Spike groaned in dismay. "How long do we have to be gone, again?"
"Celestia said we'd be in Canterlot for a few days," replied Twilight, tying (and retying, for the fifth time after realizing yet another book she realized that she might want to read on the trip) the straps on her saddlebags, "She told me that the senior students at the School for Gifted Unicorns are planning to do a study on the Elements of Harmony, and she wants all of us there to help."
"But a week? Just studying the same thing? In summer?"
"Well, you know how the students at the school are. They don't ever stop studying, and they never just want to scratch the surface of something; they want every possible detail."
"Please. Put me in front of 'em, I'll tell them the entire story in less time than it takes to down a bowl of rubies. And you've seen how fast I eat rubies, Twilight. Speaking of which, what snacks did you pack?"
She laughed, opening the door. "Don't make yourself hungry just yet, Spike. Even on chariot, it's a long ride to Canterlot. Now hurry up and grab your things, I'm sure the others are already at the square."
He groaned once more, grabbing his knapsack (which contained nothing more than a toothbrush, a blanket, and one of the only picturebooks he could find in the library). "This week's gonna stink," he muttered.
For him, it most certainly would (in the interest of Spike's dignity and privacy, I cannot disclose exactly what transpired for him. I can, however, reveal that one memorable incident involved an orange, a handful of beans, and trying to explain the entire thing in less time than it takes to down a bowl of rubies). In Ponyville, however, these upcoming few days would be some of its most eventful in years. Maybe not in the same vein as the group's adventures, always being on a collision course with wackiness. But if I were to call these next few days boring, I'd be lying.
And what better place to begin than with donuts?
Lyra and Bon-Bon had been lounging on their usual park bench, polishing off a box of everypony's favorite halo-shaped pastries. The chatted about the usual minutiae of topics: how Lyra's compositions were coming along, upcoming parties and events that nopony could miss, how in Celestia's name that Pinkie Pie defied the laws of physics on a regular basis...
As if she'd taken her name being spoken as a cue, Pinkie Pie immediately came bouncing past the duo with her omnipresent energy. Unusually, she was carrying two bulging saddlebags.
"Hi Lyra! Hi Bon-bon! Isn't it a beautiful morning?" It was, but Pinkie Pie continued before Lyra and Bon-Bon could say so. "Sorry to bother you guys, I'm just so spectacularly super-de-duper happy this morning since I'm getting to go to Canterlot! Isn't that just terrific?" It wasn't, but again, she didn't give Lyra and Bon-Bon a chance to say so. "Well, anyways, I stopped to tell you something...oh, right! I still think you two are an adorable couple! Well, bye!" And as soon as that last syllable left her mouth, she was gone.
Bon-Bon blinked, then laughed. "Oh, I swear, that pony doesn't know when-"
Maybe it was the beautiful morning. Maybe it was just hearing Pinkie Pie's monologue. Maybe it was the half-dozen donuts resting in Lyra's stomach giving her an unprecedented sugar rush. Maybe it was all three, as if it mattered one way or the other.
Whatever caused it, Lyra thrust her head forward and planted her lips over Bon-Bon's. It was a moment she'd fantasized about for a few years now, but never expected to come true. As she pulled away, she wished that it hadn't.
"Bon-Bon," she gasped, her cheeks flushing as the reality of what she had done dawned on her, "I...I don't...you...donuts..."
Aptly deciding that she was only serving to make the already awkward situation even worse, Lyra threw her hooves to the ground and ran, leaving Bon-Bon in a stunned silence. On her way to nowhere in particular (as long as it was away from Bon-Bon), she bolted past one specific red stallion with a wrinkled blue certificate tucked in his yoke.
"Wonder what her rush is," he thought aloud. Forgetting about it, he continued on his route to the The Luxury Lotus Health and Beauty Spa.
For the first time in his life, Big Mac was having to think twice about something. When Applejack had given him the certificate (in truth, she had been discarding it after she'd received it from Rarity), he decided that he'd make use of it. After all, he'd rarely ever had a day off, and he'd heard how relaxing a spa treatment could be. Actually going through with it, though...that was another story entirely.
