Mothering, Someday

by Impossible Numbers

First published

Mare's Day, a tribute to motherhood. Twilight Velvet is the ordinary mother of an extraordinary family; Derpy is the opposite. They normally wouldn't cross paths, but in a town where an outsider can become Princess of Friendship, anything's possible.

Some might think Twilight Velvet is the luckiest mother in the world. Yet she hasn't seen her daughter since her little girl was crowned princess. Velvet isn't even royalty herself. How can she be a mother to someone so radically different? So far away? So unreal?

Worse, it's now Mare's Day - a day for celebrating motherhood - and the situation is so bizarre that Velvet is in the odd position of having to go visit her little princess in Ponyville, by appointment, to bring the flowers that Twilight will then give back to her as a Mare's Day gift.

Twilight Sparkle's mother, they call her. Always and always. Princess this and princess that. Wouldn't it just be nice if someone looked at her life from any angle other than "Twilight Sparkle's mother"? For a day, at least. A few hours. Anything.

So who should she stumble across in Ponyville but the oddest and most extraordinary mother of all: Derpy, a mail mare capable of looking from all kinds of angles indeed. Sometimes in ways other ponies can scarcely imagine...

Written for the May 2020 Pairing Contest. Full details can also be found here.

Her Station in Life

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Why they called it Mare’s Day, and not the more honest and accurate Mother’s Day, beggared Twilight Velvet’s belief.

Being kindly disposed to beggars, she threw the weird thought a few scraps of attention. Anyway, it helped that the ensuing small talk in her head distracted her from everything else looming up:


An impending talk with a daughter she hadn’t seen in months.

And the fact she was travelling on her own.

Mare’s Day, a mother’s day, and she was visiting her own daughter.

Twilight Velvet stepped off the train. This was barely a train station. In Canterlot, the station had rivalled a stadium in grandeur and complexity. In Ponyville, the station looked like something cobbled up in a carpenter’s backyard.

She stepped off the outermost steps, and stepped into Ponyville, on Ponyville grass, breathing – more and more rapidly – Ponyville air.

Her husband’s words were a faint, fading touch on her ear…

Night Light had said, before they went their separate ways, “You are so lucky! Tell Twily I won the Equestrian International Bingo Championship. I’ll just bet she asks what algorithm I used to crack it.”

She’d desperately touched lips to cheek. “Tell your parents I said hi, OK?”

“Of course! I can’t wait to see them! Mother’s got a full day planned. She even promised I could review the schedule she drew up.” Night Light said this as one imparting sacred secrets.

Velvet had smiled, for his sake.

From a distance, a train had whistled. The conductor had shouted, “ALL ABOARD THAT’S COMING ABOARD! TROTTINGHAM TRAIN IN THREE MINUTES! ALL ABOARD THAT’S COMING ABOARD!”

“I’m sure she’s still the same Twilight,” Night Light had said.

“It’s been so long since the coronation. What if she’s too busy? Maybe her letters got lost in the post, or she’s suffering memory loss, or maybe she’s handling too much and we’re –”

For her sake, he butted her cheek with his own awkward lips. Her husband had many marriageable qualities, but body coordination wasn’t high on that list. Even he’d have put it in the bottom quartile, as Phase One of any list-making algorithm he used for that topic.

Bless him, she’d thought.


“Coming!” Night Light had shouted. “Velvie? Your train should be leaving soon too.”

“I never thought it’d be like this,” was all she could say at the time, to his chest, not to his face.

“Yes, I think the timetable might be slightly out of synch. Perhaps I should report it? Punctuality is the province of princesses, after all.”

“I meant… I never thought Twilight would turn out this way.”

“I know!” gushed Night Light. “First she’s protégé to a princess, then she is a princess! Our girl! Is there nothing she can’t do with that astonishing brain of hers?”

“And I’m happy for her, of course I am, but…”


To her disgrace, Velvet’s vision went blurry. “Her brain, yes. What about her heart?”

“Oh, Velvie. I’m sure she’s still the same Twily deep down.”

“How can you be sure? The more and more she gets involved in all this princess stuff, the less and less she talks to us. It’s like we don’t matter as much as we used to –”

“Velvet, don’t worry. I have complete faith in our Twilight.” Night Light tried a chortle. “Come on. The little unicorn who worked out Helmet’s Last Theorem while still using a bib to eat spaghetti numbers can’t change that easily!”

Sadly, that was the trouble with her husband. Genius as he was, he had a tendency to assume a pony was exactly how he’d last seen them, and if they said they were fine, then he’d assume they were fine until they said otherwise. He didn’t grasp what the factory of the heart could do behind box-standard words.


“She’s got a mind of her own,” Velvet had said, wiping her eyes. “Don’t you see? She’s not our baby anymore. She’s… not what I thought would grow up from… I mean…”

“Velvie, I know it’s a lot to take in. I understand.”

“You do?”

“Yes! Sometimes, I think I must be dreaming! I mean, our daughter, becoming a princess? We must have done an even better job than we thought! Maybe all those puzzle toys – She always loved it whenever I made them more challenging. I can hear her happy gurgling right now.”

In the end, she’d let him have his happiness. Firstly, because their trains were departing.

Secondly, because Night Light thought of princessing as some kind of ultimate puzzle-solving enlightenment, just substituting departments and nations in place of toy blocks and wooden slot devices. And because he was ecstatic about that, he thought young Twilight would be too.

He was a Royal Accountant at Celestia’s palace, which in his mind was the calling of ponies who must’ve been astounding saints in a past life. Not that he was ignorant: he knew jobs could be dull drudgery for a few bits a week, or a way of keeping score. But he knew those things existed in the same way he knew pony-eating kelpies existed; he didn’t actually expect to meet one.

Velvet was going to meet something even stranger. And she didn’t know what to expect.

Now Twilight Velvet stood, a long way from her husband’s Trottingham-bound happiness and a long way from finding out what, up close and personal, her Ponyville daughter had become.

Even from here, she could see the crystalline facets of Twilight’s Friendship Castle blinding and dazzling under the morning sun. The thing stuck out like a mountain made of quartz, just dropped nearby and pretending to have nothing to do with the rest of the town. Velvet’s eyes cringed under the first shining strike.

From what she’d heard around Canterlot, her Twilight had built the castle herself, or so she’d been given to understand; the reports had been a little excited and breathless.

Such a lovely castle, of course it was, extremely shiny and impressive and everything a Canterlot mother could hope for her daughter.


Was this her daughter? The Twilight Sparkle she’d known and loved cried when worn-out books fell apart. Ran to mummy for ice packs and plasters whenever a practice spell singed her horn or, in extreme cases, her own rump. Pleaded to sleep in Mom and Dad’s room because of nightmares about schoolponies laughing at her.

Yet if the likes of Dame Fleur de Lis and Pony Joe were anything to go by, an imposter called Twilight Sparkle now went around blowing away monsters and making crystal castles. How could she –?

Velvet’s chest gagged and heaved under the flood of guilt. No. Not an “imposter”. That couldn’t be right. The two Twilight Sparkles had to be the same pony.

Didn’t they?

Yes, it was obvious!

Wasn’t it?

If only Twilight had written to them more. Said something. Soothed her. Pulled her worries out of the water and given them a warm towel and a gentle reassurance. But according to Night Light, letters streamed from Twilight to Princess Celestia, from student to master…

Well, yes, young Twilight had loved school and reported in bullet points the great lessons of the day and what, say, Professor Latitude had thought about her chrono-dilation spells, in theory and in practice.

Aha! But that was when Twilight had started at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. That was when she’d become Celestia’s personal protégé. Ever since the princess had entered her life…

And Velvet’s children had all been destined for great things. Take her strapping young son, Shining Armor: Captain of the Royal Guard, Prince of the Crystal Empire, and host of the latest Equestria Games. Not bad things to gloat about around a table of mothers, if Velvet had attended any such table, or been that kind of mother.

Destiny. Great things. Princesses. None of it had been a drop of a thought in Twilight Velvet’s mind when she’d whispered to Night Light, so many years ago, “I’d love to read stories to a little Twilight someday.”

It hadn’t been her life. It had taken over what should have been her life, her home, her bedtimes, her loved ponies gathered around the breakfast table.

Now there were only two of them. Her and Night Light. The rest was nothing to do with her anymore. Just the memories, discarded.

Velvet gasped for air. Then she realized she was still standing outside the train station.

A few ponies stared at her. Some mumbled to partners. Any minute now, one would ask her if she needed help.

Velvet threw them a stock “it’s nothing” grin and hurried on as if she knew where she was going.

Velvet, Alone

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Too early for her to go to the castle. She’d go for a walk instead.

No point disturbing her daughter. Apparently, she was in a meeting: one of the few letters from Twilight had informed her of the unchangeable plan, with the “sincere regrets” – bad sign – of a Canterlot noble arranging a grand ball.

Velvet wished she couldn’t remember the wording of that letter, how formal it had been. It was like an obsession! Stop it! Focus on something good!

Well, she knew she was early coming, but she was also curious. Ponyville. It wasn’t a town that had been on her personal map until Twilight had moved here. Certainly, few Canterlot ponies could speak of the place without sneering. Velvet wanted to dive into this town, just for that.

Plus, the earlier train was cheaper, and she needed time to build up to the moment when she saw what mare now stood in her baby Twilight’s place.

Judging from the cottages that looked like timber framework with the walls coloured in, the town grew here like a crop. Yep, definitely a rural-looking place. There were fewer jackets and pants on the stallions, fewer hats and hems on the mares. Most were content to go au natural. Grass crunched underfoot, strangely cool where the blades brushed her pasterns.

And unlike Canterlot, she saw on the streets no obvious bias privileging unicorns, nor one for earth ponies pretending to be unicorn-rich – common enough in Canterlot, where pedigree was largely a unicorn concern, and what the Canterlot unicorn does, the Canterlot earth pony would do too.

Pegasi flitted overhead, but pegasi also walked the streets. True, she got the impression horns and wings weren’t as common as plainer heads and backs, but even then, she had to strain to see that tiny tilting in favour of earth ponydom. In other words, this was a surprisingly equal community, a community rich in fellow-feeling and talking partners rather than in money and titles and pedigree.

Some ponies looked like families, out strolling.

One upcoming family consisted of unicorns. A father, a mother, one older daughter, one younger skipping along.

Velvet watched them pass. Thereafter, she kept glancing over her shoulder.

What if it had been one of them?

What if the dart of destiny had missed Velvet? Had hit that mother unicorn over there? What if that white unicorn daughter – trying to stride with more dignity than her skipping sibling – had become the scourge of monsters, the princess of ponies, the master of her own castle?

What if Velvet had kept her Twily, and her knightly Shining Armor? They could have grown up, thrown their mortarboards whilst proudly wearing spotless gowns, maybe followed Night Light into accountancy or settled down to give Velvet a son- or daughter-in-law, and beautiful baby grandchildren.

And there would be her family. Night Light, Velvet herself, one older son, one younger daughter hopping along.

Tutting, Velvet stopped to wipe her eyes. Too many tears leaked out too readily. She’d cried at her son’s wedding, at her daughter’s coronation… How many tears dare she bleed?

But… How could destiny do this to her? Velvet had already chosen her own. She and Night Light, and their children: that was all she’d ever wanted. And if her children couldn’t have stayed in her home, they could hold on by the tips of their envelopes. She’d never let them go.

She barely even had that.

Around her, ponies chattered eagerly in threes and fours. She turned a corner and followed the louder sounds, through puddles of families and streams of friends trickling by. Immersed.

The ponies around her mingled freely. Puddles of ponies pooled with other puddles. Drops broke off, ran along the slope, and plopped into streams, which gurgled excitedly as they swirled around each other. After some time, it was hard to tell them apart. Besides, it was just smile-encouraging in itself to watch.

They all seemed so happy to see each other. No way could her Twilight not find refreshment in a town this sweet and satisfying.

But as she turned another corner, the crystal castle.

It loomed.

A stranger to this place, something pinned to the far horizon. Nothing like the houses around her that blended together the more she walked.

Twilight had barely written back to her.

To her! Velvet!

Velvet could only think one thing: she must have done something wrong.

Maybe she’d been cruel to Twilight, somehow? There had been times when she’d insisted Twilight not stay up late, or not cast spells that turned the curtains into custard, or… worse. But what else could a mother do? It was shock enough to see arcs and volts and lightning on Twilight’s horn that made Velvet’s magic look like struggling sparks.

Or maybe letting Twilight get so attached to the princess had been the moment she was lost? Twilight spoke about Princess Celestia, spoke to Princess Celestia, so much that sometimes Velvet had to remind herself the princess was not Twilight’s real mother. But then, Twilight spoke of epic battles and diplomatic sleights-of-hoof and how skilled in magic Celestia must be to raise the sun every day for millennia…

Come on now, shouted Velvet’s mind, don’t be crazy! What daughter’s going to gush over her mother’s epic battles with dust bunnies or negotiations over who gets cake and who’s had enough, young lady? And any skill Velvet learned, Twilight had taught her. It came to something when a daughter gave her mother magic lessons.

And I didn’t write to her either.

That stopped Velvet. Well, that and she almost bumped into someone –

“Sorry,” she said hastily.

The stallion examined her carefully, then shrugged, said, “Happy Mare’s Day, ma’am!” and carried on whistling.

Odd. A Canterlot bump would have earned her a raised eyebrow at best.

“Huh,” she muttered. “Nice place.”

A slight smile twinkled on her face until the rising goodwill started draining away again.

I didn’t write to her.

Of course not, she thought fast. Me, write to a princess? Any Canterlot noble would fawn over any daughter who rose to princesshood. And…

…and that was partly why she hadn’t. She wasn’t going to be like the other Canterlot nobles. It’d be nepotism. Cosying up to a daughter she hadn’t spoken to in months, just when she’d earned a crown and a throne? How would that look?

A darker thought said, What about before then?

Velvet’s tears, poised to poison her eyes, turned in on her own head. Thoughts sizzled. Jaw tightened as though shrivelled. So much focused and sought refuge and crowded behind her forehead, desperate to escape the dark flood, that she felt her skull threaten to buckle under the strain.

She and Night Light had written a few letters, early on, as soon as Shining Armor had told them Twilight had moved out of Canterlot. What! Where to? A quiet town south of here. A town? Ponyville, I think. Why? Just for the Summer Sun Celebration. It was no big deal. I’m sure she’ll be back soon. Whuh, we didn’t even know she’d gone!

Truth be told, they’d barely known Twilight was still in Canterlot. So much time shut away in that apartment with her own private library: Twilight had moved there as soon as she could move out of Velvet and Night Light’s house. She might as well have become a ghost.

A few letters then. And a few letters after the Ponyville move.

What had they got for it?

Someone calling themselves Twilight Sparkle had written back. Keeping things minimal:

She’d moved in.

She’d made friends.

She’d been involved in a “project” for Princess Celestia.

She was continuing her studies, now including a new topic.

She was fine.

Night Light had pounced on that last bit. See? She said she was fine! Our little baby’s growing up and finding her own way.

Yes, Velvet had thought, away from me.

She couldn’t bear to get another letter like that again.

Yet she couldn’t bear to get no letters at all.

No matter what she did, she always felt like she’d done nothing. Or worse, had done something fundamentally wrong to her Twilight, who’d gurgled at puzzles and laughed at her dad’s antics.

By now, Velvet’s strides were vigorous. Her saddlebag, bouncing and light against her flank, rubbed her sore. How long had she been walking? Goodness, the sun was almost at its peak! Where was she, even? All the streets looked the same. It’d just been one confusing hike between cottages –

A pony yelped.


And a pony like Velvet had only one response to someone else’s pain.

Velvet broke into a run.

Twilight Velvet, Meet Derpy Hooves

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The pony yelped again. High-pitched, almost a squeal.

Velvet hurried along a sudden side street and peered round the corner.

This street curved away, a crescent of yet more green, green grass. Unlike the other streets, no one was about.

Except for the mail pony.

A pegasus, picking up letters strewn on the ground. Her satchel bulged when they went back in, only to belch and spill the letters all over again.

“No, no, no, hurry, hurry, hurry!” whined the pegasus. Her head tilted up to the bright sun. “Not again, not again, please not again! ARGH!” She yelped in shock; the mass of letters burst forth.

Velvet glanced around. No one was around to help the poor thing.

She hurried forwards. At least this was something sort of exciting.

“Can I help you?” she said.

Another yelp, another tormenting slide of envelopes: the mail pony flared her wings and looked up.

At once, Velvet hesitated. One eye pierced hers as a bowl of apple green, but the other offered its gift to the sun overhead.

“Oh my goodness,” said Velvet, wincing at the imagined pain, “your eye… it’s pointing straight up…”

“Hm? Oh.”

Astonishingly, the pegasus shook her head, flapping her cheeks so hard she almost achieved lift-off. Swaying, she showed two corrected eyes again, now giving Velvet a hearty double dose of apple.

“Sorry, they keep doing that.” The mare gurgled a laugh. “I have to keep an eye on it. Get it? Keep an eye? On my eye?”

The film of Canterlot clinging damply to Velvet insisted she make her excuses and back away.

Velvet defied it. She liked breaking rules. She hadn’t done it in a while.

“Thank goodness.” She levitated a few letters. “Er, may I?”

“Nah, thanks, I’ve got it 100% under control.”

Five seconds later, the letters spread out on the grass in a greedy bid for freedom.

“I, uh,” said the pegasus, “I think I know what went wrong.”

Velvet mothered through her magic. The letters under her enchanted command straightened up, smartened up, and did what they were jolly well told. And what’s this? Leaving a stray stamp on the ground? I hope you understand what happens when I clean up your mess, young lady!

Then the moment was gone, and she handed over the squared satchel. “Voila!”

“Ooh, you’re foreign,” cooed the pegasus mare approvingly. “Welcome to Ponyville – Uh oh, look at that sun! Sorry. Can’t stop. So much to do. Toodles! And thanks!”

Before Velvet could speak, the pegasus snatched up the satchel, zipped across, rammed a letter through a letterbox, and then zipped to the other side of the street and rammed a couple more letters through another.

Velvet had seen this in Canterlot, but usually around Hearth’s Warming. Mail ponies fought to get their shifts done before sunset, and those shifts started at the crack of dawn. Only their Canterlot pride, though, refused her occasional sympathetic comments and offers of tea.

Yes, there was a lot of pride in Canterlot.

She wondered how much there was in Ponyville.

“Are you quite all right?” said Velvet, testing the waters.

“I’m fine!” The pegasus zipped back. “Just busy!” And forth. “Thank you!” And back. “For asking!” And forth.

Velvet saw the bulging satchel and understood immediately. “A lot of mothers here, I see.”

“You’d be!” Zipped back. “Amazed!” Zipped forth.

After a few more back-and-forths, Velvet felt it time to step in. “A moment, please, if I may?”

The crazy-maned pegasus – turbulence at those speeds could backcomb a bald donkey – paused in mid zip, flapping furiously with the effort. Ignoring the wind beating in her face, Velvet levitated and examined a batch of letters poking between the flap and the bursting seams.

“52 Crescent Crescent,” she read aloud, and then she looked up. “That’s an odd typo.”

“Oh, no! Lots of streets are named after moon things.”

Velvet recovered enough to get to the point. “Crescent… Crescent is this street, yes?”

“Uh, yes? Sorry, can I have those back n–?”

“And 52 starts here and goes round in sequence, yes?”

“Uh huh, but there’s this quirk when you get to –”

Velvet held them up. “May I?”

Squirming, the pegasus rubbed the back of her neck. “Only… well, I wouldn’t want to say no, but…”

“Don’t worry. I know a good trick. Watch this.”

Taking a few seconds to flick through the pack, a cardsharp about to deal, Velvet satisfied herself they were in order, drew them back discus-like, and let fly.

Panicking, the pegasus lunged forwards, then stopped in amazement. Every letter scythed across, splitting as a comet breaking up in the sky, spread out perfectly synchronized, and at the same time each slipped through its own letterbox along the street. One mass clank, a few rattles where the older metals complained, and then a whole side of the street done and the magical sparkles twinkling away.

Mouth agape, the pegasus rounded on her. “I – Buh – How did you do that?”

Velvet winked. “Oh, an old mare picks up a few tricks here and there.”

“That was incredible! Are you a wizard? Oh, oh, oh! Or maybe you’re one of those sorceressesses, or an enchanteress!?”

Velvet patted her own mane modestly. “Just a unicorn with time on her hooves.” Behind a hoof, she whispered, “Only don’t ask me to do it again. Wonders don’t come cheap. You mind if I walk with you?”

“Er… sure.” The pegasus looked anxiously at one of the houses. Yet Velvet was sure she’d done them in the correct order.

“Something wrong?” she said.

“Kinda… See, there’s this quirk when you get to 62. The next one’s actually 65. Number 64 got knocked down a while back so they could build a cul-de-sac, and things got a little scrambly.”

Velvet said, very quietly, “Oh.”

“But it’s OK.”

Embarrassment splattered over Velvet’s face, cold as egg yolk. “I’m so sorry. It was just a passing fancy. I only meant –”

“It’s OK! I make mistakes all the time on my route. No one will notice any different.” The pegasus extended a hoof. “Hi, and welcome to Ponyville! I’m Derpy.”

Twilight Velvet took it, very hesitantly. No glimmer of recognition, no fawning, no “Twilight Sparkle’s mom”… Something impish giggled in her chest and hijacked her mouth for laughs.

“Call me Velvet,” she said.

“What a lovely name.”

Velvet wondered if she’d have said that even were the name something like “Snickerdoodle Bum-Bum”.

They shook hooves, once, and then exchanged smiles. It was a smooth, perfect transaction: the pegasus Derpy had obviously learned her trade by heart.

“I’ll join you, if I may?” said Velvet.

“Gotta keep up, Miss Velvet! Here, why don’t you give it another go? One more!”

To Velvet’s surprise, Derpy threw her another letter.

But you didn’t raise the world’s most unpredictable powerhouse without honing your reflexes. In one twirl, she snatched up the letter, used the spin time to quickly read the number, looked up, aimed, and threw.

Right through number 69. All in less than a second.

Ever the performer, she gave a mock curtsey to Derpy’s flapping and clapping.

“Don’t we make a great team?” said Velvet, stumbling as she got up from her curtsey – Twilight had left home long ago, so she was somewhat out of practice. “How about I take this side and you take that side? I promise I won’t mess up the numbers again.”

“Oh, er…” Derpy stopped clapping. Not hard to fathom why. A few tricks were workplace entertainment, maybe, but someone else doing a good slice of her job wasn’t her favourite kind of cake. “I dunno…”

“Relax, Derpy. Your paycheque is safe from me.” Velvet rolled her eyes. “Only it’ll be easier for me to talk if you’re not zipping and zapping all over the place.”

“It’s just, well, it’s my duty as a mail pony to –”

“I’m not trying to take something away from you, I promise. I’d love to get to know you better, that’s all. Maybe you can answer some questions. Please?”

Derpy mumbled and rubbed her chin and mouth. She kept looking at the sky for answers. For an odd moment, Velvet felt like a young teenager hoping her mother would say yes.

Eventually, and sounding reluctant, Derpy hummed her way to saying, “Just this once, then. But I’ll have to report this in case of lira-bility issues.”

“I won’t make any mistakes. Trust me.”

“All right. Here.” Derpy handed over a batch of letters. “And read them carefully before you post them. That’s what I do.”

“Mother’s honour, ha.”

Where Did Mare's Day Come From?

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So they went along the curve of the street, moving from “Crescent Crescent” to “Bon Bon Boulevard”. Derpy zipped off to deliver each letter as she passed a door or a front gate, but then had several seconds to hover alongside and keep up her end of the talk, once they got round to one.

Meanwhile, Velvet levitated a stack of letters and frisbeed them each through a letterbox on the other side, stopping occasionally to let Derpy catch up. Before long, the two of them found themselves hovering or sauntering in almost perfect synchrony, a natural dancing pair learning as they crossed the grand floor together.

For Velvet, the physical exertion relaxed her. Her legs and lungs worked in and out, and her magical horn would never be ready to try that multi-letter trick again, but between the rush of blood and the flow of breath, her mind settled in comfortably, like a matriarch proudly enthroned on a sofa, surrounded by her bustling, bumbling, fawning family.

They worked in silence for a while, awkwardly learning where not to send off too early or walk too fast, but once they’d mastered that…

“So,” said Velvet after Derpy’s pointing leg signalled for them to turn off into a new street – a much straighter one this time, needing feeding with envelopes marked “Sweet Street” – “What’s it like in Ponyville?”

“The best!” Derpy said without hesitation – broke off, snapped a letterbox, hurried back – “I can tell you all about it, if you want. I know this place like the back of my hoof.”

“Sure, I’d be delighted.”

“First and best is Princess Twilight’s Friendship Castle!”

Velvet walked into a fencepost.

“Everyone wants to know about that as soon as they get here,” continued Derpy, who hadn’t noticed. “See it? See that big castly thing over there?”

Hurrying to catch up, Velvet almost dropped her letters and barely remembered to deliver a couple as she passed. Starting with that!?

“Er, ac-actually…” stammered Velvet, “I-I was wondering… about, um… about the rest of the t-town!”

Derpy didn’t even need time to switch gears. “Okie dokie. Ooh, I know what a unicorn like you might like. We got a library made out of an old oak tree, and the bark looks like shiny gold at sunset.”

Sounded promising, but not a huge departure from Twilight territory. “That sounds lovely.”

“Yeah. It got blown up by a monster way back, but you can still see the remains in the Princess Twilight Sparkle Friendship Castle. She used to live in it! The library, not the castle.”

Velvet’s mind rushed away in panic. Don’t think about Twilight! Think about something relaxing! There has to be something in this town she won’t be associated with!

Or maybe not. Royals got around. In Canterlot, you couldn’t move for the Royal Post Office and the Royal Galas and the Crown Jewels and the Throne Tavern and the Queen Street Parade and… What if Ponyville was like that too? Twilight Magic Emporiums and Twilight Cafés and Twilight Research Centres and so on?

“That’s why she kept it, I think.” Derpy shrugged, then started rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “If I ever leave one house and move into another, maybe I might do that too. If I can fit it in through the door –”

Change the subject! Change the subject!

“Mare’s Day!” said Velvet without thinking.

Derpy’s derailed thought crashed all over her face, leaving much confusion. “Mare what, sorry?”

“Today’s Mare’s Day,” said Velvet, now trying to think her way to something less idiot-sounding. “Isn’t that interesting?”

“Erm…” But Derpy had a clean-up crew of superpony proportions. In seconds, the smile had been restored, if anything grander than before the accident. “Yeah, you’re right there. Once I’ve posted my last letter – oh, hold on –” The letterbox rattled. “After that, I’m going to have the best day that isn’t called Hearth’s Warming.” She frowned in thought. “Or a birthday, or one of my daughter’s birthdays, or a day off, or some of the days at work can be quite fun too…”

Genuinely surprised, Velvet said, “Daughters? Oh. I didn’t know you were a mother too.”

“Well, yeah.”

“You look so…” Don’t say anything about the eyes! Velvet bashed her head with the thought. Don’t say anything about the eyes!

“Yeah?” A bit of worry as the train of thought took a darker turn in Derpy’s head.

Young, young! Velvet seized the word and flung it out: “Young!”

Derpy’s face was blank. Had the accident occurred? Had the train got out OK?

It came, rumbling and almost tipping off the track. “Young?” repeated Derpy.

“Well, uh –” Velvet wondered if she was about to be hit by something. “You look… good for your age!”

“I never told you my age.”

I’m going to crash, thought Velvet madly. I’m going to crash!

And instantly, the train bearing down on her righted itself and swerved back on course. “Why, thank you!” said Derpy loudly. “You look lovely too!” Then a pause. “How old did you think I was?”

“Oh… er…”

As if she’d heard it too many times to take offence anymore, Derpy added, slyly, “Not old enough, I guess?”

“I, er…”

“I think you don’t look older than me, but who am I to judge?”

Yet still alive, Velvet’s mind froze to the spot. She’d been this close, how could she have been so reckless, she’d been this close to the rushing steel of… Guilt, like hot blood, flooded through her.

“I’m sorry,” she said to make absolutely sure there were no casualties. “It wasn’t my place to presume, I mean.”

“It’s OK. I get that a lot,” said Derpy, and to Velvet’s astonishment the wonky-eyed face actually looked much more radiant than the sun for a moment. “In a way, it’s sweet. And you did say sorry, just because you thought it might hurt my feelings. It’s like they say in Cloudsdale: The sun’s always there, even if you can only see clouds.”


“Uh huh. So, what was so interesting about Mare’s Day? You looked like you wanted to say something.”

Sheer hot embarrassment backwashed through Velvet, leaving relief stranded on the shore. “Y-Yes! Yes. I was just going to say it’s very interesting.”

Derpy nodded politely. After a while of silence, Velvet realized more was expected of her. Rather eagerly, judging from the encouraging smile.

Velvet’s mind coughed and elbowed her on. Say something! Anything! Put as much distance between you and that faux pas as possible! It’s only good manners.

“And the interesting thing about Mare’s Day…” Her tongue flailed about for words. “Is… that… it’s… a very… interesting… thing.”

Derpy’s smile was incredibly patient.

Velvet’s wanted to go home.

Finally, something latched on to Velvet. “My daughter told me some… interesting… things about it.”

“Ooh, do tell!”

Sighing with relief, Velvet pulled the thread and roped in more and more. “Yes, I remember she said once it all started with the Founding of Equestria.”

“Your daughter likes history, then?”

“You have no idea,” said Velvet, and she couldn’t stop the chuckle in time. “I used to have a collection of Horrid History Lessons for Horrible Little Horses, enough to last any sane pony a month. One week later, the little dear came up to me and said, ‘Mom, when’s the next book coming out? I’ve read all the others.’”

“Ha! It’s the same with my littlest little girl. She loves reading books and asking questions. Sometimes, she does both at the same time.”

“Writes in the margins?”

“And she sends curious letters to the authors. She asks things like, ‘I loved your book, but I would like to know: What was Commander So-and-So thinking when he declared war on What’s-Her-Face? Did he have any diaries?’ We never hear back from them, but that never stops her.”

Velvet wished Derpy hadn’t said that. Once Twilight became the protégé of a princess, authors fell over themselves to respond to her enquiries.

It jolted her mind.

“Anyway!” she said. “This interesting thing about Mare’s Day –”

“That your daughter told you,” Derpy reminded her, looking proud as a teacher’s pet.

“That my daughter told me, uh huh. Well… oh, what was it now?”

“I get that a lot too,” said Derpy sadly. “I wish I had a memory like my –”

“Ha, yes! I remember! It started with the founding. Not many ponies know that. Then there was the forty-day journey from the end of winter to the beginning of spring, when all the founders had to go back and fetch the ponies waiting for news about their scouting mission.”

Derpy’s face took on the faraway look Velvet often imagined on her own face after Twilight had explained something. It was no less disconcerting for being a look that went skywards and horizon-wards at the same time.

“Er…” said Derpy.

“Am I going too fast?” Velvet warily watched her face.

“It’s all right. I get there. Four-day journey, was it?”



“That’s how long it took to get to Equestria.”

“For the founders?”

“For the other ponies following them.”

“I think I got it.” But Derpy looked no less faraway.

Velvet had hoped to rush through this. Why was she even doing it anyway? Who cared besides history buffs? And her daughter, admittedly, and by the way, wasn’t Velvet supposed to be steering clear of that topic? Obsessing over her would just make things worse.

“It must have been a horrible journey,” said Derpy. “I’d get tired after Day Three.”

