Polarity: A Tale of Two Sisters

by Shinzakura

First published

Prequel to All-American Girl. Derpy Hooves must face a number of sudden important life decisions

Part of the All-American Girl continuity.
For Derpy Hooves, life is never easy. Even as an accomplished scientist and scholar, she still has to contend with a twin sister that hates her, living alone in a tiny town and working a dead-end job, and, of course, her eyes, which causes her to be clumsier in public than she normally is. For her, life sucks.

But now, Derpy has to face a decision that could rock the very foundations of her family, her life and her future. And if that wasn't enough, one of the neighborhood foals, Sparkler, may need her help desperately. And to top it all off, a secret project of hers might just change the world of ponydom forever.

She's got a lot on her hooves. Maybe too much.

Chapter One: The Better Mare

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The spell didn’t lie. How could it? It was reliable, normal, perfectly accurate.

Derpy was pregnant. And she wasn’t supposed to be. After all, she was a single mare, pretty much kept to herself, didn’t date and was, if anything, married to her job and calling.

But that didn’t mean she didn’t have desires. She was, after all, a grown mare. And a grown mare in love, truth be told. And that love had just backfired in the most stupendous way possible.

She looked at the crystal she’d purchased for…for a “friend”, she lied to the doctor when she asked for a pregnancy test spell. The doctor, firm in the belief that Derpy was telling the truth and the fact that Derpy was single – after all, who would date the town klutz? – gave it over without question. After all, she and the doctor had talked plenty of times about Derpy’s past, so it was pretty clear who the friend probably was – that was just another “fact of life” no different than Derpy never needing it for herself.

After all, it was so much easier to believe that Derpy’s twin, Ditzy Doo, had forced the older sister to do so. After all, everypony who knew the Hooves sisters knew that Ditzy had been the one with the looks if not the brains, and as a result used those looks for her own devices, lifting her tail so much that she may as well not have one. It caused no end of pain to Ditzy’s husband or her family, and frankly, the younger twin didn’t care.

How brutal was the truth, then: Derpy, freed of her constraints and letting her heart run free, was no better. Had she been born with normal eyes, would she be the pony her sister was? Had Ditzy the strabismus that had made Derpy so ungainly and ugly, would she have been the better mare? Would it be Derpy sleeping around and cheating on her husband while Ditzy watched from afar, nurturing a secret love until it exploded at the worst possible time?

And yet…

Derpy’s thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. Feeling dizzy and filled with self-loathing, she went to go answer the door, only to find herself staring at the face she least wanted to see.

“So, big sister,” Ditzy Doo said, “are you going to let me in, or should I just go through you?” The look on Ditzy’s face was angry, sullen. Did she find out?

“S-so…what’re you doing here?” Derpy asked.

Ditzy’s perfectly matched eyes narrowed. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” she seethed. Derpy flinched, and to her surprise, Ditzy rolled her eyes and softened her attitude. “Look, I came to take you out to lunch.”

That wasn’t something Derpy had been expecting. “Y-you d-did?”

“What, you developing a stutter along with your lazy eye? Figures, you brain dama….” Ditzy closed her eyes and sighed, muttering to herself, “Just be patient Ditzy; this will all be over soon.” She then looked at her older twin, saying, “Look, I owe you, sis. I know Autumn would have left me for my, uh…indiscretions…had you not intervened. Mom and Dad told me everything, about how you took him and spent time talking him out of it.

“Uh, yeah…talking.” Derpy tried to keep a straight face, but all the knowledge in her mind failed her. She was supposed to be the better mare of the two, but here she was, failing and failing hard. She could still feel Autumn’s lips on hers, feel the caress of his hooves, his warm strength…. She inwardly tried to banish the thoughts, but it was hard, so damn hard – especially since she knew Autumn loved her just as much as she him. But that love was forbidden: Autumn and Ditzy had two children together, even if Autumn wasn’t likely the actual father. For the foals’ Aunt Derpy to ruin the family, well…. Shame welled up in her and she tamped it down, hoping her sister wouldn’t notice.

Meanwhile, Ditzy paid no attention to her sister and instead headed into the nearest bathroom. A half-second later, she raced out, holding a white spherical gem that was strobing red. “Derpy, what the buck is this?”

It took every bit of Derpy’s mindset to not fall apart right then and there. “It’s a…it’s a home pregnancy test crystal.”

“No kidding, genius,” the younger pegasus said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Wanna tell me why it’s red? Or are you….” A second later, she laughed. “Yeah, what am I talking about? Somepony would have to actually find you attractive in order to, well, you know.”

That pushed Derpy’s buttons. “Let’s get something straight, Ditziduella – with the exception of my eyes, you and I look the same! And my eyes don’t always do this! I bet I could pass for you in a heartbeat!”

“Oh, spare me, Derpelle; big deal, so you’re smarter than me.” Ditzy’s eyes narrowed. “Like I care, since what has your brain got you? Oh, yeah – graduate degree from MIT…and a lousy dead-end job, because life’s all about the looks! Sure, I’ll admit that from a distance, you don’t look half-bad, and we might be supposedly identical twins, but we don’t look alike! It’s the eyes, retard! Anypony just has to take one look at your stupid-flank face and they know that you’re worthless!” She paused again, and muttered something incomprehensible.

“Always have to get the last word in, don’t you,” Derpy accused.

“Look, sis, fact of life: you don’t like me and I don’t like you. It’s just how it works. Now, I’m here, trying to be nice and thank you for helping save my marriage. So at least pretend like you care, okay? For just one day?” Ditzy pointed a hoof back to the bathroom. “So what’s with the crystal? It’s showing a positive.”

“Oh, that. Well…I, er, know the town doctor; we’re old friends from MIT. He was telling me about a bunch of crystals that had failures and were showing, um, false positives…uh, due to cracks in the inner core,” she said, her voice finding strength as she started to focus on something far more comfortable; namely, her calling of science. “I told him to give me a few of the ones that had false positives and I’d see if I could come up with something to fix them without magic, which is what apparently caused the cracks in the first place. There’s a device I’ve been working on in my spare time – I call it a pressurizer – tha—”

“Blahblahblah…lemme guess, another one of your ‘inventions’, right? Those weird things that don’t run on magic, supposedly? Name one pony that uses an invention! Magic is the normal way of things, and all you’re doing with that kooky not-magic—”


“—what-ever. You’re going to freak somepony out. No wonder nopony wants to deal with you; you’re such a freak.”

Derpy had enough. “You know what? I think I’ve had enough of your insults, Ditzy. You can leave now.”

Ditzy’s face was somewhere between mollified and furious. “But I just made reservations at The Golden Stable! Do you know how hard it is to get reservations there? I had to practically sle—”

“Don’t let the door hit your flank on the way out.” Derpy had nothing more to say, and turned around, pointedly ignoring her sister.

Ditzy snarled, then nickered before grumbling “Ungrateful harridelle” under her breath and stormed out, leaving Derpy in her own home. The self-termed “prettier pegasus” slowed down just enough to slam the door closed with an exaggerated motion making it clear just how little she cared about her older sister.

Derpy looked at the space her sister had been a few minutes ago and wondered, just for a second: what would life have been if she was a single child, if the zygote never split? Would she be beautiful and smart, or ugly and dumb? Derpy didn’t finish the thought; she might not have liked her sister much, but she was family and such thoughts were distasteful.

She was pulled out of her reverie by the grumbling of her stomach. She hadn’t gotten the chance to go to market today; between her sudden revelation, the workday and her newest project (a pressurizer intended to improve indoor plumbing), she’d completely lost track of time. Well, thankfully, it was early enough that all the small restaurants in Berryville were still open. Maybe she could swing by Sandwich Harry’s and get a dandelion-and-gouda baguette, her favorite food outside of muffins.

She paused long enough to grab a scarf, since it was mid-autumn, and then headed out the front door. As she did, she noted the fall sun obscured behind the clouds hanging in the sky; completely untouchable to other ponies and yet somehow something that she could touch with ease due to her pegasus nature. Her mind wandered for a bit and wondered what it would be like on a world where nature let its own self run free, much like the weather systems over the dreaded Everfree Forest. In truth, the forest, way in the distance, wasn’t that bad. It was just nature at work, untamed, uncontrolled. But ponies didn’t care for that.

Her thoughts were suddenly stopped as she heard a familiar voice call out, “Hey, Derpy, be careful. Don’t want to see you get hurt, okay?” She focused her eyes and found herself just mere inches away from painfully walking into an oak tree. Behind the tree was a familiar face, looking at her with the concern not of dealing with the town idiot, but a friend looking out for another.

She grinned and waved. “Thanks, Shining. I appreciate you looking out for me.”

Lieutenant Shining Armor, assistant commander of the local garrison, grinned. “Hey, gotta take care of the garrison’s mailmare, or else we won’t get our CARE packages from home.”

She mock-pouted. “But I don’t carry the CARE packages! Usually Speedy Delivery or one of the other carriers issues the delicate stuff!”

Shining Armor laughed gently. “Yes, but you bring me the most important letters of all: the ones from my LSBFF and my fillyfriend. Those are worth a dozen boxes of cookies from Mom and Dad.” As always, she relaxed in the presence of a close friend. She and Shining were the same age and had even attended school together before he went off to train in the Guard and she off to MIT. They were close enough friends that Shining had shared with her one of his biggest secrets: he was dating none other than Princess Mi Amore Cadenza (or Cadance, as he called her), the Crown Princess of Equestria and Celestia’s heir. She understood why he’d never made it public; he was a rising star in the guard and didn’t want anypony to think he’d got the position by dating the younger of the only two alicorns in existence.

Furthermore, another point they bonded over was his younger sister, Twilight Sparkle. She was just a teenager, but had a grasp on magic that was well above and beyond that of ponies twice her age. Seeing as how Shining mentioned how often he had been perplexed by his sister’s intuitive grasp of spells he’d agonized over learning, it seemed that calling her a prodigy was an understatement, and small wonder she was Celestia’s protégé – which was another reason why Shining rarely mentioned his ties to the Royal Family.

“Wasn’t expecting to run into you here.” Her ears drooped as she realized she might have screwed up the mail again. “I hope I didn’t….”

“Actually, it did get screwed up, but it wasn’t your fault. Parcel Post came by an hour later and mentioned he gave you the wrong bag. So definitely nothing you did. Besides, Derpy, you’re slightly clumsy, but not stupid – you don’t make those kinds of mistakes.”

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks. So what brings you downtown?”

“Actually, I was coming to see you. I, uh, needed a bit of advice from a friend and figured that you wouldn’t steer me wrong.”

“Well, I was just headed out for lunch, so care to join me? We could talk, and…well, to be honest, I could use a bit of advice, too.”

“Well, it’s my day off, so…sure.” The stallion fell into line with the mare and the pair walked off, chatting away breezily as a pair of friends did naturally. As the two passed through town, the usual happened: ponies who didn’t know either looked at her and him, and the thoughts on their face was as clear as day: an ugly mare like her is wasted on a stallion like that! But as was his nature, Shining Armor gave them all his most irritated stare, always willing to protect a mare’s dignity. Derpy thought it sweet of him to always do so and was always just a tiny bit envious of Princess Mi Amore Cadenza for that.

“Wow, so…she tried to come here and make up with you saving her marriage and was still insulting you?” Shining Armor said between bites of his egg salad sandwich. “You know, even at the times when Twily and I were fighting – and that was rare – I never treated her as anything less than my little sister. Honestly, I can’t tell you how to deal with your family, Derpy, but you don’t deserve that from anypony, much less your sister.”

“I know, I know,” she replied, her tone down. Bad enough that she’d opened up to Shining about the one thing she didn’t want to talk about, but it was made worse by the fact that Sandwich Harry’s was out of both dandelions and baguettes, so she ended up ordering a couple of spinach, mushroom and feta croissants. It was, admittedly, more than she usually ordered, but she had to admit to herself she was now eating for two. When Shining asked about it, she replied blandly that she forgot to eat breakfast because she was busy. She regretted every syllable of that lie as it left her mouth. She had little compunction about lying to her sister, though she should feel bad about it; to Shining, who was somepony who cared about her, well, it was a betrayal upon another betrayal.

“Well, I hope you take better care of yourself, because I won’t be around here much longer,” Shining Armor said.

As she heard the words, she felt a kick in the pit of her stomach – too early to be the thrust of a foal, but instead her heart dropping out. “Y-you’re leaving?”

He nodded. “Yeah. Just got selected as commander of the Appaloosa garrison.” He sighed. “Look, Old Soldier…like his name, he’s getting up there in years, and he won’t be captain of the guard forever. So they’re grooming several of us – me, Bright Flame over in Manehattan, and a few other lieutenants – and we’re being given commands to see who may replace him someday. Personally, I don’t care for it: Appaloosa’s several days away, I’ll be that much farther away from Twily and Cadance, and friends like you. But I’m a career stallion, and if this is my chance to someday be the captain of the guard, I have to do it. I can’t ride on Cadance’s coattails, nor would I.”

“I know,” she said, smiling. “It’s what I like about you. You’re so honest.”

She remembered the words she’d told him as she walked home that night. You’re so honest. One of her closest friends, and when he was there for her…she couldn’t tell the truth. After all, how could she? She was pregnant with her brother-in-law’s child; forget that Ditzy was an expert at infidelity, because that didn’t matter at all when it came to Derpy. Derpy was supposed to be the better one, the one that could rise above her sister’s stupidity.

What would Shining think? Or any of her other friends – Raspberry Scone, who owned the berry orchards on the far end of town? Or Castor Oil – she wasn’t kidding when she told Ditzy she’d known him since their days in college, and she’d have to see him when she was getting closer to showing. Or Parcel Post, her boss – this could have a negative effect on any raises or promotions she might want in the future. She could lose everything…all because she gave into her desi—

“Oh, hey, Derpy, glad to see ya.” She looked up and noticed Bottlerocket, her neighbor from across the street. He and his wife Oriental Blossom were pyromancers with a specialty in fireworks, and the two unicorns were both very mercurial, personalitywise. The brick-red stallion with the blazing white mane looked at her and said, “You…haven’t seen Sparkler, have you?”

“Uh, no. Just came from downtown. Why, is she missing?”

“Um…not really. Blossom, well… never mind. Look, Blossom and I have to be out of town for a couple of days – Royal Fireworks Tournament over in Las Pegasas – so wouldja mind watching Sparkler? She gets along with you and Blossom and I don’t have time to swing by our families to dump her off, so….” He trailed off.

Derpy smiled; she loved having the little filly around. “Sure, I’d be delighted.”

“Perfect, thanks. I’ll drop off some stuff for her before we go. Thanks again!” Not bothering to wait for an answer, the red unicorn raced back towards his home. She already knew what was on his mind: fireworks. He was born for it, as was his wife; someday Sparkler would probably be as well if she followed in her parents’ hoofsteps. And she couldn’t blame either of them for that: she could be just as single-minded when it came to her own pursuits. And besides, who didn’t like fireworks?

She headed back towards her own home when she saw a face that made her heart skip a beat: standing on the doorstep was Autumn Mist, her brother-in-law…and her lover. Part of her felt giddy when she saw him and at the same time shame welled in her once more.

“Hello, Derpy,” Autumn said, softly. The pegasus stallion stood there, strong and handsome. Olive coat, gray-and-white mane and eyes of the softest shade of pink, what he called “dawn pink”, a contrast with the dark clouds of his cutie mark that made him a weather specialist. The three of them had met when Derpy had been home from college one year, and volunteered to help with the fog patrol, something she could do without too much disaster due to her strabismus. It was she who had met him and dated him originally, but that fell through when he met Ditzy. From there, he had been lost, and a rupture between the sisters had become terminal. But all along, he still carried a torch for the mare he’d loved earlier, and it was clear now even years after.

“Hello, Autumn,” she said. She wanted to be in his forelegs right now, to be pressed into his warmth, but…that was how this all began in the first place. She saw a flicker of something in his eye before it disappeared; she wanted it to happen as much as he did, but….

“Could I…come in?”

“Uh, sure. Would you care for a cup of coffee? You, ah, just missed your wife by an hour.” The moment she said that, both of them seemed to deflate; it was both the wrong thing to say and the right thing at the same time, dampening both before they made yet another mistake.

He sighed, then turned towards the distance. “Look, I should go and….”

“Autumn, don’t. We…we need to talk. But nothing else. I’m…I’m foalsitting tonight, and, well…I’m sure you understand.”

“Sure, then,” he said as Oriental Blossom and Sparkler came up. Oriental Blossom was a contrast with her husband, with a coat that seemed to practically glow in its neon-yellow hue, while the near sooty black of her mane gave the image of a bonfire sending smoke into the sky. She held her head proud and scornful, and to Derpy she felt a kindred soul to Ditzy.

The same couldn’t be said about the very young filly at her side. Sparkler was just out of diapers, a sweet little ball of lilac and purple fluff with a whole life ahead of her. She seemed nervous, fragile. Maybe it was because Autumn was present and he was large for most ponies. Maybe it was just nervous energy over staying with Derpy for a few days.

Blossom set the small suitcase down by the gray pegasus. “Thank you for watching her, Derpy. We’re hoping that our performance at the Tournament will get us some new contracts. Our business is faltering, and….” Blossom trailed off, not sure she should discuss it in front of strangers.

Derpy nodded in understanding. “Take all the time you need. Sparkler and I will be fine, won’t we?”

The sudden change in the filly’s temperament was like the boundary between night and day. “Absolutely, Miss Derpy!” she cheered, moving over to the pegasus’ side in an instant. Derpy noted a flicker of emotion in Oriental Blossom’s eyes, but wasn’t sure what it meant and it was gone before she could inquire further. However, her curiosity was piqued when Blossom sighed sadly and walked off with no further words.

“Miss Derpy, are you going to work on your secret project?” Sparkler asked, eyes full of interest.

“Maybe…if I can get the right assistant,” she replied with a smile.

“Maybe it’ll help me get my cutie mark!” Sparkler bounced up and down, her enthusiasm completely unbridled now that she’d been enticed with a treasure beyond compare.

Autumn looked at the filly with a smile. “Aren’t you a little young to be worried about your cutie mark just yet?” And then to Derpy: “What’s this about a secret project?”

“Hey, are you a spy or something?” Sparkler moved inbetween the two adults as if to protect Derpy. “We don’t want any spies coming here and taking Miss Derpy’s ideas!”

Derpy laughed, reaching out with a hoof to muss Sparkler’s mane. “It’s okay. This is my brother-in-law, Autumn. He’s married to my sister.”

Sparkler looked at the stallion critically, then back at her foalsitter. “You sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Tell you what: go ahead and put your suitcase in the spare bedroom and we’ll get started after dinner, okay?” The unicorn filly nodded, picking up her suitcase handle by her mouth and trotting into Derpy’s home.

Autumn watched as the filly moved off before saying, “She reminds me a lot of both Flutterwonder and Orange Box.”

Derpy nodded. “Your daughters. The ones you have with my sister.”

“I…didn’t have them with your sister. You know that. But I love them regardless and so to me they are my daughters.”

“Where are they? I don’t see them here. Or are Fluttsy and Orange already baking something in the house?” Flutterwonder, just a few years older than Sparkler, already had her cutie mark in art but loved baking; the younger Orange was also accomplished at it, hoping cooking would be her special talent. Every time they visited Derpy, they were sure to commandeer the kitchen…with mouth-watering results.

“Left them with my parents for a couple of days; told Mom and Pop that I’d be headed off to a business conference in Salt Lick City. I couldn’t leave them with your parents again; they’re already worried about Ditzy and I, and I don’t want them thinking things have gotten worse.”

That admission made Derpy wonder. “Has it?”

Autumn nodded. “Family has given me a lot to think about.” He paused, as if to gather his thoughts. “Listen…I was wrong. I…thought I loved your sister, when all along it was you. I was stupid, I fell into her perfect looks when I should have went for the perfect heart.” He shrugged. “Maybe this is just stating the obvious, but Derpy….”

She screwed her eyes tightly shut, reminding herself that she had a filly in the house and that she didn’t need to make things any worse.

“So…what’s this secret project?” he asked again, clearly an attempt to back down from what he was going to say.

“Let’s go in and I’ll show you.”


“It looks…like an art sculpture,” Autumn said, looking at the contraption.

“No it’s not, Mister Autumn,” Sparkler said with a note of foalish exuberance in her voice: “It’s Miss Derpy’s Secret Project!”

Taking up the majority of the space in the living room was an object that could be best described as a Hearths Warming Eve tree made out of nothing but bronze, save for the various magically-embued crystals set into its “branches” and the wires jutting out of the bottom, attached to some bizarre piece of machinery. Attached to the machinery at the top were two antennae, with a rainbow arc of power cascading up the two; Autumn recognized it as a high-voltage travelling arc, but…that was usually a result of electricity, something that wasn’t exactly common in the house of the average pony. Lastly attached to the whole thing were two giant speakers not unlike that found in nightclubs and concert halls. Autumn had to wonder how she got her hands on those.

“Uh, Derpy…what is this?” he asked.

“It’s a fractal vibrations oscillograph, silly,” she said with playful authority. “I call it the Derpy Hooves Stereolab. How much do you know about fractal vibrations?”

“Fractal vibrations,” he said, dully, shaking his head. “You can’t be serious.” Fractal vibrations were a part of the so-called Paries Quartum theory, which stated that there were “four walls of dimensional reality” to the universe – height, width, depth, and continuity – and that fractal vibrations were the signs of other dimensions of reality, similar to someone knocking on the wall separating two rooms. However, the concepts of other realities were suspect at best, and so fractal vibrations were considered as legitimate science as phlogiston and heliocentrism – in other words, not at all.

“Uh-huh, she’s real super serious, Mister Autumn! She’s smart!” Sparkler countered.

“I’ve read Dr. Pitch Perfect’s notes on fractal vibrations and for the most part he’s completely off, I agree…except that he was looking in the wrong place.”

“How do you look in the wrong place for something that doesn’t exist?” Autumn said, looking at her with confusion. Granted, he wasn’t a genius at science the way she was and half of anything she knew was already well above what he did, but even he knew that fractal vibrations was just a discredited theory.

Derpy picked up Sparkler to demonstrate; she hit a ticklish spot and the filly giggled in excitement, happy to be a part of the demonstration. Holding the foal aloft, Derpy continued. “Pitch Perfect thought that other realities could be found if one just dug deep enough, like they were buried treasure to be found. A very poetic statement, but not correct. He forgot that dimensions are all around us. The four walls of the universe aren’t just the four walls. My hooves went through countless dimensions just to reach Sparkler and dozens more to lift her up where she is now.”

“So I’m a dinesomal traveler!” Sparkler cooed, glad to be in the act.

“Of course, Sparkler,” Derpy said with a smile. Turning back to Autumn, she added, “So that’s the fundament of the whole thing: he was looking at some far off location, when it could be right here, next to us. And my machine here can prove it.”

“Derpy, I don’t want to squelch your enthusiasm, I really don’t, but…is this safe? Are you going to be okay?” he asked.

She set down Sparkler as a crestfallen look came over her face. “You don’t trust me, do you?” It was her one greatest weakness: because of her eyes, she would fly into buildings or trees and walk into buildings, all of which painted her as a helpless klutz. Nevermind that up close and personal she was extremely dexterous with her hooves; it was her public appearances that set others’ opinions of her, notwithstanding those who knew her closest.

He shook his head. “Derpy, I know you. You’re not the klutzy pony others say you are, so that’s not it. I’m just wondering if it’s…you know, safe. What if you tap into Celestia’s sun? Or one of the stars in space? Or bring the moon down on us? Even you can’t calculate all the variables.”

She smiled at that; he did trust her after all. “Let’s find out,” she said, flipping a switch on the machine as it came to life. Giving a mock-serious look to Sparkler, she said, “Well, trusty assistant, turn that knob right there and let’s see what we find out!”

Sparkler beamed with joy, grabbing the knob with both hooves and turning. As she did, mostly static and humming came out of the machine while a giant meter on the wall measured the vibrational frequency. As the numbers climbed higher, voices could actually be heard through the noise, possible signs of life from beyond their world:

“—Pinkie, I hope this works. I have faith in you, but you gotta admit: this is a huge longshot—”

“—“You’ve just won a few hours with DJ Pon3. Wherever you want to go, a restaurant would be nice though, I’m not looking forwards to the salad that Opal’s probably got prepared for me back at the hotel—”

“—My Pinkie Squink! That’s it! I’ll think a squink! First I squish, then I wink, and then I think! I’ll show you! —”

“—But Megan, if we’re going to save Dream Valley from the Fire Orcs, the Moochick will have the best idea! Now if we can just find where Baby Ribbon went—”

The voices slowly died off again and for a few more minutes there was more of the static and humming before voices started up again. The needle was well into the higher range of its limit, approaching the red zone:

“—Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father—”

“—I’m the Batman—”

“—Higher and higher in the great dome of the sky, filling it with sound—”

“—The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity—”

“—Don’t worry, hon. We’ll have a kid someday. We’re still young and have plenty of years—”

At this point, the machine suddenly sparked and smoldered, blue wisps of acrid smoke reaching into the sky. Sparkler suddenly shivered with fright, running behind Derpy for protection. Derpy looked down and smiled at the frightened filly, trying to calm her but wondering why a foal who lived in a home with pyromancers was afraid of smoke and sparks.

Autumn, meanwhile, looked at the smoking machine. “Uh, should I go get a raincloud?”

Derpy shook her head. “It’s okay. There’s something in the overflow stack buffer that’s preventing me from staying in the upper reaches. I can’t really prove the theory until I get hard evidence. I won’t make the same mistake that Pitch Perfect made.” She went over to another machine, punching on a flat board that looked like the keys of a typewriter. It took Autumn to realize that it was a computer of some kind, but nothing like the types he normally saw.

“But Derpy, don’t you think this is important enough to mention now?”

She sighed. “People don’t think of me as some sort of scientific expert and inventor. They see just the clumsy pony who walks into walls. The coffeemaker I made, I know you use it at home, right?” Autumn nodded; Derpy’s autobrewing machine was nothing less than a wonder. “Well, I’ve only sold six, all to restaurants on the other side of the country. And why? Because they’ve never met me. Any potential buyer who has, well, all they need to see is me walk into a wall or fly into the side of a building and all that is. They never see me working up close with tiny, delicate parts, they never see me working with objects that normal ponies have hard times with. All they see is this!” she snarled, pointing at her eyes. Derpy got flustered enough that Sparkler hugged Derpy, which calmed her down.

Autumn hung his head in anger, for Derpy’s sake and shame at his own self. He’d bought the same lie from Ditzy, allowed himself to fall for her at the expense of the relationship with his first fillyfriend, Ditzy’s own sister. And now here he was, years later, facing that very same mare, the one he should have been with all along, the one he probably would have been happy and had a normal family with. Granted, he loved his daughters with Ditzy very much, but Flutterwonder’s yellow coat and pink and blue mane and Orange Box’s orange mane and lavender-gray coat were just reminders that they weren’t of his blood.

“Derpy, I….” he began, but was stopped by Sparkler’s yawn. Whatever he had to say would have to wait until Derpy put the foal to bed.


That damn harridelle! Ditzy fumed as she winged her way home. After all the things that Ditzy had endured by being the “lesser” of the two sisters, and Derpy had to go throw that in her face! The pony snarled to herself as she beat her wings furiously, picking up speed. One of the few things that proved Ditzy to be superior was that because she could actually see straight, she could pick up speed easily without fear of crashing into the blatantly obvious obstacle in her way while her moron of an older sister was a slow flyer due to her cautiousness. While she wasn’t exactly Wonderbolts material, she could pick up a fair clip of speed when she wanted to, and moments like this were tailor made for that.

Derpy didn’t understand. Nopony did, really. Ditzy just wanted the best out of life, and if that meant doing some things that helped her climb the corporate ladder, so be it. After all, she was young and beautiful and deserved to be at the pinnacle of success, and if her boss found her flanks attractive and other parts inviting, well, that’s just the way things went and Ditzy was all too willing to please – it was fun, most of the time anyway, and she got a lot of things out of it in return for just a romp in the hay.

Like right now she was enjoying an extra month off free with pay. Her boss at the weather factory was trying to keep his relationship with Ditzy on the downlow, so he put her “on special assignment.” She knew she got looks and scorn from other mares, but hey, their fault they weren’t as gorgeous. She had the looks and she knew what it took, and that’s why she was the rising star.

As she approached the clouds of the town in which she lived, she suddenly banked, heading south. She had a friend down in Norflank who always wanted to party and Ditzy could use the stress off her mind. Her husband had the kids, so they were fine and the sooner she washed the memories of Derpy out of her mind the better.

The gray pegasus picked up speed, rocketing into the fading sunset.


“She’s a sweet kid. Kinda nervous, though,” Autumn said later that night after Derpy had put Sparkler to bed. She’d made coffee – with a little bit of cider poured in for taste – and at the moment they were sitting in the living room, the stench of burnt wiring still filling the room.

“Yeah,” Derpy said, looking into her cup. She knew this was going to come up again. It was only a matter of time. “Autumn, I—”

“I’m thinking about leaving her, Derpy. Ditzy. It’s been on my mind a lot in the past month, especially after that time we spent together,” he began. “She doesn’t love me; I’m not sure if she ever did.”

“How do you feel about her?” the mare asked.

“Conflicted.” He set down the coffee cup, then went over to her and kissed her. She gave in at first, joining in before breaking it off.

“We can’t, Autumn! You’re my brother-in-law!”

“I’d rather be your husband. I should have been, Derpy. I was stupid. Now I want it right. I want to be with the mare that loves me, that I love.”

“But what about Fluttsy and Orange? What will they think? Aunt Derpy ruined their parents’ marriage? They may not truly be yours, Autumn, but you are their father. You have to think about them, too.” She looked deep into his eyes and could only see love, could only feel that. And it burned within her to respond. But she couldn’t. She’d lost him long ago, even if neither one wanted to admit it.

“Maybe I should start a family that I know is mine,” he responded. “And they’re young. They’ll understand someday, I’m sure. And Celestia knows you’d make a better mother than your sister – I see you how you’re with a filly you’re just babysitting! I mean, give me one good reason why you’d be a lousy mother.”

She let him have it with both barrels. “Because I’m pregnant. And you’re the father.”

The room got a lot more silent after that. Finally, after downing the whole mug of coffee, he spoke: “I’m…you’re…we’re?” She nodded. “Derpy…if I left your sister, would you marry me?”

“I can’t. You know that. I love you more than you’ll ever know, Autumn. But I won’t destroy your family or my sister, or my nieces. You need to think of them, first, more than anypony else.”

“More than anypony else?” he said, his tone harder than he’d intended. Pointing at her stomach, he asked, “What about the life building in there, Derpy? That’s my foal. And what will you do? A single mother isn’t a bad thing in big cities, but Berryville isn’t the biggest town around and small towns make for bad gossip.”

“Maybe I’ll move to another one of the local towns, like Forest Edge, or Hayfield, maybe as far as Ponyville. I don’t know. Or maybe I’ll put the foal up for adopt….” She couldn’t finish the word as she said it. The foal wasn’t to blame and was a part of her and him; she could no more abandon her eventually-to-be-born foal than he could. Finally, she said, “So what will we do?”

“I don’t know. But you already know what I want, Derpy.” He kissed her again, but this time she pulled away quicker. If she gave in once more…she’d never break free and she would be no better than her sister. For his sake – for all their sakes – she had to be the better mare…even if she loathed every second of it.

“I think you need to go, Autumn.”

“I think I need to stay with the mare I love. For good, this time.” The look in his eyes was pleading. “Derpy, I need you.”

“Your daughters need you more, Autumn. And perhaps, someday this foal will. But we won’t know until that day comes. But Fluttsy and Orange need you now. Please go, before I do something I’ll regret.” He looked at her, hurt and betrayed, and at that moment, she knew she did something she regretted already.

As he left from the front door, she wanted to pull him back, to tell him she changed her mind and that she would marry him. That they could raise his daughters and their foal in a family at last and to Tartarus with Ditzy. That she would be forever his. But she didn’t. And as he became a dot against the moonlight and then no more, all she could do was cry to herself for the wound in her heart that she ripped open herself.

She was the better mare, after all.

But what good did that do?

Chapter Two: A Friend in Need

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“No, Mama, I’m not putting on weight. You’re imagining things.”

Derpy looked at her parents and sighed. She was starting to show now, and while she got some comments at work about “letting herself go”, she’d told Parcel Post, Raspberry Scone and Castor Oil a huge lie: that she’d volunteered to be a surrogate mother for a cousin who’d been injured and couldn’t carry to full term. A doctor in Canterlot had supposedly done the magical transfer from one womb to another, and in eight months, she’d give the baby back to her cousin. The three ponies congratulated her for her selflnessness; not many single mares in a small town like this would be willing to put up with the gossip, but Derpy was a better mare than that.

