, which he put on his head. “I’ve been thinking, and the truth is that you guys are pathetic. Compared to me you are mere ants. I could smash you at any time, but that would be boring.

“It really isn’t fair for you to fight me, because there’s no way you can win. Knowing that I’ll win no matter what is also boring, so I need to do SOMETHING to spice this up. Otherwise, this will be no fun at all.”

He hopped off the throne, landing upside-down and balancing on one claw. “So here’s what I’m thinking. If you can force me off my throne in this battle then you win.”

He bounced off and landed upright on the top of his throne on one leg, slowly spinning around like a ballerina. “I mean, come on! You don’t even have to destroy me. Surely you can hit me at least ONCE, can’t you?”

His body parts separated, and one by one they landed in a sitting position on the throne. He lifted his claw and snapped, and a clock appeared reading fifteen minutes.

“However, if you can’t defeat me in that time then it only proves you aren’t worth my time, and I’ll have to start taking things a little bit seriously. The deal will be off.”

“I’ll take it!” said Pound.

“Me too!” said Pumpkin.

“Very well,” said Mayhem. “Then let the battle… BEGIN!” With another snap the clock began counting down.

6-10: Fifteen minutes to death

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Above all of them the clock began counting down the time to their defeat.

The six children stared at Mayhem uncertainly.

Mayhem sat smug on his throne. “Well, come on, then. You only have fifteen minutes. Do you really have the time to wait? Come on and attack.”

“Argh!” said Pound. “We have to do something.

“Pumpkin!”

“Right!” she said as they put their hooves together, shooting a bolt of lightning at him.

“Is that all?” said Mayhem, lifting a claw and flicking at the bolt as it neared him, sending it into the ceiling.

Peppermint blinked. “Did he just…” She shook her head. “Gotta be prepared for anything with this thing.” She stretched her front leg toward him.

Mayhem summoned strings out of his claw, which wrapped around her hoof and pulled against it, stopping her momentum. He grabbed her leg and began strumming a melody on the strings.

"Jerk!" Tree Leaf turned into a bird and flew over Mayhem, then as he headed downwards turned into an elephant.

Mayhem released Peppermint’s hoof and made a circle in the air. A black energy went streaming upwards, engulfing the colt.

“Tree Leaf!” Flurry called out, her breath catching.

Tree Leaf’s momentum slowed, but beyond that it seemed to have no effect on him.

Mayhem caught the colt, throwing him forward.

Tree Leaf turned back into a pony. “How’d he do that?”

Mayhem chuckled. “I sent you into space. Low gravity.

“You’re going to have to try harder than that.” He felt something pulling hard at his leg. “And I’m afraid that’s not hard enough.” He easily lifted his leg, pulling Masky out of the ground and sending him flying as their shadows separated.

“Well… we knew it wouldn’t be easy,” said Flurry.

“Yeah,” said Pound. “So what now?”

“I have an idea. It’s stupid, so he probably wouldn’t expect it. I just need one of you to get his attention.”

“Got it!” said Peppermint.

Flurry walked up to Masky and whispered into his ear. He nodded.

Peppermint extended all of her limbs and her head, sending all five of them towards Mayhem.

“Oh, no,” said Mayhem. “A spider.” He lifted his arm and a giant newspaper appeared, swatting away her legs and head.

“Now!” said Flurry, her horn glowing.

Her aura appeared around Mayhem as she tried to simply lift him out of the throne with her basic levitation.

At the same time Masky went underneath it, pulling the throne into the shadows.

“Can’t sit on a throne if there IS no throne!’ said Flurry.

Mayhem’s top half popped off, and a spear appeared in his hand, throwing it towards Flurry. She quickly hopped out of the way, which was all the distraction he needed to head towards the ground and slam it. Masky came flying out of the shadows along with the throne. His top half rejoined with his bottom half. “Still not good enough, I’m afraid.”

Pumpkin growled. What did it take to hit this thing? “Pound! Cutting air!”

Pound nodded, touching hooves with her as they sent out countless wind shards towards him.

To their surprise their attack was on target, and Mayhem was filled with holes.

“We… we got him,” said Pound, blinking.

“But… it doesn’t really amount to anything, does it?" replied Mayhem. Before their eyes the holes repaired themselves.

“One more time!” said Pound, this time shooting out a stream of water, focusing it around him and encasing him in a bubble of it.

Mayhem just shook his head. “Are you trying to suffocate me?” He took in a deep breath. “I’m afraid that’s not going to work.”

“Pound, can we combine spells?” asked Pumpkin.

“I don’t know. What did you have in mind?”

“Let’s add some fire and burn him.”

The two of them focused, and the temperature of the water got hotter and hotter until it began turning into steam.

When their spell faded Mayhem was sitting there wearing a spa robe. “Ahhh,” he said calmly. “Well, that felt nice. I could just fall asleep right here.”

Flurry tapped her hoof on the floor. “Peppermint!” She built up energy in her horn. “Launch me!”

The filly nodded.

She hopped atop Peppermint’s outstretched hoof.

The twins made a small tornado with their air powers. “Finally getting serious, huh?” said Mayhem, laughing.

Peppermint extended her leg backwards and slingshotted Flurry forwards at high speed. She hit Pound and Pumpkin’s tornado, increasing her speed still further.

Mayhem lifted a single claw. “Go ahead and shoot. Do you really think momentum is going to help you?”

Just before she hit him Flurry teleported behind him, shooting all the energy she had gathered.

She panted as she landed.

As the smoke cleared she grinned as she saw the result of her attack. The top half of the throne, as well as the top half of Mayhem, was gone.

“Oh, WOW!” said Tree Leaf. “You really got him!”

Just as they were about to start celebrating Mayhem’s tail lifted and snapped, and both him and the throne were restored.

Peppermint let out a pained groan.

“Again?” said Pumpkin. “Did it really have no effect at all?”

Mayhem clapped. “Nice teamwork, but I’m afraid you’re still not doing good enough. Really, the truth is that you’ll never do good enough. Why don’t you just give up now, and save yourself the embarrassment of a humiliating defeat?”

“No!” said Pound strongly.

Flurry gathered up power in her horn again. "This time I'll destroy the whole thing!"

As she fired Mayhem said, "If you can actually hit it." He lifted an arm, and the space around them grew very heavy, forcing Flurry and her spell to the floor. Once her spell dispersed the gravity effect faded.

“Flurry!” Masky whispered urgently. “I have a plan that I’m sure will beat him. I just need all of you to get his attention for a little while so I can set it up.”

Flurry nodded. “Got it.”

“Darn it!” said Pound. They had already used up seven minutes of their fifteen, and they hadn’t been able to do any damage. “He really is incredible.”

Mayhem smirked. “Thank you. Thank you. Glad to see you realize the truth.”

“Pound, what are you doing?” Flurry said angrily, grabbing him and getting in his face. “Don’t praise this monster!”

“Flurry!” said Pumpkin.

Flurry stared into Pound’s eyes, and said as quietly as she could, “Distraction.” Then she pushed him away. “Get you head in the game!” She trusted Pound to tell his sister.

“And what about YOU?” she got in Tree Leaf’s face next, once more whispering the word. “Are you gonna praise him too?”

Mayhem shook his head. “Aw, look at the cracks forming in your so-called teamwork.”

Pound whispered in Tree Leaf’s ear. For a moment he looked nervous, but then he nodded.

Flurry charged up energy in her horn, firing it at Mayhem.

The draconequus yawned. “This again?” He lifted a singled claw, flicking the energy away.

The ground began shaking as Tree Leaf turned into an elephant and charged Mayhem.

“Oh, no,” Mayhem replied in a bored tone. “Whatever shall I do? I might actually have to use TWO fingers to stop this.”

Tree Leaf jumped at Mayhem as behind them Pumpkin cried out, “Now!”

Right before Mayhem attacked him Tree Leaf turned into a bird and swerved out of the way, only to see a bolt of lightning right behind the colt.

Mayhem’s eyes widened, seeing that the twins had hid their spell behind Tree Leaf’s bulk.

The bolt struck Mayhem dead-on.

“Yes!” Pumpkin hopped in the air and pumped her hoof.

Her triumph was short lived as Mayhem inhaled and appeared to eat their lightning attack.

The draconequus burped. “Why, what a shocking lunch.

“That was a nice little trick you pulled, but you need to do a little better than that to beat me.”

He leaned forward in his throne and said, “Is that it for your little tricks, then?”

Flurry had an anxious expression on her face, like she was waiting for something. Where was Masky? She thought he would have attacked by now. They had all done as he asked.

“And just where did your little shadow buddy get to?” Flurry let out a cry of frustration. “What, did you think I didn’t know you were just a distraction?”

He closed his eyes for a moment. “I can read your thoughts, but it seems pointless. It’s clear that you have no idea where he is. But I do.”

“What did you do to him?” Pound asked.

Mayhem pointed upwards at the clock still ticking down. “Why would I bother doing anything to him? Time isn’t up yet.”

“Then how do you know where he is?”

The draconequus chuckled. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? Where he is… is far away from here.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Peppermint.

“Come on! You haven’t figured it out yet?” He looked smugly at them. “He left the game.”

“Left the game?” asked Flurry. “You sent him home?”

Mayhem shook his head. “Oh, boy! I guess you really don’t get it. Masky is GONE, you fools!

“He saw how much greater my power is than yours, and made the intelligent choice. He pretended to set up an attack by having the rest of you act as a diversion, but he actually took the opportunity just to bail on you.”

The five children all felt a chill go through them.

Mayhem began snickering, before it erupted into hysterical laughter. “This is priceless! All of you preached teamwork and working together, but he sure showed his true colors as a grade-A coward.”

“No!” said Pound. “He wouldn’t… he wouldn’t do that.”

Mayhem got his laughter under control. “Ah, you poor naïve child. Did you really think you were friends just because you fought a few baddies together? He was only going along with you because he had to. Didn’t he tell you from the start he wasn’t interested in sticking with you guys?

“If YOU, Flurry, hadn’t emotionally blackmailed him with your water works he would have left you right at the start.

“Honestly, I think it’s going too far to call him a coward, when he was the only smart one among you. Only idiots fight a battle they know they can’t win.”

Mayhem was getting immense pleasure out of their hurt expressions. It sure spiced things up from their boring bravado and heroic speeches. “Friendship is magic, huh? Well, he sure didn’t believe in you guys, that’s for sure.

“To think that after such touching experiences that he would give up on you.”

Flurry looked around, hoping to see Masky come out of the shadows and tell him that he was wrong, but he didn’t. All the shadows around them were stationary.

She felt a few tears come down her eyes. The colt had thrown himself in front of an attack and nearly died to protect her. He, along with the others, had helped her to become more comfortable with her identity, and gave her courage and confidence. She had really thought that she had done the same for him, inspiring him to fight alongside her no matter what the odds.

Mayhem could see they were all being truthful. It was clear in their minds. Though he doubted he needed to read their minds to discover the truth. They weren’t exactly good at hiding their emotions.

They kept fighting, but their hearts clearly weren’t in it anymore. To think that Masky ditched them to save his own skin was so disheartening that it was difficult for them to even formulate attack plans together.

If Masky really hadn’t abandoned them it only meant that Mayhem had done something to him, which wasn’t a better prospect.

Their time just seemed to race by.

Mayhem looked up at the clock. “Well, it’s almost time, kiddies. Just twenty seconds left.

“You haven’t been able to fight at your best since that shadow kid left you behind. You see what happens when you depend on others? Like I said before he was the only smart one among you.”

Now there was only ten seconds. At this point the five children weren’t even trying to attack anymore, too forlorn to have any hope left for a final charge.

Mayhem chuckled. “Five, four, three, two-WAH!” A heavy weight suddenly slammed into the draconequus, and he went flying, landing hard on the floor of the castle.

All of them gasped as Masky came out of the shadow of Mayhem’s throne. “Got you at last!” he said victoriously, giggling as he trotted over to his friends.

“Masky!” said Pound. “Where did you…”

Flurry slapped him hard, tears streaming down her eyes. “W-where were you? Y-you had us all worried!”

“You didn’t really abandon us, did you?” asked Peppermint.

Masky flushed, rubbing his cheek. “I’m sorry, everyone. I know I made you worry, but I needed all of you to think that I fled. He was reading all of our moves, and I knew if I told you about my plan you’d look too hopeful and anxious.”

“So that was it,” said Flurry. “You had to wait until he forgot about you, and waited until the last second when he was the most assured of his victory.”

Masky pointed at the clock, which had stopped on one second. “We did it!”

“Yeah!” said Peppermint, hopping a few times. “We got him off his throne right in time, so now… now we can all go home.”

The twins slapped their hooves together, cheering.

Masky turned toward Mayhem, who was framed in shadow. “Alright, you jerk. We beat you at your dumb game, now let us out of here!”

“You,” said Mayhem quietly. “You… YOU!” Mayhem’s body turned a glowing red, streams of fire erupting all around him. “How dare you! How dare you ruin my fun! I’ll destroy you for that!”

All of them quickly got in position around the colt.

“And what do you think THAT will do?” Mayhem extended his arm to the right, and Masky suddenly felt something tugging at his back hoof. With a yank Mayhem pulled the colt through a portal, grabbing the colt around the neck.

“Oh, no!” Flurry charged up her horn.

“Don’t move!” Mayhem said dangerously as he put his claws to the colt’s throat. “Unless you want his head to come off.” The draconequus had gotten his cool back. “But you see… unlike ME, he wouldn’t survive that. Want a demonstration?”

Flurry didn’t know what to do. The glow faded.

Masky tried to sink into the floor, but Mayhem had too good of a grip on him.

The draconequus slowly stroked Masky’s face. “And how shall I punish you for ruining my enjoyment? Melt your face off? Break your bones? Blow you up? There's so many possibilities.”

Masky shivered, wondering if he was about to die.

6-11: Eternity of play

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Mayhem had a tight grab on Masky, seemingly pondering how he was going to destroy the colt.

“We… we had a deal!” said Tree Leaf. "Y-you said if we knocked you off your throne you'd let us leave!"

Mayhem began laughing. “And what makes you think I care about that? Now watch as I make him disappear right in front of you!

“Goodbye!”

“NO!” screamed Pumpkin.

Mayhem put his hand on top of Masky’s head and pushed downward, sending him through another portal. “Well, that’s one down. Now to take care of the rest of you.”

Flurry felt a sense of numb disbelief. Right before her eyes Mayhem had sent Masky to another dimension. “W-what… what did you do to him?”

“Who knows? That portal… maybe it goes to the world of spikes, or the lake of acid. Perhaps directly into the sun. Maybe, if you look out that window, you might see him falling from ten thousand feet in the sky.”

Flurry’s whole body clenched up as pained tears came down her eyes, and she felt the desire to mindlessly attack no matter how low the chances of success were.

The other children felt much the same.

But just as they were about to launch their assault Mayhem lifted his claw and snapped. A portal opened right in front of them, and Masky came out of it, unharmed.

“M-Masky!” said Peppermint, running over to him and hugging him as she quietly sobbed. “Y-you’re alive!”

Flurry was panting for breath, unable to hide her relief.

Pumpkin quickly joined in on the hug, wailing.

Mayhem began chuckling again, which got all of their attention on him.

He had his smarmy attitude back. “Did you actually think I was mad? It seems you just don’t get it, do you? This has all been for my amusement.

“Did you really think I was going to kill you? You are part of my precious toy box collection. Your lives have never been in danger.”

That statement, plus Masky’s freedom, allowed Flurry’s anger to come out. “What are you talking about? We nearly died so many times out there!”

Mayhem’s head went back as he laughed harder. When he got himself under control he said, “But did you really?”

Pound’s eyes narrowed. “I could barely stand after Starlight attacked me. I was in so much pain.”

Mayhem had a carefree expression on his face. “And what’s your point?”

“If it hadn’t been for my shield spell absorbing some of her spell we would have been finished,” said Pumpkin.

“Really?" he said, sounding fascinated. "Is that what you really think?”

Masky’s eyebrow rose. “What are you getting at?”

Mayhem floated in front of them. “All of you… have just been part of my own little comic book adventure.

“Waking up in a strange location, six strangers with special abilities and costumes have to work together to protect one another from danger. Now doesn’t that sound like the perfect premise for a good story?

“And all of you played your parts to perfection. Especially you, Flurry. You’re most fitting for a main character. When this adventure started you were little more than a coward putting on a brave face when you challenged me the first time. But as you’ve gone through these trials and gathered the rest of your team you’ve grown exponentially, to the point that you’re barely recognizable as the pony you started out as.

“And every story needs drama to be interesting. The seeming betrayal by a family member is just ripe with dramatic tension. The heroic sacrifice of the others to protect a teammate, inspiring you to newfound heights of power and courage. Oh, it all just worked out so perfectly.”

All of them were just staring at him wordlessly.

Mayhem clapped. “This has all been just oh so much fun!”

“Are you saying,” said Flurry, “that this has all been deliberate? That you planned out our every action from the start?”

“Oh, no.” He shook his head. “I could predict what you would do, but I couldn’t know for sure. If I knew everything that would happen that would be boring, and I hate boredom.”

With a snap the room filled with countless copies of all the enemies they had fought earlier.

Peppermint felt like she couldn’t breathe for a few moments, but almost as soon as they appeared they were gone.

“So many,” said Pound.

“Exactly,” said Mayhem. “I just had to make them like they were in real life, but in the end they were all fake. Just puppets of my will.

“Of course, I’ve been watching your little adventures from the start. I’ve been keeping a close eye on your battles, ensuring that my little drones didn’t go too far. After all, even with my great power I can’t revive a pony from the dead. So long as they’re alive I can fully heal someone, so injuries aren’t an issue.

“So, as I said before, your lives were never in danger. I just needed you to believe they were so we could move the story along to this point.”

Mayhem had a giddy look about him, the condescension dropping completely from his voice. “And this is just the beginning of the fun we can have.

“Pound and Pumpkin. You once put on a play where you were the children of Daring Do and explored a temple.” The scenery around them vanished, and they were suddenly in the living room of Sugarcube Corner where the twins had put on their play with their own amateur backdrops.

With a swirl of his finger the scene spun around, and now they were in a lush jungle in front of a temple with a three headed animal hybrid. “I can make that scene real.”

“Whoa,” said Pound, looking around. “It does look like our play come to life.”

“Doesn’t it, though?” said Mayhem.

“Of course, every once in a while you have to take a break from adventure.”

He lifted his arms, and the jungle disappeared, replaced with a field of flowers, a picnic set up on the ground nearby. “Or maybe we can do something else.” With a snap the field vanished, replaced with a beach.

He began hopping in mid-air. “There are endless opportunities for adventure, only limited by our imaginations.

“There’s no need to fight anymore. All you have to do is give up.”

The change in his personality threw them all off. He looked like a kid the night before Hearthswarming.

“Give up?” said Peppermint.

“We can stop fighting?” said Masky.

“Sure!” Mayhem replied. “We went through the whole story arc, but it’s about time we wrapped things up and moved on to the next adventure.”

It sounded pretty good to them.

Flurry still had some reservations. “And… what happens if we give up?”

They all glanced over at Flurry, before looking back at Mayhem.

“What are you expecting to happen?” asked the draconequus. “That I’m gonna kill you?

“Nothing happens, of course. You’re just admitting that I won the game, that’s all. Every game needs a winner and a loser, so once you acknowledge your defeat we can end this game and play another one.”

“Wasn’t this one enough?” said Pumpkin, groaning. “This was exhausting and painful.”

"Hmm?" Mayhem’s head tilted a bit. He got a bashful look on his face, rubbing the back of his neck. “Oh, right. I’m sorry. I was a little rough on you back there with my puppets, but if you didn’t believe that what you were going through was real you wouldn’t have given it your all. And just look what came out of it. All of you have grown magnificently.

“However, now that you know it’s all fake it’s not as fun to play so hard anymore. So just bow down in defeat and declare me the winner, and we can hang out on this beach for a while. Then… hmm…” He sucked on his cheek as he looked toward the sky. “I don't know. Maybe I’ll let you decide what we play next.”

Tree Leaf felt odd. Was all of Mayhem’s previous evil behavior just an act?

“I think we’ve all had enough of this game,” said Masky. “So I don’t care who wins, as long as it ends.”

Flurry felt much the same, nodding in agreement. If Mayhem was really being genuine here then she was all for it.

Mayhem put on his evil voice again, but it sounded more melodramatic now. “Foolish mortals. You have given it your all, but it wasn’t enough.” A gentle pressure forced the six children to their stomachs. “You lie before me beaten and broken, now surrender to me… or be destroyed.”

“We surrender,” said Pound.

“Excellent!” He clapped. “Game over, then.”

The pressure vanished, and they all stood up.

Mayhem giggled cheerfully. "That was a lot of fun."

Pumpkin sighed. “I just want to go home.”

“Home?” asked Mayhem, looking a little annoyed. “And what could you possibly want there? I have everything you could ever want!

“Adventure!” Paragliding equipment appeared. “Food! Weather!” A mountain of desserts appeared on a table as the beach was covered with snow.

“Anything you could possibly want I can make real in this world. I control everything in it, and things only happen when I want them to.

“Oh!” Mayhem lifted a finger, his face becoming calm again. “I got it. You’re worried about your families, right?”

Peppermint nodded. “You threatened to bring them into this.”

“I just said that to get you to hurry up. I don’t have any interest in them. I just want to play with you.”

“Why?” asked Pound. “Why us?”

“Especially me,” said Flurry. “I could understand if you just grabbed some random kids from Ponyville for your game, but I’m from the Crystal Empire. I’ve never set hoof in Ponyville.”

“I have my reasons for why I picked each of you for my game, but I don’t feel like explaining.”

At first Flurry wanted to push the issue, but she decided to drop it. He looked to be in a good mood now, so she didn’t want to push his buttons.

“Isn’t it great?” said Mayhem, chuckling with glee. “This is the ultimate world. We can all just stay here forever.”

That made all of them tense. “Forever?” said Pumpkin.

“I thought we were going to go home,” said Pound.

Mayhem pouted. “What’s wrong now? What does the REAL world have that I can’t give you?

“Just think about it. A world with no school. No responsibilities. You never have to wash the dishes or worry about spoiling your appetite. You can eat dessert for every meal and never have to worry about tummy aches or cavities.”

There was a bit of desperation in his voice now. "I can give you everything you've ever dreamed of, so stay here with me."

Masky was starting to think that Mayhem was somewhat like him. His game was over the top, for sure, but he seemed so lonely. He wondered if the draconequus had ever made a friend in his life.

“What about you, Flurry?” Mayhem pointed at her. “You understand me, don’t you?”

Her eyebrow went up. “Me?”

“I’ve seen what lies in your heart. I know your greatest fears of feeling the pressure of everyone’s expectations to excel and take your mother’s place. So long as you’re within my dimension I can create a future where that fear never comes to pass.”

Flurry clenched, and she took in a sharp breath.

With a wave of his paw they were surrounded by every game and toy imaginable. “An eternity full of nothing but fun and endless playtime… now wouldn’t that be the best thing ever? It’s a child’s paradise.”

Tree Leaf was astounded as he looked around. “This is pretty awesome!”

Pound nodded in agreement. “It sure is.”

“And we can just goof around all day?” said Pumpkin.

Mayhem shivered in excitement. He was winning them over. Who wouldn’t love a world without any rules?

Peppermint was starting to feel like Mayhem wasn’t evil. He just didn’t understand restraint because he felt he could just undo any damage afterward. He had been pretty cruel, but she thought that he just didn't understand friendship.

Flurry heard his offer, and it was oh so tempting. She could see the blissful expression on his face, and hear the others being swayed towards his way of thought.

“And what about our families?” she asked.

“I already told you I don’t care about them.”

“That’s not what I was asking. If we stay here then we’ll vanish from their lives, and they’ll be miserable.”

Pound bit his lip. He hadn’t thought about that. He could only imagine how Auntie Pinkie would react, let alone his mother and father.

“Oh, there’s plenty I can do about that,” said Mayhem, dismissively shaking his claw. “I can mess with their memories, or create fake kids in your place.”

“Why… don’t you just let us go home?” asked Masky. “We could always play again another day.”

“But if you leave now you might not want to come back again.” He put a claw to his mouth, looking put out.

“But we want to see our families again,” said Pumpkin. “Our lives won’t be the same without them."

With a huff he said, “I guess I could also bring them here, but that just ruins the whole point. We want to get away from having rules hold us down, and they’re going to want to be in charge.”

He sighed. “Oh, well. The one who has the most power is always the one in charge, so things will still go my way. I just want to have fun with you guys, so if that's what it takes to get you to stay then I'll do it.”

They all looked around at each other.

“I’m game,” said Tree Leaf. “If we have our families with us then what would we be missing by staying?”

“Yeah,” said Peppermint. “We can have our loved ones AND endless playtime and games.”

“If we stay here then I wouldn’t have to worry about losing my friends anymore,” said Masky.

“This is pretty cool,” said Pound.

“You said it,” said Pumpkin.

Mayhem was feeling giddy. Everything was working out just fine.

“We can’t trust him!” said Flurry strongly. “He referred to us as just mere toys for him to play with. He doesn’t care about the hurt we feel as long as he gets what he wants.”

“That was part of the act,” said Mayhem quickly. “I didn’t really mean that.”

Flurry shook her head. “I don’t want to stay here any longer.”

“Flurry,” said Tree Leaf, “what’s your problem?”

“The problem is that he DID mean it. He kidnapped us and brought us here, treating us like characters in his fantasy story. He hurt all of us. Even if our lives weren’t actually in danger he made all of us suffer.

“We’re supposed to entrust HIM with our happiness? Make HIM the ultimate leader of the world? He claimed that he put us through this just because he was bored. What happens the next time he gets bored? I don’t trust him, and I’m not planning to stay here.”

“Then it’s your loss,” said Masky dismissively.

Mayhem crossed his arms. “Everyone else understands. Why don’t you?”

“Because," said Flurry, "like I said several times before, I’m tired of running from who I am. With just a few of us in this world it might ensure that no mystery villains can hurt my family, but that means bringing them here in the first place.”

“And I can do that easily.”

“That’s not the point. If you bring them here then they’ll also vanish from the real world. They’ll no longer be able to protect the Crystal Empire. It will put all those ponies at risk. They wouldn’t be happy with that. And I don't know what their parents or loved ones do for a living, but I'm sure they each have a role to play in Equestria, and people will miss them too.

“Maybe before you put us through this I would have been delighted not to have to worry about stepping up, but I’ve been through too much to turn my back on them now. I'm not going to be so selfish as to put my own happiness above everyone else's.”

Mayhem stomped his hoof several times. “Flurry, you’re being very ungrateful to my hospitality. It’s starting to annoy me.”

“Well, that’s too bad, because the thought of letting an immature brat like you rule the world isn’t any more reassuring than living in the real world.”

Mayhem’s claw clenched into a fist, his eyes getting fiery.

“Flurry!” said Peppermint. “Stop.”

“Fine!” said Mayhem. “It’s obvious you’re gonna be against me no matter what, so who needs you?

“I offered you everything, and you spat it back in my face. If that’s the way you’re gonna be then I’ll just destroy you.”

Flurry smirked. “It sure didn’t take long for you to reveal your true colors, did it? At the first sign of defiance you already want to kill me?

"This is what I was talking about, everyone. That’s why I said we can’t trust him.”

“Sorry, Flurry,” said Masky contritely. “I didn’t think he would be like that.”

“I’m not on board anymore,” said Tree Leaf. "Not if you're gonna threaten her."

"Right!" said Pound.

"You said it!" said Pumpkin.

"Same here!" said Peppermint.

Mayhem looked between the others, all of them siding with Flurry now. He began panting in his fury. “You! You ruined everything, Flurry!”

“No!” Flurry retorted. “YOU did when you decided to force this on all of us instead of just asking.”

“Fine, then." His glare slowly turned into a smirk. "But I think you should remember that I’m still the one in control here. You can’t leave until I say so, and I DON'T say so. So there.”

“We beat your stupid game.”

Mayhem chuckled. “Perhaps you forgot that I don’t care about the rules. That game was just to raise the stakes. You won that challenge, and then surrendered to me. So we’re tied. Let’s make the next one the last one.

“Of course, this game is going to need a good twist to make things fun. How about I limit my powers to match yours?”

“Why should we believe you this time?” said Peppermint. “You just said you don’t care about the rules.”

“Oh, rules are meant to be broken, for sure, buuuuuuut I can follow the rules if it means it’s more fun than not breaking them.”

“Not everything is about fun!” said Pound.

“It is for me. I’m going to drag this out as long as I can, until I make you surrender for real.

“Flurry, since you ruined my fun I’m going to make you pay for it. I’m going to break your spirit and get that defiant look off your face."

He lifted his arms. "You're going to regret turning me down, Flurry. Now let the final battle begin!"

6-12: The magic of friendship

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Mayhem laughed as the beach turned back into the throne room. “Oh, yes! This is going to be so much fun. I’m going to RIP the word hope out of your vocabulary. You’ll try, over and over and over and over, and every time you’ll fail.

“Flurry, you’re going to wish you had taken my offer when you had the chance.”

Pound gulped. “It looks like Mayhem is about to get serious.”

“Don’t get down, Pound,” said Pumpkin. “I need your strength more than ever right now.”

Pound took in a slow breath. “I know.”

Mayhem lifted his arms. “Little by little I’ll increase the power of my attacks, until eventually you won’t be able to resist them anymore. But I won’t just destroy you. Oh, no. I’ll make you taste true hopelessness first.

“Flurry, if I were you I’d hop back a step.”

Flurry was slow to react as Mayhem suddenly appeared in front of her and kicked her in the jaw. She flipped once and landed on her hooves, rubbing her chin.

Mayhem chuckled. “You really should duck, Pumpkin.”

Pound quickly grabbed Pumpkin and forced her down, just as Mayhem teleported again, shooting a bolt of lightning where she used to be.

“Nice work, Pound, but now you’re on the floor.“ A fireball appeared in his claw, but just before he fired his hand changed direction towards himself. He detached the claw as he jumped away, sinking into the shadows a bit as he kicked Masky, forcing him out into the open.

He reattached his claw. “This is amusing, getting down and dirty like this.”

“Are you alright, Masky?” asked Peppermint.

“I’m fine.”

“But are you really?” asked Mayhem. “Hope you’re not afraid of a little lightning.” He lifted his arms, summoning a large, dark cloud that was shooting out dozens of lightning bolts underneath it, and sent it towards their group.

“So fast!” Flurry exclaimed, pulling the others in with her wings as she created a shield over them.

The repeated lightning blasts broke through her shield, Flurry wincing in pain as the lightning bolts struck her wings.

The cloud completed its pass overhead, crashing into the wall and disappearing.

“F-Flurry!” said Masky as she moved her wings from around them. “Are you okay?”

Flurry was panting and her wings were singed, but she smiled at him. “My wings are tough. It’ll take more than that to destroy them."

“Glad to hear it!” Mayhem’s body separated into six pieces, each of them hitting one of the children to the floor. He lifted a hand, a gigantic fireball appearing. “Let’s heat things up, shall we?”

Pound and Pumpkin prepared a water spell as Flurry used her levitation magic to draw water from the pool they had landed in when they arrived.

They combined the ball of water and shot it at his fireball, filling the room with steam. Ultimately, even their combined efforts couldn’t fully repel the fireball, and it was getting closer and closer to them.

Tree Leaf turned into a dragon and shielded them with his body. His naturally fireproof body took the attack harmlessly.

Peppermint saw Mayhem’s shadow in the distance, and gave Masky a meaningful look. He nodded, sinking into the shadows.

The filly stretched her body towards Mayhem, wrapping herself around him like a snake. “Got you!”

Mayhem simply stretched himself, making himself thinner as he took to the air.

“You’re not getting away!”

He dodged her limbs a few more times before landing on the ground. “You’re persistent. I like that.”

He lifted a claw, preparing a spell, when he suddenly heard a yell right beneath him.

Masky came flying out of the ground, socking Mayhem in the jaw.

“YEAH!” said Peppermint, but Mayhem’s head only stretched from its neck, and he used the momentum to headbutt her.

“Try whatever you want,” said Mayhem. “You can’t stop me, you little babies. Even if you all combine your powers together, nothing plus nothing is still nothing.

“Oh, FLURRY!” He let out an evil laugh. “If you don’t want all your friends to die I’d suggest protecting them.” Once more he lifted his arm. “Let’s see how you like my air slice.”

Flurry felt a bit of panic, and quickly grabbed the others in her wings as she hid behind a pillar.

“You can’t hide, Flurry.”

With a single swipe of his claws he cut clean through five pillars right above them.

“Oops! I missed you. How careless of me.” With a laugh he said, “I’ll make sure I aim correctly this time.”

With a flash Flurry teleported them to the far side of the room behind the throne.

“Oh, are we playing hide and seek now, Flurry?” he said condescendingly. He scanned the room slowly. “Where are you? Maybe… here?” He slashed, destroying the ground near another pillar. “Hmm. I guess not. You’ll run out of places to hide eventually.” He destroyed pillar after pillar.

Flurry was sweating. Mayhem’s power was out of control. He was right. They couldn’t keep hiding forever.

Mayhem turned towards the throne. “Hmmm. I wonder if you’re at the most obvious spot. Do you think I wouldn’t attack my precious throne? I can always make another one.”

Masky tugged at Flurry’s mane, his heart racing. “Fire at the ground,” he said quietly. “Now!”

Flurry didn’t have time to think, and did as he said. The explosion caused a cloud of smoke.

Mayhem swiped, cutting the throne into pieces. He put a claw to his ear. “Hmm. No screams of pain. I guess you weren’t hiding there, after all.”

Masky held onto his friends tightly as he moved through the shadows with them. Once inside the shadows they could move on their own, but they couldn’t get out without his special magic.

A part of him really did want to try running this time, but he knew it was pointless. So long as they were in Mayhem’s world there was no place to hide.

Mayhem sucked in a deep breath, letting it out and dispersing the smoke. He looked left and right, but saw no sign of the group. “So you’ve hidden yourselves really well, have you?”

Masky had gotten above him as Mayhem began attacking everywhere in the room, getting annoyed. “Come out, you little rats!”

The six of them emerged slightly from the shadows.

Flurry whispered to Tree Leaf, “Can you transform while inside the shadows?”

“I don’t know,” he whispered back, “but I’ll try.”

Masky pulled him fully back inside, and Tree Leaf turned into a hippo before Masky pulled him out again.

“Magic?” Pound whispered, not wanting to draw Mayhem’s attention by talking too much.

Flurry shook her head. “No magic until we either hit him or he spots us. He’ll hear it building up.”

“Will he?” asked Pumpkin. “He’s throwing a tantrum right now.”

“I’m not risking it. This is our chance to catch him off guard.

“Masky, let’s go.”

“Got it,” he replied.

They all descended from the shadows, falling from the ceiling quietly towards him. With his heavier weight Tree Leaf sank the fastest.

Mayhem lifted his arms. “I’ve had enough of this. Hmm?” He built up water above him, then spun around towards the descending kids. “Have a tsunami!”

A stream of water struck each of them, slamming them all into the ceiling, then he turned his body, throwing his claw down and taking all of them with it.

Pound and Pumpkin struggled against the pressure, touching each other and shooting their own stream of water downwards, lowering their speed before they crashed into the floor and the water dispersed.

“Owww,” said Peppermint, rubbing her stomach.

“That really hurt,” said Pumpkin.

Mayhem clapped. “Bravo, bravo! Hiding in the ceiling was a great trick. I almost fell for your assault, but you made the mistake of having the green one turn into such a large animal. Bigger animal means bigger shadows, idiots. I saw you coming from miles away.”

Pound got up, panting. “Darn it! I really thought we had him this time.”