At once, Velvet’s urge to keep things pleasant leaped to her mouth. “There’s a good ending.”

“Yeah?” said Derpy, brightening up. Her faraway gaze snapped back to the here and now.

Darn it. She’d been hoping she could cut it short. Now she had to go full story mode.

Not that old Velvet would have minded. In fact, old Velvet – who hadn’t been let out of the mind’s cellar since Twilight left home – sat up and looked up expectantly.

“Yeah,” began Velvet breezily. “Once everyone was in Equestria, the other tribes didn’t like the idea of sharing it. They thought it meant one tribe would rule over the others. Apparently, there was going to be a big battle to prove who deserved control over the country.”

“I thought you said this had a good ending?”

“I’m getting there, don’t worry,” said Velvet, once more unable to stop the chuckle. She’d loved telling stories, long ago. Her old self crept up to the cellar door, testing the push. “It was Clover the Clever who figured out how to make peace. She invited everyone to what she called the Feeding of the Five Thousand, a gigantic feast in honour of the new Equestria.”

“Ooh, that’s clever.”

“I haven’t said the clever bit yet.”

“There’s a clever bit?”


“What’s the clever bit, then?”

“I’m getting to the clever bit.” As she posted another letter, Velvet jogged her memory, hoping she could remember what Twilight had said. “Ah, got it! The plan was this: the earth ponies would work hard to make the food for the feast.”

“That’s the clever bit?”

“Give me a second!” Velvet chuckled. “The unicorns would raise the sun at the right dramatic moment, and cast spells to entertain the guests.”


“And the pegasi would lead the ponies in a grand military march and sing a new anthem that Clover had taught them.”

Derpy’s lips bubbled, fighting between the pool of calm respect and the turbid gas of blurting out her long-buried question.

Velvet’s old self had broken out of the cellar now. The rest of the house could hear the old voice shaking once more through its foundations and walls.

“The clever bit was this: partway through the preparations, just when everyone was happy practising, Clover switched their roles. Suddenly, the pegasi had to do all the cooking. The unicorns had to do the marching and singing. And the earth ponies had to practise raising the sun and doing magic tricks.”

Frowning, Derpy opened her mouth.

“Yes,” said Velvet, a slight smugness tugging at her smile.

“I didn’t ask anything…”

“You were going to say something like, ‘Wouldn’t that be very messy?’”

Derpy stared at her with newfound respect. “You can read minds?”

“Bless you, no. I did the exact same thing when my daughter told me. ‘Oh, Tw– My dear! That must have been a frightful mess!’ I said. And my daughter said, ‘It was!’”

“So that’s the clever bit, is it?”

“We’re getting there. After practising their strange new roles and feeling stupid, all the tribes complained about what a fiasco and a nonsense this was. So Clover switched them again.”

“She switched them back?”

“Nope. Now the pegasi did the sun-raising and entertainment, the earth ponies did the singing march, and the unicorns cooked the food.”

“That made a bigger mess, I’ll bet.”

“There was nearly a riot. All three tribes stopped respecting Clover and swore she’d either lost her mind or was making fun of them. So they all banded together, went up to the founders, and complained.”

“Why’s that the clever bit?”

“Because of what Clover did next. She said that she had been unfair on the three tribes who obviously couldn’t do each other’s jobs properly, and she would bow to the public will, accept responsibility for her mischief, and put it all right. And she meant all of it. She’d cook the food, she’d raise the sun, she’d entertain the guests, and she’d march and sing. All by herself!”

Derpy stared at the sun for a moment, or at least one eye did.

“She must be really dedicated, then.”

“But very clever.”

“How? There’s no way she could do all that by herself…” Derpy’s grin caught the side of her face. “Is there?”

“Well, she did her best. She did cook some food, and master some of the entertainment, and from all accounts, she wasn’t a bad marcher and singer.”

The grin faded. “But she didn’t do it all by herself, then?”

“How could she? She’s still one pony. But at least the other tribes had a moment to laugh at her and make fun of her.”

“This isn’t a good ending.”

“No, that comes next. What Clover did next was to mix all their efforts together.”


Velvet realized she was warming up to her tale now. Apart from the cottages and the sun and the walking and the occasional letter-throw, this might have been a bedtime story in a certain little madam’s quarters. Even Derpy had the same traditional wide-eyed look, ignoring the direction of half her actual gaze.

It might have been the same look Velvet had worn when she was younger, and walked the country lanes outside Vanhoover, listening to her mother’s rambling stories.

Oh, in this case, Twilight might have supplied the facts, but Velvet was the one who wove the story. She could still see the wonder in Twilight’s eyes as cold textbook facts suddenly awoke from hibernation and danced in the spring of Velvet’s tale.

“What Clover did was: she took the good efforts of each tribe and spruced up the weaker efforts of the other tribes,” said Velvet. “So for earth ponies, she kept the good food but spruced up the food made by unicorns and pegasi. For unicorns, she let them raise the sun but added some of the rituals made up by the earth ponies and pegasi. And for pegasi, she kept the main march and song but added bits here and there based on how the earth ponies and unicorns did it. She kept in a little of her own modest contribution too.”

“That’s… kinda clever?”

“That’s just the start. Then, when the tribes thought the whole thing would be called off, she invited them to the feast anyway. Curious, they all turned up. Then she explained what she’d really wanted to do.

“By switching them around, she helped each tribe appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as how difficult each task was. By making herself the one to force them into such ridiculous things, she helped them to realize they could agree on something, even if they only agreed that she – Clover – was an utter pain. By doing so much work herself, though, she also showed her commitment to uniting all the tribes and helping them understand that they could share in each other’s work, even knowing they wouldn’t all be as good at it. She’d even watched them herself as she went to see how each tribe did it, the better to experiment and create new things when it was time for her turn.

“The three tribes then swallowed their pride, for they knew in an instant that they’d been wrong about each other, and about her. But she forgave them, and encouraged them to forgive each other. There and then, they held what was now called the great Forgiveness Feast!”

Then she looked at Derpy. So caught up in her own telling, she’d almost seen the book-filled bedroom, the walls that were almost entirely shelves, the lone bed with its lone occupant, wide-eyed and small-mouthed, not talking on and on, but listening with every fibre of her being to her mother, who’d listened to her own mother in turn, on gravel paths between comforting hedgerows under a sky as warm as today’s.

To Velvet’s amazement, she saw the exact same look in Derpy. The cosmetic differences were there – the two eyes pointing in opposite directions, for a start – but they were as thin as powder on her rich, fleshy face, her fresh-fruiting eyes, her mouth leading to the secret audience chamber of her soul.

Derpy stopped and beamed. Her hooved clapped and occasionally clopped as they hit each other with more enthusiasm than accuracy.

“Wow!” she burbled like a happy stream. “That was a good ending!”

“Thanks,” said Velvet, shyly glancing away for a moment. “But I can’t take all the credit. My daughter taught me the facts. I just made the story out of them.”

“Then you two make a great team.”

Velvet’s blushing joy subsided slightly. After all, as she recalled, Twilight had gotten over her clapping and slipped from wide-eyed awe to a more critical dissection of the tale.

How long before Derpy spotted a problem?

“Wow, you must have an amazing memory,” said Derpy.

And that was it, for a few more houses. Derpy zipped towards a few letterboxes. Velvet tossed her own letters.

Eventually, curiosity won out. “And that’s how Mare’s Day was made,” said Velvet.

“Uh huh,” said Derpy.

Velvet waited a few more houses, and as she did so, she learned one very important fact about Derpy: she wasn’t dumb. She’d ask the same questions any reasonable pony would. She was merely operating with a brain which liked to take its time getting anywhere. And for all the Canterlot praise about quick tongues and rapier wit, Velvet had to force her culture-simmered brain into acknowledging that speed was… well, merely a matter of time and where you were going.

Derpy’s smile slowly began to melt under the steady heat of realization, as did the high brow boosting her general pleasant expression. Like a chocolate left in the sun, the smile sagged into a much less beautiful, downturned slump.

“So,” Derpy said once she’d caught up, “what’s that got to do with Mare’s Day?”

“I wondered that myself when Tw– when my daughter told me,” Velvet confessed. Somehow, she felt she ought to stay on the same level as Derpy. “Long ago, it used to be called Motherland Day, then Motherland Day before the Day of the Sun.”

Derpy waited politely for the dots to be connected.

Velvet caught on and hurried on. “Things change over time, see. At first, it was to celebrate the Motherland on a day before the Day of the Sun. Then it became a more general Mother’s Day before the Sun Celebration. Then the two sort of drifted apart. One became Mare’s Day. The other became the Summer Sun Celebration.”

“Things change?” said Derpy.

“Yep,” said Velvet, and too late failed to stop herself from adding, “Too much, too soon.”

“Oh, I get it!” Derpy’s voice was so sudden it hit the realization about to hit Velvet. “Like how Hearth’s Warming didn’t used to be about hearths at all.”

She looked so inordinately pleased by this contribution that Velvet almost completely forgot her own slip-up a second ago. “I’m sorry?”

“Dinky taught me that one.” Derpy winked at her. “She looked it up once. I told you my littlest loves reading books.”

“Oh, I see! Dinky’s your –?”

“My joint-favouritest daughter of all time! And Ammy’s my joint-favouritest daughter of all time too. She’s my biggest little girl. And she’s smart too, though she doesn’t read as much as Dinky does. She helps me every Hearth’s Warming, with all the buying and gift-giving and stuff.”

“Huh, Twil–” Velvet scolded herself. Why did she keep letting it slip? Don’t waste this moment! “My girl likes doing that too, only more with her father. He thinks shopping’s a fun break from work.”

“Does he?”

“Because of prices and money.” Velvet caught the blank stare and grimaced. “He likes numbers.”

“I know my Ammy’s super-careful with money. Counts it to the cent.”

“So does he. Repeatedly. And so does… my daughter.”

To Velvet’s surprise, Derpy nudged her. “Between you and me, I think numbers are my worst enemy. They seem to hate me so much. They never do what I tell them.”

Velvet nudged her back. “Between you and me, I can’t deal with numbers either.”

“That’s why I let Ammy look after them.”

“Same here. Well, not with your girl, obviously! I mean with my husband. And my… daughter.”

Velvet felt the rumble of the question heading up Derpy’s throat. Surely it was so obvious by now, how much she kept dodging Twilight’s name. Derpy had already given both her daughters’. She had already thrown her coins into the fountain; of course she’d want to see Velvet do the same.

“So what’s her n–?” was as far as Derpy got.

Aaaannnddd every year for a thousand years,” Velvet announced in a rush, “a unicorn in Canterlot pretends to be Clover and honours Mare’s Day by hosting a feast and crying, ‘Rejoice!’ It’s a tradition! On Mare’s Day! That I just remembered! Yes!”

Derpy fluttered away briefly before roosting back into her role. “Um, OK?”

“I know lots of fascinating things about Mare’s Day, if you want to know! Sorry if I talk too fast! It’s just one of my favourite days!”

Derpy’s eyebrow jolted up with suspicion. “Um… OK…?”

“Like golden roses! I know flowers are traditional, but in Canterlot, it’s golden roses or nothing! And we eat Mother Cakes – they’re like simnel cakes, you ever tried that, they’re delicious but a bit too floury for me – and decorate our homes with a sprig of violets! I’m sorry I’m still talking so fast! I just had to get it out there! Isn’t this nice!?”

She had to stop to catch her breath whilst pretending she wasn’t heaving or in any sense out of breath at all. The way Derpy kept looking at her with the one eye roasted her more than the sun did.

In her chest, Velvet groaned. She’d underestimated Derpy, she knew it. Even a mare slow to join the dots knew suspiciousness when she heard it. And she was a mother. Mothers learned to tell suspiciousness as soon as the first cookie jar got smashed.

And then a miracle happened.

Derpy beamed at her and carried on delivering. “I understand. You’re from out of town. Anyone would be a little nervous visiting a strange place for the first time.”

Velvet wondered if it would be safe to reply. She settled for continuing the walk and letter-throw.

“You are nervous, aren’t you?” added Derpy, and then gave a good demonstration herself. “I’m not the best at reading some ponies.”

Velvet weighed her chances. If she was vague, maybe…

“I haven’t seen her in a long time,” she said, and then watched for the slightest curveball.

“Yeah,” said Derpy. “It’s like my Ammy said: The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Velvet didn’t bother correcting her at all. She was too busy worrying that was actually the case.

Derpy and the Spirit of Friendship

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The letter-posting went so long without a word that Velvet wondered what she’d just said to silence Derpy so.

“Anyway! You’re from Cloudsdale, I take it?” said Velvet, about as nonchalant as a door salespony wedging a hoof in before the owner sees what they are.

As though the words were being wrenched from her, Derpy conceded, “I was born up there, but I’m from Ponyville.”

Then Derpy lapsed into dutiful silence again, apart from the snap of letterboxes. Velvet sensed a chasm opening up, but the imp in her insisted on leaping.

“I’m going to visit my daughter later,” said Velvet.

No reply.

“So… you’re going to visit your mother after work?”

A long, quiet moment.

Very long.

In the end, Derpy said, “No.” It was the coldest word she’d said yet.

Velvet herself took a while to unfreeze.

“I’m so sorry,” she blurted out. “I didn’t mean anything. I only –”

“It’s OK. You didn’t know.” Derpy still spoke like a winter chill.

Velvet knew only one way to restore the balance. “My mother passed away a long time ago. I can understand if you –”

“Oh, my mother’s still alive,” said Derpy. The air frosted up when she spoke.

Oh no, thought Velvet. I’ve just walked into that.

Her horrible side glanced at the mismatched eyes. They said things, didn’t they, like “a face only a mother could love”? It wasn’t a phrase to be taken for granted, Velvet felt. And frankly, she knew about parents in the colder, harsher climes of Canterlot society that treated love to their children in the same way an employer might treat a shirking employee.

All right, Cloudsdale was a long way from the elitism of Canterlot, but there were still some rankings and competitions, weren’t there? Who was to say Cloudsdale didn’t have its own version of the hovering parent, especially since they actually had the wings for it?

And – Velvet hated herself for thinking like this – Derpy was slow. The rotten Canterlot part of her had to admit it needed a bit of patience to keep up, or keep down, whichever.

Plus, Derpy was a bit too happy, a bit too naïve, or at least – Velvet insisted on correcting this – she acted very much like someone who was too happy and naïve. Canterlot types generally didn’t trust emotion. In a high society where rank was everything, relying too happily and openly on friends could end with your good name being tripped into the mud by a rival hoping to get invited to more parties with newer, less easily roused friends. Being too happy or naïve was the stuff of commoners.

Worse, the unspoken word hiding behind “happy”, “naïve”, and “slow” was: “stupid”.

Velvet probed at the thought, realizing that one of the reasons she was so happy with Night Light and her children was because it had never occurred to her there’d ever be a chance of them turning out “stupid”. One of the reasons, she insisted.

But she would’ve loved them anyway, regardless!

The horrible part of her whispered: you haven’t passed a test when you’ve never been tested on it.

All this passed in the silence between two sides of a letter-delivering walk, and then Velvet couldn’t bear it anymore.

“I’m sorry,” was all she dared say.

Still no reply.

“We can still talk, can’t we?” she murmured, barely breathing the words in case she sounded too forceful.

“You’re from Canterlot, right?” said Derpy. Neither malicious nor welcoming.

“I promise I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“That’s why you get all those books and things.”

Velvet heard the slow, ponderous tones and relaxed slightly. There was no accusation. Derpy simply worked her way along a train of thought until she was back in the engineer’s room again. After that? How would she steer?

“We got ours from the library,” said Derpy, pouring a drizzle of cheer onto her voice now. “I couldn’t get many when I started out, but then Ammy took on some jobs, and now we buy them for Dinky, I can’t move for the things.”

“My mother passed down her library to me,” said Velvet, hoping this was the right thing to say.

“Your mother read you stories too?”

“Yes, lots. We could be awful for tall tales.”

Derpy seemed to be thinking. At least, she glanced up at the sun more with her good eye.

“You love your mother very much,” she said.


“I want to be a good mother too.”

Velvet touched her with a glance. “I’m sure you are. You’d make a good friend?”

Then Derpy nodded; she must have reached a conclusion. “I know you’re a good mother. It’s the way you talk and look. I can always tell.”

She went to deliver a letter. When she came back, the sunshine meeting her face had to compete with the sunshine coming out of it.

“And,” she said in a rush, “because I know you’re dying to ask: yes, it was because of my eyes and because I’m not as good a flyer as the other pegasus ponies, but then I made a decision to move away from home, and I moved to Ponyville, and then I met lots of good mothers and lots of good friends, and then I realized I never wanted to be a flyer but I always, always, really, deep down wanted to be those two things, and if you were mixed in with the Ponyville friends I’ve made, you’d fit right in.”

Velvet had never been in a criminal court, but in that flash of a second, she felt what it must be like to hear the gavel go down and the voice cry out: “INNOCENT of all charges!”

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” said Derpy quickly, noticing the sigh. “I don’t like remembering my Cloudsdale time. Anyway, you didn’t know.”

“I must apologize, I swear, I meant nothing by –”

Derpy waved her down and threw a Velvet chuckle back at her. “No problem! It’s like my Ammy said: There’s no point saying sorry to your friends, because they already know.”

“You’d stick out like a sore hoof in Canterlot,” said Velvet, giggly as a child. “They only say sorry if it pays off later.”

“I think Ammy was trying to be cute, though. I mean, she had broken into the cookie jar again.”

“Ha, if it was a Canterlot jar, that’d be a front-page scandal of the week.”

“But it’s OK because sometimes work stresses her out. And they’re very good cookies.”

“I don’t get involved much in Canterlot politics. Too much stress.”

“Sometimes, I sneak a few too.”

Then they looked at each other.

“I’m sorry,” said Velvet. “I was rabbiting on. You were saying?”

“No, I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening.”

“You were saying?”

“You were saying?”

“You first,” they said at once.

They shared a few chuckles, and then continued along the road, round the corner, and down another grass-strewn street. This time, the envelopes said “All Apples Avenue”. By now, they were so closely matched that the letterboxes snapped shut at the exact same time.

As they walked on to the end of “All Apples Avenue”, and then turned into “Cool Carrot Carriageway”, Derpy peered over to the saddlebag clasped against Velvet’s side. “Oh, I forgot to ask! Are you visiting your mother, too?”

Ah. Derpy didn’t have the best memory for conversation, then.

Velvet covered her face quickly, then turned back and shook her head. “Hm?”

“Those flowers. They make a beautiful bouquet.”

Velvet glanced at the golden stems and rosebuds peeking out. And the thorns. One couldn’t forget the thorns of a golden rose.

“Actually, they’re for me,” she said, hoping the pegasus took the flint of a hint in her voice.

“I thought you said you hadn’t visited your daughter yet?”

“Well, they will be for me once I give them to her.”

Derpy nodded, mouth puckered as though drinking the spring of sudden, upwelling understanding. Then she said, “I’m confused.”

Velvet weighed her chances. The mare seemed nice enough.

“Is she sick?” said Derpy, immediately all concern.

“No, it’s nothing like that.” Velvet watched the grass below, anything to avoid seeing the reaction when she said… “She’s a lovely girl, really. Unfortunately, she’s also a busy one. Rushing off to save the w– do important work here, do important work there, meet up with so-and-so from this-and-that… Sometimes, she loses track of time. So when she was younger and just starting out with all her busyness, I got into the habit of buying my own flowers and giving them to her so she could… find time in her schedule to… give them to me.”

What’s she going to say, thought Velvet weakly: that’s awful, that’s bad, that’s pathetic, that’s silly?

Either Derpy could read minds or she didn’t work on a normal script, though, because her next few words were a hearty: “Oh, I have that problem all the time!”

Velvet looked up into a smile that hadn’t dimmed one bit. “Y-You do, sorry?”

“Only the other way around. My girls always remember to get me something, but I need a bit of help when I give them birthday presents or Hearth’s Warming gifts.” Derpy tapped her head knowingly. “Not because of busyness. My memory’s like one of those things with holes in.”

“A net?”

“I dunno. I forgot.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Velvet before she could clamp her mouth shut.

An awkward silence watched them post another letter each.

“If I’m honest, I never liked trying to read calendars anyway.” Derpy’s eye began to wander again.

Velvet’s own eyes, in perfect treachery, leaped from the letters in Derpy’s satchel to Derpy’s pupils pointing in two directions whilst she focused on reading the next address. The obvious question leaped forwards and was promptly tackled by tact.

“It’s nice,” said Derpy quietly. “They could’ve hated me for getting it wrong, but they worked out this system instead. Now we’re so used to it, it’s like a family tradition.”

And Velvet let out a breath that had been weighing down her chest for some time. “It is, isn’t it?”

“You too?”

“Well, before my daughter moved out, yes.”

“You miss it a bit, don’t you? I can tell.”

“It’s just not the same.”

“But look on the bright side: you’re still keeping some of the traditions alive.”

Puzzled, Velvet followed her gaze to the golden roses poking out.

“Oh,” said Velvet, caught out. “Why, yes, since you put it that way…”

“I know mine will if ever they want to move out,” continued Derpy.

There was no threat in the voice, nor any naïve optimism, and certainly not some lying desire to look good. Such was the easy conviction that held her tone steady that, for a moment, it was possible to see the soft cushion and the thundering iron in her words both at the same time. Solid certainty, made peaceful and gentle.

Velvet stopped and watched her flap towards the next letterbox. She barely remembered to mail her own letter opposite this time. She had met ponies who’d slick a conversation and scatter a few promises and, where her family was concerned, shower her with praise for being such a good mother. Nourishing as the words were, she could drown in them at times. Canterlot family life was a swim, an easy paddle, or a scramble for a lifebelt, but always changing out on a fickle sea.

So she’d never met anyone who could be sun, earth, and sheltering cloud all at once. Derpy’s mismatched eyes still slightly put her on edge – subconsciously, Velvet was waiting for the mare to crash into something – and yet a few minutes in her company left Velvet feeling like she’d come home. To a home she didn’t even know she’d had, but which nevertheless was finally a place to rest her head, put her hooves up in front of the fire, and dry off in cosy comfort.

Velvet’s smile rose like steam from a cup of hot chocolate. “Your daughters and you are very lucky.”

“Thank you! Wow, I’m getting this job done faster than I expected.” A bright spark lit up her face. “Hey, why don’t we go and get lunch at Haute Cuisine’s? I could always do with a big break after a shift like this one.”

Despite the worm of urgency wriggling through her, the rest of Velvet suddenly felt young and healthy again. “Of course. I’d love to, Derpy. Lead the way!”

Haute Cuisine: Why Derpy Never Cooks

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Haute Cuisine sounded like the sort of sterilized Canterlot endroit pour manger that Velvet had always steered well clear of. To her delight, it turned out to be an outdoor café with toadstools for tables. She otherwise only told it apart from the surrounding cottages because it had a sign over the door.

Derpy paid for the meal, once Velvet helped her count out the change correctly. Hay fries piled up so high they looked like a corn dolly’s secret fortune, and an oat burger so thick and stodgy she was surprised each bite didn’t clang when it hit her stomach.

All that, and yet the waiter – cuffed of hoof and oiled of mane – seemed incredibly out of place, a piece of Canterlot dropped in the middle of this rural outback… up until he opened his mouth.

“Dur-pee ‘as a fine appetite, mademoiselle,” he choked around his own accent, but as if he was proud to choke for her honour. “Is alway a play-djure to see ‘er.”

“Naigh d’see ‘oo doo!” shouted Derpy through a boulder of a burger.

Not from the other side of the table, Velvet had to admit. Derpy’s gung-ho approach to life became extra generous around food. There was a ring of ketchup around her mouth, and around her plate.

“If’sh goouh!” she said around her current mouthful. To Velvet’s horror and admiration, she swallowed the lot without the slightest pinch of pain on her face. “I’m always starving after a shift. Thank you, Savoir Fare!”

The waiter beamed at her, but tastefully, as a proper gent might beam at a diamond in the rough. Then he discreetly bowed away to go and greet a new customer.

“Excuse me, I don’t…?” Velvet sadly watched him go. She turned to Derpy. “I take it we don’t need cutlery here?”

Derpy’s face signalled message not received. “But you’re a unicorn, right?”

After a while, Velvet shrugged and ate with her hoof as best she could. At this rate, she’d finish her pile of hay fries within a week.

“I haven’t eaten like this for a long time,” she admitted. “In Canterl– Where I come from, you draw unwanted attention if you don’t eat correctly.” Wondering how that must sound, she corrected it to, “If you don’t eat with cutlery, I mean.”

“Mm hm.” Derpy swallowed another bowling ball of grub. “Oh, they keep wooden knives and forks and things next to the sauces, if you want me to go back and get them.”

Velvet stopped eating one fry at a time and shrugged. When in Ponyville, she guessed, do as the Ponyvillians do…

After a hungry while, she noticed Derpy’s wide eyes had locked onto hers, or at least one of them had.

“Whad?” said Velvet, muffled.

“Er… do you usually suddenly start eating like that?”

Velvet wished she had left enough room to talk.

“I didn’t think anyone else ate like me,” said Derpy.

Neither did the other patrons, it seemed. They were giving Velvet funny looks.

Velvet swallowed. A nervous giggle. Thereafter, she settled for a happy medium portion per mouthful.

“Um… so…” she said, hoping she wasn’t blushing. A few apparently uninterested ponies laughed suddenly, unintentionally catching her by the shame.

Derpy surfaced for air. “Mm hm?”

“You often eat out?”

“Oh, this?” Derpy looked down at the ruins on her plate. “Sometimes. Well, it’s just not fair on Dinky and Ammy, you know?”

“How so?”

“Asking them to cook lunch. Dinky’s got the day off school today, and Ammy’s always working so hard –”

“Don’t you cook?” Velvet asked before she remembered who she was talking to.

A flicker of embarrassment reddened the skin under Derpy’s eyes. “I… try it. Now and again. Like when my friend Golden Harvest was sick.”

“Oh?” Velvet propped her hooves on the table’s edge to look sufficiently interested, but… “Who’s Golden Harvest, sorry?”

“My first best friend since I moved into Ponyville, of course! She farms carrots.”

“A carrot farmer, huh?” Velvet leaned closer. Farmers were a distant myth in Canterlot.

“Yeah, and she works way too hard at it, at least I think so. Like this one time, when she got sick, and her little sister was away for…” Derpy chewed her lip. “I forget. But what Golden Harvest had done to make herself so sick was…” She chewed her lip again. “I forget. Anyway, I went over to cheer her up, make her house tidy, and cook up a nice big…” She chewed her lip again.

“You forgot that too, I guess?” said Velvet sympathetically.

“No, it’s just super-embarrassing. OK, it was supposed to be breakfast, but it went something a little like this…”


“It’s the middle of the afternoon, Derpy,” moaned Golden Harvest over the table.

Derpy had wrapped her in a blanket (“It’s one of Ammy’s old ones, she doesn’t like the kitten pattern anyway!”), guided her down the stairs and helped pick her up afterwards, finally to sit her up at the table on the second go and repeatedly tie a hot water bottle to her head (“Derpy, I appreciate the effort, but I don’t think it’s supposed to go on the bottom…”).

Golden Harvest’s home wasn’t a beacon of Canterlot decadence. It barely qualified as Ponyville naughty. The kitchen consisted of the table, cupboards, and whatever was needed to burn or freeze grub. It was so bare-bones, it looked like the kitchen needed feeding.

Derpy hummed happily over the hob.

“I’m prepar-ING! Something EXTRA SPECIAL! JUST for YOU!” she sang over her shoulder. “It IS! The best BREAKFAST! That your MONEY can BUY!” She stopped singing after the twelfth whimper from the table. “By the way, shouldn’t you have more food in your cupboards?”

“Business ‘m slow,” groaned Golden Harvest. She sniffed at maximum industrial snot levels and mumbled something about a headache.

“You’ve only got to ask. Ammy and I would love to give you –”

“Couldn’t pud you out,” said Golden Harvest and her blocked nostril.

“Honestly, you’re getting as silly as Applejack sometimes, and she has a big farm –”


“Wait,” said Velvet, getting up suddenly. “I’ve heard that name!”

“Hm?” said Derpy.

“That name you just said. How do I know it?”


“Yes! Yes! Now I remember! It was in one of TwiiiiiiiiI mean, in one of my daughter’s letters!”

“Oh, she’s a friend of Applejack’s?”

“Y–” Only then did Velvet think: what if it gives the game away? Too many details would ruin a good cover. “She’d… mentioned them. In a few letters. Big name around here?” she asked, innocent as an actress.

“One of the biggest! She runs the biggest farm in Ponyville. It was so big, the farm was here before the town was!”

So Twilight has a farmer friend too, Velvet thought. Perhaps I am overreacting.

“And Golden Harvest’s not so big, but she’s a big name around here too. Not as big, but…” Derpy shrugged, helpless between economic honesty and a refusal to make a friend sound less important. “Anyway, I was saying…”


“I’m just saying,” Derpy had said, scooping something onto a cracked plate, “you should take better care of yourself first.”

Golden Harvest grunted something.

As Derpy flew closer, she hummed a little more brightly in a vain attempt to dig up the carrot farmer’s buried happiness. She twirled, plate held aloft, flapped her wings gently, and landed the plate in front of Golden Harvest, with all the grace of a blind ballerina.

For her part, Golden Harvest took one look at it and groaned until her chin had to rest on the table.

“What is it?” she said in a sigh.

“One cheesy omelette, one tin of baked beans, two slices of toast, and tofu-bacon! Wait, hold on.”

Derpy flew back to fetch the frying pan. It had blackened chunks stuck to the bottom.

“Only I don’t think tofu’s supposed to do that,” she said. She tried to flick the chunks out with a spatula. Several pinged off the ceiling. One embedded itself.

Golden Harvest sighed. “Did you put the oil in?”

“Whoops! Knew I forgot something!” When Derpy came back, she offered three bottles. “Olive, sunflower, or flaxseed? I hear flaxseed’s good for big brains!”

Golden Harvest conspicuously examined anything else on the plate. The omelette was a good attempt at a sunflower – hints of yellow, but mostly brown and black, clearly rounded because Derpy had put in as much egg as possible without the pan overflowing. When the carrot farmer stuck a fork in it, the fork stood up.

And it looked as though Derpy had taken chunks of cheddar and fired them at the omelette. Some were still embedded like unexploded missiles.

“‘S that the beans?” mumbled Golden Harvest.

“I thought I’d save some for later. Did you want more? I got more. See?”

Derpy fetched the pan and showed it to her.

Slowly, like a size ten head out of a size nine hat, the jelly of tomato sauce and pockmarked beans slid out of the pan and plopped on the plate. The perfect mould wobbled slightly.

“Oops.” Derpy stopped tilting the pan. “Sorry.”

“An’ th’ toast?”

“Whoops, knew I forgot something!”

What she came back with was a bowl. The contents bubbled.

“I’ve been taking lessons from Sweetie Belle!” said Derpy.


“I think I’ve heard that name, too,” said Velvet, here and now. “But I didn’t hear much else. Is she a famous cook?”

“Famous… ish,” conceded Derpy, rubbing the back of her neck. “Let’s just say everyone knows about her cooking skills by now.”


Derpy eyed the gloop. “Sweetie Belle made it sound so easy.”

Golden Harvest blinked, slower than Derpy’s baked beans, at the result.

“Um…” said Derpy, dropping slowly with each wingbeat. “At least the toast chunks won’t get stuck in your throat, right?”

Golden Harvest made a noise like something small and squeaky was stuck in her throat and had resigned itself to being stuck there until the fire department came.