But even still she had to deal with life. Like her parents taking her out for lunch on her birthday. But it was more than that: the Hooves parents were trying to set peace between their daughters, and as always they went to the older one first, since she was the sensible one. Derpy hated that; she wished that for once they would have gone to Ditzy first, but the fact that her parents moved to Cloudsdale once both sisters left the nest made it much easier to visit Derpy first.

“Sweetie, I’m just worried about you. Why, somepony might get the idea that you’re off the market because you’re pregnant.” The look on Derpy’s face was one of mortification; thankfully her mother misunderstood. “I was just telling your father the other day that it would be wonderful if you married somepony like your sister did. That Autumn Mist…he’s a wonderful stallion, and the way your sister just adores him, well…I want somepony like that for you, too.”

Great. Apparently she doesn’t remember that Ditzy stole Autumn from me, and to make it worse, it’s clear Ditzy’s been lying to Mama. Damn harridelle. Plus, how did Mama forget that just a few short months ago, they were on the verge of divorce? Or is it just self-delusion? Derpy didn’t want to wander into that minefield, so instead she asked her father, “Papa, are you thinking the same thing?”

The paternal stallion chuckled. “Why, Derpelle, you’ll always be my little filly. But your mother’s right: I’m hoping that someday you’ll find a stallion that will make you happy because he can keep up with you. I know that’s always been a problem for you, kiddo, but you’re a Hooves gal – you’ll get that stallion when it’s time.”

Oh, joy: so Mama thinks I’m not dating because I’m fat and Papa thinks I’m not dating because I find stallions too stupid. Buck my life. She knew she wasn’t going to win this one, so instead she shut up and decided to enjoy her parents’ company. She didn’t see them as much as she liked, and she did love them after all…as opposed to certain parts of her family.


Ditzy woke up, hungover and completely sore. She blinked her eyes, unwilling to open them and surrender to the brutal needs of consciousness. “What did you want, Fluttsy?” she murmured.

“Did you say something?” a second voice asked. This time Ditzy awoke fully; that second voice was nowhere near familiar. She found herself staring at a lilac hued pegasus mare with a mane a deeper shade of blonde than hers; it took a few minutes before Ditzy remembered the other mare’s name: Cloud Kicker. From their rather hasty introduction, Ditzy found out that Cloud Kicker was a worker at the Cloudsdale weather factory. She also found that the pegasus was…rather adventuresome in the hay. That had been years ago and since that time, they’d become both friendly and intimate. She’d known the other pegasus for years – how had she not recognized her at first?

Ditzy took stock of the situation as she realized where she was, ignoring the dream that had jolted her back to wakefulness. She’d had another fight with her husband, then flew off to meet an old friend, Cherish Wish. Cherish invited Ditzy to a private party she was attending, and…well…she got to know a lot of ponies there, in a very intimate manner. By the time she fell asleep, she was drunk as hell and very spent, in more ways than one. She didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant, fortunately; apparently several unicorns invited to the frolick had set a ton of contraceptive spells, lest the maternity wards of several hospitals would be very busy around this time next year.

“Nothing, just thinking aloud,” she told the other pegasus and something welled in her slightly. Her daughter wasn’t here – Thank Celestia her daughter wasn’t present – there was something in Ditzy that wanted to hold her foals close to her and just spend forever with them. She shook her head; well, at least they were with their father at the moment, so they were being taken care of.

But he’s not their father, her conscience reminded her. He chose to be their father, but you didn’t give him a choice – or actual children, for that matter, did you?

Shut up! she snarled at her inner voice. Does it matter? Both Orange and Fluttsy have a wonderful father! And Autumn is doing the best that he can! And besides, I deserve this! Each little step I take gets me where I deserve to be in life!

“Hey, you okay?” Cloud Kicker asked, looking at her.

“Uh…just preoccupied with something. Something up?”

“Well…” Cloud Kicker said saucily, “Meadow Mountain just woke up and I’m gonna see if he’s up for bangin’. I heard he’s really built for a stallion, if you know what I mean. Besides, you and I had sooooo much fun last night, I thought you might want to join us,” the lilac pegasus said, punctuating it with a series of small kisses that raced up Ditzy’s neck.

Ditzy’s body stirred at that, but at the same time, desire waged war with the strange feeling her subconscious was slamming down on her. It wasn’t shame, she knew that much; she was more than happy to admit she was shameless. Was it…guilt? But why? She was having fun, she had a great husband, two – or maybe three, she wasn’t sure – foals, a great job and plenty of entertainment, as evidenced by Cloud Kicker trying to get her started.

“Wanna see who’ll wear him out first?” Cloud Kicker breathed, both a challenge and an invitation.

“Excuse me,” a soft voice said behind them both. Both turned to see a powder blue earth pony mare with coral-hued eyes and a soft lavender mane. “My…name is Tender Sighs. I’m looking for…uh, Ditzy Doo.”

“That’s me,” Ditzy said, noting something about this mare that was getting her started.

“Uh, I….” She blushed. “Well…I was invited to the party by my friend Cherish and she said….” Another blush, more furious this time. “Well, this is my first time, and that she and you would….”

Cloud Kicker clapped Ditzy on the back. “I see you’re going to be busy.” And then whispered in the gray mare’s ear, “Looks like you’ll have to go gentle with her. And let me know how that works out, okay? Might make a run in the meadow with her later if she’s willing.” Not waiting for an answer, Cloud Kicker fluttered off to find the stallion of the moment.

Ditzy looked at the pony before it dawned on her: She has the same colors as my Fluttsy. Obviously not in the same arrangement, but still the same three hues…. Ditzy shook her head before something else stopped her; she was here to have fun and have fun she would.

Tender Sighs looked at Ditzy nervously. “Will it…hurt?”

Ditzy approached the nervous mare and kissed her tenderly. “I promise it won’t. Let’s go find Cherish and introduce you to the world of marehood.” Determined to ignore the chafing voice of guilt building in her head, she focused her attentions entirely elsewhere and was slowly rewarded as the guilt was drowned away in the scent of pheromones.

Shortly after getting home from having breakfast with her parents, Derpy started work on her Stereolab again. She had a long ways to go to isolate the other voices, confirm them as vibrations from other realities and not just magical broadcasts or something worse. She already had dealt with worse and it frightened her: a month ago, she’d tuned in on a particular frequency and instead of hearing a random snippit of conversation from somewhere beyond, an unnatural, inequine voice hissed in a guttural tone, “wE hAvE suCH SiGhtS tO sHow yOu!” The room started to fill with a cold, inky black smoke…only to be stopped as the security protocols kicked in and two ensorcelled yellow crystals blazed with the protective power of Celestia’s Sunlight, one of the most powerful defensive spells known. The smoke went away and the crystal that was attuned to that particular frequency changed from the blue gem it had been to a small, metal box with a strange pattern on it. The Celestia’s Sunlight spell activated a second time, and the box disappeared, leaving the normal smoke of burning wires and slagged crystals now that the security spell was now spent.

She’d since replaced the security protocol crystals – doubled them, actually. She’d also put that frequency on the lockdown list, not to be ever accessed again and went so far as to rewire the Stereolab to remove that crystal’s node and left it depowered while she built in extra protective measures…just in case.

She was about to start again, when there was a knock at the door. She went over to find a member of the royal guard standing there with a message for her; that was an unusual situation, as she was usually used to being on the delivering end, not the deliveree. With a salute, he turned away, flying off into the distance.

Immediately, Derpy opened the note.


Dear Derpy,

I know we have not met before, but Shiny has talked so much about his friendship with you that I feel I know you already and I hope that someday we will have a chance to meet face-to-face. I am Mi Amore Cadenza, Crown Princess of Equestria, Heir to Her Majesty the Princess Regnal Caelum de Aurae of Equestria, Avatar of Love, Maiden of the Spring Sky, Keeper of the Bow of Love and a dozen other pointless titles I don’t care about – you can just call me Cadance.

The reason I’m writing to you is for a personal favor – I need your help. About a couple of days ago, Fort Appaloosa was attacked by a bunch of madponies calling themselves “The Army of the Nightmare”; they claim to worship The Mare in the Moon and attacked “in preparation for the return of the Nightmare and the culmination of Endless Night.” The fort beat them back handily – I mean, we’re not talking about the most stable of ponies here – but in the process due to their numbers they managed to wound several of our troops, including Shiny. I don’t think I need to tell you how much I’m worried about him.

For some reason, my aunt has forbidden me to travel to Appaloosa, and she seems very shaken by the incident; I don’t know why, nor will she tell anypony. Likewise, she has forbidden ground travel between the Appaloosan plains and central Equestria until further notice, but that’s mainly for security precautions, I suspect. As a result, none of Shiny’s family can go visit him – Twilight, especially, is in a snit about it, but I guess that’s just how teens are. Fortunately, however, my aunt has authorized cargo and air travel to Appaloosa – although under escort – and that’s where you come in.

If you are willing, I am asking you to be the Crown’s personal envoy to Appaloosa. It won’t take but a week, it will mainly involve writing some reports and talking to the townsponies and assuring them that we will be there to protect the populace. It may also involve talking to a couple of the roving tribes of bison in the area, though most of them are either already sending reports to us or assisting the Guard in hunting down the rest of the Nightmare Army. But I also want someone who knows Shiny to deliver notes from me and his family and assure him he’ll be alright and we haven’t forgotten about him.

If you agree, just burn this letter within twenty-four hours and it will transport back to me magically and then I’ll make the arrangements. I understand you’re a busy pony already (on Shiny’s recommendation, we ordered one of your coffeemakers for the palace and the kitchen staff says it cuts their coffee prep time immensely!) but you are one of his closest friends and you’re the only one I can trust. I’ll be honest: though I could make it a royal command and force you if I wanted to…I wouldn’t. You and he are close and I wouldn’t do that to one of his best friends, one I hope to call one of my own someday.

Hoping I’ll hear from you soon,

PS – Oh, and if you have time, please send an instruction manual on how the coffeemaker is powered. Chef Bouillabaisse is so worried that it will run out of power when he needs it most he wants to make sure he has whatever powers it on hand, just in case.

Derpy didn’t even hesitate – if the roles were reversed, Shining would come in a heartbeat; she couldn’t let him down. Racing over to the kitchen, she slapped a red button on a box with her left forehoof, and a circle atop the box became a circle of fire. She’d been experimenting with some gasses and mechanics to create a non-magical stove, but since magical ones worked on almost the same principle – save for fire spells substituting for mechanically created fire – and were so commonplace she never got past her initial prototype model, which she now used as a replacement for the magical one the prior owner of the house had installed.

She placed the scroll on the fire, and it burst into flame instantly before transmogrifying into golden motes of light. The golden swarm immediately flew out the window, heading towards distant Canterlot. She was familiar with the spell – a flamefax, named after the dragon assistant of Star Swirl the Bearded and creator of the spell. Shining once had told her that his sister Twilight was the second pony in history to have enough power to hatch a dragon egg; Twilight’s family had adopted the young drake, though once he was old enough to walk he virtually tied himself to his older sister. Spike, as she’d named him, was a well-read and intelligent young colt, Shining had said.

The thought pattern finally circled around to Shining himself. Was he okay? He must be, because had he been seriously wounded, Cadance would have likely defied her aunt’s edict and went to Appaloosa anyway, though likely he would have been transported to a hospital in Canterlot for emergency care. But most of all, he would tell her, because he’d ask for advice and counsel. He was one of the very few ponies in the world that never made fun of her disability; in fact, he went out of his way to talk about her exceptional abilities, instead. Who knew – if things had been different, maybe….

She smiled softly. Maybe – but Cadance is a lucky mare, and I’m blessed enough to have him as my friend. And that friendship, more than anything, was what spurred her to action. Immediately, there was another knock on her door. Derpy went to it, thinking Wow…Cadance moves fast. She opened it, instead to find a half-drunken Bottlerocket, reeking of cider. “Uh, hi, Derpy,” he slurred.

“Hello, Bottlerocket,” she said evenly. “What can I do for you?”

“The harri…m’ wife an’ I, we’re,” he slurred, pausing if trying to remember his words, then continued, “off t’ Dra…Dric…th’ dragon lands. Pot’ntial job there f’r a dragon lord.”

Derpy didn’t know what to say; if her situation was bad, theirs was dire: at the competition a few months back, not only were they bested by a husband/wife unicorn and pegasus team who won the prize and the job as Royal Pyrotechnicians, but Oriental Blossom reputedly lost her temper and set off a spell that burned down the summer palace of Prince Campion. While they managed to avoid a grim fate at the hooves’ of Princess Celestia’s unicorn nephew, his son Prince Blueblood demanded that the two pay for the damage. It had left the pair destitute and desperate for jobs. Undoubtedly, it took a toll on their marriage, as well.

“Be careful. Dragons expect some truly powerful displays, and you don’t want to sell yourself short.”

“Don’ y’ think I know that?” he snapped, before calming down. “Sorry…nerves. An’ way, I wuz hoping y’d…. You know, you have a really cute plot.”

Derpy blushed and spread her wings out to cover her flanks from his view. If anypony else had said it, she’d have dealt with the compliment. Had Autumn – no, don’t think of Autumn – said it, she would have – I said, stop thinking of Autumn! But Bottlerocket was a married stallion, with a child. She’d made that mistake once – she was still paying for that mistake – she’d never do that again. Besides, she wasn’t attracted to him to begin with, and in this inebriated state? It was rather repulsive.

“You were saying?” she said, archly.

“S’ I wu….wus won’drin’ if y’d watch our brat f’ us.”

Brat? She’s your foal! Derpy was about to scream, when she had a sudden thought: a foal as young as Sparkler wouldn’t do well in Draconia. For that matter, adult ponies that made the journey to the dragon lands almost never fared well, either. It wasn’t that dragons were cruel or capricious, it was that Draconia was split into two large landmasses, and depending on where they were in their migration, the air was breathable for ponies or they were in a sulfur-filled land of volcanoes which could kill any creature that wasn’t a dragon quickly. Of course, that wasn’t common knowledge, which was why the average pony didn’t know a thing about their fellow winged beings. Fortunately, scholars like herself and presumably Shining’s sister did.

In any case, Derpy wouldn’t let anything happen to Sparkler. “I’ll be happy to watch her for you.” Instead, of thanking her as he did in the past, instead he just staggered off to his home across the street, looking more and more pathetic as he walked away from her home.

She was about to close the door, when there was another knock. Fortunately, it was Parcel Post. “Derpy,” the russet stallion began, shaking his head, “I’ve known you for a couple of years now, and I have to ask: why are you just a mailmare?” Before she could say anything, he said, “I just got a flamefax from the Postmaster General herself excusing you from work for the next two weeks. Apparently you’re doing some special duty for the Office of the Crown Princess, and that it was so hush-hush even Special Stamp didn’t know what it was for. Who do you know in the Crown government and why aren’t you working for them?” he chuckled.

“I…don’t like taking advantage of friends,” she answered diplomatically. “As for the request, maybe I was recommended to her highness?”

“Well, just take care of yourself. Wouldn’t want to lose my best mailmare, and Appaloosa’s real dangerous right now – apparently there was an attack by some brigands just recently. In the meanwhile, I’ve got Lemon Drop handling your route as well as hers; she could use the overtime anyway, she said. So we’ll manage here.” He looked at her. “But what about your, ahem, ‘special package’? Wasn’t there some concern?”

“I, uh, talked to my doctor, and he said that while I can still fly, it’s fine. The moment I become too big and heavy to fly is when I’ll need to be on light duty. But thank you, Parcel. It’s good to know you care.”

“Well, just wanted you to know. I’ll see you when you get back, then. Best of luck, Derpy.”

This time, she didn’t bother closing the door, as in burst Raspberry Scone, another of her good friends. “Derpy, what are you doing? Are you crazy?”

The gray mare looked at her friend and chuckled. “Nice to see you as well, Sconey.”

The look on the soft red earth pony’s face was one of stupefication. “No, I’m not going to let you do this to yourself, Derpy!”

“Do what?”

“There’s a rumor going around town that you joined the Guard to chase after that stallion boyfriend of yours! The one to moved to Appaloosa and left you pregnant!”


There was a mischievous grin on the farmer’s face. “I know. I kept telling them that was a lie, but…you know this town. I swear, sometimes I think you shouldn’t’ve moved here to Berryville for your own good, Derpy, but if you hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met you.” The second smile was more sincere as Scone asked, “Seriously, what’s going on, and will it affect you personally, if you know what I mean?”

“I was contacted by the Office of the Crown Princess to be the envoy for the Crown in Appaloosa. I’ll be gone for about a week or so. And according to the doctor, I should be fine.”

“When did I say that?” an astonished voice rang out behind Scone; sure enough, it was Castor Oil, who’d also come, having heard the news. “Derpy, you know that as your doctor, I would never have agreed to this.”

“They, uh, sent a doctor to, um, check me out,” she said, hating piling a new lie on the sizable mountain she’d already created. “Same, uh, doctor that did the, uh, transference spell.”

Castor sat down and folded his forelegs. “I’ve a mind to travel to Canterlot and give that doctor a piece of my mind. You’re in the formative quarter of your pregnancy, which is the biggest chance of miscarriage. He should know that – hell, it’s the reason I wouldn’t let Winter out of the house when she was with foal.”

“Look, Castor, Sconey, I appreciate you two looking out for me,” she said, embracing her friends. “But this is only for a week or so, I’ve been assured that I’ll be safe as safe can be – I’ll be under military escort all the way – and I won’t be exposed to the front lines. My…cousin’s foal is important to me and I would never endanger it.”

A new thought crossed Castor’s mind. “Does she know? No offense, but if it were mine and Winter’s foal you were carrying, I’d go yell at Princess Celestia herself if it would make a difference.”

“I’m not sure Autu…August Wind knows,” she said, pulling the name of a distant cousin out of her hat. “I don’t think August would be happy if she did.” Especially since he’s male, she told herself, chiding herself for yet another lie.

“Then you should tell her,” Scone said, Castor agreeing at the sage wisdom.

Derpy sighed; she was digging herself in deeper each day she lied about the whole thing, and now she was adding a new layer to the whole thing. “Fine, I’ll write her and her husband a note once I’m on the way. But I promise I’ll be okay, alright?”

“Daddy? Where’s Mommy?” Flutterwonder said, laying down next to Autumn. On the other side of the bed, Orange Box was already asleep, snoozing softly. Both fillies were having nightmares lately, so Autumn had them sleep with him for the duration.

“I don’t know,” he said, softly, meaning it. After his visit to Derpy, he returned home and a few days later, Ditzy came back. They went through the usual song and dance of making up, and for a change it almost seemed as though his wife had meant it this time. But that ended when he got off early from work one day, found an all-too familiar scent in the house, the bedroom window open and Ditzy very conveniently taking a shower.

The argument didn’t go well – she was gone within minutes, shouting something inaudible but clearly designed to hurt him. And as she flew off into the distance, all he could whisper to her retreating form was “Happy Anniversary, dearest wife.” That was two weeks ago, and as per the norm when she was off sowing her wild oats, he hadn’t a clue where she was.

“I don’t know, sunshine,” he told Fluttsy, nuzzling his daughter gently. He knew neither she nor Orange Box was his by blood, but he’d never really cared about that. If he and Ditzy divorced, he would push for custody of his foals by Tartarus or by highwater. And if he remarried, he’d sure as heck look for a better mare than his wife.

“Daddy? Is Mommy mad at us?” Flutterwonder asked, the look in her eyes worried.

“Of…of course not, Fluttsy. She’s just…busy.” He fought not to spit out that last word in anger. He would be infuriated with Ditzy, but never in front of the foals. “What makes you say that?”

“At school, Miss Butterfly Wishes said that Watermelon Splash was gonna hafta go to a different school because her mommy and daddy are di…dee...diver….”

“Divorcing?” he asked, and she nodded. Makes sense. Watermelon’s father had been one of Ditzy’s trysts, and obviously his wife hadn’t cared for that; it was entirely possible that either of Autumn’s daughters had been sired by that other stallion.

“Are you and Mommy…?”

I wish I could say yes, he told himself. I wish I could say I am, we’re leaving and we’re going to live with your aunt, who will be your new Mommy and will be a billion times better one. But Derpy had closed that door for him for their sakes; and right now Fluttsy needed more comforting words than the truth. “Of course not, sweetie. Your mother and I are fine.”

“Then why isn’t she here?” Fluttsy wailed.

“Because she’s busy, Fluttsy. Sometimes some ponies are very busy and…have to work long hours. Remember when I had to leave you with your grandparents for a few weeks because I had to go on a business trip?” When she nodded, he said, “Your mother’s…even…busier than that. But when she comes home, we’re always happy, right?” Because Ditzy has at least enough sense not to fight in front of the foals, he mused.

“But I need her now! The Filly’s Day Festival at School is in two weeks, and I can’t do it if Mommy’s not there,” Fluttsy moaned.

“Your Mom might not be home in time,” Autumn sighed, trying not to show the rising anger with his wife that he felt. Damn you, Ditzy – of all the times I need you here and not screwing every pony you can get your hooves on, it’s now! But instead, he smiled and asked, “But have you written your Aunt Derpy? You know she would be glad to help if she can.”

The filly’s eyes brightened like Celestia’s sun; why hadn’t she thought of that? was the look clear on her face. “Daddy, that’s a great idea! Will you help me write a letter to Aunt Derpy?”

He nodded. “Of course, sunshine. Go get a paper and pencil and I’ll help you.”

Fluttsy pranced off happy as a lark before stopping and turning to look back at her father with a guilty glance. “Daddy? Sometimes…sometimes I wish Aunt Derpy was my Mommy.”

“Sweetie, you shouldn’t say things like that,” he gently scolded. She nodded and went off to get the paper, leaving Autumn to silently say to himself, “But so do I, Fluttsy. So do I.”

Oriental Blossom had dropped off Sparkler, who was somewhat shaking. “I just found out that I have to be out of town for a couple of days,” Derpy told the unicorn mare. “I’ll take her with me. You don’t mind, do you?”

While Blossom had never been on good terms with Derpy before, she was downright venomous with her now. Giving the gray pegasus a once-over look and muttering something about “knocked-up”, Blossom then added, “Look, if you lose the runt, I don’t care. Just don’t get me in trouble, got that?” then wheeled and walked away before anything else could be said.

Derpy instead looked at her charge. As Blossom walked away, Sparkler started to calm down slightly. She was especially calm once Derpy nuzzled her, cooing, “There, there, sunshine. I’m here for you. Are you okay?”

The little filly nodded slightly, relaxing finally. “I’m…okay. It’s just that Mommy and Daddy were yelling at each other and it was really scary and stuff. Then Mommy yelled at me.”

Derpy’s jaw firmed up. When the unicorns returned, the pegasus would have to have a chat with Blossom about being a parent. She might be told it was none of her business, but there was no reason at all to yell at a filly as young as Sparkler. Besides, right now Sparkler was her charge. “Sparkler, I have a surprise for you: I have to go on a trip tomorrow, and how would you like to come with me?”

Sparkler’s mouth opened in an o of astonishment. “Really?”

Derpy nodded. “We’ll be flying, too.” Fortunately, she had the spare saddle harness from when her nieces visited, and it would easily fit Sparkler. “Promise.” That was enough to set the unicorn off, and soon Derpy had a hyper filly running around the house, from time to time hopping as if she were trying to flap wings and shouting, “I’m gonna fly!”

Derpy smiled, imagining Sparkler for a second – just a second – as the unborn foal growing within her. But doing that brought up mental images of her, Autumn and a family, living together in love, a love they could never have. Part of her wanted to cry, but it was clear that Sparkler needed comfort – something was happening to her family – and Derpy would have to be the bedrock for this poor foal.

The two spent the rest of the night making dinner, working a bit on the Stereolab – Derpy wouldn’t turn it on again until she was sure all possible protections were in place – and then played a couple of games of Cloudbusters with Sparkler until the unicorn yawned. With that, Derpy put the young foal to sleep, and then went over to her shelves to start researching about Appaloosa; if she was being chosen by Cadance to serve in an official capacity as a liaison, then she wouldn’t let the princess down, friend or not. Besides, she was bringing along Sparkler, and while she figured it was safe, Derpy would be sure to take precautions.

It was finally closing up on midnight by the time Derpy went to bed. To her surprise, she found Sparkler there, a frightened look on her face. “Miss Derpy? Ca—”

Derpy smiled. “Of course you can sleep with me tonight,” she said, crawling into bed. She put her foreleg around the small filly and nuzzled her. “Good night, sunshine.”

Sparkler must have been so tired at that point, she whispered a “G’night, Mama,” while falling fast asleep in Derpy’s forelegs. Knowing that someday she’d hear those words on a regular basis, Derpy fell asleep, dreaming of a loving husband that was hers. While she could never have him in her life, dreams were always a different story.

Morning came. The two had eaten breakfast and Derpy had just started to explain the flight rules and how the safety saddle worked when there was a knock on the door. Derpy opened it to find an unfamiliar earth pony standing there in the barding of a Guard. He was nervous, several years younger than her – couldn’t have been older than 22 – and junior ranked. Standing ramrod straight, he threw a salute with the squeaky clean precision of someone just out of basic training. “Ma’am! The 37th Combined Guard Cohort is here to escort you to Appaloosa, ma’am!” he said, voice booming with uncertain authority.

“Good day to you, sir.” She knew he had to be from Canterlot, because she knew just about everypony in the local garrison and they wouldn’t be this formal around her. She eyed him carefully: the young soldier stood there, the muscles just rippling under his dark gray coat, though the military-short manecut made his bluish-silver mane look too short to attract any mares. But otherwise, he seemed like the typical stallion that served in the military.

A sudden thought came to her: did Cadance send someone single to flirt with Derpy? As just as soon as she thought that, the pegasus shook her head at the silliness of that, as Cadance had to be more professional than that.

Then again, she is the Avatar of Love….

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, a flicker of nervousness in his eyes for the moment. “Permission to speak, ma’am,” he finally said.
She favored him with a sincere smile. “Look, Private—”

“Silversteel, ma’am.”

“Silversteel. My understanding is that we were going to fly there under our own wingpower.”

Silversteel shook his head. “No, ma’am. That is, that was the case but no longer, ma’am.”

“Derpy. Just Derpy. No titles or anything like that necessary, Silversteel.”

He relaxed audibly at that. “Well, truth be told, that was the original plan: that you were going to fly under the escort of the Wonderbolts and a couple other Pegasus Combat Centurias, but something happened yesterday. The rebels have hired soldiers of fortune to fight for them, and because of that, Her Majesty ordered a complete combat expedition to put them down, which means that peace negotiators such as yourself will be heavily protected for your safety. We’ll be flying out the entire cohort, all one thousand troops, so you’ll be heading to Appaloosa on our newest combat airship. Personally, I think it’s needless overkill, but….”

Derpy arched a brow. “But?”

“My sergeant informed me that Lieutenant Shining Armor is watching your escort closely and that if we screw up, we’re on KP for the next twelve lifetimes – if we’re lucky. If we’re not, we’re going to have to explain what we did wrong to Princess Cadance herself.”

Derpy rolled her eyes and chuckled. Really, Shining, is it that necessary? “Don’t worry. I know the lieutenant and her highness and as long as you do your job, I’ll give them a glowing report.”

“Uh, that’s not really necessary.”

“So when do we go, Miss Derpy?” Sparkler asked.

Silversteel looked down at the filly, and then back to Derpy. “Uh, we…weren’t informed about—”

“Glowing report with a recommendation for a medal and promotion,” Derpy said smoothly.

Silversteel looked at the mare, then the filly, then at his armor’s left breast, where his rank was. As befitting the rank of a private, it was completely blank. He then for a second imagined a higher rank on there, like corporal or sergeant…maybe even warrant officer or lieutenant…. “Right, then. Well, as soon as you ladies are ready to go, I’ll be happy to help you with any luggage that you have.”

“Thank you, Silversteel. I promise I’ll be out of your mane once we get to Appaloosa.”

He shook his head. “Sorry, Derpy, but…the lieutenant assigned me as your personal bodyguard. Which means until we return, I’m within protective distance of you, 24/7.”

Derpy grumbled. Yeah, Avatar of Love, alright. “Fine. Let me go get our bags and we can depart.”

Chapter Three: Serene Velocity

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All in all, Derpy mused, I could get used to this. The trip to Appaloosa would take a day and a half by airship, and as a government dignitary Derpy was entitled to a stateroom. This was confirmed a few seconds later when the ship’s master, a rough and tumble pegasus named Bowsprit, came down to introduce herself. “If there’s anything you need aboard the Serene Velocity, all you have to do is ask and my crew is at your command…uh, may I ask what your title is, ma’am? I’d like to inform the crew, so they don’t get it wrong.”

Derpy thought about that for a second. “Just ‘Derpy.’ I’m…rather informal. Technically I have doctorates in engineering, non-alchemical chemistry and non-thaumaturgical studies, but…well, I always think of my father when anyone says ‘Dr. Hooves.’ Well, that or my cousin, but Time Turner prefers to use a W in front of his name for some reason.” She waved it off. “Anyway, just Derpy is fine.”

The Fleet officer thought about that for a moment. “Dr. Hooves it is, then. I’ll inform the crew.” Derpy could only give a wan smile as Bowsprit departed, giving time for Derpy to sit down and mouthwrite out a quick note. She then held it over a nearby lamp in the room. The letter quickly turned into ash and blue smoke, which quickly disappeared into nothingness. The note was to let Cadance know that she’d embarked the Serene Velocity safely and that they were on the way.

A few seconds later, Sparkler burst into the room, followed in short order by their bodyguard, Silversteel. “Miss Derpy! Miss Derpy! We got to see the ballers room, an’ the forksail an’ th’ howsir spade says!”

“I think she means the ballast room, fo’c’sle, and hawser spaces,” Silversteel said. “Then again, I’m Guard, not Fleet, so I still can’t make heads or tails of the naval terminology.”

She gave him a smile. “You’re right on all that. I think. Bear in mind I’m just going off my memory and nothing fresh.”

“If half of what I’m told is true, I should probably trust just your off-hoof memory more than the experience of anyone on this ship,” he said with a smile.

Great, he’s flirting. Cadance, we’re really going to have to talk about this. “Listen, Silversteel, I think we should—” She then turned to Sparkler and said, “It’s going to be a long flight, Sparkler. Would you like to take a nap?”

A flash of fear momentarily flitted over the filly’s face. “You two are gonna yell at each other like Mommy and Daddy?”

Derpy bent down and gave the filly a comforting kiss on the forehead, but it was Silversteel who smiled at her gently and said, “No, and that’s a Guard’s promise.”

“Okay!” she said, the incident forgotten. She yawned slightly and that was the cue to take a nap. Now guided by the need to sleep, Sparkler went over and lay down on the bed – well, bunk in nautical terms, Derpy reminded herself – and was soon fast asleep.

“Thank you,” the pegasus told her bodyguard. “Her family has been going through some rough times lately and so I wanted to get her away from that.”

“That’s very sweet of you,” Silversteel said. He then added, “And…look, I know what you’re going to say already. The fact is…yes, I already know why I was sent to do bodyguard duty for you and it has nothing to do with my particular individual talents. And honestly? I just broke up with my fillyfriend a couple of weeks ago, and knowing the lieutenant like I do, he’s probably trying to fix me up with a friend of his. But…I’m…sigh…look, I’ll just lay it out flat: I’m not interested in a relationship, Derpy. No offense or anything, but…I always thought that Exotic Beauty and I would tie the knot someday; we’d been together since, well, forever. And as you can guess, that didn’t happen.”

“What happened, if I may ask?”

He laughed bitterly. “She got blinded by fame and fortune and ended up going with some other guy. Never found out who it was – she didn’t even tell me that much in her goodbye note – but a mutual friend hinted that it was a rich noblestallion. As for me, well, I’ll never make that mistake again, I guarantee – next mare I date I’m going to make sure doesn’t care about glamor or fashion or riches or status or anything like that.” Silversteel then added, “I guess that’s why the lieutenant tried to fix me up with you.”

Derpy wasn’t sure how to read that comment; on one hoof, it could be read as a compliment, but at the same time it sounded like one of her sister’s typical insults. “Thanks. I think.”

Silversteel facehoofed. “No, what I meant was…. Arrrgh!” he grunted, then continued. “I mean, he mentioned a lot that you were very smart and that you’re cute, too – he’s right about that – but that you’re a down-to-earth kind of gal.”

She smiled warmly. Yeah, that’s something he would say. “Well, if it makes you feel better, I’m not looking for a relationship now myself, either. So, friends, right?” She offered a hoof.

He took and bumped. “Of course.”

With that misunderstanding out of the way, she continued. “Okay, next question: what was the real reason things are moving so fast? I figure that from logistics and preparation, a ship this big shouldn’t be ready to go in less than a day unless it was already prepped to go. Which probably means that there were no real plans for flight escort, which means….” She shook her head, then muttered, “Shining, I swear, I’m gonna kick your flank….”