“Sorry, guys,” said Flurry. “I thought that having Tree Leaf turn into something big would be to our advantage.”

Peppermint grabbed onto Pumpkin’s leg to support herself as she got up too. “Even if he’s only using the same magic as the rest of us it’s so much stronger.”

Mayhem looked down smugly at them. “Sheesh. Even when I’m holding back this much you still can’t do anything to me? Maybe I should just take a nap. With the way you guys fight I could probably defeat you in my sleep.”

He shook his head. “Just look at all of you. Do you want to give up?”

“NO!” said Flurry strongly.

“Come on,” he said, walking on air like he was going down a staircase. “I know you got me upset before, but there’s always time for reparation. Bow down before me and beg for forgiveness, and I’ll let you live.”

“I refuse!”

“Oh, Flurry.” He lifted his arm, and a lightning bolt appeared in it. “That stubbornness of yours is going to cause you so much pain before this is over.”

He brought his arm down, and Flurry created a shield around her. The lightning bolt missed the shield, hitting the unprotected ground right in front of it. The ground underneath her flew upwards, and Flurry just barely managed to get her wings around her before rubble slammed into them, sending her flying into her shield and breaking it. Her momentum carried her into the pillar behind her.

Flurry cried out in pain, landing hard on the floor.

“Flurry!” said Masky, running over to her.

Pound glared at Mayhem, shaking in fury.

“It seems that none of you realize just how outclassed you’ve been from the start.” He lifted a claw, and Flurry went up with it. With a snap her pain went away, then he set her on the ground.

Flurry groaned. He had healed her again.

“Let me ask you something, my little ponies. Did you not find it unusual how each of you had powers no other pony does?”

Tree Leaf wasn’t sure he liked where this was going.

“Flurry’s theory was that I went after all of you because I wanted to take care of potential threats, like kids who have unusual abilities like yours. Sorry… but that’s wrong.”

“Then why?” asked Pumpkin. “Why us?”

“All those powers you have… I gave them to you. ME!”

Peppermint blinked. “You?”

“I told you from the start that I created this little adventure because I was bored. Flurry was the only skilled magic user among you. If I had set you loose in my world without some powers you didn’t normally have all of you would have been reliant solely on her. That wouldn’t have been very entertaining. So I gave you all abilities that fit your personalities.

“The twins could only use their powers to their full potential when working together. Flurry wants to protect others, so I gave her powerful wings that could also stretch.”

“So this was all… you?” said Tree Leaf.

Mayhem nodded. “But just like I can give things to you, I can also take them away. Just… like… this.” He snapped his fingers.

Pound gasped. “F-Flurry,” he said, flabbergasted.

“You… you’re…” Pumpkin couldn’t even finish her sentence.

Flurry looked to her sides. Her wings were gone. Her head also felt lighter, and she put her hoof up to find her horn was gone as well.

“Now you’re just an earth pony like the shapeshifter," said Mayhem.

She felt like she shouldn’t be surprised by now what Mayhem could do, but this particular change was scary because it meant she couldn’t do magic anymore.

“So, Flurry,” said Mayhem, “do you still want to talk big and stand tall? From the moment you came into my world all you’ve been is a toy to play with whatever way I want.

“How about it? Do you want to give up yet?”

The question made her angry, despite herself. “No! I won’t!”

Mayhem growled, disappearing and reappearing right in front of her, kicking her in the nose.

Flurry recoiled.

Pound and Pumpkin both tried to shoot him point blank, but he simply stretched his body and went on the attack again.

Flurry put her hooves up as Mayhem hit her again.

Mayhem took to the air. “You’re pathetic! You no longer have your magic. You’re just a common pony now, and yet you still stand in defiance of me? I am now most eager to see you surrender.”

“I don’t care what you do,” Flurry replied. Even though she felt pain she stood up straight. “I meant what I said before. I won’t give up.”

Mayhem slowly clenched, then he began laughing. With a snap he returned her horn and wings. “I wonder… just how much you can take before you break. Or maybe…” He looked towards the other children. “Maybe I should make them suffer instead for your insolence.

“Can you protect them from my attacks?”

Flurry growled. “I know what you’re planning.”

Mayhem chuckled. “You think I’m going to take your magic away at the last second so you can’t protect them? That would be dull. I want to see how long your false hope will last. I want you to give it your very best, and fade away knowing it wasn’t enough.

“After all, if I wanted to destroy you I could have done that so many times already.”

He summoned a long, thin stream of water, and cracked it like a whip. It missed Flurry, and hit Tree Leaf right behind her, knocking him to the ground.

“Pay attention, Princess! After all, you wouldn’t want to watch your friends die before your eyes, would you? That’s your greatest fear, is it not? Just how long can you keep it from becoming a reality?”

Flurry growled. She had never hated anyone more in her life.

The draconequus swirled the water around him. “You know, it’s not always about the power you have, but how creatively you can use it. For instance…” He added lighting to the water. “Now THIS will hurt, won’t it? Better protect Pumpkin.”

Pound immediately pulled his sister behind him. “Don’t even think about it.”

“Why think, when I can do? Water, with the speed of lightning. Who will fall first?”

Flurry wrapped her wings around the pair as he launched the lightning whip, groaning as it made contact. Her wings were very sturdy, but it didn’t completely stop the pain of contact.

Mayhem let out a big laugh. “Very good! But what will you do against this?”

He lifted his arms, and he summoned large amounts of earth above him and added fire to it. “How about a meteor for my dear friends?”

“You’ve gotta be kidding!” said Masky.

“Catch!” he yelled as he slammed it down.

Flurry created a magic portal, absorbing the meteor.

“Too slow!” Mayhem created another portal right beneath hers, sending the meteor back on course.

She teleported the group out of the way, and Mayhem teleported right after her, giving a hard kick to Pound and sending him right into the path of the meteor.

“Pound!” Pumpkin screamed out in horror, her insides going cold.

Peppermint went to stretch herself to catch him, but Mayhem simply flipped and kicked her too.

Flurry extended one of her wings towards Pound, knowing if she teleported over to the colt it would leave the others open to Mayhem’s attacks.

She scooped Pound up in her wing, the edge of it burning as she pulled him back.

Flurry clenched in pain as she set Pound down.

As Pumpkin went to hug him he pushed her away. As much as he wanted Pumpkin to feel reassured there were bigger issues. “Water!” he said strongly.

She turned to Flurry, seeing the charred part of her wing. She quickly touched Pound, putting some cooling water on Flurry’s wing.

“T-thank you,” she replied as the pain receded.

“This is only the start,” said Mayhem. “Why don’t you just quit before you get hurt even further?”

“No!” Flurry replied.

Mayhem shrugged. “Whatever. I have all the time in the world. It’s not like you can leave this space, after all.”

Mayhem attacked over and over. He kept to his word about restricting himself to the special abilities of the six of them, though he usually stuck to Pound and Pumpkin’s elemental spells since they were his greatest offensive magic, though he did occasionally stretch his wings or turn into a predatory animal just to switch things up once in a while.

He always focused his attacks on everyone but Flurry, forcing her to intervene. Every few blows he encouraged her to give up, but she always refused.

The draconequus had been getting angrier and angrier at Flurry’s obstinance, but his feelings were slowly changing to confusion.

“Why?” he asked. “Why do you keep getting up? Is your pride really worth all this pain?” Flurry snickered, which only made him more confused. “And just what are you laughing at?”

“This… has nothing to do with pride,” she replied, panting as she got up from her knees.

“Flurry,” said Peppermint, tears coming down her eyes. “Please stop. I don’t want to see you getting hurt anymore. Just give up already.” Flurry gave her a carefree smile, which threw her off so much that she couldn’t even continue speaking.

“Don’t worry, Peppermint.” She looked back up at Mayhem. “If it bothers you so much that I won’t give up then you only have yourself to blame.”

“Is that right?” he replied flatly.

“I believe it was you who said that in this adventure that I was the main character. I started out a weak little crybaby, but because of everything I’ve gone through I’ve grown stronger.”

“What’s your point?”

“You gave me too much time to grow, Mayhem. I’ve grown stronger than you.”

Mayhem shook, about to start yelling, but he reined it in. “And just how do you figure that? I could wipe you out with a breath. You’re only still alive because I’m allowing you to be.”

“What’s your point?”

Mayhem’s eyes narrowed, but they widened when Flurry began laughing, a bright smile on her face. He couldn’t figure her out.

The other children had no idea what to make of her behavior either.

“I think you’ve snapped, my dear,” said Mayhem with amusement. “Has your fear taken you that much?”

When Flurry got herself under control she said, “Why should it, when I’m not afraid of you?”

Mayhem growled loudly, his face going red. “What did you say?”

Flurry put her hoof to her chest. “I finally understand completely what Aunt Twilight tried to teach me." She lifted a wing. “These cuts…” She lifted a leg. “This burn…” She lowered both of them. “…I can barely feel the pain of them. Even after everything you’ve done to me I feel so much strength inside I can barely contain it. My desire to protect these ponies is so much more than any fear could touch.

“Nothing you could ever do to me will take that away from me. So long as there is a breath of air in my lungs and a drop of energy in my veins I will fight you. Far from making me want to give up, you’ve only hardened my determination further.”

“Flurry…” Tree Leaf felt like his own fear was disappearing, Flurry’s confidence infecting him.

“Flurrrrrrrrrrry,” Mayhem said furiously, shaking a fist at her. Everyone else was ready to quit. Why couldn't he break her spirit? Where was this power coming from?

“This feeling… if only you could experience what it’s like. Too bad you don’t have any friends to protect.”

Mayhem flinched as if he had been slapped.

“Ouch!” said Masky, impressed at Flurry’s boldness.

Mayhem was breathing sharply, but then his face grew hard. “Fine, then! I don’t care anymore. I was going to let you all live if you had just surrendered to me, but it’s too late now.”

He zoomed upwards, hitting the roof of the castle, which exploded outwards into a million pieces.

“With one punch?” said Pound, looking unnerved.

Mayhem cackled evilly. “I’ve grown tired of you. This is MY WORLD, and I decide what happens in it. A bunch of weaklings like you could never beat me.” His heart was thumping with excitement like he had never known. “But, hey, if you think you’ve got it then BRING IT! TAKE ME DOWN IF YOU CAN!”

Mayhem turned into a dark mist that began expanding. Huge chunks of the castle began to get sucked up into it.

Flurry could feel her hooves sliding across the floor toward him, knowing if she got sucked up into whatever Mayhem had become that it would be it for her. No. Not just her, but all of the other kids.

She extended her wings, wrapping all of them inside them as her horn glowed and she took off with levitation magic as fast as she could until she couldn’t feel the pull of his sucking force anymore.

Mayhem’s laughter only grew in intensity, seeming to echo across the whole world. “And just where do you think YOU’RE going? There’s nowhere to hide from me.”

Flurry landed on the dead grass in the middle of the fake Ponyville.

She looked back at the castle, seeing it had been almost completely sucked up.

“He… he destroyed his castle,” said Masky. “But why?”

“He doesn’t care about that,” said Pumpkin. “The only thing that monster is interested in is destroying everything.”

Once more Mayhem’s voice echoed through the world. “Did someone say ‘destruction of everything?’ That’s a great idea!”

Mayhem appeared in the air above way above them, but the dark force he had created was still increasing in size and sucking up the surrounding area. He had an almost maniacal glee on his face. “Oh, boy! This is the most fun I’ve ever had! Too bad our game is about to end.” He shrugged. “Oh, well. I can always get some new playmates.”

Before they had the chance to respond Mayhem’s body split into two halves, then grew the missing halves. Now there were two Mayhems.

Peppermint gaped at him. “He can duplicate himself?”

The two of them laughed. “That’s right!” they said together. “And that’s just the beginning.”

Even as they watched he continued splitting himself.

Peppermint had already been feeling afraid when there was just one of him. Now there were eight, then sixteen and beyond.

Pumpkin was panting. This was impossible. They could barely handle one Mayhem. How could they beat an army of him?

Now there were sixty four Mayhems floating around, each of them cackling at different intervals. It gave off a very creepy vibe.

Pound glanced between them. “H-hey,” he said, trying to sound confident but failing miserably. “I-If they split up like that they have to be weaker, right?”

“Who knows?” said all of the Mayhem’s at once. “It’s not like we’re planning to fight you, anyway.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Tree Leaf.

“I want you to realize your own powerlessness. It’s not just about winning. I want to see the terror in your eyes as this world comes to an end.”

All but one of the Mayhems took off in different directions on the horizon.

“What are you doing?” asked Pumpkin.

The last Mayhem smirked. “Why, just taking your advice, my dear.”

Peppermint’s eyes grew wide as each of the other Mayhem’s turned into the same kind of dark mist as before, causing a circle of destruction around them.

Mayhem put his hands next to each other, creating a sphere of magic around the group. “This will protect you from the pull of these dark tornadoes… for now. But eventually all these tornadoes will converge on this spot, ripping you all to shreds as you get pulled from every direction.”

Masky began trembling. They were all going to die! This time it really did feel like he was being serious.

Mayhem raised a claw. “However, I’ll give you one shot. I’ve decided to show a little mercy.

“I’ll let one of you live if you betray the others. All you have to do is pop the bubble and join in on the chaos of watching your former friends be destroyed. I’ll protect that one pony from death.”

For a moment all of them looked around at each other, their hearts hammering.

All around them the facsimile of Ponyville was being sucked up by the sixty four tornadoes. Ever so slowly they were growing in size, getting closer to them all the time. It was clear that Mayhem was done playing around.

“Come on!” Mayhem called down to them. “Nothing is more important than one’s own life. Isn’t protecting your own life better than all of you being destroyed?”

Everyone else was looking around for a sign of betrayal, but Flurry just stared at Mayhem up in the sky.

The draconequus chuckled. “Are you sure you want to focus on me? You only have a few minutes before these tornadoes reach you.

“Well, princess? As an alicorn you’re clearly the most important of the group, aren’t you? It’s only right that you should be the one to survive. Just get rid of the others… or do nothing and be lost with them.

“It’s an easy choice, really.”

All of them looked at Flurry, wondering if she was really going to sacrifice them. Fear was starting to radiate through them.

Something stirred within Flurry. It wasn’t a memory. It was something deeper.

Even in the midst of the greatest danger of her short life she didn’t feel nearly as afraid as she thought she should be. There was just something about having all of them close by that made her feel peace in her heart.

An image passed through her mind. It only lasted for a split-second, but she saw her and the others playing together. Was it a memory? A vision of the future? Or maybe it was just her hope that they could all stay alive and enjoy time with each other after this.

Whatever it was, even the fear that was there faded away. Mayhem’s power was beyond anything she had ever seen before. All her training had done nothing to prepare her for a foe like him. A circle of death was around her, slowly closing in on her. There was a very real possibility that her life was about to come to an end, and this creature would proceed to do the same to all the people she cared for.

And yet…

She closed her eyes, putting a hoof to her heart. Even though she had no idea how, she felt certain that as long as these other ponies were by her side they would emerge victorious. They weren’t going to die here, because she was going to protect these other ponies, no matter the cost to herself.

She turned her gaze to the others, who were all looking at her fearfully, and she felt an outpouring of affection for them. She extended her wings, pulling them all to her as she hugged them. “Don’t be afraid,” she said calmly. “I would never betray my best friends!

“The five of you… you taught me things that no book could ever prepare me for. You taught me about true courage and not backing down no matter the danger, by risking your lives to protect me. Now I’m here to return the favor.”

She held her head high. “I know who I am now. I am Flurry Heart, alicorn princess, and I don’t want to be anyone else!”

Pound stared at Flurry. How? How could she still have such a fierce look in her eyes? Why… did he feel his fear vanishing? Why did he feel like they could still win?

“Aunt Twilight told me that ponies working together with one heart have so much power at their disposal. All of you… if you believe in me, then know that we’re going to come out on top here! That’s what I truly believe, because I have faith in all of you and your strength.

"Even if I'm wrong and we can’t win I’m still going to fight to the end. I'd rather go to my death denying him the victory he wants than surrender and be his pawn. No matter what he does after that he'll always know that we beat him."

Once more Flurry’s strength infected them. They did believe in her, and they knew that she did for them.

Mayhem let out a sound of disgust. “How boring. I wanted to see your fear.

“Well, fine. Then die happily together.”

The tornado’s increased their speed as Flurry released them.

Even though they had all been on the verge of panic before, Flurry’s calm demeanor and quiet confidence allowed them to feel more relaxed. It inspired them to share her feelings. Even as the world was coming apart around them they felt that as long as they worked together they would come out victorious.

From the looks of things they only had a minute left.

All of them looked up at Mayhem, and the draconequus finally lost his smug attitude. Where did all their fear go? Why were they looking at him like they were assured they would come out on top?

Mayhem growled. How dare they look down on him? His anger slowly left as he began laughing maniacally. “Fine! Fine! It doesn’t matter what you do now. It’s OVER!”

The barrier around them faded, and all of them could feel the wind whipping around them. The only reason they weren’t yet sucked up was the many different directions puling at them equally.

They looked around awkwardly for a moment, conquering their fears by putting their faith in each other.

“My friends!” Flurry called out, yelling over the sound of the wind. “I may be an alicorn, but that doesn’t matter. I’m not fighting here because of my title. I’m fighting for YOU!”

“And we’re not protecting you because you’re a princess, but a fellow pony and a friend like us,” said Pumpkin.

Flurry smiled. “I know I don’t have the power to beat him alone, so please… everyone, lend me your hearts.”

“Right!” they responded.

All of them held hooves with one another.

Flurry could feel the love and companionship they had for her, bringing her to tears as she felt something awakening inside her. It was a power that wasn’t just hers, but borne of their unity.

Her horn exploded with a bright light, larger than she had ever been able to make before, creating a protective sphere around them as a wide stream of magic shot up overhead, forming into a gigantic, fiery heart.

Mayhem shielded his eyes, for the first time seeing something he hadn’t expected. He knew all of Flurry’s spells. This wasn’t one of them. So what was it?

He could only stare in shock as the tornadoes diverted their path from the children, getting sucked into the heart. “W-what? W-where did this power come from?”

The darkness of the world began to get swallowed up by the light as the heart lit up, spinning around rapidly as it let off a wave of energy.

"H-how is she doing this? It's impossible!" He was so surprised he didn’t even think to move as the expanding sphere of light engulfed him.

The light hit the children as well, but did them no harm. After a minute the heart stopped spinning, though it remained suspended in the air.

The group looked around. They seemed to be in a blank white void now, the fake Ponyville completely gone.

“Wooooow!” Masky said slowly. “That was incredible.”

“What happened?” asked Pumpkin. “Everything is just… gone.”

“Well… I have an idea,” said Flurry.

“What’s that?”

“This was Mayhem’s world, and it was cold and black like his heart. The light of our hearts purified this space, so now it’s white.”

“That makes sense,” said Tree Leaf. “I guess that means we really did beat him this time.”

Pumpkin put a hoof around her brother, letting out a sigh of relief. “Sure looks like it. Way to go, everyone.”

Tree Leaf let out a quiet sob. "We're all still alive. We really did it."

Pound looked up at the only other thing besides them. “So what is that?” he asked. “Is that your spell, Flurry?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never learned a spell like that before. That’s beyond anything I could make. It kinda looks like the Crystal Heart, but it’s different. It still looks kinda familiar somehow.”

Peppermint got a thoughtful look upon her face. “It kinda looks like… that thing from the Hearthswarming Eve play.”

“Hmm.”

Flurry stared at it, but her mind was elsewhere. In the annual play Clover the Clever, Smart Cookie, and Private Pansy gracefully accepted their ends at the hands of the Windigos. They believed that no matter their differences they were all still ponies in the end.

If they were going to be frozen solid they at least wanted to go out as friends. That spirit of unity awakened a tremendous power that allowed them to overcome the Windigos.

It was similar to what happened here. In a time of greatest peril, it wasn’t her training that had brought her victory. It was her faith in her friends, and theirs in her. To the very end they remained connected, even with the threat of death looming over them.

“We won!” said Peppermint excitedly. “We beat that creature.”

They began to congratulate each other, but Masky brought them back to earth. “This isn’t any time to celebrate!”

“Why not?” asked Pound. “He’s gone now.”

“Exactly!”

“Huh?”

Masky sweeped his hoof around the area. “Have you looked around you? We may have beaten him but we’re still stuck in his dimension and we just wiped out our only method of getting home.”

A chill went through all of them. Were they to be forever stuck in Mayhem's world?

6-13: Game over.

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Pound let out a heavy breath before sitting down. “I don’t believe this.”

"We're trapped in Mayhem's dimension," said Pumpkin, slumping down next to Pound.

Tree Leaf curled up, holding his knees. “Well, this is just great. We manage to defeat one of the most powerful things in the world, and he still gets the last laugh in the end."

Masky tried to sound upbeat, but his voice quivered as tears came down his eyes. “H-hey, we protected Equestria, right? We saved our families.”

Peppermint started to cry as well. “From HIM, maybe. But all of them are going to wonder where we’ve gone, and we’ll never be able to tell them. We’ll be stuck here forever.”

Flurry felt despair creeping into the edge of her consciousness, but she had to hold it at bay. She sat down, using her magic to put them all in a circle, and extended her hooves. “We don’t know that we’ll be stuck here forever. Aunt Twilight is one of the smartest ponies ever. If anyone can figure out what happened it would be her.

“And even if we’re stuck here forever…” She hesitated a moment, disliking the possibility she had voiced. She pushed on. “If I had to be stuck somewhere for the rest of my life I’m glad it’s with all of you.”

For a few moments none of them responded, but eventually they all held hooves with each other. That simple action helped to settle all of them down a bit.

“Yeah,” said Masky. “We can’t give up hope.”

"If we do that then Mayhem wins," said Tree Leaf.

“We managed to beat an incredibly strong enemy by our teamwork,” said Pumpkin, “so I’m sure all of our friends will work together to get us out of here.”

“I have to bring this up,” said Peppermint. “Now that all of the danger is over I can finally focus on this, but I really feel like I’ve met all of you before. Do you feel that way too?”

Tree Leaf nodded hard. “I thought I was the only one that felt that way.”

“Me too!” said Pound.

“Same here!” said Pumpkin.

“I do too,” said Masky. “But if we were friends before all this then why can’t I remember it?”

“I think,” said Flurry slowly, “that it was HIM.”

“What?” said Pound. “How could he do that?”

“Well, as Masky said, have you looked around lately? He created this whole world, split himself into sixty four pieces… I’ve never seen a power like his before. Is it really that odd that he could mess with our memories as well?”

“I guess not,” said Tree Leaf. “But why would he do that?”

“No idea,” said Pumpkin. “Maybe he was jealous of our friendship. I mean, looking like that I’m sure he didn’t have many friends.”

“That doesn’t matter!” said Peppermint. “If he was jealous then he should have tried to make friends with us instead of making us forget about one another.”

“But... would you have wanted to be friends with him?” asked Pound.

“I think so,” Peppermint said with a little uncertainty. “I mean, I don’t think it should matter what someone looks like as long as they’re nice.”

“I think so too,” said Tree Leaf. “Imagine someone like that on our side. He’d be so much fun to play with. Before he threatened Flurry he sold me on the idea of playing with him some more."

“Mmm-hmm,” said Pumpkin.

Flurry looked up at the warmth of the heart still floating above them. In this empty world it's light and heat provided comfort to her.

Her eyes caught a blur quickly heading in their direction, and with a flash of her horn she teleported the group to a space about one hundred feet away.

Upon regaining their senses they quickly stood up to see what the problem was. “What is that?” asked Masky as he spotted the object heading towards where they had just been seated.

Flurry focused, and though it was hard to make out from the speed she felt a jolt of elation as she made out the form of Mayhem.

He didn’t seem able to stop himself, and she didn’t want to risk him dying when they needed him to get out.

She used her magic to slow his descent, and he only gently bounced off the ground before lying there unmoving.

Flurry ran over to him, the rest not far behind.

The baby draconequus looked like he was unconscious, but aside from some mussed fur he didn’t seem injured. She didn’t know how big his world was, but judging from just how long it took for him to land from their attack he had to have been sent to the “ceiling” of it.

She gave him a few gentle slaps to try to get him up.

Slowly, his eyes opened. As he recognized Flurry and recalled the events of the past ten minutes he gasped and scooted backwards to get some distance from her.

"Good. You're still alive," said Flurry.

“I… I lost,” the draconequus said weakly, looking flabbergasted. “But… b-b-but how? It's impossible! I knew everything you were capable of. You weren't supposed to be a threat to me.

"I… I took away your memories of each other so you couldn't use the power of unity against me. How could you possibly work together so well?”

“So all of us were friends.” Flurry approached him, an odd look on her face. “Throughout this adventure their faces… their voices… their actions…” She stopped in front of him. “All of them feel foreign to my mind. My brain has no idea who they are besides these past battles. And yet…”

She closed her eyes, memories of those battles passing through her. She saw Pound and the others protecting her, remembered the urge to stand between Mayhem and harm coming to the others. She thought of how they reassured her when her fears began to take hold.

She opened her eyes, staring down at Mayhem. “And yet… even if I can’t remember them here-” she put a hoof to her forehead “-I still seem to remember them here.” She moved the hoof to her heart. “Their hearts just seemed to call out to me, and without needing to think about it my own heart wanted to answer their call. I’m sure it was the same for them. ”

They all nodded.

Mayhem looked up at the heart still floating above them, and he started shivering. Their powers had been too strong. It shouldn't have been this way, but it was.

They really had done the impossible. No matter how much he pushed them he couldn't break the connection between them.

"I... I lost..." He couldn't seem to process it. "Me. I hold the power to change reality and do the impossible. I can't believe it."

Flurry couldn't let this chance pass her by. Mayhem seemed awed by his defeat, and she had to act now. This could be their only chance.

Standing up to her full height she extended her wings as far as they would naturally go, trying to look as imposing as possible. "We beat you!" said Flurry sharply. Mayhem winced as he looked over at her. "You lost the game, so take us home! NOW!"

A part of her realized that if he still had the strength to take them all home then it also meant he probably still had the strength to destroy all of them, but she had to take the risk.

Her heart was thumping hard. He might get angry at her attitude.

To her relief he lifted a trembling claw, and with a snap they were all transported to Pound and Pumpkin's room.

The twins looked around. "Hey!" said Pumpkin happily. "It's our room."

Peppermint looked out the window. "Now this is the Ponyville I remember."

"We're finally home," said Tree Leaf happily as he sank to the floor.

“What do you think we should do now, Flurry?” asked Pound.

“Me?” she responded.

He nodded. “You’re the princess here. Shouldn’t we hand him over to Princess Twilight?”

“Or… take care of him?” said Tree Leaf, though he said it with uncertainty. “He certainly didn’t mind threatening our lives.”

“Flurry,” said Masky. “Your faith in us allowed us to win. And all of us believe in you too.”

“That’s right,” said Peppermint. “So we know you’ll make the right choice on what we do with him.”

Flurry looked over at Mayhem. He was almost unrecognizable. He was still shaking slightly, looking at her with such fear in his eyes. He looked just like a child who had gotten caught by their parents doing something bad and was waiting for their punishment.

When he had been the one with the most power he had been smug and cold, but now that they had discovered a power that surpassed his own he didn't seem to have any fight left in him.

Flurry stared down at Mayhem. Her friends had all put it on her to decide what to do with him. If she ever did become a ruler she would have to make decisions like this.

For once in her life she didn’t feel afraid of this responsibility.

She closed her eyes, thinking back to her journey through Mayhem’s world. She focused on the fight with the fake Starlight. She remembered the feelings she had back then, when Starlight had told her the truth about her past. It had been so hard to believe at first, though she quickly got over it after a week.

Starlight’s words came back to her.

“When I saw the results of meddling with time it horrified me.

“I surrendered to Twilight, fearing the worst. She would have been completely justified throwing me in prison and leaving me to rot… but she didn’t.

“She helped me to see that I had been wrong. Rather than condemning me for my actions she chose to give me a second chance and allowed me to start living my life the right way.

“It was because of her mercy that I was able to reunite with Sunburst and find true happiness. I can never repay her enough for the kindness she showed me.”

Starlight’s abilities made her a huge threat. Being able to steal cutie marks and drain even the power of an alicorn anytime she wanted meant it was extremely dangerous to allow her to roam free.

Even knowing that, Twilight still gave her a home in her own castle, where she could easily ambush Twilight while she was sleeping. She saw Starlight's regret, and believed there was a good person beneath her anger. She trained Starlight in true friendship, and eventually let her move out and live at the Crystal Empire, trusting her not to return to her evil ways.

Twilight’s faith in her had been rewarded. It was because of that faith that she, Flurry, had gotten the coolest aunt ever. When Starlight used her powers for good she was a great teacher.

Flurry opened her eyes, looking at the creature before her. She held his life in her hooves, and now she had to decide his fate. Mayhem didn’t try to plead his case or make excuses. He just stared at the ground guiltily.

When Pumpkin had asked what kind of person would do such a thing as kidnap them and put them through such danger she, Flurry, had responded that it was another kid. Mayhem certainly seemed like a very spoiled child, only wanting fun with no work, and getting mad to the point of violence when he didn’t get his way.

He had way too much power than he knew what to do with. Without any limits it was no wonder he felt bored. She highly doubted that he had ever faced defeat before today. Without ever facing discipline how could he hope to improve his behavior?

Now he was cowering at her hooves, waiting for her to sentence him.

She knew his power was far more threatening than even Starlight’s. She knew that this was probably going to be their only chance to take him out. She knew that if he went rogue again that he really would take over the world this time. She knew that if it came to that that she would be responsible for that coming to pass.

She knew all that, but… but the idea of attacking someone who had lost the will to fight back repulsed her. The fight was over. She didn’t want there to be any more violence.

She didn’t believe that Mayhem was truly evil. It was simply his power that made him so dangerous. He was extremely playful in a dangerous way, but having met his match he didn’t stubbornly continue his assault out of revenge or pettiness.

Mayhem glanced up at her. She had been silent for so long he didn’t know what was going through her head.

Flurry felt some confusion. When Mayhem was being evil, and even when he had been so giddy about the idea of playing more games with them, she didn’t feel this sensation that was starting to course through her as she locked eyes with him again. “I don’t get it.”

“Get what?” asked Masky.

“What is… this feeling?” She stared deep into his scared eyes, the sensation growing stronger and stronger.

“What’s wrong, Flurry?” asked Pound.

A mental image passed through her mind, of Mayhem hugging her. Just like before, it only lasted a split-second, but that moment told her everything she needed to know.

She sat down, growing more and more certain. “My heart pulled me to these other ponies. It didn’t steer me wrong. Together we were able to unite and defeat you.

“Everyone, my heart… it’s calling out again. To him.”

“Why?” asked Pound.

Flurry ignored him, focusing on Mayhem. “You… you said that you took the memories of the friendship between the six of us. But… that’s not the truth, is it?”

“Huh?” said Peppermint. “But we all felt like we had a connection to each other. You said it yourself.”

“That’s true. I believe we had a friendship before this. My problem is with the number.”

“The number?” asked Pumpkin. “What do you mean?”

“It wasn’t just six, was it, Mayhem? It was actually seven, right?”

“Seven?” Tree Leaf’s eyebrow rose, and then a few seconds later his eyes widened. “Wait! You don’t mean…”

Flurry nodded. “Mayhem… you were one of our friends too, weren’t you?”

Mayhem shuddered, tears coming down his eyes as he nodded.

“We were friends?” asked Pound.

“It makes sense,” said Pumpkin. “That’s why he chose the six of us, and why he tried so hard to get us to stay in his world to just play forever.”

“But why?” asked Peppermint, crying. She was unable to hide the hurt in her voice. “If we were your friends then why did you do this to us? What did we ever do to you? Why would you take away our memories of our friendships and make us believe we were going to die?”

Mayhem hugged himself as he quietly sobbed, too ashamed to answer her.

Flurry’s feelings were blazing now, her heart’s call too strong to ignore anymore. She had already been leaning strongly towards a certain choice, but the knowledge of their former friendship wiped out the last of her doubts.

She gently lifted him to a standing position with her magic, and hugged him tightly. “I forgive you, Mayhem,” she said quietly.

Mayhem stared out into space, wondering if he had heard correctly. “Why? I did so many horrible things to you. I betrayed our friendship and tried to kill you!”

Starlight appeared in her mind again. “I know you made some big mistakes. Without my memories of you I don’t know if you brought us here because we did something personally to hurt you, or whether it really was just out of boredom, but what I do know is that you have the potential to be good.

"Just like Aunt Starlight, you can change your ways. You can become a better you, and move away from the bad you of the past."

“Are you sure about this, Flurry?” asked Pound, though he didn’t sound opposed to her decision.

She closed her eyes, thinking about the image of Mayhem hugging her that had popped into her head before. “All I know of you from this battle is that you were our enemy. But this is something that seems to go beyond memories. When I stop thinking and just feel… a part of me remembers who you were before this."

Her brow furrowed in concentration. “I feel… like… like at one point you saved me. Saved me from something huge. You, and all these other ponies, changed my life forever. I truly believe that in my heart. And that’s why, even if I can’t remember the friendship we used to have, I still want to forgive you.

“You used to be our friend. Wouldn’t you like to be again?”

Mayhem just began wailing. What had he been doing all this time? He had nearly destroyed all his friendships just for the sake of a good time.

Masky wasn’t sure whether he was ready to forgive Mayhem or not. He glanced up at the ceiling, and saw the mural on it. “Whoa! Is that… the world where we just were?”

“Where?” asked Pound. He saw the colt looking upwards, so he did too. “Oh! We… were in our ceiling the whole time?”

The rest of them looked up, to see them in the world of the decrepit Ponyville. On one side was Mayhem in front of his castle with a devious look, with the six of them on the other side in battle ready positions.

“That’s pretty cool,” said Tree Leaf. “Did you make that just now?”

Mayhem wiped his eyes, shaking his head. “N-no. As a birthday present Pound and Pumpkin’s parents let me redesign their room for them. Pumpkin asked for a superhero themed picture.”

“Mmm.” Pound shook his head. “It’s no good. Our birthday is too fuzzy. I guess that’s because all the rest of you were there.”

“But wait a minute,” said Pumpkin. “If you made this back when we were still friends then why aren’t you on our side?”

Mayhem got a guilty look on his face, letting out a humorless laugh. “You… asked that same question back when I first made it.”

“I did?” She looked back up at the ceiling. “And… what did you say?”

Mayhem rubbed his arm. “I… wasn’t a nice person when I first met you. My ‘daddy’ Discord gave the two of you some of his power, and you were able to do some of the things I can do. “

“Get out of here!” said Pound, wide-eyed. “Really?”

“That sounds so cool!” said Pumpkin.

Mayhem drew a box with a claw, and Mayhem showed them some of the highlights of their performance, like Pound crash-landing into a dozen pieces, or fusing together and creating a lightning tornado to wipe out an army of Changelings.

All of them were in shock, Pound and Pumpkin most of all.

“That fake battle caused you to use up all the energy he gave you. He only gave you a tiny bit more, and you were mad about it. I talked you into attacking him and taking more of his power.”

The twins got guilty looks on their faces. “We… really did that?” asked Pumpkin.

“I guess we can be greedy kids too,” said Pound.

His eyes clenched shut. “Once you had most of Discord’s magic I was strong enough to take you over. I… almost killed everyone there. Your parents, Pinkie Pie… Fluttershy…”

They gaped at him. Pound and Pumpkin especially wondered how they had become friends with him.

“Back then… I lost to love. The two of you overpowered me when I went after them, refusing to let me hurt them. You nearly died stopping me until Twilight could use her Rainbow Power to force me out of you.

