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my little acadamia

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Izuku sat down on his bed. The numbness was overwhelming to the point he couldn’t feel anything, even his own breathing. But the longer he sat there and the more into focus the All Might memorabilia became, the more his carefully composed wall keeping his emotions back chipped.

And then finally he noticed one of All Might’s favourite phrases - “Be the hero you want to be!” - and he cracked, standing up and ripping the stupid poster off the wall with a yell. Nobody heard it, of course. His mom was out shopping. She wouldn’t be back for several more hours. So Izuku screamed again, tearing the next poster off the wall with a wrenching ripping noise as the glossy paper split in the middle.

In his rage, Izuku didn’t care. Not anymore. So he kept ripping and tearing all those stupid posters until they were in shreds on the floor, but he didn’t stop there. Screaming and crying, he snatched one of the All Might figures and hurled it at the wall with all his might.

It smashed, but Izuku was almost triumphant at how much pleasure seeing the shards explode all over his room. So he threw another, and another, lunging at his shelves and tossing those empty plastic coloured figures until they broke. He then reached for his Hero study books, the ones he’d pored over and written in until his fingers cramped, and reread so many times the spines were worn down, and his hand stopped for a split second.

He sobbed, before sweeping the pile of books onto the floor, and ripping out the pages. He kept tearing them out until he was on the latest one, the one that still had empty pages, and ripped that one clean in half, tossing it onto the floor in the remains of its brothers.

He sat there for a few more minutes, tears running down his face, before he finally stood up. Despite destroying everything, he still felt numb. So Izuku slowly and painstakingly began cleaning it up, sweeping up all the paper shreds and plastic shards and putting them in the bin.

It would be less for his mom to clean up later.

And when his room was clean, Izuku turned his attention to his desk drawer, opening it to see the serval stacks of pain-killing medication he’d stored there for months now. Finally they were going to see some use, he thought with a watery sigh, taking a small white box and holding it in his hand.

Nobody would miss him. Not Iida, not Uraraka, not Todoroki. Especially not Kacchan.

So he quickly wrote out a note to his mom.

Hey, mom.

I know you’ve always told me I’m special - it’s a mom’s job to do that. But I know I’m not. I don’t want you to lie for me anymore, because I’ve lied to myself so much because I was just blind to the truth. It was there, but I didn’t want to see it because I’m so ignorant. I can’t be a hero. I never can be - not after what I did today.

My quirk is artificial. There’s nothing special about me. He wrote, tears dropping down his face. And I know you’ll get this phone call later but it won’t matter by then. I did attack Yaoyorozu. It was unprovoked and I was wrong. So wrong. I didn’t mean to hurt her that much.

That much was true, at least.

I’m a coward. I wish I could tell them all I’m sorry myself, but you’re gonna have to do that for me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I love you.

He lay back, and began tossing pills onto the back of his tongue, and swallowing them before he could change his mind. But as he felt himself becoming drowsier, there was a sudden yank in his chest and Izuku choked, hands flitting to his heart, thinking this was it - this was the moment -

And he was standing up. He blinked, looking down to try and find his hands, but there was nothing there. When he turned, he saw his own body - face twisted up as he clutched at his throat.

And then She was there. Izuku didn’t know who or what it was, but one second he didn’t know, and the next he did. Her name was She. There was nothing else to it but Her.

“Izuku.” She said, and he turned, trying to find Her.

“Are you - wait - I don’t understand - am I dead?” He whispered, gazing down at himself. The room was frozen - a moment in time preserved - yet Izuku stood there outside of his body whilst She surrounded him.

“Not yet.” She replied, her soothing voice washing over him.

“But this is what I want.” Izuku tried to explain to her, having to tear his eyes away from his own body. “Let me go. Please.”

“Is it?” She asked, and Izuku was silent.

He thought about it. Was it what he wanted? Was death truly what he desired above all else?

“You know not, my dear.” She said gently, and Izuku started, unsure of how She had known. But She knew all. Nothing was a secret from Her.

“Why are you asking me, She?” He said to Her, and She watched him with curiosity. “Do you do this for everyone?”

She was silent for a second. “No. This One does not question the choices of all of This One’s subjects.”

“Then why me?” Izuku asked Her.

“This One sees a lot of things.” She’s voice was soft. “But This One notices when the Multiverse does not flow as it should.”

“Multiverse?” Izuku whispered, turning back to his frozen body, which was still paralysed in what looked like himself clawing onto life.

“Alas, my dear child, This One has said too much.” She sighed, and Izuku felt Her arm wrap around his shoulders as they both looked down at his frozen body. “But This One shall tell you what This One is here for.”

Izuku turned to her, and although She was invisible, She was everywhere at all times, and although She did not have a face, Izuku could feel Her gentle smile.

“My dear Izuku.” She said to him, and Izuku was silent, flicking his eyes back onto his body. “The Multiverse flows jaggedly for you, my dear, does it not?”

He nodded, despite the fact Her words were foreign, but they made sense despite his lack of understanding.

“So, This One is here to offer you a choice. First, allow This One to take a Form that you are able to understand.” She said, and Izuku had to close his eyes as light began to gather in the centre of his room.

Finally, he managed to open his eyes, and She sat delicately on his floor in the Form of an owl. Her light was so bright and full of divinity he could barely look at Her. Her feathers shined with gold and shimmering soul-like material wisped off her as She opened her eyes, and for a second Izuku swore he could see into an abyss of stars and shining tendrils of matter he could not understand.

“This One has three options for you, Izuku.” She said, turning her crested head towards Izuku’s frozen body. “The First - return, and let the Multiverse take its course, if this is what you truly desire.”

She is saying I can go back and let myself die, Izuku realised with widened eyes, and although he did not speak these words, She heard, and dipped Her head in agreement. They both knew that this was something that deep down Izuku did not want.

“The Second.” She continued, opening her wings. “This One can return you to your body, and remove the poison from it.”

A second chance, but Izuku looked up at her, and She already knew that this wasn’t what he wanted either. He didn’t need to say anything, because She knew all.

“The Third.” She whispered, her shining feathers causing Izuku to blink rapidly. “This One can return you to a different body in a different branch of the Multiverse.”

“What are you saying, She?” Izuku asked her, falling to his knees in front of her glowing avian Form.

“The Multiverse is many a-Branch, my dear.” Her voice was gentle, there was simply compassion and patience flowing from it. “A great Tree of existence. Your Universe is not the only one there is, my child.”

“Are you saying you can move me to a different one, She?” Izuku breathed, gazing up at Her, and she blinked her massive astral eyes as She dipped her head in acknowledgement.

“If this is what you desire.” She said, brushing a wing against his cheek so very gently and it filled him with sudden light and a feeling he couldn’t understand or interpret at all.

“It is.” He breathed, looking up at Her with tears in her eyes. “It really is.”

“This One knows.” She smiled, despite the fact She did not smile physically. “Dost thou have any preferences, my child?”

Izuku blinked, gazing back at his body as he clutched at his throat with pain in his eyes. “I don’t know.”

“You must.” She replied, and there was compassion in Her galaxy eyes which told Izuku that deep down he already knew.

“Somewhere -” He trailed off, flicking his eyes around his room where a shred of All Might poster was still poking out of his bin. “Somewhere with quirks.”

She blinked at him. “My dear, this Branch is the only Branch in which ‘quirks’ exist - but This One is aware of alternatives.”

Izuku shook his head. “I don’t mind, She. As long as it is somewhere where I won’t get slandered for being - for being - ‘less’.”

“A Branch of Equality. This One sees.” She said to him, tilting Her feathered head.

“Where I can be a hero. Where I can have a second chance with -” He was crying, looking back at the photograph of his friends on his desk. “Where I can have a second chance with them.”

“This One understands. A Parallel Branch.” She dipped Her head again.

“Yes. That’s what I want.” He said to Her, and She smiled again, and Izuku knew that She had known this all along; Her knowledge was unlimited.

“This One must warn you, however.” She said to him, opening Her wings and flying down to Izuku’s frozen body. “This One cannot simply remove you from this Branch. This One must either allow your body to perish here, or This One must replace you.”

“Replace me?” He asked Her, and She nodded.

“This One can create a second child. Remove your existence from this Branch.” She explained, brushing her feathers across Izuku’s body’s face, and he felt the burning heat across his own face. “This second child will live as you once did.”

“So - you can change things? Make it so my mom had a different kid? A kid who has a quirk?” Izuku whispered, and She suddenly looked forlorn.

“Yes, my dear.” She said. “But This One will not be so careless. As This One was with you.” She dipped her head. “This One is incredibly sorry. No apology is enough.”

Izuku blinked at her, suddenly understanding. “Was it an accident? That I didn’t get a quirk? It was you?”

She nodded, looking up at him with her wide, omnibenevolent eyes. “Alas, my child, This One’s job is great. This One cannot possibly tend to millions of Branches in the Multiverse without making a mistake.” She opened Her wings and flew over to him so She was floating in front of his face, and touched Her beak to his cheek gently. “So, This One always attempts to fix the flaws This One has created.”

“Did you know this would happen, She?” He whispered, and the look She gave him was enough. After all, She knows everything.

“This One cannot change this Branch so you were born with a quirk. This One fears it could affect the mere matter of this Branch. Perhaps even the entire Multiverse.” She said to him gently. “This One hopes you understand.”

