Chapter 6: The Little Things
Aboard the Lumbering Walrus, nearing Canterlot.
Present day. (Four months after The Hole.)
"So you're telling me you engineered the Teapot Dome scandal?" Far Travel looked incredulous. "As in, the biggest political upheaval since the reappearance of the Crystal Empire? You're telling me that was your idea?"
"As ah was sayin'," Apple Bloom explained. "I didn't know at the time the sort of political problems it'd cause. I just thought we were doin' what was best fer the diamond dogs."
"You know Queen Celestia nearly got run out of office when that hit the papers, right?"
"O'course I do! I felt positively awful 'bout it the second I realized she was gettin' blamed for what was rightly my idea. First thing I did was head straight to the castle an' try to apologize. I couldn't even get close at first, on account of the mobs of reporters and such at the gates. Ended up havin' to sneak in around a side door. Got caught by the guards right away o'course, but luckily one of 'em recognized me and took me to see Celestia."
"And?" Far Travel prompted, when Apple Bloom didn't continue the story right away.
"Sorry, just a minute here," Apple Bloom said, locking the tiller and reaching for a pair of flags. "Gotta let the guards know we ain't attackin' by air or nothin'." She leaned over the railing, a flag in each forehoof, and made a quick series of semaphore signals to the guard station on the city perimeter, before being signaled in return.
"Eeyup. Says we can dock right at the south tower of the castle."
"So you got in to see the Queen, and what'd she say?"
"Well, that's when she told me her side a' things: how she knew the scandal it'd cause, how that made her take the title of Queen to distance herself, and the rest. But she also told me not to blame mahself, that no matter what happened, she was glad I caught her 'mistake' an' that we were savin' the diamond dogs now. I weren't hearin' it though. 'It just ain't right,' I said, tears in mah eyes, 'All them ponies out there mad at ya for my dumb idea. How can I ever make it up to ya, yer Highness? I just gotta find some way ta make this right!'" Apple Bloom sniffled. "Sorry, still gets to me when I think about it I suppose."
"It's alright," Far Travel said, smiling gently. "Take your time."
Apple Bloom blinked quickly and shook her head in the cool breeze to dry her eyes. "Okay, well... The next part's somethin' I ain't likely to ever forget. So there I am, cryin' an' all, and Celestia, she puts one hoof under my chin, an' raises it to look her right in the face. When she does, I see she's got tears in her eyes as well, an' then she says 'My little pony—No. My dearest Apple Bloom, I owe you—and your incredible group of friends—more than you will ever likely realize, and certainly far more than I can ever hope to repay. There is nothing I could desire from you, save that you might someday count me among your amazing set of friends.'"
"That's a pretty good impression of the Queen," Far Travel said.
Apple Bloom chuckled, and sniffled again. "Thanks, ah've had some practice. But anyway, she says that, an' it ain't like I could possibly say anything else, so I just break out in more tears. 'Of course, yer Majesty!' I say, 'Ah'd be honored!' Then Celestia, she just gives me this warm smile, and shakes her head. 'My friends call me Celestia,' she says, then leans over and wraps me in a big hug." Apple Bloom paused to wipe her eyes, then looked at Far Travel with a smirk. "So yeah, that's how come I 'get away' with calling the Queen by her given name."
"Wow," Far Travel said. "That's some story." Seeing the look on Apple Bloom's face turn dark, she quickly amended, "No, no! Not that I don't believe you! It's just... a lot to think about."
"Well, might have to do that later. We're here."
Far Travel turned around and saw they were pulling up alongside one of the higher castle towers.
"Grab that rope at the front, would ya?" Apple Bloom pointed at a coil of rope near the bow. "Toss it around that far bollard when we get close, then pull it in tight." Seeing Far Travel nod and move to the front, Apple Bloom made one last correction with the tiller, then cut the engine and quickly grabbed her own rope. Years of practice with Applejack meant her toss caught around her own bollard on the first try, and she quickly secured the line and darted forward to take over for Far Travel. Apparently that wasn't necessary, as the front of the airship was already secured, complete with a proper, quick-release mooring knot.
"What?" Far Travel said, seeing the look on Apple Bloom's face and enjoying her own turn to surprise somepony. "You think I don't know my way around a deck after traveling as much as I have?"
Queen's Chambers, Canterlot Castle.
Celestia rolled over, letting a wing stretch out and drape off the edge of the bed. After a moment, she could feel the warmth soaking through her feathers, easing cramped muscles as it radiated from the fireplace across... But wait, she thought, she hadn't lit a fire last night!
Confused, she quickly sat up and, peeling open tired eyes, saw that the room was glowing with bright light, far too intense for a fire. Blinking and rubbing her eyes, she took another look around, and finally understood. It was sunlight, streaming in through the windows. Celestia had slept in.
Royal Kitchens, Canterlot Castle.
Slightly later in the afternoon.
"Ah, good morning, Tia!" Luna said, trotting into the kitchens and seeing her sister finishing a meal of toast and eggs.
Celestia jumped slightly at the overly cheerful address. "Oh, yes... good morning, Luna."
Luna paused her pantry rummaging and eyed her sister closely. "Is something wrong? You look as though you've seen a ghost."
"No... nothing really. I just... overslept."
"Ha! I knew my habits would rub off on you eventually!" Luna smiled and dug back into the pantry, searching for her favorite sweetened oats. Finding them, she snagged a bowl and milk with her aura and moved to sit across from Celestia.
"No Luna, that's not it. I mean, I woke up and it was... bright. It was mid-day by the time I opened my eyes."