“Thanks.” She sniffed miserably, snot and tears in one go. “I’ll remember your friendship when I eat it.”

“You’re so kind!”

“It’ll keep me going.”

In fact, it was barely one bite later when Golden Harvest was forced to give up, owing to a blast up her nose, a titanic sneeze, and the concentrated force distributing the mass of meal so that Golden Harvest’s face, table, ceiling, and far cupboard doors could have a taste.

“Oopsie,” said Derpy, helping her wipe it off. “Too much pepper?”


“And that’s why I never cooked there again,” said Derpy, and then stopped.

Velvet was laughing so much when Derpy finished that it took a while for Derpy to wipe the tears out of her eyes and assure the other patrons her friend hadn’t suddenly dropped her sanity when no one was looking.

“Sorry!” Velvet said, wiping her eyes. “Sorry, Derpy. I know you’re a good soul, but…” Another fit of giggles took over shamelessly. “The pepper…” she whined helplessly.

Nervous giggles were Derpy’s offerings to the table. “It was a bit much, wasn’t it?”

“And then she sneezed… AH-hahahahaaaaaaaaaaa!” Velvet tried not to wheeze herself to death. “And it ended up on the ceiling… ahaha… ah-hmhm… hm…”

Both wings and forelimbs were folded. Derpy’s jaw skewed away as though prepared to take her business elsewhere.

Velvet coughed and tugged at her own pearl necklace. “S-Sorry. You were very sweet to go over – sneeze on the ceiling, hahaha! – er, no, no, I’ll stop now. It’s only fairahaha! No! Stop! Sorry. Won’t –” Velvet had to clamp her lips shut for a moment. “Won’t do it again. I promise. Canterlot honour.”

“I guess you cook fine for your house, is that it?” said Derpy, a little miffed.

“I really am sorry. I wish I had anything that funny to say, but cooking in my house hasn’t been a problem that much. After I married Night Light, he took over the kitchen for a while. And I won’t say a word against him, his heart was in the right place and all…”

“There’s going to be a ‘but’, isn’t there?” Derpy relaxed slightly. She’d never looked comfortable being miffed anyway.

Velvet sighed, the drudgery of memory leaning on her back like a husband who didn’t realize how much he weighed. “Ish. Well, at least you have something exciting to talk about. Meals from him could be a bit… dull. Like this one time –”

Haute Cuisine: Why Night Light Never Cooks

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“Time for dessert!” Night Light had cried out from the kitchen.

Velvet waited for him to attend to the long dinner table. She hated the thing. If one pony sat on one end and another on the far end, how on earth were they supposed to speak to each other? Admittedly, back in Vanhoover the earth ponies had owned long buffet tables too, but they had the families, friends, neighbours, and anyone who happened to be passing by to fill ‘em up with.

Night Light had bought the table anyway, because he was now a Royal Accountant, and one of the few flaws he had was a tendency to pick things up fast. Long tables were what his boss and colleagues were used to, so long tables it would be.

Where Velvet had put her foot down was with seating arrangements. The two of them would sit at one end of the table together. None of this rubbish about shouting across the room, “Dear, I say, dear, could you pass me the salt, please!?” “What? Speak up!”

Up till now, she’d been fine with his cooking. He’d insisted on doing as much of the household chores as she did (“It’s only fair, dear!”), and had immediately gone out and bought books to help him, which now cluttered his half of their room in organized chaos.

Currently, he was working his way through the cookbook. Every instruction on the page, even the optional suggestions in the little textboxes, metamorphosed under his scowling concentration into a sacrament.

Now Velvet watched as he balanced two steaming pie bowls on his head and brought them over to her like the world’s most cheerful maître d’.

“Home-baked Granny Smith Apple Pie, ma’am?” he said, winking.

It was the same line he’d used all year. The charm had long since worn off.

“It’s my first time baking this one.” Night Light sat opposite her, close enough to pat her hoof reassuringly. “Don’t hold back, Velvie. Sound constructive criticism is very important for the advancement of food science.”

Science. That was a good word. She could see him in a lab coat over a petri dish, dripping strange chemicals on an apple and jotting down the result on a clipboard.

Velvet tried to smile for his sake, took one bite, and realized taste was a waste of time.

She swallowed.

She looked up, into a face so eager for sound constructive criticism that he barely noticed the piece of pie slipping off his own fork.

“It’s good,” she said.

A little too flat. His ear twitched.

“Nothing else?” he said.

“I…” Velvet wished she could remember the taste. “I don’t think so?”

“Is the texture of the crust correctly crumbly? What about the temperature of the filling? I can only do so much with a custom-made pie thermometer, you see.”

“It’s not hard or cold or anything. It’s just… good.”

Velvet always had a bad tendency to look away. It was one of those things she’d learned early in life. Looking at things could be so powerful her eyes watered under the strain.

“Please tell me what’s wrong with it,” said Night Light, as if dreading an A- grade. “I thought you’d like a good meal.”

Velvet put her fork down and crossed her forelimbs, the better to fortify herself. If she didn’t say it now, she’d never say it at all.

She looked at his face. She almost never said anything.

A happy marriage, or an honest marriage? Could one survive if she didn’t confront the cooking issue, right here, right now? That’s what her schoolfriends had warned her about. The cracks always started small.

“Dear,” she said, to soften him up, “you know no matter what, I’ll always love you.”


“And I know you love cooking so much, and it’s sweet of you, it really is.”

“It’s a fascinating challenge, yes! The instructions, all neatly placed on each page just perfectly. And there are so many instructions. They’re numbered, too!” he added, his heart daringly confessing to non-matrimonial pleasures and his eyes pleading for her to forgive his mortal soul its moral failings.

She smiled, despite herself.

“But…?” Night Light prompted again.

“But… the food’s just right. That’s the problem. It’s not surprising or exciting or any of that stuff. It’s just… right. Good. Not great.”

She’d expected him to slump: proof that their marriage was early days.

She hadn’t expected him to stare at her in a sort of delighted horror.

“You don’t mean…” he said, licking his lips. “Improvise?”

“Well, sure. Do you have any of the ingredients left?”

“Of course! I took special care to buy twice as much as I’d need as an insurance policy. Can’t be too careful.”

Velvet got up, chair sliding back. “You won’t mind if I –?”

“No, no! Of course not! I’m always ready to learn by observation.”

“Only… I’m not as good as some of my friends back in Vanhoover.”

“I won’t pressure you into it if you don’t want to do it.”

“No, no. Just… I’ll give it a shot, OK?”

A little while later, the two of them bent over the kitchen sideboard, the pupil agog at the master’s hoofiwork.

“Just add a dash of cinnamon,” said Velvet.

“Cinnamon? The book doesn’t say anything about cinnamon.”

“Or cardamom. Lots of cardamom.”

Night Light gasped. “You’re not seriously…?”

“Nor did it say to put this much sugar in.”

“That’s fifty five percent over the recommended quantity! It’s too much!”

“Is it? Oh dear. Clearly not enough. Here we go.”

“Now it’s over ninety percent too much. One hundred. One hundred and ten.” Night Light took a deep breath. “One hundred and fifteen point six percent! How can you!?”

“Mwahaha, I’m not done yet. And now the custard…”

“Custard! This time you’ve gone too far!”

“Mmm hmm hmm, I know.”

Rhubarb too!?

“Can’t say custard without rhubarb, dear.”

While the oven hummed and the pan full of yellow bubbled, Night Light gazed as though wondering whether unleashing the wild animal had been such a great idea after all, and how long it would be before he heard the screaming.

“How can you be sure it’ll work now?” he said. “There aren’t any instructions. This is madness.”

“When I was in Vanhoover, the earth pony neighbours always put something new in their dishes.”

“They were… experimenting?

“Well, partly. Mostly it was because the other ponies kept pinching their recipes. It’s hard to stand out for long as a master chef when everyone’s mastering right behind you.”

Whereas Night Light had come from a family that was too rich to care much about master chefs beyond which was the most outrageously expensive. Besides, Velvet remembered, tastes in cuisine were just as much an iron-clad tradition for the upper crust as tastes in paintings and rich clothes. Precious things, like gold, never really sullied themselves with change.

A ping.

Sometime later, the two of them sat up to the table, Velvet mostly watching her husband shovel down portions.

“Now, it’s my first time baking this one,” she said, trying to mock his male baritone as deeply as she could. “Don’t hold back, Nightie. Sound constructive criticism is very important for the advancement of food science.”

“Forget food science, Velvie!” he said between mouthfuls. “You ought to be working miracles! Oh my word!”

“So it’s… good?”

“If I die and find myself eating this, I’ll know heaven is real after all.” He looked up pleadingly, and then put both hooves on his cheeks. “I am not worthy!”

“Oh, stop it, you.” Velvet didn’t say it too harshly.

“Where did you learn to cook like that?”

“When you grow up among earth pony farmers and cooks, Nightie, you soon learn to brush up your kitchen skills.”

“You must cook some more. I’d be honoured. In fact…” Night Light dropped his spoon in the custard and rushed around to kneel next to her. “Velvie, will you marry me? Again?”

Hm, Velvet had thought, an honest marriage or a happy one? Well, why not both?

“Get up, you,” she said, grin bursting out. “The fun’s just beginning. You haven’t even seen what else I can do yet…”


“And that’s how I ended up taking over cooking duties,” said Velvet, throwing an idle hay fry into her mouth.

“Wow. But what did you mean by that last bit?” said Derpy.


“That ‘you haven’t seen what else I can do’ bit?”

Velvet scanned her face, and to her surprise found only complete dumbfounded innocence staring back.

“Well, you have a husband, don’t you?” she said.

Radio Derpy broadcast definite static.

Velvet blushed hot enough to bake the table. “Erm,” she said, reaching for some fries to stuff her mouth, “I’ll tell you another time.”

“Ooh, is it a juicy secret, then?”

“Er… sometimes.”

Derpy accepted this without issue. She probably thought it was something to do with drinks.

Just then, Savoir Fare materialized. “Ees everytheeng to your likeeng, lay-dees?”

As is traditional on these occasions, Velvet had just then stuffed her mouth. “Mwyesh!” she spluttered, trying to swallow and speak at once. “Danksh!”

“All set, garkon!” Derpy waved at him.

“Fantastique. Do let me know eef you evair need anytheeng.” He dematerialized.

“So…” Velvet choked, eyes streaming – Derpy came over to pat her back. “Thanks…” A cough. “So… um… who cooks in your house?”

“You’re sure you’re OK?”

“Peachy!” Velvet made a noise like a burst sewer pipe. “Went down… wrong way.”

“Yeah. My friend Doc’s always wondering about that,” said Derpy. “Ponies eat and breathe using the same bit of tube in their throats. He said any sensible pony would keep them separate, because then no one would choke.”

Velvet braved the sore throat. “Doc?”

“He’s an int-lectual!” said Derpy proudly. “He loves science. He’s always tinkering and making things and blowing things up.” She paused, apparently aware of how unintellectual that sounded. “But scientifically.

In an undertone, Velvet said, “Surprised Twilight never mentioned him, then.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I said, I’m just surprised you never mentioned him, then! Before now, I mean.”

“Oh, he’s a good friend. I’ve got lots of good friends here. If I stopped and read a list of all my good friends, I wouldn’t have finished yet.”

“Like your Golden Harvest,” said Velvet, trying to make a contribution. “She’d be at the top, right?”

“Erm…” Derpy looked blank. “Only… Not because… Everyone else is good too… It’d just be… Well…”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” lied Velvet. Another fact about Derpy, which she was slowly learning, was that hierarchies didn’t sit well with her, and neither did Derpy whenever someone talked about them. More gently, she said, “Does Golden Harvest help you around the house too?”

“Not that often. She’s busy on her farm, poor thing. Usually, it’s Dinky and Ammy. Although that can be a problem sometimes too…”

Haute Cuisine: Amethyst, Dinky, and the Great Daughter Bake-Off

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“Okie dokie!” cooed Derpy, dropping her satchel by the closing door. “Shift’s done! Mommy’s home! Who wants to get baking!?”

Next door, the living room gave no response.

Odd. Derpy locked the front door behind her and drifted down the hall to poke her head in.

Amethyst sat up to the table, scowling at an abacus and two open stock books in front of her. She didn’t look up.

Dinky lay on her back on the sofa, scowling at a comic with a large enough “KABLAM!” on the cover to get Derpy worried about its violent content. She didn’t look up either.

“Girls?” said Derpy.

She sensed the distant rumbles, but wasn’t prepared to call it an earthquake yet. Maybe just a passing underground worm that’d bother no one. Yeah, that was it.

“It’s baking night,” she said. “Yay?”

Neither of them looked up.

“Hey,” said Ammy.

“Hi, Mom,” said Dinky.

Derpy waited for more rumbles. “Only I thought you’d love baking night. You usually do.”

Amethyst placed her executioner’s pencil carefully on the chopping block of numbers, and steepled her forelimbs together. All she needed were the glasses on a ribbon and her artfully scruffy mane tied into a strict bun.

“Baking, I don’t object to,” she said, opening a meeting. “However, in light of certain recent circumstances, I propose I do it solo.”

“What?” said Derpy.

Dinky threw her comic down and rolled onto her haunches, showing off her artlessly scruffy haystack of a mane in turn.

“I’m not doing it if she’s doing it,” she translated.

Derpy refused to sigh. Sighing meant giving up. She’d never give up. Never. Sometimes, she wished she could give up a little bit.

“Please tell me you haven’t been fighting again?” she pleaded.

“Fighting?” Amethyst’s face hardened, opening a meeting with no compromises and annoyingly not enough coffee. “Fighting implies blame on both sides. Dinky’s the one to blame. She raided our budget for food again, without permission.”

“Mom, please! It was just a one-off! I swear!” wailed Dinky. “Alula’s birthday’s on Sunday. I wanted to get a good cake. She’s my friend!”

“Hey!” Amethyst bristled like a cat gearing up for a hissing and spitting contest. “You want to change the budget, you discuss it with me first!”

“You always say no! And I’m not getting Alula some box of cupcakes. It’s supposed to be a proper cake from Sugar Cube Corner. The best I can get.”

“Then get it yourself. You’ve got your own money to dip into.”

“It wasn’t enough, OK?”

“Well, now it’s not enough to cover the whole week for the rest of us.”

“What about Alula?”

“What about her? It’s not the end of the world if she doesn’t get a cake she can swim in.”

“Party pooper!”

“Petty thief!”

“Stick in the mud!”

“Wild animal!”

Derpy flapped into the heat haze between both camps, wings flailing for peace. “Girls, girls, please! We can talk about that later, please. We’re not going to spoil a lovely day, are we? Please? Now, let’s go make things better by having a jolly family baking night.”

She caught each stare in turn.

Please,” she added.

Amethyst’s chair scraped back. “All right. Mom. But we will be discussing this later.”

Dinky stuck her tongue out, then caught Derpy’s stern eye and hastily pushed it back in.

“Sorry, Mom,” said a small voice from Dinky’s knees.

“Right!” said Derpy, rubbing her hooves whilst the two of them stood not looking at each other in the kitchen. “Any suggestions for tonight?”

“Black Chocolate Gateau with Bitter Orange Filling,” said Amethyst to the oven.

“Banoffee Cream Pie,” said Dinky to the fridge. “With Custard.”

“Uh, uh, uh oh!” said Derpy in a way that would have left babies gasping at the wonder and mystery of it all. “We have a conundrum now, don’t we? See? I can’t possibly pick between two such perfect choices! That’s not going to help at all. Now, let’s decide which one we’ll do. I’ll start. So –”

“Ew, not black chocolate,” muttered Dinky. “And bitter oranges? Seriously? Aren’t desserts supposed to be sweet?”

“I’m not messing with bananas,” said Amethyst, with a sniff. “Nor custard. It’s clown food.”

“No, it’s not!” Dinky tapped her hooves together to count along the tip of one. “It’s creamy. It’s rich. It’s super-sweet. I like it.”

“I rest my case,” muttered Amethyst. “Clown food.”

“Well, that explains you then,” muttered Dinky back. “Sour food for a sourpuss.”

“I don’t know whose you’re going to take up, Mom,” snapped Amethyst as if Derpy had spoken, “but I for one absolutely refuse to bake anything as fake-soundingly cheerful as ‘banoffee’.”

“And I’m not baking her hoity-toity dark stuff,” added Dinky. “I don’t even like bitter oranges. She’s only suggesting it to get back at me.”

“Says you,” growled Amethyst.

“Prove me wrong, Sis! I dare you to prove me wrong!”

Derpy, close to a headache eruption, leaped in and forced their faces apart before they could ram into each other. “All right, enough you two. Look, how about we just do both? That’ll sort this out, right? Peacefully?

Mutual glowers dimmed slightly. They sought refuge on the only common ground they’d currently call a truce on: Derpy’s smile.

“All right, Mom,” said Dinky.

“If you say so, Mom,” said Amethyst, shrugging.

“That’s better,” said Derpy, sunshine returning. “And if you’re not having fun, let me know and I’ll see what I can do about it.”


“Oh my,” said Velvet.

Derpy looked up from licking her plate. “Mmh?”

“They… fight?”

Derpy sucked her tongue in, sending ketchup drops flying. “I wouldn’t call it ‘fighting’. I’d call it a tiny bout of ‘not-getting-along’.”

Not for the first time in her life, Velvet found herself worrying about her own almost-too-perfect home life. Shining Armor had enjoyed every homefield advantage, as the big brother of the family, and Twilight always acted like she had a lot to prove – often by the shelf-full – but they’d never actually fought. Not so’s Velvet would notice, anyway.

In a way, the peace had been worrying too. Old schoolfriends had warned her about little ones going at it with claws and fangs, but Shining and Twilight seemed almost supernaturally happy with each other. It was as if the whole world had stored up the nastiness just so she could avoid it.

Times like this, she feared the whole world was going to ask questions about that arrangement. It was like finding crime avoided her house on a theft-and-murder-ridden street, and then opening the door and facing police officers with a search warrant. There was the sense it was all too neat.

“You’re very brave,” Velvet said, sounding as soft and sympathetic as she felt was owed.

Given that wandering eye, Derpy had the perfect face to look confused. “Am I?”

“Well, y-yes! I mean, putting up with all that fight– with all those ‘not-getting-along’ bouts?”

Derpy looked like a cop wondering why the one nice pony on this wretched street had called the innocent ‘Have You Seen This Pony?’ notice a search warrant.

“Brave?” she repeated. “Of course not. They’re not monsters, silly!”

“But –”

“Whyever would you say a thing like that?”

Velvet now had discovered that, where the cops were concerned, there were worse things than being mistaken for a covert criminal all along. Like being thought of as the upstanding neighbour, only to have your sanity suddenly called into question by your ignorant babbling about search warrants and crime-free houses and no officer I’m not hiding anything I swear. If she’d answered the door shaved naked, it might have been marginally less embarrassing.

She threw Derpy’s laughter a helpless look.

“Don’t worry, it gets better,” said Derpy, recovering. “You haven’t heard what happened next…”


What happened next – between Amethyst and Dinky – was something that could only be described as belligerent baking.

The kitchen wasn’t a large enough arena, so there was much bumping and glowering and wrestler-like cautious circling as each side wielded “excuse me” and “pardon me” and only stopped short of fouls under the watchful eye of the ref.

Where there were multiple implements – stirring spoons and whisks, for example – each side cautiously made sure to stop and pause so that neither took theirs at the same time as the other, for fear of starting another bout. Where there was only one available – say, one mixing bowl between them – there was a silent but determined shoulder-shoving effort to be the first to snatch it out the cupboard, forcing second place to make do with – this being Dinky – a plant pot scavenged from out the back.

Each side stirred as though offended the mix would dare to need any time at all.

The oven represented the closest thing to half-time, as there was nothing to do but wait. Both sides glowered at the orange hum, tensed and ready to grapple at a moment’s notice.

The oven pinged. Derpy almost sighed as the two scrambled politely yet firmly to extract their winning dishes first.

And there it was: Black Chocolate Gateau with Bitter Orange Filling, a swirling top hat of creamy whites and sinful darkness, ornamental at its peak with the shattered glass of fine cooking chocolate, all as monochromatically balanced as a Tao symbol.

Beside it: Banoffee Cream Pie. With Custard. Bursting with plump, Hearth’s Warming fat-bellied joy, bouncy and goofy in its heart of gold and timber-brown homeliness where banana and toffee got scrambled like a mad circus act, swimming in custard bulging generously over the sides like happy drunks.

Now they all sat at the table in the living room. Dinky on the left. Amethyst on the right. Derpy mediating.

“Girls, you’ve outdone yourselves!” she said. “Ooh…” She breathed deeply. Her mouth tried to pour itself out in its haste to taste. “So good…”

“My compliments, Dinky,” droned Amethyst behind crossed limbs. “Yours looks edible.”

“Well done, Ammy,” was all Dinky would say. “Yours almost looks tasty.”

Derpy wiped her brow. Peace brokered at last. Soon to seal the deal.

Even she spotted the problem eventually.

Around that time, Amethyst glanced at her. “Well, Mom?” she prompted.

“Whose dish are you going to eat first?” said Dinky, raising an eyebrow much older than she was.

Derpy stared at one. Derpy stared at the other. Dark chocolate gateau. Banoffee pie. Gateau. Pie. Ammy’s work. Dinky’s work. Ammy. Dinky.

The ironclad rule of motherhood as Derpy understood it was: don’t show favouritism.

No firsts. No lasts.

Gateau, pie. Gateau, pie.

“I could… try… both?” she said.

“What, with two spoons?” said Amethyst, and she screwed up her lips in grim contemplation.

“That’ll muck up the taste!” Dinky grimaced at the sheer horrible thought of that mix.

Derpy risked a lesser evil. “Neither?” she said.

Amethyst had no such restraint when it came to sighing. She even pressed a hoof to her forehead.

“You can’t keep saying ‘both’,” she announced in as reasonable a voice as ever walked a madmare off a ledge. “And expect it to fix everything. Sometimes, you have to pick.”

“Are you all right, Mom?” said Dinky, concern shoving spite aside.

Derpy’s wings folded and unfolded over and over, never getting comfortable. She forced herself to pick up a spoon, then glanced side to side. Gateau, pie. Gateau, pie.

“Er…” Her spoon hovered over the broken chocolate, then over the bubbling custard.

“It’s only a taste, Mom,” said Amethyst, nervously sensing the drop in temperature. “Look, you can have the other one afterwards. It won’t make a difference.”

“I don’t…” Derpy saw nothing but gateau and pie, gateau and pie, gateau and pie.

“Just pick one, Mom,” insisted Dinky, but gently. “Do it quick. Get it over with.”

“I, uh…” Back and forth, one spoon, two meals. “I can’t… I… I…”

Gateau, pie, gateau pie, gateau pie gateau pie gateau pie gateau pie gateaupie gateaupie gateaupiegateaupie-gateaupiegateaupie –

Whereupon Dinky and Amethyst leaped into action.

Amethyst was in and out of the kitchen with barely a rattle of the cutlery drawer. Dinky fielded her spoon and switched the desserts. Both sisters sat down, pulling each other’s desserts towards them and away from Derpy.

There was a simultaneous: NOM.

The shock was so fast in coming, so slow in leaving, that Derpy needed a while to see each of them with a spoon slurping out of each mouth. Each dessert had a chunk scooped out of it.

Silent chewing, and some squirming lips and flexing cheeks, followed.

Derpy said, “Well?”

Both sisters swallowed at once. Two separate stomachs splashed.

“It’s…” Amethyst felt around her mouth, shuddering. “Way too sweet.”

“Too…” Dinky screwed up her face and tried to inspect her tongue. “Sh’lour.”

Both of them offered squiggly frowns to Derpy.

“But nice,” said Dinky cautiously. “In its own way.”

“I could get used to the taste,” suggested Amethyst.

“Girls?” said Derpy, still trying to get over something mental.

Dinky shoved the gateau over. “It’s OK, Mom. You can try Ammy’s first. I promise I won’t be offended.”

“Or if you like,” piped up Amethyst, “you can try Dinky’s first. Really, it doesn’t make much difference to me anyway. I swear.”

Finally, Derpy let herself go. She leaned back. She stared up at the ceiling.

She sighed.

When she straightened up again, she was shaking her head at the pair of them.

“What would I ever do without you two?” she cooed. “And what would you do without me, you two utter nincompoops?”

Sighing became infectious: both sisters let out relief together.

“Now,” said Derpy, seizing on the agenda of the evening, “about this money problem…”

“I was gonna pay it back! Look!” Dinky rushed out of the room, thumped up and then down the stairs, and came back rattling a money box. “You can have it! And this week’s allowance, and next! I can handle it!”

“You still should have asked permiss–” Amethyst began, only to be silenced by a raised wing from Derpy.

“Ammy, if you please?”

Amethyst immediately pretended she hadn’t been about to say anything, tail twirling in feline annoyance.

“I’ll ask next time,” mumbled Dinky to the table. “I promise. I’m sorry.”

“You know why we don’t like you doing that, right?” said Derpy. “Why Ammy and I get upset about you not asking first?”

Tortured out of her guilty lips, Dinky mumbled, even more quietly, “Because we need to spend our money properly because we should talk about it together because that means we trust each other. I know.

“Good girl.” Derpy ruffled her mane, ruining the haystack further. “Anyway, if Alula wants a big cake, she’s only got to ask.”

“What, you?” said Amethyst in sudden horror.

“No, don’t be daft! I meant ask us so we could ask the Cakes, or something.”

“Hm,” said Amethyst, unconvinced.

“Besides, it’s not a crime to want to give your friends a treat.”

“Well now, I didn’t say that.” Amethyst spoke as one faced with a legal nicety she hadn’t wanted noticed. “I only meant the means, not the ends –”

“Super! So you get why Dinky did what she did? It’s only fair, Ammy, to see things the way she does too.”

Amethyst shuffled as comfortably as a cornered tabby about to gets its fish yanked out of its jaws. Through tight teeth, she conceded, “I get that, sure.”

Speaking in a mock-haughty tone, Derpy stuck out her chest and said, “But it still doesn’t change what the little criminal did, now does it, now?”

Dinky giggled behind a hoof. “OK, Mom, I’ll give the money back. Just let poor Ammy go before she can’t stand it anymore, heehee.”

Derpy didn’t mind when Amethyst’s injured pride resisted her gentle kiss on the cheek. After all, Derpy held it’d be a funny old world if ponies were all the same, though possibly a much less funny one if the standard used was Ammy’s sense of humour.

“That seems reasonable to me,” said Derpy. “Right, girls! Let’s have whatever treat we want.”

“Aye aye, mon capitan! But seriously,” said Dinky, smirking. “Try mine first. It’s the best.”


“They grow up so fast.” Derpy wiped a tear from her eye with a wingtip.

Ah, there was the sweet spot. The calm haven against the rest of her life. Velvet relaxed again, resting on the reliable ground, welcoming the sun’s smile, admiring the shine of the brilliant clouds. No bobbing or sinking or drowning. Just everything safe, where it should be.

“What wonderful children,” she said. “You truly did a good job on them, Derpy.”

Derpy had to close her eyes against the sheer indulgent pleasure.

Once more, Savoir Fare materialized, achieving through servile dedication a feat that would make a teleporting unicorn retire in shame. “And now, mademoiselles, may Ai offair you dessert?”

“Ooh, yes please!” Derpy helped pile up the plates for him. “One Rainbow Sundae to share, please!”

“Aw, Derpy,” said Velvet. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to!”

“Very bon, Miss Dur-pee.” Savoir Fare turned to Velvet. “And what will you be ‘aveeng?”

Velvet sheepishly settled for a slice of tiramisu.

Haute Cuisine: The Bright Side of Twilight

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While they waited for their desserts in silence, pegasi zoomed across the rooftops. It was so sudden and loud that Velvet looked up at once. No one else even stopped eating.

She didn’t see any cloud-moving up there. The pegasi looked like they were flying simply for the adrenaline boost. Some did loop-de-loops and aileron rolls as they flew.

Different. Canterlot had its pegasi, of course, but usually they acted like another kind of servant: sidling in, doing their duty, sidling out again. They didn’t flash and bang like fireworks. If they had, they certainly would have attracted attention, mostly of the harsh-tongued and stern-eyed variety.

“Pretty, aren’t they?” said Derpy, but not with much enthusiasm; Velvet noticed her droopy eyes and upturned smile handing in its resignation.

“They’re fascinating,” said Velvet, watching a pair spin round each other. While she had noticed Derpy’s defeated head leaning on a hoof and elbow over the table, Velvet couldn’t help herself: the brushstroke rush of colours, the ear-twitching swoosh, the blink-and-they’re-gone speed of the pegasus ponies.

Thus, Savoir Fare delivered their desserts so silently that by the time Velvet looked away from the sky, she was greeted by her own coffee-brown delicacy and whatever mountain Derpy was now munching her way through. Silent and efficient. Ah, that was more like a Canterlot servant…

Then again, perhaps he hadn’t wanted to break her concentration. She’d watched the flying ponies so avidly, hadn’t she? She couldn’t help glancing, even now.

“How about your daughter?” said Derpy, cream-splashed head peeking over the peak of Mount Multicoloured Scoops. “She cook?”

Velvet’s focus bumped back onto the ground, almost cracking.

“She… did. Once.” Velvet rushed for refuge. “Back then, Shining – I mean, my son –”

“Congratulations!” boomed Derpy. “A son and a daughter? Two little ones! Twice the fun!”

“Thanks, but…” Velvet flashed her a smile. “Anyway, my son didn’t do a lot of cooking. He wanted to go into the Royal Guard, which meant learning how to handle rations and make do with whatever he found out in the field.”

“Did he ever get in? To the Royal Guard?”

The idea of Shining Armor, Captain of the Royal Guard and one of its most instantly recognizable and famous members to the public after his massive royal wedding, being brought up in this conversation made Velvet’s thoughts block themselves temporarily.

Too obvious! It’d blow her cover! For once, could she just be Twilight Velvet, and not Shining Armor’s mom or Twilight Sparkle’s mom?

A few hasty scene changes went on behind the curtain whilst her mask of a face waited blankly.

“He did… well,” was all she felt honest enough to say. If only Velvet had felt happy lying, she could have tossed out a random rank and have done with it. Looking at Derpy’s keen face, though…

“What rank was he?”

“I don’t remember –” Stupid! Stupid thing to say! “Corporal!” she hastily added.

It had got out before Velvet’s inner manager had okayed it. Why!? Why did Derpy have to ask!? No, don’t blame her! Why didn’t I get a better grip on an answer first!?

Velvet scrambled for a new script, but the hushed shock spread in horror backstage, however much the show tried to go on. She’d lied. She’d outright lied.

Anyway he didn’t cook much is my point.” Throwing out the words, she immediately rushed to another spotlight. “Still, he liked to help around the kitchen. Well, you know how it is with children. Monkey see, monkey do. See, I was helping – I was helping my daughter do her homework in her spare time…”


In another room among many, where from floor to ceiling the walls were bricked up with books, Velvet curled up on the rug before the fireplace. Nestled between her forelimbs, she held a stiff-backed, upright Twilight, as fiercely silent as the slight crackle of hungry flames.

Velvet watched, spellbound, as the little horn flickered and sparked.

And the hoof-sized clay model of a pony – if ponies were squat, fat, and had pencil-poked holes for eyes – popped.

A small bowl stood in its place.

“Ta da!” Twilight broke out of her mother’s grip and gestured wide, bared teeth hungry for the oil of applause.

Velvet did not disappoint. “Wow! Bravo, bravo! You’re so talented, honey. I knew you could do it.”