“Beg pardon?” Silversteel asked.

She groaned. “Just your boss outmaneuvering me. He knew I was going to say yes and put all these plans into action ahead of time, didn’t he? Or did Cad…I mean, her highness, Princess Cadance?”

“Truthfully? It was the captain himself – Old Soldier – at her majesty’s discretion. I don’t mean to be the one to start rumors, so please keep this in confidence.” He leaned closer and said, “They say that her majesty Princess Celestia is extremely concerned about all of this. In addition to the 37th Combined and the Serene Velocity, there are four other cohorts and three heavy airships on standby for immediate deployment to Appaloosa. I already admitted that I think this is all overkill – I mean, we’re just talking about a bunch of overweight ponies in robes running around shouting prayers to the moon and threatening to take over Equestria – but once they started talking mercenaries, that got my attention.”

“I see,” Derpy said, now suddenly not feeling as sure about coming out here on this assignment – or bringing along Sparkler, for that matter. She looked towards the bed and the small lilac furball snoozing softly, and a stitch of worry went across her face.

“I’ve had better days,” Autumn said to himself as he approached Berryville. All in all, things at work were improving, and both Fluttsy and Orange got a full night’s sleep, which meant they’d be okay to sleep in their own beds again soon. In fact, the only thing that hadn’t improved was – surprise, surprise – his relationship with his wife. Of course, even that had a bright side: she came home that night, wanting to spend time with her daughters. Of course, she’d wondered where the third foal was – honestly, she didn’t even know how many foals she’d birthed? Now that was a scary notion – and Autumn had to remind Ditzy of that.

But they’d talked. And she told him that she loved him. And, maybe even in an attempt to show it, she’d stayed the night. He wasn’t sure if that was for the girls’ sake or his. And, of course, by morning she was gone. But things between them had become even more complicated than previous and there was little chance of that ever changing. And he needed someone to talk to. Even if it was just her. And even if it was just nothing but talking.

Landing in front of Derpy’s house, he was surprised to find another mare in front, watering her plants. “Oh, are you here to see Derpy?” the mare asked. “Hi, I’m Raspberry Scone,” she replied, offering a hoof. “And you are?”

He returned the greeting. “Autumn Mist.”

Her face scrunched up in a frown. “Ah, I see – well, you arrived a little too late to chew her out, but I promise you that all of her friends did. And we tried. Really. But, you know that mare: when she gets her mind set on something….”


Sconey just gave him a look he was well familiar with: the kind of look that said somepony did something stupid. “I mean, she’s pregnant with…whatername’s foal…August Wind, I think? Yeah, and she goes and does this.”

He tried to keep the panic from his face. Oh, Derpy, what have you done? “I’m…sorry, I don’t understand.”

“She….” A thought suddenly crossed Sconey’s mind: what if he’s related to August Wind? “I don’t think…ah, nevermind.”

Panic was really starting to set in now. “Look, miss, I really need to know what happened to Derpy. You see….” He tried to think of an excuse that would work – or at least one that was believable. “Uh, her sister Ditzy – my wife – needs to see her and it’s rather important.”

Sconey gave him a lidded look. “Now I know you’re lying. I’ve met Ditzy, and I know she’s such a tail-lifter that…look, you can’t be Ditzy’s husband. I’m not stupid, okay? Who are you, really?”

Autumn facehoofed; apparently his wife’s predilections were far more known than expected. “How do you know my wife?”

“Your…‘wife.’ Right. Yeah. Sure. Well, not that it’s any of your business, but that freak tried putting the moves on me! Hell, I wouldn’t touch her even if I was a stallion! Then again, if you were really her husband, you’d be into that kind of….” Sconey’s eyes narrowed. “Well, maybe you are, you creep.”

“What did I say?”

Sconey grinned, a confusing sign that she hadn’t meant it. “Look…it’s obvious that you tried to pull a fast one on me about Ditzy, but I know better. And…look, I’m just worried about Derpy, okay? I don’t want her to get in trouble. You really aren’t married to August Wind, are you?”

Wait…I thought August was male. Unless she…. He was getting a headache from all this. So instead, he decided to just go along with this whole thing. It might just make even less sense then, which seemed to be de rigeur for the moment. “Okay, yeah, you got me. Actually, I’m her…cousin. From Sunhillow – I was on the way to Canterlot and decided I’m come swing by to see her. My aunt and uncle…her parents…said she’s had a rough time lately, so I’d thought I’d check on her. And I don’t know who August Wind is. Probably a cousin from the other side of her family.”

The red mare sighed in relief. “Good. She’s a really good friend of mine and she’s got enough problems as is. Thing is, she was hired for a special government project, so she’s going to be gone for a week or so out to the warzone.”


She thought about it for a second. “Heh, and I thought we in Berryville were provincial. You guys in Sunhillow must not get any news, huh? Anyway, not too long ago some demon spawn army attacked Appaloosa and Princess Celestia decided that only Derpy, using the power of science, could defeat the forces of evil, rescue the princess and save the day. Or…wait…was that the book I was reading the other day?” She gave him a slightly embarrassed smile. “Uh, nevermind. Anyway, though, Derpy’s off on some government business and she’ll be back in a week. It’s just…well, I know Castor told her not to go, but like I said, you know her.”

“Do you know where she went? I think I should check up on her.”

“Only if you’re a Guardspony. Otherwise, real hush-hush stuff from what I’m told. Look, I’m sorry you went out of your way to see your cousin and took this trip for nothing, but…are you hungry? I just finished up watering her plants, and before I get back to my farm I was going to stop by Sandwich Harry’s, if you’d like to come.”

“I appreciate the offer, but…I really should get going,” Autumn said, his heart sinking. “I wasn’t planning to stay long anyway. But I’ll take a raincheck on that, okay?”

The rest of the day Derpy sat in her cabin, reading up on a few science journals. Sparkler kept herself busy with coloring or reading, and Silversteel…she turned to look out the corner of her eye and there he stood, by the room’s door…er, hatch, trying to be the perfect picture of military readiness and bearing. He’d emulated being a statue for hours on end, pausing only to use the head or grab some food from the mess decks.

Finally, as the ship rang four bells on the first watch – Derpy’s mind quickly calculated that as around ten in the evening – she turned to look at him. “Uh, aren’t you exhausted by just standing there all day?”

“As your bodyguard, I cannot afford to falter. I must ensure your safety at all times.” However, his stance was a little less imposing than it had been during the day. The armor was clearly wearing him down.

She gave him a disarming smile. “Even on a warship?”

He sighed. “I just…look, the lieutenant asked me to look after you and I promised I would do so. So I have to do my duty.”

“How about you do your duty outside of the berthing, and inside you can just relax, okay? I already know you’ll do everything to protect me and Sparkler, but you can’t do so if you’re wound up all the time. Besides, you’ve been in uniform all day and that barding has to be heavy.”

He nodded, grateful for her concern. “Thanks.” With that, he took off his barding and just slumped down on the floor. As he did, Derpy quickly turned around. He was far more handsome than expected and…yes, because I need yet another complication in my life right now. She’d said she wasn’t interested and it was best to stick to that.

If he noticed her sudden change in mood, though, he didn’t say anything about it. “So, what are you reading?”

She went back to the pile of papers on the desk. “Some research journals and texts that I requested from the Royal Canterlot Library regarding the situation. Most of them are about Appaloosa and the surrounding bison tribes – it’s a sad fact that we ponies haven’t treated them entirely with the respect accorded a fellow sapient species – but a few are regarding this Nightmare Army. For some reason, most of the texts I needed are locked up in a secure section of the library with only a few having access to it. They’ll try to get the documents for me and then speed-courier them to the Appaloosa garrison, but I’m not hopeful.”

“Well, I know I’ve said this before, but I’m amazed at how smart you are. I’m surprised you’re just a mare living in a small town instead of a tenured professor at the Royal Canterlot University or head of the research labs at the Mage Guild’s science wing or something.”

“My eyes,” she said with all-too familiar resignation. “Because of my eyes.” She looked away a little; he’d clearly been kind enough not to mention them and now all of that was going to go away.

But instead, he did something else. “For what it’s worth, I never really noticed,” he admitted. “I mean…oh…you’re going to think I was just looking at your flank if I say anything else, won’t you?”

She laughed. “You know, you’re the first stallion I’ve met that said something and was afraid it was going to sound really feathered up. Thanks. I appreciate that. So you’ve got nothing to worry about, Silver. And I appreciate the compliment. Even if I know you took a look once or twice.”

He had the decency to blush and it warmed her heart a little. “I…uh….”

“Thanks. It makes a girl feel special, even if I don’t want a relationship.” She looked outside the portal, seeing the few stars that poked through the evening clouds…and the spikes outside. Wait…spikes? “Where are we?”

“Well, if I remember the briefing correctly and the plotted course, we were going to head on a due course roughly following the Lusitano River and over the Lake Vanner area. That’s why we needed the extra half-day of travel, in order to travel a safer path. Why?”

She pointed out the porthole. “That doesn’t look like any lake I know of!” He rushed to the window and noticed the same thing instantly. “C’mon, let’s get up to the bridge. I’m wondering what the heck’s going on, as well as where we are.”

It was that exact moment that Sparkler decided to wake up. “Miss Derpy, Mister Silversteel, is something wrong?”

“No, muffin,” Derpy responded. “Silver and I have to go up to the bridge to meet with the ship’s master. We’ll be back soon.”

She yawned slightly before asking, “Can I go?”

“No, little one. It’s past your bedtime.”

“Nuh-uh! I always stay up this late, since…since Mommy and Daddy yell at each other all the time so it’s hard to go back to sleep,” she said, sounding both sad at the unhappiness in her home and proud that she was able to stay up late like a big girl.

“Well, if I let you go, you have to promise that you’ll go to bed afterwards. I’ll be going to bed soon too, and you’re just gonna have to keep me company, okay?”

“Plus,” Silversteel said with sudden seriousness, “if you don’t get some sleep when Derpy says so, I have been fully authorized by her majesty Princess Celestia to administer tickles.”

Sparkler looked on in awe. “Really?” she asked.

“Regulation 3241.P of the Royal Equestriani Tickle Code,” he said gravely.

The filly looked at Derpy who shrugged. “It’s the law, Sparkler. My hooves are tied.”

“Okay,” she said, sounding a little worried – of all the ponies she didn’t want to get in trouble with, the princess was high on that list. She shuffled her forelegs nervously, as if she was in trouble already.

Derpy noticed it and scooped the filly up in a hug. “You’ll be fine, muffin. I promise.”

“Can I bring my Smartypants doll?” It was one of the filly’s cherished objects. On one of the occasions that Shining Armor had visited her, Derpy had been babysitting Sparkler. On a whim, he went down to the toy store and came back later with the “Jeweled Majesty Smartypants” dress set and Sparkler had cherished it ever since.

“Only if you want,” Derpy said before Sparkler rocketed over to the bed to go get it. As she did, Derpy looked at Silver, a smile on her face. “Tickle Code?”

He flashed her a smile. “Believe it or not, it exists. Apparently a couple of centuries ago a captain of the guard had no idea how to control his unruly foals. So he wrote this Tickle Code with a whole bunch of regulations and such, allowing a guardspony to tickle a foal until it got him or her to behave. Somehow, Princess Celestia found out about it and with a royal proclamation made it legal and Guard enforceable. Granted, it’s not exactly anything in active usage nowadays, but it makes for a fascinating piece of history – as well as a good way to control foals,” he added with a flourishing bow.

“That’s great. I’ll have to keep that in mind,” she said as Sparkler duly returned with Smartypants. Derpy placed the filly on her back and giving a quick nod to Silversteel before the duo left the berthing space, walked into the passageway and towards the bridge.

Ditzy stood outside the door to the home, its lights on. In the window Autumn Mist played with his foals, hugging them, holding them close. Unaware she was doing so, Ditzy reached out towards her home, not quite touching it but stretching out towards it as though it was a goal perpetually removed from her grasp. Tears burned in her eyes as she tried to take a step several times towards the house, only each for each footfall to never complete and for her to remain in place.

Why can’t I go in? That’s my house. That’s my husband. Those are my foals. Flutt… and…the other one and – what’s the name of the third one? At the recollection of that, or rather lack of, she walked away. She couldn’t remember her foals’ names. A mother – a real mother – would have remembered such things. Sorrow turned to anger as she realized something else: Derpy would have remembered – Derpy always remembers. Her features contorted into anger as she became infuriated. Derpy was always better. Despite Ditzy having so many advantages, Derpy always seemed to come out on top. And she sure as buck didn’t deserve it, not with those stupid eyes and that haughty attitude! A shame, too: if her sister hadn’t been such a deformed weirdo, she could’ve been a nice pony to hang with. Maybe they could’ve been friends, as twin sisters were always supposed to be, instead of being just a freaky-eyed arrogant harridelle.

Ditzy instead took to wing, and flew for a long time. She wasn’t sure. She finally landed in a town; it took her a few seconds to recognize as Moorglade, about 120 miles east of the frontier and the edge of the Andalusia plain. For a second, she wanted to find a bar so she could get drunk enough to fly to her sister’s place, confront her and snarl and rage that Derpy wasn’t so much better, that she sweated and crapped and pissed and banged – okay, maybe not that last one – just like any other mare and holding herself on a pedestal to laugh at her sister wasn’t going to be tolerated anymore. But in a town this small, the bars were the kind that even Ditzy best avoided.

She was about to take off and head somewhere else when she heard someone call out, “Ditzy? Ditzy Doo?” The gray pegasus turned around and there was a stallion, a unicorn. Light brown, his mane a soft set of dark brown waves that brought out his citrine-colored eyes.

“Hello, Mahogany,” Ditzy said, smiling; Mahogany was an old friend and playmate, along with his wife Lily Blossom. But a couple of years ago they’d gotten out of the “scene” when they decided to settle down and start a family. “What’re you doing here?”

“Just getting off of work. Late night,” he replied; as a Guild mage, he was in charge of the Guild office in town, he explained. “What brings you to Moorglade? You’re usually not in this part of the country.”

“Bored,” she said, aloofly. “How are you and Lily Blossom doing?”

“Still trying for foals. We just haven’t quite gotten there yet.” He shrugged as he said, “She’s kinda shy now that we’re no longer ‘running in the meadow’ on a regular basis.”

Ditzy gave him a nonplussed look. “Lily? Shy in the sack? You’re kidding, right? She’s entertainment for hours and hours.”
He paused for a second and said, “Well, I figure if I didn’t give you an incentive for joining us, then you might change your mind.”

“I thought you were done with that kind of stuff.”

He gave her a grin. “We are, but…well, you’re an old friend, and we haven’t seen you in a while and…y’know, just for old times’ sake. Besides, that thing you do with your tongue? Drives me wild.”

“Well,” she said, looking at him, “She and I can be the warm up act, and then if you want to join us….” She said nothing further as he kissed her and then pointed with his horn in the direction of his house. She brushed up against him sensually as they walked towards his home.

As she entered, Lily was standing there, a wide smile on her face. “Ditzy! It’s been so long! How’ve you been?”

“Missing you,” she said, leaning forward into a kiss. The two went at it for a few minutes before Ditzy broke off and said, “I see you haven’t lost your touch.”

“You neither,” Lily said, blushing. “You still do that thing with your tongue?”

Ditzy nodded. “What about you and the wings?”

“Just for you and Mahogany. I save it just for you two, since you two like it so.”

“Well, ladies, shall we get started?” Mahogany smiled.

“Absolutely,” Ditzy agreed before turning to Lily and said, “So, shall we?”

“Anytime, cousin, anytime.”

As Derpy, Sparkler and Silversteel walked on the bridge, the wheelhouse was a dance of nervous energy. Various fleetponies rushed to and fro, taking care of various things while Bowsprit had a long discussion with an oil-stained unicorn stallion. He saluted and raced down another set of stairs – “ladder”; sooner or later I’m going to get used to these nautical terms, Derpy told herself – and the bridge had an air of tension about it while the fleetponies got back to their duties.

“Is there something wrong?” Derpy asked Bowsprit as she approached the white pegasus.

“Ah, Dr. Hooves. Good that you came to the bridge; I didn’t want to have to wake you up. We’re having a slight problem with the levitation crystal, and—”

“Levitation crystal?” Derpy asked. “One, as in singular?”

“Yes. It’s a Certified Mage Guild levitation crystal in the engineering spaces; it’s of the newest design and I’m told it does the work of three of the old-fashioned ones. In any case, my chief engineer, Capstan, noticed the crystal wasn’t fitted properly and now it’s developed internal cracking as a result. It’s nothing serious, but just to be on the safe side, I’ve ordered the ship to dispense with the previous course and to take us over the Agate Spires.

“Is that safe?” Derpy asked. As a pegasus, she was warned about the Agate Spires just like every other flyer. Just as the Everfree Forest grew out of control due to the wild magic that had been cast during the Moonfall War, the Agate Spires were another place that suffered from the after-effects of that ancient conflict. Once a massive “rock farm” – or what would nowadays be referred to as a quarry – the lingering effects now caused the area to become a forest of needle-sharp, dangerous spikes that one could easily impale oneself on. Worse, just as the Everfree resisted taming, attempts to blunt the Spires led to injuries, maiming and in more than a few cases, death. It was far easier to avoid flying over the 277 square miles of the Spires than it was to risk death by flying over it. Even nowadays, it was more common to redirect air traffic over the Andalusia plain to the north or the forested expanse of Lake Vanner to the south. Flying over the Spires was only done in the case of expediency or emergency, and it was turning out to be the latter.

Bowsprit shook her head. “Truthfully, I’d rather not risk my ship and my crew, but that crystal will give out in a couple of days, if I know my lev-crystals. By going over the Spires, I can cut the trip by half a day and that will give us some lead time so I can get her to the air docks at Port Gayoe. Just, as the senior governmental person onboard this vessel, I thought you needed to know, Doctor.”

“Does that mean we get to Appaloosa faster?” Sparkler yawned, hugging her Smartypants doll as she balanced on Derpy’s back.

The gray pegasus craned over and gave the filly a kiss on the cheek. “Yes it do—”

The ship suddenly shuddered and listed hard to left, throwing everyone off balance. Sparkler was tossed violently off Derpy’s back, with the pegasus having no time to react; fortunately, Silversteel dived to catch her. But just as he did, the ship jolted to the other side, throwing the crew in the opposite direction. Bowsprit unfortunately picked that exact moment to forget she was a pegasus and went sliding back, crashing into the binnacle with a sickening-sounding snap. The bos’un noticed immediately and shouted into a horn, “First Mate to the bridge! Medic to the bridge!”

Derpy rushed to Bowsprit’s side, noting that she was knocked out, and the crack had been her wing breaking from the impact. But as she did that, she got a good view of the panicked looking face on the helmspony. “What’s up?”

“Ma’am, we’re losing altitude. Something’s wrong.”

Before Derpy could ask a further question, a shout came over the broadcast crystal on the roof of the wheelhouse: “Skipper, this is Engineering! We have a problem – the cracks in the lev-crystal were deeper than we expected and it shattered. We are without power, repeat, we are without power.”

“Capstan, how long will it take before you can fit a spare?” That came from Marlinspike, the ship’s first mate. Behind him a medic, a unicorn, rushed into the room, taking stock of the situation and wrapping Bowsprit in a protective aura before teleporting back to sickbay.

“What spare? We’re the newest ship in the fleet, so we’re not scheduled to receive a backup for another two months!”

“Any possible way to repair it?”

“Yeah, if you can somehow magically make me a Guild mage with a specialty in lapidimancy, sure,” Capstan said, dripping sarcasm. "Otherwise, no can do.”

“So we’re going to have to evacuate?” Marlinspike asked. “How are we going to pull that off?”

“Don’t know, sir. But I’ll do what I can down here – I’m just not sure it’s much. Capstan, out.”

“Is there a problem?” Derpy asked.

Marlinspike faced her, his face ashen. “Well, ma’am, I’ll put it to you bluntly: yes. This ship crews 500. With bringing the 37th onboard, we have an extra complement of 1000 ponies to worry about, minus the 250 pegasus combat troops that were sent ahead – so we’ve got 750 ground-pounders here. Which leaves us a grand total of seventeen pegasi – two of which are you and our now-injured skipper – to somehow ferry nearly 1250 earth ponies and unicorns to safety. And before you ask: this warship was recently ensorcelled with a nullification spell that counters the natural pegasus ability to negate weight for anything they touch; that was done in case the Nightmare Army has combat-able pegasi of their own.”

“Plus,” Silversteel added, “the unicorns onboard are either engineers, medics or Guard, not Guild mages. They won’t have the range to teleport us out of the Spires and I’m not sure what else we can do.”

“So you’re saying we’re going to d—” Derpy cut herself off from finishing the sentence; Sparkler was too young to be exposed to this.

He shook his head. “Ma’am…you’re a civilian. If things come to, take your daughter and get out of here, abandon ship. I’ll send the other pegasi with you to provide escort to Appaloosa as ordered. The rest of us, well…it’s something that we knew was a potential risk when we joined our respective services, but we’ll go out with the honor of military ponies, I promise you that.”

Derpy’s mind raced. I can’t let them die – if Bowsprit said I was the senior person onboard the ship, ultimately they’re my responsibility, even if I’m not in the military. But what can I do? It’s not like I can replace the crystal. She walked outside, to the bridge wings, looking at the ground, looking at the speed of the ship, and the hull, doing quick calculations. Ballpark guess: three hours left before crashing, and that’s if any of the Spires aren’t higher – hard to see in this cloudy evening.


Cloudy evening. The gears in her mind started turning at a furious pace. A project she’d first worked on at MIT with a couple of other students. It was one of the few times she couldn’t picture something, but they’d done it and proved her wrong – and she was never happier to be proven wrong, because it taught her a few life lessons. Lesson One: never give up – thanks, Professor Lever Pulley. Lesson Two: be the Hooves you want to be – thanks for that one, Papa. And Lesson Three: always see more than my eyes can ever see. Thank you, Mama.

As she walked back in, Marlinspike began with, a “We’ve got a hair over three ho—”

She cut him off. “That’s three hours I can save this ship in, Mister Marlinspike. I want all capable pegasi to meet me on the bow in twenty minutes.” She turned to Silver. “Do you have any light pyrotechnic unicorns and weaponsmiths with the cohort, Silversteel?”

“I’ll talk to the warrant officer. I’m sure we do, why?”

“Have them meet me down in the engineering spaces in five minutes. I also want the mess cooks down there as well.”

“The…mess cooks?” Marlinspike looked at her as if she’d lost her mind.

“Mister Marlinspike, I’m the seniormost government official on this ship right now. I don’t know where that puts me in the chain of command, but I do know this much: if I’m going to save lives, I’ll bully my way through everyone like I was Commander Hurricane himself, got it?” She then turned to Sparkler, giving the filly a comforting smile. “I’ve got the most important job for my number one assistant, okay?”

Sparkler nodded. “Uh, huh, Miss Derpy!”

“Good. I want you to go back to our room and grab my green bag. You’ll have to use your magic to carry it, and that means you’ll have to leave your Smartypants behind, but it’s important. Can you do it?” She nodded eagerly and scampered off, ready to get the job done.

“Now then, how do I get to Engineering?” she asked Marlinspike.

“Fourth deck, amidships. Entrance is via the portside passageway,” he responded.

“Get busy, gentlestallions,” she told them, before heading to the ladderway that took her belowdecks. Unfortunately for her, Sparkler had closed the door as she’d departed and with Derpy’s eyes, she misjudged everything, walking right into the door and smacking into it painfully. She collapsed down the ladderway, body parts colliding with each step until she clattered on the ground, crumpled. But she was used to it and called back up, “Whoops! My bad!” before she rocketed down the passageway, heading to the engineering spaces.

The group of fleetponies looked at where the previously-inspiring pegasus was a second ago. She was gone now…and so was the inspiration. “You’re telling me she’s going to save us all?” Marlinspike said, aghast.

“Eyup,” Silversteel said, noting her thinking under pressure and charismatic nature…and wondering if he should revise his thoughts on not dating so soon after his breakup. “I believe sh…no, I know she will.”

The moment she entered the space, she noticed the broken shards of sky-blue crystal scattered around the room. She also noticed Capstan, trying to put them together in vain by using his magic to fuse them together; unfortunately his power wasn’t strong enough and he failed, the fused shards disintegrating into even tinier pieces. “We are soooo doomed,” he moaned.

She raced up to him and said, “I can fix this, but I’ll need your help.”

He looked at the newcomer with her walleyes and clearly unmilitary attitude. “Lady, unless you’re Princess Celestia herself, I don’t see how….”

Derpy shook her head. “And you call yourself an engineer? Please. Any engineer worth his wrench can fix anything in ten seconds flat. Engineers aren’t just ponies who sit down and wait for what comes next – we make it happen!”

You’re an engineer?”

She bowed. “Derpelle Jessica Hooves, Eng.D., Ph.D., Sci.D., at your service. Scored top in my class at the Maresechussetts Institute of Technology.”

He looked baffled for a second. “Wait, you went to….” He suddenly went silent as things clicked in his brain. “Wait – you’re that pegasus that was the first to go to MIT in generations! I was a freshpony there when you graduated!” A grin suddenly came up on his face. “Whatever plan you’ve got, I want to hear it!”

Just in time, Sparkler raced into the Engineering Room, bag in both teeth and aura. “Mith Therpy!” she mouthed before letting go of the bag. “I have the bag here!” She was enveloped in a hug as a reward, giggling at the attention.

“Good.” She pulled a scroll out of the bag, rolling out, saying, “I’ve been meaning to see if these things work on a large enough scale. I mean, the theory is sound, and the prototype is being built in Marechester.” She looked at Capstan and said, “I provided some consulting on it for a friend of mine.”

Capstan glanced over the plans…and his jaw dropped. “Holy Celestia…this…this is amazing!” He looked at her with nothing less than sheer awe. “You’ve got my 110% help, Doc!”

“Just ‘Derpy’ will suffice. I’m not hung up on titles.”

Hooves thundered down the steps and in walked two huge stallions, both unicorns, followed by an earth pony mare and a unicorn mare.

“Dr. Hooves, Sergeant Arbalest and Corporal Ironforge, reporting for duty, ma’am,” the slightly larger of the two military stallions reported. “They’re waking up Corporal Bright Ember – she’s our pyrotechnician and should be along shortly.”

“Cherry Berry here, ma’am,” the earth pony replied, “but I’m at a loss as to why I’m needed off the mess decks.”

“Yeah, and I was just making some pastries for midnight rations,” the unicorn mare replied. “I’m Kiwi Tart, by the way.”

Derpy looked at all of them, focusing hard so her eyes would straighten. It hurt like hell, but she needed them to not see her eyes for a change and blow it all. “Okay, here’s the plan. I…ow….” Her head was starting to throb; she never lasted long when doing this.

“Are you okay, Doctor?” Arbalest asked. While his concern was touching, she needed him to focus on other things.

“Unicorn’s curse,” she lied glibly. “Had it treated when I was a filly, but every now and then I get a magic spike. Anyways, I’ll need you to round up every piece of metal on this ship, I don’t care what it is. Afterwards, you’re going to reshape the metal following Capstan’s exact orders as to what shapes and sizes we need. I’m not going to lie; it’s not going to be easy. But it’s the only shot we have.” Turning to Capstan, she said, “Everything you need is either on the blueprints or my workbag. Talk to Sparkler here, she knows my bag inside and out.” Turning to the filly, she said, “Can you help Engineer Capstan, muffin?”

“Okie dokie loki!” Sparkler said in her most chipper voice.

“As for you two ladies, I need you to take apart all of your cooking equipment and bring the heating crystals here, all of them.” With that, she raced out the door. “Capstan, I’ll be back in twenty to check on your progress!”

“Wait, where are you going, Doctor?” Arbalest asked.

“To get some clouds, of course!” And with that, she was gone.

Arbalest looked at the location where the pegasus had been just a few seconds ago. “Get some clou…is she nuts?”

“Yes,” Capstan said, a wide grin on his face. “And if you want to live, you had better hope she’s as batty as the Princess herself.”

“You want us to what?” A pegasus mare, one of the bos’un’s mates, looked at her in shock. “We ain’t weather ponies, ma’am.”

“Then you’d better learn,” Derpy told the fifteen pegasi before her. Including her, all were present save for Bowsprit, who was still unconscious. “I need you to gather up all the rainclouds within a fifteen mile radius of the ship, set them on the deck here and make sure they stay here until I need them.”

“To what, wash the ship before we get turned into pincushions?” a second pegasus, a quartermaster, looked at her oddly.

“Just do it, please,” Derpy asked. “We pegasi are the only ones standing between the ship running aground and safely going home. I know what I’m asking you is weird, but it’s the only chance the others have.”

There was a laugh from an aged, weathered pony the same color as Derpy, one of the chiefs in charge of the deckhooves. “I don’ know whut yer up ter, but these ol’ wings were looking forward ter retirement. But I can’t walk off th’ brow, knowing I didn’t turn to in oder ter save my fellow Old Saltlicks. Ya wan’ those rainclouds, ya got ‘em.”

“But Chief Mizzenmast—” the second pegasi started, but was cut off by a nasty look from the aged pony.

“Shut yer pie hole, Dittybag. Doc Hooves here told ya t’ turn to,” Mizzenmast ordered, “an’ yer gonna turn to or I’ll keelhaul ya from stem ta stern, got that?”

“Aye-aye, Chief.”

“I can’ hear any of ya!” the chief bellowed.

“AYE AYE, CHIEF!” the fourteen remaining fleetponies said in unison, snapping to attention before launching into the sky, racing in every direction to find rainclouds.

“Thanks, Chief,” Derpy replied.

Mizzenmast laughed. “Worth it. I’ll pass t’ Fiddler’s Green a happy Old Saltlick just fer this last adventure. Ya got m’ thanks, Doc,” he said as he spread his haze gray wings and got underway into the deep blue of the night sky.

As the time rolled by, Derpy pushed herself harder than she’d ever done in her entire life; while she’d pulled many all-nighters working on various things, lives were on the line this time and she couldn’t afford more than a second’s breather. She raced back and forth, grabbing clouds and passing them to the two pegasi who offered to remain behind and keep them herded on the deck, then raced below decks to the engineering room to see how Capstan was coming along. To her relief, he’d gotten over his awe of her plans and was now directing the gang and getting things done, though he’d paused long enough to tell her, “If I didn’t already have my own gal, I swear I’d marry you, Derpy.”

“What’s she like?” Derpy asked.

“You’re on her. A fleetpony’s always married to the planks,” he said with a wink, eliciting a laugh out of her – but only for just a moment, as she returned back to her duties back on the deck. The pegasi were rounding them up by the dozens and Chief Mizzenmast even reported that one of them got enterprising enough to grab small loose rainclouds and pour the rain into ones closer to the size they were rounding up. “My lads an’ lassies, when they skylark they skylark with lubberly ways, but when they turn to, ya never seen such a bunch o’ hardworkin’ scallywags,” he said with pride.

Almost close to the time limit, she’d presumed there were enough clouds. She told Mizzenmast to call them in and he blew a shrill call on a type of whistle he called a boatswain’s call. “All right, ya lubbers, heave to and get th’ clouds passed, hoof ta hoof, down the hatch.” They got in line and started passing them, one by one just as Derpy raced down to the bottom.

At the bottom was Silversteel, standing next to Capstan and his engineering gang. “Derpy, are you okay?” he asked. If there was any sign of worry, he kept it to himself.

“Yeah, fine,” she said, dully. He knew that look. She was soaked from sweat and her mane was completely dripping down, drenched as could be. He noticed suddenly that she looked very, very sexy…then put the thought from his mind; it wasn’t something to think of just moments before he might die.

“Capstan, is everything in place?” she said to the unicorn.

“Followed your instructions to the letter, Derpy. We grabbed nearly every piece of metal we could afford to rip off the ship – hell, we even grabbed the figurehead of Serene Velocity herself off the bow – ship’ll look a little barren, but if history’s right about Serene, we’ll, she’d rip it off the bow herself to save the lives of fleetponies.”

She then turned to a fiery orange unicorn mare with a yellow and white mane, standing there. “You Bright Ember?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said, somewhat exhausted. “Been helping Capstan weld some stuff, but I’ll do whatever I can.”

Derpy pointed at the hole on the object she’d had Capstan assemble. “Okay, I want you to fire your most powerful ignition blast at the cooking crystals, and I don’t want you to stop until I say so, okay?”

“Is this really going to work, ma’am?” Bright Ember asked.

“Yup – you’re going to make it work,” the gray pegasus said with a cheer.

“Roger that,” she said, and her horn flared with a bright blue hue. Steeling herself, she fired the beam into the cooking crystals. Thinking she might need help, Arbalest and Ironforge placed their horns on hers, offering their magic as well.