"Really Tia? You know it's okay if you need more rest, what with all..." Luna trailed off, making vaguely encompassing gestures with a forehoof, while not wanting to directly point out her sister's aged state. "No pony will blame you if you need a little extra rest now and then."
Celestia's eyes turned back to her own food, downcast, and Luna stopped even her own chewing at the sullen look. After a moment of silence, Celestia looked up at her sister, small glimmering droplets of moisture visible in the corners of her eyes.
"What is it?" Luna prompted, all jocularity gone from her voice. "Please, tell me. Why do you feel so bad about sleeping in?"
"Oh Luna, don't you understand? When I woke up, the sun was already in the sky!"
Luna's hoof shot to her mouth, her own eyes going wide in sympathy as she realized what that meant for a pony who, by simple law of causality, had literally never missed a sunrise. "Oh Tia," she said, moving to hug her sister. "I'm so sorry!"
"Thanks, Lulu." Celestia returned the hug, sniffling. "Funny how it's the little things that get to you, isn't it?"
"Indeed." Luna returned to her seat. "Take airships," she said, prompting a curious look from Celestia. "Ponies flying massive machines all through the sky. You think that'd be a big change after I was gone for a thousand years. And sure, it was a bit surprising the first time I saw one. But you know what really took some time to get used to?"
Celestia couldn't help but chuckle.
"Seriously, Tia!" Luna put her forehooves on the table and leaned forward, her expression earnest. "Do you have any idea how many embarrassing surprises lay in wait for one untrained in the use of flush toilets?"
"I must confess, dear sister, that I do not."
"Nor shall you!" Luna said, smiling even in mock affront. "Those memories have been buried deep and I hope to never recall them again!"
Celestia laughed aloud this time, before smiling at her wonderful sister. "Thank you, Luna. You always know how to cheer me up."
Luna nodded in response, as she chewed another mouthful of oats, then said, "With all sincerity though, you should count being able to sleep late amongst the blessings of this new solar arrangement. Enjoy it while you can, as I've no doubt you'll be forced back into the slavery of raising the sun soon enough."
"One can hope."
"One must hope, Tia. One must always hope. You taught me that so very, very long ago."
Throne Room (née Breakfast Nook), Canterlot Castle.
Five staircases, two wrong turns, one stop for directions, and three very crowded hallways later.
Apple Bloom, hearing a muttering voice through the small, slightly open door, decided to knock, just to be sure.
Shrugging, Apple Bloom pushed against the door, and was met with some resistance. "It, uh, seems ta be stuck!" she called through the open crack as she continued to lean her shoulder into it.
"Sorry about that!" A familiar voice called back. The resistance disappeared instantly and Apple Bloom nearly fell into the small room. Recovering her hooves quickly, she saw several stacks of books moving to another corner of the cramped stone room, the tell-tale aura of Celestia's magic levitating them.
"Apple Bloom!" Celestia said, giving her a smile after settling the books precariously on an even larger pile of tomes. "What a pleasant surprise! And Miss Far Travel too. Welcome."
The Queen was seated behind a table that was likewise piled high with books, papers, and what looked like the leftovers of at least three different meals. While the Queen's smile itself was as warm as ever, Apple Bloom couldn't forget that it was now set in a wrinkled face, framed by gray hair and weathered fur. She had to fight to keep her own smile from faltering in return. "Howdy Celestia, how're ya holdin' up?"
"Perfectly fine, save that everypony keeps asking me that. Nopony seems to listen, but I assure you, I'm still way older than I look."
"Heh, good ta know."
"So, I see Miss Far Travel was able to find you." Celestia said, before turning to Far Travel herself. "I hope you didn't run into any difficulties."
Apple Bloom and Far Travel shared a brief look.
"No Ma'am," Far Travel said. "I left a full report at the, umm, 'Headquarters' before Apple Bloom suggested we return here."
"Something I can help with?" Celestia said.
"Actually," Apple Bloom said. "I'm lookin' for Sky Chaser. Thought him an' a few a’ his students might be able to help Far Travel an' her team dig out that tower."
"An excellent idea," Celestia said. "And as seems to have become tradition, one I feel I should have thought of myself when Far Travel first posed the problem to me, and saved you the journey."
"Oh, not at all—"
Far Travel's objection was cut short as Celestia raised a hoof. "There is no need to assuage my ego. As my sister continually reminds me, nopony is perfect, especially myself. That is something I accepted long ago. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't still 'facehoof' when I find I've overlooked something simple."
Chuckling at that, Apple Bloom was pleased to see Celestia's sense of humor was still as strong as ever.
"Thankfully," Celestia continued. "This one only seems to have wasted a day's journey or so. The last one... Well, I still feel bad that I left several dozen ponies effectively camping under tarps for over a week before I realized that the massive throne room was sitting empty and useless here in the castle."
"Ah," Apple Bloom said. "That explains all the confusion we had tryin' to find ya. Guards kept tellin' us ya were in the throne room, but I guess ya 'moved' it. I think we circled back through the big one like three times 'till one of the ponies campin' out in there finally pointed us down here."
"Yes, apparently nopony liked being told their audience with the Queen would be in the servant's breakfast nook, so I rechristened it." Celestia stood and, spreading her wings, declared "Behold! The Grand Throne Room of The Equ—" The Royal Canterlot Voice was cut off by the sound of a breaking vase as the Queen's wings knocked it over in the narrow space.
All three ponies stared at where it had fallen, watching in fascination as the pile of books it landed on wobbled ponderously several times, then toppled, knocking over three more stacks like dominoes. As all eyes followed the disastrous chain, the third pile collapsed against the edge of the table and its wrongly-sized table cloth. There, the combined weight of the books pulled at the extra fabric that draped to the floor, tipping an abandoned mug of tea slowly but inevitably over the edge above.