“I do, She.” Izuku whispered, and it was true. “And that’s okay. My mom deserves someone better than me. I’m sorry too.”

“Do not be sorry, my dear. This One shall fix it all. You shall meet your friends and your mother again -” She stopped short suddenly, and Izuku’s eyes widened as a hint of mischief edged into She’s voice. “ But perhaps not in the way you might expect.”

“She? What do you mean? I don’t understand -” He began saying, but then She opened Her wings and Izuku was suddenly blinded.

He tried to shut his eyes but how could he? He had no body, and even though he tried to turn away there was nothing. He was floating - simply consciousness suspended in engulfing light that She was wrapping him up in.

And then for a second, Izuku saw a hint of She pulling him away and there was a sudden jolt as Izuku felt himself be snapped away from the Branch. And then - he saw Her flying ahead, Her massive golden wings stretched so wide as She pulled him along in Her claws and Izuku saw a hint of the Multiverse - thousands of silver strands and branches stretching from the main trunk of the Tree, before She dropped him.

And then there was nothing.

And finally, when Izuku opened his eyes, having to struggle to keep them open because they were so sticky and the light was hurting his eyes. And then, he saw a greenish blur that was so fuzzy and he couldn’t focus on it, as much as he tried.

“Mom.” He tried to say to her, and for a second he was convinced his whole encounter with She was a dream. He really had tried to kill himself - he’d taken the pills and he was probably now in hospital. For a second, Izuku cursed, thinking he’d just been hallucinating because of his suicide attempt.

But She was with him. He felt Her presence and his eyes snapped open fully but his body was all sluggish and wrapped up. His mom held him tightly and he let out a sigh, snuggling into it, because he felt exactly like he had as a baby and it was so warm and comforting to be so close to her.

His mom was talking so, so gently to him as she held him gently and rocked him from side to side. Izuku shut his eyes again with a sigh, instead pricking his ears to try and interpret the conversation.

“Well done, Leaf. Well done. I’m so proud.” He heard a soft male voice, and his mom clutched him tighter as Izuku tried to wriggle.

Leaf? He wondered, and there was another female voice that wasn’t his mom’s.

“One healthy pegasus colt.” She said with joy in her voice, and Izuku’s eyes snapped open suddenly at her words.

“Beautiful.” His mom breathed, and although she smelt like his mom, and held him so gently like his mom - heck, even looked like his mom - Izuku finally managed to focus on her face and realise that it was in fact not his mom.

“He’s got your eyes, Leaf.” The male said, looking down at Izuku with such adoration in his own face that Izuku could barely comprehend it.

“He looks like you.” Leaf - his mom - breathed, holding Izuku even tighter. “Look at his mane -”

“Like a forest, huh?” The male said, dipping his muzzle down to Izuku’s face to kiss him gently.

“Forest. Yeah, it really does.” His mom whispered.

And as Izuku struggled to piece together exactly what was happening, She let out a soft laugh, and Izuku knew She was here somewhere.

What did you do, She? He asked her.

Exactly what you asked for, my dear. She replied, and disappeared. Izuku never heard from Her again, but deep down, he knew She was always there and would never abandon him or any of Her subjects.

And so, Izuku quickly forgot about his old life, because he knew that his mom - his human mom - wasn’t technically his anymore - although Leaf, his new mom, was so much like her. If anything, Izuku felt like this was his mom, but just in a different form, just like She in Her owl Form. Izuku didn’t feel crushing despair at the idea of his old life being whisked away and his mere existence being replaced by someone else, because his mom was here - but maybe not quite in the same way as before.

He recalled She’s words to him before. Izuku had been reborn. He had a second chance for everything. Even though Izuku, still snuggled up with his mom and dad - his dad! - knew that he was a baby, freshly born, he still carried all this wisdom that no child should ever know. So he quickly made a pact to himself. This was his new life, and he vowed to protect his old memories of a different life and his knowledge of the Multiverse and She to himself.

“What are you going to name him?” The other female asked. Izuku realised she must be a nurse or midwife of some sort, perhaps even the doctor that had delivered him.

His mom and dad exchanged a look, seemingly unable to even tear their eyes off their new son.

“Forest - hm - what do you think, Branch?” His mom asked her husband, and Izuku gazed at his father with wide eyes, wanting to say something, but his tiny mouth couldn’t form any words.

“Forest Flash.” His father whispered, dipping his head down to brush his muzzle against Izuku’s. He sneezed, jolting a laugh out of his dad. “Forest Flash, my son.”

“Oh, my darling.” His mom breathed, kissing Izuku on the head again. “You’re destined for great things, Forest.”

So, this was Izuku’s new name. He was no longer Izuku, and he quickly got absorbed into his new life alongside both parents.

Forest quickly grew to the point he no longer needed his mom or dad to carry him, and was quite relieved at this, because he wanted to try walking. Although it had taken a while for Forest to realise that he was no longer a human, he soon found out he rather liked walking on four legs like a - like a -

Forest had to plonk himself down on the floor and move his head around to look at his parents.

Pony, he realised. His mom and dad were ponies, and so was he.

His mom’s name was Briar Leaf. A slim pegasus mare with a light green coat and even darker green mane and tail, she constantly showered Forest in adoration. Forest utterly adored his mom. Forest found great joy in tottering around on tiny legs and too-big hooves and giggling as his mom chased him. There was an image of leaves falling down his mom’s flank that Forest quickly learnt was what ponies called a cutie mark. They were completely unique to the pony and demonstrated what their special talent was - for his mom, it was her ability to mix up herbal remedies and grow different types of herbs and spices for food and medicine.

His dad’s name was Burning Branch. He was a dark brown pegasus stallion with a much shorter mane and tail which was more like Forest’s own mane, he realised. His father’s cutie mark was of a twisted branch which was alight with red flame, which was about the same colour as his mane. Branch was very busy for most of the day once his paternal leave had elapsed, and Forest’s mom explained to him that his father was away for so long because he had to fly all the way down to the other towns and cities to do his firefighting duties there. Cloudsdale did not have a fire service, Forest was told, because almost everything in his home town was made of cloud, which could obviously not be set alight.

Forest knew he took more after his mom in terms of soft, light-green coat and darker green mane colour, but he had his father’s mane in terms of its short fluffiness. He looked himself down in the mirror at the first chance he got since waking up in his new body to get a better overall look.

He was very clearly a young pegasus, from the light-green feathered wings he always had folded at his sides. Forest tried opening them, and then shutting them, getting a feel for the muscles. The feeling of a foreign limb was very strange to him, but he got used to it slowly. As he got a better look at himself, he clearly did resemble his old human self. In his green coat there was soft white fur lining his belly and neck and going over his nose, where, Forest noticed with amusement, he still had freckles. His hooves were also white, like he had socks on.

Forest hadn’t dared trying to fly yet, finding the sight of his tiny wings very daunting, but his mom promised him one day his dad would help him learn. He often looked at his own flank, which did not have a picture of a cutie mark, and asked his mom where his own was, and Leaf would always laugh gently and gather Forest up in her lap with her hooves.

“Now, my little pony, even your father and I didn’t have a cutie mark when we were your age.” His mom said to him, and Forest looked up at her with wide eyes.

“How did you get yours?” He’d ask, and his mom smile and ruffle his mane gently with a hoof so he’d squeak.

“You wait, my sweet. You’ll discover your special talent and I guarantee it’ll be amazing!” His mom would say, and he’d grin back, but really, Forest’s thoughts were whirling.

A special talent? Much like his mom’s knack for herbs or his father’s job in firefighting? But obviously, younger ponies like Forest did not have their cutie marks, and would get them later, much like -

“- a quirk.” He whispered to himself.

“Yes, I guess that’s a way of putting it.” He jumped as his mom put a hoof to her chin as if in thought, suddenly afraid that she’d heard him. “A special talent is kind of like a special quirk - wait, how did you know that word, Forest?”

Forest shrugged, forcing himself to remain calm. “I think I heard Dad say it once.”

And that was the end of it, since that answer seemed to satisfy his mom. However, this still worried Forest endlessly. This conversation was uncomfortably similar to the same one he’d had in his old life - the conversation about quirks with his old mom and her saying his would be amazing and then it never arrived -

Forest swallowed hard, shaking his head and fluttering his wings slightly to try and dispel some of that uncomfortable energy.

“Hey - Mom?” He asked her timidly, and she looked down at him with concern in her green eyes.

“Yes, my darling?” She replied, and Forest coughed, wanting to ask the question before began crying.

“Has - has a pony ever not gotten their cutie mark?” He whispered, beginning to tear up because, no - he didn’t want to end up being a repeat of the failure he was before despite all of She’s promises that She would fix everything -

His mom looked distressed at his sudden tears and embraced him gently. “Nopony. I promise. It’s impossible for a pony to not have a cutie mark.” She wiped at his tears with a hoof and smiled gently. “Okay, sweet? I promise you’ll get yours when you’re ready.”

Forest nodded, suddenly lightening up when he recalled She’s words.

“A Branch of Equality.”

And then he knew he was going to be okay.

It was the first day of school eventually. Forest was initially worried that everypony was going to judge him for being a blank-flank, but his mom reassured him constantly that it was rare for young ponies to have cutie marks at this stage in life. He’d be totally fine.