“That might have been the end of me, but Fluttershy saw something inside of me… just like you, Flurry.”

“Who’s Fluttershy?” asked Peppermint.

Mayhem snapped his fingers, and a plushie of Fluttershy appeared. He hugged it to himself, nuzzling its cheek with his own. "She's... my mommy. Or at least I like to think of her as that."

Peppermint felt some of her reservations fading. He looked so childish right now, holding a stuffed animal for comfort. It… kinda made her want to hug him herself.

“Fluttershy is one of the Elements of Friendship,” said Pound. “She represents kindness.”

Mayhem gently swayed, still holding the doll close. “Back then I didn’t have a name. I didn’t think I needed one, but she told me that having a name was the first step towards having my own identity.

“She let me live with her, always giving me so much love and attention.”

“That sure sounds like Fluttershy, alright,” said Pumpkin. “She tends to see the good in everyone.”

“Then at Pound and Pumpkin’s birthday I met all of you. You were pretty mean to me, Flurry, calling me a mix-and-match freak.”

Flurry flushed. “I did?”

“You were in the midst of your fears. You didn’t want to be at the party when you could have been home studying, so you weren’t on your best behavior.

“It took us a little while, but we all bonded together.”

He looked up at the ceiling, guilt boiling inside of him. “The reason I created myself looking like that is because I believed in all of you.”

“What do you mean?” asked Masky. “How does being the villain relate to you believing in us?”

“I know what I did in the past was bad, but I was saved by Fluttershy’s love. What I made there was symbolic. If… if I ever went bad like before I… I believed that the six of you would be able to pull me out of the darkness again. I knew you would stop at nothing to save me, because that’s what good friends do for each other.

"No matter how bad I got, as long as it was the six of you, I knew you would be able to stop me."

“Aww,” said Peppermint. “You really believed in us that much?”

“That’s part of the reason I erased your memories. I wanted to be the villain, but I knew I couldn’t really play the part so long as you were fighting as my friends instead of as strangers.

“I thought… that friendships were only made of memories. Without that bond there couldn’t possibly be friendship. And yet despite that your hearts remained connected to each other, and that power beat me.”

“Mayhem,” said Flurry, “even if we really didn’t know each other before this fight you probably still would have lost.”

He glanced over at her. “Why?”

“Because the situation you put us in is ideal for forming bonds. With so much danger around our only chance of survival was relying on each other.

“Aunt Twilight was the same way. She didn’t know any of the other Elements of Friendship when she first went to look for the Elements of Harmony, but by the time she got to the castle she had felt connected enough to the others to use the Elements to defeat Nightmare Moon.”

Mayhem let out a quiet groan. “I see. I broke your friendships because I didn’t want to let you do the impossible, but I fell into the same trap Daddy did. When he fought Twilight he turned all of them against their true selves, but they all still remembered each other. In the end their friendship overcame his influence. I decided to go a step further to get rid of those memories entirely, thinking that would ensure my victory, but I still lost.

“The magic of friendship… it truly is a wonderful, powerful thing. Even with my abilities I couldn't overcome it.”

That made all of them grin.

The Fluttershy plushie fell to the ground, and Mayhem looked down with concern. His arm was disappearing.

“Whoa!” said Pumpkin. “What’s happening to you?”

He held up what was left of his arm. “I’m not ‘real’ like my daddy is. I’m just living magic. When it’s used up I disappear until I’m released from him again.”

Mayhem lifted his other arm, which hadn’t started vanishing yet. “My time is almost up, but before I go I can do one last thing for you guys.”

He snapped his fingers, and six colored balls appeared, hovering in front of them.

Flurry stared at the ball. “What is that?”

“Just take it. It’s nothing dangerous.”

Pound was the first to reach out. As he took the ball in his hooves memories raced through his head. The rush of information sent him to his knees.

“Pound!” said Pumpkin with concern.

Pound was panting slightly, but he got up on shaky hooves, grinning. “I… I remember now. I remember everything about our time together.”

The rest of them eyed the balls, taking them in their hooves. Their reactions were the same as Pounds.

After a minute they had recovered as their bodies caught up with their minds.

Mayhem slowly rubbed his hoof in small circles on the floor. "I... I know that I said I destroyed your memories, but that was a lie. I kept them safe with me all this time. I always intended to give them back once I won."

"Mayhem, you never meant it, did you?" asked Peppermint. "You were never going to kill us, were you?"

Mayhem bit his lip. "I didn't want to. Most of it was all for show. But at the very end there..." He let out a quiet sob. "... I really did mean it. I was being stubborn and a sore loser. I should have won easily, but you kept denying me what I wanted.

"Flurry wouldn't surrender no matter how much pain I put her through, and then I got so mad when she pointed out that I didn't have any friends. Those feelings inside... reminded me of what I was doing to all of you, but I didn't want to back down.

"I tried something different. I tried to get you to betray each other to prove you weren't true friends, just allies of convenience, but you still wouldn't give up. I did everything I could to avoid it, but I wanted to win no matter what... even if it meant your lives.

"A part of me just couldn't stand creatures with so much less power than me triumphing over me. I felt I had gone too far to stop. If you hadn't awakened that heart power when you did..." He couldn't finish that statement.

“The game is over,” he replied. “And you won. Soon I’ll disappear.”

“Yeah?” said Tree Leaf. “And? Just get some more energy.”

Mayhem shook his head. “I lost the game, and so… I have to face the consequences. I told you that if you beat me I would let you go home-”

“Which you did,” said Peppermint.

Mayhem hesitated, feeling a pang in his heart. “But… that wasn’t all. I said I would return to Discord, and never trouble you again.”

“What?”

“Huh?”

“No!”

“Mayhem!”

Mayhem shut his eyes tight, tears coming down his cheeks. “I… did something unforgivable to all of you. I treated you like mere toys and nearly took your lives.

“I made Flurry suffer most of all, taking away her emotional support and returning her back to her fearful state before she met all of you. I used her fears against her by making her believe that Starlight had turned against her and killed the rest of you.”

“Mayhem!” said Flurry strongly. “I forgave you for that even before you gave my memories back. I knew there was more to you than just a villain.”

“If you feel guilty for what you’ve done then you can’t be all bad,” said Pound.

“That’s right," said Pumpkin. "We learned that lesson that everyone makes big mistakes, but you can make up for them.”

Mayhem had a blank look on his face. “That doesn’t matter. Even if you forgive me I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive myself for what I put you through. So I’m going home… for the last time.”

“Mayhem!” said Peppermint, tears streaming down her eyes. “Don’t you get it? We knew that the friend we loved was still in there somewhere.”

“Even if you made us forget it,” said Masky, “we were never fighting to beat you. Our only goal was to save you.”

"All we wanted out of this was to get our old friend back," said Pound.

Mayhem looked at all of them, grateful tears coming down his eyes. “You did save me. And that’s why I’m going away... so that I can never hurt you like that again.

“Just… forget about me. You’ll be happier that way.”

Tree Leaf was shaking with rage, tearing up as well. “But we don’t WANT to forget about you! You’re one of our friends too, and now that we have you back we want to keep you with us!”

“We won’t leave one of our own behind!” said Flurry, stomping her hoof. “If you leave now then what was the point of everything we went through?”

Mayhem's eyes shone, a sad smile coming to what was left of his face. “It makes me happy… to have such good friends. But I’m sorry. It’s too late. It’s just too late now.”

“Please, Mayhem,” said Masky. “You don’t have to do this. Me and Flurry both know what it’s like to be lonely, and I know the pain of losing a friend more than any of them. Now that I’m living in Ponyville I don’t ever want to lose another of my friends.”

Mayhem looked up at the ceiling mural, taking off what was left of his arm. At this point he was just a floating head.

The arm flew up to the ceiling, dissolving into magic particles. Underneath the shot of them facing off against one another he made another one of the seven of them hugging him, all of them smiling.

“I got to end the greatest game of my life with the best ponies in the world. It’s… a good memory to go out on, and I couldn’t be happier that I lost.

“Thank you for everything, but this is goodbye. I… I love all of you!”

All of them were crying as he disappeared completely, hot tears coming down their eyes. Despite his small size, the feel of his absence in the room was immense.

6-14: Tough love

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All the children felt a deep sense of melancholy at Mayhem’s disappearance. For a minute none of them could do anything.

Tree Leaf hit a wall. “No!” he said angrily. “This… this isn’t how this is going to end! We went through too much to save him.”

“That’s right!” said Pound. “We’re getting him back whether he likes it or not. “

“To Fluttershy’s house!” said Pumpkin. “I’m sure he’s there.”

“Let’s go!” said Flurry. She saw the twins looking at her expectantly. “What?”

“Come on, Flurry. Teleport us there.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?” asked Pound. “You’re not out of magic, are you?”

She shook her head. “That’s not it. I just don’t know where I’m teleporting to.”

“To Fluttershy’s! Aren’t you listening?”

“Pound,” she said patiently, “I know where you want to go, but I don’t know where it is. I need to be able to picture it in my mind, so I can’t teleport somewhere I’ve never been.”

Pound’s face fell as he understood the problem. “Fine, then! We’ll hoof it. Me and Pumpkin know how to get there.”

“Sounds like a plan!” said Peppermint.

The six children ran down the stairs and out of the house, heading in the direction of Fluttershy’s house. Before they had gotten too far they heard an angry voice calling out to them.

“Pound Cake! Pumpkin Cake!”

The twins stopped, seeing their parents with Twilight. The others stopped right behind them.

Cup slowly stomped over to them. “And just where have all of you been?

“It was way too quiet for way too long, and then when I go to check on you all of you are gone! No note… no explanation. Me and your father have been worried sick! We were just about to get Twilight to set up a search party to find you.”

They had been so focused on their adventure that they hadn’t even considered how long they had been gone. Of course their absence had been noticed.

Pound was trotting in place, too full of anxiety to sit still. “We don’t have time to explain! We have a huge emergency on our hooves and we need to get to Fluttershy’s right now before it’s too late!”

“What kind of emergency?” asked Twilight.

Pumpkin bit her lip. As much as she would have liked to keep the adults out of it she knew it would be impossible now. They couldn’t keep it a secret forever. “Look, you’ll get the whole story later but we need to go NOW!”

Twilight considered the children. Each of them looked unnaturally keyed up. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what had gone on when they left their house, but she didn’t figure she was going to get any answers out of them in that state. “Fine, then. I’ll help you get to Fluttershy’s faster, but then I’m expecting an explanation for your disappearance.”

“Okay, okay!” said Pound. “Can we go now?”

Twilight’s horn lit up, taking the children, as well as her and the Cakes.

***

Discord was sipping some tea with Fluttershy when he felt it: a wave of emotions so strong that he dropped his cup and it shattered.

“Discord!” said Fluttershy with concern. “What’s wrong?”

Discord looked down at his stomach. Mayhem had just returned to him, despair and anguish radiating off of him. “Something is wrong with Mayhem. He’s really unhappy about something.”

He went to release the little draconequus from him, but Mayhem fought him, trying to stay inside him. He was persistent, though, and eventually Mayhem formed in front of them, looking ready to burst into tears.

“What are you doing?” Mayhem asked sadly. “Leave me alone! I want to go home!”

Fluttershy hadn’t seen Mayhem like this since the twin’s birthday party when Flurry had insulted him. “What happened, Mayhem?”

She went to give him a hug, but he slapped her hooves away, going into the corner and rocking back and forth.

Before she could pursue the issue she heard loud knocking on the door from several hooves.

Though it was rude Pound didn’t want to wait for her to answer, knowing each moment that passed could be too late. He tried the handle, and when it opened he called out, “Fluttershy!”

Mayhem tensed, and tried to run upstairs. Discord easily brought him back.

“What happened between all of you?” Fluttershy asked. “Did you get into a fight? It sure looks like they’re eager to make up. “

Mayhem couldn’t get away, so he turned to Pound and said angrily, “I TOLD you to just forget about me!”

Pound stomped his hoof. “And we told YOU that we’re not going to.”

Fluttershy grabbed Mayhem out of the air, and pulled the struggling draconequus over to the chair, hugging him around the chest. “I think it’s time to clear the air.”

“There’s nothing to talk about!” Mayhem cried out. “Just let me go home!”

“Well, we’re here,” said Cup. “Now I expect to hear a good reason for why you disappeared for the past few hours.”

“Hmm…” Fluttershy could see that things had gotten pretty complicated.

Mayhem began laughing a twisted laugh. “Nothing much. I only tried to kill all of them!” That made all of them tense. “So that’s that, right? Right, Princess Twilight? Now hurry up and banish me back home.”

“Stop it, Mayhem!” said Flurry. “This isn’t the way to resolve things.”

“If you won’t stop then I’ll force the issue.”

Twilight looked between Mayhem and the other children. Her first impression was that Mayhem was lying. She had seen the bond he shared with the others during Pound and Pumpkin’s birthday party.

Either way, something bad had happened between them. She just had to get the full story.

Fluttershy didn’t want to believe it either. “Mayhem, you shouldn’t say such things. That’s not who you really are.”

“Why don’t you ask them if I’m lying?” Mayhem asked smugly.

All eyes went to the children. “Well?” asked Twilight, expecting them to vehemently deny it. When all of them avoided looking at her and didn’t answer her question she felt a sense of dread.

“So it IS true?” Cup asked angrily.

Fluttershy looked upset. “Oh, Mayhem,” she said with a sniff. “Why?”

“Because I could, that’s why!”

Twilight sucked on her cheek. “Is that really the truth?”

“I was bored, so I decided to play a game of death with my dear friends.”

The children could see his angle now. He was going to paint himself in the worst light so he could be forced to stay inside Discord.

She put a hoof to her mouth, pondering. “Mayhem, you have the same kinds of powers as Discord. If that was actually what went down then why are they all still alive and well?”

“Exactly!” said Pound. “He just put us in a real-life superhero adventure where we had to beat up old villains and he gave us all superpowers. It was just a game, that’s all!”

Twilight looked between Pound and Mayhem, getting the feeling she was missing something. She felt like Mayhem was exaggerating his role in things, while Pound was being too dismissive.

She certainly wasn’t going to get an unbiased account from any of the children. “Discord, help me out here, please.”

“I got you,” he replied, sharing their memories with the adults.

Tears came down Fluttershy’s eyes as she saw just how far Mayhem was willing to go to alleviate his boredom.

Cup and Carrot were pretty furious at the danger Mayhem put their children through.

Twilight processed what she had seen.

Discord just crossed his arms and gave Mayhem a dirty look.

“Well, you’ve seen everything now,” said Mayhem. “You’ve seen the truth that I ruthlessly tried to destroy all my friends, now send me home already. I don’t regret anything, so punish me!”

“He does regret it!” said Masky strongly.

“He’s just saying he doesn’t,” said Tree Leaf.

“You saw it!” said Flurry.

Twilight tapped her hoof on the floor a few times, unsure of where to start.

“Please, Mayhem!” said Pumpkin, her eyes getting moist. “Tell the truth already.”

“You don’t really want to leave us,” said Pound. “We know that.”

“Mayhem… please be like Flurry,” Peppermint begged. “Running away isn’t going to make anybody happy.”

Mayhem got a pained look on his face, looking away. After a few moments his expression hardened. He looked up at Twilight. “Twilight, what do you think? You’re the ruler here. Don’t you think I should be punished? I’m clearly evil, so do your job as ruler.”

Twilight felt the stares of all the children on her. She took in a breath before saying, “What you did was certainly terrible. I don’t think anyone here would disagree with that.”

She looked towards the twins for a few moments before turning back to Mayhem. “Some months ago a certain pair of children went through a terrible experience, and they learned one of the most valuable lessons there is to learn.

“If you were irredeemable I would have to insist you be locked away, but those horrible feelings of guilt and shame swirling around you are proof that you’re not evil. You can try to hide it by pretending, but I saw through your memories that it’s only an act.”

“Why not give him what he wants?” asked Carrot. “It’s not like it’s being forced on him. He’s making his own choices, just like he did when he decided to put all of them through this.”

“He’s trying to take responsibility for his actions,” said Cup. “At the very least I can respect that about him.

“Though I suppose this is just going to be swept under the rug as usual. Everything worked out in the end, so we’ll just ignore it and smile, right?”

“You know it’s not like that, Mom,” said Pumpkin quietly.

“Oh? Then what IS it like, then? Tell me! I’m all ears.”

“You think that just because you forgave him that WE do too?” asked Carrot.

“He regretted losing control,” said Pound.

“Well, good for him.”

“Even if he was still just putting on an act at the very end and never intended for his ‘game’ to end with a death it wouldn’t change the fact that he put all of you through terrible experiences.”

Pound’s lip quivered. “You… you’re both hypocrites!”

“How do you figure?” asked Cup. “How have we contradicted ourselves?”

“Me and Pumpkin were very bad kids once. We stole Discord’s magic and it nearly wound up killing all of you. All of you let us off with a simple tickle torture.

“Twilight once acted like she was going to beat me up because I used to do the same to anyone that picked on Pumpkin. She pointed out that I shouldn’t be exempt from my own rules, so I should be beat up too for the times I hit Pumpkin.

“If YOU want to see Mayhem banished then stop giving us special treatment and ask Twilight to have us banished too!”

“If I recall,” said Carrot, “it was Mayhem who took you over and tried to kill us in the first place. That wasn’t your decision, now was it?”

“That doesn’t matter!” said Pumpkin, stomping a hoof. “If we hadn’t been greedy brats and stolen that magic in the first place that never would have happened. It’s still our fault.”

The twins and their parents were staring daggers at each other, neither willing to back down.

Flurry looked around awkwardly before standing up straight. “I… I, um…” She took a deep breath. “I am a princess just like Twilight and my mother, and I decided to forgive Mayhem.”

Cup glanced over at Flurry. “WELL THEN! I guess that settles that, then. We may not have the authority to decide on Mayhem’s punishment, being regular ponies, but we can certainly decide who our children hang out with.”

“And we don’t want you around him anymore,” finished Carrot.

The twins got mutinous looks on their faces.

The other children just watched the display going on.

“Cup. Carrot,” started Twilight, but Cup cut her off before she could say anymore.

“Butt out, Twilight!” the mare said fiercely. “You want us to treat you like anyone else, then fine. This isn’t your business, as you yourself said that you want us to have final authority over our own children.”

“Exactly!” said Carrot.

“Smarten up,” said Discord, speaking for the first time since the truth of Mayhem’s actions came out.

“Excuse me?” said Cup.

“Even if you ban them from seeing him openly I think you should know they’ll just do it in secret. It’s plastered all over their faces that they’re not planning on listening to you on this matter.”

Cup and Carrot both got sour looks on their faces.

“Why this time?” asked Pumpkin. “When Mayhem first came out you let us play with him, even though he had nearly caused so much pain. He didn’t even apologize for everything he did until a few weeks later when we were dealing with Masky and Drill Bit.

“So what’s different this time around?”

Carrot sucked on his cheek. “Back then we had Twilight and her Rainbow Power, and he was too weak to be a threat anymore.”

“It’s been quite a long time since then,” said Cup. “By this point Mayhem should know the value of love and friendship, and he still ignored it in favor of having a good time.”

“Mayhem believed in us!” said Pound. “He always expected us to stop him.”

“You’re children! It shouldn’t be up to you to save the world. That’s exactly why Flurry was suffering so much when you first met her.”

“We weren’t trying to save the world. We were trying to save a friend!”

“Even if it was hard on all of us we’d go through all of it again,” said Pumpkin. “Our bond of friendship allowed all of us to survive.

“You understand what friendship means to all of us, don’t you? Our bond was so strong we didn’t even need memories to remain connected to each other.”

“If… if you take that bond away there will always be a hole in our hearts,” said Pound, tears forming in the bottom of his eyes.

Cup groaned. “We’re… we’re not the bad guys here!” she said as tears streamed down her eyes. “I know that he’s your friend, and that you still care for him.” Her lip quivered. “B-b-but we’re still your parents. Can’t you understand how scared we are? This is the second time that you almost died because of him.”

Carrot started to cry as well. “That’s a bond that can never be broken as well. Without you in our lives it would hardly be worth living.”

As their parents anger turned to sadness the twins feelings shifted accordingly.

“We… we don’t want to see you suffering either,” said Pumpkin, “but we all risked our lives to save Mayhem from himself. We don’t want all of that to go to waste.”

“That’s what being a good friend means to us,” said Pound. “I know we’re too young for stuff like this, but we all managed to succeed despite that.

“Me and Pumpkin… we’ve solved a whole bunch of friendship problems together, and this was the biggest one of all. Don’t you believe in us?”

“Of course we believe in you!” said Carrot. “We’re proud of what you’ve managed to accomplish, but it doesn’t stop us from worrying about you.”

“Do you see it, Mayhem?” said Fluttershy gently. “Even if your friends are willing to overlook your actions their parents are still hesitant about you.”

She let out a sigh. “This was the last thing I wanted for you when this day started.”

“I know, Mommy,” he replied, sniffing. “I… I don’t know what came over me. I… I just felt so cooped up I stopped caring about who I hurt.”

“I hope you take this lesson to heart for the future. You have good friends. You’re very lucky they still want to be friends with you after everything you did to them. I hope you understand the gravity of their forgiveness.”

She ran a hoof through his hair. “It looks like we’re going to have to start from scratch in building you up into the good draconequus you were before.”

“It’s a waste of time.”

“Why do you say that, Mayhem?”

“If I go bad a hundred times more I’m sure they’ll come to my rescue every time, but I don’t want to put them through that ever again. I’ve seen the connections ponies have with each other. Besides their friends they also have families, and I’ve seen how much pain I can cause other ponies just by a domino effect.

“I won’t let it happen again. That’s why I’m giving up. I’m going to stay inside Discord forever, and never come out again. That way I know they’ll be safe from me.”

“Is that right?” Fluttershy’s whole attitude shifted. Gone was the friendly tone, trying to be helpful. All the warmth faded out of her voice, and her eyes narrowed, becoming almost unrecognizable. “Fine, then. It’s obvious you don’t actually care about your friends, so I agree that you should be locked away forever.”

Twilight blinked. She certainly didn’t expect to ever hear that from Fluttershy.

Cup and Carrot just stared. As angry and upset as they were they expected her to stay by his side.

“Fluttershy!” Pound started. Fluttershy turned her gaze to him, and he froze at the ferocious glare she gave him.

“You be quiet!” Fluttershy said coldly.

Pound couldn’t even muster an affirmative response. He was petrified with fear. When she turned her gaze back to Mayhem the effect faded, and he began to pant and tremble. He had thought Twilight was scary that time when Pumpkin had attacked her, but this was on a whole different level.

He had heard references to Fluttershy’s Stare a few times in his life, but he thought it was mainly a joke. Now he knew it was real.

Even though Fluttershy had only directly looked at Pound, not a one of the other children could open their mouths either. They could feel the overwhelming power radiating off of her.

Masky could hardly believe this was the same pony that had been so understanding of his own mistakes and talked him into bettering himself.

Fluttershy looked down at Mayhem derisively. “Any last words?”

Mayhem gulped. He couldn’t force himself to avert his eyes from hers, even though he desperately wanted to. “I… I-I-I do care about them. That’s why-” He let out a squeak as she glared at him again, his body clenching.

“No! You DON’T! What you’re actually saying is that your friends aren’t worth your time. They’re not worth IMPROVING yourself for. If you ACTUALLY cared about them, and what your friendship stands for, you’d accept responsibility for your actions by working to make it up to them.

“You sucked them into an alternate dimension. You threatened to kill their loved ones. You took away their memories of each other. And at the end you threatened to kill them. All in the name of relieving your boredom.

“And despite all that they STILL fought for you. They forgave you, and immediately ran over here to reassure you that they still wanted to know you despite your great mistakes.

“What’s YOUR response to their efforts? Your choice is to just give up entirely on improving and resigning yourself to evil.” She turned her head away from him. “In the end you’re nothing more than a coward. I was disappointed before, but now I’m just plain disgusted by you.”

That one stung. His face clenched up as tears came down his eyes.

Even though the children felt bad they were too scared of Fluttershy to offer Mayhem comforting.

Even Discord felt that one went too far. He had never seen Fluttershy like this before.

She turned back to him, a stoic expression on her face. “If you were still willing to try again, to work hard to get back to where you were before in your progress, then I would have gladly offered my hoof just like I did the day I met you. But if you’re not going to put in the slightest bit of effort because you believe that abandoning your friends is a better alternative then there’s nothing I can do for you.

“So fine. You’ll get exactly what you want. Discord!”

He flinched, walking over towards her. “Y-yes?”

Wordlessly she grabbed his arm, lifting his claw and moving it into a snapping position. “You get one chance, Mayhem. One opportunity. After this there is no going back.

“If you choose to go home now then that’s it. You’re done. You’ll lose your own identity, forever stuck inside the prison of another with no free will of your own. Your friends, the feeling of hugs, me as your mother… all of it will be gone, and you’ll spend the rest of your life watching life from the inside-out.

“It’s not what I want for you, but if that’s the kind of choice you’re going to make there’s nothing I could have done to help you anyway. If the feelings you have towards your friends are so weak that you’d rather see them suffer without you then it’s clear it’s too dangerous for you to be free.”

Mayhem sniffed, crying. “C-c-can’t you see I’m s-scared? I’m scared that something like this will happen again.”

“GOOD!” she yelled, making Mayhem wince again. “GOOD! You SHOULD be scared.” She poked him hard in the chest. “I want you to keep that feeling deep within your heart. I want you to remember how terrible this feels, so that if the urge to do this sort of thing pops up again that you’ll stop yourself. That’s the whole point of life experiences. Even if we make horrible mistakes we can LEARN from them to make ourselves better than we were before.

“Now! What’s it gonna be? Are you going or staying?”

Mayhem’s lower lip quivered, and he let out little moans. He was scared of himself and the damage he could cause if he ever lost himself again.

Her stare now wasn’t as intense, but he still wanted to escape her piercing eyes. When he turned his head to the side he noticed all his friends standing there, and as he saw the sad looks on their faces his eyes welled up with tears.

Despite the wrong he had done to them not a single one of them held it against him. They had every reason to despise him and never want to see him again, to be glad to see him gone forever, and yet they were still standing by his side. They didn’t want to let him go. They were silently begging him to stay.

The power of friendship was something he was still learning, but it was quite obvious its power was far beyond his own. Even without memories all his friends hearts had remained connected, quickly allowing them to grow to the point they defeated him in combat, something he thought for sure was impossible.

He thought of the hug Flurry gave him as she forgave him, recognizing him as a lost friend that needed her.

Boy, did he feel like another hug now. He didn’t want to leave his friends behind either, and if he left now he’d have to leave everything behind but his consciousness, and that was too high a price to pay. Fluttershy had been the first one to save him with a hug, and Flurry the second. The idea of never getting to experience that love again was unbearable.

“I… I wanna stay!” He held himself, beginning to sob as his eyes clenched shut. “I wanna stay! Please! I… I… I promise I’ll work hard so this sort of thing never happens again.”

"Now that's what I want to hear," said Fluttershy, setting him on the floor and giving him a gentle push towards the others.

A few seconds later they were all hugging him as he ran towards their open hooves.

The day they had met Fluttershy had told him that he could destroy everything if he wanted, but it would be a lonely existence without someone to share those memories with. He understood now what she meant by that. He wanted to keep these ponies by his side for as long as he could, and never hurt them again.

6-15: Taming the chaos

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Mayhem disengaged with his friends, feeling a sense of calm. He could still improve. He still had a chance to remain with all of them.

That feeling faded as he thought of all the adults, having unfinished business with each of them.

He turned to Twilight, knowing she was the biggest threat. “So… what happens to me now?”

“Hmm?” Twilight replied.

“I… I was the one asking to be banished, but I don’t want that anymore. I just…” He looked at the ground. “…I don’t know if it matters what I want.”

“Mayhem, if you have Discord’s memories then you already know that I forgave Discord for betraying us to Tirek, and that was basically the same thing as what you did. He grew tired of feeling constrained by rules and was talked into believing it would be better without us. In the end Tirek betrayed him, and he realized what he did didn’t actually get him what he wanted.

“It was because he felt remorse for his crimes that I was able to look past his actions, not the least of which because he was a key component in us beating Tirek in the first place.”

She rubbed his head. “My niece saw fit to make the same sort of decision I would, and I don’t disagree with her choices. I would much rather have you with us as a friend than see you locked up.”

Mayhem sniffed before hugging her leg. “M-me too.”

Releasing her he turned to Cup and Carrot, unsure of where to start.

Before he could utter a word Cup put her hoof up. “Don’t!” she said, trying to keep her voice calm. “These feelings are too raw today. I don’t want to hear an apology because I’m not going to be ready to accept it.”

“Be grateful that we’re even going to think of allowing you to continue seeing each other after today,” said Carrot, also forcing himself to keep from yelling. “But not this week, and maybe not this month.”

“Any objections?” Cup turned to her children.

As much as they wanted to object Pound and Pumpkin knew they had to take their parents feelings into account. “No.” They shook their heads.

Cup was glad they didn’t put up a fight on this. She put a hoof to her face, letting out a sigh. “But eventually it will happen,” she said reluctantly.

Mayhem looked like he was thinking of something he could do for them.

Twilight put a hoof on his shoulder. “Mayhem, I would recommend you listen to what they’re saying. I can see your brain working, but sometimes time is the only thing that helps build a bridge to forgiveness.”

He looked up at her. “But…”

“If you want them to respect you then it starts with respecting them first. They’re not denying you forgiveness. They’re just saying they need more time before they can give it. If you keep pushing them then you’re only showing that you haven’t learned from this experience about respecting other’s boundaries, and that will only make them more reluctant to forgive or allow you to see Pound and Pumpkin again.”

Tears formed in his eyes. “I… I just…”

“I know,” she said gently. “But there is nothing for you to do right now but work on improving yourself. If you really want them to forgive you then do what you did before, and start growing up. It may feel frustrating, but you can’t always get what you want right away.”

Mayhem’s mouth opened and closed several times, but he eventually gave it up. “Okay, Twilight.

“Um… can I ask you for a favor?”

“What kind of favor?”

He glanced towards Fluttershy sadly for a few moments before staring at the ground.

“C-can I live in your castle with you? I… I know you have a lot of spare rooms.”

Fluttershy and Twilight both gave him questioning looks.

“Why?” asked Twilight slowly.

“I… I don’t know where else to go. Cup and Carrot are mad at me, so I can’t live with Pound and Pumpkin. And I’m sure the other parents wouldn’t want me around either, so you’re the only one I can think of that would take me in.”

“It’s not that I mind giving you a room, but aren’t you already home?” She gestured around Fluttershy’s cottage.

He got a pained look on his face, tears falling to the floor. “Not anymore. I no longer have a home.” He hugged himself. “She doesn’t love me anymore, so I don’t want to bother her.”

Fluttershy jumped up. “Oh, Mayhem! Why would you say that?”

Mayhem couldn’t meet her eyes, staring at her neck. “You said it yourself. You… you think I’m disgusting for thinking of abandoning my friends, s-so if you hate me now then I’m-”

Fluttershy let out a sob, running right over and pulling him close. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!

“I love you, Mayhem! You’re just like my very own child. I didn’t want to treat you like that, but if I didn’t push you hard you would have given up completely. No one would have been happy with that. Not me, or you, or Discord, or any of your friends.”

“S-s-so you weren’t being serious?”

Fluttershy let out a little sigh. “If… if you had still chosen to return to Discord after everything I said I would have had no choice but to leave you there.” Now she was quietly sobbing. “It would have torn me up inside, but I was the one who first encouraged Discord to bring you out into the open. I would have had to take responsibility for that.

“Without a strong foundation you only would have behaved because it’s what’s expected, or because you wanted to remain free, not because you personally didn’t think you shouldn’t do some things.”

She squeezed him harder, her sobbing growing louder. “I’m so sorry! I know I was rough on you, but I love you so much, and I didn’t want to see you go. I had to make you decide on your own that staying was what you really wanted.”

She pulled him back, tears streaming down her eyes. “I’m your mother. That’s the role I chose from the day I met you. And I want to continue to be for as long as I can. I want you to continue living here with me as I continue to watch you grow.

“So please… can you ever forgive me?”

Mayhem closed the distance between them, sobbing himself as he hugged her tight. “Of course I will! I want you to be my mother forever!”

“Thank you,” she said gratefully.

Cup sighed as she watched the display. As angry as she was about what happened she couldn’t deny that Mayhem really was just like a child. “Twilight,” she said, making the mare turn to her.

“Yes, Cup?” she replied.

“I think we need to start planning for the future.”

“What do you mean?”

“So let’s say we do let our children play with Mayhem again. What’s to stop him from getting bored again?

“I don’t care what he looks like. It’s not his appearance that frightens me. It’s the power he wields. So how do we keep Mayhem in check so he can’t rampage like this anymore?”

“We can’t have this problem of Mayhem going crazy every few months just to relieve his boredom,” said Carrot. “If we’re going to give our permission for them to play together then we need an assurance that our kids are going to be safe NOW.”

“I understand your concern,” said Twilight. “That certainly is something that needs doing. I’ll do what I can to come up with a solution that will satisfy everyone.”

“I’m sure you will,” said Cup, “but there is one more thing that needs to be said.” With a firm tone she continued, “Mayhem, I want to offer you a piece of advice.”

The little draconequus looked at her uncertainly. “Why… why do you want to help me? I thought you didn’t want to talk to me right now.”

“Maybe not, but my children’s safety takes priority over my feelings. If mothering you helps to keep you from going crazy again then I’m not going to let my anger blind my good judgment.

“Now come over here.”

Pound looked at his mother as Mayhem walked over in front of her, unsure what she was going to say.

Despite what she just said it was hard not to let rage overtake her as she met eyes with him so close to her.

She looked over at her children and focused her resolve. If she didn’t do this then she would be putting her children in danger, and she never wanted to risk her children’s safety just for the sake of a grudge.

She took a deep breath, settling herself down before she turned back to Mayhem and picked him up, setting him on her lap.

Mayhem didn’t seem to know how to react. He certainly wasn’t expecting her to go that far.

In a firm voice she said, “You, little draconequus, have a problem with being honest about your feelings.”

“What do you mean?” asked Mayhem.

“When Fluttershy came to speak to me this morning she told me that she felt you were getting bored of being around her, but you wouldn’t speak up because you were afraid of hurting her feelings. A pony's feelings for someone they care for aren’t so weak that they’ll hate you just because you want to hang out with someone else than them.”

“It isn’t like I haven’t gone through the same thing myself when I was still learning about friendship,” said Discord, summoning an image of Tree Hugger.

“Oh, that’s right,” said Fluttershy. “Discord got extremely jealous when I wanted to hang out with her instead of him, thinking it meant I was thinking less of him as a friend, or trying to replace him.

“In the end, I managed to show him that we want different friends at different times.”

“It would do you well to think about the things Discord has gone through,” said Carrot. “If you have all his memories then you should figure out how he solved similar issues that you’re going through.”

“That’s right,” said Fluttershy. “It’s okay to tell me that you want to hang out with your friends once in a while. If you’re feeling cooped up then just be honest with me. You’re not going to hurt my feelings because of that.”

“Okay,” said Mayhem. “I understand.”

“Well, that’s one good lesson learned, hopefully,” said Cup, setting Mayhem back on the floor. “It still doesn’t address the issue of how to keep Mayhem from abusing his power.”

“Don’t you know some sort of spell to restrain someone’s powers, Twilight?” asked Carrot.

“I don’t know if it would work,” said Twilight. “Unlike Discord, Mayhem is sentient magic that just holds Discord’s form. I don’t know how Mayhem would react to such a spell. He’d probably either be comatose or just vanish entirely.”

“So you’re saying we should just resign ourselves to hoping that he doesn’t go bad anymore?”