It's handle breaking loose on impact, the remainder of the cup then rolled lazily, but persistently, toward the back of the room, the heavy, slow 'woga woga woga' of ceramic against the wooden floor the only noise in the room. Eventually, the remnants of the cup came to rest against the base of a door leading to the kitchens, and all was quiet.
Celestia, her wings still frozen in their not-quite-fully-extended position, slowly turned her gaze away from the cup and locked eyes with Apple Bloom. The two shared another second or two of silence, then broke into riotous laughter almost simultaneously. Far Travel, however, wasn't sure what to think.
"Oh wow," Celestia sighed, catching her breath a moment later. "I don't know why that was so funny."
"Me neither," Apple Bloom said, her forelegs spread to brace herself as she caught her own breath. "It just... it just kept goin'... an' goin'. Why didn't ya stop it? Ya coulda caught things easy with yer magic."
"I..." Celestia paused, and scratched her head with a forehoof. "I honestly don't know. I believe I thought you would steady the books, as you were right next to that third stack. Why didn't you try to catch them?"
Apple Bloom shrugged. "Guess I've kinda gotten used to bein' around unicorns. Sweetie's always on top of stuff like that, an' so's Twilight. So, I figure two magic users in the room, one a' ya'll was sure to stop it."
"And what about you, Miss Far Travel? You're a unicorn, why didn't you arrest the disaster as it unfolded?"
Far Travel, already uncomfortable from the outburst of laughter, now felt her eyes go wide at being put on the spot even more. "Uh, I ah... That is to say, I apologize your Majesty, but it didn't occur to me to act out of turn when you seemed nonplussed by the events yourself. I thought perhaps you'd done it on purpose for comedic or other effect."
"Would that I were that clever," Celestia said, chuckling slightly. "As I think there actually is an excellent lesson to be found here."
Apple Bloom cocked her head. "How so?"
"Witness, three of us here," Celestia said, waving a hoof inclusively. "All of us adults, all perfectly capable of quick and independent thought, yes? Yet, all of us chose to not act, and therefore abate an easily abatable—though thankfully minor—disaster, simply because no other pony was acting."
Nodding solemnly at the realization, Apple Bloom reiterated in her own words, "No pony did anything to stop it 'cause no pony was doin' anything to stop it."
"Strange how that happens, isn't it?" Celestia said. "One of the great strengths of our race is the herd instincts we inherited from our ancient ancestors. We naturally cooperate and work together, and compared to some of the more solitary races like the griffons or the minotaurs, we have very little conflict amongst ourselves because of it. But that same herd mentality can be a weakness as well, as we've just comedically demonstrated here."
"So yer sayin' we should... do what exactly?"
"I have no idea," Celestia admitted, grinning. "But I'm sure it's important somehow. Come back in a decade or so, and I'm sure I'll have refined it into a most excellent object lesson of at least some sort by then."
"Heh, I'll hold ya to that!" Apple Bloom said, her smile waning as she remembered the looming threat. "Just gotta, ya know, save the world first. Speaking of... ya know where Sky Chaser might be at?"
"I believe I saw some diamond dogs up in the—"
"Tia!" A shout came from behind the door to the kitchens, accompanied by hurried hoofsteps. "Sister, are you okay? I heard crashes! Have you fallen?"
Celestia, Far Travel, and Apple Bloom all turned as one toward the kitchen door, realizing a moment too late what was about to happen.
"Luna, wai—" Celestia was cut off as the door was flung open by Luna's aura, sending the broken mug flying across the room to impact an unlit candelabra mounted on the far wall. The ancient grout holding the upper mounting bolt gave way, leaving the fixture to swing upside down like a pendulum by the remaining bolt. Watching, all the ponies in the room saw that the remaining bolt too was working its way free, and would leave the heavy steel fixture to plummet onto the very fragile looking decanter set on the table below when it did so.
Swing. Swing. Swing. Then it dropped. Inches above the decorative crystalware, it was caught in a blue aura. "Were you all just going to let it fall and shatter things?" Luna asked, setting the heavy fixture safely out of the way by the wall.
"Don't look at me!" Apple Bloom said raising her hooves in denial as Celestia turned her way. "That was completely outta my reach this time!"
Luna turned toward Celestia with worry on her face. "Sister? Are you quite okay? Did you not see what was about to happen?"
"No Luna, I saw it."
"Is something wrong with your magic then?" Luna's worried look continued. "Have you grown weaker?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Then you were just going to let it drop and destroy things?
At this, a smirk grew from the corners of Celestia's mouth. "I think," she said. "I think I just wanted to see what would happen."
"To what purpose?" Luna said, her worried expression becoming one of confusion.
"I have absolutely no idea," Celestia said, her smirk building into a full-blown grin. "And it's probably going to take me a lot longer than a mere decade to figure this one out!"
At Luna's now-even-more-incredibly-confused look, both Celestia and Apple Bloom erupted in laughter, which was contagious enough that even Far Travel managed a chuckle or two by the time it finally subsided.
Royal Canterlot Archives.
One laughing fit and three more wrong turns later.
"And here I thought you liked me for my mind," Sky Chaser said jokingly, after Apple Bloom and Far Travel had explained the situation with the obelisk. The two ponies had eventually found him holed up in a far corner of the archives. He'd explained that, as long as he had to be stuck back down on the ground, at least here he could be surrounded by books.
"Yeah, yeah, who woulda thought I'd be askin' Runt"—Apple Bloom punched him in the arm to accentuate his old nickname—"for his muscle power, eh?"