The school was a small local one in the centre of Cloudsdale, where the weather factory overlooked the entire village. Forest often liked to watch the weather-ponies leaving the factory for their lunch breaks through the window of the classroom in their white uniforms. He often wondered what they did to make the rainbows, or how long it took to hoof-make a single snowflake, but those answers weren’t nearly  as interesting when they were answered by the teacher in the classroom.

The lessons were mainly focused on the factory and the history of weather, because it was mostly expected that once most young pegasi passed their flight tests, they would work in the factory producing weather for the rest of Equestria. However, Forest really had no interest in doing this at all, as intriguing the factory process of producing each colour in a rainbow was.

Sometimes, a unicorn inspector for the factory would walk down the streets and he’d watch eyes wide and jaw open as they disappeared inside the building. Any other visitors aside from pegasi were increasingly rare. Forest had never seen an earth pony before, but knew they didn’t have wings or a horn - he was a little relieved that he had a slight leg-up from them, and silently thanked She for putting him in a body where he wasn’t disadvantaged.

But actually, Forest thought as he watched the unicorn inspector vanish, he wondered what it would be like to have magic. The reason unicorns were able to walk on the clouds was because of a simple spell that would give them the ability for a short while. Forest found the concept of this intriguing and wondered how many amazing spells there were that could be studied. He thought about how much magical study it would take to become a master in order to become one who had learnt everything known to ponykind and wrote new spells, creating books and artefacts with powers he could only imagine.

But unfortunately, pegasus study did not include magic, which was of great disappointment to Forest. Yes, he wouldn’t be able to use magic, but this didn’t stop him from immersing himself in as much study as possible outside of school, flicking through books on magic and writing notes upon notes on magical technique and spells.

He thought with a pang as he shut his notebook and slid it under his flying textbook as the teacher pointed to diagrams of wing angles on the board, this reminded him of his old life. Not having a quirk, but still finding them the most interesting thing in the world. However, Forest vowed that he wouldn’t let an absence of magic stop him from learning as much as possible about it. He knew She had chosen this world for him for a reason, and She had picked it because She was going to fix the mistake She had made. So all Forest could do was keep learning, and trust that She would make things go according to the way the Multiverse wanted it.

Lots of the pegasi quickly picked up flying but it took a long time before Forest was comfortable keeping himself in the air. His dad always flew just underneath him to catch him if he panicked or maybe got caught by a breeze which he wasn’t strong enough to fight against.

However, as Forest reached his tenth birthday, his flank was still blank, and his mom and dad had to sit him down to have a conversation. He was rather afraid at this, thinking they were going to chastise him for not discovering his talent yet, but the news was something rather different.

“Forest - I haven’t told you this, but I’m being promoted.” Burning Branch announced to his son, looking thrilled at this information.

Forest gasped and stood up, eyes wide in happiness. “Really?”

“Yes.” His mom replied, looking relieved at Forest’s reaction to the news, before nudging her husband again. “Tell him where.”

“Ahem - oh, yes.” His father said, looking excited. “The Royal Guard noticed me, and they want to promote me to Lieutenant -”

“The Royal Guard?” Forest spluttered, eyes wide. “Like - the Royal Royal Guard?” He gawked as his father nodded, looking highly impressed with himself. “You’ll be protecting the princesses?”

“Maybe not personally, Forest - I’m not a high enough rank for that.” His father rumbled, ruffling Forest’s mane with a massive hoof. “After all, the Captain said that not enough things are bursting into flame for me anymore - not that I’m complaining, of course -” He coughed, finally exchanging a look with his wife that Forest noticed immediately.

“What? What is it?” Forest suddenly demanded, standing up sharply. They didn’t answer right away, which began to make him very anxious. “Please - I’m not a foal anymore -”

His mom looked slightly anxious as she opened her mouth to speak. “Forest - you know that if your father takes this job he’s going to be away in Canterlot for - um - quite a while -” Her words were hushed and she was averting her gaze, like she couldn’t meet Forest’s eyes. “And I know that you and I can’t possible stay here in Cloudsdale by ourselves -”

“We’re moving to Canterlot?” Forest asked, and his mom and dad glanced at each other again, obviously surprised that he’d picked up on it so quickly. “But - Canterlot - it’s the unicorn city -”

Canterlot was home to the majority of Equestria’s unicorns. Forest had actually been paying attention in his Equestrian history classes when the teacher had been focusing on it. Although other towns such as Ponyville and Saddle Arabia were a general mix of all three tribes, even after the unification of the tribes each group of ponies had still gravitated to their own places, choosing to socialise and build in their own tribes. Just like how Appleoosa was majorly earth ponies, and how Cloudsdale was pegasi (even if other tribes wanted to live there, only winged ponies had the ability to walk on clouds), Canterlot was the unicorn-built city on the mountain.

It was rich with culture and history - that which was treasured by unicorns, just like how the weather factory was the life-force of pegasi. Forest would be lying if he said he wasn’t curious about exploring other lands - considering how he’d never left Cloudsdale in his life. Sometimes he’d poke his head through the floor of the cloud and just gaze down in wonder at all of the beautiful clusters of villages and roads stretching as far as he could possibly see. Forest often watched these with a pang and couldn’t help comparing Equestria to his old life.

It was sort of like when he’d glance around his home town in Japan and maybe look out onto the sea from the beach and think about how much was out there. How much he hadn’t discovered yet.

“Pegasi still live in Canterlot.” His father said hastily, seeing the obviously conflicting emotions on Forest’s face. “There are lots of pegasi guards who will have families -”

“Yeah, but there’s not that many.” He replied, looking up at his father.

But actually, Forest’s thoughts suddenly flew back to his interaction with She before she’d whisked him from his old life into this new one.

“Somewhere where I can have a second chance with them.” He recalled his old words as he looked at the old photograph of him with his classmates. When they were happy, and his life hadn’t taken a turn for the worse.

Maybe - if he left Cloudsdale, Forest might find one of them again. She had spoken of a parallel Branch. Perhaps She had chosen this particular Branch - this one with ponies - because it ran alongside his own, and maybe people he used to know would be here too. But maybe, Forest suddenly thought with a jolt - “Not in the same way as before.”

His father obviously looked ready to try and tell him that maybe a change of scenery wouldn’t be so bad, but Forest stood up, folding his wings at his sides.

Maybe I can find them again. Uraraka, Iida, Todoroki -

“Actually, it’s okay. I’d like to see some new things. Maybe even make some new friends.” Forest said before he could change his mind.

His mom looked suddenly forlorn at that. “Forest - did you not even try to make some friends in school?”

He shrugged, suddenly looking down at his hooves in shame. The answer was no. His classmates didn’t really pay attention to him, and Forest knew that really, his only interests were finding people - ponies - that he’d known before in another life. In another universe.

Anyway, Forest didn’t really mind that the other young pegasi in his class didn’t have much of an interest with interacting with him. He rather enjoyed learning and scribbling notes as the teacher talked - another thing that hadn’t changed about him even when whisked away from everything he’d ever known.

And his blank flank still bothered him. Forest knew that he wasn’t going to be getting a cutie mark in weather-making or flying, since his grades in the former were average and his ability in the latter certainly wasn’t exceptional. Perhaps he could find his talent in Canterlot - it was certainly possible -

“I don’t mind.” Forest said genuinely. “Dad’s job obviously means a lot to you two. If it means we’ll be closer to each other, I’m okay with moving.”

“That’s my son.” His mom said with a smile, leaning over to kiss him gently on the head. “We’ll work on getting you into a good school -” She trailed off suddenly, and although Forest glanced up at that, the conversation was over, and suddenly things got very chaotic.

Over the next few days, as his mom and dad got very busy, arranging for possessions and other furniture to be transported to Canterlot and putting the house up for sale, Forest retreated to his room and decided to focus on writing in his notebooks. His parents and the delivery pegasi worked around him, taking things out and trotting around, Forest kept writing, the pencil held firmly between his teeth as he scribbled away, mostly drawing wobbly diagrams on horn movements and ancient runes that held magical powers from the book in front of him.

And then the delivery pegasi needed to take the desk away, so he obliged, moving onto the floor and simply lying down on the cloud carpet and writing in the bare room. He was honestly surprised at how quickly his parents were prepared into leaving, and they’d obviously planned way ahead for this before telling Forest about it. Oh well - even if a shock like this was expected to have worse effects on a young pegasus, Forest didn’t really react much to it at all - mostly because he already had fifteen years of human wisdom locked in his new, pony skull.

The furniture was getting delivered to Canterlot before them, but Briar and Branch decided against hiring a chariot to get them there. His mom popped her head around the door saying it was time to say goodbye to the house, and Forest hopped to his hooves, putting the pencil, magic book, and notebook into his saddlebags with the few possessions he’d kept on him, and shrugging them over his shoulders.

“Goodbye house!” He chanted at his mom’s request, and the three shut the door, opening their wings and taking off.

Cloudsdale vanished away from the three pegasi as Forest stuck very close to his father’s flank, being careful to remember all his flying lessons to stop himself from being too afraid and falling. His mom was multitasking, struggling with a paper map from her own saddlebags as they flew.

“Okay - so, if we’re fast, we might be able to catch the windstream east and save ourselves some wingpower.” His mom muttered, the map flapping in her face as she squinted at it.

“Sounds good.” Forest’s father said.