Meanwhile, Derpy turned to the nearest pegasus. “Topsail, right? Start shoving every one of those clouds you’re getting into that chute next to you on the double!”

“Aye-aye, ma’am!” Topsail said, starting to shove the rainclouds in.

Derpy meanwhile raced over to the speakerbox and slapped it. “Bridge, this is Engineering. It’s now or never! Give me readings, helm!” Derpy said, motioning for Sparkler to come next to her. If this didn’t work, she’d have seconds to race to the weatherdecks to take to the air. But she believed in her own hooves.

Silversteel walked up to them. “Derpy, if you’re going to go, now’s the time,” he said.

She shook her head. “No. I know this’ll work.”

He gave her a smile and a quick nuzzle. “I believe in you.” The gesture was rather forward, but Derpy was so focused on the situation, she instead absently nuzzled him back.

From the repeater the call came back:

“Twenty-five feet until impact…twenty feet until impact…fifteen…ten…nine…eight….”

The room went silent, save for a gasp from Bright Ember as she girded herself for the challenge of her life.


Finally sensing something was wrong, Sparkler went over and hugged Derpy. Derpy reached down and shielded the filly with her wings, whispering to her, “I’ll protect you, muffin. I’ll always protect you.”

“…three…two…one…. IMPACT! The ship shuddered and jolted as the Serene Velocity’s keel impacted against the Agate Spires. Bright Ember’s horn blazed even brighter, filling the room with a sky-blue glow as the mare was putting everything she had into it, sucking the magic out of her fellow unicorns who offered their support.

“Derpy, take your foal and go!” Capstan shouted.

“I believe in you!” Silversteel whispered, though whether it was words of comfort or a hasty prayer he was constructing to Celestia he wasn’t sure.

“Miss Derpy?” Sparkler said, looking at her guardian.

“Yes, muffin?” Derpy said, reaching down to kiss the filly.

Sparkler giggled and said, “You’re the best!”

The ship shuddered again…then stopped.

A new call came from the bridge, shouts of joy in the background. “Gaining altitude! Five feet! Ten! Twenty! You did it, Doctor! You did it!” The bellows from the bridge were soon drowned out by the shouts and cheers from throughout the ship as Derpy’s hastily-built invention – the first large-scale steam engine in Equestriani history – replaced the magically-embued air with heated air, forcing the airship out of harm’s way and into the safety of the skies.

Derpy looked at Bright Ember and smiled feebly; suddenly she felt very dizzy and weak. “Okay, you can relax now,” she said, her words starting to slur. “Just keep the crystals charged and we’ll be safe. Capstan, follow the directions on the scroll labeled ‘Thrust Calculations’ and you should be fine. As for me? I’m going to pass out now,” she said as the last of the adrenaline drained from her body and she passed out, spent.

“C’mon, Sparkler,” Silversteel said to the young unicorn. “I think Derpy needs some sleep.”

“Me too,” she said, yawning.

“So do the rest of us,” Kiwi Tart said, and the group laughed.

“Thanks for helping me carry them back to the stateroom,” Silversteel told Dittybag as both females were placed on the bed.

“Private, she just saved the life of every hoof on this ship. For that, I’d carry her to the moon and back if I had to,” he said in awe. “She’s a special gal.”

“She’s a very special gal,” he replied, pulling the blankets over both. Derpy held Sparkler close to her, just like a mother would, the earth pony stallion noticed. To him, it was a beautiful and heartwarming scene.

Dittybag found Silversteel’s tone odd, then put two and two together. “Your gal, I take it?” He clapped his fellow stallion on the back and nodded in approval, then silently left the berthing, closing the hatch.

Silversteel stood there, watching both females for the longest time. Now safe and removed of clouds, the sky was clear and moonlight streamed through the porthole, alighting on Derpy’s face, giving her an angelic, ethereal glow. She suddenly looked more beautiful than any mare he’d ever seen in his life.

He reached over and kissed her on the cheek, thinking of the words he’d just heard a second ago: Your gal, I take it?

He gave himself a small smile. “Maybe,” he said, as he lay down by the door and let himself fall into sleep.

Chapter Four: Promises and Lies

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It was mid-afternoon, well after their scheduled arrival time, when the Serene Velocity approached the docking tower at Fort Appaloosa. Standing on the decks and watching as the sky and anchor detail tied the ship alongside the pier, the fleetponies gave a hearty cheer for their savior, without which they’d be dead.

Derpy blushed. “All I did was to get us back on track. You did the hard stuff, getting out there and putting the steam engine together.”

At her side, Silversteel smiled. “But none of us would be alive if it wasn’t for you.” He went and nuzzled her, and she nuzzled back, appreciative of the gesture.

As the ship was properly moored, Bowsprit, followed shortly by the ship’s company and a cadre of senior officers from the guard, marched up to Derpy and as everypony went to attention, the ship’s master approached. “Dr. Hooves, you saved both my ship and my crew – and me. When you first came aboard I thought you were nothing but another landlubbing paper pusher, but you have the heart of a fleetpony – and I dare anypony to say otherwise.” Bowsprit rendered a salute, followed in quick fashion by the ponies behind her. “Officer of the Deck, ring the lady offshore!”

“Aye aye, ma’am.” Mizzenmast, who currently stood as the Officer of the Deck, rang six bells and struck her off. Feeling a bit giddy from the attention, Derpy smiled and took a step…

…missing the gangplank and falling fifteen feet towards the ground. Forgetting for a moment she was a pegasus, she impacted painfully on the ground, bruising only her pride. She quickly got up, however, and shouted back, “I’m okay!”

The crew of the Serene Velocity turned slightly away from Derpy’s mishap; the ship had survived the day, so the errors of its savior were more than tolerated.

Silver shrugged. “I guess I should go get Sparkler, then,” was all he could say.

Twenty minutes later, Derpy, Silver and Sparkler (riding on the guardpony’s back) were walking through the civilian portion of Fort Appaloosa. Their luggage had been transported to the barracks and that gave the three a little time to walk around the town before they met with Shining Armor in the afternoon. The settlement seemed larger than would be expected for a fort this size, and Derpy noted that sooner or later, it was going to have to expand beyond the walls of the guard fort. “This seems small for a fort, though I’m not really sure,” Derpy began.

“Well, actually, Fort Appaloosa is one of the larger forts in the Guard service,” Silver explained, “but the settlement has well outpaced the expected growth. A few of the civilians here are forming a town committee and plan to recommend to her majesty that the fort be dismantled within the next five years or so and the remains be made just a regular town. The main purpose of the fort now is to sign agreements with the various bison tribes wandering through the area so the settlers can have peace.”

“Is it?” she asked, noting the recent incident with the Nightmare Army.

“That’s part of the reason why you’re here, right? To determine if that’s true or not?”

“True,” Derpy replied, her head catching the hustle and bustle of the town. While it was smaller than Berryville, it was also livelier, reminding her much more of Canterbridge, the city where MIT was, or her own hometown of Pransing. The marketplace bristled with life, various general stores and sundries plied their wares, catering to the desires of both the settlements and those of the nearby bison tribes. Not far from that, the town blacksmith seemed to be doing great business, not only taking care of the settlement’s needs, but if the one guardspony who walked out was any indicator, some military business as well.

Sparkler, however, noticed the candied apple stand, then asked, “Can I have one, Miss Derpy? Please, can I?”

Derpy bent down and nuzzled the filly, then reached into her satchel, pulling out a bit and placing it before Sparkler. “Here you go, but don’t get anything too big, okay?” However, the words were already lost to the filly as she picked up the coin in her telekinesis and galloped over to the stand.

Silver looked at Derpy as she watched the younger pony scamper off. She looked beautiful to him in that moment, a sun-kissed image of beauty and allure. He couldn’t pull his eyes off her; he was completely enchanted by the mare standing next to him. Finally with some effort, he turned and looked in the opposite direction, wondering what was suddenly in control of his heart, and as his heart ached he began to wonder if his decision not to date anytime soon after his recent breakup was a good idea after all.

Out of the corner of her eye, Derpy was completely aware of what had just happened – one of the few advantages of her strabismus. A part of her warmed inside, but she tamped it down slightly. She had to admit, Silver was an attractive stallion, and it was clear that she…no, you do not need that sort of headache right now! she reminded herself. Besides, do you really want to debase yourself like Ditzy? That was enough to snap her out of her reverie.

At once, Sparkler came marching up with a caramel chocolate-covered apple with nuts and sprinkles on it, all wrapped up in the sky-blue of Sparkler’s magic aura. “Miss Derpy? Would you like a bite?”

The gray pegasus shook her head. “No, but thank you for the offer, sunshine.”

The unicorn filly foisted it towards Silversteel, asking, “Would you like a bite, Mr. Silver?”

“Uh, no thanks,” he said, somewhat nervously. “I’ve already had enough, uh, sweetness for the day.”

Sparkler suddenly looked downturned. “You had candy and you didn’t share?”

“Sparkler, I didn’t…that is, I…uh, nevermind.”

Sore in a good way and happy, Ditzy left her cousin’s place after breakfast. It was fun spending time with her favorite cousin, she mused to herself, especially since she knew her favorite cousin’s favorite spots. But she had to work and Mahogany needed to sleep after being worn out by two mares and, urged on by Ditzy’s suggestions, Lily had found a new interest in exploring pregnancy. It would probably mean that she would get with foal for sure and then end their ‘romp in the meadow’ for once and for all, but it was great having one last time with Lily and Mahogany and if it meant they were happy, then so b—

“Ditzy.” The gray pegasus turned and found Cloud Kicker hovering by her, the look on the lilac pony’s unusually somber. “You and I need to talk.”

“Only if it’s just talking and nothing else,” Ditzy replied, a wide grin on her face. “Listen, Cloudy, I just had the most awesome night and I’m completely exhausted. Lily hasn’t lost her touch, an—”

Cloud Kicker dropped to the floor, flittering her wings before looking at Ditzy intently. “Ditzy, we’re friends, right? I mean, aside from the ‘with benefits’ part?”

Ditzy nodded. “Even if I didn’t know all the things you like, yeah, I’d say we’re pretty good friends.”

“So, friends always look out for each other, even when things don’t always seem like it, right?”

“Uh, yeah, of course,” Ditzy agreed, wondering what Cloudy was getting at. She found out a half-second later when Cloudy angrily spun and slammed her hard, the buck strong enough to knock her off her feet and into the air. Cloudy immediately rushed forward and air-tackled the dazed Ditzy before knocking her into a tree. Head still spinning, Ditzy felt herself being pulled to her hindlegs, facing an enraged and, at the same time, crying Cloud Kicker.

“How could you?” Cloudy said, her hushed voice a mixture of sorrow and rage. “Ditzy…how could you?”

“‘How could I’ what?” A lilac hoof immediately lashed out, slamming Ditzy back against the tree. She felt something wet, hot and salty in her mouth, and for once it wasn’t what she thought it was. She raised a forehoof to her mouth, then to her face, seeing blood drawn.

“Why? You have a husband and foals!” Cloud Kicker snarled, shaking. “What are you doing? Why aren’t you with them? Why, Celestia-damnit?”

“What’s your problem?” Ditzy said, wondering what was going on before something kicked in. “Oh, wait – those rules of yours.” She sighed. “Yeah, okay, I lied. I’m sorry. I know how you are about those strange rules of yours, but…we’ve got a good thing, Cloudy, and you’re one of my best gals. We understand each other; we want the same things, right?”

“You,” Cloudy snarled, “don’t understand a damn thing about me, Ditzy. I thought you did, but you never have, have you?”

“Look, I don’t know what I did to make you so angry, but…let me fix it, okay? You’re my friend, and I mean that. I was going to go to work today, and I’m a little sore from last night, but if you need me, I’m always there for you.” She leaned forward, ready to kiss Cloudy…

…only to be pushed away. “Your husband’s name is Autumn Mist. You have a pair of beautiful little fillies by the name of Flutterwonder and Orange Box. They’re adorable and beautiful. And yet, you’re here, banging away, when you should be home, cuddling them and holding them tight.” She let go of Ditzy, turning away as she mumbled something.

“How do you know about…?”

“Because I had to deliver some paperwork yesterday to Autumn for an upcoming coordinated hailstorm planning session between our two offices. I thought he was single at first and we talked a bit, but then he mentioned you – by name – and we talked a little more. I get the feeling that he knows that you and I bang, but that everything’s not really on the up and up. So I want the truth from you, Ditzy.”

Ditzy sighed. “Look…how I deal with my family is none of your business, Cloudy. And why should it matter, anyway? I’m not harming anypony by spending my free time the way I do.”

Cloud Kicker rolled her eyes. “And if you believe that, I’ve got a barn in Ponyville I’d like to sell you. Every moment you’re spending away from your fillies is a moment they grow up without a mother. And in the end, they’ll hate you for that.”

Ditzy wasn’t too thrilled about those words, so she threw them right in her friend’s face. “As if you know about having kids?”

A second later, Ditzy was about to eat those words. Cloudy’s eyes grew narrow with rage before she lashed out again. Ditzy paid the price, taking a hoof to the barrel, dropping her to her hindknees as she collapsed to the ground. For the first time, she was afraid that she was going to be seriously hurt; she’d gotten in trouble with the occasional spouse of one of her trysts, but Cloudy was different – the lilac pegasus had briefly served in the Guard before deciding her lifestyle didn’t quite fit the staid image of a guardspony. But like anypony associated with the military, she still kept in shape, which meant that Cloud Kicker could kick a lot more than just clouds – and Ditzy was now finding out the hard way.

So it was a surprise that she found Cloud Kicker suddenly embracing her and crying deeply, sobbing, “You stupid foal. You stupid, stupid, ignorant idiot.”

Ditzy realized that she’d somehow hit a nerve in Cloud Kicker and, romps aside, she did consider the other pegasus to be a friend. “Hey, you want to talk?”

“No,” Cloudy replied, “But I need to. Let’s go get some coffee.”

Sitting in his office at the weather facility, Autumn Mist was looking at paperwork, though it was something decidedly not involved with his job: specifically, Royal Court Document number D6: Petition to the Royal Court for a Divorce. The “document” was anything but: a small stack of papers, attachments and schedules, so much so that it seemed as if the design of the document itself was intended to suppress divorce itself through the sheer inanity of filling it out.

And yet, if the lawyer I met with yesterday is correct, somehow there’s still an average of two hundred couples divorcing each year. The lawyer had said that couples split all the time and for a number of reasons; as an attorney, she’d said, she’d seen everything from couples cheating on one another to things as stupid as a pegasus married to an earth pony and simply no longer wanted to live on the ground. When he’d informed her about his wife’s ways, the mare was sympathetic…right up until she’d found out the name of his wife. She then gave him the paperwork and referred him to another attorney, a gryphon working in the same office.

“Conflict of interest,” she claimed. In other words…. A part of him wanted to scream, cry and rage, all at the same time. How deep did Ditzy’s betrayals run? Could he quite literally just stop anypony on the street and get a yes to a question he didn’t even want to think about? One of the marriage vows was to “ever be faithful and hold each other in unity.” Their marriage had ceased to be anything but at this point; both of them had cheated, but at least Autumn felt he’d been driven to that point – Ditzy could claim no such thing.

Thankfully, there was a knock on the door and before he could tell the knocker to come in, the door opened. An electric blue pony with a black-and-white mane poked his head in. “Hey, Autumn, got a sec?”

“Yeah, sure, c’mon in, Meteor.” Meteor Flash was one of his friends, and worked as part of the comet spotter division of the Royal Astronomy Service. Because the comet spotters were all pegasi, they had a satellite office here in the weather facility and the two stallions had become fast friends. “What’s up?”

“Oh, just need some advice; been trying to offload that home in Cloudsdale that I inherited from my grandmother when she passed on a few years ago, and checking with my friends to see if they knew anypony looking for a new place.” Meteor dropped into the seat across from Autumn’s desk. “Nice place, and if it wasn’t for my foal we’d move there in a heartbeat.” Meteor, like Autumn, was married to a pegasus, but unlike the olive-hued stallion, Meteor’s wife Daffodil gave birth to an earth pony colt. Also unlike Autumn, Meteor and Daffodil were happily married and the latter stallion probably knew without a doubt the colt was his.

“I’ll check around. There’s a lot of staff transfers coming up around this time every year, and I’m sure we’ll have a few headed towards Cloudsdale. I’ll ask around and see what I can do, okay?”

Meteor grinned. “Thanks, pal. You’re a lifesaver.”

“Don’t mention it.” At least I made somepony happy today, Autumn mused.

“Derpy!” Shining Armor moved as fast as he could to embrace his old friend. “You’ve no idea how much I’ve missed seeing you!”

She smiled as she embraced him warmly. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she said to him, noting his heavily bandaged flank.
“Just a flesh wound,” he admitted, “but the medics insist on me staying off it while it heals.” He led her to a seat before he noticed Sparkler. Hugging her as well, he asked, “And how are you doing, Sparkler?”

She giggled like the happy filly she was. “Mister Shining!” Hugging him, the diminutive unicorn squeed with delight.

Finally, he addressed the last of the trio. “Thanks for watching over them, Private,” he told Silver.

Silversteel saluted. “My absolute pleasure, Lieutenant,” the younger stallion replied, and Shining caught the enthusiasm and response in Silver’s tone.

Shining returned the salute and said to another guardspony in the room, “Corporal, please inform Pvt. Silversteel’s sergeant that I’ll be requiring his services for a bit longer.”

“Yes, sir.” With that, the pony departed on her assignment, leaving the others in the room. Now together, the group was all smiles at the moment, the harrowing adventures of the previous night now just a fading memory.

And then Shining dropped the bomb. “Derpy,” The unicorn stallion said as he sat back at his desk, “I’m a little disappointed in you. When were you going to tell me?”

Derpy looked at him oddly. “I thought you got the message that I was coming. Didn’t the OCP send you a letter?”

He shook his head. “Not about that. I’m talking about this.” He tapped an open letter on the desk. “Just got a flamefax late yesterday from Sconey. She’s worried about you and after reading what she wrote, I’m in complete agreement.” The stallion leaned forward on the desk and said, “If you’d told me that you were along three months, I would’ve insisted you not be here – this is no place for a pregnant mare.”

Sparkler looked at Derpy with a smile and chirped, “So you’re gonna have a foal like my Mommy?”

Silver, however, suddenly reacted as if he’d been stabbed, as a pit sank into his stomach. “You-you’re with foal?” He looked at her with surprise; in the short time he’d known her, she’d struck him as a friendly but wholesome mare, not the kind who’d be a tail-lifter.

Derpy, stunned at the way her friend had just outed her secret, looked as if she was about to cry.

Shining caught that and immediately went into damage control. “Derpy, I’m amazed that you even agreed to it, and it’s an incredible thing you did for your cousin. I just wished you would have told me about it sooner.”

“Shining, I….” she began, then paused, as if in thought. “I’m…sorry. It’s just that…sh—I mean, I was worried about you and so when the OCP said they needed someone, I jumped at the chance.” She didn’t know if Silversteel knew about her friend’s relationship with Cadance, but decided to play it safe; she’d already betrayed him with lies too many times to hurt him further.

“And I appreciate that, as well as certain others, I’m sure,” he replied. “But you have to think about your safety and that of the foal’s.”

“I’ll protect her, Mister Shining!” Sparkler said, moving closer to Derpy before yawning. “But maybe I need a nap, first.”

“That’s a good idea,” Derpy said, feeling ashamed. She’d embarrassed herself in front of one of her closest friends as well as Silver; neither of them w…. Something rose in her and she tamped it down again; she knew what it was in a heartbeat. You only met him just yesterday, she reminded herself, and now you’re going nuts over him? Just after thinking about Autumn, too? You really are your sister’s twin. She screwed her eyes shut at that; it was a self-loathing comment, but all too true. Her one moment of weakness brought her to her sister’s level and every time she lied to her friends, family and loved ones all she did was to add another layer of deceit and depravity. It was something that Ditzy would do in a heartbeat, and for Derpy to stoop to that….

“I think we should both go lie down for a bit, okay, sunshine?” she asked Sparkler, who nodded. “Do you mind if we talk again over dinner?” she asked Shining.

“Sure,” the stallion said, grinning. “Private, stay here for a second. Derpy, do you need an escort to your quarters?”

She smiled, masking her humiliation. “I’ll be fine. Meet you back here in a few hours?”

“I’ll send someone to come get you, say, about six?” When she nodded, he smiled and said, “Take care, then and I’ll see you later.” They waited at least until she was out of footfall before the smile fell from Shining’s face as he said, “I know what you’re thinking, Silver.”

“Permission to speak freely, Lieutenant,” was all Silversteel said.

“Granted, but…look, I’ll be honest, Silver: I didn’t send you with the intention of you getting smitten on one of my friends. I promised your brother that if you fell under my command, I’d look out for you. And with the 37th currently reporting to me, that’s my call.”

Silver suddenly grumbled. “Great, so this whole thing was because Diamondplate doesn’t trust me?”

“No, it’s not that at all. Look, you come from a military family, Silver. Your father is a retired captain of the guard, and your brother is one hell of a cornet – I’ll bet he’ll make lieutenant soon, just watch. But Diamond looks after you the same way I care about my kid sister. And I know that he keeps an eye out for Twily for me while he’s stationed in Canterlot, so the least I can do is the same while you’re here. No offense meant, okay?”

“Thanks,” he said, relaxing. A second later he caught his commander’s other meaning and said, “Wait…what do you mean ‘smitten on one of your friends,’ Shining?” The response to that was the older stallion merely looking at him. Finally, he sighed and said, “I…I’ve never met a mare like her before. I mean, I…we just met yesterday and….”

“She’s a special mare, Silver,” Shining told his younger friend.

“I think so as well. But she’s pregnant? I…I never would have thought her that kind of….” He saw the brief look of anger in Shining’s face, then decided it wasn’t the best road to travel down.

“It’s not what you think, Silver.” Shining then explained the whole thing to him, and as he did, the look of absolute wonder that settled on the earth pony stallion’s face was a sight to behold.

“She really did that?” Silver said aloud, unable to contain himself. Not only was she brave, but she was more generous than any mare he’d ever known. And she was beautiful as well; her eye problem, one that she was so worried about, was irrelevant as far as he was concerned.

“It’d be par for the course for her. I’ve never known her to let anypony down when they needed her, and although even I have to admit I never thought she’d do something like this, it doesn’t surprise me,” Shining replied. “She always looks out for others. And like I said before, she’s a special kind of mare.”

Silver nodded. “Eyup, tell me about it: she’s smart, mature, generous, brave.” A sudden thought crossed the earth pony’s mind and he waded into those waters: “Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but...you’ve known her for a long time – why aren’t you dating her?”

“Easy – we never thought of each other like that,” Shining replied. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about her, which is why I’m going to say this: if you’re going to pursue her, treat her well, Silver. She’s been through a lot and she deserves a special somepony who can be there for her no matter what, are we clear on that?”

“Crystal,” Silver replied.

Cloud Kicker sat across from the table, looking at Ditzy. “Ditzy, how much do you know about my past?”

“Uh, you were in the Guard briefly but got out because you prefer banging,” Ditzy replied. “Other than that, the fact that you’ve got this cute dimple on your v—” Ditzy immediately shut up as a mother and her foal passed the table; while she was more than happy to wax poetic about Cloud Kicker’s interestingly-placed dimple, Ditzy was a mother and knew some topics weren’t for younger ears.

Cloud Kicker merely nodded, took a drink from her coffee, and then continued. “Well, at least I see you have some standards when it comes to foals, Ditzy.”

Ditzy sighed, waving her forelegs in frustration. “Look, Cloudy, I’m sorry about lying about being married. But I fail to see what my family has to do with ‘me time.’ Are you mad that we’re not spending enough time together? Yeah, I’ll admit, I’ve been playing with some other ponies as of late, but I’m always available for you.”

“I know. Truthfully, you’re one of the few friends I have now. My old circle…well, let’s just say they’re somewhat ashamed to know me now.”

“What, too much mare for them to deal with?” Ditzy said in a flirtatious tone.

Cloudy ignored it. “No, because of how far I’ve fallen. And because I’m letting myself fall until I hit bottom and it’ll never be enough.” Cloud Kicker’s voice sounded broken in that moment. Gone was her usual bravado and confidence, and if Ditzy didn’t know the lilac mare well enough, she’d swear that Cloudy in that moment turned into a variant of Derpy herself.

“What do you mean ‘fallen’?”

“Meaning that this is my fate. You might think I enjoy banging, and, true, I do. But the endless procession of one-night stands is no different than an alcoholic looking for her next drink or a salt junkie looking for the next hit.”

If Ditzy wasn’t confused before, she certainly was now. “Okay, stop beating around the bush and tell me what’s on your mind, Cloudy – you were certainly willing to beat the Tartarus out of me because it’s bothering you.”

“No, actually I went easy on you because you’re someone I care about. If you were just another gal in the scene? I’d have hospitalized you, I swear.” Cloud Kicker’s voice went deep and dangerous at the moment, enough so to make Ditzy shiver from the imbalance in tone. But just as quickly as it had appeared it went away, and Cloud Kicker went back to that gray, sterilized voice. “Have I ever told you I was married before?”

Ditzy looked at Cloud Kicker as if she’d just gone insane. “Yeah, and I’m Princess Celestia’s secret love child. Want to tell me something actually true?”

“You mean like you told me about your husband and foals?” the lilac pegasus countered. Ditzy shut up about that and, feeling vindicated, Cloud Kicker continued. “I had a husband, a wonderful stallion named Rainsprinter. We met while we were both stationed with the Starclimbers. We fell in love, and though I’ve always been a wildmare, I gave it all up just for him. We got married and we were happy together. Then I got pregnant, and we agreed that I’d get out of the Guard; I wasn’t happy about it, but it was our first foal and I always had the option of returning once the foal was old enough. Soon enough, though, I didn’t care. I was going to be a mother, and it was the most wonderful feeling a mare could ever have.

“As for Rain, he was looking forward to being a father. He didn’t care if it was a colt or filly; he was just so happy that we were starting a family.” The tears began trailing down her violet-hued eyes, as the memory came. “Then came my personal hell…do you remember the Dragonslayer incident from a few years back?”

“Don’t tell me….” Ditzy began. She remembered it well; her father, a doctor, had been called in as part of the medical assistance in the aftermath of a fugitive convict dragon that went on a rampage in downtown Norflank, destroying the place just because he could. Dozens of ponies had been killed or wounded and the guardsponies who went in to arrest him had been almost entirely decimated. In the end, it had taken a couple of warden dragons from Draconia to stop him, much to the embarrassment of the Royal Guard. Six years after the incident, the memorial to the fallen was still being built in the middle of the seaside town.

Cloud Kicker nodded. “I was told it was painless for Rain: he was vaporized in a blast of dragonfire, and that only a couple of scattered feathers remained. But when his commanding officer presented them to me along with the widow’s flag and his posthumous service medal, I lost it. Two days later, I woke up in the hospital, and I’d lost more than just my sanity.”

The gray mare immediately knew what her friend had meant. Her forehooves went out to grab her counterpart’s; not a gesture intended to initiate anything, but one of friendship. “Stop – you don’t have to say anymore, Cloudy,” Ditzy pled.

The lilac mare ignored her, as if unable to stop herself. “In the span of just days, I lost both my husband and my unborn foal. And if you thought I’d lost it after I was told about Rain’s death, then…” She paused as the sorrow, buried for so long, stabbed its way up through her and made her bleed emotionally once more. “There’s a mental health facility down by San Caballo. I was admitted there for about six months. When I came out…other ponies told me I wasn’t the same pegasus they knew going in. I was broken, empty. Destroyed.

“A couple of weeks later, I got drunk, hoping I could just dull the emptiness I was feeling. I met a couple – don’t even remember their names, really or anything else about them, other that they were on vacation – and the next morning I woke up next to them. I was terrified at first, but then I realized it made me feel alive. And then I did it again, and from there, well…eventually I met you. Probably would have been nice to know your name before we banged, but….” Cloud Kicker shrugged.

“Why are you telling me this?” Ditzy asked.

“Because you have what I don’t – and I don’t want you to lose it like I did. This…this bucking and sucking and licking and tickling…this is all that’s left of me. But you still have ponies to cherish and hold. You still have a husband that loves you. You still have foals that need you.” Cloud Kicker leaned forward and the look in her eyes was one of desperation. “Don’t become like me. I’m dead to everything now. You still have loved ones, Ditzy. Don’t become like me.” Now it was Cloudy’s turn to take Ditzy’s forehooves. “Ditzy, because I care so much about you and what you’re going throw away without realizing…I’m going to be strong for you.”

“Huh?” Ditzy took another drink of her coffee and said, “C’mon. You’re down in the dumps and I forgive you for beating me up. Let’s go find a hotel room and I’ll make you feel better, okay?” The gray mare flashed the lilac one a soft smile and said, “Let me take away your pain, Cloudy.”

Cloud Kicker looked at Ditzy with a sign of weakness, before her eyes grew hard. “I…I’m doing this for you,” she began.

“Good,” Ditzy said, a coquettish look coming into her eyes. “There’s a hotel just down the stree—”

“No.” Cloud Kicker’s voice was firm. She walked over to Ditzy’s side and kissed her – but it was a gentle kiss on the cheek, the kiss of a friend. “No more. Not from me. And believe me, right now I want you enough to do you on this table. But…you need a friend to be strong when you’re weak, just like I needed back then and never got. So I’m doing to do this now.

“Ditzy Doo,” Cloud Kicker said in a firm-but-breaking voice, “We’re through. No more. No more sex, no more lies. And when you finally go back to your family and be the wife and mother you need to be, then I’ll always be there for you as a friend. But I won’t be a tail-lifter just to drag you down with me.” And with that, Cloud Kicker started to walk away.

“Cloud Kicker!” Ditzy leapt to her feet and chased after her friend, grabbing her and stopping her. “Look – you’re not acting like yourself. Let’s just get to a hotel, okay? We don’t even have to do anything. But you’re not acting like yourself.”

To her surprise, Cloud Kicker started to cry again. But this time, it was accompanied by a smile. “No, Ditzy, you’re wrong. This time I am acting like myself. For the first time in a while…I’m myself again. And I won’t ever hurt a friend or let her get hurt.” Cloud Kicker embraced Ditzy, the tears of joy continuing to fall. “Do the right thing, Ditzy. I know you can.” And with that, Cloud Kicker launched into the air, rocketing away as fast as she could, leaving a perplexed gray mare behind.

Dinner was at a nice little restaurant in the center of the settlement. The four of them sat, enjoying the food and each other’s company. The dandelion and bluegrass bisque was delicious, as was the four-flower salad and the main entrée, the eggplant steak medallions in a béarnaise sauce. Accompanying the dinner was a flavorful apple cider brewed locally (with a sweet apple juice for the little filly) and a tart apple ice cream for dessert.

“That was great!” Silver said, wiping his mouth. “Tastes a billion times better than food in the chow hall!”

Shining grinned. “Which is why I always stop here when I can. It’s a great restaurant, and the owners are part of the Apple clan, so you know it’s quality. Plus, it’s always fun talking to the oldest son, Braeburn. Half the time he sounds like he’s interested in the Guard, but I don’t think it’ll happen.”

“Why not?” Derpy asked. It wasn’t like Shining to discourage anypony’s dreams, especially when it came to the Guard, so there had to be a more concrete reason.

As expected, the unicorn stallion explained: “With the occasional exception here and there, the Apples are pretty tied to the land more than most farming families. I wouldn’t be surprised if in about five or six years when the town is formally established, they’ll want to start a new orchard. It’s kinda like Silver’s family; they’ve been in the Guard for generations, so it’s unusual for one not to be. That being said, if Braeburn’s serious about it, I’ll recommend him for boot camp, but if he’s like just about every Apple there is, it’ll be forgotten soon enough.”

Sparkler, however, caught a portion of the conversation that interested her and she asked, “So your family’s been in the Guard forever and ever, Mister Silver?”

He nodded. “Absolutely. My father, Silver Hammer, was captain of the guard before the current captain. My older brother, Diamondplate, is a cornet with the 28th Combined out in Las Pegasus. My sister, Golden Sun, is a pegasus with Star Song squadron. Really, the only member of my family who isn’t in the military is my mother, Sandalwood – she’s a perfume-maker. I also have aunts and uncles in the Guard as well, but I won’t bore you with that,” he told the filly, winking.

“But I’m not bored!” Sparkler insisted. “Maybe if I hear it, I can get my cutie mark in listening to stories!”

“Well, we should probably talk about some of the stuff you’ll probably need to do while you’re here, Derpy,” Shining began.
Silver caught on that. Turning to Sparkler, he said, “Well, why don’t I tell you about the time I faced a vicious pack of evil Diamond Dogs?”

“Really?” Sparkler immediately perked up at that.