"That's how I know you must be desperate!"
"In all seriousness though, Chaser, ya think you can round up a few a yer students and manage to dig that thing out for 'em?"
"I don't see why not. Sand's kind of a pain to dig in, especially if it's as loose and dry as what you're saying, but I'm sure six or so of us could keep it at bay long enough to let them pull the thing out." He turned to Far Travel. "You've got gantries, block-and-tackle and all that kind of stuff in place, right?"
"Of course," Far Travel said. "It's just with over two hundred feet of sand anchoring it, there was no way to pull it out. If you can get things clear, we can hoist it."
"Seems a shame to travel halfway around the world just to do ten minutes of work."
"Ten minutes? No, no. Sorry if I wasn't clear, but the entire pit needs to be excavated. We're talking at least two hundred feet deep, and dozens of yards across."
Apple Bloom grinned. "You've never seen a diamond dog at work, have ya?"
Far Travel's gazed flickered back and forth between Sky Chaser and Apple Bloom, staring at each in turn for any sign of a joke being played. "You can't be serious!"
Apple Bloom just stared back, tapping her foot in a slow cadence.
"Seriously?" Far Travel said after a moment. "Ten minutes? You can excavate a million cubic feet of sand in ten minutes?"
"Well, me and five others," Sky Chaser said. "And your numbers made it sound more like three-quarter million cubic feet." He grinned. "So maybe give us fifteen minutes to be on the safe side."
"It's just hard to believe."
Apple Bloom laughed. "Really, that's where the line's at?"
"Excuse me?" Far Travel said, when Apple Bloom continued to laugh some more.
"Ah mean, where ya draw the line on what's believable."
"Well, even if we had full use of magic, it'd take a team of unicorns at least a day to excavate that much dirt. The idea of it being completed in a quarter hour does seem a bit incredulous."
"So let me get this straight," Apple Bloom said, her laughter abating for the moment. "There's an ancient obelisk that's literally been suckin' the life an' magic outta the entire world, and sendin' it into deep space to feed some ancient evil which was confined inside a star since before our ancestors even figured out how ta make fire. Said evil star's now set up shop in Celestia's own Sun, punchin' a hole clean through it by the looka things, and settin' the entire world on a path to destruction in another couple a years if we don't do somethin' about it." Apple Bloom started laughing again. "I'm sorry, I don't mean ta mock ya. It's just... just... Oh come on, ya gotta admit it's at least kinda funny."
Apple Bloom looked at the other two for any hint of amusement. Seeing that even Sky Chaser was giving her a dubious look at this point, she knew she was probably pushing it too far, but, course set, continued on anyway.
"There is a hole in the damn sun! Yet the idea that a handful a creatures who spend their entire lives diggin' might be really fast at diggin' is what ya find hard to believe?" She chuckled one more time. "I'm sorry, really ah am, but that's just hilarious. I'll stop laughin' now though. I'm done. Promise." She moved her hoof across her mouth, indicating that she was, in fact, zipping her lip, and proceeded to stare at her hooves.
The ensuing silence was broken first by Far Travel. "I guess," she said. "I can see how that is perhaps a bit absurd, when you view it in that light. And I do apologize if it sounded like I was doubting your abilities, Mr. Sky Chaser."
"No harm done," Sky Chaser said. "I didn't believe a Teapot could fly until I saw it myself, so I know the feeling."
Apple Bloom looked up. "No, I'm the one that should be apologizing here," she said, her voice lacking it's usual twang. "I'm sorry Far Travel, I meant it when I said I wasn't intending to mock you. There's no reason something amazing shouldn't be amazing when you've never seen it before."
"It's okay," Far Travel said.
"I think I'm just going a bit crazy lately," Apple Bloom continued, seemingly oblivious. "Well, more so than usual. I mean, I know the world's been turned upside down for everypony, not just me, but... and maybe it's selfish, but they didn't face down a six-winged alicorn demon the size of a mountain. They didn't help cast an untested spell using a known-evil artifact on their own sister as a last ditch effort, only to get frozen in crystal as the battle was being lost. They weren't forced to watch as their friends were likewise disabled and marked for death. They didn't have to rip off their friend's toes and hammer them through their own hooves to escape a ten-thousand year old death trap. They..." Apple Bloom felt tears start to form in her eyes as her voice got shaky. "They don't have to fix the damn hole in the sun. But I do."
"You're wrong," Sky Chaser said. "You don't have to fix it. We do." He wrapped his arms around Apple Bloom, lifting her front hooves completely off the ground in a hug. "We all do."
Returning the hug, Apple Bloom, started to smile. "Thanks, Chaser. I needed that."
"Hey, you're the one that taught me that I didn't have to be alone. Gotta remember your own advice, AB."
Hug ending, Sky Chaser let Apple Bloom drop onto her hooves. "So," he said. "You really think digging up this obelisk thing is going to help save the world?"
"Sweetie Belle does."
"Good enough for me." Sky Chaser said, then turned to Far Travel. "So, when do we ship out?"
Sweet Apple Acres.
A week later.
Applejack paused in her work, taking the hat off her head to wipe the sweat from her brow, and inadvertently hitting her horn in the process. "Consarn it!" she yelled, as her hoof struck the sensitive nerves of the new appendage. It felt like hitting her funny bone every time... if said funny bone was wired directly to the back of her eyeballs. In a huff, she quickly tugged her hat back onto her head, the slight tearing noise reminding her a moment too late that it no longer fit quite the same.