For an average pegasus, it would have taken maybe about two hours for them to get from Cloudsdale to Canterlot without any weather complications. However, Forest found himself cursing his tiny wings for having to flap three times for every one of his parents’, and as they caught the windstream, he had to rest on his father’s back for the rest of the journey.

Forest was too exhausted to want to explore the town after they’d arrived at their new house, which wasn’t too far from the castle. But the next day he was feeling refreshed and wanting to look around. His father had already gone to do his guard duties in the castle.

“Okay, sweet.” His mom said from the other room where she was putting up pictures. “Just be back before Celestia lowers the sun, all right?”

“I’ll see you then!” Forest piped up, before putting his notebook into his saddlebags and trotting down the street.

Canterlot was breathtaking - the explosion of colours from the decorated turrets and wonderful expensive shops and restaurants were making his eyes sparkle. Lavishly dressed ponies strutted up and down with their muzzles in the air and paying no attention whatsoever to the young pegasi wandering up and down with his eyes wide in wonder.

There really were unicorns everywhere, he thought slightly with a pang as he glanced from each pony to another. For the time he’d been here, he’d only seen one pegasus flying above him - and even that one had been a Guard. No ordinary pegasi citizens had revealed themselves yet, so Forest shrugged and decided to keep wandering. He made an aim to make at least one friend today, so he could go home feeling accomplished.

As he did so, Forest skidded to a halt, peeping through the massive gates and into a beautiful garden. The gates were shut, but curiosity overwhelmed him and he opened his wings to quickly fly over it.

He trotted down the path, eyes wide as he gazed at all the flowers and all the birds who were chirping and flitting across the trees. The grass was perfectly trimmed and so soft too, Forest thought, brushing a hoof over it as a test.

“Sweet Celestia.” He heard a voice grumble from behind the undergrowth and he jumped, ducking out of sight.

As Forest peeked out, he heard a new voice joining the other one.

“Keep calm. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for this.” The other voice was female, and Forest glanced over to see a young unicorn with a black coat trot past his hiding place.

Forest watched her with curiosity. She was a pure black unicorn - and she looked about his age! - with a iridescent sheen to her hooves, mane and tail. Her mane draped and curled and was shimmering with blue and purple that glittered like galaxies. She had her cutie mark - he realised with a jolt - a white star with a trailing blue and purple comet trail. He looked at it with envy.

“No - there can’t be! I asked for clear weather today.” The male said, and Forest followed the voice to see another unicorn of the same age trailing the other one.

He was a light grey, with white markings across his hooves, belly and muzzle. His lighter grey mane had soft blue streaks in them - and he was a blank-flank! - Forest thought with sudden elation. A potential friend? Maybe -

He followed the grey and black unicorns with his eyes from his hiding place as the two jerked their heads up to glance at the sky. Forest noticed that they were looking at a dark grey storm cloud that was on its own, and casting its shadow across the green grass of the garden.

“Did you, though, Slate?” The black one said in exasperation as she glanced at the grey unicorn. “Or did you stutter and stammer and give up?”

“Um.” Slate said, suddenly looking very anxious.

“For the love of - sometimes it sucks being a unicorn - where are pegasi when you need them?” The other one began saying, still craning her neck to glance up at the cloud.

Forest flapped his wings and hopped out of his hiding place, deciding to finally reveal himself to the young unicorns. They jumped, turning to face him suddenly. Slate gasped and shot behind the black unicorn, who didn’t even flinch.

“Hey.” Forest said, glancing up at the cloud. “Can I ask what’s wrong?”

“It’s not a big deal -” Slate began spluttering, and the black unicorn rolled her eyes, nudging him with a hoof.

“Yes, it is.” She said, shooting a sympathetic look at Forest. “Can we tell him?”

“Um -” Slate began, before he was promptly interrupted by his friend.

“You’re right. He can help us.” She said, pointing a hoof at the cloud. “We’ve got a practical lesson today and our professor said we were going to do it outside, but look at this!” She waved her hoof at the cloud with an annoyed sigh. “Outside lessons aren’t fun when we don’t have the sun - what is up with the weather-ponies? This cloud’s covering the one part of Canterlot where we don’t need rain -”

“I’m sure it’s just a mistake.” Forest explained, still examining the cloud. “Sometimes when the weather-ponies are moving a large shipment of clouds, slivers of cloud can just fly away unnoticed.” He looked back at the other unicorns. “It’s just bad luck that it’s rested in the place where your lesson is.”

“Hey - this guy’s cool -” The black unicorn said with a grin, smiling at him as she held out a glimmering dark hoof. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before -”

“You haven’t.” Forest smiled, shaking her hoof. “I just moved here. My dad’s been promoted in the Royal Guard.” He added, puffing out his chest in pride.

“The Royal Guard?” She gasped, widening her blue eyes. “That’s awesome - wait, what’s your name?”

“My name’s Forest Flash.” He answered with a grin, elated at the fact he’d made a friend already.

“I’m Coal Comet. This is my friend, Slate - Slate, c’mon idiot, he’s cool -” Coal said to her friend, nudging him again with a back hoof.

“S-Slate Cyclone.” Slate muttered, averting his gaze from Forest.

“Now we’ve formally introduced ourselves, that makes us friends.” Coal announced, slinging a hoof around Forest’s neck.

“That’s awesome - thank you!” Forest stuttered slightly, feeling embarrassed at the bouncy nature of the black unicorn. “Do you live near here?”

“Slate and I are students at Celestia’s school of magic.” Coal answered, pointing to the massive school building that overlooked the gardens. “And you’re trespassing.” She then pointed to the ‘Private’ sign on the gate he must have missed earlier.

Forest choked. “No! Oh Celestia - I’ll go right away - I didn’t realise -”

Coal laughed, winking at him. “It’s okay. Don’t worry, nopony ever comes down here anyway. I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“Deal.” Forest breathed, suddenly relieved. “Wait - did you say Celestia’s school of magic?”

“Yup!” Coal puffed out her chest. “The best magic school in Canterlot - in Equestria, even.”

“Amazing.” Forest breathed, eyes wide as he rummaged in his saddlebags for his notebook and began writing, his words distorted past the pencil in his mouth. “You must be incredibly talented at magic to be here - what are your lessons like? Do you ever get taught by Celestia? Does your cutie mark have anything to do with magic? What -”

“I’ve never seen a pegasus so interested in Celestia’s school of magic.” Slate admitted, finally looking at Forest.

Forest blushed slightly and shrugged his shoulders. “Magic interests me.”

“I love magic.” Coal breathed, glancing down at her cutie mark. “My cutie mark symbolises astronomy mixed with star magic. It appeared on my flank and my parents submitted me for the school right away!”

“That’s so cool!” Forest gasped, eyes wide in wonder as he drew a quick sketch of her cutie mark in his notes and jotted down ‘astronomy’ and ‘star magic’.

“I’m okay at magic.” Slate muttered, scuffing a hoof in the ground.

Coal rolled her eyes. “Slate, you’re great at it - otherwise you wouldn’t be in the school. And you know what’s great about being a blank flank? You still have a lot of types of magic to explore to find out which one is yours.”

“Lucky.” Forest sighed, turning his head away to put his notebook back in his saddlebags. “Sometimes I wish I could do magic.”

“You’ve got wings, right? That’s more than what Slate or I have - wait, can you fly up and give that dumb cloud a kick?” Coal asked, craning her neck to look up at it again.

Forest gulped, shaking his head slightly. “That’s a black cloud. If I kick it, it might electrocute me - I’m not a strong enough flier to dodge any thunderbolts -”

“Augh! This sucks.” Coal groaned, stamping a hoof on the ground. “I just wanted a nice day to do our practical lesson outside -”

Forest sighed. “I wish I could help you, but - can’t you try a spell or something?”

Coal shook her galaxy head. “It won’t work -”

“Can’t we try, Coal?” Slate suddenly pressed, determination edging onto his face.

She shook her head, more forcefully this time. “No. We can’t do anything with magic -”

Slate’s face set, and he stood in front of Coal and Forest as his horn ignited with blue magic.

“Slate! Come on, you know unicorn magic won’t work on pegasus weather -”

Slate’s horn lit up to the point the blue colour vanished and white light poured from it, and Forest and Coal had to cover their eyes to shield them from it as a sudden breeze whipped Slate’s mane as the grey unicorn he bared his teeth. And then, Forest watched in shock with his jaw dropped open as a blue aura surrounded the cloud and it whirled, shrinking as Slate spun it with his magic before it exploded, breaking into tiny little puffs of cloud which then dissipated from existence.

The sun shone back into the garden as Coal and Forest finally moved their hooves away from their eyes. Coal’s jaw was so wide it could have hit the ground. Slate groaned, finally managing to wobble to his hooves from where he’d collapsed from sudden exhaustion.

“Slate! Your cutie mark!” Forest finally gasped, since Coal was so speechless she couldn’t form words.

Slate grunted, eyes wide as he glanced at his rump. “What in Equestria happened?”

“It’s amazing - almost as cool as mine!” Coal began boasting, gazing at Slate’s new cutie mark with wonder and joy in her eyes.

A blue and grey cyclone had appeared on Slate’s flank, made up of whirling winds that looked like they were speeding in motion despite the fact it was a still image. Slate couldn’t seem to believe that it was on his flank and only gawked at it, not even blinking, as if he was afraid if he closed his eyes it would vanish.