“Sure. Let’s move over to another table, because I’ve told Shining so many times that he’ll probably fall asleep hearing it.” The filly turned to look at the older unicorn, and he in turn gave her a reassuring smile. With that, the younger two moved to the table so Silver could regale the six-year-old with tales of complete invention.

As the two walked away, Shining looked at Derpy and said, “I think she likes him.”

Derpy nodded. “Yeah, he seems to have a way with foals. He’s probably going to make a good father someday, I’m sure.”

“Personal hope or just observation?” Shining inquired.

The gray mare sighed. “Shining….”

He waved his forelegs. “Derpy, you know I’m just looking out for you. I just want you to be happy, and not become some old, loveless gray mare – well, grayer than usual.”

She smiled. “Thanks, Shining. I appreciate it.”

“What do you think of Silver, by the way?”

“I think he’s nice…and I think you and Cadance need to stop worrying about fixing me up with ponies.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Really, I appreciate it, but…I don’t think I’m in a good position for a relationship right now,” she commented, looking down at her barrel.

“He doesn’t care, you know. I told him about it. If anything, it’s enraptured him more than anything else.” She looked surprised, as if she’d been shot. He chuckled and said, “Derpy, you sell yourself short. I think you listen to your sister’s taunts too much. You’re twins, and aside from your eyes, you’re as beautiful as she is – and to be honest, no one really notices your eyes, and I daresay you’re even more beautiful, because unlike your sister, you’re beautiful on the inside as well.”

She blushed. “Small wonder you won the heart of a princess.”

He grinned. “Actually, she chased me, but that’s a different story.” His horn glowed magenta, and a small binder appeared in front of her. “Anyway, this is all the information that my staff was able to come up with. I’ve arranged for some interviews with a couple of bison scouts, some of our frontline troops, and I’ve already written a report down…though half of it is just a letter to Cady, so I’d appreciate it if you can give that to her directly.”

“Of course,” she said with a nod as she took the binder in her mouth and placed it in the saddlebag she’d brought. She was just about to say something further, when a soldier approached Shining. He bent over discretely, whispering something in his commander’s ear; Shining merely nodded and then the soldier took off.

“Got something else for you,” he replied, “Apparently, one of the Nightmare Army’s senior members knows you’re here, and she’s surrendered to our forces on the condition that she speak to you. She’s a unicorn, so we’ll have our resident Guild mage on hand for safety. Plus, I’m sure Silver will want to be there for you.”

“Sure, I’ll do it,” Derpy answered. “If there’s any way we can get them to surrender peacefully, I’ll be more than happy to do so.”

“Thanks,” Shining replied. “I knew I could count on you, Derpy.”

“Yes, I know,” she purred, “which is why you’re going to explain to me now why you already set things in motion before I agreed to do this?”

The look on Shining Armor’s face grew ashen. “Uh, you, er, found out about that, huh?” When she nodded, he replied, “Can I get you to believe that it was Cady’s idea?”

“Not on your life,” she grinned.

It was evening when Ditzy landed at her house. The lights were dim, and it was a quiet, warm evening. The night sky was a beautiful blanket of diamonds, though the moon seemed somewhat sad. The Warden Stars twinkled, each of the prismatic balls of fire in place around the nocturnal orb. The neighborhood was quiet, with some residents in their homes and some houses darkened. It was perfect, normal.

For Ditzy, however, it was terrifying. This is your family – you can do this, she told herself. Walking up to the house, she opened the door and went in. As she entered, she heard Autumn’s voice call out to the foals, “Girls, it’s time for dinner, an—” He suddenly looked at her, shocked. “Ditzy?”

She looked at him, nervous. “Autumn…I’m….”

“MOMMY!” A pair of pegasi fillies rushed the gray mare, and Ditzy scooped them up as they bounced up and down with happiness, holding them close to her as tears of joy welled in her eyes.

“I’ve missed you so, so much,” Ditzy said, holding her daughters close. Part of her wondered where the third one was; probably asleep, she decided.

“What are you doing here?” Autumn said, his tones careful and neutral.

She then let go of her foals, then walked up to him. “Autumn, I want you to know something: no matter what problems we have or differences between us, I will always be thankful that you love our foals. And I will always love you for that,” she said, leaning forward to kiss him. “And no matter what, I love you.”

He looked at her as if she’d suddenly gone insane. “Ditziduella, I….” He trailed off, unsure of what to say. This was Ditzy, right? Her mane was slightly longer than Derpy’s, and the eyes were normal, but…she wasn’t acting like herself.

Ditzy sighed. “Look, Autumn, can’t I spend time with my husband and foals? Let’s…discuss this later, okay?”

“Mommy?” Flu…Flurp…Fluffernutter…her oldest daughter – great, some mom I am; I can’t remember her name! – looked at her with beautiful green eyes. “Are you home from business for good?”

Ditzy didn’t know how to answer that, but thankfully Autumn did. “I hope she is, Fluttsy. Will you and Orange go set the table so we can eat? Your mother and I have to talk for a moment.” The older filly nodded happily and went off to get her sister and left the room, leaving a sober Autumn to look at his wife. “I should hate you,” he said, simply.

“You should. And I should hate myself, Autumn.” Her eyes started to water again, and she shook her head in shame. “You may not believe this, but I never meant to hurt you – any of you.”

“Then why even bother coming back? Don’t you have something…or is that somepony to do?” he said, the words thick on his tongue. He wanted to scream, snarl, and just throw her out of the house for good along with the divorce papers, then to find Derpy and convince her to change her mind.

“I know I haven’t been the best of spouses,” she began, unsure of what to say.

“No, you haven’t. And frankly—” Autumn started to say, his voice rising despite his best efforts to keep calm but his words died off when he saw the fear in her eyes. Fear. Terror of losing something elemental and critical to one’s life. The fear of knowing how badly one screwed up and how the sword’s blade of inevitability was about to come painfully and brutally crashing down.

He sighed. “Ditzy…how can I trust you?”

Her response was to lean forward and kiss him. With so many others, it had felt fun, good. But with Autumn…she wasn’t sure how it felt. She knew she loved him, but when it came to the physical portion of their relationship, it was so conflicted. She looked into his eyes, seeing his anger, sorrow and pain and she whispered, “I don’t know if I can trust myself anymore, Autumn.”

“Will you stay for dinner, at least? Your daughters need you.”

Our daughters have never needed me, because they have such a wonderful father,” she told him, an acknowledgement of his status as their father even if not of his sireship.

“Then maybe, I need you? Or maybe…it’s you who need us.”

“Mommy? Daddy? Table’s ready!” Fluttsy called out from the other room.

Autumn looked at her for a few more seconds before asking, “Look, will you at least stay for dinner? I made spaghetti and hayballs in a butternut squash sauce, and Fluttsy baked some of her favorite garlic bread.”

Ditzy smiled winsomely. “Sure,” she said, leaning against him. She would try. Just one more time, she’d try. And maybe…just maybe…she could be better in something than her sister ever was.

Watching from the bushes across the street, Cloud Kicker watched as the gray mare sat down next to her husband and across from her foals. They look like a family, Cloudy thought to herself, crying tears of sorrow and joy as she watched the scene. And then she closed her eyes and said a quick prayer to Holy Celestia. Don’t ever come back, Ditzy. Don’t come back to our world. You don’t belong here. You belong in the world of a family’s love, not the hell of a stranger’s thighs. As Celestia is my witness, don’t ever come back.

Hoping for the first time that tomorrow would actually be a brighter day, the lilac pegasus carried herself into the night.

As the trio entered the VIP Guest Quarters on the base, Derpy moved gingerly to avoid waking the sleeping filly on her back. “She’s had a long night,” the gray pegasus said to her companion.

Silver laughed. “Well, you wanted to dance until the wee hours.” And it was true: Derpy loved to dance; as a general habit, most pegasi did. But she always felt free when doing so, unrestrained and happy. And when she did, it was infectious: after dancing with Shining for a bit, Silver and Sparkler joined them and the whole place was moving and jumping. She got a laugh in particular when one of the other patrons, a pony she recognized as part of the Serene Velocity’s crew, got up on the table and started to do a jig. Enchanted, she jumped on the table and joined him, the crowd clopping their hooves along in time.

“And it was great!” she said, walking over to the bedroom. Then, while maneuvering her wings, she flicked her left one gently even as she fully unfurled her right one; Sparkler, still asleep, rolled gently down the slope of Derpy’s wings until she ended up on the bed. Derpy went and got the covers, covering the slipping filly and kissing her goodnight before going back out to sit with Silver.

“Well, you’re one amazing dancer,” he told her, and he was being honest. The more and more he looked at her, the more and more he saw, quite literally to him, the perfect mare. Even her eye condition was cute in a way, less “ugly condition” and more of an equalizing one, bringing her down from untouchable to simply amazing.

“Thanks; you’re not so bad yourself,” she said, plopping down on the couch next to him. He leaned back against the couch, tired but more relaxed than he’d been in a while. She then leaned back as well, sinking into the softness of the cushions before the natural drift of its shape ended up sliding her right against him. The two leaned against each other for quite some time, just relaxing in each other’s company. Finally, she looked up at him, her heart beating a bit faster. “Silver?”

He looked down and her and she’d never been more beautiful. “Yes?”

“I….” Derpy was lost for words. Her conscience one again reminded her that this was a very dangerous place to be in. She drew closer to him, even as he seemed inexorably pulled towards her by the gravity of attraction. The smart thing to do would be to pull away, the rational side of her mind reasoned, she didn’t need this headache. Her heart, however, assured her that this was perfect.

Their muzzles came within a fraction of an inch of each other before the cushions on the sofa slipped again. Her left wing, reacting to the movement, involuntarily arched out to protect her from the sudden “thermal”; the end result was that her involuntary reaction ended up pushing her off the couch and towards an embarrassing landing on the ground.

“Derpy, you okay?” Silver said, getting off the couch and offering her a hoof up.

She took it, her face flush with embarrassment. “Uh, slipped there. Well, I should get going – long day ahead. Gonna go to sleep so I’ll see you in the morning, okay?” Before he could say anything, she beat a hasty retreat towards the bedroom.

Silver could only look at where he was, then where she’d been and where they’d been just a second before. “Oh, buck,” he whispered before lying back down on the couch, alone.

Ditzy woke up in the bed, next to Autumn. It was an unusual circumstance, to say the least. And part of her hated that. She should be here all the time. She should be here for her daughters. She should be here to give Autumn another foal – she knew he wanted a colt to go along with their duo – or was that trio? – of fillies. And she hadn’t lied when she told him she loved him.

But at the same time, she felt empty. Rising from their bed, careful not to wake him, she looked out the window. This isn’t me, she realized. I’m not a housewife, a mare who can just go to work, then come home and make dinner for her family. I like having fun, spending time with other guys and gals, frolicking in the meadows. Images came to her automatically: her cousin Lily and her wing trick. Her body rubbing against Cloud Kicker’s. Tender Sighs moaning her name. Blue Ocean rhythmically moving with her, his breath hot against her body. All of it was transient and wrong.

Don’t come back to this world. She could hear Cloud Kicker’s voice sternly, as if the lilac mare was standing next to her. Don’t ever come back, Ditzy!

But this…this isn’t me, she said, looking at the house and its surroundings. She loved her family, she knew, more than she could ever say – but she wasn’t a mother and she wasn’t a wife. Far easier to ask a Diamond Dog to earn a four-year-scholarship to RCU or to find a zebra with a plain coat than to ask her to change.

Her eyes became wet with tears as she realized something elemental about herself: she wanted to be a wife and mother – but she could never be. That part of her was probably stripped away before birth and given to her sister…just like everything good, leaving Ditzy’s sole saving grace to be her looks.

"I’m sorry, everypony," she whispered to herself as she left the house. Part of her knew she wouldn’t be back this time. While Autumn helped the girls wash the dishes, she’d seen the divorce paperwork on the desk in the living room, something he’d hadn’t thought to hide them. And why would he? She was never home, so any time she’d shown up was nothing short of amazing to him. But as she took to the skies, she knew somehow this would be the last time she’d ever see the place. Leaving now was an inexorable break.

But I’m glad we had the chance to sleep together, she thought to herself. At least in her own way she could show him how much he meant to her.

As she flew on, she eventually ran into another pony she knew, a stallion by the name of Opal Burst. “Hey, Ditzy, up for a fun time?” he asked.

She stopped on a cloud, blatantly showing him her flank. “Take me home, then do whatever you want to me. Do it until I’m unconscious and can’t remember anything other than you in me.”

“Wow, you must really want it bad then,” he said, figuring he was the luckiest stallion in the world that day. “We’re not far, so follow me.”

“No,” she said under her breath as she followed. “I just want to be punished for my sins.”

Chapter Five: Until the Quiet Comes

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Ditzy woke up the following morning. Where she woke up didn’t matter to her. Who she woke up with – four stallions, she noted; it had taken four stallions to “satisfy” her – didn’t matter either. The four were still asleep, so she walked out of the bedroom. Good thing, too; it was decidedly…“messy.”

Instead, she walked away from the house, found a secluded park to sit down in and cried her heart out. This was her now, she realized: when her family needed her most, off she was, getting gangbanged by four stallions and living it up. When her daughters needed Ditzy in their arms, she was busy being in between a mare’s thighs. When her husband needed her, she was nowhere to be found. She couldn’t even stick around to tell him she was leaving.

If she was lucky, right now Cloud Kicker would come at any moment and beat the stuffing out of her so badly she’d be hospitalized with a permanent coma. It’d be, at the very least, what she deserved. But no, she wouldn’t be that lucky. And by tonight, she’d be somewhere else, in somepony else’s bed – because it was so much easier to get lost in a stranger’s coitus than to face facts and be strong in her family’s forelegs.

And then the one thing that usually filled her with comforting soothing hate came into her head: Derpy would never do this. She’s too “perfect.” But for once, Ditzy’s hatred for her older sister didn’t fill the younger twin with resolve, but instead buried her in a deep shame. For once, she saw her sister as perfect.

…and her sister was right.

Breakfast that morning was subdued and strained. Sparkler looked at both adults and thought they were mad at each other. She ate her food quietly, nervous at the tense silence going on.

Finally, Silversteel cleared his throat and looked at Derpy. “Look, Derpy….”

She smiled. “It…don’t worry. Accident. Heat of the moment. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Silver. We’re friends, and that won’t change.”

“Good,” he replied, relieved that she held nothing against him. “I’m glad. So what’s the plan for today?”

“First we’ll go see that captured unicorn,” Derpy replied, “and after that, this afternoon we have a meeting with a couple of the bison chieftains. Then in the evening, we meet with some of the injured troops at the hospital to gauge their opinions, and afterwards, I need to file my first report.”

“Wow, buffalo!” Sparkler cried. “Can I see them, Miss Derpy, can I?”

“Sweetie, it’s rude to call them ‘buffalo,’” Derpy corrected. “They prefer being called bison.”

“But Daddy always calls them buffalo or gaurs,” Sparkler said innocently. Both Derpy and Silver looked at each other for a brief instance, noting that only out of the mouths of foals could something so foul be said so without malice.

“But they don’t like it,” Derpy answered, “and if we want to make friends with them, it’s not something that friends say to one another, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sparkler replied, looking worried, as if she did something wrong.

Silver smiled. “You didn’t know, Sparkler. It was an innocent mistake, and as long as you do your best, everything will be okay, right?” She favored him with a sunny smile for that.

“So can I see the bison?” she asked, hoping that she’d get it right this time.

Derpy reached over and hugged the younger pony. “Yes, of course. We’ll see them this afternoon. But this morning Silver and I have to go talk to someone important, so I want you to stay here and practice your magic, okay?”

She pouted. “Do I have to?”

The gray pegasus reached down and mussed the unicorn’s mane. “Tell you what: if you practice, I’ll come back with a caramel apple for you, okay?” Derpy earned a hug for that one, Sparkler happy as a clam to get a treat for schoolwork.

Meanwhile, Silversteel had left the table and started to put on his barding. “Just give me a second to get suited up and then we can go,” he told her. She stood there, watching him, and as she did, a blush came to her face. Finally, she turned away, completely mortified; had Silver noticed that Derpy had been just unabashedly gazing like a lovesick filly? A few more seconds later, he slipped on his helmet and announced, “Okay, ready to go when you are.”

“Thanks, Silver.” Derpy kissed Sparkler on the forehead and said, “We’ll be back soon, promise.” As Sparkler nodded, Derpy and Silversteel briefly looked at the junior guardspony assigned as her galloper’s aide. She looked at the guardspony, a pegasus mare, and asked, “Please watch her, private.”

The galloper’s aide saluted; she’d already been told how important Derpy was to the situation and thus not a pony to get on the bad side of. “Yes, ma’am,” she replied, “You can count on me.” Comforted that Sparkler was in good hooves, the pair departed the quarters, walking out into the dusty outdoor expanse.

It was a few minutes of silent walking across the grounds of the settlement before one of them spoke again. “Derpy, about last night: I know you said not to worry about it, but regardless, I’m sorry,” Silver replied as the duo walked on. “I…I got ahead of myself and—”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” the gray pegasus replied with a smile. “I was clearly giddy last night and not quite myself. Besides, that kind of attention would spoil a mare and you should save it for somebody worth your while, Silver. I assure you there’s somepony out there just waiting for your wedding band.”

“Maybe,” he replied, unsure of what else to say. He knew what he felt last night. After his breakup with Exotic Beauty, his sister Golden Sun warned him about rebounding off another mare; it was a great way to bruise feelings and screw up another relationship. That had been the source of his desire not to do anything with Derpy, because she was too special a mare to ever hurt – well, that and Shining would tear him a new plothole if that happened.

But last night ensured what he was feeling wasn’t mere rebounding. And based on the way she was acting, she might feel the same way and was trying not to hurt his feelings. All he had to do now was convince her.

As for Derpy, her mind was a stew. She was in love with her brother-in-law, a stallion she could never have – she was already in trouble for him siring a foal on her. But she was also looking at Silver, and it was clear that he was attracted to her. And truth be told, he was very easy on the eyes and not at all what she expected. Sure, he was a few years younger, but that really didn’t matter. But breaking her vow of self-imposed celibacy was dangerous and in a time when she really didn’t need a relationship, just a moment’s falter could cost her everything – she didn’t want to hurt him like that.

But who are you hurting by that, Derpy? Yourself or him? her conscience accused. Will you continue to pine for the stallion you can never have when you have this young stallion pining for you?

She couldn’t answer that. And the fact that she couldn’t filled her with worry.

With a skip, Autumn landed on the floor clouds of Cloudsdale. It was always nice being back in town. But he wasn’t here for that. He was here to file the D6 paperwork and to get the 8A appendix, the In Absentia add-on. Ditzy had left the night before after claiming to love them all; it was clear where her true loyalties lay.

Just like she’s probably getting right now, he snarled mentally. He cut off the line of thought; it cut too sharply. In his mind, all he could picture were her promises of love and care from the night before, a grand performance so strong that it had made him fall in love with her all over again and almost made him forgive her. Thankfully, he hadn’t done that; she’d shown her true colors now and in the morning, once she left, Fluttsy and Orange once again wondered where their mother was.

He’d wanted to tell them the truth, so much. He wanted to tell them they were leaving home for good, and their Aunt Derpy would be their new mommy, and they’d have a new brother or sister soon. But he crumbled under their eyes, and as he took them to school, he told them both that their mother went to go see Aunt Derpy and would be there for a few days. A blatant lie, but he loved his daughters too much to tell them the sordid truth about their mother. It was wrong, he knew, but he wanted to protect them both as long as he could.

“Hey, Autumn!” Autumn turned his head and found an old friend calling his name. “Hey, buddy, what’re you doing in the Big C?”

“Hey, Rocket!” he said, waving to the dark gray pony approaching him. Rocketstar had been his mentor when Autumn first joined the Weather Service, and while Rocket now served in Cloudsdale as a weather instructor, he was still a good friend and somepony to lean on for advice. “How goes?”

“Eh, getting my kid out of trouble. I tell ya, though she’s a hoofful now, Blossomforth’s going to do great things when she’s older. I can feel it. She’s always telling us she doesn’t want to be a weather pony when she grows up; that she wants to work in politics like her grandfather. Of course, my wife’s soured on the idea – Blossomwind would rather our daughter just stay local and find a good stallion – but I want little B to chase her dreams, you know?”

“Isn’t that what foals are for? To let the dreams keep going?”

“Yeah. So how are your fillies?”

“Great. Fluttsy’s really interested in art – just got her cutie mark a couple of months ago, earlier than the norm – and Orange is dead-set on getting hers in baking. It’s real adorable, and I try to support them every way I can.”

“And how’s your wife? From what I remember of her, Ditzy’s a pretty playful kind of gal. She’s probably keeping you very busy working on another foal, right?” At the mention of his wife’s name, Autumn suddenly became downcast and Rocket picked up on that very quickly. “Sounds like you need some advice from an old friend.”

“That obvious?” he asked.

“Let’s go find a coffee shop and you can tell me all about it. I get the feeling this is going to be a long one,” Rocket said, noting the broken look on his friend’s face.

“Look, Rocket, I don’t have the—”

“—time to have coffee with an old friend, because you need to get to the Pegasus Courthouse to file divorce papers, right?” When the younger stallion’s face went slack in surprise, Rocket shook his head and said, “Look, you’re not the only one who’s been there. Bet you didn’t know I was married to another mare before you met me, did you?”

“You were?”

Rocket nodded. “Lima Bean and I were something that shouldn’t have happened, but we didn’t find out until too late. Thankfully, she was all-too-eager to sign off on the D6s and get out of my mane – it was a messy marriage and a messy divorce. Are you sure you and Ditzy are Splitsville? Especially when you two have two fillies?”

“I love my daughters very much…but I’m not their sire,” Autumn said in a hushed voice. “I’d do anything for them, and as far as I’m concerned, I am their dad. But Ditzy went looking elsewhere, twice.”

“Ouch, sorry to hear that. Well, sounds like it’s a trip to the bar, then. You’re going to need advice no matter what, and it’s never too early in the morning for a tall, cold cider.” Leading his distraught friend, Rocket pointed down the road to an open bar that usually handled the overnight crowd.

As they arrived at the jail, they were met by a white unicorn mare with orange and pink mane. Her cutie mark was unusually ornate; a butterfly with a complex pattern. “Doctor Hooves, I presume?” she asked as Derpy and Silver approached. “Hi, my name is Tiny Dynamine. I’ll be your magical protection while we’re talking to the prisoner.”

“Love your cutie mark!” Derpy said, being polite; she’d never seen one so ornate before. “What’s it stand for?”

“I’m really not sure. I can do magic just as capably as any normal mage; it’s just that all my magic aura emanations are butterfly-shaped.” To prove her point, she powered up her horn; a series of tiny violet butterflies bristling with energy encircled it. “It’s not like I have some great power over lepidopterids or anything like that.”

“That’s really interesting,” Silversteel commented. He’d always been interested in unicorn magic, seeing as with the exception of his pegasus sister, his family was entirely earth ponies. “Is that common?”

“It happens now and then,” Tiny replied. “There’s no real difference between a shaped aura and a normal one, just something a little more interesting to look at, I guess. Anyway, Doctor, are you ready?”

“As ready as I can be,” Derpy answered. “Is there anything we should know about this unicorn ahead of time?” As they headed into the jail, Silversteel immediately assumed a protective posture, moving ahead of both mares as he moved into military mode even though he made sure to listen to the conversation behind him.

“His name is Wisdom Seeker,” Tiny explained, “and he’s supposed to be the soothsayer for the group. We’ve already checked him out; he’s got no weapons, spells or anything of the sort. His background states that he was an oracle in Vanhoover prior to joining the Nightmare Army, but nothing really else.”

“Any reason why he wants to talk to me?”

“He didn’t say, only that he felt it was important to talk to you. I suspect they’ve got a pony on the inside somewhere and have been waiting for the moment Canterlot sends a bigwig out here. I hope not, though: if we’re compromised like that, things could get ugly pretty quickly.”

“If he does, we’ll catch ‘em,” Silversteel insisted. “Traitors and criminals never escape justice for long.”

“I wish I could be as confident as you, Private,” the unicorn mage replied, “but I have my doubts. In any case, it’s this way.”

The trio walked down the pathway, towards the back of the small building. As they moved on, they passed a few other cells, mostly filled with drunks, pickpockets who insisted they were innocent and in one case, a mare of the night who was glad for a “place t’ rest with’t liftin’ mah tail”, as she explained. On past these, they went, until they reached the back of the building…and a set of stairs that led to a basement.

“A basement? You’re keeping a prisoner in the basement?” A stitch of concern rolled up Derpy’s spine: despite the fact that the prisoner was supposedly of no concern, they were clearly keeping him in the most secure portion of the jail. As they walked down the stairs, she fell into old habit, looking at the structure of the underground chamber: the joins of the ceiling, which looked as though it had been carved out rather than actually built; the occasional gemstone was still embedded in the rock.

At least they smoothed out the floor, she noticed, as they walked over to a large cage in the back of the room, surrounded by four guardsponies and hosting a frail looking unicorn, though something seemed amiss there. In front of them all was a table, so the four could sit.

“We’ll take it from here,” Silversteel said, dismissing the other guards. “Miss Dynamine, if you’d be so kind?”

“Certainly,” Tiny agreed, as her horn lit up. Unlike the usual aura surrounding a horn, dozens of tiny butterflies, each as small as a mote of light encircled her horn, flying outward and away from it. Once a decent distance, they began to encircle all three of them as well as the prisoner, before the multitude of energy constructs solidified into a force field. “There, that should do it,” she said, as she took a seat at the table.

Derpy looked at Silver and asked, “Private, please let him out of the cage.” She then took her seat at the table, taking time to take out a sheaf of paper and a pencil so she could take notes as needed.

“If you insist, Doctor,” the barded pony replied, undoing the latch and letting the unicorn out.

The frail thing merely walked over to the table and sat down, and as he did, Derpy’s mind went to work. His craggy face showed the wrinkles of great age, possibly in his eighties if not older. He had a long gray beard with a few strands of its original brown color in it; the beard itself was wild and unruly, its tangles and roils unfamiliar with the likes of a brush or comb. His tan coat showed the sags and jowls of a pony no longer used to regular activity; said coat was also overlaid with the unnatural black splotches of a pinto, considered a rare and atavistic trait in their species. His cutie mark was a moon overlaid by a scroll, possibly a telling of his prior position as an oracle in Vanhoover. But it was his eyes – wild, deep red eyes – that indicated that not only was an intellect still there, but that mind, backed up by his nature as a unicorn, could make him more formidable than previously thought.

“Hello, sir. My name is D—”

“Ah, yes, you I know. You indeed I know. Derpelle Jessica Hooves. A mind sharper than any spear, an intellect more expansive than the dusty annals of the Great Canterlot Library. Yes, you I know, young mare. For my mistress sent me to come to you, bearing great tidings.”

Derpy looked at his as if he were addled. “And you are, sir?”

“Oh, please – no games now, no simple trifles here. But since formality and decorum rule the day, so shall I introduce myself.” Getting up briefly, he bowed slowly and carefully due to his age before sitting down. “I am Wisdom Seeker, visionary and herald of her Nocturnal Highness, The Rightful Ruler of Everything. And I have come with a message for you, Doctor Hooves.”

“And that message is?”

Widsom Seeker smiled, but there was no joy in that rictus, only madness. “The stars shall aid in her escape.”

“The stars shall aid in her escape?” Derpy asked. “What does that mean?”

The elderly unicorn laughed. “Come now: you’re a scientist and a scholar, a mare of many talents. You are the first non-unicorn in ages to have graduated from a unicorn university. You are an inventor and grasp concepts that even capable minds have trouble envisioning. You, young lady, are a nonpareil above nonpareils, and yet you cannot fathom this elemental truth?”

“The stars shall aid in her escape….” Derpy ran the thought around in her mind, coming up blank at first but a second later it hit her, from the letter that Cadance had sent: “They claim to worship The Mare in the Moon and attacked ‘in preparation for the return of the Nightmare and the culmination of Endless Night.’”

Wisdom Seeker caught the flicker of recollection in her eyes. “You do understand, don’t you. Our mistress bides her time, and that time is almost done. Soon she will be free to enshroud the world in the velvet touch of her night, and such a luxe the world has never known.”

Something clicked in Tiny Dynamine’s mind. “The Warden Stars? Is that what you’re talking about?”

Silversteel caught on that idea and went with it. “So you’re telling me the Warden Stars are going to free your mistress soon?” The guardspony said from his seat. “What a load of feathers. You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you, old stallion?”

“You two are but barely-grown foals, incapable of understanding what the Doctor and I are discussing,” Wisdom Seeker hissed, an angry tone. “This discussion is for adults. If either of you persist in interrupting, there will be consequences.” Turning back to the gray pegasus he added, “My apologies, Doctor, but you should really control your underlings – it looks unbecoming otherwise.”

“They’re not my underlings, they’re friends,” Derpy said; well, Silver was. She’d just met Tiny, but she was more than sure given enough time the two could make great friends. But in any case, that wasn’t the point here.

“Regardless, Doctor, you are an important mare. I have seen it in the skies, in my dreams, in the ripples of water as a tea leaf dances on the toroidal. There will come a time when your actions will change, irrevocably, the future of all ponydom, and with your silence you will send a foal on a journey that even you cannot comprehend and she will change everything we will ever know. But until the quiet comes, you have much to do.”

A foal? Is he talking about…? Derpy thought about her unborn foal in her barrel, three months into its gestation. A she? I’m going to have a filly? Would she be the foal that would change everything? And what was meant by that? Would the foal become an alicorn or a monster, a savior or a demon? In the corner of her eye, she could see that Silversteel had seen her concern and gave her a brief nod of comfort. She found it warming, and she lo…no, no I can’t….

Seeing the hushed concern on her face, the aged unicorn smiled, a near-kind gesture, but only near, not actual. “Forgive me; prophecy comes out whether I wish it or no. But you needn’t worry about that premonition; it will come whether you wish it or no, just as the one we are discussing now.”

“Which is the Warden Stars and the Mare in the Moon,” Derpy replied. “You’re saying that a calamity will happen with the Warden Stars and a tragedy will befall us?”

“Poetic, but incorrect, madame,” Wisdom Seeker spoke, his voice somber. “The Warden Stars are naught but décor, mere entertainment for my mistress, and when she descends her cosmic dais, the world will be bereft of that quartet of four. The Warden Stars are nothing more than propaganda assembled in the sky by the false princess sitting on the throne.”

“Celestia is our Princess Regnal – she’d be queen if she desired the title,” Derpy countered. “Her majesty is no fraud.”

“So little you know, Doctor, but I blame you not for that. Even I once believed that Fair Celestia was our rightful ruler once – as a Royal Oracle, I defended her against anyone who would say otherwise. But one night my eyes were opened and I could see. Our true mistress is coming, shrouded in dreams, and her righteous wrath will be terrible. And the stars shall set her free.”

“What stars? If you’re saying that the Warden Stars are nothing but a joke, then what stars?”

Wisdom Seeker closed his eyes, then sat and meditated for a few seconds. It had almost seemed as though the wizened pony had fallen asleep before he spoke once more. “My mistress spoke to me and said I may reveal all to you, but in doing so, I will be forfeit. And so will one of you two,” he said, pointing to Silversteel and Tiny Dynamine. “It is not yet the Doctor’s time, but fate has no such hold on either of you. And if you wish the truth, then one of you shall forfeit your lives.”

“This is horsefeathers!” Silversteel snarled. “You’re saying that the only way to reveal your so-called ‘wisdom’ for one of us to die? Listen, old stallion, I am not playing that game. Now either you tell me what you’re up to or so help me Celestia I swear I’m going t—”

Unbidden, Tiny Dynamine got out of her seat and walked up to the aged pony. “No one dies here today!” she snarled, crossing the space quickly and charging up a spell. Butterflies made of flame danced around her head and she snarled, “I don’t know what you’re up to, but you’d better start talking, prisoner!”

“You have made your choice,” the old unicorn said, sighing, “So be it. I would have thought it to be you, young stallion, but…now I understand, now I see. Fate has claimed you as well and your lodestone is fixed on Generosity’s wheel.” Turning back to Derpy he asked, “May I be allowed to conjure a quill, ink and paper?”

Derpy looked at Tiny, who conjured a second fire butterfly before saying, “It should be safe. I’ve got him in case it isn’t.”

The aged unicorn powered up his horn, and it became enveloped in a sea of glowing feathers all in a hue of navy-blue. Seeing the sudden look of shock on Tiny’s face, the old stallion chuckled. “Young miss, while shaped auras are exceedingly rare, they’re not so rare that you’re the only one blessed on the planet with one.” Three of the feathers floated down towards the table and in a flash became two pots of ink, two quills and a scroll of paper.