"Damn it all!" she yelled, throwing the hat to the ground. The thing was practically swiss cheese after the past few months.
"Somethin' the matter?"
Applejack turned to find Big McIntosh behind her, and blushed at her loss of control. "'Tain't nothin' Big Mac. Just mah hat don't fit right no more."
Big Mac looked slowly between his sister and the beat up hat on the ground.
"Yeah, I know alright. I got a horn now, I know that. But Rarity's been a unicorn her whole durn life, and that mare's got more hats then we got apples. Don't seem ta be a problem fer her now, is it?"
"So why can't I figure out how ta wear a darn hat?"
Big Mac gave a thoughtful look.
"I know, I know. I need ta learn some more patience. Just this... this ain't me, Mac." Applejack waved her hooves over her body, emphasizing her new horn and wings. "I ain't no buckin' princess. What's a farmer like me supposed ta do with these frilly wings and this pesky, oversensitive horn?"
Big Mac opened his mouth to say something.
"And I know what yer gonna say. I know I should just mare up and learn to deal with it."
"I suppose I could try ta think more on the positive aspects an' all. I mean, ah did manage to buck half the trees in the northern orchard in one day. Destroyed three trees in the process when I got a bit too enthusiastic though. Trees grow back though, right?"
"But wings? Me? Mah hooves belong firmly on this here ground. What am ah gonna do with wings?"
About to suggest the obvious, Big Mac was again cut off.
"And do you have any idea how much of a pain these buggers are? Ya got to preen all them feathers regularly, or they look a right fright. Worst of all, they itch somethin' fierce if ya don't. An' ta think, I used to consider tryin' to work tree sap outta my coat to be the worst groomin' chore I had to put up with."
The two Apples were interrupted as a grey pegasus swooped in and made a rather undignified—but passable—landing.
"Ha ha!" The mailmare shouted. "Four hooves, no face! Suck it ground!"
"Uh, hey Derpy," Applejack said. "Ya okay, there?"
Derpy Hooves looked up at the alicorn and her brother (simultaneously.) "Yep yep! Just fine. Got something for you here, give me just a minute." She turned and rummaged around in her mailbag, eventually pulling out a letter and holding it out for Applejack.
The orange mare walked forward and took it, crossing her own eyes and looking strangely similar to the mailmare as she tried to read the envelope while holding it in her own teeth.
"Wash it shay, Mac?" she said, giving up, and holding the envelope toward her brother.
Big Mac rolled his eyes, and coughed suggestively, while discretely rubbing his forehead where a horn might be if he had one.
Applejack spit the envelope out on the ground. "What?"
Big Mac just shook his head, and Applejack read the envelope as it sat on the ground.
"Hey," she said, turning to Derpy. "This ain't fer me. It's addressed to Apple Bloom. Ya should take it to her at their headquarters up there in that big tree." Applejack motioned toward the looming figure of Rupert in the far distance.
"Umm," Derpy replied. "Technically it's addressed to Sweet Apple Acres, which this is, so..."
"Now hold on a minute... Apple Bloom's up in Rupert, that's a couple miles o'er yonder and several thousand feet in the air besides. Yer the mailmare, ya should deliver it to the intended recipient, unless yer slackin' on the job."
Hooves stepping in place nervously, Derpy tried again. "But the envelope only says Sweet Apple Acres, so leaving it with you is, uh, completely within protocol."
Applejack gave her a funny look. "What's a matter, ya scared a heights or somethin'? I mean, Rupert's just a tree, he don't bite or nothin'."
Derpy looked away nervously, one hoof unconsciously scraping at the ground.
"Oh my, ya really are, ain'tcha? Scared a' heights ah mean."
Derpy cowered under the accusation, looking like she might burst into tears. Big Mac elbowed his sister in the ribs, hard enough to knock her several steps sideways.
"Ah'm sorry, sugarcube, I don't mean nothin' by that. I just never expected ya... I mean, ya fly all the time. Yer a pegasus and everything. How can ya be scared a heights?"
By now, Derpy was in tears. "It... It's not like..." she said between sniffles. "It's not like I asked for these wings! It's just... just the way I am!"
"But if yer scared a heights, why fly? Why take a job where ya do that all the time?"
Raising her head, the grey pegasus stared directly at Applejack, which took some clear effort. One eye was twitching, obviously fighting to go some other direction, but the mare was putting in the effort to force both eyes to look directly at Applejack. "This!" she shouted, pointing at her twitching eye, just as it seemed to break free of whatever willpower had restrained it, and wander off to some oblique angle. "You think I don't take enough flak for this alone?"
Applejack was cut off as Derpy continued, tears now rolling her face, leaving dark streaks in the grey fur there. "Everypony already knows I'm weird, and clumsy, and there's something wrong with me. I know they all laugh behind my back. But if they knew I was scared of heights too—a pegasus scared of heights, it's almost funny even to me—just imagine how much more they'd laugh. They'd laugh in my face, not just behind my back."
"Oh sweetie, I'm sure nopony's laughin' at ya."
"Really? What would you know about being laughed at. You own a huge farm, you have a big family, and tons of friends. You're buddy-buddy with Princess Twilight and you're one of the Elements of Harmony. Now you're even an alicorn princess yourself! What in the world could a pony like you possibly have to complain about?"
Applejack couldn't bring herself to respond, and just sat in stunned silence, staring at her crumpled and abused hat a couple of paces away.
"Thought so. Anyway, I've got to go. Other deliveries to make." Derpy took off into a canter, then spread her wings and flew away, disappearing into the distance.
Big Mac walked up besides his sister, and let his own rump settle to the ground next to her.