In the fifteen minute walk, he'd come up with a cartload of reasons as to why this would not end well for him. Each reason usually related back to some scenario that would end up with him looking like the biggest foal in Ponyville. It was an unusual feeling, since...well, what can you do to embarrass yourself when all you do is plow and buck all day?
Still, something made him walk through the spa door and up to the blue earth pony at the front desk.
"'Scuse me," he said, catching the mare's attention, "Ah have this here card..."
He pulled the crinkled blue paper out from his yoke and set it on the counter, his gut doing a gymnastics routine that'd put a gold medalist to shame. Lotus Petal pulled it towards her and examined it, more than a little mystified. She certainly wasn't going to complain about having Ponyville's best-looking stallion in her and her sisters' spa, but she had full right to wonder what he was doing there. Still, the last thing she wanted to do was start out by interrogating a client. The certificate was good, after all.
"Alright, then, Mister Macintosh, just put this on follow me," she said, handing him a robe from behind the desk and leading him down a hallway. "Flower," she said as she passed by her blue-maned sister, "Can you cover the front for me while I tend to our client?"
"Uh, sure thing, Petal," she replied, glancing at Big Mac in confusion. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
"You must forgive us," said Petal as she led him to the saunas, "It's not often we get stallions in here."
"Ah'm not surprised," he admitted, "It's just my sister didn't want the card, and ah fig'red, 'might as well get some use out of it.'"
"I'm glad curiosity got the best of you," said Petal, giving a soft chuckle. She opened a door, letting Big Mac walk inside. "We'll start with the sauna, if that's alright."
"Fine with me," he replied as he took a seat inside, "Ain't my spa."
Petal's smile grew as she steamed up the sauna. This afternoon was certainly going to be an interesting experience for the both of them.
Three and a half soothing hours later, Big Macintosh walked out of The Luxury Lotus Beauty and Health Spa feeling better than he had in...well, a damn sight longer than he could remember. There were some odd glances in his direction as he left, but he'd hardly noticed. His mind had already drifted to the thought of coming back for another treatment - and soon.
Returning to Sweet Apple Acres, he could hear Caramel bucking apples off in the distance. Big Mac considered going to help him out...but why go straight back to work after such a relaxing morning?
Meanwhile, Caramel was earning every single one of his bits for this week, and then some. With Applejack gone, and Big Mac taking the day off, Caramel had to cover an entire day's worth of bucking all by his lonesome. He knew that this was a part of his job description when he'd offered to work at Sweet Apple Acres, but that didn't make it any easier. Or any more enjoyable.
"Lazy jerks," he muttered as he bucked another tree. "If they just wanted my help, I'd be cool with it, but instead, they want me to do the entire friggin' day's work on my own! I can't even remember the last time I bucked half this many apples." Another basket filled up as he continued his rantings. "I've seen already enough apples to last a lifetime - no, a dozen. I swear, when I'm done today, I'm going to be avoiding these things like the pla-"
Caramel found himself lying on a bed of clouds, with somepony gently nuzzling his side.
"C'mon, Caramel," came a soft but happy voice.
He opened his eyes, then winced as the sun stung them. Had he fallen asleep? And how was he not falling through the clouds?
These concerns dissipated when he looked up and saw her.
"About time, sleepyhead," she said, giggling. She stretched her lavender wings, then nudged Caramel's cheek with her hoof. "C'mon, no going back to bed. You need to move."
"Five more minutes," he murmured, smirking.
"No, you're getting up, and you're gonna like it!" she ordered, laughing as she pulled him upright.
He laughed along with her, reveling the kind of euphoria a pony can only feel as part of a pair.
"One of these mornings..."
"Oh, no, Caramel. Not once, not ever."
He laughed, then said it: "I love you, Cloudkicker."
"I love you, too," she said, leaning her face towards his.
Caramel bolted upright, his face dripping wet. The following thoughts passed through his head, respectively, in mere seconds:
What the hay? Where'd she go? Where's the cloud? Where am I? Why does my head hurt? ...Owwww....