“Wanna know the best part!?” squeaked young Twilight.

Giggling, Velvet cast her gaze over the bowl. “Go on, then. What’s the best part?”

“That’s a college-level version of Star Swirl’s own amniomorphic spell. No one as young as me has ever done it before. The record-holder was a whole year above me.”

“Well… well remembered, honey.”

Despite her brief nod and encouraging smile, Velvet found herself frowning at the bowl, in memory of the small clay pony that had once stood there.

She couldn’t really say that she didn’t like the idea of the amniomorphic spell. Transfiguration spells – OK – were just magical tools; she understood that much. And if some of them could be misapplied to… to things other than what was acceptable, like… like living things, then that was just a matter of who was casting the spell, surely? The fact that the amniomorphic spell had been invented as a weapon, or a sort of intimidation tactic… that was by-the-by…

Which was ridiculous, anyway. It was only a clay model. The thing hadn’t even been lifelike; magic or no magic, Twilight’s artistic skills left a lot to be desired.

Still –

No, it was only clay, for goodness’ sake. In fact, hadn’t Twilight explained that bowl transfiguration was easier when you started with clay than with… than with anything not-clay?

Velvet put the encouraging smile back. Lot of nonsense, said one half of her thinking. The other half curled up under the onslaught.

“Very good, honey!” she gushed. “You’re so talented, it’s leaking out of your ears.”

“Does that mean you think I could get into Celestia’s school!?” The question leaped out of Twilight to tackle her.

So much shone in those wide eyes, but Velvet barely faltered. “Absolutely. Is there nothing my special little girl can’t do?”

Yes, Celestia’s school felt like safer ground. For now, it was a distant dream, a long way away. Not that she doubted her daughter would get there; it was just that everyone could agree it was Twilight’s dream, and one day she’d get there. With her talent? No doubt.

A knock at the door. A hesitant white face – bigger, much more robustly built than Twilight’s – edged round the frame. It was Shining Armor.

“Sorry, Mom, Twily,” he said. “Didn’t want to disturb you, but –”

“Ah!” Velvet jumped to her hooves at once. “They’re here?”

He nodded once. “Er, I mean, sir yes sir!” He saluted.

Typical Shining Armor: he did take the training so seriously. “Shining, you don’t have to call me ‘sir’.”

“Standard military protocol! All superior officers are addressed as ‘sir’, sir!” Shining caught her eye. “Oh all right, Mom. I’ll drop it. It’s just best to stay in character as much as possible.”

“Even off-duty, Shining?”

“I really don’t want to get caught out.”

“Well, you can remember not to do it to me specifically, and we’ll call that an extra challenge. How’s that?”

“OK, OK! I get your point, Mom.” Less like a cornered son and more like a dutiful guard, he continued, “Your schoolfriends are all here. I advised them to reconnoitre – I mean, I sent them into the drawing room, as you ordered – as you requested – I mean, as you asked me to!”

He stopped himself in mid-salute, sheepishly lowering his maverick leg.

“Good boy.” Velvet gestured to Twilight, who’d been staring in rapt concentration at the bowl. “Keep your sister occupied, OK?”

“Sir yes sir!” He caught her eye. “Sorry, Mom. Yes, Mom.” Hurrying to get away, he went straight for his sister. “Hey hey, Twily! Got a new trick to show your big brother?”

“Better than that, B.B.B.F.F.!”

Big Brother Best Friend Forever. Velvet wondered what had been unleashed when Night Light had introduced their children to the wide world of acronyms.

“I got two tricks to show you!” piped up Twilight’s voice behind the closing door. “I can change ponies into bowls, and I can change them back. Watch!”

“Awesome! Wow me, S.S.B.F.F.!”

Small Sister Best Friend Forever.

Rolling her eyes, Velvet clicked the door neatly into place, satisfied that all was right in the world –


Velvet stopped.

She’d realized something.

She was telling this story to a virtual stranger.

On the half-remains of the Rainbow Sundae to Share, Derpy’s syrup-splattered face stopped chewing.

“Sorry,” said Derpy, ears feinting. “If I’m too disgusting, I can eat slower.”

“No, no, you eat how you feel comfortable,” said Velvet. Then she stopped again to get her bearings.

Lost for anything safe to look at – not the suddenly alien ponies, not the mismatched café, not the imposter town reminding her too much of Vanhoover’s countryside – she ended up staring at the pegasi racing overhead.

What was she doing? This was worse than revealing she was Twilight Sparkle’s mother. This was revealing dark sides of her heart even her schoolfriends shouldn’t know about. And for whom? Derpy was nice – in a “rabid sparrow, perky puppy” kind of way – but she wasn’t family.

“Velvet?” said Derpy, ice cream completely forgotten.

Velvet’s watch of the pegasi vanished under Derpy hovering over her.

“Can I do something to help?” said Derpy.

“It’s nothing,” said Velvet. Why she’d bothered, she had no idea. That excuse had never worked on herself, not when Shining had struggled, hating himself, through the academy, nor when Twilight had crumpled under the tons of advanced homework. Judging from Derpy’s thin lips, the pegasus had heard her share of it in her own time too.

Derpy didn’t settle down, either.

“I changed my mind; it’s not a very good story,” Velvet lied, hating the corrupted impulse. Tuts of disapproval broke out backstage. She’d done it again!

Derpy moved aside and sat back down; Velvet watched her the whole time, dreading the question and dreading the silence. No amount of freewheeling pegasi could distract her anymore.

After someone on another table laughed at an unheard joke, Derpy folded up her wings again. “That’s a shame,” she said. “You looked so passionate when you were telling it. But I understand.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. Sometimes, I don’t think before I say things. Ammy’s always telling me not to do it, but I’m not that smart.” Kindly, she pointed at the untouched tiramisu. “That looks tasty.”

Velvet, veteran of many an awkward family conversation, knew an out when she heard one. The tiramisu joined her tongue, giving it something more palatable to do. Remembering in time, she hummed her appreciation, giving Derpy the signal to log out and resume deconstruction work on her rubble of ice cream scoops.

What Velvet was dying to explain to Derpy was pushed aside. Perhaps something to tide her over, then?

“See,” said Velvet nervously, eyeing the story up ahead, “there’d been my schoolfriends…”


Five of her friends in all, crowded at one end of the long table, because even fashionable ladies of Canterlot know bloomin’ stupid furniture design when they sit at it.

Velvet had hugged and kissed and babbled over each in turn. The leader of the herd was Pirouette, who’d been born for a ballerina’s life and had sternly told fate, “Not flipping likely! I’ll have proper meals and wear sensible horseshoes like anyone else, thank you very much.”

“It’s so gratifying to see you all again,” said Velvet, turning up the Canterlot mannerisms a tad.

“Charmed to see you too!”



“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Bliss, Velvet,” boomed Pirouette, a contralto deep enough for an elephant matriarch to wallow in. “Absolute bliss to join you again. It has been too long.”

Even having known each other since they’d giggled and chatted during class, Velvet had to suppress an urge to curtsey. Pirouette was a drawing room of duchesses all by herself.

“And how is your youngest?” boomed Pirouette, glancing around. “Your daughter’s the talk of all the fashionable ends.”

“Oh. Sh-she is?”

“Ever since you told us last spring about her astonishing progress… We simply had to tell ponies, what! Many have speculated – you’ll be delighted to hear, you wonderful old thing – she might even be the first to pass the unique Draconian Test entry supplement for Celestia’s School. Jolly exciting, what!?”

“Yes? Yes! I mean, very exciting.”

“You’re very blessed to have such a talented young unicorn in the family.”

“Two,” corrected Velvet, but quietly. Shining’s honour notwithstanding, Pirouette’s control over a conversation had the unstoppability of a grand locomotive.

There were coos and squawks around the table. Foals were a kind of shared family jewel, and no unicorn mother here would pass up the opportunity to inspect their collective treasure. Velvet too had memorized the names, likes, dislikes, hobbies, and childhood dreams of all theirs.

Why not share a mother’s pride, then?

“Let me show you.” Velvet turned to the far door. “Twilight! Twilight, honey! Would you come here, please?”

Distant scampering hooves, the door bursting open, then a panting blur skidded to a halt beside Velvet and became an out-of-breath pair of suddenly cornered eyes.

All voices rose, a flock of songbirds having spotted their favourite gardener carrying a fully seeded birdfeeder. Twilight found herself surrounded by a confusion of flapping, twittering, delicately darting fuss.

Velvet resisted the desire to say anything. They’d back off soon.

When they did, Twilight uncurled slightly. Pirouette, the grandest and most stately of all the birds, shaded her with peacock regalness.

“Ah, my little enchantress.” Pirouette’s horn gave a subtle shimmer; a small box slipped out of her gown, and out came a small wrapped candy. “I hear someone’s a special little pony?”

Twilight’s voice was a scattering of dots. “Thank you.”

Velvet hesitated, but then where was the harm? “Honey, why don’t you tell Pirouette what you did today?”

Craning, the two grown-ups heard the mumble: “Amniomorphic spell.”

“At your age?” Pirouette beamed down at her. “What a hard-working child you are. And so very polite.”

“Your lucky stars were shining when she was born!” opined one of Velvet’s friends. “I wish our little one had those talents.”

“Hear, hear!” said another. “And the dedication to match!”

“Good luck entering the school, little madam!”

“You’ll do your parents proud, Twilight.”

Pirouette donated an embrace to the cause of Twilight’s praises. “Celestia herself would deserve to have you at her prestigious school. Well done, Twilight!”

Yet Velvet watched her daughter taking all this as a naughty child might endure a tirade of angry abuse. Something flickered, agitated, in her own chest.

Pirouette handed over the candy, accepted a tiny “Thank you,” and awarded Velvet the magnificence of her joy. “Every inch her mother’s daughter. You and Night Light have done a wonderful job on her.”

“We… do our best,” said Velvet. Modestly? Doubtfully? Nervously?

Besides, part of her hated the phrasing. “Done a wonderful job on her.” Her daughter wasn’t a household chore.

Still, she knew Pirouette. The mare had meant nothing by it. It was one of those things all Canterlot mothers said, though Velvet – she furiously tried to push this observation out of sight – heard it more often than most.

“Thank you, Twilight,” she said, noticing the filly frozen to the spot. “You carry on.”

Twilight scurried to the door, but not fast enough –

“Is she really doing the cooking today?” squeaked one of Velvet’s friends.

Twilight slowed on her way out, ears cocked.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Velvet. She was about to say, “She wanted to. Begged me to let her try it this one time,” but that was because Shining had done it a few times before and it had looked fun…

“Ooh, that’ll be something to look forward to! I can’t wait to try anything she’ll cook! I don’t think my mouth could handle a perfect dish!”

“Though your mouth’s perfectly capable of dishing out more than we can handle.” The other friends tittered amongst themselves.

Velvet barely felt like chuckling. Her Twilight looked back, and for a moment Velvet saw the panic. Then the shoulders slumped, steeled themselves: Twilight slid out the door.

Whilst her friends settled in for the latest fashionable gossip, Velvet left them a hastily dropped “Excuse me one moment,” and hurried back to the kitchen.

“Oh, hey, Mom!” said Shining Armor, dressed in a pink apron that he’d long since stopped being embarrassed by. “We were just about to stuff the mushrooms.”

Instantly, Velvet spotted Twilight examining the cookbook. The intensity of her gaze.

“At least,” added Shining in an undertone, edging closer to his mother, “we were. Then she came back and started reading the cookbook. She didn’t even look up when I asked her how it went.”

“I know,” Velvet whispered back.

“You think she’s nervous?”

“Maybe. Help her relax for me, OK?”

“Sir yes – Sorry, Mom. Got it.”

“I’ll have a word with her.”

Leaving Shining to pile up the cheese, Velvet drew close to Twilight, peering over her shoulder. She gently held her daughter, one hoof either side of her head, as if to massage the throbbing veins.

“Don’t worry, honey,” said Velvet. “We know how shy you can be. No one thinks any the worse of you if you don’t say anything.”

“I won’t let you down, Mom,” said Twilight firmly.

Alarm bells rang in Velvet’s head, but tentatively. The ringer had seen fires that never burned. On the other hoof, the ringer had failed to spot fires that blazed. Magical surges in a young unicorn were bad enough, but magical surges in a unicorn like Twilight were responsible for a few personal nightmares.

Hence it had been hard to keep her talents secret for long.

The filly in control of such power, though…

“You don’t have to impress anyone,” Velvet assured her. “Just do what Shining does. Have fun and do it because you love it.”

Then Velvet let herself down before she realized she’d spoken again: “I mean, if you can make a good dish, sure…”

She felt Twilight tense. Very slightly. Too slightly for anyone to notice, unless they were this close and touching with a mother’s touch.

“I will,” insisted Twilight. “I promise.”

“You promise? Deary me, there’s no need to go that far.” Velvet tried a laugh.

That’s what worried her, though. In this mood, Twilight didn’t hear those reassuring words when Velvet spoke them. Conversation rapidly narrowed down to those bits that told Twilight’s head: Do something. Do it right.

“You’re always special to me, no matter what you do,” Velvet whispered.

She could tell Twilight wasn’t listening. The filly still had her deadly gaze on the book, defying the recipe to fail her.

She’d been like this ever since that one Summer Sun Celebration, when she’d seen first-hoof the power of the Princess of the Sun. Princess Celestia, who could raise the sun as easily as most unicorns could raise a stress ball.

Sure, the family had shown off its share of amazing magical feats: Night Light could write calculations on a hundred books at a time and get them right to the decimal point; Shining Armor had mastered shield and laser spells so well he could defend the entire mansion single-hoofedly. Velvet… hadn’t had much occasion to show off. She’d preferred subtler magic.

And sure, Twilight had found her own niche within that family. She wasn’t yet particularly skilled at any one spell, but she’d mastered so many that even Shining couldn’t keep up with the list. She’d smiled and played her part in magical games like Hunt the Sun Bunny Eggs and Pin the Stars on the Constellation Map.

Then she’d seen Celestia’s miracle. Suddenly, games vanished. Books multiplied. Twilight became intense in a way that made Shining’s military fussiness look quaint.

Velvet turned to Shining. She mouthed, “Help her out, OK?”

“Gotcha,” he mouthed back.

She reached out to stop him saluting. He apologized via grin.

As Velvet left the kitchen, she still saw the hunched figure of Twilight, staring at the cookbook as though her life depended on it.


Haute Cuisine: The Dark Side of Twilight

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Perhaps – Velvet thought, returning to the present – perhaps she was being too cagey. Let it all out. Let it sing.

She had one tiny bite of tiramisu left, but she ignored it.

“Derpy?” she said.

Derpy dug her head out of the depths of her sundae bowl. “Hm?”

“You don’t mind if I… don’t continue my story?”

The question was just for politeness’ sake: despite their only meeting that morning, Velvet could see the exact shape of Derpy’s answer flying down from a mile high.

“Of course, if you want to. You feel better?”

Velvet’s lips twitched with a brief pinch of satisfaction.

“No… I think…” Velvet rubbed her own nose. “Maybe I’d feel better if I did tell it.”

“You can trust me!” said Derpy, and her stiffness and serious tone could have given Shining Armor lessons. She even saluted, nearly knocking herself out.

Perhaps there was something to the idea that all pegasi were military types, deep down. Even Derpy, whose eyes could perform a pincer movement on their own, presumably heard the echoing war cry of her distant ancestors, though in her case it had to contend with a fundamental, cheery Derpy-ness that outgunned any horrible monster or conquering army. It would be like outgunning the sun.

Yet Velvet let herself down again. Confidence collapsed.

However, under Derpy’s wing – so to speak – she did end up telling a truth.

“My daughter wanted to impress everyone with her cooking skills,” said Velvet. “I don’t know why. Maybe she just felt she had to be good at any challenge, no matter what. But my son tried to help her. They were going to serve stuffed mushroom soup for the appetizer.”

Now for the rough haul.

Eventually, Velvet sought refuge in Derpy’s polite, intense stare. Shades of Twilight looked back at her.

“I guess he must have missed her doing something, though,” Velvet found herself confessing, half-shocked, half-entranced. “She wanted to make sure the soup was perfect, so in a way, she did.”

“What did she do?” Derpy murmured.


Velvet’s mind scrambled. Bits of it collided backstage, bouncing off each other and running into props.

Something was thrust forward. She took it, then stopped and examined it for the slightest wrong detail.

Pinned between the backdrop and the looming audience, Velvet blurted out, “She put something in the soup. It didn’t go down very well. She was very upset.”

Derpy frowned trying to keep up. “You mean like a spice?”

“Yes, yes, like a spice!” Velvet seized the improvisation gratefully. “Too hot for my friends. She was upset. I calmed her down, and… we learned a lesson.”

You coward, said someone deep in her mind.

“I understand.” Derpy nodded sympathetically, screwing up her face to wring out the pain. “The poor things put their hearts and souls into everything they do.”

“Yes,” said Velvet to her tiramisu. “They do.”

“I guess she didn’t want to keep cooking after that?”

“She felt she shouldn’t.”

“Poor girl…” Derpy reached across, knocked her bowl off, yelped, grabbed it, grimaced, thumped it back onto the table, and reached across again to pat Velvet hoof-to-hoof. “Don’t feel bad, though. You did your best. I don’t doubt it in the slightest. There’s only so much one pony can manage.”

“Huh?” Velvet caught Derpy’s optimism pupil-to-pupil. She almost blinked as though caught by a sparkler.

“I have to watch Ammy do that sometimes. She puts herself out so much, and then when it doesn’t work like she wanted, she kicks herself while she’s down. She only comes to me when she’s ready. All I can do is wait. That’s all anyone can do, really.”

Velvet fiddled with the crumbs on her plate. They weren’t worth eating. The blotches they left on the plate were dark fire, suggesting shapes where none existed, yet moving without life.

She didn’t risk saying anything more. Not Twilight’s mom.

Spice? Spice? Velvet wished, over and over again, it had been anything as simple as a spice…


Eyes around the table pulsed as hearts.

First, there had been a lull in the chatter – something about Twinklestar’s niece taking up astronomy – and Velvet’s mind had stopped checking for files on Twinkleshine and her obsession with finding galactic nebulae through a telescope in time to notice Twilight.

Then, there had been the cooing and crowing over the steaming dishes Twilight carried.

“Stuffed mushroom soup!”

“Ooh, that looks delicious, dear.”

“What great presentation skills. An artist and a chef.”

“She must get it from her father. Poor Velvet’s never been the best at organizing things, haha!”

To Velvet’s rising worry, Twilight had been smiling, full of steady confidence.

Next, Pirouette had invited Twilight over with a beckoning hoof. “You have poise, my dear Twilight,” she’d boomed.

“Thank you, Miss Pirouette. Mother says I should always trust myself and do my best.”

Velvet had frozen under the cold word.


Twilight always called her Mom.

She’d barely noticed the bowls going down, but even then she’d wondered if the soup had sparkled a little more brightly than mere light and ripple could account for. When Twilight had bobbed a curtsey – releasing more fluttering dove words from the surrounding coop – Velvet had risen to her hooves and followed her to the door.

“This soup is even better than I expected,” the first voice had said. “And I’d expected perfection.”

“Twilight?” said Velvet.

Twilight barely looked over her shoulder. “Sorry, Mother. Mustn’t stop now. The main course needs me.”

The conversation behind them drifted back to astronomy, cures for colds, and why Twinkleshine – lovely girl, but so stubborn sometimes – needed to spend more nights indoors like a proper child. Soup slurped. Then shots were fired:

“Yes, the mushroom juices have been thoroughly mixed into the soup. I simply must have the recipe.”

“Yes! I want more!”

“Amazing! I can’t stop eating it!”

“I need more!”

Velvet hurried faster.

“Twilight?” she repeated. She just beat Twilight to the door in time to block her exit. “Twilight, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Mother…” Twilight dodged left and right. Any second now, she’d light up a snatch of a teleportation spell – not powerful, but powerful enough to get her on the other side of Velvet.

Spoons rattled in the bowls. Pirouette began digging into her own. Her duchess grace vanished faster than the soup.

Then someone snatched someone else’s bowl. “I want it!”

“I need it!”

“You can’t have mine! Have Twinklestar’s!”

“No, I’ll have both of yours!”

“Give me that!”

“How dare you!”



“All mine! Let go!”

“MINE!” boomed Pirouette. Her lunge upturned the table. Crockery crashed. Wood groaned against the marble floor. The slam did nothing to beat into silence the shrieking squabble.

Velvet tore her gaze away… in time to see Twilight’s eyes locked against the horror.

“What did you do?” said Velvet, and she heard the quaver in her own voice. Any motherly fury was dwarfed by the massive shadow her own daughter could cast at any second. “Twilight, what did you put in that soup?”

“I didn’t!” Twilight curled up. “I didn’t mean to –”

The eyes.

Velvet looked back and saw the eyes of her friends.

Eyes pulsed as hearts.

I want it!

I need it!

Twilight’s horn flashed. By the time Velvet stopped blinking, her daughter had vanished.

Quick though Twilight had been, Velvet moved faster. She flung the door open in time to catch the second flash and a reappearing Twilight fleeing for the kitchen. Velvet’s mind was after her seconds before her galloping body could catch up.

And when she burst into the kitchen, she found –

Shining Armor stood over the pan on the hob, eyes pulsing with hearts.

Very slowly, almost lovingly, he spooned up more of the soup and dipped it into his mouth.

“Tastes good,” he droned. “Tastes perfect.”


Here and now, Velvet’s stare almost cracked the plate in front of her. Meaningless shapes floated on the brown stains of tiramisu smeared over the china, as a patch of fire tries to destroy the contours of the forest and cropland around it. Useless: even if it all burned down, the land would still be the land underneath.

She waited until the smoke and ash cleared from her body. Her insides were crackling and rising under the sheer heat of the memory. A sudden rich, roaring inferno passed; she waited it out.

The magic used had been a variant of the Want-It-Need-It spell. Not strong enough to work via sight, but strong enough – for Twilight’s age – to infect anyone who touched it. Shining Armor must have sipped a little soup to test it before Twilight served it to Velvet’s friends.

All for a bowl of soup. The soup they’d never say wasn’t perfect.

Twilight’s face. She tried to forget Twilight’s face. How much it had mirrored her own shock.


“CHANGE HIM BACK NOW!” shrieked Velvet, or what was left of her sanity.

“I didn’t mean to make it that strong!” The words bled from Twilight’s mouth.



“TWILIGHT –” Too late, Velvet wrestled her own words down. Calmed herself.

Twilight backed into the corner. Any tighter and she’d become a pyramid compressed in dark fear.

Velvet had seen the warning twinkle on Twilight’s horn. If her daughter cast another spell through sheer fright, well, Velvet herself barely had the wherewithal to raise a spatula to defend herself.

And Velvet suddenly realized she was shouting at someone who’d practised turning ponies into pottery.

Not live ponies, not yet. Yet still a juggernaut, who’d had magical surges. Surges that could make a kitchen into a toy set, or leave her floating like a balloon on the ceiling, or shrink her to doll size, or turn her into a big puppet, or a million other things only child monsters would do.

All Velvet’s friends, turned into fighting maniacs over soup… Shining Armor, reduced to a zombie…

But Twilight, her own daughter, her charge, her baby, squeezed so tightly by walls and ceiling that the tears leaked and dribbled out of her wide eyes…

Velvet’s own eyes burned, fluxed, threatened to burst. Something cold ran over her cheek. Drops trembled along with her chin.

They both heard the rattle of a ladle deep within the pan as Shining hummed and slurped whatever scolding hot drops remained.

“Twilight, please.” Velvet’s voice cracked quietly.

“It’s not my fault! They made me do it! I had to make it perfect! I didn’t want to let anypony down!”


That was the worst part: begging. If Twilight said no, Velvet had nothing. The usual punishments – grounding, telling-off, explaining what she did wrong – meant nothing to power. She might as well have pleaded with a dragon.

Twilight didn’t say a word.


“And that was how Dinky became president of Equestria,” said Derpy suddenly.

Velvet nodded vaguely, before her face crystallized and crinkled under the snowfall of words.

“Wh-what?” she said, and then she remembered. The Haute Cuisine café. The other ponies chatting at the other toadstool tables. Pegasi flitting back and forth overhead. Derpy opposite, giving her what the dim-witted might consider a sly look.

How had Velvet looked just now? She’d been sitting here for a while, saying nothing.

Hastily she wiped her eyes, and to her alarm found them damp.

“Sorry, Derpy,” she said. “I-I was miles away. That was rude of me. You were talking?”

Derpy cocked her head. “I was saying how Dinky became president.”

“Er…” A joke, a clue, something weirder?

A gentle tinkling bell of a laugh eased her. Derpy stopped and then added, “Don’t mind me. I just do that sometimes to see if ponies are paying attention. Ammy always falls for it.”

“Sorry, Derpy, I was just thinking, that’s all.”

Understandingly, Derpy nodded, as though indulging a sister her little oddities. “That’s OK. Dinky gets into moods like that too. When she’s read so much it fills her up, she just sits and thinks for hours and hours. It’s that big brain of hers. Gets so full it leaks out all over the place.”

Wish that wasn’t Twilight’s problem, thought Velvet before she could stop herself.

“If you want to carry on thinking,” said Derpy meekly, “you can if you want. I’m sorry if I stuck my hoof in where I shouldn’t.”

“I wasn’t thinking of much,” Velvet found herself saying. She ignored the lurking lie there. Instead, she settled back down and stared off into the distance.

A few ponies around them beamed and laughed at various jokes they told each other. She thought she spotted the unicorn family from earlier at one table, but she wasn’t sure. Two parents, two sisters. They might just have been a coincidence, though.

She bet they didn’t have her problems. The larger and the smaller, angrily arguing over a menu, horns glowing at the same time…


Twilight’s horn stopped glowing. Shining Armor blinked and shook his head wildly.

Velvet hastily took him aside and whispered everything in his ear.

Just in time, she blocked the angry look he threw at Twilight with her own body leaping between them. “Shining, you know how to counter that spell?”

“Yeah,” he said grimly. “Advanced Defensive Training, Chapter 29.”

“Would you take care of my friends? I’ll handle Twilight.”

“You’re sure?”

Velvet waited until he wised up.

“Sorry, Mom. Will do, Mom.”

She let him have his salute and heard his hoofsteps die away. Only then did she peek over her own shoulder.

Twilight had her back to her own mother.

Part of Velvet wished she could hurry in the opposite direction, but the rest of her shuffled over and nestled around Twilight. She didn’t do much else. There wasn’t enough left in her to give a strong hug.

The thing that killed Velvet was that this wasn’t the first time. Four months earlier, Twilight had gotten into trouble at school for hypnotizing her classmates and – when it escalated – the teacher, the principal, and a squadron of guards sent in by neighbours who’d heard the screams. Hard to tell from the garbled accounts and Twilight’s frightened silence afterwards, but apparently, she’d been challenged by a bully who’d said she didn’t deserve… “special privileges”.

Then three months before that, Velvet had received complaints from a tutor hosting Twilight’s supplementary magic class for talented unicorns. The tutor’s office had been twisted into pieces. Twilight had claimed she’d originally snuck in to change an A- grade to an A, and then got caught, and one thing led to another.

Two months before that, Twilight’s Smarty-Pants doll had come to life and attacked a fellow student who’d insulted it. Even now, after supposedly being de-cursed, the doll had an uncanny ability to turn up in places Twilight swore she’d never left it in.

One month before that, Twilight had been told off for playing tag. Or, more accurately, for turning her classmates into… It.

Barely two weeks before, Twilight had thrown her classroom into chaos because her teachers insisted she stop reading and go outside to play for once.

One week before, Twilight had frozen half the house out of frustration. She’d been practising a new spell.

And then, all the way back at magic kindergarten, Velvet had learned the hard way – often personally and painfully – why she was useless at mothering someone who hadn’t learned yet that ponies weren’t just big toys.

Velvet’s daughter. Which made her Twilight’s mom.

After all that, what was she supposed to do?

“It’s OK, honey,” she lied. Such easy, pointless words…

“I don’t know why I did it!” Twilight rushed through her own words. “I-I didn’t mean to. I just didn’t want to make everyone mad.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“I know it’s wrong! I’m a bad pony!”

“No, you’re a good pony. You just made a bad choice.” Velvet hated the words. She had difficulty believing them herself, and a mother absolutely should not think like that.

“Will they hate me?”

“I’ll explain things to them. I’m sure they’ll understand, and I’m sure you understand too.”

“They’ll hate me! You hate me!”

“I don’t hate you at all, honey. But you know why it’s wrong to do things like that. Imagine if someone did that to you.”

Who? Velvet thought grimly. No one’s strong enough. Ah, but that wasn’t the point, was it? This wasn’t a threat. This was an attempt to get it into Twilight’s young, naïve mind what she was really doing, without spooking her into ignoring it.

“It’s all right,” continued Velvet. “It’s all going to be all right.”

“But what if Shining Armor can’t fix the spell properly?”

“You can do it. You can set it right. There’s always a chance to set things right, if you really want to.”

“I’ll mess it up again!”

“Do you want to mess it up again?”

“NO! I mean, no! No. Never.”

“That’s good. Because then you’ll learn not to. You’re learning new things, honey. You’re getting better all the time, even though you don’t think you are.”

“I just didn’t want to make anyone mad at the soup. They said they wanted it to be perfect.”

“But they didn’t want you to put a spell on them. What do you think, Twilight? Ponies might be a little disappointed if the soup isn’t great, but they won’t make a big deal out of it. Now imagine how ponies might feel if someone put a spell on them to make them like something. Which do you think is worse?”

Twilight shuffled under her grip.

Part of Velvet wished: if only Twilight had been like Shining Armor. He’d been difficult too, in his day, but he’d at least been within Velvet’s league. By the time he’d mastered the powerful spells, she’d already helped him master right and wrong. That was half the reason he’d decided to join the Royal Guard: he practically charged into duty without a second thought.

With Twilight, Velvet fumbled at the mercy of someone who she prayed, just prayed, was figuring out right and wrong as she went.

If Velvet had any pride in her parenting, though, it was in the fact that she’d never, ever say as much in front of her daughter. The day she did that would be the day she’d know she was no true mother.

Which left her digging up clichés. Safe, reliable, unchallenging clichés. Ones she’d be spouting again the next time Twilight did something.

“I know how you feel,” she whispered.

“You don’t talk to Shining like this,” muttered Twilight.

Velvet fumbled for the sudden shift. “I did. When he was younger. Not very much, yes, but –”

“It’s because I’m special, isn’t it?” Twilight spat the word.

She trembled with… fear or rage, possibly some forced alloy of both.

“I hate being special.”

Velvet didn’t dare say anything until she’d thought about it. Her own lips trembled trying not to speak.

Eventually, she said, “No matter what you do, honey, you’ll always be special to me.”

Whilst Twilight trembled ominously, Velvet refused to let go. She just hoped Twilight would get the point, in the embrace if not in her worn-out words. She wasn’t alone. She shouldn’t be alone. Even if her power made her the only sword in a world full of cheap plastic knives, she could still cut a fair slice of life for herself.

It was only later, after Shining Armor returned flustered but smiling weakly with the good news, that Velvet wondered if she’d used the wrong words.


Haute Cuisine: Here I Am, Harping On

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Then someone bashed her chair.

Velvet yelped and slipped off and onto the grass. Her chair clattered where it fell. A few heads looked up.

“Ow…” moaned someone. Not Velvet: shock notwithstanding, she was fine.