Mayhem looked up at her. “Can’t you think of something, Twilight? I… I went pretty crazy today, but I don’t want to act like that again.”

Twilight got a thoughtful look on her face as she stared at him, her eyes boring into his as her brain worked. Finally she smiled.

Mayhem smiled back. He knew she would come up with something.

“What did you come up with, Twilight?” asked Pound.

“While there needs to be a greater emphasis on safety I think Mayhem should do exactly what he did today.”

That got confused looks out of all of them.

“Oh, Twilight,” said Discord, chuckling. “Are you finally coming around to the chaos side?”

“How is that gonna help?” asked Flurry.

“Really?” said Peppermint. “I don’t get it either.”

Twilight kept her grin. “Bear with me for a minute, and I’ll explain it all to you.

“Mayhem, as you all know, is made up of Discord’s chaos magic. He did fall in love with love, and that tempered his appetite for destruction and hurting others because he sought out Fluttershy’s approval.

“It came back today though. In the end, considering his very essence is chaos magic, I don’t believe his urge to cause mischief can ever be truly tamed. So if-”

“Are you saying I’m hopeless?” Mayhem looked put out, tears forming in his eyes. “That I’m always going to be a danger to my friends?”

Twilight shook her head. “Not at all. If everything works as intended you shouldn’t ever act like that again.”

He wasn’t sure. Her words didn’t exactly fill him with confidence.

Peppermint sidled up next to him. “Don’t be scared, Mayhem.”

Flurry got on his other side, putting a wing around him. “That’s right. Aunt Twilight is really smart. If anyone can figure out a way to help you it’s her. Just trust her.”

“Just be quiet and listen, Mayhem,” said Twilight. “I promise you’re gonna feel just fine when you hear what I have in mind.”

The other children closed the distance, surrounding the little draconequus. Their proximity did help him feel a little better, and he sat down to hear her idea.

Now that Mayhem had settled down Twilight said, “So as I was about to say, if we can’t avoid Mayhem’s need for chaos, then we might as well use it to our advantage.”

“And how is encouraging him to repeat what he did today supposed to be beneficial?” asked Cup. “Even he can understand the absurdity of that.”

“Tell me something, you guys.” Twilight looked around at the children. “You got to obtain superpowers and went through a real-life comic book adventure. If this really was just a regular game where your lives were never at risk would you have found it fun?”

“Of course!” said Tree Leaf. “I got to turn into all sorts of different animals. It was so cool!”

“It was a little weird being able to stretch my body like chewing gum,” said Peppermint, “but I think so too.”

“We got to fight Tirek and Nightmare Moon and King Sombra and Queen Chrysalis!” said Pound.

“And defeat them all!” said Pumpkin.

“It was awesome!” said Masky.

Flurry was slightly more restrained. “I agree with them, even if it was really scary.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Twilight. “With that assurance I believe my plan will work out just fine.

“Mayhem, can you summon that world of yours, and bring those villains out too?”

Mayhem hesitated, then shook his head. “I don’t want to. I… I don’t think Cup and Carrot would like that. They’re upset enough without putting Pound and Pumpkin back there, and you were the one that told me to respect their feelings before.”

Twilight blinked, then let out a little chuckle. “Fair point. I’m glad to see you’re already applying your lesson.”

Mayhem’s words took Cup and Carrot by surprise as well.

“Very well. I guess we can go without the demonstration. The point I was going to make is that you can create a child’s paradise rather than a desolate wasteland. Can you imagine how many other kids would love to do this sort of thing you did with your friends?

“Your ‘job’ can be to make children’s wishes come true. This will serve three major benefits.

"The first, and most important, is that this would fulfill your need for chaos. Chaos doesn’t have to harm others. It just needs to be something out of the ordinary to how things are supposed to go, just like at Pound and Pumpkin’s birthday party. You created an environment where we could have a major snowball fight indoors when it wasn’t even winter. We all had a blast.

“Instead of having to hold yourself back from being yourself I want you to embrace your special gift to its full potential, that way you won’t feel cooped up or bored.”

“Ooooo!” She definitely had Mayhem’s interest now.

“Benefit number two is about bringing others together,” said Twilight. “Flurry, you expressed the sentiment that even if you really were total strangers before this that Mayhem would still have lost, because he created an environment ideal for forging strong bonds between ponies.

“If we gather a group of ponies together and put them through this superhero adventure it will encourage teamwork and cooperation between them. Since our power is greatest when working together, helping to form unity between others and strengthen friendships is a major plus. As the Princess of Friendship this is excellent.”

“And number three?” asked Mayhem, his eyes twinkling with excitement.

“Number three is probably just as important as number one, since it also involves you personally.

“This will help you to start forming new bonds with others, strengthening your heart. Right now you have six best friends, Discord as your father, and Fluttershy as your mother. These are your strongest bonds, but they don’t have to be your only ones.

“How do you think the kids you help will feel about your ability to grant them whatever they wish? They’ll feel a sense of gratitude to you. They’ll start looking up to you as their hero.”

Her horn lit up, summoning tons of little hearts and having them orbit around the little draconequus. “Maybe you could turn against six ponies because you were dissatisfied with the way your life is going, but could you turn your back on six hundred? Betray all those ponies who looked up to you? The deeper your bonds run with others the harder it will be to ever think of going back to who you were today.”

“That all sounds really good,” said Pumpkin.

“This should stop Mayhem from ever feeling bored enough to betray us again,” said Pound.

Mayhem had a big smile on his face, but then it faded. “Twilight, I… I do really like the idea, but I… I don’t want to always have to be the bad guy.”

Twilight ruffled his hair. “Who says you have to be? You can fight alongside the heroes so long as they have obstacles to overcome together.

“And it doesn’t always have to be a comic book story you go through. That too will eventually grow tiresome. Different kids have different priorities. One might want to try ice skating. One might want to go mountain climbing. The idea is to let children make their impossible dreams happen.”

Tree Leaf’s eyebrow went up. “I can get mountain climbing, but how is ice skating impossible?”

“The same way we could have a snowball fight at Pound and Pumpkin’s house,” said Peppermint.

“Oh. I guess you have a point there.”

Twilight gave him a warm smile. “Even if only pretend, you don’t ever have to play the role of the villain if you don’t want to. I just want to see you make others happy. And if that is done in a way that makes you happy as well then that’s all the better.”

“So I can have some crazy awesome playtime every so often, and help out other ponies,” said Mayhem, looking on top of the world.

Cup sighed. As much as she didn’t want to empathize with Mayhem in any capacity at the moment, the innocent giddiness on his face was stirring her protective instincts. She didn’t wish to see any child get hurt, and she could see Mayhem heading for a fall.

“Twilight, your plan has a huge hole in it,” she said.

“It does?” she asked curiously. “I don’t see it.”

“That’s because you’re so eager to find your solution that you’re not thinking about the bigger picture here.”

“I’m listening. What did I miss?”

“The day after our children’s party you came to pick up Flurry to take her home. You had a talk about friendship.

“Mayhem offered to shrink Flurry’s wings, thinking it would help reduce the amount of teasing she got over them, but in the end she chose to keep them the same because she found acceptance from her friends despite her big wings. She felt she didn’t want to change herself just to make friends who couldn’t accept her for all she was.”

Twilight nodded. “Mmm-hmmm. I remember that.”

“You told Flurry something to the effect of ‘you might only find a few true friends, but you’ll cherish those more than any number of pretenders.’ ”

“I stand by that statement, and I’m sure Flurry does too, especially after today.”

“So what’s the problem, Mom?” asked Pound.

“The problem is that I think Twilight is being too generous in her thinking. Mayhem’s powers can easily be abused, and I’m not talking about him using them.

“You show kids something like Mayhem, and the question becomes ‘what do they really care about?’ Do they value Mayhem as a person, or is he just a tool to use to get what they want out of him, and they couldn’t care less about him personally?”

“Mmm.” Twilight sucked on her cheek. “You definitely have a good point. There is certainly a risk there.”

Tree Leaf raised his hoof. “Can I say something?”

“Sure.”

“When I first met Mayhem I thought he was a weirdo, and he got me angry because he knocked me down, but I changed my mind about him when I saw what he could do.

“At first… I only wanted to be close to him because of his abilities. He turned me into a dragon, then turned Sugarcube Corner into a playground. That was all super cool. But later on I grew to like him as a person.

“So just because someone likes him for his powers doesn’t mean he can’t become a true friend with them later on. I did.”

“I remember that conversation too,” said Flurry. “You said that if someone only focuses on one aspect of me and disregards everything else then it was up to me to show that I am more than that quality.

“I’m sure there will be plenty of pretenders that will only care about using Mayhem, but I know that there are those who can look past his powers to see him for who he really is. My friends did that for me, and we all did it for Mayhem. That’s how we were able to pull him out of the darkness he submerged himself in. He trusted us to do whatever it took to save him.”

Twilight nodded. “Also good points. That’s something I’m going to have to work on when I start implementing this plan.”

“One more thing,” said Cup.

“Yes?”

“As a mother of two I’ve seen that kids can get excitable, and when they do they can get a little out of control. While Mayhem is having his fun what’s to stop him from pushing too far?”

“Well, this might not exactly comfort you, but I’ll have Discord keeping an eye on him in these adventures. As much as I’d like to personally supervise things I don’t have the magical ability to stop him without Rainbow Power, and it’s not conducive to always have it at the ready.”

“And I’m supposed to trust that Discord isn’t going to be tempted, either?” asked Carrot.

“Hey,” said Discord, “I might like to be annoying, but I’ve left my former evil days behind.

“Hmm… maybe it’s because Mayhem is out so frequently now that I’ve been losing my desire to cause trouble.”

Fluttershy got a curious look on her face. “I did find it odd that you weren’t joining in on the snowball fight at the twin’s party. Now that I think about it, you’ve seemed a lot more even-mannered since the day Mayhem first came out into the open.”

“I sure hope it stays that way,” said Cup. “We don’t need any more children put into these near-death experiences.”

“I agree,” said Mayhem. “I just want to have fun in a nice, safe way.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Twilight. “I think once every two weeks is a fine time period to do this. We don’t want kids to become too reliant on him, or for Mayhem to get too used to breaking all the rules.”

“What about once a week?”

Twilight looked uncertainly at him. “I’ll tell you what. This is a new program for all of us. I’ll be observing along with Discord for your first few sessions. If you prove that you can handle the responsibility I’ll consider giving you this privilege more often.

“How does that sound?”

Mayhem smiled. “Okay.”

“Well, that settles things with you, then.”

Pound hopped up onto his mother’s lap, giving her a bright smile. “I love you!” he said as he hugged her.

“I love you too,” she said suspiciously, “but the timing of that sounds like you want something.”

He shook his head. “No. I don’t want anything. I’m just really happy.”

“Why? Well, I can guess why.”

“I am happy that Mayhem is going to be able to work off his need for chaos, but that’s not why I’m feeling this way.”

“Then what is?”

“I heard it.”

“Heard what?”

“That protective tone in your voice. You were looking out for Mayhem too. You really do care about him.”

Cup flushed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I was only saying that for your benefit. I don’t think I’m willing to give a third chance to him, so I don’t want to see you upset. That’s all!”

Pound and Pumpkin both gave her maddeningly smug looks. “Okay, Mom.”

“Suuuuure.”

Cup growled. “Pound! Pumpkin! You get those self-satisfied looks off your faces right now!”

That only made them laugh.

“I mean it! You hear me? I’ll ground you both.”

Carrot and Twilight began to laugh too, and right after that the other children joined in as Cup let out a cry of frustration.

6-16: Settling down

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Once everyone settled down Pound and Pumpkin went up to Mayhem and gave him a hug.

“This is goodbye for now,” said Pound.

“But it won’t be too long,” said Pumpkin.

The others joined in.

“Do us proud, Mayhem!” said Peppermint.

“We believe in you,” said Tree Leaf.

“Just like you believed in us,” said Masky.

“So do your best,” said Flurry.

Mayhem closed his eyes, knowing he wasn’t going to be able to see his friends for a while and wanting to enjoy this while it lasted. “I’ll be okay. I still have Mommy.”

Eventually they reluctantly released him and bid farewell to him, as well as Fluttershy and Discord.

With a flash they were teleported to Sugarcube Corner.

“Home again,” Pound said with a gentle sigh. “Feels like forever since I’ve been here.”

“Well, I just wanted to drop off Cup and Carrot,” said Twilight. Turning to the pair she said, “Would it be alright if I borrowed the twins for about a half hour?”

“Sure,” said Carrot. “What do you have in mind?”

“There are some things I need to discuss with them at the castle. It’s nothing secretive, but I do feel my words will have more of an impact there.”

“I guess that’s okay,” said Cup.

Twilight bowed her head slightly. “Thank you.”

With another flash they were in Twilight’s throne room.

All of them looked around in wonder. Even the twins and Flurry hadn’t seen it.

Twilight gestured around at the thrones. “Even though I am the only princess or alicorn among my friends each of us is treated equally, and that’s just the way I like it. As you can see my throne isn’t any more fancy or ornate than my friend’s thrones.”

“What’s with that little throne next to yours?” asked Tree Leaf as he pointed to it. “That’s not exactly equal.”

“That is Spike’s throne.

“Now, then. All of you have a seat.” They complied, sitting on the floor. She shook her head. “No, not there.” She pointed her hoof towards the thrones. “I mean there.”

Even the twins, as close as they were to Twilight, were shocked. “A-are you sure?” asked Pound.

“That feels a bit… much,” said Pumpkin.

“I gave my permission, did I not?” said Twilight. “There’s a reason I want you sitting there.”

All of them looked uncertainly at each other for about fifteen seconds before they slowly plodded over.

“S-should I sit in your seat, Aunt Twilight?” asked Flurry. “I’m an alicorn like you.”

“Which seat you take doesn’t matter. It’s what the seats represent that is important here.”

They each chose a throne at random, the weight of where they were sitting quickly getting to each of them. This was where the greatest heroes of Equestria sat before they were sent off places to save the world or spread friendship.

Twilight could see their anxiousness, so in order to break the ice she jumped onto the table in the middle of the room that held the Cutie Map, though it wasn’t activated at the moment. “Look at me! I’m standing on the furniture.”

That did break some of the tension, making them laugh a bit.

She used her magic to move the thrones so they were all sitting right next to each other before hopping off the table and standing on the other side.

“So I guess you’re all wondering why I brought you here to my throne room to sit on those thrones?” That got nods from all of them. “The reason why is a simple one: friendship.

“With Discord’s spell I got to see what all of you went through today, and I couldn’t feel prouder of any of you. When Mayhem first betrayed you the six of you strived to win him back by playing along.

“That plan went off the rails when your memories were removed and he became a stranger to you, but you still found one another again, your hearts connecting to each other as you fought together.”

Her eyes grew misty. “Flurry, I’m especially proud of you. You managed to activate a magic that hasn’t been seen since the founding of Equestria. A part of it was a desire to defy Mayhem and not grant him his victory, but more of it was about encouraging your friends.

“Mayhem tried to turn you against one another, promising safety to the pony that betrayed the others to save themselves, but you stood strong with your beliefs. Even if it meant your death, you were determined to go out as friends. Your courage inspired them to trust in you, and in the end it was what won you the day.”

Flurry got an uncomfortable look on her face. “But… it wasn’t me. When I first fought Mayhem he terrified me with his power. It wasn’t until I saw the others take an attack for me to save my life that I began to see what you were talking about. It was their courage that inspired me, not the other way around.”

Twilight shook her head. “Don’t put yourself down, Flurry. This victory wouldn’t have been possible without you. Your friends taught you courage, but you applied it. Once you realized the strength it gave you then you held on tight to it, never letting that fire go out.

“When Mayhem made his proposal you were the only one who didn’t fear a possible betrayal. At a time when they were filled with doubt you came to their rescue this time, settling their fears.”

Flurry shook her head hard. “No, no, no! Stop acting like I did something amazing. I was useless on my own! It was only because I had them with me that I was able to do anything.

“And it was only because Mayhem wasn’t trying to kill us for real that we lasted long enough to defeat him.”

Twilight lifted Flurry up in her magic, setting her on top of the table in front of her. She gave her niece a loving hug. “Flurry, I hope you’re not misunderstanding me. I’m not trying to diminish what your friends did. I wouldn’t have asked them to sit down in those thrones if I didn’t value their accomplishment as much as yours.

“The reason I’m focusing so much on you personally is because you were the one struggling the most with your identity.”

Flurry pulled back, giving Twilight a questioning look. “What do you mean, Aunt Twilight?”

“You felt that the lives of your other friends were simple. They could be whatever they wanted, but you were stuck with only a single role being forced on you.

“You felt that you couldn’t handle being a princess and fighting to save the world at your age, and yet you did just that.”

Flurry looked down at the ground. “But… but it’s like I said before. I only did so well because I had them to help me, and if Mayhem had actually been serious he could have killed us at any time.”

“But Mayhem was counting on us to stop him,” said Pound.

“And Twilight’s right,” said Pumpkin. “We couldn’t have done this without you.”

“This was a group effort,” said Peppermint, “and it was only through your encouragement and support that I felt strong enough to make a difference.”

“Each of us played a part,” said Tree Leaf. “All of us were important.”

“So don’t put yourself down,” said Masky. “Take credit for what you did.”

Flurry looked behind her at her friends, trying to articulate what she was feeling. “I… I get what you’re saying, but I think you’re blowing things out of proportion.”

“I think it’s the opposite,” said Twilight, her voice getting a bit firmer. “I think you’re being too dismissive of yourself. When you learn a lesson, and apply it, you can give credit for the inspiration to them, but the actual carrying it out is on your shoulders alone.

“Pound and the others sacrificed themselves for you to keep you safe, and then in turn you put yourself in harm’s way to do the same. That was your decision and your action, and nobody else can take credit for that choice.

“We’re all honed by the choices we make. You could have chosen to run from Sombra, the Crystal Empire’s greatest foe. Instead, you chose to fight head-on for the sake of your friends. You chose the path of true strength. You, and you alone.”

Flurry was shaking. “I… well…” She took in a sharp breath. “Well, I hope you’re not expecting me to make a habit of this right now.”

Twilight rubbed Flurry’s head. “Of course not, but, as shown today, if you had to then you could.”

“Are you going to keep ignoring that Mayhem wasn’t being serious?”

“I’ve fought numerous creatures since I first came to Ponyville. I’ve yet to see something that can break the rules of reality like he can, so anything else is a serious downgrade from his powers.

“And if someone is so full of themselves that they hold back and underestimate their opponent that’s their fault.

“In the end, you did exactly what I would have done. You expressed forgiveness and pulled Mayhem back to our side. And do you remember why you had that option?”

“Ummm… because we won?”

Twilight shook her head. “I was speaking about you alone. Your friends trusted you so deeply they left Mayhem’s fate in your hooves.”

“That’s right!” said Pound. “We knew you would do the right thing.”

“Saddled with that responsibility you made the choice that your heart was leading you to. Having lost, Mayhem was scared of you. And despite all that he put you through you decided to spare him and offer him forgiveness.”

Flurry bit her lip, shivering a bit. “Please… just stop. You make it sound like I was so amazing, but I didn’t feel confident at all. I was scared out of my mind half the time.

“The more you talk about it the more uncomfortable it makes me feel. It makes me feel like you want to push these adult issues on me more often. I just want to enjoy my childhood!”

Twilight hugged her again. “Do you think I feel any different? I wish that what happened today didn’t have to happen, either. But it did, and you handled yourself amazingly well.

“Do you think I always feel confident? It’s not a crime to be scared of danger. In fact, that’s a good thing. Someone who doesn’t feel fear in these types of situations is someone who is either reckless or foolish.

“Being able to overcome that fear and still act is what truly makes a leader, and I know all your friends trust you from the bottom of their hearts.”

She pulled back, staring into Flurry’s unsure eyes. “Maybe you didn’t want to have this thrust upon you, but it was. You stared your greatest fears in the eye, and overcame them to become a blazing pillar of strength for your friends. That’s something to be proud of, and there’s no reason you should put yourself down.”

The other kids hopped onto the table as well, surrounding Flurry.

Flurry was comforted by their presence. “But… the only reason we got as far as we did was because Mayhem wasn’t trying to kill us.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Twilight. “What Mayhem was or was not trying to do it’s your actions that are important here.

“Explain something to me, Flurry. Mayhem said himself that he was being serious at the end about winning no matter what. At the time you laughed at him and mocked him and told him you weren’t afraid of him.

“You were so confident when you thought you were about to die, and yet now that you’re home and the danger is over all that confidence is gone. What happened to it?"

Flurry got a confused look on her face. “I… I don’t know. I guess… maybe…” She looked around, trying to organize her feelings. “I guess… I just felt like they needed me to be strong. I only stepped up because there was no one more grown up to take charge.

“Now that we’re not stuck in Mayhem’s world there are plenty of adults with more experience that can give the orders and take care of things. I would rather leave it to ponies like you and the rest of the Elements of Friendship.”

Twilight nodded. “That makes sense. As I said earlier I don’t wish for you to ever have to be in that sort of situation again, but at least you’ve seen that you can handle yourself if you have to. That’s all I want to say on the subject.”

Flurry gave a little nod.

“Since you seem to be uncomfortable with me talking about you alone I can talk to you as a group.”

She bowed deeply to them. “As Princess of Friendship, I wish to offer you my heartfelt thanks for saving Equestria.”

Each of them were speechless. Even Pound and Pumpkin, who had experienced Twilight bowing to them before, still felt a little uncomfortable.

Peppermint slowly moved one of her hooves in a circle, blushing. “I… I wouldn’t go that far.”

“All… all we did was save a friend,” said Masky.

Twilight rose. “Don’t be silly. Your actions have far-reaching implications, and it’s the main reason I brought you here today.

“There’s no way of knowing what Mayhem would have done if you hadn’t awakened that power of yours when you did. Maybe he would have stopped himself at the last second, or maybe he would have been devastated by what he had done once it was over. Or maybe he would have decided to keep pushing on, knowing that there was no going back once the rest of you were dead.

“If there was no chance of forgiveness or undoing his crimes he might have decided it didn’t matter what he did anymore, and start down a path of true evil.

“Whatever actions he would have taken, it’s safe to say that nothing good would have come of it.”

None of them responded for a while. Finally Tree Leaf asked, “Well, what’s your point? It wasn’t like we were thinking of the world when we were fighting. We were just trying to protect each other.”

“I kinda understand how Flurry feels now,” said Pound. “I… I don’t feel like we did anything special. We just did what we had to do.”

“I feel the same,” said Pumpkin.

“I couldn’t disagree more,” said Twilight, smiling brightly. “Please, sit down. There’s much I want to say.”

Uncomfortable with sitting in the thrones of heroes the kids all just sat down on the edge of the table.

Twilight didn’t press the issue. “Pound, Pumpkin… on the day of your birthday I had a thought, and it couldn’t be more apparent that my thought was correct after what happened today.”

“What thought was that?” asked Pound.

“I’ve been a pretty big part of the past year of your lives. I’ve watched your growth, helping to teach you about true friendship. I’ve seen the hardships you’ve gone through in making the friends you have.

“Tree Leaf didn’t have any big issues, but he did have a problem with jealously. That led to him lashing out at Pumpkin. Pound, you pushed past your anger for Pumpkin’s sake, getting him back on your side. You empathized with his feelings, allowing you to form a bond with one another.

“Peppermint was dealing with a big issue of feeling neglected at home because of her new baby brother getting most of the attention. Her jealously exploded into rage and led her to attack her brother, with her father lashing out in return. She told me about how you were there for her, a total stranger. You helped her open up to her father, bridging the gap that had formed between them.

“Masky was also dealing with heavy family issues of feeling neglected. It led to him putting up a wall and hiding everything inside. Once again, through your efforts, you helped him open up to his family.

“And finally there’s my niece Flurry Heart.” Her smile faded as she let out a little sigh. “I really was worried about her. She was acting like me back in my younger days, acting like making friends was useless and she just wanted to study.

“I tried to share my history with her, but she wouldn’t listen to me. She dismissed me. I wasn’t able to break the wall she put up.”

“Then you came to us,” Pumpkin said quietly.

Twilight nodded. “I thought that putting her in a situation with her peers might show her how wonderful it felt to have friends… but things went sour almost immediately after she arrived when she insulted Mayhem.

“The two of you were furious and wanted her gone.” She remembered the heartache she had felt in that moment, and a tear came down her eye.

“I really was being pretty rude,” said Flurry. “After they came out of the kitchen they politely asked me to come upstairs. Did you order them to give me another chance or something?”

“Do I seem the type to use my authority to order others around? Knowing how you feel about being a princess meaning others treat you differently I think you should know I’m not that type of pony.”

“You got a point there, but you must have done something to convince them.”

Pound nodded. “She bowed to us and begged us to try again.” He said it with an air of wonder, like he couldn’t believe it had actually happened.

“She opened her heart to us,” said Pumpkin. “How could we turn her down when she was hurting so much?”

Peppermint was having difficulty with the concept. “But you’re the adult, Twilight. Couldn’t you have just told them to do it?”

Twilight nodded. “Of course I could have, but it would have been meaningless. A friendship has to be willing. If I had been authoritative I could have just reminded the twins they had agreed to help Flurry, but then they would have been resentful towards me and Flurry, only helping out of obligation.

“I had asked something huge of them, solving a big problem in the middle of their party. Since I couldn’t force them the only thing I could do is humbly request their help again and acknowledge that my request was selfish.

“I always knew they, and the rest of you, could help her. You just needed some time. My faith in you wasn’t misguided.”

“And we’re glad it worked out so well,” said Masky, throwing a hoof around Flurry. “She’s a great friend.”

“Same here,” said Flurry, returning the gesture. “I love my friends.”

Twilight was beaming. “I’m honored to hear it, because that’s why I wanted to talk to you all.”

All of them patiently waited for her to explain.

“It’s not something I like to think about, but the truth is that I’m not going to live forever. Maybe it will be old age, a powerful enemy, an accident… whatever the cause may be, one day I won’t be around anymore.”

“That’s not a pleasant thought,” said Flurry, frowning now. “I’m already scared enough of losing my parents one day.”

“I know, Flurry, but this is something I have to say.

“As princess, my goal is not to be the one to solve everything. It’s to teach others to take care of themselves.”

“You mean like a parent?” asked Masky.

“Hmmm… I guess you could say that. When someone dies, what becomes the most important is what they leave behind, and what I want to leave is as many ponies as possible that understand the meaning of true friendship.

“Pound, Pumpkin… I won’t take credit for the friends you made, but I did help teach you the lessons you needed to be able to make your own friends and keep them. Now you’re surrounded by close friends. You even helped Flurry make her own friend in the Crystal Empire.”

Flurry was grinning again. “Yeah, I love Crystal. She’s the one who taught me to really appreciate my special wings.”

“While I hope it comes far into the future, the thought I had during your party was that I wasn’t afraid of dying as long as there were children like you around.”

“Us?” said Pound, pointing to himself.

Twilight nodded. “You’ve proven your friendships over and over, helping out those in need and gaining their love and trust in return. When I congratulated you and Pumpkin for helping Flurry you corrected me, insisting that all your friends deserved some of the credit. Today, you proved the strength of your bond goes beyond mere memories, and together you were able to use a magic even I haven’t touched.

“I’m very much looking forward to your futures. One day, I feel you could be sitting in those seats for real, as the next Elements of Friendship.”

All of them blushed, looking awkward.

“Twilight, this is all a bit much,” said Tree Leaf.

Twilight closed the distance. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’ve more than proven yourselves capable. If you could do all this as children, just think of the ponies you’ll be when you’re adults.

“There’s no reason to rush either. It’s the same issue Flurry was afraid of. I’m not planning on sending you out into Equestria to solve friendship problems like me and my friends do. I want you to be able to just be kids as much as I’m sure your parents do, so I’d only ask you to help fellow kids in Ponyville.

“It’s the same for Mayhem. His powers can be utilized for good, and I’m eager to see him bond and learn with other kids as well. I believe he’ll grow past his childish tendencies and become an asset to Equestria right alongside the rest of you.”

“Do… do you really think we’re that special, Twilight?” asked Peppermint shyly.

“Of course!” she replied emphatically. “All of you showed the true strength of the magic of friendship today, your bond being strong enough that even after having your memories of each other purged you still felt connected to one another. Only a truly strong friendship could survive that, as well as create the darkness dispelling heart.”

Pumpkin bowed her head. “Thank you, Twilight, but I think I speak for us all when I say that we don’t feel as strongly about this as you do."

Pound nodded. “To think of comparing what we did to beating Nightmare Moon, Changelings, and all the other amazing things you’ve done… I just don’t think what we did measures up.

“This just started as an attempt to relieve Mayhem’s boredom so he’d stop being bad. And after our memories were taken away it just became about survival.”

“Mayhem said it himself that things were mostly just for show,” said Peppermint. “It wasn’t until the end that he actually was going to wipe us out.”

“It was just a game for him,” said Flurry. “If we got too beat up he could just heal us back up so we could keep playing.

“We were there for each other as friends, and got Mayhem back on our side, but it really feels like that’s it.”

“We don’t think we deserve parades in our honor and trophies and stuff like that,” said Tree Leaf. “The stuff we were fighting against was almost all just imaginary.”

“You were doing it for real,” said Masky. “You were fighting the real things, who really would kill you. We were fighting watered-down versions who weren’t allowed to be fatal.”

“Hmmm…” Twilight gently tapped her hoof on the floor, looking a little put-out. “I kinda thought you’d be more excited.”

“What’s there to be excited about?” asked Flurry. “We proved the strength of our friendship, sure, and I’m glad our friendship is as strong as it is, but today was terrifying.”

“And it’s not like we want to brag about having our friend betray us,” said Pumpkin. “It’s going to be hard enough for him to make other friends without hearing that he recently went on a rampage.”

“Even if we got him back in the end,” said Pound.

Peppermint rubbed her front hooves together awkwardly. “I guess we’re trying to say that we appreciate it, but we just don’t think what we did is as big as you seem to think it is.” The others nodded. “Certainly not proof that we should be sitting on the thrones of the biggest heroes of Equestria.” More nods.

Twilight looked between all of the children, seeing now that she had pushed them too hard. Just like Cup and Carrot, the feelings of the day were still too raw. They hadn’t even had a chance to be alone and process the events of the day before she threw this upon them.

Bowing her head she said, “I want to apologize to all of you. This was not the best time to talk about this.”

She lifted her head. “In a way I’m glad to see this as your response. I want you to remain humble and not get a swelled head, but I felt it would be wrong not to congratulate you properly on your achievement.”

Pound smiled. “Don’t feel bad, Twilight. You’re the most humble pony we know. You’re not afraid to admit your mistakes.”

“Just like you said before, it was your lessons that helped me and Pound to make the friends we did,” said Pumpkin, also smiling now.

“Thank you for thinking of us,” said Peppermint, “and for spending time with a filly like me.”

“I don’t know if we’re going to be helping anyone else in the near future, but I want to keep the friendships I do have strong,” said Tree Leaf.

“Same here,” said Masky.

Twilight let out a little sigh. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“Something wrong?” asked Flurry.

“Well… I do think it’s about time I take all of you home. You’ve had a big day, and I think all of you could use some down time to think about today.”

“You seem down now, Aunt Twilight. Are you upset with us because we didn’t react the way you wanted?”

Twilight shook her head. “Not at all. I’m upset because I’m going to put a strain on your friendship.”

“Why?” asked Pound, confused. “You just praised our friendship.”

“Not the friendship between the six of you, but the one with Mayhem. I know you’re not going to like it, but I do need to inform all your parents about what happened today.”

They all got strained looks on their faces.

Peppermint clenched, tears forming in her eyes. “I… I know it’s useless to try to talk you out of it, but I don’t want…” She took in a sharp breath. “I’m scared. Without the light of our friendship Mayhem may go back into the darkness. If my parents tell me I’m not allowed to see him anymore…”

A sympathetic tear came down Twilight’s face. “I understand what you’re feeling, Peppermint. I really do, but I can’t hide this.

“Just like Cup and Carrot, they have a right to know the truth about Mayhem’s betrayal. They’re your family, and it would be wrong of me to hide the danger he put on you simply to spare your feelings. I can emphasize that he was mostly just showing off and pretending to be after your lives, and that your feelings won him over, but ultimately they will have to decide whether they want you to play with him again.”

Flurry wasn’t too worried about her parent’s feelings. They had former villain Starlight as her main caretaker, after all. She didn’t know how the rest of the parents were going to react.

Masky let out a little groan. “Twilight?”

“Yes?”

“I… I won’t try to stop you, but can you please hurry up with your plans for Mayhem? Even if my parents bar me from seeing him again, at least if he starts making other friends he won’t feel so lonely.”

Twilight bowed her head again. “I give you my word.”

He hopped off the table, letting out a heavy breath. “Well… then let’s get to it, I guess.”

The other kids followed suit, murmuring their agreement.

The next hour was an uncomfortable one. Unsurprisingly, the parents of the Ponyville children acted with horror and outrage upon hearing about Mayhem’s actions. Twilight did try and soften the blow a little by not directly showing them the memories and only telling them in words.

She also told them about their child’s heroism and about her plans for Mayhem, but she knew it was no good. They, like Cup and Carrot, couldn’t just drop things immediately. They needed time to process what they had been told.

Finally, it was down to the twins and Flurry.

As they walked back to Sugarcube Corner none of the children had much pep in their step.

“I know you’re all feeling down,” said Twilight, “but I wouldn’t give up hope. Pound and Pumpkin, your parents have already agreed to give Mayhem another chance. And Flurry, your parents fully trust Starlight, a former enemy.

“At the very least, the three of you will still get to have permission to see Mayhem again. I can’t guarantee the other three, but I’m hopeful they’ll come around one day.”

Pound sighed. “It just… doesn’t feel like a victory anymore.”

A tear came down Pumpkin’s eye. “All of us fought so hard, and a part of our friendship circle may be gone for good.”

Twilight hesitated a few moments, then asked, “Are you mad at me for telling them?”

That made them stop, and the other two stopped in turn. “Why would we be mad at you, Aunt Twilight?” asked Flurry. “We know that you didn’t want to tell them what happened. You were just fulfilling your role as a princess.”

“How can we blame you for being responsible?” asked Pound.

“We’re not upset at you,” said Pumpkin. “Today just feels so heavy.”

“I understand,” said Twilight. “This has been a big day for all of you.

“I know it’s probably pointless to tell you not to worry, but don’t forget that I gave you my vow as a princess that I’ll do everything in my power to help Mayhem just like I helped Starlight. Young or old, I give everyone the same respect, so you know that I’ll take my word to you seriously.”

Pumpkin gave her a hug, Pound following suit. “We know, Twilight. We have complete faith in you.”

“Same here,” said Pound.

Flurry felt a little antsy. “Do you think we could hurry things along a bit? I really just want to go home. I want to hug my family.”

Twilight lifted a wing, pulling Flurry to her. “Would you like to start with me?”

For a moment Flurry felt embarrassed, hoping Twilight didn’t feel slighted. She felt she knew her aunt better than that, so she let it go. “Yes, I would.”

She hugged all three of them. “Here we go. You ready?”

“Ready for what?”

With a flash they appeared in Pound and Pumpkins room.

Champ let out a startled yip and then a growl from the sudden intrusion. After a moment, when he recognized the smell and look of his owner he let out a happy bark, running up to the colt and licking him.

As Pound hugged his dog he felt a sense of inner peace. When they had first arrived back from Mayhem’s world Champ hadn’t been there, and his parents hadn’t had him. He had to guess that Pinkie had taken him to find him by scent.

It didn’t take long for Tiger Lily to jump onto Pumpkin’s back before moving to her head, purring away.