His vision still somewhat blurry, both from the near-concussion he'd just sustained and from the water dripping into his eyes, he put a hoof to his head
"Are you alright?" came a gentle, calming voice.
Caramel paused, then wiped the water from his eyes and looked at the lavender pegasus pony in front of him.
"Cloudkicker? What're you...?"
"I was clearing the clouds over here, when I heard something crack. I looked, and there you were: out cold with snapped tree branch over your head."
At this point, Caramel noticed the knocked-over bucket beside Cloudkicker, some water still dripping out onto the grass.
She giggled. "Sorry. You weren't waking up, and I didn't know what else to do. You want me to get Nurse Redheart?"
"No, I'll be fine," he said. "I thought Rainbow Dash usually cleared the clouds over here?"
"She does, but she's gone for the week, so I've got to cover for her."
Caramel grunted. "Same thing with me and AJ. I've got to buck all her apples for the week."
"Yeah. If there's one thing worse than your boss, it's your boss on vacation."
Cloudkicker snorted a laugh, then took a look at the sky. "I think I'm actually done for the morning. Want to grab lunch?"
Caramel's heart skipped a beat.
"Sure, why not?" he said, smiling as he got up.
Together, the two ponies walked to the Sunflower Sammich Delicatessen. As they entered, they passed by an outdoor table with three sister ponies, gossiping as they waited for their lunch.
"So how was he?" asked Lotus Blossom eagerly, thirsty for any juicy details.
"He was such a gentleman," replied Lotus Petal, the smile on her face stretching to its limit, "And certainly much more interesting to talk with than most of our other clients."
"Like how?" asked Lotus Flower.
"Well, for starters, it wasn't the same old tired topics. I would never say it to their faces, but I get tired of how our clients always talk to us about the exact same things. 'Ugh, have you ever felt this stressed?' 'So-and-so is just the most handsome stallion.' 'You could cut the tension between Applejack and Rarity with a knife.' I love our clients, but it gets too old, too fast. Big Macintosh was a breath of fresh air for me."
"Do you think he'll come again?" asked Lotus Blossom.
"I sure hope so - I'd absolutely adore having him as a client again."
Blossom and Flower looked at each other, grinning. They then turned back to their sister, eerily resembling reflections in a mirror. Their mirth was lost on Petal.
"What is it?"
"If I didn't know any better," teased Flower, "I'd say our little sister has taken a specific liking to our most recent client."
With that comment, Petal's cheeks flushed immediately. "I-It's not like that! He's just...interesting, is all."
"Whatever keeps your skin smooth," said Blossom, her grin having only grown wider.
"S-shut up!" retorted Petal, her cheeks now matching their color of her mane. She looked around, desperate for something to change the subject to. She sighed in relief as she saw somepony coming to their table with a tray of sunflower sandwiches.
"Looks like our food is here," she told her sisters. Thank Celestia, she mentally added.
The waiter pony put the sandwiches on the spa ponies' table, then turned to head back into the deli. Doing so, he bumped into a light grey pegasus pony.
"Sorry," he said.
"No probability!" replied Ditzy Doo. She walked onward, oblivious to the waiter pony's mystified stare. After a busy morning and subsequently filling herself with muffins from Sugarcube Corner, she had deliveries to make, dammit. First, though, she'd have to return home to retrieve her mailbag, then to the Ponyville Post Office for the mail. While doing so, her mind drifted to the end of that busy morning.
"N-now, Dinky, I-I want y-you to be a g-good f-f-filly," stuttered Ditzy Doo, struggling to find the right words.
"And r-remember to b-brush y-your teeth, and d-don't st-stay up t-too late..."
"And d-don't t-talk to st-strangers, or-or g-go anywhere wi-without aunt L-lizzie Doo..."
"MOM. For Celestia's sake, you've told me all this a dozen times, and I'm only going to Manehattan for a few days!"
"I kn-know, b-but..."
Ditzy swept Dinky up and gave her an Ursa Major hug, tears in her eyes.
"I j-just love my l-little muffin s-so much!"
Dinky smiled, hugging her mother back.
"I love you, too, mom. I'll write you in a couple days, I promise."