Forest squeaked in excitement, whipping out his notebook again and writing at lightning speed so he was sure he wouldn’t miss a single detail.

“Yes! Okay - so even though Coal was insistent unicorn magic won’t work on pegasi-manufactured weather, which I can confirm is true, as stated in ‘Weather and the Pegasi Factory: Volume Five’ - which I would know, because I’ve read that book, like, a million times - but even so, there have been rare exceptions of unicorns being able to interact with weather in a similar way to pegasi - usually those with a very strong magical signature, like Starswirl the Bearded or the Princesses - and looking at Slate’s cutie mark - which is of a weather pattern - a cyclone, my goodness - maybe a hurricane? Or a maybe a tornado from a bird’s eye view? Let me just draw that super quickly - okay, that’s done - I’ll take a better look at it later and compare it to the weather encyclopedia at home - maybe the cutie mark books in the library will help me figure it out? Either way it doesn’t matter because weather patterns for cutie marks in non-pegasi are incredibly rare -”

Coal tapped him on the muzzle with a hoof, causing him to jump with a gasp. “You’re mumbling, Forest -”

He flushed, laughing nervously as he shut the notebook and dropped it into his bag. “S-Sorry. I do that a lot.” He internally sighed good-humouredly, amused that his mumbling and note taking seemed to have followed him into this universe.

“We need to tell everyone right away!” Coal chirped, bouncing up and down on all four hooves.

“I don’t really want all of the attention.” Slate muttered, looking like that was the last thing he wanted. “It’s just a cutie mark -”

“I don’t have mine yet, Slate.” Forest said, indicating to his flank. “Cutie marks are a big deal, right?”

“Especially if it means your talent includes weather magic, Slate.” Coal said, smiling at her friend.

“I guess.” Slate replied, and Forest glanced at him sympathetically, seeing how socially anxious the introverted unicorn was. He reminded Forest of himself in some ways.

“I wish I could see your lesson.” Forest admitted, scuffing a hoof in the ground. “I’d love to get some notes on what they teach here - Mom said there were lots of magic schools in Canterlot but there’s no school better than Celestia’s -”

Coal exchanged a look with Slate. “Well, I guess there’s no harm in you watching as long as you hide somewhere -”

“Yes! Okay, I will then - are the bushes okay?” Forest yelped, scrambling back into the undergrowth as he said the words.

“Sure. Just don’t let yourself be caught.” Slate said, looking alarmed at Forest peeking out from inside the hedge.

The next few hours were so exciting for Forest and it was taking all of his willpower to not squeak in excitement as the rest of the unicorn students eventually arrived in the garden. He watched in happiness as Slate’s classmates oohed and ahed over his new cutie mark, causing a flush to go over Slate’s cheeks in embarrassment at all the attention.

And then the teacher arrived, a male unicorn who seemed very serious despite the fact they were in a lovely garden in the sun, and warned all the students to behave because a change of scenery was not an excuse for poor results. Forest poised in the bush, watching events unfold with his pencil ready in his teeth.

The lesson was on colour changing spells, and the students were assigned to pick a blue flower from the garden and by the end of the lesson they were expected to have changed the petals to red. Forest’s pencil whirled as fast as he could as he wrote down as much as he could about techniques and what Coal was reading out loud from her textbook. Coal and Slate were partnered up and seemed to have forgotten about him as they  focused on their lesson.

Slate picked up his flower and poised, glaring at it as he shot a blue ray at it. The flower was engulfed in blue sparkles before all the petals shot off it, making the stem bare. Forest watched this with interest before writing down - ‘Petals falling off - could be due to stance.’

He watched Slate sag as he dipped his head and wandered off to get a new flower. Forest poked his head out and shot a quick ‘psst’ at the unicorn to draw his attention to him.

“What?” Slate asked as he pretended to look in the bush for another flower.

“I think it’s your stance, Slate.” Forest explained, indicating to Coal, who wasn’t having much luck either. “If you’re all tight and unrelaxed then your magic won’t flow as easily. It’s okay to be determined but stressing out won’t work.”

“So what should I do?” Slate asked, suddenly looking surprised at Forest’s notes.

“Try spreading your hooves, and when you’re about to cast the spell take a nice deep breath and just let the magic flow out. Keeping your eyes at level with the flower might help too.” He added, and Slate nodded, excitement entering his eyes.

“Okay. I’ll try that.” Slate said, picking a new flower up with his horn and taking it back to Coal.

Slate cast the spell again and the flower didn’t disintegrate this time. Forest internally rejoiced as the flower writhed a bit under the magic, before the petals turned a light, washed out pink. It wasn’t red, but there was a clear colour change. Still work to be done, Forest quickly scribbled next to his notes, but there had been some progress.

“What’s happening out here today, Professor?” A new voice floated through the garden and Forest shrank back into the bush as four white and gold hooves passed him. The voice rang clearly, and was soft with compassion and a wisdom he found his heart speeding out of control because of.

There were lots of thrilled gasps of shock and delight from the other unicorns as they realised who the newcomer was. By the time Forest dared to poke an eye out and check, he saw who had just arrived and it took all of his willpower not to make a noise of sudden shock.

Princess Celestia dipped her head with a smile at her students as they bowed before her, before shaking her head gently. “There is no need for that here, my little ponies.”

“Ah! Princess.” The professor said, bowing his head respectfully at her as the other unicorns emerged from their crouches. “The students are simply doing a colour changing exercise with the flowers. A wonderful day calls for an outdoor lesson, wouldn’t you say?”

“I would certainly agree with your logic, Professor.” Celestia laughed, her soft voice tinkling out as Forest gawked in awe, unable to even blink or breathe as he watched her.

The princess - the ruler of all of Equestria - the most powerful unicorn in all of the land (an alicorn, Forest gawked in shock as he saw Celestia’s pure white wings folded at her sides) was mere meters away from him and all he could do was watch her from the bush. He wanted to approach her so awfully - speak to her, ask her questions, maybe, if he was lucky, get an autograph - but he didn’t dare. He was, of course, trespassing on Her Majesty’s property, and didn’t want to risk going to prison for fanboying.

So he simply sighed, and watched with wide, sparkling eyes as the Princess’s interaction with her class continued. She talked with the professor and watched her students as they continued with the exercise and often talked to them about their results and Forest watched in barely contained envy as the compliments from Celestia made her student’s flush and smile and thank her. He noticed how Slate was being praised by Celestia for his amazing result and sighed again, wishing he could bein Slate’s place.

The lesson ended, with Slate’s flower being the best result out of the class, and Forest sighed contentedly as he watched Coal and Slate disappear inside the school with their teacher. Slate turned around, mouthing a quick ‘thank you’ to Forest’s hiding place, before the door slammed shut.

Celestia remained where she was, silent as she watched the students disappear. Her tri-coloured mane flowed infinitely, like a waterfall that never ended. Forest suddenly froze in his hiding place, seeing that the Princess wasn’t moving. He couldn’t leave until she was gone - and he didn’t know how long that was going to be.

Suddenly, she spoke.

“Come on out, my little pony. There is no need to hide.” Celestia laughed softly, and Forest inhaled so sharply he inhaled a scrap of leaf. He choked, trying to hide his coughing, but couldn’t help it as he spluttered and choked, throwing his hooves over his mouth

Celestia’s light tinkling laugh echoed out again as she held a hoof out to the bush. “It is all right. You are not in trouble, my dear.”

Forest hesitated, seeing Celestia’s gleaming golden hoof mere inches away from himself, but decided there was no point in pretending he wasn’t there. Celestia obviously knew he was there - maybe she had known the entire time. So he timidly took her hoof with his, and she drew him out carefully.

“I am so so so so sorry!” Forest began gushing, his pencil dropping out of his mouth as he scrabbled around for his saddle bags. “Um - your Majesty.” He added hastily, bowing quickly, which caused the notebook to slip from the bag.

It flipped open to the page on the lesson, and Forest, still gurgling and spluttering incoherent words as he tried to snatch it up, was suddenly silent as Celestia beat him to it, her horn igniting with gold as she picked it up with her magic and started reading through it.

“I promise I wasn’t spying!” Forest began grovelling, almost in tears. “I just - I love magic so much - and I made friends with two ponies here and I was just so curious -”

“My goodness. You certainly have an eye for magic.” Celestia said, her eyes widening in what seemed to be shock as her pupils flicked from the book to Forest’s wings. He folded them, flicking his eyes away as his cheeks flushed in embarrassment. “And these notes on - cutie marks?”

“That was - um - Slate’s cutie mark.” Forest explained timidly, pointing to the diagram. “He got it soon after I met him. The -”

“‘Weather patterns in unicorn cutie marks is a clear demonstration of increased magical ability in meteorological manipulation, greater than that of the physical interactions of an average winged pony.’” Celestia read aloud, before moving the book down so she gazed down in awe at Forest, who was still spluttering in embarrassment. “Did you write this?”

“Um. No?” He tried, but Celestia raised an eyebrow, and Forest sagged, averting his gaze. “Yes. I did.”

“This is quite incredible, my dear.” Celestia said, flicking through the notebook, her eyes widening on every page. “All of these are your own studies?”

“Um - yes, Princess.” He whispered, shuffling his hooves. “I just love magic so much that I want to learn as much about it as possible. Even if I never get to try it.” He added, trailing off on his last words.