Pumpkin also felt a sense of comfort from knowing that things were still normal. Their adventure truly was over, and they could just go back to their everyday lives.

After a minute of doting on their pets they put them on their beds to hug Flurry goodbye, knowing she needed that sense of normality as well.

When Flurry and Twilight left they brought their animals downstairs to the living room. Cup, Carrot, and Pinkie were all sitting quietly, seemingly off in their own worlds.

“Hello,” said Pound, making all of them look at him. Before he could even say anything else his emotions overflowed. He was just so happy to see all of them. If they hadn’t triumphed over Mayhem he never would have seen them again.

He ran sobbing towards his mother, the weight of everything that had gone on crashing over him.

Cup met him halfway, hugging him close.

Carrot hopped up as well, walking towards Pumpkin.

She had been focusing so much on Pound and her mother that she felt a little surprised when she was picked up. As she looked up into her father’s loving eyes she also felt her emotions overflow and let herself go like Pound, holding him as tight as she could.

After a minute even that wasn’t enough. She turned her head. “A-Auntie Pinkie!”

The mare quickly walked over, adding her own comforting hooves to the mix.

Without needing to be asked Cup moved towards the others with Pound, all of them in a big group hug.

After a time they all sat down on the couch. Cup and Carrot even allowed them to break the rule about the pets being on the couch, simply to allow all of their family to be nearby.

Things weren’t too different for the rest of the Ponyville children. As much as they didn’t hold Mayhem’s actions against him they also couldn’t help but feel so glad to be alive and still able to spend time with their family.

Flurry had a bit of an easier time of it. As soon as she arrived home and saw her parents she reacted just like the other children, running to them crying her eyes out. Too distraught to answer their questions about what happened she just said, “Hug!” And of course they complied, holding her close as she settled down.

She had never cherished a hug more.

Shining felt some concern. Flurry was a wreck. He looked up questioningly at Twilight. “What happened, Twily?”

Twilight met his gaze. “There was a situation. It’s all taken care of, but it did have quite the effect on little Flurry. I’ll tell you all about it soon, but for right now Flurry needs your love.”

“Cleary,” said Cadance sadly. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her this down.”

After a few minutes Flurry had calmed down enough that she had stopped crying. Her raging emotions gave way to a sense of calm as the events of the day got replaced by the love of her parents.

She looked up into her father’s eyes, and he gave her a kiss on the forehead. “I love you, Daddy!”

He smiled down at her. “I love you too, Flurry Heart.”

“Me too?” asked Cadance, nuzzling her cheek.

“You too, Mommy. I love you.” Flurry got a small smile on her face, but after a moment it faded as she sighed. “Well… I guess it can’t be put off forever. Let’s go sit down so we can tell you about today.”

The cheer left her parents faces as well, wondering what had upset their daughter so. “Very well,” said Shining.

6-17: Family time

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Shining and Cadance directed Twilight and Flurry to an empty room. Once they were all sitting down Twilight told them about the events of the day. Unlike the other parents, Twilight shared the memories she had gotten from Discord with Cadance and Shining.

As Flurry expected her parents weren’t nearly as angry about Mayhem’s game as the other parents had been. They were, naturally, still upset that it had happened, but they didn’t rage as much as the other parents. They seemed more disappointed.

In the end, they decided to focus more on stabilizing Flurry than their anger. It was clear the little alicorn was stressed and needed their support.

Twilight hung around for a while afterward, talking about unimportant things with her brother and sister-in-law.

Flurry sat on her parent’s laps, not contributing to the conversation.

Twilight eventually noticed this, and said, "You’ve been pretty quiet, Flurry. Is there a topic you want to discuss? I don’t want you not to feel included.”

She shook her head. “Please, just keep doing what you’re doing. I have my family close. That’s what’s most important to me.

“I don’t feel like talking right now, but I’m enjoying just listening to all of you talk. It makes me feel like everything is alright, and that’s what I really need right now. Knowing that all of you are fine makes me feel less sad.”

“I understand. I certainly don’t mind spending more time with Cadance and Shiny.”

Cadance moved Flurry over to Shining’s lap before standing up. “I’ll be right back.”

Flurry tensed. “Where are you going?” she asked in an unnaturally high voice. She hadn’t expected something so simple to hit her so hard, but it did.

Cadance looked with concern at her daughter, clearly not expecting her emotional outburst either. “I’m trying to help you, Flurry. I want to get something to help you feel better.”

“What will help me feel better is you staying right here! Didn't I just say that?”

Cadance immediately walked back to Flurry, pulling her into a hug. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to add to your stress.”

Flurry held her mother tight for a minute, calming down again. When she felt better she said quietly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so pathetic.”

“Don’t talk like that, Flurry. You went through a traumatic experience. It’s understandable your emotions are still a little hyper. That doesn’t make you pathetic.”

Flurry didn’t want to respond to that, so she changed the subject. “What… what did you want to get?”

“A hairbrush. I know having your mane brushed is something you really enjoy.”

It was quiet for a little while. Finally, Flurry said, “I’d like that.”

“Okay.”

“But I also don’t want any of you to leave me right now.”

“That’s not an issue.” She went to the door of the room, stopping one of the Royal Guards patrolling the castle.

“Yes, Princess Cadance?” the stallion said, snapping to attention.

“At ease, Sir,” she responded.

As he got back into a regular pose Flurry said, “Can you go to my room and get my special brush?”

Bowing his head he responded respectfully, “At once, Lady Flurry.”

As he left Cadance took Flurry back to sit down next to Shining.

A few minutes later the guard returned with Flurry’s favorite brush.

“Thank you,” Flurry said gratefully.

“Of course, Lady Flurry.” He bowed his head before getting back to his patrol.

As Cadance began to brush Flurry’s mane Twilight asked, “Why Lady Flurry?”

“That was Flurry’s request,” Shining responded. “She’s still a little uncomfortable over the whole princess thing, and feels that she’ll connect with the guards better if they’re not using so formal a title.”

“Well, I’m glad she found a solution that works for her. As someone in an official position of power I can’t exactly order people not to call me a princess when I am acting in that capacity.”

“Same here,” said Cadance. “I do try to nudge them into being a bit more casual, but they consider it a matter of duty to use my title when addressing me.”

“I guess I should be glad I don’t have a Royal Guard assigned to me. I mostly just interact with those that can talk to me on my level.”

“Hey!” said Flurry. “Can’t you talk about something else? You’re ruining my relaxation talking about uncomfortable things.”

Cadance smiled. “Sorry, sorry.”

“So why don’t we talk about you?” asked Twilight. Flurry tensed, looking afraid. The reason quickly clicked. “I’m not asking about today. I was just going to ask why you enjoy getting your mane brushed so much. It was the same thing at Pound and Pumpkin’s birthday. Cadance said it settles you down.”

“Oh.” The tension went out of the filly as she let out a breath. “I don’t really know. I think it’s just the feeling of closeness I feel when she does it. When I have a bad day and I go sit on her lap she holds me close for a little bit. Then she shows me how much she loves me by doing something I really enjoy.” She closed her eyes, reveling in the sensation. “Sometimes, she’ll even sing to me while she does it.

“It just became something of a tradition between us.”

Twilight grinned. “I know that feeling. Me and my mother had something like that since the time when I was around your age.”

“What was it?” asked Cadance.

“I remember,” said Shining. “Since babyhood is the time when a mother is most connected to her child the solution was obvious.”

Twilight gave him a curious look. She agreed with the sentiment, but she couldn’t see how it related to her own tradition.

“So what did she do?”

“Well, she’d set Twily on the floor, putting a diaper on her and rocking her like a little baby."

Cadance and Flurry started laughing.

“Hey!” Twilight cried out, blushing. “That’s not funny.”

“Sorry,” said Shining. “I shouldn’t have spilled the secret.”

“Thank you!” After a few moments she realized what he had done. “HEY! It’s NOT a secret because it NEVER… HAPPENED!”

Shining was cracking up now. “Oh, boy, Twily. You should see the look on your face.”

“Well, I don’t appreciate your little joke.”

“But it made Flurry laugh. Isn’t that the most important takeaway here?”

Twilight sucked on her cheek, looking ready to blow, but eventually she forced herself to take a few deep breaths to settle her emotions. “I am going to be the mature one here and let things go.”

“Aww,” said Flurry. “But that was funny.”

Twilight’s gaze softened as she looked towards her niece. Flurry was starting to talk and had relaxed enough to laugh. That was more important to her than Shining making a joke at her expense. “Alright, Shining. I forgive you.”

She took a few more breaths to regain her composure. “You know me. You know I love to read and learn.” Flurry nodded. “Well, my mother had me put that love to good use. I loved to make lists, and she used that love to create bonding experiences between us that also were great at cheering me up.

“The books I read back then were a lot simpler than the ones I read now, and Mom always kept some craft books around for us to work on. Since we obviously didn't want to ruin the books she'd have me write down the instructions.

"It didn’t matter what the material was. It could be popsicle sticks, jewelry boxes, or little carts on a track in our living room. We’d follow the instructions, me ready to check them off one at a time. Just the simple act of creating something and seeing the end result was always a special experience.”

Twilight smiled widely. She put a hoof to her head. “Wow.”

“What’s up?” asked Cadance.

“I have a sudden urge to go to Canterlot and create something with my mom.”

“Maybe she can brush your mane too,” said Flurry, looking very content as her eyes drooped. “It does wonders for me.”

Twilight gave Flurry a warm smile, glad to see she was starting to feel better.

Time passed, and eventually Twilight bid them farewell.

Flurry was a little sad to see her go, but she knew her aunt couldn’t stay there forever.

With Twilight gone she lost that sense of completeness, that link in the chain holding her together.

She felt a desire to be alone now, and went to her room. Her parents tried to coax her into staying with them, but she didn’t listen to them.

She had thought her negative feelings were gone. She had had a long brushing and time with her family. Everything had turned back to normal, the way it should be. Now it felt like they had only been pushed to the side for a little while, and they were still waiting for her.

A few months ago her life had felt like nothing but pressure; a pressure to excel, a pressure to be her mother’s heir, a pressure to be a hero fighting monsters. That pressure had finally gone away when she met her friends, but now it felt like it was returning.

She knew her aunt meant well, but asking her to sit on her throne and suggesting that she would one day be part of the new Elements of Friendship just felt like that pressure was coming back. Her aunt realized her mistake and apologized for it, but it brought to mind the things she had been forgetting as she lived her ordinary life.

She was so deep in her thoughts she didn’t hear the knocking at her door a few minutes later. She didn’t even react until it sounded like an explosion went off nearby.

She jumped, letting out a yell as she looked around frantically for the source. Her eyes focused on Starlight, who was snickering.

“Hey there, Flurry!” she said brightly. “Back from your trip to Ponyville and you didn’t even pop in to say hello? If I hadn’t been out on a date with Sunburst I might have been offended.”

Flurry put a hoof over her racing heart. “H-Hello, Aunt Starlight.”

Starlight walked in, standing near the edge of her bed. “Well, I hope you don’t think you’re getting out of your magic lessons.”

Flurry glared at her. “Magic lessons? NOW? After everything that happened? Don’t you know what went on?”

Starlight’s eyebrow went up. “Should I?”

Flurry sputtered for a few moments, then her gaze softened. How would Starlight know if she just got back home?

“I thought you were going to cheer up a friend. Guess that didn’t work out so well.”

Flurry let out a huff. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Starlight shrugged. “Whatever. Not my business. At least I’m here to get your mind off your troubles.”

Flurry’s body tensed up. “I’m not in the mood! I’m not going to be able to concentrate on learning some new spell. My brain’s already fried as it is.”

Starlight sat down. “Well, that’s fine. We could always just review some of your previous lessons, like levitation. Doesn’t get much simpler than that.”

Flurry gave her a flat expression. “Levitation? Seriously?”

Ignoring Flurry’s poor reaction Starlight lifted up Flurry’s pillow and pulled out a feather from it. “Now,” she recited, “levitation is a skill every unicorn learns at the start. With a little bit of focus and a tiny bit of magic one can lift things up in the air.” With her magic Starlight lifted up the feather, then dropped it. “Now you try.”

Flurry crossed her hooves and rolled her eyes before lifting up the feather herself. Since Starlight obviously wasn’t taking the hint she didn’t care right now she’d just play along for a few minutes so she could get the mare to leave.

“Levitation may be a basic skill, but it has many applications, based on how you use it and what you use it on. For example…”

Flurry grumbled under her breath before letting out a squeal as Starlight tickled her side with the feather. The filly jerked away as Starlight snickered.

“… I can make a grumpy filly laugh.”

Flurry glared at her again. “Knock it off! I told you-EEEE!” She jumped as Starlight tickled her again. “Stop it!” She leapt off the bed as Starlight continued after her, forcing unwanted laughs out of her.

“Run, run, Flurry!”

After a minute of this Starlight dropped the feather and grabbed one of Flurry’s pillows with her magic, giving Flurry a gentle whack with it. Continuing in her academic tone she said, “The bigger the object the more magic it takes to lift and focus it, but a little pillow is still very light. Certainly light enough to annoy a tiny alicorn.”

Flurry stomped up to Starlight. “CUT IT OUT! I’m not in the mood for-OOF!” She recoiled a bit as Starlight whacked her again.

Starlight teleported another pillow onto the floor in front of her. “Let’s see if you’ve grasped the lesson.”

Flurry looked down at the pillow. “I’m not playing your game!”

“Okay, then. More whacks for me.” She put a little more into it this time, knocking Flurry onto her butt.

“Come on, little baby! What you got?” She smirked.

Flurry was steaming now as she shot up, her face going red. She grabbed the pillow in her magic, whacking Starlight in the face with it. “Enough!”

“Oh, do you finally want to play?” Starlight asked as she dropped the shield in front of her face. She swung at Flurry again, who put up her own shield in front of her. Starlight teleported the pillow, and whacked Flurry in the back of the head. “Ooh. Such poor spell work.”

Flurry let out a yell, going on the attack. She was sick of this game Starlight was playing.

Starlight simply blocked all of her hits. Flurry was in such a rage her attacks were pretty direct.

The longer things went on the angrier Flurry got, especially with the smirk Starlight kept flashing.

Flurry teleported directly in front of Starlight. Dispensing with magic entirely she used her hoof and slammed it into Starlight’s jaw, knocking her to the ground.

She used her magic to grab a second pillow, and relentlessly assaulted Starlight’s prone form with both of them.

“I told you to stop! I don’t need this today!” She continued ranting and raving the entire time.

After a minute the haze of her rage cleared, and as she came back to herself she felt fear that she had actually hurt her aunt. “Aunt Starlight?” she said, trembling.

She felt a light tap on the head, and a pillow bounced off it, falling to the ground.

She looked up to see Starlight hovering in the air above her, balancing on her horn with one front hoof. “Hello there.”

“You… you…” She looked over at the Starlight on the ground, and it vanished into energy.

Starlight landed, giving her a hug. “Well, I think you’ve got the hang of levitation.” The humor in her voice faded as she asked, “Feeling a little better now that you’ve worked out some of those heavy feelings inside?”

Flurry wasn’t sure if she was mad or relieved. “You did that on purpose?”

“Sure did. It’s not good to sit around and mope. Better to funnel those feelings into something productive.”

“Like beating you with a pillow?” she asked flatly.

“Hey, whatever works.”

“I… I could have really hurt you!”

“Nah. I’m not your guardian because of my looks, you know. Just like I’m entrusted to look after you in case any baddies come after you, I also need to be competent to deal with you when you’re not in control.

“You still have much to learn, my apprentice, before you’ll be able to take me down.”

Flurry grumbled a bit under her breath. “I think I could beat you.”

“Well, I’m not out to fight any more today. You had your magic lesson for the day, so you know what that means, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Ice cream sundaes!” Her voice trilled a bit at the end.

Flurry finally hugged Starlight back. “I think I'd like that. Can you… just not tease me anymore?”

“Can’t promise that, but it won’t be mean-spirited anymore.”

“I... I’ll settle for that.”

“Okay, so you ready?” As Starlight began to pull back Flurry grabbed her harder.

“No!” Flurry said. “I’m not done hugging you.”

“My apologies.” She increased the pressure as well. “I love you, Flurry.”

“And I love you too, jerk!”

Starlight chuckled.

6-18: Ice cream!

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When Flurry was ready she climbed onto Starlight’s back. “So what do you think?” the mare asked. “Should we bring the dork with us?”

“Of course!” said Flurry, and a with a flash of her horn they were outside Starlight and Sunburst’s room.

The door was half open, and Starlight could see Sunburst sitting at his desk reading a book. She jogged up to the door and bucked it open, making Sunburst jump and drop his book.

“Alright, you!” Starlight said in a playful tone. “You are hereby being abducted!”

“S-Starlight, please!” said Sunburst, catching his breath.

“So is this your thing now?” asked Flurry with a touch of annoyance. “Kicking doors open instead of just knocking?”

“Could be!” she replied with a giggle. “Let’s go, Mr. Wizard!”

“But I’m right at the best part,” Sunburst complained as she dragged him by his tail towards them. He was going to grab the book with his magic, but noticed it wasn’t on the floor anymore.

Sunburst flipped onto his back. “We just went out,” he said in a defeated voice.

“This isn’t about me.” She lifted Flurry off her back, levitating her in front of Sunburst. “This is about this cute little filly who just had a magic lesson and wants her ice cream sundae.”

“So what do you need me for? Isn’t that your bonding experience?”

“Because she wants you to come along. Right, Flurry?”

Flurry had a sad face now. “I… I had a bit of a bad day today, Uncle Sunny. I just want to surround myself with the people I love to feel better. But if you want to stay here that's okay. I won't be mad.”

“So… you still want to go back to your book?” asked Starlight knowingly.

Sunburst stood up. “Of course not. If you need me I’ll always be there, Flurry.” Flurry put her hooves out, and Sunburst hugged her close.

“Aww, I knew you’d see reason.”

Sunburst rolled his eyes as he gave her a flat look. “You could have just asked nicely instead of giving me a heart attack.”

“Oh, but what’s the fun in that?”

Sunburst sighed. “Out of all the mares in the world I just had to choose you.”

Starlight nuzzled his nose lovingly. “And I know you don’t regret it for a minute.”

Reluctantly Sunburst smiled and gave her a kiss. “You don’t make it easy sometimes.”

“I love you too, Sunbutt.”

Flurry snickered. She was already starting to feel better again. Everything felt normal once more. Aunt Starlight was being a troll and Uncle Sunburst was being his dorky, timid self.

As she released Sunburst she smiled and threw a hoof in the air. “Let’s go! I want my ice cream!” As much as she didn’t care for Starlight’s methods she couldn’t deny that her emotions were sitting less heavy on her after their magic fight.

Starlight flashed her a smile. “See what you did, uncle of the year?” She kissed him on the cheek.

His eyes turned into hearts for a moment. Starlight could grate on his nerves sometimes, but she was perfect to him. “As her Crystaller it falls on me to take on this task.”

“So you ready?” asked Starlight, her horn starting to light up.

“No!” said Flurry strongly. “No magic. I want to walk.”

“Suit yourself.” The glow faded.

Flurry climbed up on Sunburst’s back. “I’m ready now.”

She felt at ease as they walked out of the castle and to her favorite ice cream store. Like with her parents and Twilight before they didn’t talk about anything important, but that’s what made it important to her. She just wanted to forget her troubles for a while by talking about regular stuff with no big significance.

Sunburst didn’t press her for details on what made her day bad, for which she was grateful. Some might find it inconsiderate he didn’t do so, but she knew the way he was. When she went through hard times he offered her his unfailing support, regardless of what he was doing, knowing that she would talk about it when she was ready.

When they arrived at the shop they all took a booth. Since Flurry and Starlight were such regulars all the waitress had to ask was “The usual?” The two nodded, Flurry licking her lips in anticipation.

Sunburst wasn’t big on sweets, and the few times he tagged along he usually didn’t order anything.

Flurry wasn’t having that this time. “Uncle Sunny, you’re not just going to stare at us eating today!”

He knew he couldn’t argue with her. “Look, I’ll just share with Starlight.”

Starlight blushed lightly as she gave him a warm smile. “Oh, you romantic, you.”

Sunburst gave her a questioning look at first, then blushed heavily. “Oh, um, I…” He coughed. “That wasn’t a…”

Starlight looked up at the waitress. “The usual, but supersize it so I can share it with my darling husband here.”

“Right away,” said the mare, leaving to put in their order.

Starlight nuzzled him. “Don’t be shy, honey.”

“I’m not being shy!” he said firmly.

“Oh, but it’s okay for you to be. That’s what I fell in love with, you adorkable twit.”

Flurry put her head on her hooves, feeling a sense of joy. “You two are always so charming together. I hope one day I find a cool stallion like Uncle Sunny too.”

“C-cool… stallion?” Sunburst said, looking flattered.

“Even if you don’t have a lot of magical power like me and Aunt Starlight, you still helped to save the whole Crystal Empire when I broke the Crystal Heart as a baby and no one else knew what to do. You’re a real hero, Uncle Sunny.”

His blush grew deeper, unable to stop himself from smiling.

“Hmph!” Starlight snickered. “Didn’t help that you also destroyed the book we were going to use to recreate it.”

“No,” Flurry replied, “but you still couldn’t have done it without him. You tried and failed to put the Crystal Heart back together, and it was only because he read so much stuff he knew what to do.”

“True enough.” She rubbed his beard. “Couldn’t let a catch like that get away.”

In an oddly confident tone he said, “So you only like me for my fame?”

“Is there anything else about you I should be interested in?”

His confident act faded almost as quick as it arrived. He took the question seriously, awkwardly trying to list his good points.

Starlight resisted laughing, and let him go for a bit before kissing him to quiet him down. “You know what I think is the best thing about you?”

Sunburst looked a little love struck. “W-what’s that?”

She kissed him again, looking at him adoringly. “The fact that you’re mine.”

He looked back at her lovingly. “And I love that you’re mine.”

Flurry was beaming, loving to see them being affectionate. Just like with her parents, her aunt and uncle were at their best when she could have them together.

“So,” Starlight started, “when are you going to give me a baby?”

“WHAT?” His hoof shot up, knocking his glasses askew as he went to adjust them. “Look… um… t-this isn't the best time to... uh...” He gulped.

“I don’t want to wait anymore.” Starlight said seductively as she slowly got right in his face. “Let’s make it happen! Right here, right now. I don’t care who sees. Let them watch!”

“STARLIGHT!” He said in a panic, jerking back and going green as he sputtered incoherently.

Starlight burst into laughter as she retreated.

Flurry cracked up too. Starlight was such a joker.

Sunburst adjusted his glasses, still flustered as he panted and tried to regain his composure.

Starlight threw a hoof around him, nuzzling his cheek. “You’re such a dork,” she said lovingly. “I’m willing to wait as long as it takes for you to be ready. I would never rush you, silly.”

“Some jokes just aren’t funny!” Sunburst said with a huff.

“Aww, but it made Flurry laugh. Isn’t that worth something?”

Flurry snickered. Unintentional, but this was the second time today her family had made an embarrassing joke and asked to get a pass because it made her laugh.

When their ice cream arrived Flurry was feeling real good inside, and she knew she’d only feel better once they were done.

Sunburst was still in a bit of a sour mood over Starlight’s joke, sitting quietly with his hooves crossed.

Starlight thought of teasing him by throwing some ice cream at him, but she didn’t think it would go over well. She had gone a bit too far for that to do anything but push him away.

“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “That joke was in poor taste. Sometimes I don’t know where to stop when I mess around.”

For a few seconds Sunburst didn’t respond, just staring at the large bowl. “I’m not really in the mood for ice cream anymore, so you can have it all.”

Starlight pushed her side up against his, giving him puppy dog eyes. “Oh, come on, baby. I really am sorry. Let’s not let one tasteless joke ruin things for Flurry.”

Starlight felt a bit of guilt. She had said it mostly to appeal to Sunburst’s good nature, but now that she thought about it she really didn’t want Flurry’s good mood ruined because of her. She couldn't afford to let this time out go south. There was too much at stake here for her, and if things went bad it could taint her relationship with Flurry forever.

She gave Sunburst some space, looking down at her ice cream but not seeing it. “I guess I really did screw things up, huh?” She couldn't bring herself to look at Flurry, feeling some fear now that she had made a huge mistake.

Sunburst heard the shift in her tone, and glanced over at her, feeling like she was actually taking responsibility for things. Her face was downcast, and she looked genuinely sorry now that she wasn't making light of it. “Look, you crossed the line, but you’re right. Flurry deserves to be happy.”

Starlight glanced over at him. “So you forgive me?”

“Not quite.” Sunburst’s horn glowed, and Starlight let out a squeak as an invisible pressure forced her head downwards right into her bowl of ice cream.

Flurry gasped. She had never seen him do something like that before.

With a smirk he said, “Now you’re forgiven.”

Starlight sputtered as she raised her head, wiping off ice cream from her snout with her hooves. "SUNBURST!" Her eyes narrowed, and she looked like she was about to lose it. "Did you seriously just do that?"

Flurry began to laugh hysterically. It was one of the funniest things she had ever seen, if only because it was Sunburst that had done it, the very last pony she'd ever expect to do something like that.

“Come on, babe,” Sunburst said in a mocking tone. “I got Flurry to laugh. Doesn’t that count for something?”

Starlight tensed, hearing him repeat his words back to her, and after a few moments she got a big grin on her face, pleased at this rare display of boldness. She let out a smug laugh as she used magic to clean the mess on her face. “You know you’re a dead pony later, right?”

“Worth it.”

“Woohoo!” Flurry cheered, pumping her hoof. “Go, Uncle Sunny! Show her who’s boss.”

“Oh, please,” said Starlight, chuckling. “Like I’m afraid of this guy.”

Satisfied, Sunburst grabbed a spoon and began to dig in to what remained of the ice cream. After a moment Starlight joined him, with Flurry starting in on hers as well.

Once they finished up they walked back up to the castle. When they reached Starlight and Sunburst’s room Flurry thought they’d spend some more time together inside.

“Say goodbye to Sunburst, Flurry.”

“Where’s he going?” asked Flurry.

“Yeah,” Sunburst said right after. “Where am I going?”

“Thanks for coming along, Sunburst,” Starlight said as she gave him a big kiss. “Flurry really needed it.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied. “Of course I’d do anything for my little Flurry, but that doesn’t explain-”

Starlight’s horn glowed, and a book floated over to them from inside. “I think we’ve bothered you enough for now, so we’ll let you get back to the book you were reading before I so rudely interrupted you.”

Sunburst took the book, and to his surprise there was a bookmark in it. When he opened it to that page he saw that it was exactly where he had been. He was pleased by her thoughtfulness. “Thank you, Starlight.”

“You’re very welcome.

“Give Uncle Sunny a hug and a thank you, Flurry.”

Flurry hopped off Starlight’s back and gave him a big hug. “Thanks so much for coming out with us, Uncle Sunny. You're the best!"

Sunburst got a bashful look on his face. “C-come on. It wasn’t a big deal.”

“It was to me! I love you!”

He hugged her back. “I love you too, Flurry. It was a pleasant outing barring that joke from Starlight.”

“Hey,” said Starlight playfully. “You already got your revenge so I think we’re even, hmm?”

Sunburst rolled his eyes.

When they split apart Flurry levitated herself onto Starlight’s back again. “See you later, Uncle Sunny!”

He waved goodbye as the pair walked off, feeling so lucky to have the two of them in his life.

When they got back to Flurry’s room Starlight set her on her bed, sitting next to her. “So did you have fun?”

Flurry nodded. “Yes, Aunt Starlight. I had a blast!”

Starlight’s chipper attitude slipped, and she suddenly had an oddly heavy look about her. “Well, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”

“What’s that?” Flurry asked, feeling a little concerned.

“Like your feelings about your friend’s betrayal.”

Flurry tensed, pulling away and looking up at her. How did she know about that?

6-19: Fears

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Flurry’s mind was racing. Starlight knew about what happened? The mare hadn’t left her sight since first coming to see her. When could she have found out?

“How… how do you know about that?”

“I ran into Twilight as she was leaving. Since I play as big a part in your life as your parents she shared the memories of the day with me.”

Flurry blinked a few times, her brain having trouble processing that. When her emotions caught up with her thoughts she growled, jumping up. “You KNEW? You knew the whole time?” She gave Starlight a hard smack, feeling a sense of betrayal. “You knew how I was feeling after what happened, and YOU STILL CAME IN HERE AND TEASED ME AND MADE ME LOSE MY TEMPER?”

“Yes,” Starlight responded, looking unfazed by Flurry’s assault.

Flurry’s horn began to glow in her fury. “WHY?”

“Because I care about you, Flurry,” she said sincerely.

Flurry was so confused by her response that she couldn’t even muster an angry response, the glow fading. Starlight had her serious face on now. There was no trace of her mocking expression from before.

“I’ve watched you since you were a baby, Flurry. I’ve seen you at your worst and at your best, and I have a pretty good grasp on the things you need.”

“And I ‘needed’ to be provoked when I was already in a bad mood? That made sense when I thought you were clueless about things, but now it doesn’t make any sense at all!”

“What you needed was an outlet for your feelings. Spending time with your family trying to forget a bad day is fine, but it’s clear it wasn’t enough. I pushed you to get your negative emotions riled up, letting you safely explode and work out some of the pain sitting inside you with someone who had to skill to withstand that rage.

“I noticed that after our pillow fight you were definitely calmer.”

“So what? I don’t want to talk about what happened today!”

“Maybe not, but I think you need to. You know better than anyone the enormous pain you held inside for months before you met your friends. It was only once you talked about it that it was all resolved. You expressed the sentiment that if you had only talked about it sooner you wouldn’t have had to suffer so long.”

Flurry twitched, tears forming in her eyes.

“Today is no different. I let you express some of that to get it out of your system, then took you to cool off with Sunburst precisely so you’d have the emotional room to speak your mind without getting overwhelmed.

“I’m here, Flurry. No more mocking or taunting or playing around. I’m here as your sounding board. You can say anything you want to me, and I’ll wait as long as I have to.”

Flurry’s mind was in a whirlwind. She didn’t even know where to start. “Everything was too crazy! I was tortured and mocked and betrayed by a friend and made to forget all the friends I had. I just wanted to get away from all of that. Why do you have to bring this up now? Why couldn’t you wait until tomorrow, or next week?”

“Because I feel like as soon as I leave you you’re going to start dwelling on it anyway. Better to talk about it now and put it behind you than to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

“I was feeling perfectly happy just hanging out with the people I loved! Why couldn’t you just let it go? Now you had to remind me of it and those feelings are coming back!”

“Which is no different than what will happen when you’re on your own. The difference is that I’m here to help you through that rather than you trying it on your own.”

“Who asked you to butt in? I don’t care what your reasoning is. I… DON’T… WANT… TO… TALK… ABOUT …IT!

“You’re no better than Mayhem, tormenting me and doing things you know are going to hurt me.”

Starlight’s eyes narrowed.

“I guess I can’t get away from it now, now that you’ve reminded me.

“What do you understand about my feelings? What do you know about how I feel and betrayal and loneliness and fear? You’re the last person I want to talk to right now, so you should just GET OUT!"

Starlight looked down at the ground. “You little fool. I understand a lot more than you think.”

She hopped off the bed, blazing now as she closed the distance between them. “You think you’re so special? You think you’re so unique? You think you’re the only one in the world who has experienced the issues you have? Well, you’re dead wrong!”

Flurry didn’t respond as Starlight stopped in front of her.

“I’m not so different than you. Fears, responsibilities… I understand that. I understand how much normalcy means to you, which is the precise reason I wanted to free you of your burden. But… I… I also needed it for myself.”

“Hmm?” She saw Starlight begin to shiver, a scared look about her as her eyes clenched shut. “What…” She found her rage fading. “What do you mean?”

“Twilight… she’s a nice person, but a terrible liar.”

“Liar?”

Starlight opened her eyes, a dead look about them. “I ran into her after Sunburst went off to read. I told you that she showed me the memories of your adventure, but she didn’t show me all of them.”

Flurry’s eyebrow went up.

“Oh, she tried to hide it, but it was so obvious she was hiding something I’m sure she knew I would figure out something was up. She probably hoped I just wouldn’t ask about it.

“You see… there was an odd gap in the memories she showed me. The green colt came flying in, and then suddenly all your friends were on the ground and Sombra was before you getting blasted.”

A tear came down her eye. “Now… what do you suppose Twilight wanted to hide from me? Who showed up right after your friend was attacked?”

"Hmm? Well, that was-" Flurry gasped, her insides going cold.

“I pushed Twilight, demanding to know about that gap. Seeing I wouldn’t be dissuaded she reluctantly showed me the rest.”

Flurry lifted a hoof, lost for a response.

Starlight put a hoof to her face, letting out a sob. “I… I saw it all. I saw that fake tormenting you, telling you horrible lies. Telling you that I had only used Sunburst to get close to the royal family… that I had been lying to you your whole life. T-That I had been the one to throw you into that horrible place.”

Her whole body clenched up as she hugged herself. “Saying… saying that I intended to KILL you and throw your dead body in front of your parents so I could wipe them out too when they were distracted by grief.”

Tears came down Flurry’s eyes at the sheer pain in Starlight’s voice.

“I saw how you were so broken by your friends seemingly dead that you agreed to attack Celestia and Luna if it meant no one else you loved had to die.” Tears streamed down Starlight’s eyes. “The very idea that you’d even accept such an offer from someone posing as me disgusted me, and there was nothing I could do about it but watch the memories play, even as I wanted to grab you and hug you.”

“Aunt Starlight…” Flurry was trembling slightly too. Aunt Starlight was always such a strong mare. She was cool and calm and funny and a great role model to her… someone she aspired to be when she grew up. To see her breaking down like this felt so foreign.

“After it all… I felt what I’m sure you were feeling just a short while ago.” Her voice was a little more composed now. “An unbearable heaviness took over me. I almost let it take me, until Twilight pushed me.”

“Starlight… Flurry is very vulnerable right now. She’s having trouble standing on her own, and she needs the support of her pillars to serve as her strength.”

“When I thought of you I felt like you needed me. I couldn’t surrender to despair, not when you were so down yourself. I gathered my strength, overcame those feelings, and went to look for you. I played dumb so you wouldn’t get defensive, putting on my best face and acting like my usual self.”

“So,” Flurry said slowly, “that’s what all this was about?”

Starlight was quiet for a while. “I’d like to say that it was all for your sake… but the truth is that it wasn’t.”

Flurry gave her a questioning look. “Then who was it for? My parents?”

Starlight looked into Flurry’s eyes. “It was for you, but… it was also for me. Because I needed it.”

“So you were messing with me to make yourself feel better?”

“No! Flurry, no!” She let out a heavy breath, looking distraught. “I was afraid.”

Flurry was trying to put the pieces together, but they just weren’t adding up.

Starlight could see that Flurry didn’t understand. “A long time ago I lost myself. My best friend left me, and I blamed cutie marks on it, going down a dark path until Twilight snapped me out of it.

“Since that time when she pardoned me I’ve done my best to separate myself from the person I used to be. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but through her efforts I reunited with Sunburst, ending that chapter of my life. I found happiness having him close.

“Then I was given a tremendous responsibility in becoming a caretaker for you, and you made me happy too. You really cared for me, and the first time you called me ‘Aunt Starlight’ it…” She smiled warmly as tears came down her eyes. “I’m sure it’s what a parent feels when they hear the same.

“Then I got married, and as you grew I began to play a bigger part in your life, teaching you magic and spending a lot of my free time with you.

“It all meant so much to me. For the first time since I was a child I felt genuinely happy. I felt like… like I had a family in you and Sunburst, and I was able to forget the past.”

Flurry smiled at her, but it faded when Starlight’s did.