She sat up in time to see Derpy fly over and hover agitatedly. Sitting up on the other side of the fallen chair, and rubbing her head, was another unicorn.

“Ooh… ow…” The unicorn mare hissed against the pain, then added, “That really smarts.”

Upon being flung out of their chair, a Canterlot pony’s first words would probably have been “I say! Do you mind?” Velvet’s first words were: “Are you all right?”

“Sorry,” groaned the unicorn mare between head-rubs. “Wasn’t looking where I was going. Ow, ow, ow!”

“Lyra?” said Derpy.

Velvet peered closer as the unicorn lowered her hooves. Wait a second. Didn’t she recognize that name? Lyra…? The coat colour and mane looked familiar too.

Memory pulled a full name out of the address book. “Lyra Heartstrings?”

“Yeah. Who’s asking?” Lyra moaned, then she batted Derpy aside. “It’s all right. Don’t fuss. I’m fine, I’m fine. I’ve hit my head harder – argh! – than that before. This is more shock than anything – Ow!” She continued nursing the “shock” pounding her skull from the inside.

Around them, the other patrons went back to raising the background chatter again. Velvet stood up and offered a hoof before noticing a scroll on the grass.

“Pardon me, is this yours?” she said.

Lyra jolted into life, grabbed it, checked it, turned it this way and that. “Darn, darn, darn! I lost my place!”

“What is it?” said Velvet, buying her memory more time. How did she know Lyra’s name? Surely not a Canterlot acquaintance?

“Ley line map.” Lyra turned it back and forth without looking up. “I was following this one. I think. Or was it this one?” Apparently remembering herself, she grinned sheepishly at them. “So sorry about the bump, ma’am. I was so focused on this one line, I wasn’t watching the road up ahead –”

Only in that moment of mutual eye contact did they both flash around the eyelids with the spark of recognition.

“Oh!” cried out Lyra. “Hey, Miss Tw–”

Velvet’s hoof rammed over her mouth.

“–mmfh Murf-mff, mmff mmff mff mffh!”

“Please just excuse us a moment,” said Velvet to an utterly perplexed Derpy. “Can I just have a private word with my friend here?”

“Oh, you two know each other?” said Derpy. “Did you meet in Canterlot?”

“Yes, something like that. One second, please?”

“Of course, of course. I’ll wait here.”

When Velvet had dragged a still mumbling Lyra a few yards from the café’s outermost tables, she let go and yanked a stunned Lyra closer to both mouth and ear.

“Can I ask you something, Miss Heartstrings?” she whispered.

“It is you!” Lyra hissed excitedly; it was all Velvet’s restraining hooves could do to stop her bouncing up and down on the spot. “You’re Twilight’s mom! You’re Twilight’s mom!”

“Shh! Lyra, please! Keep your voice down!” Nervous, Velvet cast a glance over to the café. Derpy alone watched them, and she waved happily. Velvet warily waved back before returning to restrain the bouncing Lyra.

“You do remember me!”

“I’m very sorry. Have we met before? I remember your name and face, but –”

“The wedding!”

“What wedding, sorr–?”

“Captain Shining Armor’s wedding, remember? Your son?”

“Yes, thank you. I do remember who my son is, at least.”

“Remember he married Princess Cadence?”

“And I can remember my daughter-in-law, ye–”

“Well, I was going to be one of her bridesmaids before the changelings attacked!”

Uncertainty forced Velvet’s memory to check the files again. Had Cadence mentioned a Lyra at some point? She hadn’t had much chance to talk ever since taking up her princess duties, and even after the wedding, most of their conversations had been almost as rare as Twilight’s. Had Shining Armor mentioned a Lyra in a letter somewhere? Anyway, Velvet was certain she’d seen Lyra around Canterlot before, though she couldn’t say where.

“And and and –” continued Lyra, whispering like a firework about to go off, “I was at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns with Twilight! You remember? You remember?”

Hopefully not, Velvet thought. She’d walked Twilight to and from school, but never with her… well, “friends” was a bit of a strong word. There’d been so many foals waiting outside the school entrance.

“I’m sorry,” said Velvet. “I don’t –”

“No problem, no worries, pas de problème, keine Sorge, non c'è problema, and all that hullabappalooza!” Lyra burst out of her restraints and for a moment Velvet felt she’d been grabbed in a headlock. “Aw, it’s such an honour, being remembered by Twilight’s mom! Me! Little old me! WOOHOO!”

That definitely broke the skin on an eardrum somewhere. Wincing, Velvet tried to back out of the tight grip. “It’s very sweet of you, dear, but –”

“Ohohoho! I gotta tell everyone that I was remembered by Twilight’s mom!” And Lyra’s lungs inflated as though about to scream it to the world there and then.

Velvet’s hoof got to the mouth faster. The back-blow almost popped Lyra’s cheeks.

“No! Please, don’t!” hissed Velvet.

Stunned eyes, slightly reddened by pressure, blinked back at her.

“Don’t tell anyone who I am,” Velvet said. “Please?”

“Mmff mff?

Velvet wondered if it was safe to release the lock. She took a dare and removed her hoof.

“But why?” repeated Lyra.

Because I don’t want to go around as “Twilight’s mom”, thought Velvet in big red letters across the black sky of her inner skull. It’s too complicated.

Aloud, she said, “I don’t want to make a fuss. This isn’t a time when I want everyone to know who I am, you see. Just please keep this quiet?”

Lyra’s blank look merely signalled a time in between the natural bounces of her mind, because then her grin bounced up again, extra sly.

“Ahhhhh…” she said. “You’re undercover, huh? Gotcha.”

Perhaps the wink she gave Velvet was less embarrassing than the planned name-shouting of before, but there and then it seemed a close-run thing.

“Just Velvet will do,” said Velvet coldly.

“A codename, too. Good work, good work. Got your backstory worked out?”

“My what, sorry?”

“Your cover story! Where you came from, what you do, that sort of thing. Can’t do undercovering well without a cover story. I know that from experience.”


“Ooh, ooh, let me try! OK. You’re a refugee from a past rainbow-versus-dark-rainbow war with the evil Lord Tirek, you were originally a botanist who became a specialist houseplant salespony, you’re a ghost-writer for the Daring Do adventure series, and you are in a secret hero alliance with all the mothers of the ponies who wielded the Elements of Harmony! Ooh, better: you were the original ponies who wielded the Elements of Harmony! Obviously, that last part is top secret. Wait, wait… wait…” Glowering, Lyra broke off, caught in the fascinating logical conundrum of using a top secret identity as part of a public cover story.

True to form, Velvet ended up regarding Lyra in much the same way most ponies did after five minutes’ talk with her. Whatever planet she was on, it must be a heck of a good place for her to not want to leave it.

“Look,” Velvet said, pleading sanity, “I just want a relaxed day here. Nothing fancy. No fuss. No awkward questions. No pains. Please?”

“Pains? But what are you doing?” said Lyra, reverting to foalish innocence.

Velvet opened her mouth, then shut it. “Visiting my daughter,” she eventually said.

Puzzled, Lyra glanced at Derpy.

“No, no, not her!” Velvet noticed Derpy waving again, and weakly waved back. “I’m just killing time until I can see my daughter. I got here early.”

“Then why don’t you just see her early?”

Velvet steeled herself. That question. No, no, no…

Yet Lyra was much quicker than Derpy. She also won a small medal that day, because she immediately said, “Got it! Perfect timing! It’s like a surprise birthday party. You don’t show up until it’s ready. Say no more, say no more.” She peered under the table at Velvet’s saddlebag. “Hey, golden roses! Haven’t seen those in a while.”

“You moved out of Canterlot?” Velvet said, relief pushing her into a newer, safer direction.

“Ha! Nope-a-roonie. Never moved in.”

“But I could’ve sworn I saw you there –”

“Visiting friends. I live here in Ponyville, but I made lots of friends there in Canterlot. And because I know you’re going to ask: my parents live out in the country, out of town, and I’ve already made plans to visit them this evening. I got something special waiting.”

“Oh. Well.” Velvet recovered. “Have a lovely time, Lyra.”

“Thanks, Twilight’s m– Oops, sorry! Velvet, I meant Velvet.” Another conspicuously inconspicuous wink. “Anyway – Ooh, anything else? I wouldn’t want to just break off randomly.”

Nothing else came to mind, except a constant nagging worry that Lyra would blurt out “Twilight’s mom” again at any moment. “I think that just about covers it,” said Velvet.

“Great! Back to business!”

Up came the ley line map, onward marched Lyra. Enough of Velvet’s kindness surfaced in time to jump forwards and hold a restraining hoof on the mare’s shoulder; she’d been about to walk into the table.

“I’d look up every now and again,” advised Velvet gently.

“Oops-a-daisy.” Lyra blushed, but embarrassment did not become her, and the red flush faded far more quickly than it had arrived, like a red traffic light when a pony actually needs one.

Derpy, still hovering over the table, leaned forwards, wobbling as she fought not to flip herself over accidentally. “What are ley lines?”

“Invisible magical lines of force that run across the country connecting special ancient sites,” said Velvet before she could stop herself. Twilight had mentioned them a few times in her youth, and then rapidly stopped when she’d learned the scientific community harrumphed the idea.

“Exactly!” said Lyra. “See that? Smarts run in the family –”

A sudden meaningful coughing fit plagued Velvet until Lyra shut up.

“And in mine,” was Lyra’s lame cover. She frowned and turned the map upside down. “Am I reading this right? You’d think a map would get the compass directions, at least. All I got for sure is the Friendship Castle, and I had to draw that in myself.”

Derpy giggled and winked at Velvet’s tilted puzzlement. “That’s typical Lyra. She always does stuff like this. But we love her all the same.”

Both mothers watched as Lyra followed the line a little too devotedly, walking over tables, under chairs, around bemused patrons, and once or twice into waiters laden with trays. Some angry foreign shouting pursued her out of the café’s territory, yet she never looked up. Velvet sighed. Children were the same, no matter what age.

“She’s a friend of Ammy’s, you know,” said Derpy, sitting down again. Her hoof instinctively reached into the bowl to scrape the sides for any iota of ice cream left. “They met at –”

“Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns?” Velvet recited.

“Yeah! Poor things never got very far, but they tried their best.”

“It’s a very demanding school.” I should know, thought Velvet behind the grimace. Too demanding, she’d felt at times.

“Lyra’s so smart,” continued Derpy. “See, I didn’t know you could look at invisible lines until she came along just now. The more you know, huh?”

“Education comes in many forms,” was the best Velvet could say without laughing.

Brushing himself down and hiding his fury, Savoir Fare arrived at their table. “Mademoiselles, Ai tayke eet you ‘ave fineeshed?”

“Yes, thanks, bill, please,” said Derpy.

“Bill?” Velvet frowned.

“For dessert! It wasn’t on our first order.”

“I’ll pay,” said Velvet at once.

“Aw, but I can pay for –”

“It’s only fair, isn’t it? You paid for the main meal, so I can pay for dessert. Split it between us. Fair?”

Derpy gave a grudging nod. “I can pay, you know.”

“Of course I know you can.”

Like I said, Velvet thought, children were always the same.

And there was something childlike about Derpy, for all that she was a mother. She had the sort of wide-eyed, beaming innocence that made a part of Velvet want to shield her from the rigours of the world, even though Derpy was fully grown and perfectly capable, as she put it, of financing her own life activities.

Velvet left a generous tip. It wasn’t Savoir Fare’s fault her own memory had soured over what had been a charming dessert. Savoir himself made a point of bowing and choking out an “Enchantée!” as they left, even delivering a parting kiss to each mare’s hoof.

Trouble was, looking up at the sun, it was almost time for her appointment.

With her special little pony.

The golden roses in her saddlebag stung through the fabric.

Velvet didn’t remember much, but she didn’t forget the look on Lyra’s face when the question had been asked: Then why don’t you just see her early?

“Hey,” murmured Derpy, gently nudging her with a wing. “Are you feeling all right? You seem so sad.”

“No, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.” Velvet hurt her cheeks set against her own smile.

After a while, Derpy said, “Are you going to say hello to T– to your daughter now?”

“Not yet,” said Velvet, watching the sun inch its way from the peak. So soon. She’d had acres of time, and suddenly this appointment was too soon.


“No!” Velvet’s voice was a whipcrack.

“It’s OK to be nervous if you haven’t seen each other for a long time.”

“It’s not that.” It is that, Velvet thought. She hated her own brain.

“Aw now, you can’t go and see family looking like that.” Derpy hummed to herself. “One more thing before you go?”


“I like talking to you. I don’t get to talk to many mothers. I don’t know why, but I feel like they steer away from me sometimes.”

Velvet wondered why. If anything, mothers should steer clear of Velvet.

Part of her was starting to envy Derpy’s home life. She barely seemed to have any problems worth caring about, if the worst she had was a wonky eye and the coordination to match. Shallow stuff.

Derpy looked about for inspiration. The chatter of the café drifted far behind, almost gone.

After they turned the corner, she burst forth: “Hey, why don’t you meet my family?”

“Right now?” said Velvet. Her first, irritatingly pernickety thoughts were: What time would that take? What would happen if she showed up to Twilight’s late? What would Twilight say? Or do?

“Just for a drink,” pleaded Derpy, “of tea or coffee or hot chocolate or something. Then you can go and see your daughter. I promise it won’t take long.”

“I don’t know…” Velvet fixed her sights on the descending sun. If she stared around it long enough, she could imagine it moving ever so slowly, perhaps slower and slower until this moment stopped. Just for a while.

Then another part, a part that had been silent since the first days of motherhood, reared and whinnied at the sky. Why not? Why stick to a bunch of rules? Why not break a few? Didn’t she deserve some personal time for a change? Do something! Do something that made her nervous, got her blood up, made her want to push herself further and gallop faster!

Hang this appointment stuff! She’ll do something she hadn’t done in a while: visit a strange new house with strange new ponies. A household of ponies led by Derpy? At last, someone fresh and different who made her feel like she could be special for once.

The air in Ponyville alone lightened her from the heart outwards. She rebelled.

“Yes,” she said, with newfound grit. “I’d be delighted to.”

“But just for a drink,” insisted Derpy, failing to hide the delight sparkling in her eyes. “I don’t want you to miss anything.”

“Oh, I’ll make sure I don’t.”

It was a close-run thing that Velvet didn’t rear and shout YEE-HAW! A very close thing indeed. Freedom, for a little longer. Freedom from herself.

The Homemaker

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Surprisingly, Derpy’s cottage looked perfectly ordinary. Velvet had half-expected a chaotic mess… and as soon as she thought that, she chided herself.

Especially as they drew closer. The thatch on the roof couldn’t have been more finely smoothed down if a lawnmower had tamed it. The windows shone so brightly they were mirrors; Velvet saw her own astonishment gaping back. The walls had been painted over too. Either the house was new, or the coat was fresh again. Someone loved this house down to the details.

Two exceptional things, though: first was a “Home Sweet Home” welcome mat, with three hugging ponies embroidered between the words. There was no mistaking Derpy’s gleeful mug holding court in the middle, and the two unicorns on either side must’ve been her daughters – one showing as much wide eye as grinning teeth, the other miserly with both and resigned to being dragged into this nonsense.

It wasn’t exactly master craftsmareship. The stitching suggested jittery hooves, the muffins decorating it suggested an extremely incompetent and possibly blind baker, and the pony proportions suggested the residents suffered from dented skulls, bunny teeth, and bobble head syndrome.

Against the tight care of the rest of the house, this bit of sloppiness drew the eye like a drop of toxic sludge on an otherwise immaculate dining jacket.

Second was a cloud hovering over the house. Velvet hadn’t been sure at first, until they drew closer to the welcome mat.

“That’s where I sleep!” said Derpy, pointing up.

Velvet reminded herself she was dealing with a pegasus. “Oh, right,” she said.

“I sleep up there every spring, summer, and fall.”

“What about winter?” said Velvet before her brain woke up in time.

Derpy gave her half a funny look – the other eye gave it to the cloud overhead. “Just because my thoughts are all muddly, doesn’t mean I’m that muddled.”

“Well, what do you do when it rains?”

“Move the cloud higher.”

“So what’s so different about snow?”

“Who said anything about snow? It’s winter. I only tried sleeping in boots and scarves once, and once was once too many onces.”

Velvet wilted. Against all expectation, she was losing the “Don’t Be An Idiot” Contest against Derpy.

More gently, Derpy pointed at the upper floors. “I got a spare bedroom when I don’t want to sleep outside. Honestly, I just don’t know how ponies do it. The bedroom always seems too cramped for me. Ah well, at least it’s somewhere out of the cold, right?” Bright-eyed, she added, “Come on, come on in! I’ll get the kettle!”

Derpy unlocked the door on the third try and second fumble.

“Head into the living room.” She nodded to her right. “I’ve just got to drop my things off.”

“You’re back early,” echoed a muffled voice raised from the living room. Calm, mildly miffed, the voice a cat might use, wondering why its owner – nice as it was to see her owner again – had still neglected to let her out before leaving.

“I’ll tell you all about it!” Derpy shouted back, and she winked at Velvet. In an undertone, she added, “That’s Ammy. Go say hello. I bet she’ll be so surprised.”

As she hurried up to a flapping rush, she flew up the stairs immediately on her left and, in turn, left Velvet to step cautiously into the cool shelter from the spring sunshine. She dropped her saddlebag by the umbrella stand. At least now the thorny golden roses wouldn’t keep attacking her side.

Same tender loving care, inside as outside. When Derpy had bounced, grunting, off the bannister, she had left a scuff on an otherwise perfect piece of patina-kissed woodcraft. Cramped – Velvet almost had to squeeze along the hall to reach any other doors – but oddly cosy and comfortable, as if the pale wallpaper wanted to give her a hug. The hall, despite its narrowness, held a little table to put the house’s heart on full display: a framed picture, standing up proudly, of three ponies and their various attempts at a smile.

Velvet had never seen a table so free of dust. Such was its shine that she wondered if it had been caramelized.

A thump from the living room. Curiosity tugged Velvet forwards as if by the whiskers.

Her hoofsteps patted on the bare floorboards. She might have been on the deck of a family ship.

“Only one message for you so far,” said the calm, mildly miffed voice.

Velvet looked up. Between the sofa, the fireplace, the table, and the chairs, a unicorn dusted the upper shelves of a Squelch dresser. Yet despite the horn, she used her hooves to handle it.

She had her back to Velvet, evidently focused on her task.

The room was so devoid of dust, blazing with polish, and guarded by a garden of carefully arranged floral scents – Velvet noticed a couple of rose vases keeping watch on the windowsill – that Velvet herself felt she’d be brushed, broomed, dusted, and swept out of the room at any moment.

Dutifully, the unicorn continued talking. “Golden Harvest was here just now, but I told her you were out. I don’t suppose you spotted her?”

Velvet said nothing. She’d never seen a more ruthless dusting stroke. Dirt was too terrified to stay on the shelves.

“Before you ask, Mom, I’ve nearly finished. I would have had the kettle boiling, but since you’re back early…”

This must be the one called Amethyst, thought Velvet; from the way Derpy talked, I can’t imagine a “Dinky” accusing someone of being early.

Mischief prompted her to remain quiet.

Amethyst’s ear twitched. “Something wrong, Mom?”

Then excited voices ran out and gambolled upstairs. Through the ceiling, the unmistakable Derpy shouted, “Yes! I brought a friend home, Dinky!”

Amethyst stopped dusting.

She rounded on Velvet’s mildly amused smile.

Which dropped, caught by surprise.

A couple of pictures did not compare to the real deal. For one thing, Velvet had somehow expected someone like Amethyst to be much darker, more brooding. That didn’t naturally come with a face that was pink, and blushing pinker under a morning’s spring cleaning.

Violently violet manes, though, especially one with a royal streak of purple over an ear as if tucked away for a later coronation, would do the trick.

Only then did Velvet find herself staring into the buzz-saw eyes of dark purple, and the buzz-saw eyes stared back. Dark and brooding enough on their own.

Velvet’s gaze jumped down.

Amethyst wore an apron. Frilly. Pinker than pink. With a golden heart right in the middle.

To her credit, Amethyst unfroze fast, but only from one ice to another. She followed Velvet’s gaze, iced up sharp, ripped the apron off, and cracked. “Who exactly are –?”

In that split second, Amethyst and Velvet caught the same realization in their stares together.

You!” Amethyst’s voice broke. “What are you doing here?”

Velvet stiffened, half-reined in by the equine instinct to back away skittishly. “I’m here for Mare’s Day. Derpy invited me over.”

“What? Why? You’re not part of –” But Amethyst’s mind could outrun Derpy’s even if delayed by half the course. “No, wait, let me guess: you just met her today.”

“Er, yes.”

“While you were out visiting Twi–”

“Someone else,” said Velvet.

The momentary lapse of anger chilled: Amethyst’s glower swung from Velvet to apron and back like a cocked crossbow.

“I know you. Twilight Velvet,” said Amethyst as though reading off a police file. “Dame Twilight Velvet, former professor of history and literature at the University of Canterlot. And Twilight Sparkle’s mother.”

And Twilight Sparkle’s mother, thought Velvet gloomily.

“Of course,” muttered Amethyst darkly, as excited voices competed with hoofsteps thundering down the stairs. “Ironic.”

The “ironic” stung Velvet into life.

“I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” she said, and offered the olive branch between her beaming lips. “You’ve done amazing work on this house. I wish my Shin– my son could’ve taken tips from you.”

The ice completely failed to break in Amethyst’s face.

Derpy collapsed into the room and flopped over Velvet’s shoulder. “Ammy! This is my new friend Velvet. She’s lovely.”

Amethyst snatched up the scrunched-up apron. With her hooves, Velvet noticed again. Not her horn.

“I know who she is,” snapped Amethyst, brushing past them with offended tail rising. “I’m not blind.”

The two of them watched her kick through another door.

“Er…” said Derpy.

Worried, Velvet turned to her. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No! No, never, no. Don’t you worry about her. Ammy’s a good soul deep down. She… just… doesn’t like surprises sometimes. She’ll warm up soon. Give her time.”

A grim thought bubbled to the surface. There had been loud excited voices, but…

“So you know each other?” said Derpy.

“Sort of. You didn’t hear what she was saying just now, did you?” said Velvet.

“Not really.” Derpy shrugged. On Velvet’s shoulder, the catching skin almost made her shrug in turn.

“Oh. Right. Excuse me one second, please…”

Velvet broke away, pushed through to the kitchen, pushed the door shut behind her, and before Amethyst could round on her, hastily whispered, “I’m sorry if I offended you just now, but could I ask for a small favour?”

Amethyst looked her up and down.

As a professor of history and literature, Velvet had been familiar with various ancient myths and legends, and most of the more gruesome had come from the afterlife beliefs of the great desert empires.

One such belief held that, on reaching the end of a post-death journey, a pony’s heart would be weighed against a feather. Any heart much too heavy to trouble the blessings of paradise with would be turned over to a monster, whose metaphysical diet had devoured many a sleepless night and victim dream.

Amethyst could have left that monster whimpering under its blankie. Eternal heartlessness was a nap in bed compared to the split-second damnation of her eyes, those underworld lakes where even the ferry pony wouldn’t give you tuppence for your chances, however much you begged and bribed.

She wouldn’t bother with your heart. She’d go straight for you.

Eventually, she said, “What favour?”

“I’m Velvet. Just Velvet,” she added, when Amethyst’s gaze narrowed in snap judgement. “No one else has worked out I’m Twilight Velvet. I want to keep it that way for as long as possible. Please? For today?”

Amethyst jutted. Her jaw leaned away from the rest of her face, her eyes were slits in the cracks of a glacier, and her head turned aside slightly as if to better scrutinize Velvet by sidling up to her.

“You’re avoiding something,” she murmured.

Velvet heard the question behind the statement, and the army of accusations waiting for a signal behind that.

“I don’t want to make a fuss,” Velvet said. The stare was weighing parts of her she barely wanted seen, let alone put on scales. Nerves compelled her to add, “How did you recognize me so fast?”

“I used to study at that university,” said Amethyst.

“What? When I was there?”

“No. After you left. One of my tutors mentioned you and showed me a photo. And I’ve seen you long before anyway, when I was applying for Celestia’s School.”

Then Velvet remembered. Yes, that was it. That must have been it. One of Twilight’s… “friends”, if that’s what you could call another face in her class.

Further back than that, Velvet had accompanied her little Twilight for the entrance exam, the Draconian Test. She hadn’t remembered much else; Twilight’s magical surges, when excited, tended to make any other details a bit beside the point. But of course there would have been other students trying their luck, wouldn’t there? No reason for them not to see her coming or going. And looking at Amethyst right now, there was no doubt she’d have been practically taking police notes.

“I recall you were a big name in Canterlot early on,” said Amethyst thoughtfully. “Till a bigger one took over, I’ll bet.”

“I didn’t get out in Canterlot much.” A worried thought occurred to Velvet. “How about in Ponyville? Does anyone know me here?”

Amethyst said nothing. Neither did snipers on the brink of firing.

“Uh… huh?” said Velvet, trying to sound neutral and not like she was rubbing it in anyone’s face at all.

Yet Amethyst’s face crystallized sharply. “Trying to be humble, are we? Making up for something?”

Uh oh. That’s what she’s getting at, Velvet realized.

“No, no,” she said quickly, “I don’t mean that! It’s just…”

There was no point lying to that stare. It could think up a dozen crimes before Velvet had worked out how to protest her innocence.

“I just don’t want to be ‘Princess Twilight Sparkle’s mother’ for a while.” She dragged the confession out of herself and threw it, and who cared by now if it was spared or devoured?

The scales in Amethyst’s eyes dipped warningly. Then, gently, calmly, with the inevitability of mass and gravity, they rose back up. Edges and jutting became straight and steady as Amethyst awarded her a full head-on gaze.

“Don’t take it the wrong way.” Velvet fumbled around her own words. “I do love my girl. Only, after so much has happened so fast… Well, you can imagine. I want to be… well, me… for a change. Just Velvet. You understand? Right?”

Nor was that hard to believe: Amethyst had a calculating look that owed nothing to Night Light’s giddy passion around complex equations but was indebted to several blades’ worth of incision.

And true to catlike form, she suddenly pretended to be bored by the whole thing and turned tail.

“Go sit down, Miss Velvet,” she said carelessly. “I’ll put the kettle on. I take it Mom invited you to tea, coffee, or hot chocolate?”

Miss Velvet. So far so good.

“Thanks. Cappuccino, please, if you have it, please.”

“Cappuccino. Right. I’ll bring it in directly.”

Velvet sensed a reprieve and backed out of the kitchen as politely as desperation would allow.

She still noticed Amethyst used her hooves to manage the tea things, but at one point her horn did light up to catch a falling teabag. So… voluntary non-magic?

Velvet pushed through the door to the hall and had it rebound in her face. Someone on the other side said, “Oof!”

Golden Mane, Golden Harvest, Golden Heart

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By the time Velvet stopped rubbing her own muzzle, she realized she’d just bumped the kitchen door into someone standing right behind it. Gently, she eased the door open.

A filly lay in a heap, rubbing her own muzzle in turn.

“Oh my gosh, I’m sorry!” Velvet hurried forwards to help her up. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

Then Velvet spotted the unicorn horn and the mass of blond straw that passed for a mane. Unlike Amethyst, who’d at least tamed her unkempt mane into something curvy and presentable, this was a ruffled mess that bounced a lot.

It had ample opportunity: the filly at once hopped up, fresh as a daisy and never mind the slight bruise blooming on the tip of the nose.

“Nope!” she said. “Takes more than that to stop me.” Then a sly smirk, far too adult in its leeriness to end up on a face so young, was revealed like a forbidden treat. “I was eavesdropping on you.”

Velvet looked at a face that might offer blackmail at any second, then back at Amethyst, who was pointedly pouring the tea. Thankfully, she could hear Derpy’s off-key humming in the next room. So one less witness. Somehow, that didn’t comfort her much.

“Ah,” said Velvet. “You… you were, were you?”

I know who you are.”

“Dinky,” warned Amethyst without leaving the tea things, “I’ve told you about eavesdropping before.”

Sisterly fury rallied to the call in Dinky’s eyebrows. “I didn’t mean anything by it! You took her aside without telling anyone why! I couldn’t help myself!” The familiar sly smug oiled back into place. “I won’t tell if you won’t tell, Miss –” she coughed “– Twilight –” she coughed again “– Velvet.”

“Erm,” said Velvet. Being helpless in the face of youth was not something new to her – Twilight, and all – but usually it was because of raw power. Whereas Dinky had mastered the other kind at such an early age.

Then Dinky giggled and her facial muscles relaxed into a more innocent stare as her own mind caught up with something more fun.

“You’re Twilight Sparkle’s mom…”

Velvet wanted to throw something. What’s the point of defusing the bomb of secrecy if it just gets relit a second later? Was everyone she met going to figure her out? Blow her wide open?

“You’re Twilight… Sparkle’s… mom.

“Shh!” hissed Velvet, listening for Derpy’s tuneless humming. “Don’t say it out loud!”

Dinky hissed it back instead: “You’re Twilight Sparkle’s mom oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh you’re Twilight Sparkle’s mooooooooooooooooooom!

Velvet froze in the headlights of that stare. “And,” she said gamely, “you’re… Dinky, right?”

The dinky thing started to go “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee…” like a sizzling fuse.

“Er…” said Velvet, wondering if looking away or staring back was the more dangerous option.

“Dinky,” muttered Amethyst sharply; tea things tinkled. “She’s not a carnival attraction. She’s a guest.”

Sense knocked into Dinky’s wide eyes. And just like that, she transformed: her legs and back stiffened, and she brought a ladylike hoof to her mouth to cough and clear her throat.

Then her composure collapsed.

“I’m so sorry,” went Dinky’s mouth on full automatic, “I can’t help it, this is so amazing. I love Princess Twilight Sparkle, she’s so… so… amazing!” She shot forwards, initially to whisper in Velvet’s ear, mostly to get closer to such greatness. “I used to visit Twilight’s Golden Oak Library all the time. She told me to take out all kinds of books, and I loved them, I really did. I was so sad when it blew up, but she says she’s building another library in her castle, and now I get to go borrow books in a princess’s castle!

Dinky managed to scream in an undertone, thus balancing whatever burst out of her chest with the need to not let it go into the next room and reach Derpy’s ears, or the ears of anyone six miles away.

Despite the blackmail condition still hanging over her head, Velvet found herself smiling. Unicorn fillies and a passion for books awoke a few hitherto-dormant motherly instincts.

“You didn’t, by any chance, ever build a book fort, did you?” said Velvet.

Something else she learned quickly about Dinky: the filly liked getting close. She reared up and pressed herself against Velvet’s chest as though about to clamber up to her face.

“In the pre-classical unicorn design!” she boasted.

“Historically accurate, I see,” recited Velvet from memory.

And with a stepladder for siege weapons.”

“Huh. Twilight always used the homemade automatic book sorter for that.”

Excitement threatened to blow within little eyes. “No… Did Twilight build book forts too!?

“You saying you’re a bookworm, little lady?” said Velvet, who against all restraint found herself sharing Dinky’s growing excitement like an addictive cake; her own mouth had to restrain itself from reaching each ear.

“Haha, you betcha! Wait here, I’ll show you what I’m reading!”

Yet as the reassuring weight vanished and Dinky hurried to the foot of the stairs, someone knocked on the front door.


Barely a thought ricocheted off Dinky’s legs before she bounced forwards and flung the door wide open, briefly blinding Velvet with the shine.