Celestia observed him with her wise, knowing eyes. “Young Slate is incredibly talented. He is one of my best students.” She said, flicking back to the page with the notes on the flower changing lesson and turning the book around to face him again. “But I was not expecting anypony to get a result on the first lesson - not even him. This is an incredibly advanced spell for ponies of your age.”

“I noticed what was going wrong with all the students, and why they were getting the results they were.” Forest explained, pointing to the notes. “Ones who were getting no result had several things wrong - but I managed to narrow it down to the fact that if the petals fell off, like Slate’s - it was something wrong with their stance or maybe something psychological. Errors with the spell itself resulted in the flower maybe shrivelling up or dying -” He stopped suddenly, averting his eyes because the Princess’s gaze was so intense he could barely look at her. “I’m sorry. I tend to mumble a lot -”

“It is fine, my dear.” Celestia laughed gently, casting her eyes across the notebook one more time before shutting it and floating it down to his saddlebags, where she put it in and shut the bag with her magic. “I am incredibly impressed.”

“R-Really?” Forest gawked, flushing and beginning to stutter increasingly at her praise.

“Yes. What is your name, my sweet?” Celestia asked, and he flushed again.

The princess wants my name! She wants my name! The Princess asked for my name! Don’t mess it up! Don’t mess this up -

“F-F-Forest.” He coughed, cursing internally when his voice cracked horribly. “Forest Flash.”

“Forest? I believe one of my Lieutenants has a colt named that -”

“Burning Branch? You know my father?” Forest gasped, and Celestia’s eyes widened in understanding.

“Burning Branch, of course. I always make an effort to know all of my Guards.” Celestia smiled at him with a soft laugh. “He speaks of you greatly.”

Dad spoke to the Princess about me?!

“I really am sorry.” He dipped his head in shame, suddenly feeling truly awful. “I didn’t mean for you to find out. I just wanted to see real magic. All I have are my books, and even those are super hard to find in Cloudsdale -”

“If you require more books, I think you’ll find that the Canterlot School Library will be a good place to start.” Celestia said, indicating to the school building with her horn.

He glanced at it with wide, confused eyes. “But - aren’t only students allowed in there?”

“I am sure I can make an exception for you, Forest.” Celestia smiled, and her horn glowed for a second as she summoned a gold and purple library card, and floated it down to Forest’s outstretched hoof. “You may study as much as you like there.”

He was gobsmacked, barely able to summon words as he gazed at the shining card, which already had his name engraved in it in gold cursive letters.

“Princess.” Forest whispered, looking up at her, and she suddenly seemed startled at the tears in his eyes. “Thank you so much.”

“I am yet to meet a young pony with as much passion for magic as you, my dear.” Celestia said softly, wiping the tears from his face with a gentle hoof. “Horn or no horn, I speak the truth of you.”

He put the card in his bag as he watched Celestia start disappearing into the building. The sudden sadness and despair in his heart suddenly welled up and all Forest could think about was his old life. Watching All Might walk away from him  after saving him from that sludge villain. Even after he’d obtained One for All - that self-worth never appeared -

“Wait.” He blurted, unable to stop himself as Celestia turned around to face him again.

“Yes, my dear?” Celestia asked, and there was genuine concern in her eyes as Forest started crying.

“Is it possible? For a pegasus to turn into a unicorn?” He whispered, and sudden sadness entered Celestia’s eyes as she embraced him gently.

“That level of magic exceeds even my knowledge.” She sighed, looking down at him with gentle eyes. “Alas, I do not even know if such a feat is even possible.”

“So you can’t? Not even you?” He whispered, and Celestia shook her shimmering head slowly.

“I can’t. I’m sorry.” Celestia whispered, before she lowered her head down so her white muzzle was near his ear. “Even though I have known you for a short time, I am certain of one thing.”

“What?” Forest breathed, and Celestia drew her head back, her mane glistening and glowing with the light of the sun.

“Your destiny is bright, young one.” Celestia replied. “Do not let lack of a horn stop you from being the most talented magic student in Equestria.”

“But how? It isn’t possible.” He whispered, and Celestia turned to face him before she disappeared through the door of the building.

“Then make it possible. Not all magic requires a horn, Forest.” She said, and the door shut with a clunk, obscuring her from sight.

At home, Forest took out his notebook and placed it on the desk of his new room, seeing the library card poking out from between the pages. As he smiled wistfully at it and flicked the book open to the page, he was amused (and extremely excited) to see that on the next blank page, Celestia must have magically signed the page so her royal signature shimmered a bright gold. He snorted, feeling a mixture of emotions as he shut the book and put it to the side so he could lean on his hooves.

This world seemed to mirror events that happened in his old life. If he was here, and his mom was here - maybe in different bodies, but the same in personality - then it was highly possible all his friends were as well. A parallel Branch, he remembered She’s words. Maybe this was what She meant by that.

So quickly, Forest snatched down a fresh notebook from his shelf and scribbled a new title on it.

Friendship, he noted down with satisfaction, before flipping over onto a new page.

He wrote about Coal. Somehow, he didn’t think his new unicorn friend was one of his old ones. Deep down, Forest had decided that when he met one of them, it would be like deja vu - he’d know who it was immediately, whether that be from their physical looks or something else. Anyway, he and his mom replicated their other-Branch selves, so Forest had an idea that his friends would as well. If anything, Coal replicated Tokoyami the most, but their personalities were so different he doubted that she was the avian boy.

He felt the same about Slate. Forest didn’t think that Slate could be anyone he already knew from a different life, but he honestly was pleased he’d picked these two ponies to be his friends. They were kind and although they varied a lot in personality, Forest felt he could relate to them a lot.

But aside from those two pages, Forest had drawn a blank. He’d already analysed the pegasi in his old class within an inch of their lives and concluded they weren’t his old friends, but it was okay. One day in Canterlot was never going to unearth much. He had lots of time to get to learn his surroundings and try and track down more ponies.

As one young blank-flank continued writing and studying and poring over magic books late into the night, on the other side of Canterlot, on the highest balcony of the royal castle, another pony was deep in thought.

Celestia glanced up at the moon, where a shadow of her sister ghosted across its surface.

“It’s a shame, Luna.” The golden and white alicorn whispered, letting the night air whip her flowing mane and tail. “Looking at that colt’s notes, I never would have guessed in a million moons that he was not a highly talented unicorn, but a pegasus.” She sighed again. “Just when I was thinking about taking on a new personal student.”

Her sister did not reply, of course, but Celestia suddenly stamped a hoof firmly on the ground as she looked back up at the moon.

“No. You’re right.” She said, determination edging into her voice. “I can’t take him on - but I shall keep a very close eye on him. Just in case.”

Celestia bade the moon goodnight, just as she did every time before she retired to the royal quarters, and exited the balcony, but her thoughts were loud.

If Forest’s destiny is truly as bright as I predict it to be, then fate shall decide what happens to him.

 

-

 

Life in Canterlot flourished. Forest thoroughly enjoyed his new school, despite the fact he was one pegasus in an entire class of unicorns. The school was not a magic school, but there was still a lot more focus on magic than there had been back at Cloudsdale.

There was general teasing about the ‘pegasus in a unicorn school’ but Forest kept his chin up and didn’t take any of it to heart. If anything, he was the best student in that class, with his assignments always being of the highest grade and his projects always being the best in the class.

But Forest’s favourite part of any day was when the bell rang, and all the ponies would rush outside with loud, excited chatter as their hooves clattered against the floor and they discussed what they were going to do once they got home. But Forest made an immediate beeline for Celestia’s school of magic, and was always let in by the guards once he showed his card. He chose to ignore the exchanged looks of confusion between the guards at the fact a pegasus was trying to get into a magic school, but they eventually stopped asking for ID when they became quite used to the arrival of Forest every day without fail.

He always met up with Slate and Coal there, and they would always study together, with Forest usually being the one who helped them with their homework. Coal and Slate stopped questioning how Forest’s knowledge on magic was better than theirs, and began asking him for help regardless of how strange it was that a unicorn needed help on magic from a pegasus.

And one night, when the library was empty and he was studying on his own, Forest had finished another book on notes simply containing his research and utter passion for magic. He shut it with his hooves and as he did so, he glanced out of the window of the library just as an explosion of pure colour shot across the sky so fast and so bright he yelped, flinching back as he was blinded momentarily.

His flailing hooves and wings caused his notes to go flying everywhere as the shockwave of the rainbow explosion sent the entire building shuddering. The only thing going through his mind in that panicked moment as he cried out and tried to grab his notes was ‘No! Not these - I need them! They’re my everything! They’re my LIFE!’

The second the last word entered his brain, Forest suddenly convulsed, heat running through his body as his body left the ground, despite the fact he wasn’t using his wings.

And then, when he came to, he was on the cold floor, a gentle hoof nudging at his face. He groaned, his eyes rolling around in his skull as Forest tried to stop his vision from blurring and his stomach from lurching.

“Are you all right, my dear?” Celestia asked, her voice so soothing and gentle as she nudged Forest to his very wobbly hooves.

“U- Uh - Oh - what - huh? Princess?” He finally managed to slur out, and she smiled at him, still holding him up gently. “I think I passed out - I’m not sure why though - I’m sorry -”

“Or maybe -” Celestia lowered her head with an amused flicker in her eyes. “Maybe it’s your cutie mark.”