“Now then, you and you…please turn around,” he said, gesturing to Silversteel and Tiny. “This isn’t meant for your eyes.”

When Tiny balked, Derpy said, “I should be fine for a second, Tiny. I’ll be okay, I promise.”

“You are protected by fate. Until the quiet comes, your only wounds will ever be self-inflicted.” With that, Tiny and Silver turned around, and Wisdom Seeker picked up both quills, dipping them in ink. The two colors flew and splattered on the scroll, and when it was done, with a flicker of his magic, he rolled it up and floated it over to Derpy, placing it in her pouch. “This is the answer you seek, Doctor, but it will come at a terrible, terrible price. Your quiet will come soon enough, and when it is over, you will have irretrievably changed everything that will come from ponykind.”

Derpy looked at the scroll, poking out of her saddlebag. It seemed like a snake poised to strike, to impart a venomous truth on the world whether it was ready or not. “I thank you. In the meanwhile, is there anything I can do for you, Mister Seeker? Medical attention or to see a lawyer?”

He shook his head. “In the end, you are nearly as benevolent as Kindness herself, coming on golden wings and a timorous heart. But I am sorry to say that I will not live to see her graceful smile.” Turning to Tiny, the elderly unicorn asked, “Do you know why shaped auras such as ours are incredibly rare, mage?”

Still with the attack spells flitting around her horn, a curious look crossed Tiny’s face as she said, “I’m at a loss, though I doubt you know why, traitor.”

“I would only be a traitor if I betrayed the one I served. But I no longer serve Celestia, but instead the True Liege of Equestria, and she will come soon enough. And yes, I know why.” With a sudden burst of speed that no one had expected, he collided into Tiny, snarling, “Did you know shaped auras are unstable? That’s why they’re so rare – if one with such an aura were to run into another, well….”

As her power began to feed back on itself, Tiny let loose with an unnatural scream, bloodcurdling and horrific. Wisdom Seeker’s power also fed back on him, but the look on his face was unnaturally calm, as if he’d planned and expected this to occur. Jags of energy began to encircle the pair like electrical charges, and both feathers and butterflies fell to the ground and were stilled before they burned and charred the ground.

“Tiny!” Derpy yelped as Silversteel rushed to help the fallen mage. Instead what he got was a blast of magical lightning that slammed him into Derpy, bowling both over and through Tiny’s force field as it shattered like the thinnest glass. Both collided into a stanchion holding up the ceiling and came to a painful stop.

As both gained their bearings, all they could hear was the thrumming sound of magic power beginning to eat away at the local area, just barely drowned out by the heart-wrenching screams of Tiny as her own power and that of Wisdom Seeker’s cancelled each other out at a local point, beginning to tear each other apart, atom by atom.

“Derpy! Get out of here!” Silver roared as he rushed back towards Tiny. “I’ll save her, just go!”

“Young stallion,” Wisdom Seeker said through clenched teeth, “you have only seconds to save the mare you love. Go now, if you dare and if fate is true.” Then to Derpy, “Fare thee well, Silent One. May you be as brave when the quiet comes. And one last word of advice: thunderheads and town halls rarely make for a good combination.”

Silversteel had just enough time to turn and dive at Derpy when the explosion came, a prismatic blast of energy, followed by sprays of blood. This didn’t last long, though, as the ceiling suddenly gave way, capturing both in the blast.

“We’re not going to make it!” Derpy cried, mere feet from the stairs leading to the top floor. A chunk of the ceiling fell and slammed down on her wing hard; she screamed in pain as she hit the ground. The impact of the ground knocked the wind out of her, leaving her dazed and gasping.

“I’m not going to let you die!” Silversteel said, standing over her and letting the stones and gems fall from above on him as he grabbed her by her mane with his teeth, using his body as a shield as he took every blow. His armor dented, gems sliced into his mane and skin, and as his blood dripped on Derpy, he snarled, “I won’t ever let anything hurt you!” With a final bit of strength, he threw her onto the safety of the stairs as the rest of the ceiling came down, crashing on all that had been below and bringing the floor of the above jail with it.

Ditzy landed by the train station; despite the pegasus natural magic of nullifying weight while carrying something in flight, the bulk of the item was making it improbable to fly with. And she was now back at work, with a new boss – the old one having resigned due to “personal circumstances” – who was female, married and pointlessly strict. Ditzy knew within a few minutes she wasn’t going to be able to get “extra bonuses” in with her new boss, so she had to put in actual hours. Clearly, this sucked.

But here she was, landing at the nearest train station to the weather factory. The plan was to get the package to the train station just below Cloudsdale, and she could fly it up from that point; if she did it directly, it would take a whole day of her time. At least with the train, she could get a decent amount of sleep, something she really needed to catch up on if she was to keep up her strenuous lifestyle.

She arranged to have the hailmaker placed in steerage, then went in the second class passenger cabin – at least the factory was paying for it – and took a seat when she noticed a cute little thing sitting across from her. Unicorn, early teens, mare – that pale gray coat and short violet hair. Oh, and those eyes, those naturally sensual bedroom eyes…Ditzy was getting a little stirred up just thinking about it. But alas, she wasn’t old enough. Maybe – maybe if she was just a little older Ditzy would be happy to introduce that filly to the mysteries of marehood, but…well, Ditzy was a parent after all, and she did have standards.

“Excuse me, miss, can I help you?” Ditzy realized she’d been staring at the teen filly a little too much, enough so to get her notice.

Ditzy blushed. “Oh, sorry, it’s just that you reminded me of someone I know; a, uh, filly in my neighborhood.” Intending to show no harm, she said, “I’m Ditzy Doo. And you are?”

The filly smiled. “Rarity. I’m headed to Ponyville to apprentice with Cardigan Sweater. She’s only the most fabulous seamstress in all of Equestria! A true shame that she hasn’t received her due as the fashion maven that she is, but sad to say, some ponies have no taste whatsoever, as it were.”

“Travelling all alone?”

The unicorn nodded. “Well, for the moment, yes. But my parents will be joining me soon enough; Father’s selling our house in Maneapolis and he and Mother will arrive in due time. For the moment I’ll be living with my mentor, however.” Rarity then asked, “And what brings you to this train, Miss Ditzy?”

“Taking something to Cloudsdale, but it’s too bulky to fly there directly, so I’ll be taking it to the Cloudsdale Station and then having some additional ponies help me carry it to the Main Factory.”

Rarity squealed. “Ooh, that sounds simply fascinating! Well, hopefully you’ll have plenty of time to stop by Ponyville on your way back. Please, swing by Miss Cardigan’s shop – I’d be delighted to make something suitable for your beauty, though, uh,” Rarity suddenly appeared downcast as she added, “my skills might not be up to the exacting standards ponies require. But I’ll do my best!”

Ditzy smiled, charmed by the teen’s display of sincerity. Maybe I’ll let her just find her own way to marehood, the gray pegasus decided. She seems like the kind of gal who’s got a bright future ahead of her, and I’d hate to be a drag. “Thank you very much,” Ditzy said, and the two continued to chat breezily as the train began to pick up speed, heading towards its destination.

“NO!” Derpy bolted straight up, her heart slamming against her chest and her eyes wide with terror. “SILVER!” she cried.

Instantly a pair of forelegs wrapped around her. “Derpy, calm down! You’re safe!” She forced herself to calm down, catching the familiar scent of Shining Armor as he held her close, trying to calm his friend. As her panic subsided, she began to focus, noticing she was now in the fort’s infirmary. Standing at the seat of the bed, her eyes red from crying, was Sparkler, worried about her guardian.

“Shining, I’m okay now, thanks,” she said, calming down just in time for Sparkler to leap on the bed and glomp Derpy, the tears starting again. She looked down and craned her neck to kiss Sparkler, saying, “I’m okay, sweetie, I promise.”

“It was a close call,” Shining replied. “And we know what happened. Tiny…I have to write a letter to her husband and colts. That won’t be easy. As for you, you got a sprained wing, but nothing else, thankfully. And I had the doctors check on your condition; the foal is fine – and looks like your cousin’s going to have a filly.”

A filly…. Derpy’s mind swam with Wisdom Seeker’s earlier words to her: “And with your silence you will send a foal on a journey that even you cannot comprehend and she will change everything we will ever know.” My daughter…mine and Autumn’s daughter…. Derpy looked down at her barrel, and the life that grew there. What will I name you? What will I do with you?

Meanwhile, Sparkler, holding onto Derpy like a lifeline, sobbed. “Miss Derpy, I was so scared! There was the big boom like Mommy and Daddy’s stuff, and the jail was on fire and Mister Shining said I had to come with him and that you were hurt and I….” She started crying again, afraid that if she let go, Derpy would be hurt more.

“I’m okay, sweetie,” Derpy assured her, mussing her mane and holding the foal close. She then looked at Shining again. “Where’s Silver?”

“Derpy, I….” The unicorn stallion turned away, and Derpy’s heart stopped.

“Please, Shining,” she said, her heart near bursting as she begged for a response.

“He’s injured badly,” Shining said, finally. “We got to him just in time, and if he hadn’t been wearing his barding, I….” Shining seemed distraught. “Derpy…you two just met, but…go to him. He needs you right now.” He pointed to a bed at the far side of the room, with privacy screens placed around. “We’ll talk about everything later,” Shining said, using his telekinesis to scoop Sparkler up and place her on his back. “But go to him.”

Derpy needed no further urging. Scrambling out of bed, she winced as her bandaged wing naturally moved, the pain excruciating. But with each step she took, her heart raced. He sacrificed himself for me, she realized. When I was just about to die, he sacrificed himself for me. Finally, practically shoving a nurse out of the way, she moved behind the privacy screens.

He lay there, still and barely able to move. His head was immobilized, and he tried to sit up for her. “Derpy? Are you okay?” he asked, straining to try to sit up, with no avail.

She moved to his side in a heartbeat, smiling sweetly and looking at him, her heart racing like Commander Hurricane in a tornado. “Shh. Rest, my hero,” she said, nuzzling him gently. “Don’t say another word.”

“But Derpy, I need to s—” Silver was suddenly cut off as Derpy’s lips connected with his, the pair kissing awkwardly at first before settling into a loving, needing kiss. As she broke it, she said, “I told you not to say anything else.”

“Are you going to make sure of that?” he asked, hopeful.

“As long as you’ll have me,” Derpy said, kissing him again before holding him close, crying on his barrel. “Why did you do it?”

Straining to do so, he used a foreleg to lift her face to his, kissing the tears from her eyes. “I couldn’t let my fillyfriend down, could I?” he said, giving her a loving smile before they held each other close, letting their feelings show.

“She’s going to kill him at this rate,” the nurse grumbled.

At her side, Shining Armor groaned. “You obviously don’t have a special somepony, do you?” he snapped.

The bar run had lasted the day, and by the time they got to Rocketstar’s favorite drinking establishment, both stallions were blasted beyond the point of recognition.

“Heh, so I showed Ditzy,” Autumn slurred. “Slept with her sister. Shoulda married Derpy, too. But I was too much of a buckin’ idiot.”

“Hey, she pushed you, pal,” Rocket said, lifting another mug of cider to his lips. “But you gotta look out for your girls.”

“Yeah, I do. And I think I still love Ditzy,” Autumn moaned over his glass, before falling off his stool and hitting the ground. “But I don’t know what to do anymore, Rocket, I just don’t.”

“Look out for your family, that’s what,” the older stallion said, looking down at the floor where Autumn was. Somehow in between his comment and Rocket’s, the younger stallion had fallen asleep, snoring away on the cider-stained cloudfloor.

“Buuuuuuuuuck,” Rocket said, smacking his head with the empty cider mug. “That was my skull,” he told the bartender. “I’m so wasted!”

“Yeah, and I think you’d better get your pal home, Rocket,” the bartender told him. “Drunk and depressed isn’t the best way to go, you know that.”

“Yeah,” the older pony slurred. He then looked at Autumn’s pack, still sitting on the bar. “Hey, Martini? Do me a favor. Take his bag and lose it. Burn it, I don’t care. Whatever.”

Martini took it in hoof and looked at Rocket. “You sure? I mean, I know the weight of D6 paperwork when I feel it. Only reason a stranger like him comes to Cloudsdale this time of week.”

Rocket looked back at the bartender. “Yeah, I know. But…he wouldn’t be here just debating it if she didn’t mean anything to him. I mean, when Lima Bean and I were splitting up I didn’t go and ask for advice – I just went and filled out the paperwork. He asked for advice, which means he’s conflicted and despite everything, he still loves Ditzy. He’s not ready for this, and I won’t let him make the mistake. Just…get rid of it and I’ll talk to him tomorrow when he sobers up.”

“You got it.” Martini pulled the pack off the bar, throwing it into the recycle bin. Tonight was trash night and they’d burn everything via lightning bolts anyway – the ash helped give thunderclouds their distinctive color.

“Are you sure about this?” Shining asked, the look on his face ashen. He and Derpy were back in his office, and she’d given him the scroll that Wisdom Seeker gave her.

“Those were his words: ‘the stars shall aid in her escape’, Shining. He focused on that and insisted that he didn’t mean the Warden Stars. I thought he was insane, personally, but….”

“Please don’t tell me you actually believe him,” Shining said, a worried look coming onto his face.

“Shining, what’s wrong? I know you, so don’t try to hide it.”

“Have you looked at this scroll?”

She shook her head. “Other than that he said it would reveal the stars that would aid in the Mare in the Moon’s escape. I could study some of the star charts if you’d like. I’ll find those stars, though I doubt any of it will be true.”

“He said he was an oracle,” Shining said, looking at Derpy with pleading eyes.

“Shining, please tell me what’s wrong. I don’t care if it’s a military secret – we’re friends, and I’m worried.”

He unfurled the scroll. “If what he’s saying is true, these are the stars that will cause calamity in the near future.”

Derpy looked at the stars on the scroll: one large star, surrounded by five smaller ones. “Doesn’t look like any constellation I’m aware of. Actually, it looks like a cutie mark.”

The look on Shining’s face was one of fear. “This…this is my sister’s cutie mark.”

Chapter Six: Some Adjustments Must Be Made

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The days passed. Derpy had a successful meeting the following day with bison chieftains Big Littlehorn and Runs-Many-Grasslands. Both chiefs, indeed, were impressed by the mare’s bravery and told her so, much to her blushing. They also found Sparkler to be an absolute delight and made her an honorary member of the tribe, complete with a bison name: Kisses-and-Hugs.

But on a more serious front, both bison chiefs informed Derpy that their tribes’ braves, working alongside guardpony forces and a fully-armed combat airship, were able to get the ponies to surrender. This was confirmed later that afternoon, as the engaging forces returned victoriously, their captives hobbled and ready for transport to Canterlot for trial. Some of them looked defiant, as though they expected this to be nothing more than a momentary respite in their imaginary leader’s quest to conquer Equestria. But most of them knew they were headed for some time in the jails and dungeons, and the shame and humiliation that would follow afterwards.

The following day, the Archmagus of the Mage Guild, Glittering Prize, arrived with dozens of mages as well as a second cohort of guard troops. The reason for that was to secure the roads back to the main portion of Equestria and with that in mind, Prize marshaled the forces and sent them into battle. Shining was grateful for the break, both because of the archmagus’ expertise and also so that it gave him more time to recuperate from his own injuries.

As for Shining himself, once had time to think about it, he realized it was nothing more than a diversion, the ramblings of a now-deceased madstallion. Twily, after all, was under the careful watch of Princess Celestia as well as Cadance – and neither of them would ever let her go astray. Plus, she kinda sorta had friends in the other fillies that Cadance foalsat, so there was that.

“Yeah, I definitely overreacted,” Shining said in a guilty tone. He looked down at his desk and said, “You know, I really wonder if I am cut out to be captain of the guard someday. I shouldn’t make mistakes like this – Old Soldier certainly doesn’t.”

Derpy gave him a smile. “Shining, I’m sure Archmagus Prize said the same thing when he was just a junior mage. And the archmagus who comes after him will probably say the same thing, as will the next. You can bet that Old Soldier said the same thing when he was just a lieutenant, too. You just took over command of this fort, and you’re keeping all these ponies safe. If you did something in error, well…I just don’t know what went wrong.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right. Thanks, Derpy,” he said with a smile. “And speaking of things needing to be said….”

She sat, listening as he spoke. When Shining was done, she asked, “Are you sure about that?”

He nodded. “Just let me take care of it.”

Ditzy stretched out luxuriously in this cloud bed. It felt almost as soft and desirable as clouds made by pegasi. Yeah, it didn’t have the neat shape of what pegasi were used to, but for a hobbyist not used to working with weather magic, this was perfect. Just the right amount of warmth and softness, and sooner or later, he’d get the structure right.

Besides, she thought to herself, there’s other shapes he’s got that are just perfect. She looked at his sleeping form, and remembered that one of the little known benefits to gryphons was that they could get back up to speed in a moment. She found that out while being invited to a “special” party being thrown by some mare she met a few years ago. The party turned out to be an interspecies swing and she got her fill – both metaphorically and literally – of some of the studliest males outside of ponydom. And the best of all? No need to worry about contraceptive spells.

So as she ended up spending the rest of the night and part of the next day with a gryphon with a hobby in cloudmaking and the biggest – well, there was much to be said about the pleasure of pain. He chattered on incessantly and to be honest, Ditzy couldn’t even remember his name; it was probably something with a G, knowing his species’ predilections towards that tradition. But he was an attentive lover and he caressed her in the way she hadn’t been caressed since…


Tears began to fall. Autumn, what have I done? The tears streamed, unbidden down her face. What’s-his-name caressed and cuddled her just the same way her estranged husband did, a kind, caring love that her body ached out for. And that’s what she really realized she needed: it was the touch of love. Yes, last night was fun – oh, was last night fun, especially that one zebra mare and that thing she did with her tongue – but….

Not entirely in control of herself, she found the exit to his home and launched into the air immediately. Part of her wanted to wake her bedmate back up and do it until she was raw and sore. But if she did that, she’d have no strength in her to head home and beg her husband and family to take her back. Once again she’d made a brutal mistake and she had to correct it if she could. She had to see them again, and find some way – any way – to get back in their good graces.

She was halfway back to her home before she remembered the gryphon’s name was Gibril.

“Wow, really?” Meteor Flash said to Autumn once he’d announced the news. “No way, man. I mean…can you really afford it?”

Autumn nodded. “I can rent out my old house as needed, and then with the raise, I can buy yours, if it’s still on the market.”

Meteor gave his friend a wide grin. “Dude, seriously, going to miss having you here. But I can’t think of anypony better to get their hooves on that old home than you.”

“Hey, I’m still trying to make sense of it all.” And indeed, that much was true. He remembered waking up drunk at Rocket’s home, with Blossomwind looking at them both with a bemused smile and little Blossomforth bouncing up and down like the excited little filly she was. After the two made themselves presentable and ate a nice breakfast courtesy of Blossomwind, there had been a knock at the door of Rocket’s home. It was Rocket’s boss, Towering Cumulus, who had a problem and needed to consult his right-hoof stallion on it.

“Yeah, and just like that Fallstreak decides she’s gonna be a housewife and stay home with her husband. I mean, she’s always been flaky, but this time just took the cake. Anyway, so do we know any ponies who can take over the weather instructor job here in Cloudsdale? Especially since fog training is a huge specialty – it’s one of those things you have to get just right.”

Rocket’s answer had been to point out Autumn and extol his position as the head of the fog patrol in his own weather facility. At that, Cumulus brightened and started talking to the olive pegasus in earnest. Twenty minutes later, Autumn was offered the position of head fog instructor at the weather school in Cloudsdale. It had taken all of a couple of seconds for Autumn to snap out of his reverie and only a second after that to wholeheartedly accept the position.

After all, who could say no? The instructor job bumped his pay up by a third, and some of the schools around Cloudsdale were amongst the best for young pegasi like his daughters. There would likely be more foals their age to play with and best of all…no Ditzy. He could just leave and file the divorce papers at his leisure; also, being seen in town as the one taking care of the fillies would be good for him should Ditzy want a nasty custody battle.

Focusing back on his conversation, Autumn grinned and said, “Well, if you’re ever in town, you’ll know where to find me.” Meteor nodded and then excused himself; he had to start getting the sales paperwork ready if he was going to transfer the house in a timely manner; plus, he did have to get ready for work for the day. As for Autumn, he was going to have a hard time concentrating on work today, as his mind was now on what was going to be a better life for him and his fillies and best of all…away from Ditzy for once and for all.

He couldn’t wait to tell the girls tonight.

She walked in while he was asleep. He looked a mangled, broken mess – and to Derpy, the most handsome thing in the universe. Silversteel had nearly died for her sake and had proven his feelings for her in the grandest way possible and in doing so, opened hers up to him as well. In that moment, her world had changed. Now, she wasn’t alone anymore. Now, she had somepony to face the future with. Now, she had someone who could bring a smile on her face and a skipped beat in her heart.

As she approached him, he opened his eyes slightly. “Derpy?” he spoke softly.

“Sssh,” she whispered. “Don’t say a thing.” She bent over and kissed him slightly, her heart racing as she knew they belonged to one another. She put her head down on his prone form and sighed in contentment; though she couldn’t see it from this angle, the look on his face was one of utter peace as well. The duo remained like that for several minutes, each soaking in the newfound love of the other. Finally, she lifted her head and looked at him once more, letting her smile say everything she never could.

He smiled back, as feeble as it was. “Looks like I’m going to be down for the count for a while,” he replied. “They’re probably going to transfer me to another garrison to recuperate. Doctor said it’s going to take at least six months before I’ll be fully qualified to go back on regular duty, though I’ll be back on my feet in a few weeks.”

“I’ll come visit you every day,” the gray pegasus promised. “I don’t care how fa—”

“Derpy, you have to worry more about your cousin’s foal,” Silver insisted. “Wherever I’m stationed at, I’m sure I can come visit you whenever. I’ll be on light duty, which means that my main job’ll be to heal.”

“I….” A lump solidified in Derpy’s throat. Could she tell him the truth? Would he still love her if she did? Would he accept being the father of a foal he hadn’t sired, just as Autumn had accepted Fluttsy and Orange? And, for that matter, what would Autumn think?

Thankfully, the gray stallion misunderstood. “I know. I want to be with you too, Derpy. But I have to get out of the infirmary, first. I just hope that they’ll transfer me to the Canterlot garrison where I can be close instead of some place like San Caballo or Las Pegasas.”

“Well, I think I can solve that for you right now,” Shining Armor said as he came in. Silver, on instinct, immediately tried to stand at attention and render a salute while in traction, but the older stallion merely shook his head and said, “Relax, Silver. We’re off the books on this one.”

“Thanks. I can’t quite be all shine and spit-polish,” the earth pony replied in a woozy voice. “By the way, these meds the doctors are giving me? They’re making me a little dizzy.”

“Well, you’ll have time to get over that with some tender loving care from your fillyfriend, Sergeant,” Shining said, his face cracking into a grin, “because you’re going to be stationed really close to her – you’re being temporarily assigned to the garrison at Berryville.” The look on Silver’s face was one for the ages, and Shining had to prevent himself from breaking out into complete fits of laughter over that. “The medical facilities at the Berryville garrison are more than sufficient for your needs, Silver, and I’ve sent a message to Coronet Straitlace – he’s willing to train you in how to be a sergeant.”

“But how…why…uh….” Sure enough, the earth pony stallion was at a complete loss for words.

“Because you risked your life to save a high-level Crown official,” Shining replied. “Yes, I know it’s Derpy and you would have done so regardless, but the rules are the rules, and those rules said you went above and beyond the call of duty when you saved said Crown official. That earns you some medals, and along with that, a promotion straight to sergeant.”

“But I would have done it for her anyway,” Silver stammered, finding his words. “And I let Tiny Dynamine….” He trailed off, unable to say more on that subject. Derpy reacted to her beau’s anguish, running her hoof through his mane.

“You weren’t to blame for that,” Shining said. “She knew the risks and was there to help you both. She’s just as much a hero as you are, Silver. And if she were here, she’d want you to smile and know you did your job.”

“I guess,” the younger stallion answered, not feeling confident about that.

His unease sank into Derpy’s mind as she went back to her quarters to pack her and Sparkler’s bags for the trip back to Berryville the next day. As she arrived, the guard assigned to protect the quarters waved and said hello; he’d been one of the ones on the Serene Velocity and was grateful for the impromptu job she’d done that saved the ship just a few days prior. She chatted with him for a few minutes before going in to see how her charge was doing.

In the center of the room, perspiration on her brow and mane as she was trying to fine-tune her telekinesis, Sparkler was currently trying to pick up a bunch of flower petals individually instead of as a group. Her face was screwed up in concentration as she reached out with her magic to poke and prod at each item before her, hoping to get a literal rise out of the small array of objects before her. Finally, she let out her breath, her magic spent and the few petals that had been wavering just hairs’ breadth above the ground gently fell back to earth.

“That was wonderful, Sparkler!” the gray Pegasus chirped as she came in. “You did very well!” The little filly gave a tired smile and a yawn as her guardian came in and scooped her up in a hug.

“But I didn’t lift the petals, Miss Derpy,” the foal mumbled as she teetered on the edge of needing a nap and enjoying being hugged.

“But you tried, muffin,” Derpy replied. “That’s the important thing – there are too many adults who never try and never really reach their dreams. Even when they get their cutie mark, it’s more because they got it when it was time, not because they really tried to be the best at what they do.” She nuzzled Sparkler, a loving smile on her face. “Promise me you’ll never give up?”

She giggled softly and said, “I promise!” But the younger pony then yawned and said, “I think I wanna take a nap, though.”

“Well, let’s take one together, okay?” the mare said and Sparkler sleepily complied, her head bobbing in a narcoleptic nod. Clambering onto the bed, she was nearly asleep the moment her head hit the pillow. Looking at the tiny unicorn with a soft smile on her face, Derpy hopped on the bed herself and gently extended her wing over Sparkler as if it were a blanket. Instinctively, Sparkler snuggled closer, the look on her face priceless as she slept soundly under the pegasus’ wing.

“And that should be the last of it,” Shining said as he burned the document, sending it magically transporting away back to the main Guard garrison at Canterlot. “All in all, things went much better than they could have. We defeated the enemy with a minimal loss of our forces, though if you ask me the price was still too high.”

Stroking his short beard, Glittering Prize nodded. “We lost a promising mage. I know Tiny Dynamine’s father, Gulf Fritillary. He’ll be devastated at her loss, but proud as a peacock that she was there to help those in need. And I knew Wisdom Seeker personally…I’m at a complete loss as to why he turned, and I suppose without him alive we’ll never truly know. But I intend to interrogate a few of the prisoners and get some answers. We’ll get to the bottom of this, Lieutenant, I assure you.”

Shining nodded. “Thank you, Archmagus. I appreciate the assistance.”

The older unicorn chuckled. “All in a day’s work, Lieutenant. Besides, if I may be so bold, this bit of travel has given me a bit of a respite; her majesty’s personal protégé has been asking me questions about magic theory and thaumaturgical protocols as of late that would vex ponies three times her age and decades more experience. I’m not sure where the Princess found this little teenage dynamo, but I fear that if I’m not careful, by the time it’s time for me to retire, she’ll be trying on the Archmagus’ hat next.”

Shining suppressed a grin; it was clear that the Archmagus had no idea of the relation between him and Twily. “Sounds like you’re in much need for a vacation, sir.”

“Not if I want to keep my job,” he said with a soft smile. “I’ll be returning to Canterlot tomorrow; I can only hope that Miss Sparkle hasn’t commandeered my personal library by the time I arrive.”

Both fillies were wide-eyed at dinner that night. “Really, Daddy?” they chorused as one.

He nodded softly. “We can move next week. You two can attend the Pegasus school and go to the best flight camp in the country!” he said, feeling a little envious; the flight camp he’d attended near Detrot when he was their age was top-notch, but it was often said about the storied and historic camp at Canterlot that it was the place of Wonderbolts in training. While neither of the girls aspired to it, it would mean that they would have the best education possible. “Who knows? You two might even get an autograph from one of the Wonderbolts!”

Both Fluttsy and Orange looked at each other, grinning happily at that. The Wonderbolts’ current leader, Cloudy Contrails, was an extremely friendly and outgoing pegasus; Meteor said that she lived across the way from their new home and was, despite her position, a very likeable and friendly sort. But for him, seeing the pair smile meant more to him than anything else. His girls deserved happiness and one way or another Autumn was going to make sure that they got it.

And then the question came.

“Daddy…if we move, will Mommy know where we moved to?”

A couple of seconds passed before the stallion realized he was holding his breath. He knew this question was going to come up and sooner or later he was going to have to deal with it. “We’ll talk about it later, sweetie, okay?” he said gently.

“But my school project is this week!” she cried, “and I need her there!”

“Sweetie, your Aunt Derpy should be able to do it,” Autumn replied. “Your mother is ver—”

“At school today Puppydog Tails said that Mommy is a tail-lifter, and all the other foals laughed.” The look in Fluttsy’s eyes was one of sudden sorrow.

No, not now, Autumn moaned silently. Stay a foal a little while longer, sweetie. Please just stay my filly a little longer. The moment he dreaded was on the verge of arrival: the day he’d have to tell his daughters the truth.

She looked at him strangely, then asked, “Then he said to me that maybe when I’m as old as Mommy I’ll be a tail-lifter just like her. I didn’t understand what he meant but he was mean and….” She looked at him, the picture of confusion. “Why was he mean? And why did he call Mommy a tail-lifter?”

He looked at Flutterwonder, his eyes both sad and kind. “Sweetie, sometimes ponies say things they shouldn’t and it hurts others. You…ignore him for right now and I’ll talk to your teacher tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, not convinced.

“Besides, we’ll be moving to Cloudsdale next month and then you won’t have to deal with Puppydog Tails or any other colt like that. You’ll be with a bunch of new and nice colts and fillies that you and Orange can make friends with, okay?”

Fluttsy perked up at that, grinning. “Uh-huh!” she agreed.

“Good. You and Orange can play for a little while longer after dinner, then get ready for bed. I have to write a letter to your aunt to make sure she’s going to be there for you, okay?” Fluttsy nodded then left the table, going to ask her younger sister if they wanted to play a game of Cloudbusters, leaving her father behind to sigh in relief.

This time had been too close. There wouldn’t be a next time, he knew. Next time she would know and he’d have to tell her the truth and break his daughter’s heart. He didn’t want to do that; Dear Celestia’s Sun he didn’t want to ever do that. But he knew one thing: that no matter what, he’d always be there for her and Orange. They were his daughters and that’s what they’d always be to him.

The next morning, the pair awoke and had a quick breakfast before they had to pack their bags. While Derpy handled the majority of that, Sparkler went back to attempting to lift the flower petals individually. The pair had been at it for several minutes before a knock came at the door, and a few seconds later Shining Armor came in through the door. “So, you guys will be leaving on the Sudden Stars, which just arrived in-port last night. They’ll be headed back later this morning, so you have time to say all your goodbyes before you go.”

Derpy looked at her old friend, then reached over and embraced him. “I’m going to miss you, Shining,” she said with a loving smile.

“Hey, it’s not like it’s forever,” he said, returning the embrace. “I have to head to Canterlot sometime next month to give a final report on the situation. I can swing by Berryville on the way back.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” she insisted.

He nodded and said, “I’ll let you go see Silver so you can spend time with him before you two depart.” He gave her a chaste nuzzle before focusing his attention on the younger unicorn. “Heya, Sparkler. Heard you need a hand with learning how to increase your telekinesis?”

“Uh huh,” she said, not taking her eyes off her targets. “Miss Derpy says I can do it if I really try, but so far I haven’t, Mister Shining.” She finally took her eyes off the petals and looked at him hopefully.

He grinned. “Well, let me teach you a trick I taught my little sister,” he said as he approached her. Derpy knew that Sparkler would be in good hooves, so she took that moment to leave the quarters, headed straight towards the infirmary.

“And yet you came to me,” the voice said gruffly, “and not to your family. I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

“Look, Will,” she said to the minotaur sitting before her, “I just need some advice.”

Will to Power looked at her, his heavily muscled green arm effortlessly lifting a keg of cider and pouring two glasses, one for him and the other for his friend. “Ditzy, have you forgotten that I’m not exactly the most expert on relationships either?”

“You’re better than me.” Will was Ditzy’s friend because of the one thing he’d accomplished that no other being had done before: turned down her advances willingly. Strangely enough, he’d been holding out for a minotaur cow that Ditzy had ended up sleeping with, and while trying to give relationship advice to the bull the two had become friends of a sort…even if she’d had sex with Will’s now-wife more often than he’d had. “You even got Pasiphae to stop running in the meadow, and she likes that sort of thing.”