There was a knock at the door.
"I think that's aunt Lizzie, mom."
She let Dinky back down, and walked with her to the door.
"H-hey, Lizzie," she said as she opened the door, "Th-thanks f-for doing this, Dinky's b-been so exc-cited."
"It's no problem, Ditzy. And no need to worry, I'll look after her like she was my own!" She turned to the eager little unicorn beside Ditzy. "Are you ready?"
"Sure am!" Dinky jumped with joy, then turned back to her mother, standing up on her tip-hooves to kiss her cheek. "Love you, mom!"
Ditzy stood at the door as she saw them both walk away. She smiled, barely holding back the worried tears resting behind her eyes.
The memory slipped to the back of her mind as she came up upon her house and opened the door, picking up the trusty mailbag that always rested beside it. After picking up a plethora of letters and packages from the Post Office, she went straight to the first house on today's list.
"Thanks, Ditzy," said Bon-Bon, putting the letters on a nearby table. "How's your day been?"
"Astronomical!" Ditzy replied, putting a hoof in the air.
"That's great," replied Bon-Bon with a laugh, "Say, you haven't seen Lyra today, have you?"
Ditzy shook her head. "Why?"
"Well, something really...awkward happened this morning, and I need to talk to her."
"Did you tripod her herring?"
"Yeah, I tried her house, but she wasn't there. Which reminds me..." Bon-Bon walked to the back of her house, then returned. "Could you give this to her when you get to her house?"
"Thanks, Ditzy. Say hi to Dinky for me!"
Ditzy cringed at the last statement, but not noticeably. She nodded and flew away, eager to continue her deliveries.
She went on to the next stop on her list, Quills and Sofas.
"Spectral divination!" proclaimed Ditzy, handing Davenport a boxful of quills.
"Ah, finally!" he said, relieved, "I swear, I'm always running out of these things! I have no idea why...say, you need a sofa?"
Ditzy shook her head.
"Dang it, nopony ever wants to buy a sofa..." he walked back into his shop, grumbling.
Ditzy kept flying, onto her next stop. She had two houses before Lyra's, Carousel Boutique and Fluttershy's Cottage. They were both quick enough, since all she had to do was slip the letters under the doors.
She knocked on Lyra's door as she arrived. "Anypony hum?"
There was a moment's pause before the door opened, and Lyra stepped outside, looking unusually timid.
"Hi, Ditzy. How are you?"
"Fine, thanks. What do you have for me?"
Ditzy immediately pulled out a hoof-ful of letters, Bon-Bon's at the top. Lyra flinched when she saw it.
"What? Oh, no, it's fine. Thanks, Ditzy."
Lyra walked back inside, closing the door behind her. She set Bon-Bon's letter down, then opened the other two. One was a notification from Blues' Music Shoppe, letting Lyra know that the new lyres were in. The other was from Berry Punch, asking if Lyra could start Ruby's music lessons this week (she could).
Having put those two away, Lyra turned to Bon-Bon's letter, staring at it. A minute passed. Two. She opened then envelope, slowly, using her magic. She then slipped the letter out, levitating it in the air to read it.
We need to talk, but I understand if you still need to recover from this morning. My house tomorrow night? If I'm not there when you are, the key will be in the plant beside my door.
Lyra set the note back down, her eyes staying forward. She wasn't sure if she was relieved, horrified, or nervous. Possibly all of the above.
Her stomach grumbled, reminding her that she'd missed lunch. She decided to rectify the situation, heading out the door to the Sunflower Sammich Delicatessen. Walking inside, she passed by a pegasus and earth pony on their way out, deep in conversation.
"...And so then Pinkie said, 'Oatmeal, are you crazy?'"
Cloud Kicker laughed once again, Caramel having told her story after hilarious story. "Ah, Pinkie Pie...I swear, it's like that pony never runs out of energy."
"Tell me something I don't know," he replied, softly laughing.
"Did you know that you're really funny?"
"You think so?"
"Caramel, I can't remember the last time anypony made me laugh that hard. When you told me that joke about Ms. Cheerilee and Big Mac's plow, I thought my ribs were going to crack."