“My -” Forest gawked, the words not registering in his brain for a second, before he turned his head around painfully slowly to see -

On his previously blank flank, there was an image - a dark green six pointed star, surrounded by crackling green electricity and smaller sparks. His jaw dropped so low he was sure it would have hit the floor, had Princess Celestia not laughed and shut it for him with a hoof.

“Congratulations, Forest.” Her voice floated out of the door as she disappeared from the library, still chuckling gently to herself.

He barely saw her leave, still unable to tear his eyes off his new cutie mark. Forest rubbed his eyes with his hooves and looked at his flank again, but it was still there.

“If I still had fingers, I’d pinch myself.” He muttered to himself, rubbing a hoof across his cutie mark, slightly afraid that he’d rub it away if he pressed too hard, but it remained, strong and sharp as ever.

He had a cutie mark - his fears in that area were gone, at least - but still, Forest found himself being unsure and confused. Things were supposed to magically make sense once a pony got their cutie mark - all their doubts and insecurities would vanish once they saw what their true destiny was meant to be. But Forest did not feel like that, still swallowing hard as he gazed at his cutie mark.

His thoughts only got louder as he packed up his notes and books into his saddlebags, and began making his way home. Forest’s mom was ecstatic, sweeping her son up with whoops of delight as she swung him around, chattering about how proud she was. His father arrived home from his Guard shift a few hours later. It was always a little strange seeing the pure white pegasus enter the house, and when he took his magically enchanted helmet off, the illusion would flicker off and reveal his father’s deep brown coat and burnt red mane. Forest had read about this before - in order to achieve uniformity across the lower ranking guards, they had to wear magical armour that would cast this illusion, so all the Guards were identical in terms of coat colour and armour. Burning Branch was just as delighted as his wife to see his son’s cutie mark, and swept Forest up in a massive bear hug.

Finally retreating to his room, as Forest dumped his bags on his bed and glanced up at his cutie mark encyclopedia, he found he did not want to look in it, because he was afraid of what he might find in it.He took one more look at his cutie mark, and then the book, before sighing and rolling over, curling up on his bed.

Somepony was looking in the book, however. Celestia sighed, reading the words one more time to check her eyes weren’t deceiving her.

“Strange.” She muttered, before she moved the red bookmark into the page and put it back onto the shelf. “But expected.” She let loose an amused laugh before glancing back up at the moon.

Her sister’s dull grey moon eyes glistened, and Celestia said goodnight to her, as always, before shutting the curtains and disappearing inside the palace.

The next morning, Forest was shocked to see a scroll in the postbox that the mailpony must have delivered earlier, and as he pulled it out, he almost forgot to breathe as he saw the royal seal planted in red wax.

“Princess Celestia is delighted to inform the bearer of this scroll that - HOLY CRAP!” He cried out, eyes wide in shock as he spluttered and choked, barely able to decipher the rest of the letter.

“She’s invited me to take part in lessons.” He breathed, still gazing at the scroll. “In her school. Celestia’s school of magic. Magic.”

He was in Slate and Coal’s class too, he realised with complete, uncontained joy at this information. Celestia had written that she had seen he was an exceptional magic student, and was not going to allow valuable learning for such a capable pony to be missed due to physical ailments. She did add, however, that she did not expect Forest to be graded in the practical magic lessons, which Forest took a sigh of relief at. As much as he wanted to do them, he knew he couldn’t without a horn, so he’d learn as much as he could without actually doing the magic.

And he’d finally get inside the school, further than the library doors. And maybe, just maybe, somepony he used to know before might be there. In another life.

Forest knew that as Izuku, he’d done stuff wrong. A lot of things had gone wrong and it was his fault, and he wasn’t going to pretend he wasn’t the cause of it, because he knew he was. He deserved every shocked gasp and uncomfortable stare and glare of disgust and comment of hatred. So now, Forest knew that his friends were here, he had a second chance with them, and he vowed he wasn’t going to let the different Branch, bodies and names stop him from finding those people he loved most in the world again.

He wasn’t going to let pride and anger take control of him - because Izuku wasn’t here anymore - Forest was, and he was going to find his friends again, even if it took years.

“I promise.” He breathed as the breeze whipped his words away, and one little pony stood there in silence and wondered if somehow, somewhere, they’d heard him.

Chapter Text

Forest had never been so nervous before as he walked along the corridor, balancing the map of the school in his hoof as he trotted along, muttering to himself. He squinted at it, turning the corner to try and find his homeroom when he bumped into another pony with an oof.

The other pony grunted, taking a step back so her hooves clacked against the floor. Forest’s eyes were rolling around in his head as he fell back on his rump. The paper map fluttered onto his face.

“Maybe if you held it with your horn you wouldn’t walk into ponies, dumbass.” The other pony snapped, snatching the map off his head with her own magic.

“Um -” Forest began saying, but the other unicorn  held the map to the side and glared at him.

“What gives? Are you stupid or something?” She snapped, prodding him in the chest with a hoof.

She was a white coated unicorn with a deep, wine red mane and tail and golden streaks. Forest glanced up at her, still a little dizzy from his fall, and her red eyes doubled into four due to his swimming vision. He noticed she had an image of a gold ribbon twisting around a rose on her flank.

“I’m sorry.” Forest muttered, holding out his hoof for the map again.

The other unicorn glanced down at it, with her face twisted up into a scoff as she turned her attention back to him. “Just take it, what are you waiting for - hold up-”

She started rather roughly patting down his mane with a pearly white hoof, and Forest winced as she hit him on the skull rather hard.

“What in Equestria -” The female muttered, her eyebrows drawing together as she obviously couldn’t locate a horn. “What -” She then noticed his wings, which were slightly hidden due to his saddlebags, and her eyes widened.

“What are you doing here?” She snapped, glaring at him with horror in her eyes. “A pegasus? Did you break in? Are you spying on us?” She spat, pushing her muzzle into Forest’s so he recoiled, almost tripping over his own hooves.

“I’m not!” He managed to shoot back, scowling at her. “I’m a student.”

She made a noise of shock, disbelief and fury erupting in her red irises. “A likely story. If you hadn’t noticed, this is a magic school, and you have no magic.”

“I’m aware of that!” Forest spat, glaring at her. “I’m here to study like you are. Being a pegasus has nothing to do with it - and if you don’t mind, I’d like my map back -”

He tried to grab it, but the white unicorn moved it sharply out of his hoof-reach, a gold cloud of magic surrounding the paper.

“You stole this, didn’t you? You’re in such big trouble - professor? Professor!!” She began hollering down the corridor. “Look at this disgusting low-life sneaking into a magic school - you’re a liar, a thief, and -

“My personal student.” Celestia said, making both ponies gasp and jump.

Forest turned around, his breathing catching as he tried to register Celestia’s words. The princess was coming around the corner and Forest could feel the anger rolling off her, despite the fact she was smiling. The white unicorn gasped, her pupils shrinking in horror. She didn’t even bow to the princess as she stopped promptly at Forest’s side.

“Your personal student?” She spluttered, gasping and choking as Forest raised an eyebrow at her, which was obviously making her furious. “But - but - you said you’d pick someone from our class! And - and - and - and -” She was practically choking on her words as Forest blinked in shock, looking up at Celestia.

Celestia did not flinch. “And I did. Forest is in your class, Gilded Rose.”

Rose was silent saved for her gutteral choking as she stood there with her jaw flopping open.

“Now, if you’d excuse me, I have some rather important matters to attend to.” Celestia chimed, still smiling. “Since Forest is a new student, would you mind escorting him to homeroom, Rose?”

Gilded Rose opened her mouth to protest, still shuddering and scrabbling around for words as Celestia disappeared around the corner. She finally sighed, slouching her shoulders and glaring at the floor as she tossed the map on the ground with her horn. Forest quickly grabbed it and tucked it into his saddlebags and trailed the furious unicorn as she trotted off down the corridor.

“I’m sorry?” Forest tried as Rose obviously started clapping her hooves on the floor with a lot more force than necessary.

“Why would she choose you as her personal student?” She spat, still fuming and snarling as she glared over her shoulder at Forest. “Is she losing her marbles? Does she even know you’re not magic?”

“The princess and I have met before. Twice.” Forest answered truthfully, still hoping to diffuse the situation. “But this is as much of a surprise to me as it is to you - she never mentioned anything about me being her personal student -”

“She wasn’t supposed to pick you! She was supposed to pick me!” Rose snarled, baring her teeth at Forest.

A little taken aback, he took a step away from her as she roared in frustration and continued trotting aggressively down the corridor. Taking a shuddering sigh, Forest trailed her, deciding to keep a bit more space between her in case she lashed out. As he followed her, he noticed more students chattering as they went to their classes. A sandy-brown colt smiled at him and Gilded Rose as they passed, and Rose only responded with a growling noise. Forest glared at the back of Rose’s head and smiled at the other student as he disappeared around the corner.

Finally, he noticed Slate and Coal, who took either side of him as Gilded Rose vanished out of sight into the crowds of students getting to their lessons.

“What in Equestria is her deal?” He asked his friends incredulously.

Coal rolled her eyes, shooting a glare at Gilded Rose’s tail as she vanished. “She hates everypony. She’s a real bully and picks on anyone who might be an easy kill.”

“Celestia said she’d chosen me as her personal student and she went ballistic.” Forest said to his friends with wide eyes.