“She promised me that when she got pregnant, that’d be the end of it,” he’d told her. “We’ve got a daughter on the way, and I want little Scylla to have a normal life with normal relationships – none of that meadow-running business.” He looked at his friend. “So, you want me to tell you how to fix things with your husband and be a good mother to your foals? That’s easy: just stop chasing tail. I understand that Cloud Kicker already said the same thing to you, didn’t she?”

Ditzy was shocked. “H..how…?”

He grinned. “She’s been telling everyone you’re off-limits now and that she’ll beat the stuffing out of anyone who even tries. Looks like if you’re going to keep what you’re doing, you’re going to be playing on the periphery for a long, long time.” He held his mug up to his face, then took a quick drink. “Ditzy, you and I have known each other for a few years now. You’re…you’re not cut out for this. I know you. You’d make a wonderful mother and wife if you’d let yourself and stop comparing yourself to your sister.”

The gray pegasus’ face contorted in disgust. “This isn’t about my sister.”

“Yes it is. You can’t fool me,” he said. “There’s something about your sister that you just can’t let go of, and it’s eating you alive. You keep listening to the same basic advice over and over again, and you won’t let go. Instead, you blame your sister for everything that’s wrong in your life and you retaliate by throwing your own life away. How many foals have you and your husband had, Ditzy?”

“That’s none of your business,” she said sharply.

“Zero. I know you have at least two foals, so that’s two times you’ve slept with someone else and then dumped the remains onto your husband. I swear, that stallion is a bull amongst bulls – he must absolutely love those foals to accept some other stallion’s results as his own.”

Ditzy wanted to reach over and slap Will. He wasn’t helping – he was insulting her! How could he?

“Ditzy,” he said kindly, “I know what you’re thinking, and yes, you probably want to beat me to a pulp. But ask yourself: why? Is it because I’m lying or wrong – or is it because I’m telling you an uncomfortable truth?”

She drained her mug in one. “This conversation’s over, Will,” she said, storming upstairs. She was staying at his house a couple of days to think things through. Maybe in the morning he’d be nicer to her.

Will merely looked at the pegasus as she stormed upstairs and knew he’d hit paydirt. It was cruel and painful, but she’d been cruel and painful to him once and it had helped him. Ponies were, as a general rule, not like that, but then again it was part of the reason his family had moved from Minos when he was just a calf – because his family was gentler than most minotaurs and it showed. Hell, his baby brother Iron Will even wanted to be a self-help coach someday.

“Your hatred for yourself is going to destroy you someday, Ditzy,” he said sadly to the space where she’d been a few minutes ago, “and I hope someone’s there to pick you up when it happens.”

Clambering up into the bedroom, Ditzy opened the window and looked outside. In the distance she could see the town of Ponyville, just about forty or so miles north. To the left, she could see Cloudsdale, bright and shining in the sky, as the sun reflected off its silvery clouds. She’d thought about moving there once with Autumn, starting over again and just having the two of them together, happy. Then she met Skyswift, one hell of a stallion with a…well, she’d spent plenty of time whittling him down to size. She was pretty sure that he was her oldest daughter’s sire, but she had no interest in keeping in touch with him once he’d started getting serious with another mare. Instead, she’d bore the foal and convinced Autumn she wouldn’t stray again. That had been the lie a few months later when she met a husband and wife group. Beautiful View had been more fun in the sack than her husband had been, but it had been Mango Grove that had gotten her pregnant. Eventually Beautiful View had become with foal as well and they got out of meadow running, leaving Ditzy to head back to her husband with a new foal and more arguments.

And all this time, Autumn had stayed with her…even as she knew her husband’s deepest secret: after all these years, he still loved his first girl, her twin sister, Derpy. Her brainiac-but-dorky sister, her deeply flawed idiot of a twin – the one who always seemed somehow to get all the breaks and chances that were rightfully Ditzy’s. Why did Derpy have to have the first coltfriend out of the two of them? Why did Derpy insist on being smart instead of beautiful…well, admittedly, she didn’t have a choice there. But why was Derpy so gifted and blessed with everything while Ditzy had to scrabble and scramble for every little scrap? Hell, even their own parents favored the older sister.

Ditzy didn’t know, and Ditzy would never know. And as she closed the window and for the first time in weeks slept alone in a bed, she wondered if those answers would ever come.

“Silver, I….” Derpy was about to say something else when she was silenced by his kiss.

“You don’t have to say anything, Derpy. I’ll be along in a couple of weeks, the doctors told me. We won’t be apart long. And I’ll be there to help you when you stop flying. I mean, you’re almost at the point where you’ll be too big to fly, right?”

Silver, if I tell you the foal is mine, will you still love me? she wondered. If I tell you my brother-in-law’s the father, will you still respect me? She turned away, unable to say anything to the stallion she cared about.

Thankfully he misunderstood. “I understand that losing your ability to fly is a big thing for pegasi, but I promise I’ll be there for you, Derpy,” he replied. “And once you give birth to your cousin’s foal, we can actually focus on our own relationship.” Again, it was forward of him, but she found it was something charming about him, that expectation that tomorrow would always be there and that she was going to be a part of it.

“But I’ll miss you every moment until we’re together again,” she told him, leaning forward to kiss him again—

—only to be interrupted by a doctor. “Dr. Hooves, I’ve been told to inform you that they’ll be boarding your ship in an hour,” the medic informed her. “Plus, the sergeant here will need his rest, so I’m afraid you’ll have to say your goodbyes now. Additionally, by the table,” he said, pointing with his horn, “there’s a letter for you, just dropped off by the Commander’s office.” Nothing further to say, the unicorn departed the room, leaving the two lovebirds to get back to their goodbyes.

Settling on just holding each other for a few moments, Silver and Derpy gazed into each other’s eyes – or as much as he could into hers – beholding one another, silly smiles and bright blushes on both their faces. But after a few more minutes, it was time to depart.

“I’ll see you soon, and miss you every moment,” she said, kissing him tenderly.

“I’ll be looking forward to it with every moment,” he said, watching her depart.

She grabbed the message left for her and left the room, blowing him a kiss before closing the door. As she departed, she opened the message. Magically ensorcelled, it floated before her, letting her read it as it levitated in the air:


Thank you. Thanks to you, Shining is safe, and you were able to put a stop to the Nightmare Army. My aunt finally came clean with me last night about the whole thing (apparently it’s something to do with an ancient monster she trapped in stone a long time ago and ponies now seem to think it’s the Mare in the Moon, go figure), and she was glad I was worried about her. Twily has also been somewhat concerned, but when I told her Shining’s best friend was on the case, she felt much more comfortable.

Shining also sent me a report about what Wisdom Seeker told you. The fact is, he was a madstallion, and I don’t know how he could have figured out Twily’s cutie mark unless he saw something similar. Then again, from what Shining’s mother has told me, the magenta star has been a symbol in their family since their ancestor Clover the Clever, so maybe he just took a famous mark and did something coincidental. In any case, both my aunt and I will keep an eye on Twily. I don’t think she’ll ever be a problem and I love her too much to let her get into danger.

Lastly, I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done. I wish I could fly down to meet you at your home so we can get to know each other better, but my schedule doesn’t permit the time right now. I promise that the first chance I can, I will. For everything you’ve done for Equestria and my coltfriend, I consider you a dear friend as well. I really don’t have too many ponies that I can call one, so you’ll just have to settle for being one of those lucky ponies, right?

Your friend,
- Cadance

Derpy smiled softly as he took her eyes off the scroll, triggering it to roll up once more and settle on the floor before her. Picking it up in her mouth, she left the hospital, heading toward the guest quarters to get Sparkler and plan to head home. Her job was done here and tomorrow was another day. She could get started back on the Stereolab again and plan—

“Regardless, Doctor, you are an important mare. I have seen it in the skies, in my dreams, in the ripples of water as a tea leaf dances on the toroidal. There will come a time when your actions will change, irrevocably, the future of all ponydom, and with your silence you will send a foal on a journey that even you cannot comprehend and she will change everything we will ever know. But until the quiet comes, you have much to do.”

She froze in her tracks as Wisdom Seeker’s words came back at her. Looking down at her growing barrel, soon she’d give birth to a daughter, and what that child’s fate would be was either prophecy or problem. Only the future would know for sure.

Derpy could only hope that she’d be strong enough to face it when the time came.

Chapter Seven: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

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Derpy continued to work on the Stereolab. After all, it had been just a couple of days ago that she’d become too heavy to fly, and thankfully that had come just after she’d helped Flutterwonder on her project. She’d gotten the best grade in the class, and Fluttsy had to say that it had been “all thanks to the best mommy in the world, my Aunt Derpy!” Derpy smiled nervously at that statement; after all, it was a foal’s innocence that had made the unintentional double entendre, which made all the parents there notice her foal bump and made her have to tell that lie over and over again.

Sooner or later it was going to get to somepony who was going to know the truth.

Sooner or later everything would come crashing down on Derpy.

Sooner or later….

“Knock knock!” Without waiting for a response, Raspberry Scone came in, the smile on her face chipper and serene. “Heya, Derpy! How are things?”

The gray pegasus smiled wanly. “Well, I’m grounded now. Parcel has me working in the office while Lemon Drop takes over my route.” She sighed. “And really, there’s nothing much to do at work, so more often than not, I’m just working on my private little projects.”

“Sorry to hear that; I know how much the job means to you,” the earth pony said, her ears flattening in sympathy for her friend. But they jaunted up like soldiers at attention as she said, “Well, I know what’ll perk ya up! Lunch at Sandwich Harry’s, on me.”

“That’s sweet of you, Sconey, but really, I—”

“You’re eating for two now, and that means you also have to get the proper exercise and all that,” the farmpony reminded her friend. “You can’t just carry your cousin’s foal and call it just that – you have to take care of yourself as well, or else what’ll the parents think you’re doing for their little one? And for that matter, what about that hot coltfriend of yours, right?”

Derpy blushed furiously. She hadn’t seen Silversteel in a week, but the sudden mention of his name made the gray pegasus experience conflicting feelings inside. She hadn’t intended to fall for the junior soldier, but in the weeks since the incident in Appaloosa, there was no denying that the two had become close…and that scared Derpy as much as it thrilled her. She finally had a stallion in her life, but…he was in a career fraught with peril, so much so that if she’d ever had foals, she’d list his occupation as a top fear.

Meanwhile, Sconey waved a hoof in front of Derpy’s face. “Earth to Derpy…hello….”

Derpy’s cheeks flushed once more. “Sorry, Sconey, just…thinking….”

“Ah, hah,” her friend said wryly. “Well, save the saddle ‘n’ socks for after the foaling, so you can get looking good again, girl!” she said with a wink.

“Sconey!” The earth pony just giggled, and Derpy herself had to smile at her friend’s charm. “Just for that I’m ordering the most expensive thing on the menu.”

“Times two, I’m guessing,” Sconey continued as both departed Derpy’s home. As the two made their way towards the sandwich shop, Sconey continued to chatter: “…and so, yeah, I was considering doing the Running of the Leaves, especially since I wanted to check out some of the stallions coming over from Ponyville and Cruppersville and other nearby towns. There was this especially cutie of a hunk that I remember from last year, earth pony stallion with a brick-red coat and wheat-blonde mane and oh did he have the cutest green eyes. Didn’t talk much, so I never got his name, but I’m hoping he’s single since I’m guessing he’s about our age. I was hoping that you and I could go together and find colts of our own, but since you have that all wrapped up in hoof for yourself,” she sighed dramatically, “I guess I’ll have to manage somehow.”

“Maybe I can ask Silver if he knows anypony who might be interested in taking a charming young farmmare out for a date,” Derpy replied.

Sconey practically swooned at that. “Derpy, if you do I swear I’ll be your best friend forever!”

“I thought you already were.”

“Technicalities, technicalities!” the earth pony insisted.

“Like I said, Sconey, I’ll see what I can do,” Derpy said with a grin.

“Sparkler, see me after class.” The unicorn filly still moved carefully, gingerly, trying not to wince in pain every time she took a step. When she said she had to stay after school, her friends Apricot Sundae and Jazzmatazz agreed to stay as well, but things got worse when Miss Cottonball told them that it had to be Sparkler alone.

And now here she was, the only one in class. Her friends had gone home, and even those two bullies who teased her for being a blank flank, Fruit Punch and Evergreen, had left as well. That just left Sparkler in the class, waiting for Miss Cottonball to show up – she was apparently in a meeting with the school principal, Miss Sparkle Bliss.

Finally, the two adults entered the class and Sparkler overheard the vaguest bits of conversation:

“…and that’s what’s my concerns are, Miss Bliss. She’s just a foal and she’s got injuries that….”
“Forgive me for taking this with a grain of salt, Cotton, but you do realize what you’re accusing Sparkler’s parents of, correct?”
“No, I mean…that is…it could be anything, really – I don’t want to say I’m accusing anypony of anything. I just want to make sure my student is safe and healthy!”
“Well, let’s check her out then.”

Finally the two adults entered the room: the soft pink and white earth pony with a gentle smile that was Miss Cottonball, and the blue and yellow unicorn that was Miss Bliss. The latter walked right up to Sparkler and said, “Miss Cottonball has given me…concerns…that something is wrong with your health, Sparkler. Would you care to tell me the problem?”

“I…um….” Sparkler wanted to crawl under the desk. She didn’t want to say anything, because she knew that it would get her in trouble. If she lied, she’d be in trouble with the teachers. If she told the truth, she’d be in trouble with her parents. Either instance would end up with her being in hot water for something or other. She involuntarily flinched at the thought.

Cottonball’s soft blue eyes caught the burn instantly. “There! On her right hindleg, Miss Bliss – that’s a burn mark!”

The unicorn looked at Sparkler evenly. “Sparkler, would you please stand up?”

Carefully, Sparkler got out of her seat and looked at both teachers with worry. She tried to shift her hindleg, but it was suddenly caught in an aura of mint green. The filly bit off a scream as her leg was gently lifted so both teachers could inspect it.

“Well, it does look like a burn mark. Sparkler, how did this happen?” Sparkle Bliss asked.

“I…uh….” Her mind frantically tried to recall the answer that her father made her memorize in case anypony ever asked. It wasn’t even remotely the truth, but he made it clear that she would be in deep trouble if she so much as hinted otherwise. “I was playing in the fireworks shed and…I accidentally had a magic flare.”

Sparkle Bliss nodded her head tersely. “I see. Well, don’t let it happen again.”

Cottonball looked aghast. “Miss Bliss! How on Earth can she—”

“Miss Cottonball, are you a unicorn?” the principal asked. “Because as an earth pony, I certainly don’t expect you to be knowledgeable on unicorn biological issues. Magic flares are embarrassing for foals and bringing them up in public doesn’t make the situation any better. I would ask that in the future, you be more considerate of your students’ needs.”

“But I—” she began, but was silenced via a stern stare from her employer. “Yes, Miss Bliss,” she finally said, her head downcast.

Sparkle Bliss looked at Sparkler. “You may go home now, Sparkler. Please do be careful in the future.”

“Y-y-yes, ma’am,” the filly said as she gingerly got off her chair and made her way out of the classroom.

As the young unicorn stepped out of the building, Sparkle Bliss wheeled on the teacher. “If you so much as do that again, you can look for a new teaching position, Miss Cottonball,” the unicorn snarled. “I will not have you making wild accusations about members of our community again!” Sparkle looked around the door and the windows to make sure that nopony else was around before saying, “I know you meant well…trust me, you’re not ready for that kind of Tartarus, the kind that Sparkler’s parents will bring.”

“You lied!” Cottonball accused in turn. “I might be just an earth pony, but my father’s a unicorn and I know what magic flares do – he insisted on explaining it to me in case I ever had unicorn foals of my own!”

“Trust me,” Sparkle Bliss sighed, her tone deflating, “I did you a favor. Look…Bottlerocket is bad news, and while I don’t know about his wife, I’m guessing she’s not much better.”

That was a sudden change in tone. “You…willingly lied? What about protecting that foal?”

“Not much good protecting her if you’re dead.” Sparkle Bliss insisted, lighting up her horn. Magic encircled her, and when it disappeared, a huge scar was revealed on Sparkle Bliss’ right flank, right where her cutie mark had once been. “I…I dated Bottlerocket years ago,” she admitted. “He was…well, I tried reporting it, but somehow he covered his tracks well, almost as if he intended to hurt me just to see if he could cover it up.”

“Sparkler’s father did that to you?”

Bliss nodded. “When I told the sheriff, after an investigation, it was found that I was nothing more than, and I quote, ‘a histrionic mare who would go to extreme lengths to injure herself just to make sure I forced him to take my hoof in marriage,’ unquote. Somehow, he had three or four different alibis, all of which were iron-clad. I know where he was that day – he was….” Bliss gasped in pain, then fell to the floor in shambles. “He was…. A-and nopony would believe me!”

“But Sparkler! She’s just a filly! He’s doing the same thing to her – his own daughter! – that he did to you! Doesn’t that matter?” Cottonball cried.

“I hope – I pray to Holy Celestia or Blessed Cadance every night – that Bottlerocket’s wife has been a calming influence on him, that she’s able to still the monster within him,” Bliss replied, “or else that foal is truly in danger, and there will be nopony to save her.”

“Well, you might be a coward about it,” Cottonball snarled, “but I’m going to save my student! And if you have any of the sense that Celestia gifted you with while you were still in your mother’s womb, then you’ll resign your job immediately and be on the next train out of town – go to Ponyville, for all I care; I’ve heard they put up with cowards there!”

“Daddy!” The smiles on Flutterwonder and Orange Box’s faces almost brought Autumn to tears. It had been a long time since he’d seen either of his daughters smile like that. As he reached down to scoop up both of them in a big hug, Fluttsy cheered. “Our new school is great! My teacher, Miss Brilliant Blue is really smart, and there’s two other fillies there, Flying Flash and Cricket Chirp, who want to be friends! And there’s nopony mean or nasty!”

“Oh, really?” Autumn asked, a wide smile on his face.

“Yeah!” Fluttsy insisted. “Plus, Orange made friends in her class, too!”

“Want to tell me about it, Orange?”

“Uh-huh!” the gray filly chirped. “My teacher, Miss Pastel Palette, is really nice – when she found out I want to get a baking cutie mark, she introduced me to another filly in my class, Parfait, who wants to get one, too!”

“That’s good to hear, sweetie – for both of you,” he said, holding them close to him. It was like a dream come true: a new school where the foals could thrive, a new home where they could live in peace, and no sign of Ditzy – he’d left a note at the old house effectively letting her have it if she just left them alone. He’d left no forwarding address, and he bet that she didn’t want one, anyway; it would just cramp her style.

Besides, it’ll give me the chance to win back Derpy’s heart, he convinced himself.

“Well, I have a surprise for you two: we’re going to have dinner tonight at your Aunt Derpy’s!” he said, with a grin.

“Really?” both fillies said at once. When Autumn nodded, they looked at each other and smiled happily, a simple motion that brought another smile to his face.

“Yeah – she’s been looking forward to seeing you both, and how you’re doing at your new school,” Autumn promised. “Besides, you know your aunt; she’s always looking out for you two – she loves you both.”

“Yay! We get to see Aunt Derpy!” Orange crooned, happy as a lark.

“Okay, you two go get ready and we’ll leave in a few minutes, okay?” As both nodded and went to their rooms to get ready for the trip, Autumn let the smile fall from his face and hoped that Derpy wouldn’t have a problem with them coming to visit. After all, she was in the third quarter now, and was pretty much grounded. That meant there weren’t many places she could go, and with her always having had a small circle of friends, it would give Autumn that much more time to earn her heart back.

I can’t give up, he thought to himself as he looked in the mirror and adjusted his mane slightly. Not when I have the chance of getting her back – this time I’ll be married to the right sister!

The house was empty…except for that note.

That damnable, damnable note.

As Ditzy reread it for the fifteenth time, she felt the numbness creeping into her body. She was free: she could do anything she wanted – anypony she wanted. And now that she had that freedom, she wanted the shackles more than ever.

She wanted her family back.

Autumn…I know I’m not the perfect wife, she mused, looking at the house that they once shared with their three daughters. But…but…. The paper in her hooves became wet as tears fell from her eyes. She’d planned everything to be so right…and now, everything had become so very wrong. After spending a much needed week of self-searching at Will to Power’s place, she vowed that she’d be a new mare and that she would devote everything to her family. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, but she had to do it.

She’d been pretty good about it during the month, heading back and forth between Will’s place and her work; admittedly, she’d stumbled in her goals, but…well, it was Big Thunder’s birthday and she forgot to get him a present, and as for the other, she did make a promise to Pagentry that once her divorce was finalized they’d celebrate. And then there was that new mare, Dawn’s Rays, who started working at the weather facility, a cute young thing that didn’t know how to please her stallion – she was more than happy to give an up-close-and-equinal demonstration. And she had to go apologize to Gibril for leaving his home without explaining, and one thing led to another, and…. But other than those instances, she’d kept to her vow and…well, if it hadn’t been for those hiccups, she would have been perfect, right?

Not good enough, was the unspoken text in the letter. Not good enough to be a wife or a mother. Go away, Ditzy Doo, you’re not wanted. You’re a shame and a fraud, unworthy of the name Ditziduella.

She opened her mouth to cry. The screaming wouldn’t stop. Jags of red, orange white and tan flew as she let her rage, pain and instincts fly – and with those, the groceries she’d bought so she could make an “I’m Home for Good” dinner for her husband and three foals. A husband and three foals that had made very clear that they didn’t want her around anymore.

When the tantrum had expended through her body, the marks of her anger had been left everywhere: tomato corpses clung to the ceiling, the cracked carcasses of eggs adhered to the far wall of the home. Spills of milk, various juices and the like were everywhere, and the variety of vegetables, bread and ice cream that had once been intended for ponies’ bellies now served as impromptu home décor, loosed and spurned on by one very grief-enraged pony.

And in the center of it all was a destroyed pegasus, wanting her family back, not knowing the first place of where to look for them, but knowing two things: one, that she needed to get rid of the stress and there was only one good way she could think of to do so; and two, that’s how she ended up with this situation in the first place.

Looking at the food-encrusted caverns that had been a dwelling filled with life and verve not too long ago, she had to do something. She went to the bedroom, turned on the bath and took care of cleaning herself and…her other issue – though it wasn’t as fun when there was only one! – then splayed herself out for an uncomfortable nap on the wooden flooring. Once she naturally dried off, she knew she had only one recourse and chance to find her family, as much as she hated it.

Derpy would know where they were. And as much as she hated her older sister, Derpy was always right.

“Incredible things are happening in the world,” rang out a voice from the Stereolab unit. “Magical things are happening in this world.” Before the wording could continue, the connection to that reality faded out in a buzz of static. Heading back to her control module, she adjusted some of the gain and the feed before beautiful music began to emanate from the Stereolab, chamber music that sounded as though it were no different than what was played by the Royal Canterlot Symphonic Orchestra.

She had to wonder what the musicians of the reality she was tapping into right now looked like and what their instruments were…or if this was even music, to be honest. To her, it sounded like violins, cello, flutes – the familiar strains of the famous “Symphony of Pastoral Revelry”, composed by Allegra Strings six hundred years ago. But to the beings on the other side of the paries quartum, it could be the violent screams of some poor creature being tortured by another. She didn’t know, and there was no way to know – and to ponder the idea itself would be madness.

Fortunately for her, she hadn’t made it that far in the thought process when there was a knock on the door. Letting the “music” (or what had to be that) continue, she waddled over to the door and opened to see a familiar face standing there, dressed in his duty uniform, a wide smile on his face and a mouth burdened with carrying a huge bouquet of flowers. Sitting down to transfer the bouquet from mouth to hooves, Silversteel looked at his fillyfriend and smiled. “Heya, hon. You’re looking as beautiful as always,” he told her.

She took the flowers and set them aside before kissing him. “Heya, yourself,” she said with a big smile – that disappeared immediately as she suddenly saw him wince. “Are you okay?” she asked him, her eyes filled with concern.

“Yeah,” he grumbled. “Still get twinges of pain from the back injury; docs say that it should be gone within a few more weeks, but waiting for it to go away is just murder,” he told her. “Of course, Diamondplate thinks it’s distinguished and Goldie thinks that it’ll make me look like a war hero, but I just want it to go away.”

“Well, don’t just stand there at the door!” she said as she moved aside. “Come in and have a seat. I’ve got dinner cooking and it should be ready soon.” She fluttered her wings instinctively in order to get out of the way, but only managed to get a foot or two in the air before gravity took over and brought her back to ground gently. “Ugh….” she muttered. “Flying makes me queasy now.”

“Guessing that’s one of the changes in your body because of the pregnancy?” he asked.

She nodded. “I guess I’ll have to get used to it now, if I’m ever going to have foals of my own.” Or foals that I can acknowledge are mine, she groaned inwardly. She still had no idea what she was going to do with the foal growing within her and time was growing short. Could she withstand telling another layer of lies, saying the parents died and she decided to keep the foal? Or could she give the foal to Autumn for him and Ditzy to raise – even she would notice that, Derpy realized. Or give the foal up for adoption – a very unwanted outcome – or any of a billion other things? Either way, the result was only a few months down the road – and it was going to come, whether she liked it or not.

She was brought out of her reverie by a welcoming kiss from Silversteel. “You kinda spaced out on me, babe,” he told her.

“Oh, sorry,” she said, blushing. “Well, have a seat and let me get back into the kitchen before the bisque burns.”

As she went into the kitchen, he decided to sit down on the couch at first, but the Stereolab caught his attention suddenly – while he knew it existed, last time he was over, she had it covered with a tarp, so he hadn’t seen what it was like. “This the thing you’re working on?” he asked.

“Yeah!” she called back. “Still working on the developmental software, but I’ve got most of the kinks worked out and the hazardous frequencies locked out of the system.”

“Hazardous frequencies?” he asked. That did not sound good.

“Um…yeah. For example, two weeks ago I tapped into one where somepony was speaking in Old High Pre-Equestriani. Didn’t know what it meant, so I had to travel down to the library down in Ponyville to find a copy of it. Well, it translated as ‘Save Yourselves’, and after that I thought it would be best to lock out the channel. Good thing, too – had an odd dream that night of white and metal and what looked like a magic sphere inside a big metal loop and space and….” He could hear her sigh. “There’s about seventy frequencies that I’ve locked out so far, and while I’m probably being a little too cautious, I have to remind myself that I’m not alone in my scientific pursuits right now.”

Silver was about to ask “You’re not?” at first, but he then realized what he meant. Yeah, make yourself look dumb in front of your girl, Silver, he chided himself. She’s already too good for you as is; want to ruin things even further by proving it? Fortunately for him, a sudden knock at the door forestalled any attempt to come up with something that didn’t sound as stupid.

“Could you get that?” she called out from the kitchen.

“Sure thing, hon!” he called out, leaping from the couch.

Heading over to the door, the moment he opened it he was treated to the unique sonic attack of two boisterous fillies singing at the same time, “HIYA AUNT DERPY~!” The sensation lasted for a few more seconds before the older one suddenly said, “Hey! You’re not Aunt Derpy!”

“Uh, no, no I’m not,” he said, shaking his head in order to get the ringing out of his ears. “I’m…Silversteel. I’m Derpy’s coltfriend.”

“Is that so?” That voice did not belong to either of the fillies, but instead belonged to an olive-hued pegasus stallion with an oddly-colored dawn-pink mane, tail and eyes. “Funny – she’s never mentioned you before.”

“And you are?” Silver didn’t know who the stallion was, but his sudden possessiveness irritated the earth pony to no end. His older sister Golden Sun tended to be possessive around him when it came to other mares, especially after his breakup with Exotic Beauty some time ago. He didn’t like it when she did it to him, and seeing Derpy receiving the same treatment from somepony else just yanked his yoke.

As Autumn got a better view of the stallion in Derpy’s home, he realized two things: one, said stallion was easily annoyed, for some reason. And two, said stallion was a lot bigger in size than most regular earth pony stallions he’d seen before.

He’s easily a size and a half of a normal stallion! Autumn thought to himself. Either way, better to introduce himself, if only to instill manners in his girls. “I’m Autumn Mist, Derpy’s brother-in-law. And these are my daughters, Flutterwonder and Orange Box.”

“HI~!” the two fillies sang out with gusto.

“Hello, girls. Well, Derpy’s making dinner, and—”

“Fluttsy! Orange!” Derpy’s lilting tones came out, just as she’d waddled over to embrace her beloved nieces. “And Autumn! Fancy seeing you here? What gives?”

“Uh…we agreed to have dinner at your place tonight?” he said, hoping that she’d somehow “forgotten” his outright lie and would buy it. But if what this stallion – Silversomething-or-other – was saying, then her mind was focused on that and definitely not on something else that would have caused her to “forget” something like this.

And if that’s not enough, she’s got a mind like a steel trap, he told himself. Yeah, I’m doomed.

Sure enough, there was the slightest flicker of something in her eyes before she said, “Oh! I thought that was tomorrow.” Turning to Silversteel, she said, “Sweetheart, I’m sorry, but I hope you don’t mind….”

“Oh, no, not at all!” Silver said, trying not to sound too disappointed about whatever plans he had for that evening.

“Thanks – you make me the luckiest mare in the world,” she said, kissing him. “Can you do me a favor and check on the soup? Gotta talk to Autumn for a second.”

“Aunt Derpy, can I help?” Orange asked. At that, Derpy grinned; Orange’s desires for baking were well known and she’d probably earn her cutie mark in something related to that one day.

“Actually, that’d be perfect. You should know what else we might need to make sure there’s enough for everypony, okay?” the older pegasus said, nuzzling her niece. Happy as a lark, Orange zipped on over to the kitchen, followed shortly by Fluttsy and Silver, leaving Derpy and Autumn just looking at one another.

Autumn nervously scratched the back of his head. “I, uh, guess I picked a bad time?”

“Oh, no, not at all – I absolutely enjoy lying to my coltfriend and nieces just to cover for you,” Derpy cooed, her tones honeyed with sarcasm. “And I already know why you’re here, and the answer is still no. I love you Autumn, I always will. But it has to be this way.”

“Then what about the foal? He or she’s going to be born in a few months from now, right? What, I just get ignored as the father and you take all the responsibility? Or don’t I even get a vote in that?”

“Can we talk about that later? We’ll come up with something. But,” she sighed, “for now, let’s just keep lying to everypony – you seem to have learned how to be as good at it as I am.”

“Mommy?” Sparkler looked at her mother as she lay on the bed in their dingy home. Her parents’ bedroom smelled…what it smelled like, Sparkler wasn’t sure, but whatever it was, it had to be tied to the medicines her mother took. “Mommy?” Gingerly, Sparkler crept up and tapped her mother on the nearest leg.

Oriental Blossom, of course, didn’t respond. She was high as a kite, set adrift on chemical bliss. From the Golden Rock saltlick she scored from Baltimare to the…interesting…effects caused by that one mushroom that grew on the outskirts of the Everfree Forest, she was currently out on a magical journey; the kind that didn’t involve magic, per se.

The elder female unicorn had told her daughter once that mothers needed to sleep more because she was carrying her new little brother or sister in her belly. But while that might have been true for most ponies, Sparkler had been around Miss Derpy enough that she knew that expectant mares didn’t always act the same – and while Miss Derpy could be, on occasion, as tired as Mommy, Sparkler wondered if it had more to do with her mother’s medicines than anything else.

Either way, she was hungry, and little ponies needed to eat to grow strong and healthy one day. “Mommy? I’m hungry. When can we have dinner?”

Blossom muttered something like “ffffddssnnnnapppnnnttryyyy….” before the sounds were drowned out by drool.

“Celestidamn nag’s buckin’ high again, I’ll bet,” she heard from the other end of the house as the door opened and slammed. Sparkler stiffened. That meant Daddy was home, and he wasn’t happy. And when he wasn’t happy, sometimes he’d hurt her by accident. He never meant to, and he always apologized after, but the pain….

Still, it was her only chance to eat. So she walked towards the kitchen, hearing increasing rattling and breakage as her father threw stuff left and right while trying to find something. He also said a lot of words he told Sparkler she was never allowed to say – why grown-ups could say it but not little fillies she never understood why.

Bottlerocket smelled the drugs from the moment he came into the house. Shoulda buckin’ known. Harridelle was doing the stuff before Sparkler was born, she’s doin’ it now, she’ll buckin’ do it again if, Celestia forbid, we ever have another foal. If he was smart, he’d just ditch everything and make a new life for himself outside of Equestria. Maybe head to Saddle Arabia or Ezo, one of those far-plot countries where he’d be just another muzzle in the herd.

Oh, who the Tartarus am I kidding? I can’t learn a new buckin’ language to save my life. Education was never one of his strong points. Hell, if it wasn’t for his special talent, he’d probably never be able to figure out the mathematics necessary for decent ballistics in fireworks. And unfortunately, that ungrateful, tail-lifting, salt-licker of a wife of his got too cocky – her skill was in ground effects, not aerials, and as a result of that stupidity, they were now deeply in debt, pretty much on the outs with the pyrotechnic community and he was now having to sell his services to…less than sterling sources.