“Mayhem,” Starlight said quietly. “I can’t wish that he got a harsher sentence when the only reason I’m here is because of forgiveness, but… I’m starting to remember things I’d rather not.”

She let out a little sob as she started crying again. “That’s why I needed that time out with you. I wanted to see the way you reacted to me.”

“Hmm? What do you mean, Aunt Starlight?”

Starlight clenched, her eyes closing for a moment. “ 'Aunt Starlight'… that’s right. You do still call me that.”

Flurry was starting to get really concerned. “What else would I call you?”

She didn’t answer that one. “I… I had to know. I had to see if the you way you acted around me changed because of today.”

Flurry’s head tilted. “Why would it change?”

“Because… because you believed that fakers lies.”

Flurry flushed, feeling guilty as tears came down her eyes. “Aunt Starlight, I’m so-”

Starlight put a hoof up. “You don’t have to apologize, Flurry.”

“But I do! I never should have-”

Starlight put the hoof to Flurry’s mouth. “I’m not blaming you, Flurry! I want to make that crystal clear. Being sent to another dimension full of the worst evil in the world and having your memories of your friends purged from your mind hardly left you with the mental capacity to think rationally.”

Flurry pushed Starlight’s hoof down. “So if you’re not blaming me then why does it matter? I figured out it was a fake at the end.”

“It matters because it terrifies me.”

“But why?”

“I can’t tell you what a relief it was to go out and have you treat me as you’ve always done. You figured out it was a fake Starlight telling lies, but what if… what if that got you thinking?”

“Thinking about what?”

“Like, ‘what if the real Starlight’ is no different?’ “

A pained look came to Flurry’s face.

“What if you started questioning everything I had ever done for you? What if you started giving me suspicious or uncomfortable looks every time we were together, wondering if I was one day going to betray you?”

Starlight's breath caught for a moment, her eyes slowly shrinking. “And what if it didn’t stop there? What if every question I asked you made you think I was just gathering information for that time? Your suspicion would grow and grow until you saw everything I did as preparing for the time I would strike."

"I... but I wouldn't..."

Her breathing got shorter. “Everything I’ve achieved and gained would be ruined. Eventually you’d tell your parents you don’t want me around anymore and they’d banish me from the Crystal Empire and Sunburst would begin to wonder too and divorce me and Twilight would throw me in Tartarus and I’d be all alone for eternity and-”

“Aunt Starlight!” Flurry cried out, hugging the mare as tears came down her eyes. She was kicking herself for not doing it sooner.

She sniffed. “Are you kidding me? How could you ever think that?”

Starlight looked down at her, panting.

Flurry extended her wings, wrapping them around Starlight as well. “Even if we’re not blood related you’re part of my family, now and forever. No stupid fake is going to take that away from me.

“Don’t… don’t say such horrible things.”

Starlight hugged her back, quietly crying. “I… how could I not be scared? So much time has passed. I’ve felt a sense of completeness and wholeness, experiencing joys I never thought I ever would. I consider you part of my family too, Flurry. To think of losing all that because an impersonator got into your head…” Her grip tightened as she let out a sob.

Flurry felt like breaking down herself. She had never seen her aunt in such pain. “I was a mess. That’s the only reason I was fooled. I know who you really are, and I want you to stay with me and my family forever.

“You and Uncle Sunburst… you make me so happy. When my parents were busy with their jobs you took care of me. When I didn’t have any friends I enjoyed just spending time with you because you were real with me.

“Today already had enough bad feelings.” She nuzzled Starlight’s cheek. “So don’t let something stupid like this hurt you too.

“I love you, Aunt Starlight, and that’s never gonna change! You got that?”

Starlight let out a heavy breath. “T-thank you,” she said thickly.

“In a bit of a bad mood, huh?”

“You could say that.”

“I know what will help.” Flurry said as her horn lit up.

“What’s tha-AH!” She felt a soft impact on the back of her head as Flurry chuckled. “What was that?” She saw a pillow on the floor.

“You shouldn’t mope, Aunt Starlight. You should do something more productive with those feelings.”

Starlight sucked on her cheek. At first she was annoyed that Flurry was making light of her emotions, but she had done the same thing earlier, and it seemed Sunburst wasn’t the only one seeking a little payback.

She looked at the pillow on the floor, unsure if she wanted to go along with it. She could see that Flurry was trying to make her happy by copying her.

She let out a squeak as she felt a tickly feeling on her side and jerked back, seeing Flurry give her a devious expression as she held up a feather.

“Come on! What you got, baby?”

Starlight let out a huff, seeing Flurry's taunting gaze. If Flurry wanted to throw down then she was ready.

The next five minutes dissolved into a magic fight much like before. There was plenty of laughter, at first only on Flurry’s side, but Starlight got into the action after a minute.

When they stopped they were both panting, smiling at each other.

“Feeling… better?” Flurry asked as she caught her breath.

“Y-yeah.” Starlight replied as she took in a big gulp of oxygen. “That was fun.”

Flurry beamed. “I’m glad.”

Starlight returned the gesture, but it faded again just like before. “I’m sorry,” she said sadly.

“Hey, hey!” Flurry cried out. “I thought we just worked out your bad feelings. Why are you getting down again?”

“This… wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I came here to help you through your problems, but then I made it all about me and added to your stress.”

Flurry growled. “Don’t talk like that! I know better than anyone how bad it feels to hold in a deep, painful secret. I’m GLAD you told me about your fears. You think I wanted you to go through the same fear and pain I did for months, always wondering if I was scared of you and wanted to kick you out of my life?” Angry tears came down her eyes. “You think I wanted to see you hurting like I did? Never! I wouldn’t wish that on anybody!”

The anger faded out of her voice and expression. “Just like you’re here for me, I’m glad I could be there for you when you needed me.”

Flurry took in a deep breath. “And… I… feel…” She paused for a few moments. “I'm sorry for snapping at you before, Aunt Starlight. I know you were only trying to help."

"It's okay, Flurry," Starlight responded. "I know it's hard for you."

"I was trying to run from my problems again, and I don't want to hold it in like before.

"If you’re feeling better now I think that… that I’m ready.”

“I do feel better,” said Starlight. “I needed to hear that and dispel those feelings.

“If you need me I’m always here for you.” She sat down on Flurry’s bed, the filly quickly joining her. “So… you want to talk about today? Are you sure? I don't want you to feel like I'm pushing you.”

She was quiet again for a while. Finally, she responded, “Yes. I… think that it is what I need right now.”

“Okay.”

“But first hugs!”

Starlight chuckled. “I agree. Hugs first.”

The two of them held each other, feeling a sense of love for each other.

“I love you, Aunt Starlight.”

“And I love you too, little Flurry.”

6-20: Piercing question

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“So let's talk about today,” said Starlight, “where do you want to start?”

Flurry looked up towards Starlight. “What do you think, Aunt Starlight? Do you think I made the right choice? I really care for Mayhem, but maybe he’s too dangerous to be free. Maybe Aunt Twilight’s plan won’t work.”

“Considering I’m only here with you right now because of being pardoned by a princess for my crimes I certainly have a bias when I say I think you did the right thing.”

Flurry got an odd expression on her face, her cheeks going slightly red.

“What?” asked Starlight.

“I…” She looked away, her blush getting deeper. “I… just…”

“Come on,” Starlight said gently. “I told you that I’m here to listen to you.”

Flurry slowly looked up at her, but focused on her snout, unable to look the mare in the eyes. “I have a question, but it’s… uncomfortable.”

“That’s okay. Just take your time.”

“Do… does a part of you ever… wonder about what things would be like if you weren’t stopped?” Her cheeks felt red hot. “Like, do you ever regret Aunt Twilight getting in the way of your plans?”

The question was very disheartening to Starlight, and she understood Flurry’s reluctance to ask. “Why are you asking a question like that now? I thought we just established that you weren’t going to let a fake Starlight dictate what you thought of me, but now you’re asking if I wished I had continued to ruin lives?”

Flurry clenched, tears coming down her eyes. “It’s not… I didn’t…” She took in a breath, still unable to look Starlight in the eyes. “It’s not what you think!”

“Then what is it?” Starlight asked with an edge in her voice. “How did we go from what happened today to my past?”

“I don’t doubt you, Aunt Starlight, b-but… but I need to know while we’re on the subject. Before Mayhem revealed that we used to be friends I was already ready to forgive him, and that was because of you. You told me about Aunt Twilight pardoning you, and I saw how different you were from the pony you told me about, and I felt like Mayhem could do the same thing.”

“If you believe in me then why do we need to talk about it? I suffered enough watching that fake saying such horrible things.”

Flurry finally looked into Starlight’s eyes. “Because I want to understand.”

“Understand what?”

Flurry squirmed. “We only talked about it once. You told me, and it hurt. I forgave you, and then I forgot about it.

“You… told me that you took me out to see if the way I was with you changed. You were worried that I would start thinking bad things about you.”

Flurry paused, trying to think of the right way to phrase what she was thinking. “I think of you as a trusted member of my family. If there was danger I would gladly put my life in your hooves without hesitation, and I couldn’t be happier that my parents think so much of you that they put you in charge of me in case of an emergency. I respect you as much as I do Aunt Twilight and Uncle Sunny and my parents.”

The praise caused Starlight’s expression to grow more relaxed.

Tears came down her eyes. “I know it hurts, but please believe me when I say that I asked my question, not because I doubt you, but because I’m afraid that I’m going to in the future. And that’s why… why I really need to hear it from you again. I want to hear you fully reject the bad you that you used to be, because I don’t want to start having second thoughts about you either.

“It goes beyond just you, though. When I think of Mayhem I wonder if I really did the right thing, even if Aunt Twilight said she would have done the same. I was the one that chose to forgive him. My friends left that choice up to me on whether to spare him or destroy him or lock him up. That makes me responsible for his actions if he ever goes bad again, and I don’t want to have any regrets over that or feel like I was just being selfish.

“Can you understand what I’m saying?”

Starlight closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, starting to grasp what Flurry was going for. Flurry might have dismissed the idea of the fake changing how she felt about her, but it might be just in the moment. She wanted to preempt negative feelings hours or days from now by putting everything out in the open before it became an issue.

The filly made her position quite clear that she was dedicated to not letting the fake Starlight taint her relationship with her, the real one. Flurry was afraid, not of her, but of her own feelings.

She let out another sigh, knowing if she refused to talk it would damage her relationship with Flurry, a price too high for her to pay. “Fine,” she said in a resigned voice, opening her eyes.

“It all started with good old Uncle Sunburst. I don’t think I need to explain what the joy of a good friend is like. Our relationship was doubtless like the one shared by you and Crystal. We lived close together, spending our days side by side. He was the only friend I had… the only friend I needed. My feelings back then weren’t romantic, but he just filled me with joy every time we hung out.

“Sunburst’s magical ability sparked when a stack of books nearly fell on me, protecting me from harm. He got his cutie mark because of it… and then with that he was gone.”

Flurry bit her lip at the forlorn expression on Starlight’s face. “Weren’t you… happy for him at least?”

“I didn’t have time to be. Our connection had always been strong, sharing everything together, but that changed suddenly. He ran off, so excited by his cutie mark and his magical potential that he left me all alone without a second thought. He wanted to show it off.

“And after he told his parents about what he had done they went with him to Canterlot to enroll him in Celestia’s school. He didn’t even say goodbye to me before he left.

“The feelings I went through at that moment I’m sure you can also understand, that moment right before Mayhem purged your memories. I felt like my heart had been ripped out and stomped on, suddenly finding myself alone.

“No matter what way I thought about it I kept coming to the same conclusion: my pain was a direct result of a cutie mark. If Sunburst hadn’t gotten his cutie mark at that moment he would still be with me.” Tears came down her eyes, finding her emotions back in the past. “Even if he didn’t go to Canterlot he still decided to show off for everyone in public first before sharing his joy with me. It felt like I had suddenly become unimportant to him.”

Flurry had an uncomfortable look on her face. “Did you… did you ever talk to him about this?”

“I’m not a child anymore, Flurry. I understand now that youthful enthusiasm drove him to want to show everyone.

“Well, time moved on. I never wound up making another friend. The few times I tried I was left with a seething fear that my new friendships would end the same way, and so I abandoned them before that could happen. Even if they already had a cutie mark it only meant that our lives were going to be pulled in different directions eventually. I wasn’t ready to face pain like that again, so I just spent most of my time alone.”

Flurry could identify with that. She had basically been the same when it came to her fears. She had also let go of friendships easily. “But… you eventually got your own cutie mark. Couldn’t you have applied for Celestia’s school too?”

“I didn’t see the point. While I eventually found out after we united it was because Sunburst was ashamed he wasn’t particularly good at magic, he didn’t even bother writing me any letters since leaving. What would I gain from seeing him? I certainly didn’t expect our friendship to be renewed just because we were in the same school. If he thought so little of what we used to have he couldn’t even send me a letter I certainly didn't expect him to think any more of me once we saw each other face to face again.

“My thinking slowly grew warped. I began to blame cutie marks for all the wrongs that plighted ponies. And what I looked for I saw, because I disregarded anything that went against what I wanted to see. By making cutie marks responsible for breaking me and Sunburst apart it allowed both of us to be blameless.”

“Blameless?” asked Flurry.

“Meaning that it wasn’t something wrong with me that caused Sunburst to abandon our friendship. And by clinging to the thought that Sunburst was effectively brainwashed by his cutie mark it allowed me not to be angry at him. It allowed me to still care for him as my dear friend who had just been forced to be different, which tied into me not being personally responsible for our friendship ending.”

“I… get it,” Flurry said slowly. “So you were just looking for excuses?”

“Pretty much.

“I felt like I was doing a noble thing when I created my spell to take cutie marks away and replace them with equal signs. I didn’t get a sense of joy out of earning my cutie mark like so many others. The first thing I did when I got mine was to try and find a way to get rid of it.”

“Mmm…” All the ponies Flurry knew that talked about their cutie marks had always been so proud.

“I first used my spell on myself. My cutie mark came off, floating away for a bit before instantly returning to my side. I found that cutie marks were loyal little things, and had to be kept inside a sealed object or they’d go right back to their owners.

“At first I felt glad to be free of it, but I realized that I could do so much more for others with my spell, and the only way I could use that spell is by keeping my cutie mark. It was an annoying conundrum, but it was the best I could do.”

“So…” Flurry’s cheeks grew a little rosy. “You needed your special talent to bring ponies together, even though you were preaching they drove ponies apart? You... were kinda a hypocrite from the start, huh?”

Starlight gave her a dirty look for a few moments, but it faded. “Yes… yes, I was. I felt like there was so much good I could do for the world by getting rid of cutie marks, but that was only possible as long as I had mine.

“I took an abandoned patch of land and set to work, creating my own little ‘utopia’ in the middle of nowhere.”

Flurry’s eyes widened. “You set up that place by yourself?”

Starlight gave a little nod. “Who could I ask for help? I didn’t have any friends, and I wasn’t on the best of terms with my parents.”

Flurry was trying to picture it. “But… b-b-but the amount of wood and materials that would take…”

“Well, it wasn’t like I did it completely by myself. I did pay a company to at least deliver everything I needed, but everything else was all me. It took me a bit to figure out the mechanics, but my magic was up to the task."

“But where did you get the money to buy so much material?”

“ ‘Borrowed’ it.”

Flurry sucked on her cheek. “Stole it?” she asked to confirm.

“Basically. I took out a loan, never intending to pay it back. Of course one of my main reasons for building a place in the middle of nowhere was privacy as I enacted my plans, but it also ensured I would never have to worry about being pestered.

“I told myself it was for the greater good.”

“Mmm… you never mentioned thievery the last time you told me this story.”

“It just wasn’t something that came to mind. It would be like saying I blew up Ponyville after stealing one of Twilight’s books. I was just focusing on the main thing.”

“So, uh… did you fix that?”

“Well, I did offer up a nice magical artifact as collateral when I took out the loan, so it wasn’t like I gave him nothing. Not enough to cover all that I owed, but enough to make a nice bit of money off of.

“By the time I found him again he had basically forgotten me. It’s part of the risk of a loan business that you’re going to have ponies run off with the loot.

"Twilight was with me, and she vouched for me about how I was starting over and trying to right old wrongs. He was, naturally, sore with me, but we worked out a payment plan and over the past years I’ve paid that off.”

Flurry looked away, sucking on her cheek.

“Does it bother you that I forgot to mention that?”

“No… but I just… I feel kinda sad.”

“Why?”

“Wasn’t it lonely? I can’t imagine a day without being around the people I love. To think of you being completely alone for days or weeks trying to figure out how to construct houses… it just makes me feel sad.”

“I see…” She thought back to that time. “The days seemed to fly by. I had a goal clear in my mind, and I intended to see it through. Nothing else mattered to me as long as I could set things up for the ‘proper’ way ponies should be.

“Once it was done I just needed to fill it with ponies. I would get to conduct my own little trial run and show the world how much better life would be without cutie marks.

“I managed to convince a group of ponies of my beliefs. They were uncertain but willing. I had to play like I was also without a cutie mark by painting an equal sign over my own and pretending a worthless stick was the source of my power.

“I was… happy.” Starlight let out a sound of disgust.

“But… were you really?” Flurry asked uncertainly.

“Oh, I thought I was at the time.” Starlight put a hoof to her face, feeling a pit of revulsion in her stomach. “I deceived everyone around me, but covered it up with more lies. I had to lie to myself constantly that I was doing the right thing. I told myself these ponies really were my friends, and things would never end the same way they did with Sunburst.”

She let out a rough growl as her hoof slid off her face. “I sat comfortable on my ‘throne’ with the best house in the village. When people started to veer away from the way I wanted them I’d break their spirits back to my will, all the time thinking it was what was best for them.

“But that was never the truth!” Her voice grew angrier and angrier. “I never cared about them as people! They were effectively just possessions or pets. Oh, sure, I claimed they had freedom to do what they wanted, but I never intended to let them go. They were mine, and what they wanted didn’t matter so long as I got what I wanted.”

Flurry felt a little scared. Starlight’s past thoughts were kinda horrifying.

“And that was why I hatched my grand scheme when Twilight came in and ruined everything I had set up. I hated all of them for taking me away from my new group of ‘best friends,’ ruining the trust they had in me and making me an outcast in my new home.”

The rage left her voice, and she began crying again. “Once again… I was all alone. It nearly drove me mad with grief.” She put a hoof to her heart. “Everything that I had set up, in order to make myself happy, had fallen apart.

“I didn’t want to face the wrongness of my actions, so the only thing I could do is keep pushing forward. I felt like I would drown in my emotions of sadness, and the only thing that gave me some sense of purpose was when I began to focus on Twilight.

"The weight of depression that left me immobile would fade, and rage and revenge became the only things that gave me strength. It was the only thing that got my hooves moving. I didn’t have anything else to live for at the time so I’d return the favor to Twilight by taking her friends away from her.”

Flurry couldn’t really understand Starlight’s feelings. She had never felt a desire for revenge before. At least, nothing that wasn’t spur of the moment. She couldn’t imagine being so filled with rage she’d want to ruin someone’s life over it.

However, she did understand the feeling of loss. When Mayhem stated his intentions to get rid of her memories of her friends it had been one of the worst feelings of her life.

In a quiet voice she asked, “But why time travel?” She felt uncomfortable putting it forward, but she had to ask. “If you… if you wanted to make Aunt Twilight suffer couldn’t you have just…” She squirmed around, her stomach twisting in knots.”…k-killed them?”

Starlight sighed. “I was a bad person, but I wasn’t out to be a murderer. I still fancied myself a good individual.”

Again Flurry felt it tough to bring up what was on her mind. “But you were planning revenge. How is that good?”

“Because morality is different based on what side of the fence you’re on. Most everyone wants to think that they’re good. Probably even Sombra would have called himself a good pony.”

Flurry’s eyes narrowed. “He ENSLAVED all his subjects and forced them to do whatever he wanted! He probably would have killed my parents if he wasn’t stopped!”

Starlight gave a little nod. “True, and most anyone would call that evil. However, you’re seeing it from your mind and your perspective. In his mind maybe he had his own reasons for doing what he did, and justified them much in the same way I did. His reasons might disgust you if he told you about them, but to him they would be enough.”

Flurry crossed her hooves. “I don’t care WHAT his reasons were. Nothing he ever said could convince me he was doing the right thing.”

“And that’s fine. You don’t have to agree or understand him. We’re not talking about him anyways.”

“Right…” Flurry bit her lip. “So now… now we come to…”

“Yep.” Starlight was glad it was almost over. She didn’t like wading through these old bad memories.

“I studied Twilight for a while after that, despite that Twilight wasn’t the only one to ruin me. Without Twilight’s magic to protect them I could have gone back and attacked my former friends but I put all my focus on the alicorn. I wanted to know what made her tick. I studied up on her history, and followed her around at times, trying to come up with the perfect revenge plot.

“It all came together during a lecture she gave on friendship when she talked about forming a connection with her friends before even meeting them. A sonic rainboom caused by Rainbow Dash caused all six of them to get their cutie marks the same day.

“When Twilight was away I tinkered with the map, fortifying Starswirl’s temporary time travelling spell with something more stable. Then when Twilight returned I struck, sending us both back in time to the moment of the rainboom and disrupting it before sending her back so she could see the results of what it felt like to lose her friends.

“I left the scroll with the spell to travel back in time behind, knowing she would use it. I knew Twilight wouldn’t just accept losing her friends, and so I also knew she would return, over and over and over. I had set it up so that whenever Twilight went back to the past I would be sent back too, a few moments before her.

“I had opportunities to destroy her if I so wished, but I wasn’t after her life. The very first time she came back I hit her with a spell that froze her in place, simply so I could spell out what I was doing.

“One time when she came back she found me talking to the one who had set this all off in the first place: Fluttershy. I put her in a rough predicament by talking her bullies into being nicer to her.

“Since the race that caused the rainboom only happened because of Rainbow standing up for her friend, the only way she could ensure history took its proper course would be to encourage bullying.”

Flurry winced.

“In the end it became a game to see how long Twilight would last before her heart shattered. We would keep going and going and going, each pass hurting her heart a little more.

“At first she’d be determined, but with every failure to stop me she’d feel like she was letting down her friends. That mental strain would start to create doubt, and eventually it would become too much for her to handle.”

Flurry felt like there were worms crawling in her stomach, a chill going down her spine. She tried to imagine Mayhem doing that sort of trial with her. He sorta did. All his efforts at the end were mainly to try and prove they weren’t really friends and to get her to give up on them.

Mayhem knew he could easily kill her, but in order to keep things interesting he simply fought to break her spirit and make her give up.

“Were you really that confident?” asked Flurry.

“I was in complete control. It wasn’t like I had to have a magic fight with Twilight every time. All I had to do was stop Rainbow from completing the rainboom. Just a little bit of magic to stop that moment is all it took.

“In one of the trips to the past we did wind up having a fight, but we stalemated. Honestly, that might have worked against me, but the fight drew the kids attention and they stopped the race to watch us.”

Flurry got a curious look on her face. “But Aunt Twilight is an alicorn and one of the best magic users in the world. I know you’re good, but you’re only a unicorn.”

“It’s like I said earlier: I was the one in control. I was perfectly calm in the heat of battle. On the other hoof, Twilight isn’t used to a prolonged fight. I’m sure that concern for her friends blurred her stability a bit, since it was after quite a few passes that she finally tried combat. She didn’t have her usual restraint, being a bit reckless with the power of her spells. As a result she exhausted herself pretty quickly.”

“That makes sense.” When she had gotten serious against the fake Sombra she had used way more power than she probably needed, leaving her completely wiped.

Starlight began to feel sick to her stomach. “I enjoyed it. I enjoyed every minute of it. Every time she failed to stop me I knew she’d suffer a little more.

“You… asked me earlier why I used time travel rather than just attack her friends directly. Part of that was just about being pragmatic. I could have done what Mayhem did, and push Twilight into constantly having to protect her friends from my assaults, but I wanted to see Twilight despair. The fake Starlight said that after the grief of loss passes it becomes rage at the one who hurt them. While me and Twilight were pretty evenly matched a rage boost to her power would have overcome me, and there would go my revenge plot.

“Time travel threatened her friendship with her friends, but it didn’t threaten them directly, and thus Twilight’s powers were kept in check. So long as she had hope and the map she would keep coming back for more while still being fully manageable.”

Flurry looked down at her lap. “So it was just supposed to be an endless loop of Aunt Twilight trying and failing?”

“Basically, but that got derailed after only eight or so times when she dragged me along for the ride when we returned to the present.”

Starlight’s horn lit up, and the area changed to match the dead landscape from the final alternate future.

Flurry looked around, impressed at how real it looked, but she could still see all her furniture around her room, and despite the dust blowing around she couldn’t feel the breeze.

“I found myself in an empty wasteland, with seemingly no survivors. I didn’t want to believe Twilight at first when she claimed it was the present. She claimed that this wasn’t the first bad future she had come back to, but this one was the worst.

“I felt like she couldn’t understand me, and so I showed her what happened with Sunburst. She still wouldn’t accept that cutie marks drove others apart. She felt those differences are what brought them closer.

“I went back one last time, now tired of my game. I decided I would rip up the scroll allowing this changing of time entirely, permanently changing the future.”

Tears quietly fell from her eyes. “I still remember that moment as if it was yesterday. Even before I surrendered to her Twilight saw me as a lost soul worth saving. She saw the pain I was in.

“It wouldn’t have been difficult for us to have a magic fight over that scroll, but she believed in the good in me and talked me down, encouraging me to try again to make new friends. Although she didn’t wish for the horrors that came from her not meeting her friends to come to pass, she still risked the world to save me too.”

She sniffed, feeling a little overwhelmed. “She saw how my actions were motivated by fear, and extended her heart out to mine. Despite all the pain and suffering I had put her through she still offered her hoof in friendship with no strings attached. It was the first time since Sunburst that I felt… like I was truly being seen.”

She put her hooves to her face, gently sobbing.

Flurry put her wings around Starlight, crying too. She understood that feeling perfectly as she thought of her seven friends.

When Starlight settled down she wiped her eyes. “Sorry,” she said with a sniff.

“Don’t be sorry, Aunt Starlight,” Flurry replied. “It took me quite a few fakes before I found friends who saw me for all I am. Nothing wrong with crying when you’re happy.”

Starlight took in a breath. “I suppose not.

“As for the rest, Twilight took me under her wing, I screwed up a bunch when I’d slip back into manipulation, and she eventually pushed me to rekindle my friendship with Sunburst. The rest is history.

“What I did in the past is horrible, but at the time it made sense to me. It felt like the only thing I could do. I wound up with a bunch of friendships that were ultimately insincere and only held together by lies and manipulation.

“Past me saw it as a good thing. Present me can’t stand how stupid I used to be, and if it hadn’t been for Twilight I likely would have spent the rest of my life harming others. Good riddance to her.

"Now I have relationships based on love and trust, where I don’t feel afraid and I have genuine connections, hiding nothing. As uncomfortable as it was, that was why I told you about my villainous past, because I didn’t ever want you to feel like I was keeping secrets from you.”

Starlight let out a breath. “So… you satisfied? Can we just leave the past in the past now?”

Flurry didn’t answer, a thoughtful expression on her face. Although some time had passed since she last heard the story it basically sounded the same as it had last time.

Starlight figured it wouldn’t go so simple, so she waited patiently, closing her eyes.

After a minute Flurry suddenly tensed and gasped.

Starlight opened her eyes. “What’s wrong?”

Flurry muttered to herself for a bit before she began shivering and bit her hoof.

Starlight saw the expression on Flurry’s face switching rapidly, as if she was unsure what she was feeling. “What, Flurry? What’s going through that head of yours?”

Flurry let out a heavy breath. “Nothing!” she cried out, her voice cracking.

“Don’t lie, Flurry. Maybe you don’t realize that your inner feelings are plastered all across your face, but you look like you’re about to blow.”

Flurry’s breathing shortened as she began panting slightly. “I noticed....but it can’t… I…”

“Yeeees?”

The filly shook her head hard. “It’s nothing!”

“Flurry!” Starlight said sharply, making the filly twitch. Her voice grew gentler. “Do you remember why we’re talking about this? You said this was an act of trust, not of doubt. If something has occurred to you that seems off then just be honest about it and let me try and explain it.”

“B-b-but you can’t! Y-you can’t just talk your way out of it! And… and…” She took in a sharp breath. “I… I feel like you lied to me!”

“Mmm…” Starlight really wondered what was going through her mind. “Flurry, I have told you nothing but the truth. Just because you don’t have an explanation for something I did doesn’t mean I don’t have one. Maybe you won’t like the answer I give, but you can at least give me the chance to account for myself.

“Whatever it is that’s going through your head just tell me. Please!”

Flurry’s eyes clenched shut, hating the terrible feelings going through her. They were too strong to keep inside, even though she desperately tried to.

She glared up at Starlight, her voice trembling. “Y-YOU said that you didn’t know what was happening until Aunt Twilight forced you to see that empty future, but that’s impossible! This wasn’t something you just did on the spur of the moment when you were angry. This was something you planned after weeks or months of studying.

“HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN? How? If you knew that Aunt Twilight saved the world a bunch of times with her friends then what did you expect was going to happen when you stopped her from meeting them?

“If you stopped my parents from meeting it would be stupid to expect me to still be born, so there’s no way you couldn’t know that stopping the rainboom would lead to the world being ruled over by all these horrible creatures!”

Flurry hugged herself, quietly sobbing. “I don’t like what you did to my aunt, but I can at least understand that. I can understand you were so upset you wanted revenge on her, but what about everyone else? You were willing to let the whole WORLD suffer because of it? Did you not care at all about all the hundreds of innocent lives that were ruined because of that?”

With every line out of Flurry’s mouth Starlight felt worse and worse. It felt like her worst fears were about to come to pass after all.

“And what about ME? Without Aunt Twilight to stop King Sombra and the Changelings I was probably never even born in all those other worlds. They probably died every time, never to have a hero to protect them! And all because of YOU! BECAUSE YOU JUST DIDN’T CARE!” With that Flurry broke down completely.

6-21: Starlight's answer

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Flurry was bawling, lost in her emotions.

Starlight couldn’t even muster up a response, fully expecting Flurry to bail at any moment. At that moment she felt like she’d rather be sent to Tartarus than have to see the dismay Flurry was feeling.

Just as she was about to begin sobbing herself her emotions got derailed by confusion as Flurry suddenly threw her hooves around her. “HUG!” Flurry cried out pitifully, barely understandable through her crying. “H-HUG!”

Starlight was so thrown off she didn’t move, trying to figure out Flurry’s behavior. Things grew even more worrisome when suddenly Flurry grew quiet, as if her emotions had shut off.

Flurry looked up at her, a dead look on her face. “Disgusting…”

Again Starlight didn’t know how to respond. Flurry yelled at her, seeming furious, then she asked for a hug, and now the filly was calling her disgusting.

Flurry sniffed. “I… I really am disgusting, aren’t I?”

Starlight’s head jerked back. “Wha-”

“I-I s-said that I believed in you, but n-now I betrayed you and hurt you. It’s not surprising you don’t want to hug me anymore.” Flurry’s hooves fell away from the mares sides. “I wouldn’t want to hug me either.”

If Starlight had thought she couldn’t feel worse she was sorely mistaken. As Flurry’s words processed she realized that the anger Flurry spoke with earlier was actually directed, not at her, but at herself.

The realization of Flurry’s true inner turmoil made her entire body feel cold. The filly had seemingly found an unresolvable contradiction: despite professing absolute faith in her Flurry was finding doubt in her heart, and she found it unbearable.

Seeing Flurry’s vacant, numb expression made her wish that Flurry had been raging at her rather than feeling the self-hatred she was going through at the moment.

Much like before she had to fight not to succumb to despair. Flurry desperately needed her love and guidance at the moment, and if she broke it would only make Flurry feel worse than she already did. She had to be strong, no matter what. For the sake of her darling Flurry she would do that.

“Forgive me,” Starlight said, pleased that her voice came out fairly normal. She pulled Flurry into a hug. “I wasn’t sure what you really wanted from me.”

Flurry didn’t respond at all.

Starlight wasn’t sure where to start. Even if she answered Flurry’s questions it still wouldn’t resolve the filly’s guilt over feeling doubt in the first place.

She glanced around the room aimlessly, trying to think of what to say. Her eyes focused on the brush by the vanity. Maybe a little personal care would show that she wasn’t mad.

When Flurry felt the brush going through her mane she finally reacted, letting out an anguished cry as she slapped it away and it fell to the floor. “Stop it! I’m not worthy!”

Starlight simply lifted the brush again. “Don’t be silly, Flurry. I can tell you need this right now. Can’t expect to be as good as your mom though, since I know that’s her special thing with you.”

Flurry felt the soothing brush, but she didn’t want to be comforted at the moment. She wanted to feel guilty. “W-WHY? Why are you… being nice to me?”

“Because you did nothing wrong, Flurry.”

“Of course I did! I-”

“Shhh. Far from being wrong, you did a very good thing.”

Flurry had no clue how to respond to that. It felt like Starlight was just lying to her to make her feel better. That doubt only made another jolt of guilt go through her, and despite herself she sat still, wanting to feel the calming sensation even as she felt so unworthy of it.

Since Flurry was at least being quiet Starlight felt she could start talking. “Listen, Flurry. Any relationship goes through snags. That doesn’t mean the relationship is worthless or should be given up on. Today a friend betrayed you simply out of boredom, putting you through terrible experiences, and yet it ended with you friends once again.

“This is no different. You saw what seemed to be an inconsistency in my story, and feel like I lied to you about how bad I actually was. I don’t blame you for feeling a little suspicious.”

Flurry groaned and squirmed. “I shouldn’t!” she said angrily.

“And yet you do,” Starlight responded calmly. “Our feelings are something beyond our control. We may be able to control what we do with them, but the feelings themselves are something that are going to happen whether we want them to or not. Rather than hating and resisting your feelings you should try to work through them.”

“How?” Flurry said shortly. “And before you said it was a good thing that I was doubting you? What possible good can there be in that?”

“Because it means you’re not a braindead idiot!”

The answer caught Flurry off guard, confusion overtaking her feeling of self-loathing as she looked up. “Huh?”

“Any relationship worth something needs to go through evaluation from time to time, Flurry, and just like you said about my own feelings it’s not something I want you to obsess over.“

“What… do you mean by evaluation?”

“A strong relationship requires trust. Sometimes things happen which can harm that trust. If the foundation of that relationship is weak then the relationship will naturally crumble, but if the foundation is strong then it will only crack and can be repaired with time.

“I know you don’t want to hear this, but maybe I’m NOT trustworthy.” Flurry’s eyes clenched shut as she groaned. “Maybe I AM deceiving you or I did so in the past. The test of a relationship is whether it can stand up to scrutiny. This goes beyond just your relationship with me. It applies for all of them.

“For example, do you trust your dad completely?”

“Yes!”

“What if, one day, you were walking around the castle and you saw a mare kissing and hugging your father?”

“B-but why? H-he’s married!”

“See right there?”

“Huh?”

“Just bringing up a fictional scenario causes doubt, doesn’t it?”

Flurry winced. “D-darn it!” she cried out. “I’m such a stupid hypocrite!”

“Flurry!” Starlight said firmly. “You’re NOT a hypocrite.”

“B-but I am! I can’t even-”

Starlight put a hoof to her mouth. “Just listen, Flurry. Please. I wasn’t trying to upset you with my statement. I was trying to make a point. It may sound contradictory, but your doubts come from your trust."

"I'm doubting people because I TRUST them? What sense does that make?"

“You know your father. You know the kinds of things he’d do and the things he wouldn’t do, so when you spy him seemingly doing something that he definitely wouldn’t do it naturally sets off little alarm bells in your head. It makes you want to know the truth.