"Really? I thought that was one of my weaker jokes."
"Oh, stop," she said, giving him a playful nudge, "Say, I hope you don't mind me asking, but, erm...
"Are you...seeing anypony?
Caramel's heart skipped a beat, once again, as that question registered.
"I mean, if you are, it's fine, I'm just..."
"No, I'm not seeing anypony," he said again, grinning.
"Would you like to?" asked Cloudkicker, her heart racing.
Caramel's grin grew wider. "I'd be a foal to say no."
Cloudkicker giggled. "Breakfast tomorrow? Sugarcube Corner?"
They parted ways, each one hardly believing their luck. Caramel walked back to Sweet Apple Acres, still having a hayload of apples to buck by sundown. Walking to the trees, he passed by Big Macintosh, sitting outside the barn, looking even more relaxed than he usually did.
"Enjoying your day off?" asked Caramel. The question was completely sincere; he was in too good a mood to even contemplate being mad at Big Mac.
"Speaking of which, where did you go this morning?"
"Tried somethin' new."
"And what was this new thing?"
"A lil' somethin' ah like t'call mah business."
Caramel shrugged. If it was anypony else, he might have pressed the matter. But Big Mac wasn't exactly known for being an easily-persuaded stallion. He dropped it and kept walking.
Big Mac looked back out over the fields of apple trees, glad that that the moment was peaceful again. At least, it was for two more seconds before Applebloom hug-tackled her brother from behind.
"Hey, big brother!" she joyfully exclaimed.
"Applebloom," he laughed, "Is there a reason y'all felt it nec'sary to give your older brother here a heart attack?"
"Well, fer starters, ah ain't got nothin' else to do!"
"Nothin'? What about your crusader friends?"
"Scootaloo's been at Junior Flight camp for the summer..."
"An' what about Rarity's lil' sister?"
"Uh, y'know how Applejack and her friends all went to Canterlot?"
"Well, Sweetie Belle told me that Rarity couldn't find anypony to filly-sit, so she had to go with her. So ah'm bored."
"You don't have some other friends y'all could be playin' with?"
"Yeah, Big Mac, that's why ah'm here tellin' you how bored ah am!"
Big Mac stifled a laugh. Applejack always got annoyed with Applebloom's lip, but he adored it. Mostly because it reminded him of his colthood, talking back to Granny Smith time and time again. The only difference was that Applebloom wasn't walking away with a stinging rump.
"Well, what d'you want me to do about it?"
Applebloom shrugged. "Ah don't know."
"Hm...what do all y'all crusaders usually end up doin'?"
"Y'mean when we're not trying to find our special talents?"
"We usually just end up foalin' around, playin' games."
"Well, one thing we've been doin' a lot lately is hide 'n' seek..."
"Alright, then," said Big Mac, standing up, "D'you wanna hide or seek first?"
"What?" asked Applebloom, sure she heard Big Mac wrong.
"Ah said," he replied patiently, "D'you wanna hide or seek first?"
Applebloom leapt with filly-ish joy, then ran off into the fields. "I bet you'll never find me! An' remember to count to one hundred applebuckers!"
Big Mac smiled. "One applebucker, two applebuckers, three applebuckers..."
He was up to about sixty-eight applebuckers when Ditzy Doo came with the last delivery of the day.
"Good aft bow!" exclaimed Ditzy.
"Howdy, Ditzy," replied Big Macintosh, the count continuing in his head. Seventy-two applebuckers, seventy-three applebuckers...
"Got a spender derivation!" she said, pulling a package out of her mailbag (nopony was ever quite sure how she fit so many packages into one bag; on that point, nopony ever cared, either, as long as they got their mail).
"Is that fertilizer we've been needin'?" Eighty-one applebuckers, eighty-two applebuckers...
"Thanks," he said, "Would ya mind puttin' it up at the house fer me to take in later?"
"Thank ya very much. How's Dinky?"
Ditzy cringed, then recovered. "Spectrometer!"
Big Mac noticed the cringe. "Is there somethin' wrong?"
Ditzy's smile faded. "N-no, nothing's wr-wrong..."