Like today: a few months ago, he and Blossom had told that weird but hot neighbor of theirs – Celestia on Her Throne, did that pegasus have one hell of a body! – that they’d had some business to attend to in Draconia. Well, that was certainly true enough, but only from a certain point of view: he’d actually agreed to create some explosives for a mercenary group that was based in Draconia. The pay was good and he asked no questions – the grim-looking dragon that gave him the requirements didn’t look like he was very much forthcoming in answers anyway.

This was the life he led now: criminal. If I was just buckin’ smart, I’d just bail now, leave Blossom and her salt-lickin’ ways behind. She can take care of the two brats; I never wanted to be a father anyway. Maybe I can hook up with whatserflank…Derpy?...and we can just blow this joint. Bet she’s all kinds of fun in the sack.

Wandering into the kitchen, he wasn’t too surprised to see the vegetables, all uncleaned, unsliced and most certainly uncooked, sitting in a big iron stewpot just to the side of the stove. Nor did it shock him to find the still-glowing canister where Blossom kept the high-grade hallucinogenic salts she ingested; the small, green and red mushrooms looked as though their stems had eyes on them…well, that was some creepy shit and probably her fault as well. Clearly, if he wanted dinner tonight, it was going to be in the fridge, find the leftover petunia loaf from last week and make a sandwich.


Bottlerocket froze. Great, just the source of my problems. “What,” he said, harsher-sounding than he’d intended.

She looked at him and said, “Mommy didn’t make dinner tonight. Are you going to make dinner?”

“Do I look like a buckin’ chef to you?” he snarled, not surprised that Sparkler wasn’t smart enough to know the difference between what mares and stallions did. Yeah, just because mares tended to outnumber stallions and tended to be placed in charge more didn’t mean that the job of a stallion was to just sit around the house and lift his hoof whenever his mare called for him. I’ll bet that even Celestia herself has a stallion she has to answer to – you just don’t hear about it because she’s the buckin’ princess!

“But Daddy, I’m hungry!” Sparkler whined…and then suddenly realized, as his eyes narrowed, that was the wrong thing to do.

“Learn how to fix it yourself!” His horn flared a pyrotechnic blue, and a blast of energy exploded right next to the pot. The pot immediately followed the Third Law of Physical Thaumodynamics and reacted, careening towards the little filly, who had no time to react as the vat of metal slammed right into her head. Her brief scream was muffled as she became buried in both a stream of vegetables and a stewpot half her size.

Bottlerocket just watched dully as his daughter lay unconscious, bleeding from a cut on the side of her face. She pushed me! he insisted to himself, stepping over her to get into the fridge. He’d make himself a sandwich, then make her one, get the mess cleaned up, then put her to bed – like it or not, he was still her father. And as soon as Blossom woke up from whatever drug-infested planet she’d been hopped up on, she was going to owe him some answers. He was the stallion of the house, and he wasn’t going to put up with any shit from any mare. Ever.

And there was a knock on the door.

Cottonball mentally went over what she discussed. I don’t care what Sparkle Bliss says, that foal needs help, and if any of it is true, it’s my job to do so! As the door opened, Cottonball immediately launched into her prepared speech: “Good evening! I apologize for the disturbance, but I…my name….”

Her words died on the vine the moment she set her eyes on Bottlerocket. His own eyes were narrowed slits of hate, pinpricks of barely concealed rage. “What. Do. You. Want,” he spoke; a statement, not a question. Furthermore, it was clear that whatever she wanted, he wasn’t going to be forthcoming with any answers regardless.

“I-i-I’m Miss…Cott-t-tonball. Fr-ff-from the s-s-sss-school,” she stammered, trying to get control of herself. Was this what Sparkle Bliss had warned her about? Regardless, this was for Sparkler’s sake, Cotton reminded herself. Somepony had to step in. “A-a-re you her father?”

“Get out.” His answer was succinct and to the point. It also carried an undercurrent of contempt that hit straight at Cottonball’s pride; if anything, this forced her to act.

“Sir, if you’re hurting your daughter – I’ll be forced to act,” she said, feeling the strength in her spine come as she did what she had to: protect her student. “I don’t care who you are, your daughter is a precious little filly an—”

Cottonball never knew what hit her next. The last thing she recalled was his eyes widening in rage and his mouth opening in anger…and then nothing else.

Chapter Eight: The Tables Turn

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“Thank you for having me over for dinner this evening, your majesty,” Shining Armor said to Princess Celestia as he bowed. “I enjoyed every moment of it.”

The Princess of the Sun smiled. “No, Lieutenant, it was my pleasure. Though I raised my niece, I don’t get to spend as much time with her as I’d like now that she’s an adult. So for her to invite her significant somepony over was a delight – and the fact that you’re my protégé’s older brother simply makes it that much easier, Shining Armor.”

He nodded, a soft smile coming to his lips. “Family must be important to you, then, your majesty.”

There seemed to be a wistful sigh in her voice as she looked at the setting sun; for the merest second he thought he caught something akin to a bleak sorrow in her eyes as she looked towards the horizon where the moon would soon rise, but if anything was there, it was soon gone.

She then turned to him and smiled firmly. “More than I can ever say. And though I count a dozen ponies from the cadet branches as my family members, one of the ones that have meant the most to me is Cadance, and not just because she’s an alicorn. I would love her regardless of whether she’d been a unicorn, pegasus or earth pony. But I love her because…well, she brightens up this old mare’s day.”

“With all due respect, Princess? I generally have the same feelings about her myself,” the lieutenant said with a laugh.

“I thought so. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to set the sun and start the moon on its way. Have a pleasant evening, Lieutenant.”

He bowed once more. “And the same to you, your majesty.”

He was headed on his way out the front of the castle when he heard a soft cry, which a second later coagulated into a voice. He turned around just to see his younger sister, Twilight Sparkle, rushing towards him. In her teenage years, she still had that gangly, unsure step of hers as she grew into the body that would serve her in adulthood. “I’m glad I caught you before you headed back to Mom and Dad’s,” she said, gasping for breath.

“Well, I was only going to swing by for a few before heading back to the barracks, Twily,” he told her. “I have to get up early to catch the train back to my garrison.”

“Well, I was hoping….” she said softly, “if you could have that friend of yours – the scientist – come by and guest lecture at the Academy? We’re doing some work on fractal vibrations and I read her paper…she really knows what she’s talking about.”

“Derpy?” When the teenaged filly nodded, Shining smiled. “Well, I’ll send her a mail and ask. She’s been really busy lately, from what I can tell – practically up to her ears in stuff – but I’ll do it for you, LSBFF.”

Twilight grinned. “Thanks!”

It was the oddest thing, Autumn noted, and yet it felt so natural. And that scared him most of all.

Derpy – his Derpelle, the one whose heart he’d had…and broke…and yet somehow still had – was talking to another stallion. And it looked as though they belonged together.

Part of Autumn hated this newcomer just for that alone. Silversteel seemed so naturally at ease with Derpy, as though they belonged together – in that “they’ll marry and start a family together” way. And he wasn’t about to lie to himself: just the thought of that alone, of Derpy leaving his orbit just as he was finally building up the courage to make things right and be with her as he should have been – it hit him hard.

Damn himself. Damn it all to Tartarus for even being so weak to think that his life with Ditzy meant anything to her. Did it mean anything to him in the long run? He would have said no, not really, but….

He looked at his daughters, so completely happily while working on dinner with their aunt. Neither of them was his by genetics. They would always be the result of somepony else’s siring foals on Ditzy. But whomever those stallions were, they weren’t involved in the lives of Flutterwonder and Orange Box – he was. To Autumn, the two fillies would always be his daughters no matter what, and he would always fight hoof and incisor to ensure their happiness.

Because that’s what a father does, he told himself. The fact that they loved their aunt so much merely dovetailed with how he felt about her as well. And while he understood their love for their mother in the way only foals could have, they were going to eventually be of an age where they would learn the truth about Ditzy Doo and her predilections – two of which resulted in their own births. If nothing else, that would tilt them more towards Derpy than anything he could ever say.

And yet now here was a mountain made of a molehill, a new stallion in Derpy’s life threatening to undo, unmake and unravel all of Autumn’s plans for the future. And how was he doing it? By just being there for her. By meeting her needs. By being the stallion that she so very much wanted in her life, a position that it had been Autumn’s to fill until his own stupidity ruined it…more than once, no less. And now this stallion, this…Guardspony – Honestly, I never thought that Derpy was the type to fall for a brainless lunk like a guardspony! – was underlining his position just by being here.

I claim her because she needs me, his presence seemed to say. I claim her because she wants me to be here.


The weatherpony came back to his senses. “I…uh, sorry. Kinda spaced out there for a second. You were saying?” he spoke to the pony addressing him, none other than Silversteel himself.

“I was just noting that you take a very defensive position towards Derpy,” the stallion said. “You must care about her a lot, being her brother-in-law and all. And look, I know she and I just started dating, but I promise I’m never going to hurt her.”

“Sorry,” the pegasus said genuinely. “It’s just…I’ve known her for years. Only pony I know who’s more protective of her is that unicorn friend of hers, Shining Armor. And it’s not that she needs looking after, mind – I know all the unfair rumors about her just because of that eye of hers, but…she’s brilliant. She’s a genius, in every sense of the word. And it amazes me that she’s able to just move past all that negativity at times.”

“I know,” Silversteel said, a wide smile coming onto his face. “I know what you mean. Every time I look at her I have to ask myself ‘Am I good enough for her?’, and the answer always seems to be no…and then she turns and gives me that smile that I know is just for me and I know that whatever it is, I might not be good enough for her, but I’m more than lucky enough to be assured that I’ll always have her in my life.”

“Good, you just keep thinking that,” Autumn said, patting the other stallion appreciatively on the withers. Inwardly, however, he wanted to scream.

What chance did he have of salvaging anything from this wreckage?

“Freakin’ tail lifter,” Bottlerocket slurred as he carried the unconscious form of Cottonball well past his home and past the perimeter fence, right into the Everfree. “Thought you were gonna get something over me, huh, you Celestiadamned nag? Well, guess what? I’m Bottlerocket, and I rule!”

Finally, well into the forest but not so far in that he couldn’t make a break for the safety of the fence, he unceremoniously dropped the earth pony onto the ground, pausing only to make sure that her legs were properly hobbled. He really couldn’t deal with having her escape and ruin things for him – which she clearly planned to.

Least thing I need is some stupid-plot teacher coming to my house and telling me how to run my household! He was going to need another drink after this, then maybe Blossom might be sober enough to throw dinner together – he was absolutely starving. He could make something for himself and that brat of his, but…both the females in his life needed to learn their place. They weren’t exactly princesses, after all.

Walking back towards the perimeter, he heard the first sounds of the forest’s denizens approaching. Well, I’ll be well and safe by then, he assured himself. Too damn bad about that teacher, though.

Cottonball came to, after a few minutes.

The first thing she noticed was that she was hobbled up with chains – thick, strong links of iron that looked as though they were dragonforged; they were bound around her fetlocks with an additional one connected to a yoke that hung around her neck, making sure that she was going nowhere. The second thing she became aware of was the thick gag around her muzzle and tied to the yoke, allowing her to breathe, but not much else – and certainly not enough to allow her to scream for help.

The final thing she realized, to her complete fear, was the dark, mossy trees around her. The moss was a huge indicator that ponies had not attended to the trees, and there was only one place where that could have happened: the Everfree.

Panic set into her body as she tried to wriggle out of her hobbles, stand up and move towards the safety of the protective fencing that bordered the forest at the same time. Her mind had ceased to think with the rationality of a teacher or even that of a decent-minded pony; instead, paranoia filtered into her brain and body, an infiltrator that held fast wherever it sauntered and refused to let go. Her consciousness now firmly in the grasp of the animal instincts of her ancestors, her mind was now telling her to do one and one thing only: run.

And that was the moment she heard it: a cooing, clucking sound. She felt something slither over her prone body, felt the tiny pinpricks of splayed-foot talons walking over her body. She knew what it was as the long tail was dragged along the length of her flanks: a cockatrice. Despite their fearsome reputation, the strange creatures were actually somewhat shy and frightened of other creatures, preferring to hunt for their food in relative peace. Unfortunately the problem came when they felt they were cornered and in danger of being attacked; that was the time the creatures utilized their unique defense which they’d become feared for…

…which, tragically, tended to be a lot more than ponies liked.

Oh, Celestia, no no no! Somepony save me! Completely bereft of her senses, she began wiggling as much as she could in the desperate hopes of getting away from the cockatrice before she spooked it, not aware that she was, in fact, committing the very act that she was hoping that she would avoid.

The cockatrice, completely spooked by her actions, did what it did normally and darted in front of her face to use its natural petrification ability. Fortunately for her, she managed to screw her eyes shut while trying to wriggle away from her would-be assailant. She felt the creature buffet her with its wings and tail, trying to get her to open her eyes so that it could “protect” itself from being harmed by her, but survival instinct continued to work in her favor and she crawled, hopefully in the direction of the spell-warded fencing, where she would be safe.

Inches felt like feet felt like yards felt like miles as she forced her body to scrape against the dirt and grime of the Everfree. She could feel dribbles of blood from where the creature scratched her and yet Cottonball continued to move on, her only source of hope being the magical fence that separated the Everfree from the grounds beyond. Eventually, she heard the angry clucking of the cockatrice fade into the distance as it got tired of her and ran off, hoping that it wouldn’t be followed.

Finally, as she pushed once more, she could feel the soft grass separating the barren dirt of the no-ponies-land between the Everfree proper and the safety fencing. Crying tears of joy she exhaled, knowing that she was just mere inches from the fencing and just need to crawl through to be safe. She pushed once more—

—and her hobble snagged on an exposed root, keeping her fixed in place, just a step from the fencing. She pushed harder, hoping to break the root so that she could scoot to sanctuary on the other side of the barriers, but to no avail. Finally, frustrated, she opened her eyes just to see what she could do to unhook herself.

There, caught in a raised root, was her hindleg hobbles, vainly pulling against the exposed wood. She would have to crawl backwards to free herself, then make her way forward…

…except for the cockatrice, standing by her hindlegs…and looking directly at her.

There wasn’t time to scream. The creature’s eyes flickered with red magic.

All Cottonball saw was gray...

…and nothing more.

“Your horseshoe’s on Ponysylvania Avenue,” a giddy Orange Box told Silversteel, as she picked up the card and began reading from it, “an’ you owe me Ƀ320!” Happy as a lark, she stuck out a tiny gray hoof, waiting for the paper currency to transfer hooves.

Silversteel looked his best to seem pouty as he said, “There are cardsharks back at the garrison that could learn from her.”

Autumn leaned back in his chair with pride. “That’s my little girl! Someday, when she’s running her own business, she’ll have her rivals eating out of the frog of her hoof – just watch.”

There was a ding from the kitchen, and Derpy smiled. “Well, looks like the tempeh loaf is just about done! Girls, would you be so kind as to help set up the kitchen table so we can all eat?”

“Uh-huh!” Flutterwonder said, all too eager. She was seriously behind in the game anyway and she didn’t want to deal with the indignity of losing to her kid sister. “C’mon, Orange! Sooner we get this done, sooner we can eat!”

“But I was winning….” Orange said, slightly dejected at the impromptu end of the game.

“And so ends the adventures of the littlest tycoon,” Derpy said with a soft smile. Both Autumn and Silver heard her and cracked smiles; of all of them playing the game, she was by far the worst off and was probably going to have to put up properties for foreclosure, which was a shame, since she had Broncowalk and Prance Place, the most expensive lots in the game.

“We could always continue it after dinner,” Silver suggested. “I’ve got plenty of time.”

“Maybe,” Autumn noted. “It’s not like we have to leave straight away after dinner….”

There was then another knock on the door, this one a bit frantic sounding. “Okay, if you guys set the table, I’ll go see to the door.” As everypony nodded and went about their tasks, Derpy went over towards the door. Maybe it was Sconey having come by to tell her about something weird or wonderful. Maybe it was Bottlerocket or Blossom having come by to drop Sparkler off with her again – that part did not seem like a bad idea. Or maybe it was even Shining, who would just happen to be in town and come by to say hi; she’d be thrilled to see her oldest friend once more.

But instead:

“Geez, when did you get fat? Or did you finally realize you’re never gonna get somepony of your own with those ugly-plot looks of yours.” Derpy immediately fixed on a pair of citrine eyes that matched her own. And at that point, whatever good time that Derpy was about to have with family and her coltfriend over completely went to pot.

“Oh, it’s you.” Derpy stared right at Ditzy. “What brings you here?”

“I’m your sister, in case that concept somehow didn’t sink into your thick head. What, am I not supposed to visit family?”

“You know, it’s considered polite to send a notice first.”

“We’re family, sis – or are you going to abandon me, too?” At Ditzy’s words, Derpy suddenly heard something in her sister’s voice that she’d never thought she’d hear in her life: desperation.

“What’s going on, Ditzy?” Derpy asked. Perpetual frustration or not, Ditzy was still her sister.

“Look, I need a place to stay for a few days,” Ditzy said, the tone in her voice genuinely sorrowful. “Autu—”

At that point, as if fate decreed that the two sisters would never reconcile, Silver walked up and said to Derpy, “Okay, got the table set and just waiting for…hey, you have a twin sister?”

Ditzy looked at Derpy’s sudden blush, then at the guy in shock. And an idea suddenly popped in her head. “Why yes, she does,” the younger pegasus cooed to the newcomer, then gave a brief aside glance at Derpy as she added, “and sisters tend to share everything.” She then looked at Silver’s muscular form, and it was all she could do to prevent herself from drooling. She then looked back at Derpy and started to say, “So, how’d you get this sweet hunk of stallionflesh?”

She got no further.

Ditzy was used to seeing a lot of things whenever she looked into her sister’s lazy eyes: hurt, frustration, sorrow, irritation. But for the first time in her life, the younger pegasus saw something in those citrine orbs that she’d never seen before: rage and anger. Before she was even aware of what she’d done, she’d taken a half-step back from Derpy in fear.

Without even looking at Silver, Derpy fixed her eyes – straight and clear as cannons at dawn – on her target. “Silver, dear, would you be so kind as to let Autumn and the girls know that I’ll be right there?” And as Ditzy’s eyes rose slightly in shock at her sister’s words, Derpy then turned to the earth pony stallion, kissed him slightly, then fixed her eyes on Ditzy again, clearly sending a message.

Silver, mostly oblivious to what was going on but knowing that something was afoot, rubbed the back of his head in mild confusion before saying, “Sure. Don’t take too long.” He then went back in the house, leaving the two sisters staring at each other.

Now that Silver was gone, Ditzy tried to take the advantage once again, seeing as how she was familiar with the role. That attempt immediately died on the shores of Derpy’s glare.

“What are you doing here?” the tone from the elder sister was one of barely unbridled anger. “You are not getting your hooves on him,” she said, a statement so pure and final in its tone it may have been a commandment from Celestia herself. “And don’t even consider lying, Ditziduella. I know you too well.”

“I…I want….”

“You’re testing my patience, Ditzy,” Derpy snarled her. “So if you’re only here in a futile gesture to attempt to seduce my coltfriend, I suggest you leave.”

Tears formed in Ditzy’s eyes, but she couldn’t say a thing. Why can’t I speak? I want my family back! Why are they here with her? And yet she couldn’t speak, just standing there, looking at her sister, wondering how the positions were so insanely reversed.

Derpy softened. “Ditzy…please say something.”

“Why have you stolen my life?” The words were soft, unsure, as if the speaker didn’t know what she was saying. “Why have you taken everything from me?”


“You have a coltfriend. Now, my husband and children. You are taking everything, don’t you understand?” For the first time in her life, Ditzy felt as if she was, well, Derpy. “Why are you doing this to me? I’m your sister, Derpy! Why?”

“I haven’t taken anything, Ditzy,” Derpy said honestly, and that cut deepest of all. “You did this to yourself.”

Ditzy looked at her sister with horror, stumbling backwards and slipping as her hoofs stepped against the welcome mat. She took a spin, tumbling teapot over kettle until she came to a crash in a mud puddle by the garden. She looked at her sister with horror and sorrow.

Derpy went outside to help her up, offering a hoof. “Ditzy!”

“NO! STAY AWAY FROM ME!” Ditzy screamed and launched herself into the air, her wings beating as fast she could, her tears raining down to the ground as she gained altitude. She flew for the longest time, or what felt like it, rushing in a blind panic into the night, finally coming to a painful crash in front of her house.

She looked at the FOR SALE sign, and as she did, she screamed in pain and rage as she lost everything before her, presuming she had any of it in the first place. But one thing was for sure…

…now Derpy had everything.

Autumn immediately appeared. “Derpy, are you okay? I thought I heard Ditzy?”

“I…um….” Derpy wasn’t sure on how to explain. She knew that Autumn had left her, and had even gone so far as to tell her that he wanted Derpy back in his life, but Derpy was conflicted. She still had feelings for Autumn, but they were warm and fond, like memories remaining of a time so long ago. And yet, when she thought about Silver, those same emotions became a raging fire that burned within her, absorbing her all, body and soul as though she had become Celestia herself in all her majestic glory.

And if Silversteel made her feel like the Princess of All, then….

She closed her eyes and smiled softly, then looked at her brother in law. “She still loves you, you know. Yes, she makes mistakes – and they are large ones. But in the end, Autumn, she’s always come home to you, because you and she were meant to be together.” She touched her heart with her hooves. “In my heart I know this. So do you, in yours.”

He looked at her, knowing what she was saying. “But she’s hurt me so much, Derpy. She’s hurt our foals, too.”

“Because all my sister knows is pain. She doesn’t know or understand strength and love, Autumn. She wants to love you – and only you – but she doesn’t know how.” Derpy went up to him and kissed him on the cheek. “Show her how, Autumn. Be her strength.”

“But what about us?”

“A beautiful memory – wonderful ones. But only that, the past. Your future belongs to her, you and your foals. But I am your past.” She smiled. “Now, I don’t mind having my brother-in-law and my nieces over for dinner, but I don’t have a husband and stepchildren.”

Autumn looked at her sadly, understanding the door she’d forever shut with those words. “I see. Then…I hope we’re still welcome for dinner, then.”

She gave him a sunny smile. “You’re family, Autumn. You always will be. Of course you’re welcome. Now, c’mon, let’s go back in the house, okay? I can practically smell that tempeh loaf!”

“What will you do with the foal?” The question stopped Derpy right in her tracks. Was he expecting an answer here and now? Could she even answer? What did she want to do? The foal within was hers, but she couldn’t keep it – she’d told too many lies and keeping it would be absolutely scandalous, to say the least. She was considered a screw-up, and no one would ever approve a screw-up as a single parent, even with the adoption rate being what it was.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to answer. She heard a rustle in her garden and out of it came a very tired filly. “Miss Derpy?” Sparkler called out.

“Sparkler? What are you doing here?” Derpy went over to the little filly and looked at her.

“I’m hungry and Daddy says we don’t have any food at home.” Her stomach grumbled and she looked up at Derpy with a hopeful look.

The mare approached Sparkler and looked at her. “When was the last time you ate, sweetie?”

She looked embarrassed to say, but her stomach gurgled again and she looked down at it in shame before looking at the kindly mare. “Breakfast,” she admitted.

Autumn and Derpy looked at each other with surprise. “Autumn, would you do me a favor and tell the girls to set up an additional place for Sparkler? Also, please let Silver know I need him out here. He’s a Guardspony – he should be able to do something about this.”

Autumn nodded; how could any parent do that to their foal? “Sure, I’ll be right back. Should I take her with me?” Derpy nodded and Autumn smiled, putting the unicorn filly on his back. “Now you’re in for a treat!” he told her. “Tonight’s tempeh loaf is the best in the realm, just you bet!” He went inside, and left Derpy alone to her thoughts.

How…how could they? She was in utter disbelief; it was against everything she knew as a mare and from the look she saw on Autumn’s face, it was unthinkable as a parent.

A few seconds later, Silver came out of the house. “Autumn just told me what’s up. Yes, she’s hungry, but unless she’s been actually hurt, it’s up to the local civil authorities, Derpy.”

“But if her parents aren’t home and just left her, can’t you do anything?” she asked him.

He hated seeing that sad look on her face; he wanted to do anything he could to make it go away. “Well, if it looks like they just abandoned her, I have the authority to intervene immediately.” He scratched the top of his head nervously. “But that’s a very big if, Derpy. For all we know, she just didn’t feel like eating whatever was at home for dinner—”

“No,” she said firmly. “I know that little filly. She’s not like that, Silver. Something must be very wrong if she’s acting like this.”

“Okay, I’ll look into it, then. I’ll be right back. You go in and make that little filly feel special, okay?” He kissed her. “Almost as sweet as you.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” she giggled. “We’ll be here when you get back.”

Silver went over to the house and knocked on the door. “This is the Guard, I am here on a non-emergency,” he spoke. “Please open up.” No answer. He then tried again, still with no answer. Finally, he ventured looking in the windows, seeing….

He turned away. The house was filthy, and looked like it hadn’t been lived in for the longest time. The furniture was ratty and most of it looked like it was covered in boxes that were filled with various alchemical reagents and other things. There were probably a few chemicals as well; Silver knew enough about alchemy that if you couldn’t succeed with that discipline, it was probably available in chemistry. And those who were familiar with one were usually versed in the other as well.

He tried knocking again, in the hopes that somepony would be there. Because if not, the alternative was that Sparkler had been abandoned and that thought made his blood boil.

Dinner that night had been absolutely wonderful and the company had been great. Silver and Autumn talked and they found that they had much in common, though oddly at times the former noted that the latter talked about Derpy as if he was in love with her. Silver eventually chalked it up to Derpy being a twin; he’d never been in a relationship before, and he figured that such a thing would completely confuse him.

And after it was all over, and the foals put to bed in Derpy’s spare bedroom, the three adults talked on the patio.

“I can’t believe she’s been mistreated like that,” Autumn said. “She didn’t look malnourished or anything, but…I would never do that to my foals, never.”

“Maybe it isn’t a case of mistreatment,” Derpy told him. “From what I remember, Bottlerocket and Oriental Blossom have been going through some hard times in their fireworks business and they’ve had to take some jobs overseas. It could simply be a case that they haven’t been paid yet and they’re struggling.”

“I’m not sure that’s the case, Derpy,” Silver told her. “I took a look in their house and they have tons of equipment for making their fireworks; if they were in desperate straits, they wouldn’t have the amount that they do. Plus, their house isn’t in the greatest of shape.” He shook his head. “I’m not really sure what to think, except that house isn’t the safest place for a little filly to grow up in, even one that’s the daughter of pyrotechnists.

“He’s right, Derpy,” Autumn told him. “There are plenty of channels for help if they’re that poor. Most municipalities run a food bank in case of emergencies. And Celestia set up the Celestine Order in order to help in situations like this. I know there’s not a caelarium in town, but there has to be a regional grand coelum, isn’t there?”

“There’s one in Ponyville, I think. Either way, they have to be of some assistance if asked – Exarch Holly Spring would not stand for anypony in need being turned away.”

“You know a lot about them, Silver,” Autumn noted.

He nodded. “We get monastics – the caelarium guards – who come from time to time to train with us. Usually just junior clerics, though once in a while you’ll get a scriptoris or even a scopas now and then. When not training, they tend to talk.” He sighed. “Actually, that’s how I met Exotic Beauty, my last fillyfriend – she was a brand-new Celestine cleric and unsure that she wanted to stay in the Order. Turns out she didn’t, but that’s a tale for another time.”

“Well, you’ve got me,” she said, snuggling against him.

“Well, it’s late, so I’m going to make myself comfy on the couch here,” Autumn yawned.

“And we should get to sleep ourselves, Silver,” she told him. “You’ve got to get back to your garrison in the morning and I need to go talk to Mayor Burgomeister and have him look into it. Frankly, from what you’re telling me, I don’t think I ever want Sparkler to go back to that house again.”

“I’ll do everything I can, Derpy, you know I will,” Silver told her.

“And I’ll back you up – that’s what family does,” Autumn told her, then looked at Silver and nodded. His heart still hurt from her rejection earlier, but he knew that if she had to have someone that would always be there for her, then she could’ve chosen far worse than this caring stallion that seemed to only have eyes for her.

If only my wife could be as loyal as he is, he thought silently, but then banished the thought. He had his daughters to attend to, and additionally, he knew Derpy was going to need some help in regards to the little filly.

Both Silver and Derpy rose from the loveseat. “You get some sleep, Autumn, and in the morning I’ll make some of my muffins just for you guys.”

Autumn grinned. “There’s not a pony alive that can resist Derpy’s muffins – it’s almost like she’s the Alicorn of Muffins.”

“I wish.”

There was a desperate flurry of raps on Cloud Kicker’s door; it was certainly enough to wake her from the dead on a rare night where she wasn’t running through the meadow. Opening it, she was shocked to see somepony all-too-familiar: “Ditzy? What are you doing here?”

The pegasus’ eyes were red from tears, her mascara having run and making her look more like a harlequin than a sexpot. “I…I need to talk to somepony I trust.”

“We’re talking? Just that?”

“I…I want to. You don’t know how much I want to take you in your bedroom right now, get on your cloudbed and make the thunderstorm come.” She sighed. “But I…can’t. I’ve lost too much. My family left me, sold the house, moved to who knows where…I think that Autumn is trying to get back with Derpy, but she already has a coltfriend now and….” She collapsed on the ground. “My sister – my ugly-plot twin sister – has more of a life now than I do.”

“I told you this would happen, Ditzy, I warned you,” Cloud told her, helping her back to her hooves. “C’mon in and we’ll talk. But that’s it. I said you were done when I told you to walk away from this life, and I mean it.”

“Thanks,” Ditzy told her.

“What are friends for?”

The following morning, Derpy got up and made some muffins: a mixture of red velvet muffins, chocolate banana muffins and carrot cake muffins, because Sparkler loved those and the scientist was sure that she was going to need a lot of extra-special loving today. So as she got up and started throwing stuff in the oven, she heard a knock at the door.

She opened it to find a guardmare standing there. “Excuse me, is this the house of Dr. Derpelle Hooves?”

Derpy nodded. “Yes, that’s me.”

“Yes, I come with a summons from Her Royal Highness Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. She would like to meet you at your earliest convenience. What time shall I tell the princess that you will be available?”

Derpy thought about it for a second. “I’m not completely sure. I suppose I could clear my schedule.”

“If I may, Princess Cadenza suggested that if you’re free for dinner tonight you could join her in Canterlot at the palace.”

The palace? Derpy’s mind spun at the idea; never in her life had she even dreamed of heading to the palace, despite the fact that she had a number of devices she’d invented that were there. “Sure, I’d love to? Was there a recommended time?” Derpy thought about it. “What about six in the evening?” Another quick thought. “And would she mind if I brought a plus-one?”

“No, I don’t think that will be an issue.”

“Then please let the princess know I will be delighted to join her.”

The pegasus nodded. “Good, I shall inform her highness to expect you. We’ll have a chariot here around half past five so that you won’t have to fly there on your own. Have a good day until then.” With that, the pegasus took to the skies and rocketed off, straight on to Canterlot. Derpy watched the guard vanish into the distance.

“Mornin’.” She saw Silver approach her and give her a kiss. “What’s up?”

“I got invited to the palace. Apparently Princess Cadance wants me to meet her there tonight.”

He smiled. “That’s great, Derpy! You should enjoy that! I’ve been there a couple of times, and it’s absolutely great. You’ll enjoy yourself.”

She sighed and leaned next to him. “I wish you were going with me, Silver. As it is, I’ll have to change my plans to meet with Mayor Burgomeister today and instead go shopping for an ensemble for both me and Sparkler. I wonder if Golden Thread is open today. She’s a quick worker, and probably one of the better dressmakers in town.”

“Well, I’ve got to report back to the garrison, so hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow?”

She kissed him. “Count on it.” He smiled and then trotted off towards his destination, pausing at the top of the nearby hill to wave before he crested it and vanished.

“Well, if I was going to lose you to somepony, I guess he’s the stallion to do it.” She turned to see Autumn standing there, a smile on his face.

“You’re not angry?” she asked him, but he shook his head.

“No. A bit hurt, sure, but I’m a big colt. I’ll manage. Besides, I live in Cloudsdale now – there are plenty of birds in the clouds, and besides, you never know – Ditzy might actually grow up. Though between you and me?”

Derpy saw the look of resignation on his face and shook her head. “Don’t say that. The kids might hear.”

“Yeah, you’ve got a point,” he admitted. “Orange can be very impressionable at times and I don’t want her to grow up hating her mother.”

A ding went off and she grinned. “Well, it’s muffin time. Wake the girls up please and I think we’ll have a practical feast before the day starts.” She grinned. “It’s gonna be one to remember.”