“I was a little tactless before to get your attention, but the reason I said you’d be a ‘braindead idiot’ for not questioning anything is because that’s how betrayals happen. Maybe it’s a shapeshifting spell, a Changeling, mind control, a misunderstanding, or a genuine choice to do wrong… whatever the case may be, you shouldn’t just dismiss something strange you see in a trusted persons behavior.

“The other point to make is that, just because you can’t think of a reason someone seemingly acted differently doesn’t mean that there isn’t a perfectly reasonable explanation to account for it.”

Flurry pushed Starlight’s hoof away. “So let’s hear it, then!” she said doubtfully. “I see my dad making out with some random mare. What ‘perfectly reasonable’ explanation could he possibly have?”

“Those weren’t the words I used. I said that she was hugging and kissing him.

“And? What’s your point? He’s clearly not pushing her away.”

“You see how your mind assumes when you don’t have all the facts?”

“I don’t see a single fact you could give me that would make it okay. Even if she’s just forcing herself on him she knows he’s married. They both seem like the bad guys to me.”

“Tell me, Flurry. While you were staring at your dad and this mare did you happen to glance down and see the filly next to them?”

Flurry’s mind felt scrambled. “Whaaaaat? I don’t care about some other stupid kid when I’m watching my dad cheat on my mom.”

“Which is exactly why you don’t get it. The mare was a visitor to the castle with her child. Naturally curious, the poor kid got separated from her mother when she went off on her own. By the time either of them realized what had happened they went into a panic.

“The filly quickly got herself even more lost as she started running around at random until she grew overwhelmed and just started bawling her eyes out.”

Flurry’s head titled, wondering what any of this had to do with her father being romantic with some random mare.

“Your father, kind pony that he is, heard the noise and found her. He comforted her, offering to find her mother, and the grateful filly jumped onto his back. It wasn’t long before he heard there was a flustered mother looking for her missing child.

“A few minutes later he finds the worried mare, and mother and daughter quickly hug and cry. When she releases her daughter she looks up at Shining, and is so overcome with gratitude at having her child returned safely that she gives him a tender hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Imagine walking in the room at that very moment. It feels like a totally different situation without that knowledge, huh?”

“But… b-b-but you… you said…”

“Yes? What did I say? When did I ever say that romance was involved, or that they were ‘making out?’ All I said was you walked in on your father being hugged and kissed by a mare you didn't know. Everything else came from your assumptions.”

“Well… I… I thought… I mean, the way you worded it made it seem…”

“I’ll say it again: your mind tends to assume when you don’t have all the facts. It may not feel good to think lesser of those you love, but that’s why it’s important to bring up those feelings. You may find out that what you thought was going on was completely different than what it appeared to be.

“Secrets kept, which suggest someone you respected acted inappropriately, only tend to fester and grow worse with time. The whole point of bringing these things up is to get an answer on whether or not they can be trusted.

“In my scenario your dad was who you expected him to be. When you question him about it he explains the situation and you move on from it. But… what if the opposite happened? What if he denied it ever happened, got real evasive, and either threatened you or bribed you to keep you quiet? Clearly, that’s not a person you want to respect.”

“No… but… he’d still be my dad.”

“True enough, but it’s better to see the truth with your own eyes than keep it hidden within you. Again, you only have to look at your own life to know that.

“It all comes down to trust. Without it, any relationship is doomed to failure. That’s why you shouldn’t feel guilty for having doubts so long as you give the other person a chance to explain themselves. If their explanation is fishy it gives you cause to be less trusting of them. If the explanation is good then it shows you had no reason to doubt in the first place and the relationship remains strong.

“In fact, the only reason you exist right now is because of those doubts.”

“Huh?” Flurry had no idea what that meant.

“Your dear Aunt Twilight saw something was very off about the Cadance she knew and loved as a filly. While she didn’t know it was an impersonator at the time, she was suspicious about the fake Cadance and confronted her. It turns out that she was able to cover herself and make Twilight look paranoid or just possessive over her brother, but it did make Chrysalis nervous enough to send Twilight to the same prison she put your mother in.

“If Twilight had dismissed her feelings just because she didn’t want to doubt a person she loved then your father would be a mind-controlled zombie married to a Changeling and you’d be Changeling Heart instead.

“I’ll say it again that your feelings are not an issue. What matters is what you do with them. If you kept what happened with your dad a secret you’d feel like you were lying to your mom and you’d feel like a phony being affectionate to your dad. And if you went right to your mom and told her what you saw you’d have created unnecessary strife. That’s why it’s good to allow the other person to explain themselves before gossiping about it or just dismissing them outright.”

Flurry nodded. “I understand.”

“So now we come to me. I do have an answer for you, Flurry. Whether or not you’ll accept it I don’t know, but, as we saw with that fictional scenario with your dad, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean there is no explanation.

“So be honest with me. I know you already said your position, but you were too wrapped up in your emotions before to actually have a conversation about it. I want you to ask me again, guilt-free. If I’m truly the person you believe I am then I shouldn’t have any fear of being questioned, and you shouldn't have any fear in asking.”

Flurry stared at her for a long while before gently tugging the brush away with her own magic and setting it back on her dresser. She felt calm enough now she didn't need it anymore, and she didn't want any distractions during such a critical discussion.

There was a reluctant tone to her voice, but it was steady now. “I… I trust you, but what you said seems like a lie. If you were studying Aunt Twilight while plotting your revenge, then how can you claim you didn’t know what was going to happen when you changed the future?”

“Your statement makes logical sense, but the thing you’re missing is a big assumption on my part.”

“Which is?”

“That Twilight was unnecessary to the world.”

Flurry gave her a perplexed look. “Why would you ever assume that if you knew what she did?”

“It was a huge flaw in my reasoning that Twilight herself wasn’t actually special. It was just her connections that made it so. If we removed Twilight from the equation then somebody else would step up and take her place. Effectively, the only change I expected is that Twilight and her friends would be strangers to each other, and, um… Sparkly Twilight and Flapjack and Blueberry Pie and so on would be the new heroes who took their positions up.”

Flurry was quiet for a little bit. “But… did you really think it was so easy? Did you really think that just anyone could use the Elements of Harmony?”

“I don’t think they’re so cheap that any random group of ponies could use them, but it all started with Twilight as the central pillar. Her element, magic, had been lost to time once Celestia left them behind in her old castle.

"Celestia trained her because of her magical potential, but it isn’t like Twilight is the only powerful unicorn out there. She does have an entire school dedicated to training those skilled in magic, after all.

“Twilight’s story shows that you don’t have to be longtime friends to make them work. Twilight summoned the power of the elements the very day she met her five friends after just traveling together in a dangerous situation for a few hours.

“And you did the same yourself today when Mayhem messed with your memories. You awakened a great power simply out of the desire to protect your friends even though you initially dismissed them.”

Once more Flurry was silent for a bit before speaking. “You… make it seem so simple. Like…” She gestured around her blue-coated room. “Like you changing the future, and acting like it’s just a different coat of paint. Oh, what would it matter if my room was now green? All the furniture and stuff is still here, so no problem, right?”

“What are you trying to say, Flurry?”

“Let’s say you were right, and some other group of ponies did take up the Elements of Harmony and stopped Nightmare Moon. That doesn’t mean that things wouldn’t be worse. The ponies wielding them wouldn’t be the same, and maybe they wouldn’t solve the same problems Pinkie and Fluttershy and the rest solved.

“There probably would be a lot of ponies that suffered because the element bearers weren’t the same, not because of the elements themselves, but because they’d live in different houses, and have different special talents. Some of them only came to Ponyville because of what happened after they got their cutie marks.

"Look at Pound and Pumpkin. They only have Pinkie Pie in their lives because she left her home to spread joy. It feels like without her they would be much worse off.

"Or what about Pound's dog? The mare who brought her to Fluttershy's house because she couldn't afford a proper vet bill would have no one to turn to since Fluttershy would probably still be in Cloudsdale."

“I can acknowledge that point,” said Starlight, “but in return wouldn’t just as many others be helped that weren’t before because of those different talents?”

“I… I don’t know.

“What about my parents? And the Changelings? And King Sombra? They were only beaten because Aunt Twilight was there. She noticed that my mom was a fake because of her suspicious behavior, and if the new Twilight didn’t happen to have a dragon assistant with them AND was smart enough to get past Sombra’s spells then she’d be done for.”

“If Twilight flunked her entrance exam then she’d likely just stay at home until the time of the wedding. Even if she moved out in that time, her being an Element bearer is insignificant here since I’m sure your dad would invite his own sister to his wedding no matter what. She’d still become suspicious and be sent to your real mother.

“I don’t think anything would change in regards to the Changeling invasion.”

“But in one of those futures the Changelings DID win.”

“That’s true…

“I don’t have an answer for King Sombra either. Considering the family connection, Shining might ask his sister for help alongside the new Elements of Harmony, but he also might not because of the danger.”

“Soooooo…”

Starlight took in a deep breath before slowly letting it out. “I never said that I accounted for every single possible change that might happen when I started my revenge plan. I didn’t particularly care about who was helped and who wasn’t as long as I got what I wanted.”

Flurry groaned. “Isn’t that exactly what I complained about at the start? You just admitted you didn’t care about what happened to the future as long as Aunt Twilight was miserable.”

“And I didn’t… mostly. I did make some bad assumptions about what the state of the world would be like when I broke Twilight’s friendships, but I never intended to drag the entire world into things. I thought others would become the element bearers in Twilight’s place, which is why I felt okay with what I was doing. It turned out that that wasn’t the case.

“All the major things, like Sombra and Nightmare Moon, I expected to be taken care of by the other element bearers. And for the little things… it shouldn’t only be up to six ponies to help everyone, so if someone else didn’t step up it was beneath my concern.”

“But that’s…” Flurry averted her eyes. “That’s a terrible thing to say, Aunt Starlight.”

“Look, we’ve already established I was a massive jerk, if time-travelling repeatedly to make someone suffer didn’t make that obvious, but that has nothing to do with this.”

“Nothing to do with it?” Flurry replied, looking a little angry. "You're basically confirming all the bad things I was thinking."

“You’re losing focus, Flurry. We can sit around and nitpick every bad decision and assumption I made, but it's completely off-topic to what the main issue is. We aren’t here to debate whether my actions in trying to change the future and hurting Twilight were bad. We’ve already established that.

"I can’t help what my thought process was seven years ago. Those are past Starlight’s thoughts. It’s not how I feel today. All I can do is try and improve who I am in the present.”

“Sorry,” Flurry said quietly.

“The purpose of this discussion is one particular point that bothered you. You asserted that I forged ahead doing something I knew was going to cause massive death and pain simply because my desire for revenge was so strong that I just didn’t care who got caught in the crossfire.

“The reason this bothers you is because it feels like I duped you about how terrible I was in the past. I made a confession to you about my past, but it feels like I left something crucial out that painted me in a bad light. It would be like telling you I took your sisters stuffed animal, while not telling you that I kidnapped your sister as well.”

Flurry tensed. “Even as an example please don’t!”

“Duly noted, but I’m sure you get my point. It feels like I told you about something bad I did while hiding the much worse thing I did. It wasn’t an outright lie, but that omission certainly feels deceptive.

“I understand how you came to your conclusion, but I hold to my stance. I thought there would be replacement heroes, and never meant to turn the future into a giant mess. I was ignorant and stupid, but I promise I didn’t go into things that day fully expecting those bad futures and not caring about their pain. I wasn’t out for collateral damage.

“After all, what did I have to gain with the world belonging to others? If I had broken Twilight then my plan was to return to a slightly different Equestria. I guess, to use your euphemism, an Equestria with a different coat of paint. And then I would start my plans anew. With no Twilight confrontation there would be no memory of my true nature since she never came to visit.”

“Mmm…” Flurry didn’t look satisfied. “But wouldn’t the new Twilight be sent in her place, then? I don’t think anything would have changed there. Would you have gone back and broken them up too? And then the NEW new Twilight, until eventually no friends would exist and Equestria would be doomed anyway?”

Starlight got an awkward grin on her face. “Hmm. Well... when you put it like that I guess my plan was doomed from the start.”

“Pretty much.”

The two of them looked each other for a minute. Finally, Starlight said, “Well, I’ve told you my story and tried to explain myself as best I can. The only thing I can do now is wait for your judgment.”

Flurry looked uncertain. “You’re gonna put this on me?”

“Is there anyone else here? All anyone else can do is give you advice. You’re the only one who knows what you feel in your heart.”

Flurry looked into a corner of the room. “I remember… the details are fuzzy now, but I remember when you first told me about things. You… weren’t the Starlight I knew and loved. It was so different from the pony you were that I couldn’t recognize you.”

A few tears came down her eyes. “When you told me about how you basically enslaved ponies it made me think about King Sombra. One day I saw that huge statue of Spike, and my parents told me about him and how he saved the Crystal Empire from Sombra by delivering the Crystal Heart to my mother.

“Then that feeling grew worse when you told me about how you tortured Aunt Twilight. I hated to think about you as a villain. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. It went against everything I thought about you.

“I really fought with myself for that next week. A small part of me…” She let out a little sob. “No. If we’re supposed to be being honest with each other then I can’t lie. It wasn’t just a little part of me. It wasn’t even close to fifty-fifty. At that time it was closer to eighty or ninety percent that I really felt like I never wanted to see you again. Hearing you talk about how badly you had hurt my family almost completely outweighed all the kind things you had done for me.” She sniffed, tears coming down her eyes.

Starlight forced her voice to remain as neutral as possible, even though it hurt to know how badly she had upset Flurry. “I stayed away from you because I didn’t want you to feel obligated to forgive me. I wanted you to make your own choice.

“I didn’t know the scale was tipped that heavily against me, since we never went into the specifics of things, but… in the end you did forgive me and put it behind you. What made you do it?”

“The one who changed my mind was Uncle Sunny.”

Starlight let out a growl, catching Flurry’s attention and making her look up to see Starlight looking into the distance. “Darn it! I told them all to stay out of it!”

“Does it really matter?”

“You’re darn right it does! The same way I avoided you I didn’t want everyone else pushing you to forgive me either.

“And what did he say? ‘Oh, Starlight is nice. You should totally forgive her after being so great to you. She's just so miserable right now.’ I didn’t want forgiveness out of manipulation and guilt trips.”

“Oh,” said Flurry. “Is that what’s bothering you?

“Uncle Sunny didn’t push me. He didn’t even say anything about forgiving you, and we didn’t talk that long. I asked him whether he knew about your past, and if my parents knew too, and he said you all did.

“He told me that you were putting it all on the line out of a desire to be honest with me, and repeated what you said about being afraid of one day learning the truth from someone else.

“And he finished up by saying that you truly loved me, and that if I believed in him that I should believe that.”

Starlight let out a little groan. “Better than I thought, but I still wish he didn’t interfere.”

“It really means that much to you, huh?”

Starlight looked her in the eyes. “Of course it does! I told you earlier what my relationship with you means to me. I want our relationship to be genuine. It shouldn’t only exist because of expectations and the desire not to hurt feelings.

“You may not have said it openly, but I could tell you held me up as a role model with the way you praised me. I put it off for a while, not because I was afraid of you not looking up to me anymore, but just that you’d sever our relationship entirely.

"I could take you losing your hero worship of me and taking me off the pedestal you put me on, but losing that relationship completely felt like it would have broken me just like losing Sunburst did when I was a child.

“I had no idea who might spill the beans or why anyone would have a reason to, but I had to ask myself what my relationship meant to me. I knew it would hurt much deeper if it came from someone else. Maybe you’d overhear Twilight talking about some new foe she redeemed, and bring me up as an example of how people can change.

“Whatever the case may be, I couldn’t stand hearing you praise me anymore without feeling like I wasn’t worthy of it so long as I was keeping such a big secret from you. As expected, you got mad and upset, hitting me and running off crying.”

Starlight’s eyes faded out. “That… was the worst week of my life. It may have been necessary for our relationship to be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that I had to hurt you badly. I spent a lot of time beating myself up before reminding myself it was necessary.

“I could barely focus on anything because I was so afraid that I had shattered our relationship, but I forced myself to stay far away from you. I knew you were thinking about it too, but I felt like seeing me in person might just influence you if you saw how miserable I seemed. Or maybe it would go the opposite, and seeing me would stir up those feelings of anger and betrayal further.

"It was also to stop myself. If I had seen you I probably would have bowed at your hooves and begged for forgiveness, something I desperately wanted to avoid."

Tears came down her eyes. “Stupid Sunburst,” she said in an emotionless voice. “Why did he…”

Flurry hugged her. “You know why, Aunt Starlight. He did it because he loved you and didn’t want to see you hurting anymore. The same way that I love you.”

Starlight turned her head away, wiping away some tears. “Darn it,” she said to herself. “Stop crying.”

“What’s wrong with crying?”

“I just want you to make your own decisions.”

“But I am making my own decisions, Aunt Starlight. I can see with my own eyes how strongly you feel about valuing me. You’re a lot like Aunt Twilight in that regard. She treats kids with the same level of respect as adults.

“It’s the same now as it was back then. I didn’t forgive you just because Uncle Sunny told me that you loved me. I looked at all the people in my life and thought about how they treated you.

“Whenever Aunt Twilight stopped by she always treated you friendly and with the highest respect. Uncle Sunny always treated you with love and care. And then there was my parents, who put you in charge of something they hold dear to their hearts.

“If I hadn’t heard about what happened I never would have thought you ever did something like that, because they treated you without any suspicion. I believe in the people I love, and I know they would never want to see me get hurt. If you were any sort of risk to me they would have separated us long ago. It was that that finally started getting me thinking about your good points again.”

Flurry pushed at Starlight’s head until they were eye to eye. “What became the deciding factor was how much you risked just to ensure you remained one of the best role models in my life. As Uncle Sunny said, you risked having me hate you forever because you wanted to be truthful to me.

“I was still a little cautious around you at first, but as we went about our lives I saw you were still the same Starlight I always loved. I didn’t give it another thought after that until now, because you never gave me a reason to doubt you.”

Flurry gave her a warm smile. “I’m sorry I didn’t trust you more. I believe that you didn’t intentionally try to hide something from me, and I hold to my own stance that says I don’t want anything to come between us. I’m satisfied with your explanation.” She nuzzled Starlight’s chest.

Starlight let out a breath, releasing the stress that had built up as she hugged Flurry close, happy tears coming down her eyes. “I love you, Flurry.”

“I love you too, Aunt Starlight.”

“I only wish I had met Twilight sooner. I just gave up after Sunburst. I got lost in fear, and in that fear I turned into a rotten person that would do anything to keep my friends, even at the cost of my conscience.

“I forgot how warm the light felt until Twilight lit up my world.”

Mayhem passed through Flurry’s mind. In the lull between battles with him the draconequus had posed something much the same. He wanted to keep the six of them in his dimension forever. Much like Starlight, he wanted to keep his friends close by force, forgetting that it wasn’t true friendship.

She remembered the look on his face as she told him that he might understand why she wouldn’t give up if he had had any friends to protect, and how he had said his pride wouldn’t allow him to give up. He had forgotten the light too until they shot it at him to wake him up.

"Aunt Starlight?"

"Yes, Flurry?"

"Should it really be that simple?"

"What do you mean?"

"I really am happy that we brought Mayhem back to his senses, but he did something terrible to all of us. In fact, he may be even worse than you. Even if it was an evil reason you at least had a good explanation for what you did. Mayhem just did all this for fun.

"It's like..." Flurry let out a groan as she tried to articulate what she was thinking. "I love him, and I love you, but both of you did disgusting things and then were basically rewarded for it. Aunt Twilight made you her personal student, and while Mayhem was all for punishing himself we all fought to ensure that didn't happen.

"I'm... still feeling uncertain about whether I did the right thing in forgiving Mayhem. I want to keep him as a part of my life. That hasn't changed. But... should I have given him more of a cold shoulder? Maybe in the future he'll act up again because he expects that all he has to do is say sorry.

"The fake Starlight claimed that she basically knew that Aunt Twilight would accept her apology as long as she appeared sorry. She counted on Aunt Twilight's goodness to make her believe that she was truly sorry."

Flurry squirmed restlessly. "Am I... just being gullible too?"

A tear came down Starlight's cheek. Flurry was starting to doubt herself again. She just sounded so forlorn.

She moved Flurry next to her and stood up so they were face to face. "When I first surrendered to Twilight I expected the worst. Having to come face to face with the wrongness of my own actions I thought I deserved nothing less than to be thrown into the deepest dungeon and forgotten about.

"But the opposite happened. Rather than hold onto my past she looked towards my future, and the mare I could become if I started over.

"Twilight followed her heart when she came at me with love rather than hatred. Much like you, she doesn't act because of her title or status, but because it's what she genuinely wants to do.

"And THAT'S why the way she acts is so powerful."

"Powerful?"

"Impactful! Twilight acts in a genuine manner which is inspiring. At the end, I'm sure Twilight didn't forget for a second that I could finish destroying the scroll that would ruin the future forever, but she didn't choose to focus on that. She didn't try and force it from me, or attack me. She focused on me instead. Like I said before, she risked the world to save me as well, addressing my fears and encouraging me to find a new path.

"And that's why her words hit so hard. Someone who could be so kind to a person that sought to ruin their life... that felt bad for that enemy despite the pain... it made a huge impact on me.

"As for you, I think you're forgetting that you didn't forgive a friend, but an enemy."

"What do you mean?" Flurry asked, confused. "Mayhem is a friend."

"True, but you didn't know that at the time.

"I got to see your mind working. When it came down to it, you were already leaning strongly towards forgiveness before you began to remember Mayhem in your heart.

"I doubt most people would have objected to us never surfacing again, but you and Twilight didn't offer blind forgiveness. In both cases, forgiveness was offered because it was clear we showed regret over our actions. Mayhem questioned this concept, but he didn't need to directly say he was sorry for you to see it.

"Something else you took notice of is that you didn't remember Mayhem like you did your other friends until after he had some sense knocked into him and began returning to the person you recognized."

Now that Starlight mentioned it Flurry had to agree. All throughout her adventure Mayhem remained firmly a stranger. Her heart didn't start to reach out to his until after his defeat.

"Twilight told me that every friendship is important. The greater the love in Equestria the stronger we all grow. It's much like the Crystal Heart that keeps this empire safe. When a crystaling happens everyone gathers together in celebration and love, and a new shard is added to the heart, increasing it's power.

"Feelings tend to perpetuate themselves. Hatred and cruelty breeds more hatred, like that of King Sombra. Although it was overshadowed by their fear, I'm sure everyone in the Crystal Empire would probably agree that they hated him.

"Love, too, is something that breeds more of itself. Twilight showed me love, touching my heart. Those feelings made me want to honor that love by being loving in turn. That's how I found myself with an amazing husband and a darling niece."

That made Flurry smile.

"You could say that I got off too easy, but the results speak for themselves. I've done my hardest to distance myself from past Starlight, not because I'm forced to or I'm afraid Twilight will lock me up, but for Twilight herself. I value the second chance she gave me, and have no inclination to go back to who I used to be.

"I feel it's the same for Mayhem. You could have dismissed him or came at him with hatred for what he did, but instead you offered him a hug and forgiveness. Such acts of kindness don't go unnoticed." She put a hoof to Flurry's chest. "It touches the heart in a special way, giving you inspiration and making you want to rise up from the past.

"That's why I don't feel you or Twilight made the wrong decision in offering forgiveness. It gives a chance for that kindness to be paid forward. Isn't Twilight's plan for Mayhem to offer children wishes to live out impossible dreams? Just think of all the happiness that wouldn't exist if you didn't offer Mayhem his own second chance."

"But if he goes bad again-"

"Then it WON'T be your fault!" Starlight said firmly. "People are responsible for their own behavior. You can guide another person, but ultimately they're going to do what they want.

"Maybe you will find a few fakers along the way, who are only pretending remorse, but try thinking a little smaller. Not every bad thing is going to involve the fate of the world. Wouldn't you rather spread as much love and friendship as possible and have a few fakes along the way, rather than dismiss everyone for possibly being fake and stifle the potential of others to do great things?

"You've said that you trust me as much as you do Twilight. Do you think Twilight made a mistake by not locking me up?"

"No... I don't think so," Flurry responded.

"If Mayhem never goes back to his bad ways then it clearly means you had a big impact on him and made the right decision."

"And if he does?"

"Then it means you made the decision that felt right to you at the time, and nothing more.

"Let me give you one more fictional scenario: you made me a bit sad today with your accusations, so I think I'm going to go to Twilight Velvet, your grandmother, and blame her for your behavior."

"Whaaaaa..." That was so out of left field Flurry didn't even know where to begin dissecting that comment.

"After all, if she hadn't had Shining Armor you wouldn't have been born and I wouldn't have felt those feelings. She's directly responsible for it."

"Wha-but-wha-" Flurry sputtered a bit. "That's ridiculous! I don't even see her that often, but you're gonna..."

Starlight got a smug grin on her face as she chuckled. "You can say you're responsible for Mayhem's behavior if he goes wrong again, but I can say it was your father's fault for causing your birth, and your grandmother's fault for birthing him, and then their parents, and so on. Do you see how ridiculous it sounds when I put it that way?

"All in all, it's misplaced responsibility. If Mayhem slips up again it's on him, not you. Yes, if you take it literally then Mayhem can't commit his new bad actions if he's locked up, but that doesn't mean that you should be locked up right beside him as if you did the deed yourself.

"Pay attention to the way he acts, but don't dwell on it overmuch. That's the best you can do."

"Okay, Aunt Starlight."

Starlight got a whimsical look on her face. “Y’know, at the very end there, right before I gave up, I called Twilight egotistical and arrogant for thinking she mattered so much, but she really does.”

Flurry snorted. “You’re one to talk about being egotistical and arrogant, big mouth. That’s one thing that’s never changed about you since back then.”

“Hey!” Starlight cried out.

The filly began chuckling.

Despite herself Starlight joined in.

Flurry began laughing harder and harder, and Starlight followed suit, both of them setting each other off until they were gasping for breath.

After a minute they began to settle down. Flurry wiped away some tears that had formed, a huge smile on her face. “Ah,” she said calmly. “That felt really nice. I needed a good laugh.”

“Glad you got that laugh at my expense. NOW… can we finally talk about you? Or are there any other delays related to me you want to get off your chest?”

Flurry’s smiled remained but it wasn’t as big. She nodded. “Yeah. Now I really do feel ready.”

“Good! And just so you know, I am so gonna kick your butt in your next magic lesson.”

Flurry chuckled. “Bring it on!”

6-22: True self

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“So,” said Starlight. “Where should we begin this time?”

“I don’t know,” said Flurry. “I guess now I’m not feeling so uncertain about whether I should have given Mayhem a second chance, but I’m not sure what else there is to talk about.”

“You’re still having doubts about that? Don’t I make a good example of the value of second chances?”

“Well… it’s not the same as you. It’s been years since you did your bad things, so I have proof that you’ve really changed. This only happened today. Just because you changed it doesn’t mean everyone will, right?”

“Fair enough, but I think you should give your friend a little more credit. And I think you should give yourself a little more as well.

“I believe your name is an excellent symbol. You followed your heart when you couldn’t rely on your strength to win. You inspired your friends to new heights, summoning a power that hasn’t been seen since the time of the founding of Equestria.”

Flurry let out a groan. “You… you’re talking just like Aunt Twilight! You make it sound like I did something amazing. I barely knew what I was doing. “

She hugged Starlight, tears coming down her eyes. “I don’t know anything. I’m just a stupid little kid! I’m weak and pathetic! I was totally useless! I couldn’t do anything on my own. I only succeeded because of my friends.”

“Like I just said you should give yourself more credit than that. It was you who carried your friends throughout this adventure. Maybe they had to remind you what it meant to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others when Mayhem made you forget, but once they did so you grew into your strength, being the inspiration for them.

“Against an exceptionally powerfully enemy you refused to give up, even when he had an overwhelming advantage. And because you didn’t surrender, keeping that belief in yourself, you finally unlocked the power to win.”

“But-”

“Shh.” She put a hoof to Flurry’s mouth. “That power may have been borne out of your unity, yes, BUT that unity was only borne out of the fire of your heart. You burned so brightly that the shadows of fear and doubt couldn’t survive, awakening that same courage in all of your friends when they were all ready to surrender.

“Without your determination to protect your friends this day would have ended with Mayhem still evil, and your friend’s just puppets in his toy box. No matter how much you try to deny it, this victory could only have been achieved with you. It may have been a group victory, but you were a necessary, vital part of it. You saved the lives of all your friends, and that’s something to be proud of.”

Flurry buried her face in her hooves, quietly sobbing.

Starlight rubbed her back. “I was there for you when you didn’t have those friends. Today you did have to face your biggest fears. Now that you have… was it really that bad?”

Flurry looked up. “YES! It was horrible! It was the worst! I’m… I…” She drifted off, burying her head again.

“I think, deep down, you know the truth. Try to remember what you felt earlier.”

A minute passed before Flurry put her hooves down. She wiped her eyes, some strength in them now. “I… I love my friends. I… I would…” She took a breath.

“Yes, Flurry? What about them?”

She was starting to remember the feelings she had, working together and protecting one another. She remembered the desire to protect all of them.

“Do you know what I see, Flurry?” Starlight said kindly, wiping away Flurry’s tears. “I see a girl who is far stronger than she gives herself credit for.”

Flurry sniffed, looking uncertain. She suddenly pulled away, hopping off her bed and pacing around the room. “Maybe I am! And maybe I don’t WANT it to be that way!”

“You don’t want to be strong?” Starlight asked curiously.

Flurry paused mid-step for a few seconds, then rounded on the mare. “That’s not the point! I hate this! I finally got to experience some peace and friendship. I finally got to just be a kid, then today I’m thrown into a nightmare world and forced to forget all that. I was tormented and tortured and-and-and…” She broke off, her eyes fading out as her breathing shortened.

She could still feel the terror permeating her being. The subconscious memories of her friends and joining up with all of them had been the only thing that had staved off the madness that had been eating away at her.

“So, then… are you resentful of Mayhem for doing that to you?”

“What?” She looked shocked at the idea. “No. No. No-no-no.” She shook her head. “It’s… I…”

“So you feel your love for him outweighs the evil he did to you? You can still love someone who betrayed you in such a way?”

Flurry felt oddly defensive. Starlight’s words had a tone of simply trying to get her to articulate her feelings, but it still felt like the mare was judging her choice.

“Yes!” she said firmly. “He was a friend in need, and every time I’d fight to save him!”

Starlight nodded. “Very good. So… if you’ve already put his betrayal behind you and made a plan to stop him from going off the deep end again then what is it that is still weighing you down?”

“So maybe I’m scared, alright! I don’t want to deal with this pressure again! It was hard enough back then. I don’t want those feelings to come back!”

She let out a huff. “Just when everything is settled Aunt Twilight pulled me and all my friends to the castle, asking all of US to sit in their seats, the thrones of the biggest heroes in the world, and talking about how she thought we should be the next Elements of Friendship. I mean, she apologized for it later, and I know she meant well, but I didn’t need to hear that, especially not today!”

“What’s wrong with that? You’re opposed to making new friends, or helping others make up and experience the same things you did?”

“Wha-that… that’s not the point!”

“So what is the point, then?”

“You know what that entails! Aunt Twilight doesn’t just help people make up. She fights these gigantic battles with the worst scum of Equestria.”

“The only thing she asked of you was helping children around your age. Nothing more.”

“I don’t want that responsibility!”

Starlight’s eyes narrowed slightly. “So you’d rather turn a blind eye to those in need?”

Flurry flushed, but her expression didn’t change. “I WANT to make my own choices! This is the same problem I had with being the ruler of the Crystal Empire. I don’t want anyone deciding my fate FOR me. If I’m going to rule I want it to be because I CHOSE to do it, not just out of expectations.

“It’s no different with that magic map. Aunt Twilight and her friends might want to help people, but that map thing just calls them whenever it wants. If I’m going to help someone it should be because I want to, not because something is telling me I need to go do it.

“I hate feeling different just because I was born with both wings and a horn! That’s something that hasn’t changed about me.”

Starlight put a hoof to her mouth, considering Flurry’s words. “I see. I wanted to point out that it isn’t only alicorns that make up the Elements of Friendship, but, being an alicorn, you probably expect that you would be expected to lead.”

Flurry nodded hard.

“So… what if you weren’t the leader? Pound seems to be pretty spunky and courageous from what you’ve said about him. He was the first one to throw himself in the path to protect you from the fake me. If he was the one in charge would that change how you felt?”

Flurry considered the question. After a little while she said, “No. It wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Even if all the people close to me treat me like any other kid nobody else is. As soon as they see I’m an alicorn they’d expect me to be the one in charge.”

“I thought, after your relationship with Crystal, that you were okay with who you were.”

“I AM! I’m perfectly fine with the person I am. I just don’t like when people refuse to see me the way I want them to.

“I’m not ashamed of my wings anymore.” She unfurled them as far as they would go. “These wings are like a test to see who can look past my outward appearance to see who I am inside. That’s why I’m glad I was born with them. It weeds out the fakes who I would never want to be friends with.” She folded her wings. “But this isn’t about being teased or made fun of. It’s about being thrust into a responsibility I didn’t sign up for.”

“Flurry, that’s called life. We all go through life with unasked for responsibilities. How we choose to respond to those responsibilities is what makes us who we are inside. We can either run from them or accept them.

“Just like today, sometimes no one else is there to come to the rescue, and someone has to step up to play the hero.” Starlight let out a sigh. “You said to your friends the reason you felt distressed when the fake me pretended to come back to her senses was because you had to accept that truth. You had to accept that I was a fake, and that meant that you were still going to need to be the one in charge of protecting your friends.”

“Mmm…” Flurry glanced at the ground. “That’s different… to me.”

“Why is it different?”

“Because it was only the six of us. I did have to step up for my friends because I didn’t have a choice. Out in the real world there are hundreds of ponies. Why do I, specifically, have to be the one to do it then? Is everyone else so bad at solving problems that I’m the only one who can help?

“And you! When you were talking about your past thoughts you said it shouldn’t only be up to six ponies to help everyone with the little things. And it shouldn’t!”

Starlight slowly shook her head. “You’re so naïve, Flurry.”

“Why? I’m just repeating what YOU said, and I agree with it.”

“I do feel sympathy for your plight. Being born an alicorn certainly hasn’t been an easy experience, especially with your large wings. However, that’s all I feel sympathy for. Your mindset is repulsive.”

Flurry growled, her eyes narrowing.

“Don’t give me that look!” Starlight said authoritatively. “What you’re saying is that you only want to help others when it’s convenient for you, a very selfish notion that’s a slap in the face to ponies like your mother Cadance and your aunt Twilight, who selflessly offer themselves to others. I guess it’s good you’re not interested in your title, because the title of princess is clearly wasted on you.”

Flurry’s eyes clenched shut as she began to sob. “What would YOU know? You’re an adult now. You have the experience and the skill to deal with all these things. I don’t! I’m still a dumb kid!”

“That’s not an excuse,” Starlight said flatly. “Some ‘dumb kids’ were able to relieve your feelings, so don’t act like age is stopping you.”

“Fine, but I don’t feel ready for all of this!”

“All of what, Flurry? Helping out another six year old? You act like Twilight is trying to replace herself with you right now. You’re letting your fears make you paranoid, just like you did when you thought you’d be plopped on the throne if your parents died.

“From what you and Twilight have told me about how your friends met, Pound and Pumpkin were able to help quite a few through personal family issues. If they can do it then why not you?”

Flurry began to shiver. “I told you before! I’m scared!”