From the kitchen – Velvet propped the door open and stepped aside to hold it ready for closing – a tray clinked on the sideboard. Amethyst marched through, twisting to wind her way around Velvet in the narrow hall. By then, Dinky was shrieking, “IT’S CARROT TOP, MOM, AMMY, IT’S CARROT TOP!”

“I HEAR YOU!” shouted Derpy back.

Someone at the door said, “That’s Golden Harvest, Dinky. Not Carrot Top. Hello again, Ammy. I take it Derpy’s home early?”

“My pleasure,” said Amethyst. “We’re making tea, if you want.”

“Love to. The usual, please, Ammy.”

Velvet hurried to open the door again as Amethyst marched past, then she let it swing shut. So too did the newcomer at the front door; the sunlight sidled back outside to give them some privacy.

“You’re here to stay this time?” piped up Dinky, hopping around the new earth mare who ambled down the hall.

“Yes, I happened to pass Lyra on the way here. If Derpy’s found time for lunch with a complete stranger, then she’s found time to come home early.”

The voice wasn’t peeved – much too pleasant and polite for that – but there lurked just on the edge of the words the suggestion that peevishness was a valid backup plan. Velvet watched the mass of orange curls and slightly worn face approach her, and caught a glimpse of the cutie mark tailing all that. Three carrots. Not hard to imagine. The mare was so orange she practically looked carrot-made.

“Ah, and this must be the new unicorn she’s found,” said the earth mare. She managed to grow a smile.

Velvet’s smile reached back from her childhood. Out in the Vanhoover countryside where she’d called the hedgerows her walls, the fields her rooms, and the waving crops her gardens, farmers were as kin even to unicorns who, by all rights, “should” have treated them like dirt. Not Velvet’s mother, though. Nor Velvet herself. That smile remembered warm pies, and earthy jokes, and so many birthdays of a family that didn’t need blood to call her “kinsfolk”.

“You must be… Golden Harvest?” she said, and she earned a near-bow of a nod for her effort. “Derpy’s been talking about you.”

“Uh oh,” said Golden Harvest.

“Oh, don’t worry.” Velvet focused on the bags under Golden Harvest’s eyes, and thought, Works all day until she drops. That familiar story. “It was all good stuff. Better than even she believed, I’ll bet.”

Whereupon Derpy flung herself out of the living room and landed like a far-too-big Alsatian on Velvet’s back. Velvet squeaked slightly under the weight.

“She’s my new friend!” Derpy announced happily.

“Of course,” said Golden Harvest, and to Velvet’s not-altogether-unpleasant surprise, the carrot farmer gave her a welcome embrace, likely a local way of saying hi. “Well, any friend of Derpy’s is a friend of mine, even if she is new in town.” A dark thought crossed her face as she let go. “You haven’t met a pony called Pinkie Pie yet, have you?”

Pinkie Pie… Another name off Twilight Sparkle’s letters. “Can’t say that I have?”

“Aha. Lucky for you. Just a friendly warning: she will find out you’re here, sooner or later. And then… Do you like parties?”

“Sure. All the fun and excitement and so many ponies to talk to –”

“Good. You’d have been in trouble if you’d said no. It’s not a word Pinkie hears the first thousand times.” Another weak smile made a bid for levity.

“I’ll bear that in mind, Miss… um…?”

“Please, call me Golden Harvest.”

“I call her Carrot Top,” whispered Dinky in her ear.

Not Carrot Top. I’ve told you –”

“Velvet.” Velvet offered a diplomatic hoof.

Golden Harvest stared at it for a moment, then shrugged and shook it. “I didn’t know Derpy had any unicorn relatives.” She paused to look up thoughtfully. “Ammy and Dinky notwithstanding, of course, though –”

“Oh, no, I’m just visiting my girl in town. Derpy happened to bump into me and invited me to a drink before I could see my daughter. I was early anyway.”

Puzzlement added to the work wrinkles threatening Golden Harvest’s face, and Velvet held her breath. She only had to look Golden Harvest in the eye to tell she measured closer to Amethyst’s intellect than Derpy’s.

The words “So who –?” formed on Golden Harvest’s lips.

It was Dinky who jumped between them. “Where’s No Identity?”

Blinking, Golden Harvest took a moment to yank the new vegetable out of her brain. “Oh, you mean Odd Job?”

“I mean No Identity.”

“Dinky, I wish you wouldn’t call her that. She doesn’t like it.”

“She doesn’t like ‘Odd Job’, either. That’s a bad name, and she’s stuck with that one.”

“It’s the one she happened to be born with. Well, it fits, doesn’t it?”

“I heard she wanted to be called Orange Juice.”

“Whatever you want to call her, she’s staying at home. Looking after the farm while I’m gone.”

Dinky groaned, flopping in exasperation. Velvet got the impression she’d gone through the motion hundreds of times before.

“Again!?” sighed Dinky.

“Now, now, I couldn’t ask anyone else to do it. Looking after the farm’s a big responsibility.”

“You never let her go out and have any fun.”

“I would, though. I simply asked her, and she said she was all right with it.”

“All right with it, or ‘all right’ with it as said by the filly who can’t say no?”

“Don’t be like that,” said Golden Harvest, though she too shared the hunted look of most ponies getting an interrogation from a high-pitched voice. “She’s a growing girl. She knows her own mind best.”

“It’s the rest of her that’ll get tired first. And on Mare’s Day too! How could you!?”

Velvet settled in for a very familiar chat fresh from the old Vanhoover country. Unicorns at home always marvelled at the earth pony tendency to trust their foals. Outside the city, though, there ruled the unspoken belief that the kids might as well get a preview of their future and grow to like it.

Although she might be assuming here… “Odd Job? Is she a sister of yours?”

Golden Harvest threw on a smile quickly. “Uh, yes, yes. Younger than me.”

“She’s got no identity,” crowed Dinky with indecent fascination. “If she was here right now, you wouldn’t notice her at all.”

Thank you, Dinky.”

For a moment, Velvet forgot herself. “And she’s looking after a whole farm?”

“It’s… not that big.” Golden Harvest shuffled where she stood, and Velvet spotted the signs of a farmer caught between pride and guilt. “Er, I’ll just go and sit down. Ammy should be ready soon. My, what a lovely day out! I’m tired on my hooves! Please excuse me!” And she bustled past the three of them.

“Carrot Top’s no match for me,” whispered Dinky smugly. “She’s always too tired.”

That had been something else Velvet noticed too: now she had been up close, she didn’t think Golden Harvest looked all that old. There was a spryness in her step, a firmness of back and suppleness of limb when she moved – as she did when she slipped past into the living room – that wasn’t there when she was just standing still, talking to them.

Especially with a whole bush of a mane full of curls, Golden Harvest actually looked young enough to be Velvet’s daughter. But a sort of “world-weariness field” around her gave the impression she was old enough to have seen farms and towns, nations and empires, mountains and valleys come and go. Most of the old earth mares and stallions had that same heavy-lidded look in the eye.

“That was very mean of you, Dinky,” huffed Derpy.

Dinky mumbled to the floor, “I’m just trying to help, Mom.”

“She’s not ill, is she?” Velvet voiced the concern hovering uncertainly near all this speculation.

Derpy gave her an odd look, which she was uniquely well-qualified to do.

“Nope,” said Dinky, who carried the wisdom of an older mare like a girl wearing mommy’s dress. “Carrot Top – sorry, Mom, Golden Harvest – she works all the time. It’s hard work on a carrot farm. I tried it once. You get dirty.” She beamed proudly at this precocious accomplishment.

“But she’s not doing it on her own?” said Velvet in alarm. Even the proudest farmers knew better than to tend any field without a few farmhooves nearby.

No,” said Dinky as if Velvet was slow. “She’s doing it with No Identity. Odd Job,” she translated. “Her sister?”

“What about the rest of the famil–?”

“Oh my goodness, I think tea will be ready in a minute,” prattled on Derpy, sliding off Velvet’s back. “Let’s all sit down and have a nice talk about nice things on this nice day while it’s nice. Won’t that be nice?”

“Ooh, right! I was going to get a book!” Dinky hurried off. “Be back in a minute!”

Velvet had to press herself against the wall to let the blue streak shoot past.

The small hooves up the stairs would’ve drowned out the thunder of an elephant stampede. All that effort for a book.

Despite herself, Velvet beamed. Just like young Twilight –

Then she stopped smiling.

This felt too right. A young bookworm unicorn, a farmer as if fresh from the old country: everything reminded her of too much. Too comfortable. Too golden. Too… bright. Deceptively so.

So convincing in its deception, though, and feeling so right, in fact, that – despite herself – she considered not leaving. And the instant she thought that, it all started to feel horribly, crashingly, overwhelmingly wrong.

Derpy's Tormenting Secret

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“Is there a, er, a powder room I could use?” said Velvet as she followed Derpy into the living room.

“Um, no,” said Derpy, perplexed.

Velvet stopped thinking Canterlot and started thinking Ponyville. “I meant is there a bathroom?”

Derpy gaped at her in frank astonishment. “You don’t want to have a bath right now, do you?” she said.

From the sofa, Golden Harvest piped up, “It’s upstairs, first on your right.”

“Thanks. Won’t be long.” Velvet hurried up.

The upstairs landing continued the huddled, warm, welcoming theme of the rest of the house. There were four doors, three slightly ajar, one – somehow, she guessed it must be Ammy’s – locked tight. Well, she could sympathize with the need to keep a little part of one’s life locked away from everyone else. It kept most ponies sane. Shining Armor had been like that too…

She needed a minute to herself, more than anything else. It wasn’t just the recent distressing tendency for ponies to start suddenly figuring out what her first name was. Neither was it Dinky somehow giving young Twilight a run for her money. Nor was it even the weird nostalgia she felt having a farmer around in a country-looking place again. Although none of those things did her whirlwind mind any favours, either…

So what was it?

It sounded stupid, but…

Velvet felt she didn’t ought to be welcome here. Everyone had simply suddenly become kin to her, and it hadn’t been since her school days when she’d felt that omnipresent warmth coddling her mind like soft pillows. And even that had been nothing to her Vanhoover childhood.

Suddenly, on this side of her lifespan, it seemed dangerous. Threatening. As if they were protecting her from something, and not in a way she found jolly exciting, either. It felt like they were… well, letting her in too easily. Like a trap. That, they were, protecting her, against?

No, don’t be ridiculous. She tried again.

She’d sensed too much warmth to be true, except maybe around Amethyst, who she hadn’t figured out yet…

Velvet breathed out heavily.

She hated feeling like this. It had to be the Canterlot influence, she kept telling herself. Canterlot nobles didn’t go in for warmth much, or at least were brutally honest about the terms and conditions of doing so. The only exceptions were ponies like Night Light, and once they became her family, she didn’t see them as part of the world outside her home anymore –

Perhaps it’d be politer to leave? Twilight’s appointment must be nigh by now. Just make an excuse, kiss kiss, duck out, and then leave and go and get this over with.

Yes! That was the problem. The appointment loomed over her no matter what she did. How was she supposed to concentrate with that hovering over her head?

Except… she’d clean forgotten about it, during whole stretches of today, when talking to Derpy.

Was that the problem? No. It certainly hadn’t felt like a problem at the time. She’d quite happily go back and do it all again, only with a few of the more blush-inducing bits edited out.

So what was it? Why didn’t she feel right? A few blushes hardly mattered.

Annoyingly, the tears quivered in her eyes. The thought plopped: Why didn’t she deserve to be right?

Oh, stupid! Complete nonsense. She wiped her eyes furiously. Over every little thing, too.

Without feeling any progress had been made, she pushed it out of her mind, washed her hooves, and stepped out onto the landing. Nearby, she heard the muffled thumps of Dinky’s rummaging and a few muttered complaints along the lines of: “Where is it? Where is it?”

“Lost something, honey?” said Velvet on autopilot.

“Looking for a book!” cried Dinky behind the far door. “Won’t be long! I wanna show you something!”

Wait. Honey? Had she really just said “honey”? That was what she called Twilight. This was getting utterly –

It was then that Velvet noticed the door right next to her wasn’t ajar. It was nearly wide open.

Some books. Lots of books, in fact. A reading room? Here?

Something of the daredevil in Velvet prompted her to peer in. No harm in curiosity, was there? Rumours of the cat’s death must have been greatly exaggerated.

Sure looked like a reading room: there were books strewn everywhere. They had a private reading room, just like at her home too? She stepped inside. It wasn’t trespassing, she insisted, if she didn’t take long.

Also, it wasn’t nosying around if she saw a title on one of the books. The lettering could be seen from the landing. Reading that hardly counted, even if she had to creep in to read it more comfortably.

Everyone kept guessing her secret, anyway. That had been a tad annoying for someone who felt she’d done her best to keep things on the lowdown, all things considered. About time she evened the odds a bit.

“How to Be a Good Mother,” she read aloud, but quietly; Dinky would still be nearby, and if Velvet had learned anything from her own experience, it was that foals could hear you talking through several walls. Especially when they weren’t supposed to hear the delicate things you were saying.

How to Be a Good Mother?

Velvet turned over another book. “101 Ways to Bring Up Your Baby Happy, Healthy, and Hopeful.”

She brought another one closer for inspection, and this time caught a flash of outrage. “Why You’re Bad At Parenting (And How To Do It Better).”

“Mothering Manual.”

“What You’re Doing Wrong (To Your Children).”

“1001 Parenting Tips You Must Learn Before You Die.”

“The Parenthooves.”

“Homemade Children.”

“Wife, the Universe, and Everything.”

“The 17 Rules of Perfect Parenting.”

“Do Your Children Hate You? How To Tell In 13 Easy Steps.”

Parenting guides. They were all parenting guides.

Velvet nearly walked into the bed.

There was a bed, yes, but it had the special made look of a bed that so rarely received any clients. The last time Velvet had seen bedding so perfectly nipped and tucked, Night Light had left for weeks on a royal diplomatic business trip. She wondered if this bed would feel as cold.

There was an open window overlooking it. It had bolts and locks, but right now their function was being cheerfully ignored in favour of inviting a cool breeze.

There was the desk beside it. In for a cent, in for a bit: Velvet peered over the piles of paper and one book propped open by a cracked coffee mug which said “TO THE WORLD’S BEST MOTHER” and had a teddy bear on it. A stale muffin appeared to have baked inside it. Some kind of insta-muffin in a mug, maybe.

On the topmost sheet, the points were numbered, but by someone who apparently thought “9” and “10” were followed by “101” and “102”.

Velvet picked it up carefully for closer inspection.

During her brief scan, she picked up certain repeated words. “A mother must…” and “daughter” and “love” and “efficiently”, and – for some reason – “must not disappoint” was quite popular too.

The scribbly writing seemed quite frantic, as if desperate to get all the ideas down. Some ideas had been written in twice; Velvet wondered if that had been a deliberate educational technique or just done out of nerves.

Whose room was this? Derpy’s was her first guess, but the locks on the window and the tidiness of the bed didn’t seem to fit her whirlwind approach to life, even if the window was as wide open as the door and Derpy had already admitted she rarely slept here.

Dinky was in a completely different room, so this one couldn’t be hers. Somehow, Velvet doubted Amethyst would leave this much of a mess or obsess so much about parenthood, and certainly wouldn’t leave a door so carelessly wide open. The mug suggested… No, think logically, anyone could use a mug –

Someone gasped behind her. Velvet swung round on lightning-struck guilt.

Hovering at the door was Dinky.

“What are you doing?” said the filly.

Uh oh.

Velvet suddenly had nothing to do there. Her gaze and face jumped around the room frantically avoiding anything forbidden, her body turned away from Dinky and then back and then away the other way and then back again, and she spoke and screwed up her lips so much that words refused to come out with their hooves up.

“I – There was just,” she pleaded. “Sorry. The door – Well, I saw a book loose – Got lost on my way to the bathroom – I thought I heard a noise – See, I was just curious –”

“You’re not supposed to be in here,” said Dinky. She said it blankly, as one who’d memorized the diktat from cradle up and didn’t understand it, just followed it. “This is Mom’s room.”

“Please don’t tell her I was in here!” Velvet dropped the paper back onto the desk. “I didn’t mean anything. I shouldn’t have come in here.” She glanced at the door, horrified someone might be on the landing just out of reach but not out of earshot.

Dinky just stared at her as though curious what the stranger was going to do next. “What were you looking at?”

As if stung, Velvet drew away from the desk. “Nothing.”

Now Dinky frowned. The idol worship in her face had gone to a backroom, leaving something less forgiving in charge.

“You were reading Mom’s secret parent notes, weren’t you?” she said.

Velvet wanted to bang her head on a nearby wall. What a way to behave, in someone else’s house! Her, a welcomed guest! What was she thinking? It was her stupid head agreeing to all this new stuff, she’d never have done this in front of – Wait a minute.

No longer trying not to exist on the spot, Velvet stopped and concentrated all on Dinky.

“How do you know what those notes are?” said Velvet suddenly.

Nonchalance itself, Dinky shrugged. “I’ve read them.”

“You –” Velvet drew herself up. “Now, now, Dinky. Shouldn’t you know better than to pry on other ponies’ private papers?”

Giggles. Complete relaxation. So Dinky was not entirely like little Twilight: whereas little Twilight had squirmed and worried about Right and Wrong, Dinky seemed to view them as something nice to pick up only when she felt like it.

“Look who’s talking,” she said blankly.

There was nothing for it. Dinky had her twice over now as far as blackmail material went. Velvet would have to throw herself down on her mercy.

“I didn’t mean to pry, Dinky. I’m so sorry.”

If anything, Dinky just crept cautiously over to the desk like a practised burglar – too late, Velvet realized the floorboards might have creaked down through to the ceiling below when she’d walked over them – and shuffled the papers on the desk idly. Unlike her big sister, she felt no need to stint on the magic in her horn.

“It’s OK. I can’t help myself all the time, too,” said Dinky, placing them carefully. “You’re not in trouble if you don’t get caught.”

“But you caught me…? And anyway, I shouldn’t have…”

For the first time, Velvet wondered if the way Dinky smirked at her – and the horrified respect rising like a roused but confused guard in her own chest – was exactly what Night Light experienced whenever Velvet committed the rascal crime of improvisation. It was the moment when she marvelled how someone could so joyfully do what lesser souls ought never to dare.

A bit of idol worship winked through little eyes.

“Ha, a rulebreaker mom. You’re really not like Princess Twilight Sparkle, are you?” said Dinky.

“She gets it from her father,” was Velvet’s weak contribution; she was too busy feeling steered by the wrong pony. “Look, I didn’t mean to presume. I really was just curious. Nothing was meant by it. Nothing.”

“I get it!” piped up Dinky reassuringly. “I do!”

“I don’t want to be that kind of pony. Just because I’m, well… I’m…” The wrong words kept volunteering for service: a Canterlot type, more well-known, more famous, richer, higher ranked. Those words were servants she’d inherited when she’d married Night Light and given him Shining and Twilight: she didn’t have to accept such add-ons.

She resorted to: “I’m not better than anyone. I shouldn’t be here.” Then she made for the door.

“Aha, now you’re talking like Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

Velvet stopped mid-march. “I what?”

“She’s like that too.” Dinky shuffled over – watching the floorboards – and sat herself down, right next to Velvet, with a complete lack of urgency and little breathing space between them. “She hid in the library a lot and tried to join in things like Winter Wrap-Up and stuff. I think it’s sweet.”

“Twilight was what?” Ah, but it made a kind of sense, didn’t it? Twilight had been a little smug about being Princess Celestia’s protégé, but that was about once a week, when the rest of the week was spent focused on or panicking about whatever latest test she’d been set.

Yes, Twilight had decided early on: she’d cringe and sneak around in case anyone thought she was swanking. Or in case she started using spells to prove herself.

Velvet tensed for a missed heartbeat. This, Dinky seemed to notice: she leaned away and looked up sharply.

“Did she learn that from you?” said Dinky.

“Learn what, sorry?”

“All the stuff about being kind and polite. I bet she learned it from you.”

No safer answer stepped forwards than: “We tried our best.”

Then Dinky shuffled away and picked up one of the forbidden papers from the reading desk. A criminal impulse fled her, though, because she dropped the goods and shuffled back to her post.

All those pages and pages of “A mother must…”

No! No. Velvet wasn’t going to ask.

“So,” said Dinky, voice suddenly quiet. “You know Mom’s secret too.”

Velvet felt the little head rest gently against her own side, and didn’t dare move. To find herself next to a foal so trusting… The air forgot to leave her held chest. Whatever else she was, Dinky was still someone else’s child.

Pressed against Velvet’s side, the mane scrunched as fierce eyes glared up. “Mom’s not a bad mom,” came the firm plaint.

Velvet the defendant said nothing. She hadn’t realized she was on trial.

“She’s the best mom in the world.” Angrily, Dinky pointed at the titles heaped around them. “She doesn’t need all these books. She’s good enough on her own.”

“I didn’t say she wasn’t,” spluttered Velvet under the onslaught. Honesty encouraged her to admit, “I was wondering why she’s got so many.” The realities of her place on the crime scene damned her. “It’s not my place, I know.”

Having made the opening speech, Dinky’s face ducked down and firmly pressed itself against Velvet’s side. “It’s stupid,” she muttered.

The nature of the injustice slowly wrapped Velvet’s wandering mind in chains.

Sheer weight pressed on her skin and against her ribs trying to breathe against the cold idea.

Supposing all this mother manual stuff had started when other ponies had talked? After all, Derpy didn’t look like anyone’s idea of the perfect mother. Skepticism would not hold back. Go back in time far enough and she wouldn’t have had a chance to prove herself yet…

“Derpy seems like a wonderful mother to me,” she confessed.

Furious, Dinky’s face rose from the bench again. “That’s what I said, but she just nods and smiles and then goes and reads more books! She always thinks she’s doing it wrong!”

Handling Dinky came more and more naturally to Velvet. Her own face creased in puzzlement.

“Why would she think that?” she said.

“Because she thinks she does everything wrong!” Dinky’s voice cracked in that one. Her face pressed into Velvet’s side, muffled, murmuring, “It’s stupid. Stupid.”

Derpy, who knocked things over and got her letters wrong and wasn’t good with numbers. And had funny eyes.

Huh, yes, and Velvet was always Twilight Sparkle’s mom.

Still, this filly pressing up against her as naturally as if she’d known Velvet all her life was not her child. Velvet fought years of motherly impulse, which urged her to hug the little unicorn whose face was starting to leak into her coat.

Carefully, she settled for putting a gentle hoof on Dinky’s shoulder. Two smaller ones instantly wrapped around her waist. She patted the tousled mess that was Dinky’s mane, wishing they weren’t locked together like this.

“Er, Dinky?” said Velvet after she felt the little one had done enough crying to get it out of her system. “I think the others will want to know why we haven’t come downstairs yet.”

Tear-streaked cheeks looked up to her for guidance.

Velvet couldn’t help herself. She tutted – but gently – and wiped them as best she could.

“Come on, now,” she soothed. “You don’t want to show that damp face to everyone, now do you?”

She stopped with the job half-done. As expected, Dinky wiped the rest off herself and backed off a bit.

“You love your mom very much,” Velvet continued. “That should prove to Derpy all this stuff is just silly.”

“Yeah.” Dinky sniffed and wiped her muzzle on the back of a hoof. “But I’ve always loved Mom – lots! – and she still reads the dumb books.”

“I wish I could help you there…” said Velvet.

She recognized the signs, though. Her friend Twinklestar had been like that: constantly convinced there was something hidden, something fundamental she was doing utterly, catastrophically wrong to her children, despite the envy of her friends and the happiness of her own kin.

That sort of thing could tear a mother from the inside out. Unfortunately, it was just one of those things that infected a mind with a dark canker and then, despite all the happy speeches and loyal friends and shed tears, remained stuck there for months and years.

Velvet had kept up the happy speeches, rallied the loyal friends, and wiped away the shed tears, of course. She had to. She couldn’t just let her friend get on with it and call herself a friend in turn. Sometimes, she hoped the talks kept the other mothers, if not healthy, then at least sane enough to face their families again for another week.

And Derpy had more evidence to point to, she’d bet, as excuses for why she was a Bad Mother, despite the fact that here was her little one crying over such rot and swearing it wasn’t true. Sometimes, the darkness of the mind didn’t need a reason. It just turned up uninvited, like funny eye conditions.

Darkness was darkness. How it got there was just one thing it’d be nice to know, but it wasn’t everything. The important thing in Velvet’s mind was to face it and dive right in.

The same thought struck Dinky: her face shot up. “You could help her! You could tell her how good she is! I bet she’d listen to Twilight Sparkle’s mom!”

Velvet barely winced. She mustered a more helpful smile instead.

“It’s sweet,” she said, “but Dinky, I don’t think it’s my place to cure everyone’s problems.”

Confusion and the hurt of betrayal tortured Dinky’s face.

“Well,” spluttered Velvet, “if you can’t convince her, how can I?” The thought held Dinky’s tongue at bay for long enough, so Velvet hurried on: “Look, I’ll see if I can sort of bring the talk around to… something like it, OK? I know she’s a wonderful mother. She’s a wonderful pony in general. And we’ll say no more about sneaking into her room, shall we?”

Dinky shocked herself back to life. She skipped out of reach and sidled up to the door.

“OK,” she whispered, then she beckoned Velvet to follow. “Come on, I’ll say I was looking for my book, and you can say you needed the bathroom for a long time or something –”

What do you think you’re doing in there?

It was Amethyst’s voice. It snapped like hoofcuffs.

Dinky leaped a foot in the air.

Velvet didn’t move. She wasn’t visible from the landing, maybe she’d left the bathroom door shut –

Both of you! Get out right now!

Velvet groaned and followed Dinky out.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to –”

Then she noticed Amethyst held a gemstone levitated between them. Aimed like a crossbow.

The unicorn’s horn didn’t give off a particularly impressive light, but one look at the vibrating chunk of polished emerald strongly put Velvet in mind of concentrated lasers. One in particular, aiming at her eye and not remotely apologetic about blinding her.

Fury shifted: Amethyst tutted and relaxed. The gemstone lowered itself. So, Velvet thought, she uses magic in an emergency.

“I heard the hoofsteps through the ceiling,” announced Amethyst – Dinky gave a very silent moan – “For pity’s sake, I thought there was someone up here that shouldn’t be! You can’t just waltz into whatever room you like as if you own the place!”

“I know, I know, I should’ve –”

“It’s my fault,” piped up Dinky suddenly. “I wanted to show her something. Blame me. She didn’t know any better.”

Velvet did not hide her astonishment in time. Amethyst must have spotted it in that split second. They were looking right at each other. Even if they hadn’t, Amethyst’s eyes burned in complete disbelief.

She’d never seen so much hatred held in tight check. Thin lines crossed Amethyst’s face like harsh restraining cords, as if her glare, bared teeth, and slit nostrils had been expertly sliced into place. Against the barely controlled, unkempt mane, overall there was the suggestion of a wild panther behind bars.

“That’s Mom’s room,” Amethyst snarled. “No one goes in there except her and me.” A crashing thought bent and weakened the bars. “Did you read anything in there?”

Too late, Velvet’s frightened silence was a confession in itself.

The panther pressed harder against the restraints. “If you so much as breathe anything you saw in there to anyone –”

“Ammy, knock it off!” Dinky held on to Velvet’s leg, tight enough to seriously threaten the blood supply. “She’s a good pony. It’s not her fault the door was wide open.”

Amethyst brought a hoof to her face. Had she possessed the requisite fingers and thumb, she’d have pinched the bridge of her nose.

“I have nothing but complete respect for your mother,” said Velvet, no longer bothering to pretend. “I’m sorry I invaded her privacy. It was a moment of weakness. I won’t do it again.” Especially not if it means staring down the wrong end of a blaster gemstone again, she thought.

From downstairs, Derpy shouted up, “Ammy? Dinky? Velvet? You all right?”

Without looking away from her suspects, Amethyst shouted down, “Just peachy, Mom!”

“You’ve been up there a very long time!”

Velvet and Dinky held their breaths.

“We’re enjoying the view, Mom!” Amethyst shouted.

It was such a palpably sarcastic bit of nonsense that Velvet had to choke back a laugh.

After a curious pause, Derpy shouted in reply, “Okie dokie! Come down soon!”

Growling, Amethyst swung the emerald and – in a bit of astonishing jiggery-pokery – the thing disappeared behind her back as though a holstered handgun. Then she stepped aside to let them pass.

“Dinky: you know the drill,” she snapped. “Miss Velvet: you want me to keep treating you like a trusted guest, you can persuade me by acting like one, got it?”

“Er…” Velvet flinched at the fresh round Amethyst loaded into that wrinkling muzzle. “I mean, yes, yes! I’m sorry.”

“Hey,” grumbled Dinky, but not quietly enough, “you can’t talk to her like that. She’s a guest and she’s Mom’s friend and she’s Princess Twilight Sparkle’s mom.”

“She’s also on our territory,” said Amethyst. “And that means she’s under our rules.”

Your rules.”

Mom’s rules, with my input.”

Aha. Velvet’s brief insight into the politics of the Derpy household quickly pretended it hadn’t heard anything when Amethyst glared at her.

Then Amethyst leaned forwards so only Velvet’s nearest ear could hear. “And I don’t care if you’re the mother of Princess Celestia herself. Nothing gives you the right to pry on Mom’s stuff.”

“I won’t say a word about it,” said Velvet. “I promise.”

Less gruffly, Amethyst added, “You’d better. Don’t let it happen again, got it?”

Velvet almost made a sharp remark about her tone of voice – this was a kid talking to her as if she, Velvet, were the out-of-control teenager – but then she kicked herself back in line, just in time. After all, supposing Shining had caught a strange guest rummaging around his parents’ rooms?

She glanced sidelong at Amethyst’s black Arctic pools for eyes, and saw a quiver of hurt gleaming back. Could she blame love pricked into a harsh attack?

So instead, Velvet whispered back, “I understand. I really do.”

“Hm.” Amethyst snorted, but the worst of the wind had gone from her lungs by now. Her heart certainly wasn’t in it.

On the way down, though, Amethyst did use their thumping hoofsteps as cover to say to her, “At least Dinky likes you, Miss Velvet.”

“Oh? How do you tell?”

“For one thing, she tried lying through her teeth. In front of me.” A mock laugh broke ranks. “You must’ve really pushed a button, Miss Velvet, because that’s some suicidal devotion, all right.”

The Elements of a Good Carrot Family

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Carrot tea?” said Velvet.

She’d just sat down on the sofa, initially next to Golden Harvest until Dinky leaped into the gap between them. Both adults shifted their bottoms aside to avoid squeezing the devil to death.

“Oh yes,” said Golden Harvest. “I started trying that a few years back. You just roast a carrot until it’s nice and hard, then shred it or julienne it –”


“Cut it into short thin strips. Then you let it dry out, and then you bake it in the oven for… Well, I usually find forty-five minutes is enough to brown it, but then I do it on a low heat… or you can just put it straight in the oven, and then when it’s done, you put it in a cup and add boiling water.”

Velvet wasn’t the world’s greatest chef, but… “Isn’t that technically a broth?”

Golden Harvest frowned. “I suppose. I tried a version using just the leaves, cooked and diced.”

“And it’s drinkable?”

The offended pout that hit Velvet made her remember unwise days of her youth, when she’d been a bit too cheeky to the farmers of Vanhoover.

“Yes,” said Golden Harvest stiffly. “Frequently.”

“Your tea,” said Amethyst, offering the tray.

Golden Harvest accepted it graciously. Between them, Dinky snatched up her hot chocolate and shuffled and writhed, impatiently waiting for it to cool.

“Cappuccino,” said Amethyst, turning to Velvet.