"I know Mac, I know. I'm a right, self-absorbed jackass, aren't I?"
"Eeyup," Big Mac said, smiling warmly at his little sister.
"But I mean it, Fluttershy. You look amazing!" Discord said, as he circled once again around the couch.
"I know you mean it, Dizzy, but that's because I look more like you now," Fluttershy responded, continuing to pace around the couch herself, staying just beyond reach.
"Oh, you wound me, dearest!"
Stopping her pacing, Fluttershy gave him a slanted-eyed look that brokered no debate.
"Okay okay, I confess I am certainly egotistical in my own way. One can hardly help it when one is the Lord of Chaos." He paused, holding out a talon as though waiting for something regal to appear. "Oh right," he said, his tone much more down to earth. "Former Lord of Chaos."
"On Dizzy, it's not you, it's just..."
"Just what, Fluttershy?"
"Just... no creature has ever looked like this. I stand out anywhere I even try to go, and you know I'm not exactly a fan of being noticed."
Discord smiled, and knelt down to eye level with the draconalicornequus, and lifted her chin with his paw. "And no creature has ever looked as I, which many could argue makes us perfect for one another."
Smiling, Fluttershy learned in and wrapped him in a hug, her larger, alicorn-sized wings completely encircling Discord's narrow body. Hug complete, she stood back. "It's not about you, silly. Or about us together. I know it's a little selfish, but this is about me. You remember how afraid everypony was when you first moved into town. Well, now I... I'm afraid they're going to look at me the same way."
"Let 'em eat cake!" Discord declared, holding a talon aloft in a military pose.
Both friends mentally counted down from three, which was the general time frame it took Pinkie to appear at random mentions of cake, pie, party, punch, pudding, and, for reasons still unclear, cucumber. When nothing pink materialized, the conversation resumed, and Discord dropped his frozen pose.
"Seriously Fluttershy, I think you look great, and I love you just the way you are. And I loved the way you looked before you changed too. I really mean that."
"I know, Discord, and I'm oh so grateful for it. But like I said, it's not really about you."
Discord tilted his head, and again with his for-Fluttershy-only sincerity, asked, "but why not?"
"Why isn't it about me?"
"Oh, Dizzy, I know you love to be the center of—"
"No, not for that. Not for me. About me. I'm your friend right?"
"Oh, but of course!" Fluttershy said quickly, "You've been a great friend for many years now."
"So you care what I think?"
"Well, umm... of course I do, but—"
"Oh I see, it's one of your other friends then. It's not Twilight Sparkle is it? Has she been saying mean things about the way you look?"
"No! Twilight would never—"
"Rainbow Dash then. That mare never knows when she's gone too far with a joke."
"No! Of course not."
"Pinkie! She has no shame, and doesn't think any other pony should either, so she'd hardly know she was insulting you when saying you look silly."
"What? No! Pinkie would never be mean like that!"
"Right, silly me. Must be Rarity and her impeccable sense of taste. She couldn't bear to let you go around looking as you do without informing you of your faux pas. What a generous friend!"
"How could you even say that?"
"Oh... I see now. It must be Applejack. Honesty just wouldn't let her lie to you, so she had to tell you how hideous you looked."
Fluttershy's mouth dropped open in horror. "Discord! Why would ever accuse AJ of being that mean?"
"Because you said my opinion doesn't matter!"
"What? I never said—"
"You said my opinion wasn't enough. Yet the opinion of friends matters. So if I'm saying you look fine, then it must be one of your otherfriends telling you different."
Fluttershy's eyes went wide with anger. "How dare you!" She yelled softly, advancing to poke Discord in the chest with a talon. "None of my friends would ever insult me like that! In fact, I'll have you know that every single one of them has told me they like the way I look now!"
"So, why don't you believe them?" Point made, Discord slumped onto the sofa and smirked.
Fluttershy felt her eyebrow twitch in rage. On the one hoof, he made a good point. On the other, he was being so smug about it! "Argh!" she finally cried, stomping away to the kitchen to collect her wits... and some birdseed. It was feeding time after all.
Later that afternoon.
"Not even Kilimarejaro?" Apple Bloom said. "It's pretty close to the equator, an' it's mighty tall."
Sweetie Belle shook her head. "Sure, it's tall, but it's nothing compared to the distance to the sun. The magic would still lose most of its coherence before it even left the atmosphere."
"Wait," Scootaloo cut in. "Run that by me again."
"What part?" Sweetie asked.
"The decoherence thing. Is it the distance that's the problem, or the air?"
"Right right," Scootaloo said, waving a hoof rapidly. "But which matters more?"
Eyes rolling toward the ceiling in concentration, Sweetie pondered things. "Well, at this end, the atmosphere does more harm I believe."
"Magic tends to disperse exponentially over distance, just like most forms of energy. However, the air itself absorbs and scatters it as well, increasing the problem, and giving the distance-based decay a massive head start."
"So," Apple Bloom said. "Wouldn't the thin air up on a mountain help?"
"Some," Sweetie said. "But not enough. The type of spells we're looking at for an attack are extremely, extremely high energy. You've seen the beam-like spells unicorns use in battles, right?"
"The reason you can see them is because of the air molecules scattering some of the energy. With the class of spell we're talking about though, the thaumaturgical output won't just scatter and make the air glow, but will literally obliterate the air molecules it comes in contact with. Each of those will effectively be a miniature sun for a brief second as it's ripped apart. The energy released will not only make for a very visible beam, but will also interfere with the overall coherence of the spell, scattering it immensely."
Apple Bloom stared out the window for a moment in thought, wrapping her head around the sheer magnitude.