"Are ya shore?"
"S-sure as I c-can be!" Ditzy's facade was crumbling fast.
Big Mac shrugged. "Alright, I'll take yer word for it." Ninety-eight applebuckers, ninety-nine applebuckers...
Ditzy nodded. "Well, see you aloud!"
"Eeyup." One hundred applebuckers. Ready or not, here ah come.
Ditzy flew away, leaving Big Mac as he bolted into the apple fields. She set the package at the Sweet Apple Acres house, like was requested, then flew straight home. She walked inside, setting the mailbag beside the door and retrieving her own letters. There were only two; one was her paycheck for the last week, the other was a coupon for muffins from Mr. and Mrs. Cake. She set them on the hallway table for later, then went upstairs.
One relaxing nap and two hours later, Ditzy came back down with a notebook strapped around one of her legs and grabbed both letters off of the table. She'd cash the check on her way to Sugarcube Corner for some dinner-muffins, she decided, then relax at the park. It certainly wasn't a bad way to spend the remaining daylight.
Sitting on the bench, having recently enjoyed some spectacular oatmeal and carrot muffins, she turned to one of the few remaining blank pages in her notebook. She used her teeth to remove the pencil from the binding, and began drawing some light curves on the page. She'd decided what to draw hours ago.
An hour passed. Two. The sun had begun to set over Ponyville before Ditzy was satisfied with her work. She began her walk home, intent on making it before dark. Returning home, she passed by Sweet Apple Acres, hearing playful whinnying off in the distance.
"Ah can't believe ya found me again!" laughed Applebloom as Big Mac helped her out of the tree.
"Ain't that hard," replied Big Macintosh, a small grin on his face, "Ah just have to think, 'where would ah hide?', and there y'all are."
"Well, it's yer turn to hide! One applebucker, two applebuckers..."
"Actually," interrupted Big Mac, looking at the red-stained clouds, "Ah reckon it's about time we got back to the house. Y'all should be gettin' t'bed soon."
"What, already?" whined Applebloom, the smile on her face gone with the wind.
"C'mon," he said, trotting ahead.
Applebloom sighed, then followed. "Fine."
They walked together to the house, the first few minutes being silent.
"Would ya mind tellin' me a story when we get back?"
Big Mac gave his sister a quizzical look.
"Well, Applejack always tells me a story before ah go to bed, an' she's not here, an' I figure you at least know a few stories, an'..."
"Applebloom, yer gonna wear me out, here."
"Y'all heard me. If you brush yer teeth and jump straight into bed, ah'll tell you one of mah stories."
Hearing that, Applebloom went from a trot to a full-speed gallop, speeding far ahead of her brother. By the time Big Mac got there and put up the fertilizer, she'd already brushed, had a drink of water, and tucked herself in.
"So what story are ya gonna tell me?"
Big Mac took a seat by the side of her bed, remembering old stories that he'd been told as a colt.
"Alright," he began, "Many years ago, long before you, me, or even Granny Smith..."
"...And so the he returned home to his beautiful wife and his adorable lil' filly, and never parted with them again for the rest of his days. Th' end."
"Wow," said a weary Applebloom, "That was...zzzZZZZzzz...."
Big Macintosh smiled, and gave his sleeping sister a soft nuzzle.
"Sweet dreams, sis."
Getting up, he took a look at the night sky outside Applebloom's window, his mind drifting towards the many other ponies in Ponyville, who were all likely getting ready to sleep by now. With that thought, he moseyed over to his own room and fell on his bed, ready for some shuteye.
Beneath Luna's magnificent night, most of the ponies in Ponyville sleeping soundly. Two ponies had fallen into blissful, love-filled dreams, both looking forward to seeing each other the next morning. Two others were sleeping after a surprisingly fun afternoon together, one of them having an equally great morning as well. And another was asleep with quiet hopes of seeing one special client again very, very soon. Two others had fallen asleep, thinking of each other and still not sure what the hell had happened.
And in one quiet house, a certain mailpony had cried herself to sleep, a picture of her little muffin wrinkled in her hooves.