“Oh, oh yes. Thank you, Ammy.”

Golden Harvest snorted into her drink. Dinky gasped. Derpy dropped the chair she was dragging along the carpet.

Silence concentrated around Amethyst’s glowing iron face, then around Velvet’s horrified confusion.

“Excuse me?” growled Amethyst.

It was Dinky who leaped forwards to the rescue in a whisper. “Don’t call her Ammy! Only family can call her Ammy!”

Velvet hid her face behind a cup. How was it she managed to tread on one mare’s hooves so readily?

“I mean thank you Amethyst no offence intended!” said Velvet in one fleeing breath.

With a mere harrumph, Amethyst turned away. This the others took as their cue to relax and – in Golden Harvest’s case – surreptitiously wipe the stains off the upholstery.

“And don’t feel you have to hold back, Dinky,” said Amethyst, moving on. “I’ve already cooled the chocolate.”


Grateful, Dinky quaffed and gulped-gulped-gulped the lot without once coming up for air. Curious herself, Velvet peered over the lip of Golden Harvest’s cup to see what carrot tea looked like. The liquid was, of course, orange.

Nearby, Derpy drew up a chair from the table, and it clattered onto the floor. “Whoopsie,” she said.

“I got it.” Amethyst righted the chair in passing as though about to do it anyway, as part of her “lady’s maid” choreography. All whilst balancing a tray too.

As she moved away, though…

“You were upstairs a while,” said Derpy suddenly.

Amethyst hesitated a second too long. “Ask them, not me.”

“I was getting my book!” Dinky held it up as a shield.

Immediately, all gazes turned to Velvet.

“I… got lost on the way to the bathroom?” she said.

Derpy screwed up her mouth, humming. Then she turned to Amethyst, made to put her own mug down, missed, yelped, and sighed in relief as Amethyst’s much quicker hooves saved and trayed it.

She scraped her chair back. It barely tipped over before landing on all fours again.

“Ammy,” she said smartly. “Can I have a word with you in the kitchen, please?”

Back turned to Derpy, Amethyst tossed Dinky and Velvet a resigned shrug. Velvet got it instantly. Although Amethyst wasn’t the sort to blab over everything, she wasn’t going to tell a direct lie to her mother either. It just wasn’t going to happen.

The fireplace was not lit, yet Velvet wished she could turn down the heat. She was starting to stick to the sofa.

As the kitchen door clicked shut, Velvet’s mind struck out desperately.

Only then did she notice the book tucked under Dinky’s forelimb.

“What’s that you were going to show me?” she said. There were muffled voices coming through the wall; she could dimly recognize Amethyst’s sullen growl from Derpy’s dopey tones, but no words.

Dinky surfaced, mouth splattered brown with a fresh chocolate moustache and beard. She practically shoved the book in her face.

Starter Particle Physics for Particularly Smart Fillies,” Velvet read aloud. “Is that homework?”

“Nope,” said Dinky proudly. “It’s fun. I’ve already memorized the whole Periodic Table.”


“Yeah. Hi, hello, little Beryl bored…”


“Oops! Sorry. That’s the mnemonic. Let me try again: Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron…”

Intriguing. “Can you spell ‘mnemonic’, by any chance?”

“M, N, E, M, O, N, I, C.”

“I see. And what’s the fifty first element in the table?”

Here, Dinky faltered. Her lips trembled as she whispered the learned sequence under her breath.

A part of Velvet warmed up to her at once. Twilight had liked being quizzed, which caused trouble as Velvet had to be taught the questions, the answers, and how to tell them apart, all of which usually took longer than the actual Twilight test. Someone like Dinky who didn’t immediately have everything figured out was more her speed.

The kitchen had gone quiet since.

Then Dinky finally said, “Tin?”

“Er, is it?”

“Why are you asking me? You have to tell me if I’m right!”

“I don’t remember either!”

Over the easy laughter, Golden Harvest sipped and then said, “You’re doing better than me, Velvet. Though that’s not hard.”

Dinky pouted pompously. “Lady Carrot Top has… other kinds of geniusness.”

Either the carrot tea was too hot, or Golden Harvest’s face often turned red for no reason.

“You don’t mean to say you pester poor Carr– I mean, Golden Harvest whilst she’s working?” said Velvet.

“Well, of course,” said Golden Harvest dignantly, “Dinky and her family are always welcome to visit me on Golden Harvest Hills, work or no work.”

“I visited her when she was in the shower once,” said Dinky.

Indignantly, Golden Harvest added, “And they’re very discreet about what they discuss to other ponies.”

“I didn’t know you could sing in harmony with a tin bath.”

Dinky,” wheezed Golden Harvest out of the corner of her mouth.

“Sorry,” said Velvet as soon as she stopped fighting her own chortle. “So, uh, how long have you known each other?”

“Very long,” said Golden Harvest, “and very well. I was the first pony Derpy met when she came down from Cloudsdale. Ammy – that’s Amethyst –”

Velvet chuckled a little more humbly.

“– got her first job with me on the farm. And this little terror –”

“She’s talking about me,” said Dinky proudly.

“– wouldn’t leave my farm alone if you bribed her.”

“Oho,” said Velvet, nudging Dinky in the flank. “I hope you’re not taking things that don’t belong to you, little lass.”

This invocation of nostalgic fun times was met with shocked puzzlement.

“You don’t mean stealing carrots?” said Dinky, horrified.

Ah. Standards here were obviously a bit different than Vanhoover’s.

Eventually, Velvet unfroze. “Er, no, no. I meant… other things.”

“I’d never steal anything from Carrot Top!”

“Er… you’ve never made a game of it, or something?”

“You’re from…?” Golden Harvest said suspiciously.

“Cant– Vanhoover.”

Then Golden Harvest sipped her tea and the strengthening brew flowed through and relaxed her muscles tenderly. “Ah, now it makes sense. I had an aunt in Vanhoover.”

“Ooh, I’m going upstairs!” Dinky leaped off the sofa and hurried out, yelling behind her, “I wanna show you something else!”

Velvet’s memory checked the dusty old address book. “That wouldn’t be Old Miss Imperator, would it?”

“Big, bossy, booms a lot?” said Golden Harvest, giggling.

Of course, the famous earth pony frankness. Velvet ignored her own momentary wince.

“She could put on a good spurt of speed, I remember that vividly.” Yes, and what would happen if she caught any filly unicorn messing with her prized carrots.

“Well, things are a little different here, Velvet. There were only two major farms here when Ponyville was founded, and they didn’t get along. They didn’t get along in a very pointed sort of way, you see. In fact, they tended to be very firm about things not getting stolen, if you see what I mean?”

“Two farms? So yours and the apple farm?”

Harsher laughs have only been heard out of excited hyenas. Velvet nearly jumped out of her seat.

When Golden Harvest finished, she added bitterly, “Us? Oh, goodness no. We were beneath notice. We weren’t dumb enough to call ourselves a farm. We were novelty landscape gardeners.” She winked three times, once for each word. “Novelty. Landscape. Gardeners.

Velvet waited for sense to be delivered, hopefully first class.

Grunting, Golden Harvest put her tea on the arm of the sofa to better wave and gesture emphatically. “Look, the Apple family founded the town, and then the Pear family moved in when it was expanding. Apple farmers tend to be a bit… possessive.”

“Jealous?” offered Velvet, hoping to keep up. She hadn’t met many apple farmers. In Vanhoover, they had mostly lost the ongoing war against pears.

“Warlike, more like. When my great-grandmother, Spring Harvest, decided to set up a carrot farm, she might as well have painted a target on her back. So she pretended it was novelty landscape gardening.”

“OK, OK, I think I get it. You don’t have to wink so much. It can’t be good for your eye.”

“And this was a pretty abandoned countryside area before Ponyville came along, so settlers tended to be a bit… forthright.”

“And now?”

Golden Harvest shrugged. “The Apples won the war and the Pears moved back to Vanhoover to claim a better stake there. Who cared about a tiny carrot farm after all that?”

“What about the rest of your family? Don’t tell me it’s just you and your little sister.”

A long, years-long sigh. “It’s just me and my little sister.”

Velvet felt the world-weariness seeping into her already. She was close enough to feel the full effect spilling out of the carrot farmer’s slumping body.

“Wh-What about kin?” she said.

“There isn’t any.” Golden Harvest listed off on her hoof. “My grandparents are in the Piney Shade Retirement Home. Dad passed away a while back. Mom left the farm as soon as I was old enough to take over, and then she was out of Ponyville.”

Velvet winced.

“My brother found his calling in the baked goods business. Who else is left?”

There and then, Velvet could see it all: every family member in a framed photograph, slowly winked out one by one, until only two souls, lonely together, stood in front of a barn much bigger than their huddled selves. In Vanhoover, there had only been a couple of farms that faced that fate. They hadn’t lasted long.

“You couldn’t have asked around Ponyville?”

Golden Harvest’s eyes narrowed. “Certainly not! This is my decision. I won’t let anyone down, nor am I going to be a burden to someone else.”

Gingerly, Velvet touched her on the shoulder and held her steady.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

The tension drained away. Golden Harvest’s narrowed eyes relaxed again.

“Anyway, it’s not as bad as it sounds.” Golden Harvest brushed her off gently and picked up her tea, drinking a large gulp. “Derpy and the others help.”

“I didn’t think they were farmers.”

“I didn’t say they did any farming. I just said they help.”

Quietly, Velvet sipped her own cappuccino. It had gone lukewarm, but she hardly cared. Drinks were something to have whilst her thoughts and feelings found better baths to soak in.

Velvet found her love for the Derpy family growing that little bit.

“You never wanted to leave?” she said.

Then she saw the furrows on that face and realized she’d just asked an exceptionally cruel question of a proud farmer.

“Speaking speculatively,” she added.

The furrows tidied themselves up at once. “When I was younger, I did want to go into theatre. Singing, dancing, that kind of stuff.” Before Velvet could open her mouth, Golden Harvest rounded on her and beat her to it: “I don’t regret anything, though. I’d work a hundred farms so long as I stayed with my family.”

Your family didn’t stay with you, though. Velvet very nearly said it. There weren’t many things Velvet was uniquely proud of, but as far as she cared, not saying that at a time like this was worthy of a gold medal.

“You mean D–?” she began instead.

Just then, Dinky burst into the room. Pranced about in a cape so long it was a streaming banner. Landed on boots apparently made in neon. And beamed behind a mask that looked like a mosaic half-made out of tiles.

“Ta da da DAH!” she boomed. “Make way for ELEMENT MARE!”

“Oh,” groaned Golden Harvest into her hoof.

Velvet peered closer at the mask. “Is that… Erm…?”

“The Periodic Table of the Elements! I made it myself, see? See the little atomic numbers? I looked them up. Twice.”

Nothing could stop Velvet laughing now. “It’s very… you, Dinky.”

“Dinky? Who is Dinky? I don’t know any Dinky. I am ELEMENT MARE! I can turn the elements into other elements using my psychic radioactive decay powers!” Dinky hopped forwards to whisper, as an aside, “It’s OK, it’s the good kind of radioactive decay. Your mane won’t fall off.”

Then she went hopping about the room, smiting invisible evildoers with a hearty “KABLOW!”, a lungful of “KABLAST!”, and a mouth-straining “KABLAM!”

“Certainly a very subtle superpower,” said Golden Harvest between Velvet’s giggling fits.

Velvet couldn’t help herself. “And this is your sidekick, the Beta Carrotina?”

“Velvet! Don’t encourage her, please.”

Element Mare landed on Golden Harvest’s lap as though boarding the Elemobile. “Nah! She’s the butler who hides my secret identity for me. I’ll call her Leeves.”

“There are so many things wrong with that statement. Dinky, don’t shuffle so much. I’ll drop my tea.”

Something shattered in the kitchen.

The laughter hushed up pretty quick: Velvet barely remembered the two missing ponies before she shot to her hooves, but Golden Harvest moved faster and was through the doors already. Skidding to a halt behind her, Velvet peered over her shoulder at the scene.

There were cookies, fragments of cookie, and pieces of plate all over the floor. Derpy had her legs stuck out as if to catch something mid-fall. Amethyst already had a dustpan and brush held up.

Derpy gulped.

“The plate was dropped,” said Amethyst at once.

Velvet knew enough to spot a weasel passive when she heard one.

“Oh,” she said. “Is that all? I thought something bad had happened.”

Derpy’s limbs began to shake. She was still horrified and apparently intent on waiting to catch whatever invisible thing hadn’t landed yet. Only when Golden Harvest coughed did she straighten up.

“No, nothing! Nothing!” she gasped.

“Are you s–?” Velvet stopped; Golden Harvest had placed a firm hoof on her chest.

“That’s quite all right, then,” said Golden Harvest even more firmly. “Nothing to worry about.”

Both of Derpy’s eyes pointed apart in shattered alarm. Derpy’s horrified face make a slight shifting noise as though about to break.

She watched them as they both backed out of the kitchen and Golden Harvest carefully put the door between them and her.

Then Velvet and she sat back down again, heavily.

In an undertone, Dinky asked, “Do you think Ammy told her?”

“I think the penny dropped, yes,” whispered Velvet back.

Confession of Dreams

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While the three of them waited, the two muffled voices rose from the kitchen again.

“What exactly did you do upstairs?” said Golden Harvest warily.

“Er… I… stumbled across… something…” mumbled Velvet. “In…”

“Mom’s reading room,” admitted Dinky between the two of them.

Golden Harvest gave a very tiny: “Oh.”

Velvet winced. She didn’t like that “oh”. Nothing good ever followed an “oh” dropped on top of a conversation so hard it crushed it dead.

Thank you, Golden Harvest, she thought. As if I wasn’t worried enough.

The door creaked open.

Dinky a.k.a. “Element Mare” hopped up and onto her hooves, alert.

Then Amethyst traipsed into the room, determinedly not looking in their direction, and took up station behind her mother’s chair like a bodyguard, still staring determinedly at anything but the three of them. Soon followed Derpy, wings splayed as though she was being held up by a hostage-taker.

At once, “Element Mare” dived back into her seat and pretended not to be out of breath from all the smiting earlier. Golden Harvest flicked her cape off her lap.

When Derpy sat down, she put on a smile. It was the worst smile Velvet had ever seen.

Where before, Derpy’s mouth had leaped into a full embrace of her face without care or conscience, now her mouth had to struggle as though in a half-nelson against the burden weighing it down.

Velvet’s gaze begged at Amethyst’s, but her face was very much not open for business and said so in a very loud stare.

“Sorry I interrupted,” said Derpy, in a strained cheer held at gunpoint. “Ooh that’s a nice outfit Dinky. You did a very nice outfit – I mean, made a very nice job on that outfit Dinky. I like it very much.”

“Everything all right, Derpy?” said Golden Harvest, nerves jangling on each word.

The moment Velvet and Derpy locked eye-to-eye, Derpy’s wings lowered but never folded up.

For a few breathless seconds, the only sound was the slurp of Derpy enjoying whatever was scolding her mouth in that chipped cup.

Nearby, Amethyst’s face achieved a temperature more usually associated with meat lockers. Or dead penguins.

Finally, Derpy stared away, ear twitching. Whatever she was listening to in her mind, it wasn’t cooling her off anymore. Her cup rattled slightly on its saucer.

“Thank you for the coffee Ammy.” She strained each word through her teeth. “You always brew the best coffee and no mistake. I am very proud of you.”

Mom,” hissed Amethyst, just quiet enough for Velvet to hear it. “It’s just coffee.

“SO!” Derpy gasped and covered her mouth. More timidly, she said, “So what were you talking about?”

Dinky kept her head firmly down. The Element Mare’s mask fell off.

Noble in the attempt, Golden Harvest coughed before the troops. “We were talking about… my… uh…”

“Oho that sounds very interesting do go on,” said Derpy.

Velvet caught Amethyst’s glare. If looks could kill, they said. If looks could silently assassinate, hide the body, burn it, and bury the ashes, more like.

Then she realized what was going on.

Derpy was acting.

And while Derpy undoubtedly had many fine qualities, a secret talent for thespianism was never going to be within a country mile of being one of them. The smile struggled. The eyes had permanent stage fright. The whole body corpsed.

Velvet knew she had to do something about it. She’d been the one who’d stepped into Derpy’s room and seen all the mothering manuals. Now she understood exactly what the acting was in aid of.

She opened her mouth to mention it…

But no. One look at Derpy’s frightened eyes told her not to try. A brutal truth might work on Night Light, say, or on someone like Amethyst. They preferred things to be put straight. But Derpy would notice the “brutal” first. No one with a mind as cotton soft as hers would want to get involved with that kind of harsh word.

In any case, Velvet didn’t like a direct assault on the front either. That could lead to shouting. She hated shouting.

So something else would have to do. A diversion. A way to approach the problem from the side, softly, softly.

“We were just talking about Carr– Sorry, Golden Harvest’s family,” said Velvet.

All eyes – except Dinky’s, which remained fused to the floor – focused on her. Scrutinizing her, hopefully or fearfully or with cruel death in mind.

One bit of Golden Harvest’s speech stood out to her. Velvet turned to face her more comfortably.

“Did you say your mother left the farm to go travelling?” she said innocently.

All eyes turned to Golden Harvest’s. Even Dinky’s looked up.

“Well,” said Golden Harvest, stumbling over her words. “Yes. She didn’t want to run the farm, you see. She wanted to see the world, you see. There were more exciting jobs, you see. My great-grandmother did the same, y-you-you see.”

“But she just left you? What about what you wanted to do?”

Derpy’s poor acting piped up, “I’m sure she had her good reasons didn’t she now?”

Golden Harvest shrugged helplessly. “Someone had to look after the farm.”

“But did you want to?” Velvet pressed the point.

The more she pressed, the more Golden Harvest shifted trying to sit comfortably. “Well… it had to be done.”

“What if it didn’t?”

“Well, it did. I didn’t mind. All that much. Didn’t make a lot of money, but so what? It was the family farm. It had to be done. And I’m not bad with carrots.”

“Never wanted to leave it to do something else?”

Miss Velvet,” snapped Amethyst sharply. “I think that’s enough interrogating out of you.

Golden Harvest dipped into her tea, slurping hastily. Time to back off, but Velvet felt it had to be said. She hadn’t enjoyed watching Golden Harvest struggle, either.

The story she’d uncovered, however, struck a chord with her. Details leaped out accusingly from her past. Velvet bought herself strength through the cappuccino heating her mouth.

She swallowed. “No, I understand. I had my own dream once. I wanted to travel the world myself.”

Derpy stopped gurgling her coffee. “That sounds fascinating please do carry on.”

The mists of memory, like the steam of the cup, swirled but gave no clues until she peered closer and sniffed, diffusing them through her life’s breath. Old heat of embarrassment. Snatches of shouted arguments. The leaden, sinking feeling of her whole future disappearing into the choking depths, never to be seen alive again…

“My mother used to be an explorer,” she said. “She used to tell me stories of all the places she travelled to, all the funny creatures she met and tribes she learned from. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.”

Dinky tugged at her leg. “I want to travel when I grow up too!”

“You do?”

“Yeah. To all the countries I’ve read about. I want to see if they’re like the books say.”

One ally already. Velvet let Dinky pick up and drape her motherly forelimb over her little shoulders like a blanket.

“That’s what I told Mom too,” said Velvet to her. Dinky drank the words through her eyes.

“How wonderful,” said Derpy weakly.

“It was,” continued Velvet. “All through college and all the way to university, I held on to that dream. Mom laughed and said I’d better not start a family, then. And I asked her why, and she said, ‘Because as soon as you’ve got a little one on the way, you can’t look danger in the face the same way again.’”

“Oh I’m sure you can there’s no reason to give up on a dream.”

Velvet ignored this. There’d probably been an instruction in one of those mothering manuals upstairs, and it doubtless read something like: “A mother must always say something encouraging.” The sheer effort to remember that one made Derpy’s breathing slightly louder. She was starting to shine with sweat.

“I didn’t even stop when I married Nigh– I mean, my husband.” Velvet hummed idly. “He wasn’t the adventuring sort, so I kept it to myself at first. I didn’t want to upset him.”

Golden Harvest stirred on her seat. For her sake, Velvet stared off into the unlit fireplace until she relaxed again. Close to Velvet’s side and under Velvet’s leg, Dinky snuggled up tighter, completely trusting.

“Besides,” Velvet said, “he had his own duties up at the pala– I mean, at work. He loved it so much. I couldn’t just take that from him because of my own selfish wants.”

“That is very commen-endab-able –” Derpy began.

“And how is that selfish?” blurted out Golden Harvest. “I don’t see there’s anything wrong with a pony wanting to do something for themselves, for a change.”

“So long as they discussed it with the relevant parties,” muttered Amethyst.

Two more allies? Velvet risked a glance, but between Golden Harvest’s bristling outrage and Amethyst’s subarctic stare, there was clearly still some loyalty yet to earn. Meanwhile, Derpy had stopped trembling, but in its place, she began to lock up and close in on herself. Even her splayed warning wings curled over, about to clamp down on herself.

Perhaps it was time to pick up the pace?

“Yes, yes, that’s what I did. Of course I did,” Velvet said soothingly, and steeled herself with another sip whilst Amethyst grunted cynically. “I finally plucked up the courage to tell him about it. I thought he was going to say it couldn’t be done, or that I was letting him down in some way. But in fact, he liked it. He loved the idea. He couldn’t jump on it fast enough.”

“Haha,” murmured Golden Harvest into her mug. “I’ll bet your mother liked that.”

Velvet smiled at the memory of the letter. “She almost jumped on it with him. I had to remind her about her hip and what the doctor’s orders were, and even then, I had to call in the doctor himself to rein her back!”

Dinky rested her head against Velvet’s chest, and thus Velvet felt the little laughter shake through her.

“Everything had been organized,” continued Velvet. Mostly by Night Light, she added privately. “We were about to set off for our first stop in the dragon lands, but –”

“The dragon lands?” Amethyst’s laugh was much less charitable. “Are you mad?”

“I was just thinking we should jump in at the deep end.”

“Of what, a lava pool?”

“I have to agree with Ammy,” said Golden Harvest nervously. “That does seem a bit extreme.”

“My husband and I were willing to go,” said Velvet.

Both of them backed off slightly, though Amethyst looked ready to charge in again at a moment’s notice. By her side, Derpy stopped curling in on herself.

“We had lots of countries and cities planned out. This was going to be the grand tour. Trottingham, Griffonstone, Frankoponi, Qilinland, Didgeridoo: the works.”

“Wow,” breathed Dinky.

“And we would’ve too, except…”

Velvet paused. She swirled the last few drips of cappuccino and what little foam remained. Some of the native storyteller in her warmed up waiting.

“Except what?” said Golden Harvest.

Velvet sighed and stared back at the fireplace. “Except I found out I was going to be a mother.”

“Oh. Uh… congratulations?”

Despite Amethyst’s tutting at Golden Harvest’s simple-minded comment, Velvet gave a wan smile.

“I had to make a choice, then,” she said. “I couldn’t go globetrotting when there might be a little one dragged into it. We both panicked at the news. Our child was going to be our first. I cancelled the trip.”

“I should think so, too,” muttered Amethyst.

“Ammy don’t be rude to our guest although your opinion is welcome and it’d be a funny world if we were all the same.” Derpy had to breathe hard to recover from that one.

“No, it’s OK,” said Velvet. “She’s right.”

Amethyst’s eyebrow was intrigued strangely.

“My husband said, after our child was born, that we could try the trip again later. That’s what I thought I could do at first. It was like… I was going to love my son, yes, but suddenly he was in my way. I know you’re not supposed to think that, but –”

“No, no, it’s understandable,” said Golden Harvest politely. “Very understandable.”

“And I did love him. I really did. The day my son was born was a day I could never forget. Over time, I… changed. I wanted to spend more time with him, help him do what he wanted, find out everything about him, push his skills to the limit, and give him the best life he could hope for. Travelling could always be done later, I kept telling myself. It was only a matter of organization.”

Golden Harvest’s sigh was wistful, drawn to the full extent, as though measuring out life by its dying breath. When Velvet breathed in for the next haul, she fancied the farmer’s essence rushed in and mingled with hers. For a moment, kindred spirits.

“Did you ever travel, then?” mumbled Dinky under her chin.

Velvet screwed up half her mouth in a mock smile. “Just before my son was ready to leave the nest, I was blessed with a daughter. After so much practice, I’ve been a pure mother ever since. Even when they both left home, I still feel like a mother waiting for them to come back. Clearly they won’t, but… it’s hard to put into words…”

“What about your dream?” said Golden Harvest urgently. “Nothing’s stopping you from travelling now, is it?”

A frown flickered over Velvet’s face. The question didn’t fit. Yet this time, it didn’t bounce off either. Something stuck, wedged in painfully.

“I think,” she said, phrasing it as carefully as she could, “I’m past the point when I can chase dreams like that.”

“Maybe you could talk to your mother about it? I’d do that, if I were you. Maybe there’s still time.”

Something caught in Velvet’s throat. Dare she tell, or should she let it lie?

Grimly, she shook her head. “I don’t think so. My mother won’t be travelling anymore.”

Derpy put her hooves to her mouth, all thought of curling up forgotten.

Next to her, Amethyst said in an unusually tender tone, “I’m so sorry, Miss Velvet.”

Velvet blinked at her in surprise.

“Oh,” said Velvet, mustering a little cheer in spite of herself, “don’t be silly. You couldn’t have known. These things just happen. She was happy, at least, and she got to see both my children before she went. No regrets.”

Amethyst shuffled her hooves uneasily. Around Velvet’s waist, Dinky squeezed tight.

Golden Harvest brushed something off the little filly’s face, then wiped it off on her own chest. “That was your dream, wasn’t it? Travelling with her?”

This time, Velvet didn’t worry about shedding any tears. She’d shed all the ones for her mother a long time ago.

“It would’ve been nice,” she admitted, “but my duties to my family –”

“– were elsewhere,” Golden Harvest finished. “I can imagine. It had to be done.”

Another ally had accepted her. Velvet and Golden Harvest looked down; between them, Dinky sniffed and clung on tighter.

“What did you plan to do with your farm?” said Velvet. “In the future?”

Golden Harvest shrugged. “Find someone to take over for me, I suppose.”

“Your sister?”

“No, I couldn’t ask her to do that. Not if she didn’t want to.”

“Any… children of your own?”

Golden Harvest laughed. “After having Dinky run around my farm like a lunatic? I’d need some persuading, Velvet. I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

That just left the two silent ponies. Amethyst had been standing up the whole time, and looked like she hadn’t enjoyed it.

“Don’t you want to sit down?” Velvet made as if to haul herself out of her chair.

Despite the shuffling hooves, Amethyst gave her a cat’s idle stare. “Don’t need to. I’m perfectly comfortable standing, thank you. Want a second cappuccino?”


Well… if not an ally, then at least not an enemy. Good enough.

Empty mugs on the tray, Amethyst slunk out of the room. And that left Derpy, sitting silently on her chair as though mortified by the mere thought of moving.

Or of revealing she was a Bad Mother.

“Ha,” said Velvet. “I’d never be able to tell Amethyst was one of yours, Derpy! I don’t think I’ve seen two such different ponies.”

Derpy wiped her brow. “Haha that is very funny Miss Velvet you tell such good jokes.”

Miss Velvet. Miss Velvet. A bad sign.

“Derpy,” she said kindly. “You don’t have to act.”

“I do not know what you are talking about I am always kind and supportive and caring and natural.” Derpy’s one stray pupil started wandering across her eye as though stressed into shifting.

Just then, Amethyst popped her head back into the room. “Anyone else want a refill?”

And then it went wrong.

Derpy somehow tripped herself out of her seat – not even noticing she’d knocked her mug onto the floor – and yelped. “I’ll get the drinks Ammy! I can do it!”

Amethyst erected a suspicious look against her. “Mom, I’m perfectly capable of pouring tea.”

“So am I! Although you are too!” Derpy’s face writhed between the agony of self-sufficiency and the insult she feared Ammy was hearing. “I can do it! I’ll prove it!”

Amethyst’s body reached a conclusion before Velvet’s brain did: she blocked the exit as Derpy approached. “Noooo,” she said slowly. “How about I take it as read you know which way to hold a kettle, and you sit down and relax?”

Another spring went twang in Derpy’s mind where the blockage in the machinery began to crack things around it.

“You’re always very good at looking after the house!” she said desperately. “Why don’t I get the drinks and make myself a worthy contrution?”

“Contribution,” corrected Amethyst. Her sniperscope eyes picked out Velvet. “It’s. Just. Tea.”

“No really I insist although you know best Ammy!” Derpy started to flap and hover over her; Amethyst responded by rearing up protectively.

Mom! I’m not putting up with this! Sit down!

“I’m not arguing!” Neither was Derpy sitting down. “I’m not arguing. I’m not, I never, I wouldn’t.”

The rest of Amethyst cocked and fired at Velvet’s astonishment. “This is your doing, Miss Velvet! Now you’ve gone and upset her!”

Before Velvet said anything, Dinky leaped off the sofa, cape fluttering. “Hey, don’t you shout at her! It’s not her fault!”

“No arguments,” mumbled Derpy in the midst of her own private mental collapse. “No arguing.”

“She pried where she wasn’t supposed to pry!” Amethyst threw down her j’accuse card.

“She didn’t know!” countered Dinky. “It’s not like nasty prying!”

“What Mom thinks in private is none of her business!”

“Mom asked her to come here! She obviously trusted her!”

“Oh gosh…” Velvet covered her face.

No bad words…” Derpy flapped harder, blowing Amethyst’s mane about. “No bad words!

In that flash, Velvet spotted the worry grimacing over Ammy’s face… then anger seized the reins.

“You’re defending her!?” snapped Amethyst.

“Well, you’re not!” snapped Dinky back.

They ended up face to face.

“Stop arguing!” snapped Amethyst, more viciously. “You’re making things worse!”

“Then you back off and leave Velvet alone!

“Don’t tell me what to do! Neither one of you has the slightest clue what Mom –”

“Hey, you’re not the boss, Ammy!

“And you don’t get to tell me what I am and what I’m not!”

“You big bully!”

“Immature little loudmouth!”

No thinking wrong thoughts!” yelped Derpy, and she clutched her head tight.

Golden Harvest jumped to her hooves. “Ammy! Dinky! Please stop arguing right now! This isn’t helping anything. Now.”

Both sisters glared up at her, then followed her much sharper glare to Derpy, who was utterly in a flap overhead. As one, they wound down and backed off, dusting themselves off and coughing awkwardly.

Velvet’s heart stuck in her throat. Such loud voices, and so close too. Such anger. So many sparks crackling in the air. She’d never, in all her years, heard her Shining and Twilight dare talk to each other like that…

It must’ve been her fault. She opened her mouth but had barely apologized when Golden Harvest shook her head meaningfully.

Yet Velvet almost didn’t believe what happened next.

Both sisters took a moment to frown down whatever had riled them up a second ago. As one, they breathed the leftover furies out.

“Sorry, Ammy,” said Dinky quietly.

“Point taken.” After a harsh throat-clearing from Golden Harvest, Amethyst tossed out a more sincere: “Sorry, Dinky.”

“And?” prompted Golden Harvest.

Dinky and Ammy turned to the flapping panic trying not to break out overhead. “Sorry, Mom.”

Smiling like a broken window, Golden Harvest put a hoof on each shoulder. “There!” she said brightly. “I’m glad we can calm down for five minutes. Girls, why don’t you fetch the gifts and I’ll have a word with your mother. In the kitchen. Understand?”

“I know where they’re kept,” volunteered Amethyst. “Come on, Dinky.”