"Okay," Scootaloo said. "But what if—and just bear with me a moment—what if there was no air in the way?"
"Well," Sweetie again thought through the hypothetical. "Even in pure vacuum, the logarithmic decay would still mean massive losses at the range to the sun, but... It would be several orders of magnitude better, even if the distance were identical."
"That's what I thought!"
"What're ya thinkin', Scoots?" Apple Bloom said, her brow furrowing as she tried to guess.
Grinning, Scootaloo held out a hoof, and slowly mimed a rocket launch, complete with impromptu sound effects.
"The Kettles?" Sweetie Belle gave an incredulous look. "You want to fly the obelisks on the Kettles? As in, put them up in space?"
"Well, I figure there's no air up there to get in the way. Believe me, I've checked."
"It could actually work," Apple Bloom said, her eyes lighting up as her mind raced through the possibilities. "Well, the basic thrust requirements are doable at least."
"But they don't even fly now!" Sweetie objected. "Magic's too weak with the Hole. The structural spells won't hold, and pegasi magic couldn't deflect enough air at launch speeds either. The Kettle would rip itself apart."
"Fair point. But the engines themselves'd be strong enough to lift the obelisk I reckon. Just need to figure a way a' holdin' it all together."
"Without magic," Sweetie amended.
"Without magic," Apple Bloom agreed.
"Come on, guys!" Scootaloo clapped her hooves together. "We're the Cutie Mark Crusaders. We totally got this!"
Sighing, Sweetie Belle gave in. "I guess we have pulled off crazier things before."
"Whoo hoo!" Scootaloo cheered, raising her hoof toward the others. "Cutie Mark Crusaders, Rocket Aviators!"
As she reached in for the hoofbump, Apple Bloom paused. "Wait, didn't ya already use that one a few years ago, back when we first got the Teapot working?"
"Oh gimme a break. We've been at this for like a dozen years. They can't all be gold. Now come on, don't leave me hanging!" She waggled her hoof for emphasis.
"You know," Sweetie said. "It's not very accurate either. Our goal here isn't aviation, per say, but rather the emplacement of artifacts in orbit."
"Seriously?" Scootaloo said, hoof still outstretched. "You're grading me on these things now?"
"Well, as you said, it has been many years. Surely we should improve our rallying cries at some point."
"I concur," Apple Bloom said, causing Scootaloo to look her way. "This mission, nay, crusade, is more of a structural engineering challenge. Or perhaps a logistical one. We are attempting safe delivery of ancient relics after all."
"Hmm... yes," Sweetie said, in a voice not unlike that of her sister Rarity. "It simply won't do to mischaracterize such an important task at this juncture."
"Mischaracterize?" Scootaloo said, her expression one of utter confusion. "What in the world are..." Her objection trailed off as she noticed the sounds of barely contained laughter behind her and turned to face Apple Bloom.
Apple Bloom, sensing the jig was up, burst out laughing, and was quickly joined by a soft chuckle from Sweetie Belle.
Both her forehooves found their way to Scootaloo's face as she let out a loud sigh of frustration. "Argh! You guys were messing with me!"
Sweetie pulled out all the stops in her impersonation of Rarity. "Well, dear, you do make it so easy sometimes."
Apple Bloom likewise did her best ‘snobby Manehattenite.’ "Yes, 'tis but a trifle at points, and I feel one would be remiss in not taking full advantage when such opportunities present themselves."
Scootaloo rolled her eyes and shook her head, but the other two could see she was smiling underneath the feigned annoyance. Her friends were annoying at times, but she wouldn't trade them for the world. Besides, she'd get them back soon enough.
The good-natured ribbing continued for a few more minutes, with swears of revenge, and arguments about just who may-or-may-not have been the most naive at a certain party at few years prior, but was soon interrupted by a knock from the back doors.
"Ya expectin' somepony?" Apple Bloom asked, looking to the other two.
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo shook their heads. Shrugging, Apple Bloom left the group and trotted quickly to the doors leading to the rear deck. Opening them, she was more than a little surprised to find her sister there.
"Uh, hey there, Apple Bloom," Applejack said.
"Hi, sis... Umm..." Apple Bloom faltered in her speech, but resumed quickly. "Weren't expectin' ya to be knockin' at the back doors here."
Applejack rubbed her neck with a forehoof. "Yeah, well... these new wings an' all. Figure I might as well get some use outta 'em, right?"
Apple Bloom smiled. Her sister had been notoriously reluctant to fly since her transformation. "If ya say so, AJ. Anyway, what brings ya up here?"
Applejack, more comfortable with practical matters, quickly presented the letter. "Not sure who it's from exactly, but Derpy left it with me. Figured it might be important, so I brought it on up."
"Yeah," Scootaloo joined the two. "We've been trying forever to get mail delivery up here. Derpy insists that as we're part of Sweet Apple Acres, technically, we can't get door-to-door."
"I'm ah, sure she has good reasons fer that," Applejack said. "'Sides, I need an excuse to come visit ya'll sometimes anyway. Figure a letter's good enough fer that."
Apple Bloom took the letter and started opening it.
"Who's it from?" Scootaloo asked.
"Well, I don't know 'till I finish openin' it, do I?" Apple Bloom said, continuing to fumble with the envelope.
"May I?" Sweetie Belle asked, joining the rest near the doors.
"By all means," Apple Bloom said, tossing the envelope casually toward the unicorn.
Sweetie caught it in her paw, and with her magic, made quick work of extracting the contents. "It's... it's from Babs!"