“Scared of what, Flurry? If you don’t want to be a fighter then that’s perfectly fine. That’s what I’m here for. What issue do you have with helping others that’s got you so terrified?”

“I’m scared of screwing up and making things worse. I’ve learned the value of friendship, but I don’t think I’m qualified to start teaching others yet. It feels like too much responsibility. I’d feel horrible if I wound up destroying a friendship because I said or did the wrong thing.”

She sniffed. “I just want to be an ordinary kid. Maybe that does make me a failure as a princess, but I always knew I didn’t deserve the title in the first place. I never should have been born an alicorn.”

She looked at the ground, tears dripping onto the floor. “I know I’m just a pathetic loser. You don’t have to rub it in more."

Starlight let out a sigh. She gestured to Flurry to get her attention, then patted her lap. Flurry stood still for a minute before slowly plodding over and hopping up, automatically throwing her hooves around the mare as she continued crying.

“I think I went a bit too far,” said Starlight “but my intentions are pure. You’re so much more than you think you are, Flurry.”

“Now you’re praising me?” Flurry said dully.

“Your spirit has been drained from your recent experience. Mayhem may have restored the memories you forgot, but that doesn’t make you the same person you were before he did so.”

Flurry just raised her eyebrow, not responding.

“I think… with all the other things going on, that you’ve forgotten who you are.”

Flurry’s head tilted. “That’s stupid! Mayhem made me forget my friends. He didn’t make me forget that I’m Flurry Heart.”

“Sure he did. You just can’t see it.”

“I just used my name. What in Equestria are you talking about?”

“You may know your name, but that doesn’t mean you know who you are.”

“Huh…”

“Think about it like this, Flurry. When I began to take away ponies cutie mark’s their names may have stayed the same, but they were no longer the same person. Pinkie Pie was no longer her bubbly self. Twilight lost all her skill at magic. Everyone became equal so that no one could excel.

“But, just like Twilight said about her friendships, it’s those differences that make you unique. They make you who you are.”

“Oh,” said Flurry. “I was taking it literally.”

“I know you were. And I can say with confidence that you have forgotten who you are.”

“Do I really seem that different to you?”

Starlight nodded. “Definitely. It wasn’t perfect, but you were definitely on your way to truly knowing yourself before. Now you’ve drifted far from that.

“The weirdest part of it all is that you without your memories seems like she understood things far better than the Flurry sitting on my lap right now.”

Flurry looked away. “I… I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Well, finding your identity is something that is usually done on your own, but I can give you some hints, and they all start with your friends. The rest will be up to you to figure out.”

Flurry looked back up and nodded.

“Crystal helped you to see the shape of who you really were.” With her magic she pulled Flurry’s wings out. “She helped you to accept yourself for being different.

“Do you remember why you overcame those feelings? It was for her. If she was ever in danger you didn’t want to let your shame over your wings cripple your ability to be there for your friend.”

As Starlight released her wings Flurry extended them in front of her, thinking of the long time it took her to learn to appreciate her wings.

Starlight poked her in the chest. “This fear floating around you isn’t a fear of being a hero or having to step up. It’s really a fear of being yourself and who you’re meant to be.”

Flurry gazed at her questioningly.

“Once you’ve accepted the person you truly are you won’t be able to look back anymore. Your heart will accept nothing less than action. Sitting on the sidelines and holding back won’t be something you’ll accept.”

“And… who am I, truly?”

“That’s a question only you can answer, Flurry. You started to find her because of Crystal, and I think today you truly discovered her.

“You need your friends, of course. Meeting them for the first time they taught you the joy of friendship. The second time you met them ‘for the first time’ it was much the same. They inspired you and sacrificed themselves for you.

“This connection goes both ways, though. Stop and think for a moment about what your friends would do without you.”

Her horn glowed, summoning a memory.

Flurry looked around, seeing they were at the end of Mayhem’s game. Mayhem made his proposal to spare the pony who betrayed the others.

“Look at your friends, Flurry. Can you see the fear and uncertainty in them? The only one still calm in this sea of fear is you.”

“But…” Flurry’s ears went down. “But that was only because I believed in my friends and wanted to protect them. I can’t do it on my own.”

Starlight lifted Flurry and set her back on her bed. “You can tell yourself you can’t a thousand times, but when it comes to your friends it’s clear that your only response is ‘I can.’ And you did.”

Starlight began walking to the door of her room.

“Where are you going?” Flurry asked emotionally.

She stopped, turning her head around. “To let you figure things out. I told you that I was only going to give you some hints.

“I know who you are, so-”

“So why won’t you just tell me?”

Starlight smiled at her. “Because you don’t need me to. You already know everything you need to know. I saw her emerge today from your memories.

“Besides, don’t you remember what you told me? You don’t want someone deciding your fate for you, or pushing you onto a path you didn’t choose. If I tell you what I think, and you reject it, then it comes to nothing.

You have to be the one to make your own choices, Flurry, just as you said.”

Flurry gulped, trapped by her own words. “But… I… I don’t even know where to start.”

Starlight considered her for a moment. “I already told you, Flurry. Take a minute and ask yourself about what your friends mean to you. Think about the feelings you have for them.

“Then I want you to flip it around, and think about what you mean to your friends. Ask yourself where they would be without you in their lives.

“When you can answer both of those questions with confidence I think you’ll find the answer you’re searching for.”

“But… but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Who you are is determined by the things that are important to you… the things you cherish most dearly and want to protect. If you can find that pony without your memories, then think of how much stronger you can be with them intact.”

Starlight gave her a big grin. “You are your own pony, Flurry. Who you choose to be is up to you. Knowing you as well as I do I’m confident that you’ll find the answer that you’ve already discovered and forgotten.

“Let me know what you come up with later.”

And with that she left.

6-23: Who am I?

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Flurry felt all scrambled at first, unsure of what to say or where to start. In the end she decided to focus on the two questions Starlight asked of her.

“What do my friends mean to me?” she asked out loud. The answer came to her in a heartbeat. “Everything!”

Her life used to feel so cold and dim. She lived in a state of constant fear, dedicating herself endlessly to studying until she’d become so exhausted she had to do something else to relieve her thoughts.

She felt afraid to tell anyone what she was really thinking, foolishly feeling like they’d tell her to get back to work.

When her parents told her that a friend of Twilight’s was having a birthday party she was all for staying home. She didn’t know them. Why should she care? But they forced her to go, overriding her protests.

A tear came down her eye. She had been such an idiot then. That day changed her whole life. Friendship, which she had dismissed before, became such a beautiful thing, solving half of her issues. And because they pushed her into a rant her parents overheard all her fears, and showed that they had prepared for them already, taking care of the other half.

And, just like that, the sun came into her world again. All the pressure, all the fear, all the uncertainty and heaviness that had pervaded her life for months… gone. She smiled more. She laughed more. She didn’t have to pretend to be feeling alright when she wasn’t.

That day… it was everything to her. After her issues were solved, and they were all having a crazy snowball fight indoors, life just felt right.

And her friends didn’t stop there. Pound and Pumpkin went out of their way to help her build up her friendship with Crystal Mine.

Even though she had ultimately been the one to settle things with Crystal, she never could have done so if the twins hadn’t gotten Crystal to reveal her true feelings. By having some ordinary ponies there Crystal could talk to, the filly had spoken of what lied in her heart.

Following that, Crystal had been a steadfast friend, just as good as the rest. Her instincts hadn’t steered her wrong. Once Crystal could see past her princess status and just look at her as another pony it made their relationship real. She knew it was okay for them to get mad at each other sometimes.

It wasn’t just about negative things, either. Crystal accepted her for her abnormally sized wings. Seeing how sensitive she felt about them Crystal didn’t just try to ignore them. The filly actively sought to help her get over that stigma of her previous bullying, and she was successful. Crystal’s unceasing support of her allowed her thoughts to slowly shift, until she got to the point that she was proud of being different.

Pound, Pumpkin, Peppermint, Tree Leaf, Masky, Crystal… even Mayhem, despite his betrayal… they were all irreplaceable friends, who opened up her world to something she had never thought possible.

She began to gently sob. What did her friends mean to her? She couldn’t imagine not having them in her life. What they had done for her made a permanent impression on her heart. So long as she had them in her life there would always be a light in the darkness. She could persevere. She could keep going despite any hardship.

Even when they weren’t right next to her they were always close by inside. Just thinking about them could make some hard days a little easier.

Of course, she had her mother and father, as well as Twilight, Starlight, and Sunburst, but they were all family. She expected them to love her. The others had chosen to be a special part of her life.

She put a hoof to her face, wishing that she had listened to Twilight earlier.

She sniffed as she slowly composed herself, her heart full of the love she had for her friends.

She wiped her eyes, turning her mind to Starlight’s second question: what did she think she meant to her friends, and what would they be without her in their lives?

That one was harder, because it wasn’t coming directly from her own thoughts and feelings.

She felt a bit of an ache inside. For all that they had done for her, had she ever done anything for them in return? Even a single thing? They worked well as a group, having fun together, but was she just taking advantage of their kindness? Was she just another face in the crowd to them, someone who didn’t stand out at all?

She bit her lip, feeling a sense of anxiety. “I… I know I need them, but…” Tears came down her eyes. “… but maybe they don’t need me at all. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference at all to them if I had never met them.”

As despair began to clutch at her Mayhem’s voice echoed through her mind, as if to defy that thought. "No matter how bad I got, as long as it was the six of you, I knew you would be able to stop me."

Mayhem knew that he might one day fall back into darkness, but he wasn’t afraid of that because of his friendships with them. He knew that they would be able to save him. Somewhere inside he regretted what he was doing, but he was too into the game to acknowledge it.

Pound and Pumpkin had asked for her help with one of their classmates because he was dealing with the same sort of pressures she had been going through.

They had also requested her presence to be part of helping Mayhem get past his boredom, even if things had gone sour.

They didn’t exclude her from the group simply because she lived far away. She couldn’t always make it out there because of the far distance, but it wasn’t like distance was an issue with the magical journals. When one of them was having a bad day she’d be encouraging or compassionate.

When she could make it out there they always looked happy to see her. From what she could figure her friends didn’t really hang out unless everyone was there.

It was nonsense to think that she meant nothing to her friends. Maybe what she had done for them wasn’t as big as what they had done for her, but it wasn’t nothing. She wasn’t just an afterthought.

Flurry spent a long time just sitting on her bed, thinking about what Starlight had said.

“Who am I?” she said to herself. “Aunt Starlight seems to think she knows… so how come I don’t?”

Her mind turned to what had happened today. She had been avoiding thinking about it, and the role she had played in things, but she couldn’t put it off forever. It might be scary, but she had to push forward if she wanted to find the answer she was looking for.

She used the same spell Starlight had used to summon a memory, and saw her and her friends right before Mayhem’s defeat.

Compared to how she felt inside now she could barely recognize herself. The Flurry before her was confident, staring danger in the eyes and laughing at it. She was openly defiant to a force far beyond her abilities and a source of hope to her friends.

“Is this… me?” The question hung in the air. No one else could answer the question for her.

She replayed the memory, focusing on a particular part.

“The five of you… you taught me things that no book could ever prepare me for. You taught me about true courage and not backing down no matter the danger, by risking your lives to protect me. Now I’m here to return the favor.

“I know who I am now. I am Flurry Heart, alicorn princess, and I don’t want to be anyone else!”

The Flurry in the memory looked so tough at that moment. Her eyes were blazing with confidence and purpose, a raging inferno of inner strength.

The Flurry of the present felt like she was looking at someone else. Twilight had even asked her how she could feel more confident in the face of imminent death than when there was no danger.

She looked at her friends, so recently in a state of terror, and saw the calm looks on their faces now. She had been the one to give that to them.

She thought back to her battle against Sombra disguised as Starlight. She had put all of them in danger because she had been unwilling to fight. They had all suffered because of it.

She thought of them all injured and laid out on the ground, and remembered the crushing despair that had ate away at her in that moment as she had screamed.

She could feel it at the edge of her consciousness, just waiting to emerge like before. She glanced towards the past Flurry again, wishing she could have her strength. It was quite an odd feeling, for sure, to be jealous of herself, to wish she could be more like herself.

Earlier, Starlight had said that the "real" Flurry had begun to emerge after she met Crystal, and then came out completely today. Was this Flurry the one Starlight was talking about?

“Who I am… is determined by the things that are important to me.” Flurry put a hoof to her chin thoughtfully, thinking again of Starlight’s words. The mare had seemed to be telling her something, but not directly spelling it out.

She thought back to before, back before she had met her friends. Not having any sense of modesty or restraint she used to… well, not flaunt her wings. That would imply she was doing it to show off or for attention. The reason she used to always have her wings out was because she was proud of them, in the sense that it made her like her mother. The two of them were alicorns, and her wings were as big as her mom’s.

She had been a cheerful child back then. Things had been so simple, but suddenly they weren’t. The stares of others, which she had thought of as similar pride that she was so close in appearance to her mom, actually weren’t. The first time one of the children made fun of her wings she thought he was just being mean. She brushed it off.

But it kept happening. As her family started her socializing the teasing continued. Sometimes it was whispered but overheard. Sometimes it was blatant and to her face.

She began to connect the stares of the children and their harsh words with the stares of the adults, realizing what they were really thinking. The adults didn’t insult her like the children did, but they didn’t have to. Once she understood what their looks meant they didn’t have to say a word. They thought she was abnormal… a freak.

It… hurt. It hurt her deeply. The pain only grew and grew until she stopped opening her wings in public at all. Even at home she was very restrained, feeling like she was just an outsider to everyone who wasn’t part of her family. She could remember crying her eyes out some days over it.

Her parents were very supportive, but it didn’t change the way she acted. Whenever she went out in public she kept her wings firmly at her sides at all times. She had no interest in learning to fly. It would only make her stand out more.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the same ponies that scarred her heart with their stares were the same ones piling more wood on the fire of her pain. She knew they were trying to be encouraging, but the more they talked the worse she felt. They got into her head, always bringing up the future where they expected her to be taking her mother’s place.

The children were no better. No matter who she hung out with it always made her uncomfortable because they were uncomfortable. Even as young as she was she could tell they weren’t being genuine with her. She compared the way her family treated her, and the way the kids acted, noticing a big difference.

Most were overly polite, always trying to stay on her good side. There was always an underlying fear in the way they treated her, confusing her. What had she done to deserve such treatment?

That was something else she came to understand after many such encounters. They always called her by her title, never by her name. It was always “Princess, Princess” with them. They wouldn’t call her Flurry, even in addition to her title.

It always created an uncomfortable gap. No matter how much she wanted to close that gap it remained as wide as it always was.

Oh, sure, she did meet a few ponies who weren’t afraid of her, but they were all self-serving. She had been having a great time with one colt, but he didn’t think much of her.

She sniffed. She could still remember the hurt she had felt when he dismissed her, telling her he had only played with her because his dad was hoping to get something out of it.

She put her hooves to her face as a few tears came down her eyes. Outside of her parents, Twilight(who she didn’t see often), Starlight, and Sunburst, it felt like nobody cared about her. She couldn’t connect with anyone who wasn’t already supposed to care for her.

She slowly gave up on friendship, considering it a waste when there was studying to be done. Eventually, she’d give it another shot, but only out of necessity.

Things changed a little when she first met Crystal. After accidentally shoving herself out a swing with her magic the filly had come over to check on her, and they played together happily. For a time she experienced a genuine connection with another child. Crystal hadn’t noticed that she was an alicorn, and so treated her like any other kid.

Things went sour during their second meeting. Once Crystal discovered who she actually was her attitude shifted to just like all the other children. That cursed gap, which hadn’t existed with this filly, returned in full measure. Crystal acted like she thought she was beneath her and unworthy of her time.

Her dream of a stress-free time of play, something she really needed at the time, was shattered. It was something so slight, but when Crystal spilled a drink on her she needed to leave before she exploded in anger. It was stress all over again.

She had had high hopes for their friendship, for a short time seeing what her aunt had talked about. Having that friendship regress just made her give up on friendship altogether. She just didn’t want to care anymore.

That could have been the end for her, but her Aunt Twilight was still looking out for her. She argued and complained and whined and cried, but her parents insisted she go to the birthday party of some friends of Twilight’s. What she thought would be an annoying, dull waste of her time turned out to be the best day of her whole life.

After the birthday party she thought about Twilight’s words. A friendship wasn’t only one-sided. Both people have to participate. If someone thought she was odd, or defined her by her princesshood or alicornhood, then it was her responsibility to show them she was more than just that.

Without those heavy feelings weighing her down she returned to Crystal and began their relationship anew. She tried to bring things back to the way they had been the first time they met, but it was difficult. She tried showing the filly a great time, but it felt like no matter what she tried she just couldn’t shrink that gap that kept them apart. She couldn’t form the connection she wanted.

Crystal only seemed to reluctantly allow their friendship. Flurry knew she was afraid, but she was hoping that after a few times the filly would calm down, but it just didn’t happen. Crystal still had that annoying forced politeness that drove her crazy.

Feeling discouraged, she elected to ask her friends for help. Things hadn’t quite gone how she expected. She excused herself, claiming it was to go to the bathroom, but really she just wanted to hear Crystal’s true thoughts.

She found out that she was at fault for the gap between them as much as Crystal was. Crystal eventually revealed that she really did want to have the same kind of friendship that she had with the twins. The reason it didn’t happen was because she had only been focusing on showing the filly a good time. She never once bridged the distance between them by opening up her heart and talking to her about her feelings. She hadn’t shared any of her problems and made Crystal feel needed.

Crystal even called her out on that during her rant, asking why she never told her about the bad thoughts going through her mind so Crystal could help her with them.

Only a short while later she found herself creating that gap anew by being afraid of letting Crystal see her wings. Once more her friends came to the rescue, calling her out for not trusting Crystal enough to show everything she was.

To her enormous relief Crystal dismissed her fears, telling her she was perfect just the way she was.

Things didn’t stop there, though. As their friendship grew and she told Crystal about the past the filly didn’t just offer encouragement or nice words. Crystal wasn’t content to just ignore the problem. She went out of her way to help her past it.

When she tried to resist with pathetic excuses the filly called her out on it hard, becoming super determined to be a good friend to her by helping her through her feelings.

Crystal told her that her wings were a part of who she was, and she shouldn’t have any shame for something that wasn’t her fault.

The next few weeks were hard and embarrassing. Crystal pushed her into going around with her wings out like she used to. Once more she had to endure the stares of others and remember that painful feeling of realization of what they were thinking when they did so.

It felt so humiliating for a long time. She approached her hangouts with Crystal with a sense of trepidation, knowing what she’d be forced to do once the filly arrived.

In the beginning her gaze was always focused outward, seeing every pony looking at her as silently mocking her. She could only go a few minutes before she couldn’t take it anymore and had to take a break.

Those days she felt like crying a lot of the time, hating how it made her feel.

Gradually, through Crystal’s endless encouragement, she found her gaze shifting inward. She began to truly see Crystal for what she was doing. Crystal has said that no matter what it took she was going to help her through her stigma. Day after day Crystal proved her words true, never faltering… never backing down. Crystal deeply wanted to lift her out of the darkness and free her of her self-hatred over her most noticeable attribute.

She saw how hard Crystal was fighting for her, and how much the filly truly cared about her. Crystal saw it her duty to help her, because she wanted to prove herself worthy as a friend. It was that realization that got her motivated in turn.

She didn’t get past her feelings about her wings for her own sake. She did it for Crystal’s. Crystal was giving it one hundred percent in trying to be a good friend. She wanted to keep the filly close by and not see her get hurt. When she thought that Crystal could be put in danger because of her embarrassment about her wings she grew determined to overcome those feelings no matter what it took. She didn’t want to be the only one to be a good friend. She didn’t want to be the only one to fight for the sake of their friendship.

Her wings, which had long been a source of negative feelings for her, began to make her happy. They became a symbol of those she could truly trust with her heart. Pound and the rest didn’t laugh at her wings when she showed them, telling her that they liked her just the way she was. When she showed Crystal the filly had told her she was perfect as she was.

Time passed, and she found herself changing. She began to find confidence in who she was. She found she no longer cared who stared at her wings, or who made fun of her for it. The only thing that truly matter to her was being as good a friend to Crystal as Crystal had been to her.

She could remember that she had told Crystal she wanted to fill the void in her heart with her. Even after forging that bond with her Ponyville friends there was still an emptiness inside because she couldn't always go to Ponyville, even with magical aid. Even with the magical notebooks it just didn’t compare to a face to face conversation.

She would never dismiss her Ponyville friends, especially considering she never would have forged that bond with Crystal without them, but Crystal was a friend she truly needed even more than them. Crystal was someone who lived within walking distance, which made setting up days to hang out easy.

Each of her friends had given her something special and improved her life. She thought back to Starlight’s words. “She said that Crystal helped me to start seeing the real me.” She was uncertain. “She helped me to become more confident and accept myself more, but… I don’t really know if I’d say I saw my 'true self' just because of that.”

She’d keep that idea in mind though.

She let her mind drift for a minute, knowing she was avoiding concentrating on Mayhem’s world and everything that had occurred in it.

Was she ready for this? She didn’t really think so. Without anyone else nearby to hold her or offer comfort the thought of reminiscing about what happened felt daunting, especially because she knew it would be the most effective to use the memory spell to see it for herself.

She put her hoof to her heart, a habit she had picked up, and thought of her friends. Even when they weren’t right next to each other they were still there inside her heart. She wasn’t alone.

She focused on her breathing for the next few minutes to calm herself. She did feel fear, but beyond that she found an overpowering curiosity. She wanted to know what Starlight was talking about. If she had a “true self” she wanted to know who it was.

She didn’t exactly feel able to handle it, but she was at least willing to start probing.

6-24: Back to Mayhem's world

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Flurry took a few deep breaths before she focused. She knew the spell that Starlight used to visit memories like they were real life, but she wasn’t as proficient at the spell as her.

She knew that seeing the memories rather than just thinking about them was going to make them so much worse, but she really wanted to know what Starlight had spoken about. Who was this “real” Flurry? What “answer” had she forgotten because of her experiences in Mayhem’s world? She felt like the only way to get those answers was to see it for herself.

She closed her eyes as her horn began to glow with a bright light. When she opened her eyes she saw her and her friends in Mayhem’s world. Unlike when Starlight cast the spell things didn’t look nearly as real. Everything had a bit of a translucent aspect to it, all of them slightly see-through.

She watched as they all sank into despair because of Mayhem’s terms, until Masky had the idea to just give him what he wanted and play it like any other game.

She skipped ahead a bit to the battle with Tirek. With a cunning plan by Pound they managed to take Tirek down, at which point Mayhem appeared.

The draconequus’ voice reeked with condescension and malice as he stated his intentions to wipe their memories. Watching herself from the outside she couldn’t stop a few tears coming down her eyes as she saw the sheer terror on her past self.

And yet Mayhem just didn’t care at that point. He wasn’t swayed by their emotions, and erased their memories as their faces all went blank.

It was an odd experience. She could see things from both sides of the spectrum. She could remember things from the perspective of having her memories intact, but she could also remember things from the perspective of being without them. She really felt like two different people at the same time.

Her five friends all took off to the cries of family members, leaving her alone.

Flurry paused the memory, once again feeling the sadness of her past self. She had “woken up” in a strange and unfamiliar place with no memory of how she got there, then insulted by her friends in the heat of anger.

It had hurt to hear yet another person making fun of her wings. It wasn’t helped when right after that Mayhem toyed with her.

He gave her false hope that she had hurt him several times, only to be fine every time. When he tired of playing around with her he took off, telling her to grab the other ponies that had run off and come to his castle.

She had to stop again as her past self fell and began sobbing, once more feeling those feelings like they had just happened. She could remember how scared and upset she had been at that moment. Everything felt so hopeless. She had felt so alone, and there was no one to help her. And yet…

She continued on, knowing what her past self was thinking as she slowly grew quiet and stood up. At that time she hadn’t known what was going on. She felt something pulling her to them, though she couldn’t understand why.

Now that she had her memories back she understood what it was that drew her. Mayhem could mess with her mind, but not her heart. Somewhere inside she remembered the way they made her feel.

She grabbed Pound and Pumpkin, saving them from the Changelings, then saved Peppermint from the timberwolves. It had been a simple matter both times, but their next opponent was no pushover.

While the feelings she had weren’t as intense as they were for her earlier memories she could still remember the fear she had felt when she beheld Nightmare Moon.

It was here that her friends began to make a strong impression on her. She insisted she go in alone, feeling like only an alicorn could fight another alicorn. She was terrified at the time, not wanting to go in, but knowing she had to all the same. She had told the others to stay behind, and just as she went to protect Masky a single clear word rang out.

“NO!”

It had taken her by surprise. Pound had refused to stay behind, even though it would have been the safest option. She had thought them foolish at first, doubting her own chances of victory, and that was why they wanted to come along with her.

Pumpkin and Peppermint both added in their own support, telling her it shouldn’t be up to a kid like her to fight battles like this, and if she was going to fight they were coming along too.

She smiled as her past self began to cry. Her greatest fear had been being forced into battles she wasn’t prepared for, and they helped to stave off that fear by pledging their support to her. Just knowing that she wouldn’t be fighting alone made her feel so much better inside.

The battle fared poorly. Pound and Pumpkin both took hard hits. Even though she told them to just stay down they told her they were fighting for something more than a princess or an alicorn. They were fighting for a friend.

With a combination of teamwork her four friends had managed to deal Nightmare Moon a hard hit, and she grew vengeful.

Seeing the danger, she threw herself between them and Nightmare’s blast. She hadn’t had the strength to completely block her spell, only surviving because Masky distracted her long enough to reflect her own spell back at her, giving them the opportunity to seal her into the shadows.

With that they added Masky to their group, leaving only Tree Leaf.

Flurry bit her lip, her heart starting to race as anxiety went through her. She knew what was coming next, but she didn’t want to face it. What had happened there had caused all of them so much pain. Her friends got hurt, her heart got hurt, and it hurt Starlight as well.

For the next few minutes she struggled with herself. Did she have the courage to face this again? Did she have a choice if she wanted to know what Starlight was talking about?

She found herself wanting to grab one of her family members to be on this journey with her, or to just skip the fake Starlight altogether, but again she found herself being overwhelmed with curiosity. In order to truly understand she had to see everything, no matter how unpleasant it was.

Reluctantly, she allowed the memory to keep playing.

Tree Leaf was sent flying over their heads, and she stopped him with her magic. She had been ready to attack, but then Starlight came into the picture, crippling her ability to fight.

Her friends had been ready to fight. She was the only one holding back. In fact, she protected Starlight from her friends, refusing to believe that the Starlight she knew and loved was doing such awful things.

Starlight deceived her, waiting until her guard was down before socking her in the face and knocking her to the ground.

Flurry winced as she heard the impact.

Her friends set up an attack again, and once more she protected Starlight from them before sealing them in a shield so they couldn’t interfere.

She could feel her past self’s guilt. She still believed in Starlight, the only familiar face since she began her journey. She desperately wanted Starlight to come to her senses so she didn’t have to be in charge anymore.

She found herself in two minds as she listened to Starlight showing her “true self.” She could remember the anxiety and fear overtaking her as she recalled the feelings from the past, but a pit of disgust from her present self for even listening to such words.

Her trust in Starlight had faltered, and with every sentence out of Starlight’s mouth she could feel herself growing worse and worse as she watched past Flurry’s mind slowly cracking.

Even though she had forgiven Mayhem for what he had done she thought it was a good thing she wasn’t going to see him for a while. Despite what she said to Starlight earlier she was feeling some resentment now over the fact that he had brought a fake Starlight into the battle.

It was bad enough he had taken away her memories of her friends, but then he tried to taint the memory of one of her most trusted authority figures. Everyone else just had to fight for survival. For her, this final challenge before getting to the castle just felt so personally tailored to her and her alone. Later on, he did say he made her the main character in his comic book story and did it simply for dramatic tension, but he had gone way too far.

She was so caught up in thoughts of Mayhem that she missed out on the rest of Starlight’s words until a bright flash of light caught her attention.

Her heart began to race as all her friends threw themselves in front of Starlight’s attack. She instinctively tried to protect them by creating a shield spell despite knowing it was only a memory, only for it to do absolutely nothing as Peppermint threw her past self out of the way right before all of them were sent flying by the attack.

Her breath caught, horror going through her, for a few moments forgetting it was the past as she began shaking. Her mouth went dry and her head and stomach began to hurt, chills going down her spine.

She was practically gasping for breath, muttering “No no no no…” over and over.

Around this time her past self was rising, pulled out of her stupor by the physical pain of colliding with the ground.

As her past self let out a wail of agony her mind began to catch up to what she was seeing. She broke the spell, quietly sobbing.

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real! Well, it was, but it wasn’t. It was all in the past. The problem was that it had happened at all.

“STUPID FLURRY!” she cried out, feeling self-loathing going through her. “Way to let all your friends down, jerk! Because of you your friends got hurt! It’s all your fault for being such a coward!

“They were counting on you! They were counting on you to protect them, but you just sat there and cried because you didn’t want to deal with it you big dumb idiot! Some friend you were, you disgusting piece of garbage!!”

As Flurry continued her verbal tirade against herself Starlight moved away from where she had been peeking through the gap in the almost closed door.

She slumped against the wall, her heart aching at the pain Flurry was going through. She let out a deep sigh. “Flurry,” she said quietly, “this is something you’re going to have to bear alone. I can’t save you this time.”

Her vision grew blurry with tears. “You have so much untapped potential, and unless you can overcome this trial you’ll never be able to start accessing it. You have to conquer these fears and doubts, or you’ll never become the pony you’re meant to be.

“As you said yourself, you have to make this choice on your own. If I save you now I’ll only hamper this opportunity for growth.”

Even though she said that she found her hooves moving automatically towards the door, wanting to disregard Flurry’s future to help her in the present.

She bit her lip, her body going stiff. She hardened her heart and forced herself to walk away. Flurry had so much confidence in her. The filly might be young, but she had to believe in Flurry too. She had to believe that Flurry would pass this test. If the filly couldn’t do it now then she would definitely encourage her later on, but for now the only thing she could do is have faith.

Knowing that didn’t make it any easier, even when Flurry’s words grew quieter and quieter with distance, making her feel like she was betraying her niece.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, wiping away a tear.

6-25: I am...

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Flurry found herself slumped in the corner of her room, her emotions numb. She let out occasional hiccupping sobs and sniffs, but beyond that she was quiet.

She was shivering slightly. “I have to face it,” she said emotionlessly. “I’m weak. I always have been. I’ve never been able to stand on my own four hooves. My friends, my parents, my aunts, Uncle Sunny… I’ve always been reliant on someone.

“Even if I did sit on the throne it would amount to nothing. Someone following after me would be ridiculous. I’d be the worst ruler in history.”

It was quiet for a minute. She tried to rise, but couldn’t feel any strength, and gave it up. “It’s no use. It’s not like I didn’t tell everyone how it was. Aunt Twilight and Aunt Starlight both tried to tell me that I’m more than I think I am, but this time… this time they were wrong.

“I can’t do this. I can’t. I’m just a weakling. I’m not strong enough for this. I can’t… I just can’t… can’t…”

She drifted off, unable to finish.

“You can tell yourself you can’t a thousand times, but when it comes to your friends it’s clear that your only response is ‘I can.’ ”

Starlight’s words echoed in her mind, troubling her. Her friends had gotten hurt because of her, because she had been careless and listened to the words of someone she suspected was a fake. She didn’t want her friends to get hurt like that again. She cared about them so much.

“No! You don’t!”

Flurry flinched as Fluttershy’s words to Mayhem came next.

“What you’re actually saying is that your friends aren’t worth your time. They’re not worth improving yourself for. If you actually cared about them and what your friendship stands for, you’d accept responsibility for your actions by working to make it up to them.”

Those words might have been directed at Mayhem, but it felt like they were directed right at her too. She had said earlier that her friends meant everything to her, and yet here she was sitting in a corner and giving up.

She had let her friends down by being so wrapped up in the fake Starlight’s words that they had to take an attack meant for her, but hadn’t she made up for it by the end? The crushing weight of responsibility hadn’t bothered her when it came to protecting her friends. They had all been willing to die for her. They didn’t go into it expecting to live, and yet they didn’t care. Every single one of them threw themselves in the way of Starlight’s attack without a thought to their own safety.

It had had a powerful effect on her, just like when they had decided to come with her to fight Nightmare Moon. When Starlight threatened to finish them off she found that all her doubt and hesitation vanished, and she went on the attack. She wasn’t going to let them be hurt again.

It was those feelings that had carried her through the rest of the battles. When Starlight was revealed to be King Sombra using an illusion she had been scared at first, but as soon as he threatened her friends she once again found her strength, and she didn’t let it drop from there. Her former terror of Mayhem was gone, lost to the yearning to protect her friends.

Mayhem had pushed her hard to try and get her to give up on them, but he couldn’t break her spirit. Even in the face of death he couldn’t make her give up, because her desire to be there for her friends was just that strong.

As much as she wanted to dismiss what she had done as nothing special she knew that she couldn’t. She had saved her friend’s lives. Maybe everything else Mayhem did was just meant to scare them, but Mayhem said it quite plainly that at the very end he had intended for things to be fatal because of his pride.

As Starlight had said, the magic she had used could only have come from their unity, but that unity was only because she had given them courage enough to keep fighting when they were ready to give up. If she hadn’t been there everything would be ruined.

Her mind turned back to Crystal. She had found courage and belief in herself due to wanting to be able to protect Crystal. She had to overcome her feelings over her wings, otherwise they would become a weakness that could be used against her. Not doing it would be putting a friend in danger, something that was unacceptable to her.

It was the same at the end of the battle. Mayhem began to specifically target only her friends to see how long she would throw herself in front of his attacks before giving up. He started off smug, but she kept at it so long it baffled him. He couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t just surrender.

She wasn’t content with just letting her friends live, which would have happened if she just let him win. She wanted them to thrive, which would only happen if they could be with their families again. It was that feeling that made her push on no matter the pain. It was that feeling that filled her with strength and courage.

She looked at herself in the present. What was she doing, sitting on the floor like a loser? She claimed that she valued her friends, but here she was trying to hide away in a corner because she didn’t want to face up to herself.

“My friends…” She uncurled her body. “My friends need me.” She pushed against the floor, trying to stand up. Her body still resisted her efforts, and she found herself getting angry about it.

“MOVE, BODY!” she yelled, forcing herself up. Once she was standing she once again summoned the memory of the end of the battle and listened to her past self’s words.

“Aunt Starlight said who I am is more than just a name. It’s about what’s important to me. I… I can’t stay like this. I can’t remain a weakling. It puts all my friends in danger.

“I might wish to throw that responsibility onto everyone else now that I’m not stuck in Mayhem’s world anymore, but that doesn’t mean someone else is always going to be there to help them. If it falls on me to do it I want to be able to protect them again.”

As uncomfortable as it was she had to fight this battle. No one else was going to fight it for her.

She took a deep breath, and summoned the memory of her friends being attacked again. It still hurt, even though she was prepared for it this time. Like her, they all had had a vague feeling of being connected to one another. Even if they had been strangers before this she didn’t doubt that Pound would have responded exactly the same.

She bit her lip as Starlight began to coax her into betraying Celestia and Luna to allow Starlight to get Canterlot. Once more she found herself in two minds. As present Flurry she could see the ridiculousness of listening to Starlight and expecting her to keep her word, but as past Flurry she could remember that she just wanted to prevent more death. She had already been responsible for five deaths, or so she thought. The idea of losing her parents too was too much.

She supposed there was a degree of selfishness in there as well. As guilty as she felt a part of her still wanted to live.

Once more her friends displayed their courage and strength. Just as she was about to seal the deal with Starlight they all jumped into actio