“OK, Ammy.”

Once the hoofsteps trudged upstairs and the ceiling rumbled with two ponies walking, Golden Harvest turned back to Derpy. “A word in the kitchen, Derpy?”

Utterly defeated by the force of gravity, Derpy landed with a thud on her backside. She barely seemed to notice. Velvet watched her heave and lurch her way through the door, and came to a decision. After all, she was the one to blame…

As she followed, however, Golden Harvest blocked her with an extended forelimb.

“I think it best if you stay here –” she began stiffly, but Velvet’s mind was made up.

“Let me talk too. I need to get something off my chest.”

“I’ve known Derpy a long time. I know how to make her feel better.”

“And then in a month’s time, she’ll need to feel better again?” Velvet noticed the surprise flash over Golden Harvest’s twitching face. “Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve talked to dozens of mothers back home.”

Golden Harvest glowered at her, but on a low heat, not yet ready to roast. “Why did you go in her room, Velvet?”

“Stupidity,” said Velvet, blunt as a farmer. “And a title caught my eye. I have something like it at home.”

The heat was turned down, but not off. “All the same, I think it best if I was there.”

“Fine! Absolutely! I agree completely!”

Giving her a fervent I-hope-I’m-not-making-a-big-mistake-here glance, Golden Harvest beckoned her to the kitchen door.

Muffled voices overhead sounded a lot more civil than usual.

Velvet cocked an ear up. “Are those two –?”


“Ammy – Sorry, Amethyst and Dinky. Are they… always like that?”

“What do you mean?”

Worry, shame, and a fear of hearing an earful again left Velvet grasping at word scraps. “They…? The argument… I hope I didn’t…?”

“Oh come on. You’ve seen foals argue, haven’t you?”

As if confessing a dirty secret, Velvet mumbled, “Not mine.”

“Ha,” said Golden Harvest.

“I’m serious!”

“You should count yourself extremely lucky, then. Don’t worry about it. It’s normal for those two. Different temperaments, you see? Try locking a mule and a rabbit in the same pen together for months on end, and you’ll see the carrots fly all right.”

“I wasn’t worried,” lied Velvet like a defensive teenager. That world-weariness field was sapping her of adult dignity.

“Don’t ‘worry’ about them,” said Golden Harvest, punctuated by a definite hollow laugh. “Their bond is tougher than you think. It’d take more than a cute spat like that to break them apart. Come on.”

To the kitchen, Golden Harvest led the way. Feeling like a stock animal dragged to slaughter, but determined to face the axe for Derpy’s sake, Velvet glumly followed the tail of the farmer.

Velvet and the Spirit of Love

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Derpy was trying to wash up.

It must have been some kind of full-body defence mechanism. Velvet had heard that pegasi were very physical creatures. Especially when agitated, they liked exercising their hooves and wings. Otherwise, they twitched, bird-like, fluttering, and jittery. Given Derpy’s case, the bird was probably a concussed flamingo, but something urged the wings and the blood and the pumping heart to do something.

Regardless, this was a classic Derpy job, all right: the dishes piled up dangerously on one side of the sink, the bubbles ran to the floor, and the draining board had been knocked askew on the other side of what was visible of the sink, so that anything actually put there to dry would dribble over the virgin sideboard.

Golden Harvest took to her post before the oven: chaperone, royal guard, and possible impromptu executioner. Velvet eyed her nervously.

After a few seconds of vague mumbling from the sink, Golden Harvest cleared her throat. Meaningful darting pupils indicated that Velvet jolly well better get on with it.

“I think,” said Golden Harvest pointedly, “our friend Velvet wants to say something to you, Derpy.”

She even spoke like the Vanhoover farmers of yore. Velvet half-expected to stumble in her oversized galoshes again. It was terrible, being a little child in big boots.

It had been terrible, she corrected herself.

As Velvet drew closer to the running water, she heard Derpy frantically mumbling.

“I’m not gonna end up like Mom,” Derpy muttered over and over in some frightened mantra. “I’m not gonna end up like Mom.”

Patience itself, Velvet waited until she mantra’d it out of her system. Once a suitable silence flooded over them, she eased forwards and placed Derpy’s mug – which she’d picked up from the floor in passing – by the washing-up water. Or at least by where she guessed the water was under the avalanche of bubbles.

Derpy made a noise between a sob and a choke.

I’m gonna end up like Mom,” she whined.

“Of course not,” said Golden Harvest as if it was perfectly obvious.

“There, there,” said Velvet. “I don’t see why you should. I didn’t end up like my mom. Golden Harvest didn’t end up like hers, either.” She turned. “Right?”

“Right,” said Golden Harvest.

“I mean, Ammy didn’t; she’s her own mare. Even Dinky didn’t; she’s her own kind of crazy, ha! And my children certainly didn’t.”

She let the sniffling Derpy wipe her eyes. One of which was beseeching the ceiling.

Golden Harvest coughed. Translated, it meant: Don’t hesitate. Just get it over with.

“I’m sorry I snuck into your room, Derpy,” Velvet said gently. “It’s the imp in me, I guess. I used to give the Vanhoover farmers a merry run-around in my time.”

“It’s all right,” said Derpy wretchedly. She hiccupped.

Velvet cursed her own selfish nosiness. Who exactly did she think she was, back there? Some Canterlot landlady who went wherever she pleased? It was like Amethyst said: she’d acted as if she owned the place.

Her Vanhoover days didn’t help. The earth ponies wandered into each other’s homes as easily as if they were all part of a greater commune. Velvet’s territory had stretched over hills and horizons. But that was no excuse.

“You’re not angry?” said Velvet.

“I don’t get angry,” mumbled Derpy. “I don’t ever get angry.”

That was easy to believe. Anger was as natural to Derpy’s countenance as a crossbow on a dove.

“A mother mustn’t get angry, huh?” said Velvet, trying to sound kind and not remotely smug.

Derpy placed her mug on the sideboard and stared at it as if willing it to refill on its own. Golden Harvest’s next cough had a warning blade in it.

“Sorry,” said Velvet. “That was tactless of me.”

All right, then. Her memory rolled up its sleeves. She remembered the really tough days, the ones when a friend had collapsed into tears because their little one was tearing the house apart, or the ones when Night Light had cried out and torn his mane out wondering why Shining Armor no longer talked to him. The days, in short, when the last pony who could cave in to pressure was Velvet herself, the mother, the constant north star in a dark and scattershot plain.

“Believe me,” she whispered, daring to draw close enough to hug – on the edge of sight, Golden Harvest stirred as if to intervene, but apparently thought better of it – “I know children can be the hardest things to take care of. Second only to taking care of oneself, of course, ha.”

Derpy refused to stop staring at the mug on the sideboard.

“You ever heard the saying, ‘The hoof that rocks the cradle rules the world?’”

Derpy merely twiddled with the mug.

“Well, the hoof that rocks the cradle does rule the world. Their world. You’re everything to them. But I know and you know what that’s like. It’s like you have to be careful how you rock that cradle, and when you choose to rock it, and why. You have to take the job seriously, every second of every day of every year. Because one shake and their whole world could fall out and break.”

Derpy steeled herself but continued saying nothing.

“And you can’t have a day off, and you don’t always know what’s the right way to rock that cradle, and you can’t ask someone else to do it, because the pony you choose is still your responsibility. You can’t put a hoof wrong. That’s how it starts to feel, after a while.”

The mug rattled and came to a stop when Derpy let go.

“So you think: I put hooves wrong all the time, I must be a bad mother. You think: they argue, and arguing is bad, so I really must be a bad mother now. So they mustn’t argue, and I mustn’t put a hoof wrong, and that becomes everything too, and suddenly you don’t hear what your own children are telling you because the voices you’re always hearing are in your head.”

Derpy still refused to speak.

Velvet had to steel herself for what was coming. She confessed, “Not a day went by when I didn’t think I was doing things wrong.”

“Wait.” Derpy’s ear bolted upright; she spun round, her eyes agog. “Even you?

Velvet bit her lip. She nodded sadly but wisely.

“Every day, it was always ‘Should I be firmer?’ or ‘Should I be kinder?’ or ‘What if I’m saying the wrong thing?’ or ‘What if she starts talking back, what can I do?’ There were too many things I could do wrong, and not many things I could do right. I never figured anything out, after two children. I’m still not sure I did it right.”

“But that’s impossible! You did a wonderful job on both of them!”

Velvet barely smiled.

“Anyway, you’re the most motheringest mother I ever saw! You’re even a great mother to Dinky, and she only met you today!”

Despite herself, Velvet had to ask, “And Amethyst?”

“Oh,” interjected Golden Harvest cheerfully, “no one’s going to judge you if you can’t win over Amethyst in a day. She isn’t easy to win over.”

“But there’ll be a mother more motheringest than me who could, right?”

“No,” said Derpy, frankly.

“You?” suggested Velvet.

Derpy wagged a hoof. “Oh no, I’m not falling for that trick.”

“Yeah? Did you see Amethyst’s face when she caught me sneaking out of your room? I thought I was a goner!”

“Ammy can be a bit… intense, yes.”

Golden Harvest struggled not to laugh. “A bit, she says.”

“And you should’ve heard what Dinky was saying about you,” continued Velvet. “I think the Element of Loyalty has some competition.”

An interesting struggle broke out across Derpy’s face before she roughed it up properly. “I’m still not falling for any tricks, Velvet.”

Velvet. Not Miss Velvet. That was a little closer to comfort.

“Look, just don’t act so much. You’re actually a lot better when you’re just yourself.”

“Aw, but then I can’t do it. I start to think about acting like myself! It’s so confusing.”

Something prodded Velvet’s recollections. “Oh, like the Centipede.”

“The wha –?”

“It’s something Twi– my daughter taught me once. The Centipede can run around on hundreds of legs with no problem, and then the Athlete asks him, ‘Hey, how can you run with all those legs to keep track of?’ and the Centipede gets so self-conscious that he suddenly finds he can’t run properly.”

Derpy gave the stare of a mare who couldn’t keep up no matter what speed her mind reached.

“It’s an old story,” explained Velvet. “You never heard it?”

Beside them, Golden Harvest showed a face that had suddenly shut down. “Centipedes,” was all she could say.

“Uh… huh?”


“It just reminded me of that story, OK?”


Then Derpy bounced back from whatever planet she’d shot off to. “I know something about centipedes.”

Velvet beamed at her. “Yeah?”

“They’ve got a hundred legs.”

Velvet waited patiently for clarification.

“Doc taught me that,” added Derpy proudly.


“He’s an int-lectual.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Velvet, grin twisting in her grip.

“Ooh, who from?”

Poor memory. Another supposed “Bad Mother” trait. Velvet patted her kindly on the shoulder. “So, I’m guessing you’ve got something planned for later today?”

Derpy nodded eagerly. “For sure! We’re gonna go out and have a picnic in the park, then I’m gonna take Dinky to Sugar Cube Corner for her favourite Enlightened Muffin – One with Everything – then Ammy wants to have a look at Carousel Boutique to see what Rarity’s going to do with those Citrine Six Spectaculars she donated, and then Carrot Top wanted to watch a show by Written Script called The Temptations of Celestia at eight ‘o’ clock…”

Whilst Derpy talked on, Velvet took over and got on with the washing up, letting the effusive speech rinse her ears clean. Not a poor memory. Not at all. Derpy still remembered the important things.

Beside her, Golden Harvest took over the drying duties. There was a nod of approval.

The three of them passed a few happy minutes, listening to Derpy laying out her own grand tour of Ponyville by the sounds of it. Between Amethyst and Dinky, there was every single angle catered for.

And most importantly, Derpy herself was Derpy again. All that “A mother must…” manual nonsense was barely an afterthought of an echo. Derpy’s own enthusiasm simply bulldozed over it.

With her back to Derpy, Velvet shook with silent giggles.

“So Golden Harvest is coming too?” she said once she’d pulled the plug.

“Of course. Poor thing deserves a special day out.”

“Gosh, you think of everything.”

Beside Velvet, Golden Harvest hurriedly turned her face away.

“Well,” said Derpy sheepishly, “Ammy and Dinky did most of the actual organizing. But I helped!”

No one said Derpy was an organizer, thought Velvet cheerfully. All they said was that she helped.

She heard the hooves scuffing the floor outside, and decided to lead on. It was time, by the sounds of it.

As she and Derpy both stepped out of the kitchen side by side, Velvet was not remotely surprised to see Amethyst and Dinky waiting for them.

“Er…” said Derpy.

As one, Amethyst and Dinky made “after you, no after you” gestures and nods at each other. Amethyst grunted impatiently. She lifted something from behind her back.

“I, uh, got this for you, Mom,” she said in all her stiff, uncomfortable professionalism.

At first glance – or utterly confused stare – Velvet saw that it was, for all the world, a chunk of rock. Derpy, however, rose to the air in fresh excitement.

Looking for a clue, Velvet’s face asked Golden Harvest, whose shoulders signalled their utter, shrugging indifference back.

In the end, Velvet went for broke. “That’s not a chunk of rock, is it?”

Out-of-place as a secretary before an eccentric CEO, Amethyst officially cleared her throat and pressed on. “It’s a fifth-class granite matrix containing fresh material: approximately market-grade quartz samples with regular magical oscillation. You can see them here.”

She rotated the prototype for the inspection of the board. Chunks of glass – pulsing with a dim glow every now and then – embedded in a chunk of rock. Velvet wished someone had passed her a memo.

“Oauw, from work!” squealed Derpy.

Another official throat-clearing. “I asked my supervisor, of course. They weren’t willing to write it off as a perk, so I simply purchased it out of my wages.”

Brief outrage blazed before Velvet suddenly realized she was getting offended on behalf of a rock.

“Er,” she said, “that’s very… thoughtful?”

Golden Harvest tapped her on the shoulder. “Look at Ammy’s cutie mark,” she whispered.

Velvet did so. Three gemstones. Then the flank shifted slightly, and Amethyst glared as one might when one finds one’s hindquarters being examined.

“It’s so you!” Derpy clapped happily. “I shall put it on the mantelpiece!”

“If you like,” said Amethyst, summing up her report, “I can extract the quartz for a new timekeeping mechanism, so you won’t be late in the mornings?”

Velvet watched the quartz pulses, mesmeric and mysterious as a deep-sea jellyfish and almost as phantasmic. Solid gemstone, yet beating with a heart.

“Very… practical,” she said.

Behind Dinky’s cape – she clearly didn’t care to change out of her Element Mare costume yet, missing mask notwithstanding – there bounced another gift.

“Ta da,” she said weakly.

Derpy caught it mid-flight and turned to show the others. “Aw, it’s lovely. Dinky’s so talented.”

For a moment, Velvet’s gasp got the better of her. A little model pony, with poked pencil holes for eyes…

Then she sniffed. The scent tripped her by the nose. Apple?

“I was thinking about ponies and physics and stuff,” Dinky bragged, “and how all ponies are made of food, and it gave me an idea. So I went and got a food and I carved it. It’s OK. I know you gotta eat it at some point.”

“Oh, Dinky,” said Derpy with no shame or sense. “How can you ask me to eat this?”

Velvet relaxed enough to pass round her own words. “How creative. I see you got the proportions just right, too.”

“Uh huh. I read some anatomy books once. I took measurements.”

In fact, the more she inspected it, the more Velvet noticed the fineness of the cuts, the little details on the ears and eyes, nostrils and lips and the fine lines of muscle in the neck. Bits were off-centre – symmetry hadn’t matched patience here – but for someone Dinky’s age, there was enough to say art would welcome her to its school.

“I call it…” Dinky paused to give her grin a good run-up. “The Poetic Pomace Material Mare Appropriate Apple Core Carving!”

Despite herself, Velvet whistled. “That’s a lot of long words.”

“Understandable,” said Amethyst. “It was a long dictionary.”

Dinky’s teeth conquered most of her face on behalf of the Grin Empire. “And I used a knife!”

A brief, excited babble rose up around her as she ducked the arrow words.

“What?” she said casually. “I was careful! I read the instructions five times to make sure.”

“Oh, Dinky!” cooed Derpy.

“I did it for you, Mom.”

That was enough: Derpy sobbed and laughed and collapsed on top of them, supported by the strong-spined rock that was Amethyst, whilst squeezed back just as tightly by the bouncing bubble of Dinky. Between them, there was barely room for the squashed gifts.

Golden Harvest chuckled, shaking her head at the fine mess she’d gotten herself into. The chuckle rapidly rushed for cover when Derpy lassoed her in for a group hug, whereupon she ended up pressed against Amethyst’s quartz chunks. Eventually, she stopped fighting the accidental strangling and just accepted the inevitable.

Velvet sat back and her heart feasted on the moment. Suddenly, she wished she could spend all day following these ponies around, break earth pony bread together, and call them – and be called in turn – “kinsfolk”.

At Derpy’s and Dinky’s beckoning, they got a surprised Velvet in the hug too. Once they found each other’s beat, through their chests touching and trusting, she felt Derpy’s heart dance in synchrony with her own.

A Mail Mare's Duty

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The sun had dropped well on its way to the horizon when Velvet finally opened the front door of Derpy’s cottage and stepped out of someone else’s life. It was a shock to think the life was her own.

Adding a bit of seasoning to her surprise, she noticed the late hour with barely a twinge of guilt. Yet it was the sort of twinge which, in a few minutes, would grow to overwhelm her entire world.

That seemed to be motherhood in a nutshell, she thought. A lot of homegrown guilt, a lot of grapes pressed for time, and somehow, you’re supposed to make the wine of life out of it.

Well, she’d broken some rules. She’d asserted herself against time itself… thus making herself defiantly late. Best to wrap things up, she felt.

Saddlebag bobbing slightly, she turned to face the doorway, one last time.

Despite the silent and polite scrum for the tiny door, Derpy managed to be the clear leader of the herd. For someone with a face as confused as hers, there was no doubt where she belonged.

“She won’t mind you being late, will she?” said Derpy.

“I’ll… see if I can smooth things over with her,” said Velvet. This close to the cottage, she didn’t want for confidence.

Neither did she seem in a hurry to leave. Perhaps turning around had been a bad idea. It would be like stepping away from a campfire into a starless night.

Would Twilight be mad? Was it a serious crime, making a princess wait? Celestia had never lectured anyone for it, as far as she was aware, but other princesses might not look the other way so indulgently.

She glanced to the crystal castle, a heavy reminder even at this distance. If it had collapsed, she’d have felt the shockwaves back in Canterlot.

Just march up and face it. One chance. Seize the moment. Pretend you always wanted it like this…

Then the spark of defiance died down. She didn’t move away from the cottage. She knew that was warm, and the foundations were stronger than she’d hoped for.

It was Amethyst who broke the silence. “Good luck,” she said.

Mockingly? Civilly? Hard to tell, with Amethyst. She’d adopted the neutral face of a cat who hadn’t decided if she’d liked your lap or not, and was still game for a scratch behind the ears or at least a free fish if one was forthcoming.

“Puh!” spat Dinky. “She doesn’t need luck! She’s Tw– mmfh mmfh-mfh MMMF!”

“Oops, I appear to have accidentally gagged you. What on earth came over me?”

Dinky threw her sister’s hoof off and stuck a tongue out at her, then immediately went from devil to angel for Velvet’s sake.

“Anyone who doesn’t love you,” she said sweetly, “doesn’t deserve to have you.”

“I assume that’s Dinky-speak for ‘Will you be my mommy too?’” said Golden Harvest.

No halo could have outshone Dinky’s grin.

Before her, Derpy’s face had to gag itself. Her shoulders shook under the resulting pressure.

It was easier to hug Dinky first. Apart from the fact Dinky threw herself off the threshold to get into it, over the past hour or so, she’d pressed so close to Velvet’s side that Velvet expected to see a Dinky-shaped imprint in her ribcage.

What a picture they looked, though. One pegasus, a filly, a grown unicorn, and an earth pony. So inclusive that Velvet felt she’d made a hundred mistakes in their full view and still felt closer than mere blood or title to each and every one of them. Clover the Clever’s ghost might have hovered over the cottage, glowing with pride.

And now she had to leave that?

Her own shoulders shook.

Derpy got to her first and helped wiped the worst of the tears off her cheek.

“Please don’t cry,” she said gently, and something swam hypocritically in her own eyes. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”

Velvet furiously wiped her own, but didn’t bat Derpy off either. “Please, forgive me. I’m just being stupid…”

“What’s stupid about crying?” said Golden Harvest. “Perfectly understandable, to me.”

“You’re not crying,” pointed out Amethyst.

“We farmers make our own arrangements. You were saying, Pot Calling The Kettle Black?”

Amethyst tried a nonchalant attempt at a shrug. A little too much chalance spilled over her face.

Ignoring the sniggers from Dinky, Derpy backed off from mothering Velvet’s face and put on a jolly good smile. “Well.”

“Well,” agreed Velvet.

“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”

“Thank you for…” Velvet had to stop and pick one from the list. “Thank you,” was what she went with.

“I hope everything goes well for you and Twilight,” said Derpy.

“I’ll do my best. Nothing more anyone can ask of me, is –”

Velvet went from one universe to another in a spark of brain cells. All four ponies and the cottage stayed exactly the same and instantly became a radically different group of strangers, both at the same time.

Then the shock passed.

“How did you know!?” she almost shrieked.

Derpy’s beaming smile took a moment to get lost. Then, patient as a bubble heading for the sun, it caught the light and grew bigger.

“Oh, I’ve known for a while,” she said.


“Known what?” said Golden Harvest, the only one who hadn’t winced when the Twilight name dropped out of Derpy’s mouth.

“You… But I never…” Velvet spluttered.

“It’s OK, it’s OK!” said Derpy, waving her down – forelimbs, wings, the works. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to.”

“Tell anyone what?” said Golden Harvest.

Velvet sought refuge in Derpy’s eyes. Then realized she was being upset at Derpy.

Defeated, she sighed her surrender. “All right. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

Derpy went back to being lost again.

“But how did you figure it out?” said Velvet.

“Oh, I figured it out early on. I noticed all the little clues and things.” And Derpy sat down and counted off the feathers of her wing whilst dredging her thoughts from the sky. “One was when you did the magic trick with the letters, because I saw Twilight do that with library books once. And then there was all the times you started saying ‘Twi–’ but stopped just in time. I always notice when Ammy and Dinky try hiding something like that. I’ve had lots of practice.”

“That’s more Dinky than me,” Amethyst said hastily. Dinky shushed her.

“What are we talking about, sorry?” whined Golden Harvest.

“And then all those times you talked about your daughter, like how she was so busy and good with magic and stuff. And then you didn’t want to talk about the castle, or tell me what her name was, and I thought: maybe it’s because her girl’s a princess she’s all flustery. I know I’d find it really weird to call Ammy Princess Ammy.”

“Oh, gee, thank you very much,” muttered Amethyst.

“Or Princess Dinky,” insisted Dinky.

“Or Princess Dinky.” Derpy ruffled her little scruff mane happily.

“Well, why didn’t you say anything?” said Velvet.

“Hold on,” pleaded Golden Harvest, “are you saying Velvet is a princess?”

“Carr– Golden Harvest, it’s OK,” said Derpy, patting her kindly on the leg. “I’ll explain later.” To Velvet, she looked blank. “Why would I say anything? You obviously didn’t want me to.”

Velvet realized Derpy was actually smarter than her daughters. She’d patiently come to the same conclusion they had, and had gone further and figured out there was no need to admit it.

“But, you mean…” Velvet had too much to struggle with already: word choices weren’t making things any easier. “You mean the whole time, you weren’t treating me like… me… like I wasn’t…?”

Derpy frowned in puzzlement. “Of course I was treating you like you. I thought that was what you wanted me to do. Why would you pretend if you didn’t?”

“And you just went along with that? No one else would’ve!”

Then it all became clear. It became clear when the look Derpy gave her next travelled thousands of fathoms and untold generations to funnel through a tiny square of eyes, wrinkled muzzle, and carefully shrunk smile, and yet was still – Derpy being Derpy – as soft and cushioning as foam.

“I know what it’s like to want to be someone else for a while,” she admitted.

“Even if my someone else is, in fact, me?”

“I don’t get it,” said Dinky.

“I think I get it,” said Amethyst, shrugging.

“Get what!?” wailed Golden Harvest. “Will someone please just explain to me what we’re talking about!?”

“Later, later,” Derpy assured her. “I promise.”

Rolling her eyes as the only sane mare in the circus, Amethyst leaned across and whispered in Golden Harvest’s ear. The effect was a clang of an anvil on a random head.

It took a while after the whispering for the clang to die away.

And since Amethyst was no fool, she stopped Golden Harvest from collapsing onto her knees in what Velvet suddenly recognized was a royal bow.

“What Derpy was saying,” hissed Amethyst at the astonished earth mare, “is that we should respect the right of someone to be who they want to be. Even if they are royalty.” Amethyst briefly aimed an anti-monarchist scowl at Velvet.

Velvet regarded her in turn with calm respect. One day, she thought, I’m going to learn your story, Ammy.

And then she was supposed to say goodbye.

The word refused.

Derpy started to curl in on herself again. “I, uh…”

Oh, to Tartarus with this, Velvet thought. She leaped into action.

“We should meet up again,” she said firmly. “I’d love to. This is too wonderful to stop here. Amethyst, could I have some paper and a pen, please?”

Due credit to Amethyst: she didn’t stop to look puzzled or get offended. She just dematerialized like the perfect Canterlot servant, and rematerialized with the exact specifications.

“Right.” Velvet accepted one and wrote through sheer angry momentum. “This is my address. If I can have yours, Derpy?”

“Have my…?”

Whilst Derpy slowly figured it out, Amethyst took the liberty of writing for her. Mares exchanged papers. A flawless transaction.

“Excellent.” Velvet examined the sheet and slipped it into her saddlebag. “That all seems perfectly in order. Thank you, Ammy – Amethyst.”

Amethyst stiffened, gripping the slip-up, then shrugged and let it go.

Velvet stopped herself from feeling vindicated just in time. Something told her Amethyst wasn’t that easy to win over. I wonder, thought Velvet, what she’d have done if I hadn’t corrected the name…

“How’s a week today sound?” she said.

Whilst Derpy plucked the written address and stared at it, Amethyst consulted the calendar in her head.

“I’d have to take some leave from work,” she said. “Unless you can spare the weekend following?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. I’m not expecting to see my schoolfriends again until the day after, but I’m sure Night Light can organize for both.”

Finally, Derpy got there. One breath, and the newly blown bubble became free in her vast, generous expanses of mind to catch the sunlight, or, as it rose higher, to mirror the delicate twinkle of stars.

“You mean –?” she began.

Velvet winked. “Mail me, mail mare!”

She’d expected the tackling hug, but it still knocked her back a few paces. If Derpy squeezed any harder, they’d fuse together, and Velvet didn’t fancy explaining that to her husband. A few giggles bubbled to the surface.

A hug from Derpy also liked to take its time.

When she was released, Velvet couldn’t have been warmer wrapped in three towels after a dip.

Then Dinky leaped into her chest. She’d grow up as tight a hugger as her mother.

Amethyst… offered a hoof. Velvet graciously accepted it. End of meeting.

Poor Golden Harvest still looked like she was struggling to catch up at the back of her mind, but when it came her turn, she did a good job of not holding back either. Velvet felt a few ribs snap out of place. Vanhoover farmers had at least taught her to breathe in and hold her cushioning breath until the strong limbs stopped trying to pulp her.

To a chorus of “Goodbye!” “Bye!” “See you soon!” and “Love you!” – that last one from Dinky – Velvet had to force herself to stride on and not look back in case she started welling up again.

She cracked a few yards away. The last she saw was Derpy smiling, serene and content in the middle of the waves.

To Twilight's Castle, and a New Home

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Then, unto Twilight.

Princess Twilight Sparkle, and her castle of cold crystal.

No matter how close she got to it, the frozen oak of a building still looked like it had nothing to do with the rest of the town. An ice sculpture in a honeyed beehive.

Her saddlebags chafed to the point she marvelled she had any skin left. The pricks of golden rose thorns reminded her they could puncture her side at any moment.

Velvet slowed the closer she came. The mere front door resembled a portcullis, already locked down against the presumed hostile invaders. She almost imagined the archers waiting on the battlements.

Princess Twilight Sparkle. Or little Twily?

Her little girl had to be in there somewhere, didn’t she?

For a moment, the last few hours stung her, as though someone hugging her had suddenly produced a knife. She’d let them get so close… how could she approach Twilight, not knowing if the knife would be anywhere…

And then, in an instant, it turned out the knife was a big misunderstanding and would she like some homemade cake?

She’d been spoiled, that was it. For a while, she’d been part of Derpy’s family, a family she’d barely known existed, yet a family that had waited patiently and naturally for her to show up so they could get started with that cake.

Velvet halted by the door.

She reached out to knock. Then stopped.

What if –?

No! Enough “what ifs”! Was she daredevil Twilight Velvet or not!?

Still, she hesitated.

She wondered if it was too late, if Twilight would be angry, if it was safer to turn tail and run.

All right.

She braced herself.

Whatever else happened, her day so far had been a day in the sun. She remembered how Derpy’s face shone. Nothing else that happened could take that away from her.

“Come on, Velvet!” she told herself. “Come on…”

She knocked.

There. It was done.

She waited. Idly, she rearranged the golden roses in her saddlebag, then hastily stopped and choked on her heart when the door started opening.

Smile, or don’t smile? Honest, or happy?

Just as she opened her mouth to say hello, a male voice said, “Mom?”

Velvet dropped the smile in shock.

It was…

“Shining Armor!?”

“Hey, Mom! Long time no see, huh?” By the time Velvet recovered, he’d already finished hugging her in one strong forelimb. “Sorry about that. So many plates to juggle, you know?”

“What – What are you – I mean, it’s very wonderful, Shining, but how –?”

All her doubts settled down under Shining Armor’s patting little laugh. He always liked sharing the joke.

“Twilight arranged for me to come over today,” he said. “Cadence and the others are waiting inside too. Spike’s made us all cookies!” In a whisper, he added, “Don’t eat the ones that sparkle, and you should be all right.”

“Oh?” said Velvet, on safe ground but still not sure if it’d hold. “H-How is Spike? All right, is he?”

“Ah, you know him. Tough as iron. Likes his independence, and all that.”

“I remember he liked baking things,” she said, too far gone to think about her words carefully.

“Don’t worry. I’ve been giving him tips. Who knows? He might even be as good as me someday.”

Velvet found it impossible to manoeuvre politely around the sticking point. “But… why are you here?”

Shining Armor looked as though he’d been asked if he liked coal cookies, extra crunchy.

“Twilight wanted everything to be perfect for Mare’s Day.”


Hoofsteps echoed around the entrance chamber.

An auditorium might have thrown around the tiny, modest sound until it resounded like a gathering army, but in that vast entrance chamber to a crystalline castle, the approach of one dark princess would have terrified anyone into surrender. Cold, clicking, clinical, clipped like a luckless pegasus wing, leaving her alone as the shadow of the horn drew near.

Then it shrank. Became reasonable. Was just the hesitant step of any pony.

Shining Armor beamed and stepped aside.

The wings folded, and there, standing and staring nervously, was just Twilight Sparkle. Her Twily. Her little princess.

Something levitated beside her. It shone in the light, enchanted.

“Mom?” Twilight’s voice barely echoed.

This time, Velvet let the tears bleed freely to mingle in the sweet, satisfying sea of her life.

Princess as she was…

…ordinary as they were…

…and without a drop of gold anywhere in sight…

Twilight offered the humble red roses. “Happy Mare’s Day, Mom.”