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were in nearly perfect sync as they excitedly asked, "What's she say?" It'd been years since any of them had seen Babs Seed, and it was easy to forget that the real Cutie Mark Crusaders were still out there, in Manehatten and elsewhere.
Sweetie quickly skimmed the letter, then began from the top.
It's been a while, huh? I heard through the grapevine that you and ya friends is trying to save the world again. Well, we ain't up to nothin' so fancy here in Manehatten, but I likes to think we're makin' some good in the world still.
Anyways, wanted to say thanks for those engines ya sent our way. We had three get their marks last week alone after workin' on some of that fancy engineering. That's more 'en we usually get in a full month most times. In fact, and I ain't one to jinx things, but the way I figures it, this magic suckin' hole you guys is fightin' is actually the best darn thing to happen to the Crusaders in a long time.
Now, I'm not any sorta wimp wantin' yous to appease the bad guys an' all, but the weakened magic seems to be encouragin' all sorts of new ideas, what with how ponies can't rely on magic for everything these days. As a result, I never seen so many ponies thinkin' on their hooves so much. And a friggin' cartload of 'em are gettin' their marks because of it too. Our 'graduation' numbers have nearly tripled since this disaster started.
Even before all this mess though, things was still takin' off. I think I told yous how I wanted to market this place as a 'think tank of blank flanks' when ya were here last. Well, it's worked great!
All the older blank flanks have been tryin' so hard to get their marks, they've ended up studyin' and tryin' a little bit of everything ya see. They ain't got no speciality, but they're sorta experts in 'cross-disciplinary studies'... or somethin' like that.
Well, point is, word got 'round, and now big shots from all over have started comin' in. They're dumpin' weird problems on us, and more often 'en not, we solve 'em. More importantly, a lot of 'em here is gettin' their marks in the process. How friggin' awesome is that?
Anyways, I'm sure all of yous guys is super busy, but if ya get some time, you're always welcome to swing by. I know a lot of the members here would love to meet the original CMC trio, and who knows, maybe some of these blank flanks might be able to help. Stranger things have happened, right?
Your cousin, friend, and fellow Crusader,
"Has it really been two years since ya'll went and saw your cousin?" Applejack asked.
"Yeah, it doesn't feel that long ago," Scootaloo said. "That was a fun trip."
"Fun for you guys maybe," Sweetie Belle said. "You didn't get talked into sharing a hotel room with Rarity!"
Even Applejack chuckled at the remark. Sure, Rarity was one of her dearest friends, but that didn't mean the mare didn't go a bit nuts when in the center of the fashionable metropolis. Thankfully, she'd been able to excuse herself by way of visiting her relatives, the Oranges.
"Yeah," Apple Bloom said. "It's amazing how fast things change."
Applejack felt her feathers ruffle involuntarily at the thought. "Don't have to remind me 'bout it."
"Oh right," Scootaloo gushed at Applejack. "How awesome are wings, huh? You started to do any real tricks or anything yet? I know Dash said she'd been trying to teach you some stuff."
"Uh, not really," Applejack replied. "I ain't been too keen on my hooves leavin' the ground."
Scootaloo was about to object when Applejack continued, "But I reckon I need to change that, and make the most of it."
That didn't sound like the stuck-in-her-ways sister Apple Bloom was familiar with. "Glad to hear ya movin' toward progress an' all, AJ, but... Weren't ya just tellin' me yesterday how ya were sick of those 'darn useless feathers and pesky horn always gettin' in the way'?"
Blushing slightly, Applejack responded, "I reckon I was, but sometimes I can be a 'right self-absorbed jackass' too."
Sweetie Belle snorted in laughter at the unexpected self-effacement, and was joined by Scootaloo soon after. Apple Bloom just tilted her head and smiled.
"Big Mac?" she said, recognizing the not-so-subtle hoofprints of her brother's wisdom.
"Eeyup," Applejack said, smiling faintly. "Speakin' of, I need to go an' catch up with Derpy. Try an' apologize."
"I'm, uh, sure she'll be willing to forgive a princess for..." Scootaloo said, attempting to sound encouraging while not knowing the details.
"I ain't no damn—" Applejack cut herself off. "Sorry, Scoots. That's been a bit of a sore point, and one a' the many things I gotta apologize for."
When no further explanation was forthcoming, Scootaloo wanted to pry, as did the others. But they'd known Applejack long enough to realize they'd hear the story when she was ready, and not before.
"Good luck, sis," Apple Bloom finally said. "I'm sure she'll understand and forgive ya for... whatever it was."
"Thanks, AB." Applejack hung her head. "I sure hope so." With that, Applejack turned and trotted back out to the rear deck, before leaping over the railing and soaring away.
"Any guesses?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Nope," Apple Bloom replied. "But, I do think we should go see Babs."
"I'd love to see her again too, AB, but shouldn't we concentrate on the more immediate problems?"
"No, I mean we should take the problem to her an' the rest of the Crusaders. You read the letter, apparently the CMC solve problems now."
"We do?" Scootaloo said, returning from the deck, where she'd been mentally critiquing Applejack's flight mechanics as the alicorn sailed off.
"I mean, the actual Crusaders. The ones in Manehatten."
"Wait, then who are we then?"
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes, and Apple Bloom actually facehooved, mentally preparing herself to explain things to her featherbrained friend. Sweetie Belle beat her to it though.
"What we're trying to say," she began. "Is that the..." Sweetie then trailed off as she saw Scootaloo was grinning a very toothy smile in her direction.
"You're messing with us," Sweetie said, realizing the point of the grin.
"Well, dear," Scootaloo said, the impression of Rarity not quite as good as Sweetie's, but unmistakable still. "You do make it so easy sometimes."