“You’re Celestia’s student?” Slate asked with excitement, and Coal made a noise of frustration at the mention of Gilded Rose.

“She’s been bragging and boasting about how she’s so certain Celestia would pick her.” Coal sighed, slamming a hoof on the ground. “Everyone’s just as good as she is in terms of magic, but she was so full of herself -”

“Well, I kinda feel bad. She does have a point.” Forest sighed, scuffing a hoof on the ground. “I’m just wondering if the Princess said that to get Rose to back off - maybe I should go and find Celestia and ask her to choose someone else -”

“Absolutely not.” Coal declared, grinning at him as she flicked her mane out of her eyes. “This is going to put her in her place once and for all. As your friend, I must insist you do no such thing.”

“Okay.” Forest said, but he wasn’t really sure, in all honesty. It did seem incredibly unfair, and he did understand Gilded Rose’s frustration. This was a magic school after all, and Celestia had picked a non-unicorn student as her own personal protege -

“Looks like we’re here.” Slate said as they reached their classroom doors. They were enormous and arched with curled marble decorations around them, with identical rearing alicorns at the top.

Forest gulped, feeling incredibly intimidated.

“Hey, it’s okay. There’s a spare seat near me.” Slate reassured him, and Forest nodded, but still felt especially anxious as more students who must be in the same class started going through the doors, chattering to each other.

The professor opened the door with his magic to let the rest of the students in. He was a different unicorn to the other one that Forest had seen teaching the colour-changing spell.

“Coal Comet and Slate Cyclone, please take your seats.” He muttered, finally noticing Forest. “Huh - I guess the Princess wasn’t joking about you.”

Forest opened his mouth to respond, before suddenly the words immediately died in his mouth. The sudden chill running down his spine caught him by surprise as he gaped at the professor’s long dark mane and his lazed, tired eyes.

The professor gazed at him, obviously judging him as Forest fought to move, say something, anything - as long as he wasn’t shaking and gasping for words.

“Uh - um - yes, sir.” Forest finally managed to choke, bowing his head respectfully before standing to attention. “My name’s Iz - Forest Flash. Sir.” He added hastily as the professor ran his eyes up and down carefully, obviously analysing him.

“Okay. Whatever.” The professor said, in a monotone, sighing and turning away as he entered the classroom again and indicated to Forest to follow him.

Forest swallowed hard, having to reign in his breathing. Ever since he was born here, he had never thought about his old name before once. Yet here he was, almost spitting out the wrong name in front of somepony who would have absolutely no clue what he was on about -

But maybe in another world, he might have done.

“Right. Um - so -” The professor-who-looked-like-Aizawa-but-was-not-Aizawa said to the class, causing them all to hush down immediately. “This is Forest Flurry -”

“Flash.” Forest corrected, but the professor didn’t seem to hear him as he kept talking, sounding too bored to even acknowledge him.

“- and for some reason, Celestia’s picked this one to be her personal student. Any questions?” The professor said, casting his eyes across the class.

There were a few mutters across the class as fifteen pairs of eyes fixed themselves on Forest. He squirmed a little, shuffling his hooves and averting his gaze.

A light beige unicorn with a flame red mane raised her hoof, before speaking at the professor’s nod. “Why did Celestia choose somepony who wasn’t already studying here?”

“I have no idea, Amber Flicker. Anypony else?” The professor mumbled, turning to the rest of the class.

Forest noticed how Gilded Rose’s red eyes flashed in malice as she raised her hoof. “Why did Celestia pick a pegasus to study magic? Is she finally losing it?”

There were some gasps of horror and shock as the other students finally noticed Forest’s wings. Forest flushed and turned his gaze to the ground and folded them quickly. He noticed Slate visibly flinch and Coal’s face begin to darken in fury as she glared at Gilded Rose, who was sat on her right.

“Shut up!” The professor roared at the class, and they all silenced immediately. “First of all, don’t speak about Her Majesty like that. Period.” The professor said to Rose, starting to get very irritated. “Secondly, I, nor any of you here, have no right to question the Princess’s decision. Do I make myself clear?”

Gilded Rose glared at the professor, who didn’t even flinch, sending a steely glare right back. “Do I make myself clear, Gilded Rose?” He raised his voice more that time.

“Crystal.” She said smoothly, narrowing her eyes at Forest from her seat.

He gulped and shuffled his hooves more.

“Good.” The professor said, lazily pointing to the spare desk next to Slate with a hoof. Forest obeyed, hurrying over and sitting down hastily. “Let’s get on with it, then.”

Slate looked at him apologetically, still looking furious at Gilded Rose’s accusations. Forest sighed, getting his books out as the professor began talking lazily about something that was going to happen later in the week. The sandy brown colt on Forest’s other side glanced at Forest with a small smile, and Forest realised with a jolt it was the same student he’d waved at in the corridor earlier. His mane was short, brown and slightly frizzy, and he had a patch of three green cacti with pink flowers for a cutie mark.

“I think I predicted that was going to happen.” He whispered to Forest, and he sighed, planting his muzzle on the desk.

“I’ve been here less than an hour and Gilded Rose has already decided to make my life hell.” Forest responded, and the other colt snorted, holding out a hoof.

“I’m Desert Spine.” He said, and Forest shook his hoof with a smile, before the professor (Slate explained to him that his name was Null-and-Void, but they had to call him Professor Void) told them to shut up and listen to him.

Forest’s writing was wobbly because he couldn’t stop trembling. He had to exhale shakily as he wrote Null-and-Void’s name in the back page of his Friendship notebook and ‘Aizawa’ next to it. He honestly had to hit himself on the back of the hoof several times to make sure he hadn’t imagined it. His prediction that he’d recognise ponies from his old life had ended up correct - but he honestly hadn’t thought Aizawa was going to be the first one he recognised. Even the name was similar to Aizawa’s hero name - ‘null and void’ was a reference to Aizawa’s quirk in making other quirks stop working.

Since he, Professor Null, and his mom replicated their physical looks in the other Branch, then Forest quickly noted down Desert Spine, Gilded Rose, and Amber Flicker’s names down, before coming to the conclusion that he didn’t think any of them were his old classmates back in UA. Gilded Rose was horrible, but didn’t seem to use the same aggressive bullying as Kacchan had, and she didn’t look like anyone he used to know. He felt the same way with Desert Spine and Amber Flicker, just as he had with Slate and Coal.

He quickly shut the book as the bell went, and he and the other students began chattering as Professor Null left to go to his other lesson and they waited for their next teacher to turn up.

Unlike back in Cloudsdale, things worked differently in Celestia’s school of magic. Instead of the students leaving homeroom and going to the teacher’s different classes, it was the teachers who moved around the school so the students didn’t have to leave their classrooms. This reduced congestion in the corridors, and meant that the students remained in their classes in terms of magical ability (Forest was rather excited to find that he was in the highest ability class, which Gilded Rose often scoffed about and said something snide about the fact how he ‘technically had no magical ability at all’.)

Forest loved it. Everyone else had been wonderful and welcoming, and mostly excited that he was the first pegasus ever to attend the school. Many of the other students were incredibly kind to him and after realising how much Forest knew, all of them wanted him to give them study sessions on subjects they were struggling on, which he almost always declined. Gilded Rose remained cold and rude, walking around with her pristine white muzzle stuck in the air. He stuck with Coal and Slate, and found his friendship with the two slowly growing. He remained mutual with some of the other students and sometimes ate lunch with Desert Spine and Amber Flicker, who were both very nice students but they had their own friendship groups.

Most of their theory lessons were in their classrooms, and the rooms were equipped for them to do spells indoors. For some of the subjects such as potions and alchemy, they had to go to specialised labs, but aside from this, the classroom became their second home. The students were allowed to go into the garden or the cafeteria for lunch, and the library was open all day and long into the night after school.

The school was a boarding one for some students. Slate stayed in the dorms because his family was in Fillydelphia, which he didn’t mind at all since the living standards were so high. Coal’s parents lived in Canterlot, so Forest often walked home with her after school.

About a month into life at the school, Celestia pulled Forest out of his lessons. He was about to ask her what was happening, but Celestia only laughed and kept walking down the corridor as he trotted after her, having to do three steps for every one of hers.

Celestia began giving him private mentoring lessons that took up half an hour every other day. Every time he left his lessons to do so, he never missed how Gilded Rose’s lip curled at him in envy and fury.

Celestia did lectures with him on incredibly complex magic and famous wizards. He was intrigued to hear the Princess’s own experiences in interacting with incredibly powerful magicians such as Starswirl the Bearded, who she informed him was her mentor before he vanished.

“It’s a shame.” She said, using her magic to flip over the page on the board of diagrams she was drawing as Forest sat on his haunches and wrote notes. “Starswirl still had a lot left he could do before he disappeared.” Celestia suddenly looked forlorn, and Forest looked up in shock. “Many of the ponies who seem to have the most to offer the world are the ones who do not get the chance.”

Before Forest could ask her what she meant by that, she’d dismissed him, and it was time for his next class.

The years flew by. Time at Celestia’s school seemed to flash past Forest’s eyes as he studied harder than he ever had before, and with Celestia’s mentoring, it was no wonder that he passed the end of year written exams with the highest scores in the school. There were tears of course, mostly of frustration that he couldn’t take part in the practical exams, but he kept his chin up despite everything.

His father, Burning Branch, got promoted again to Major as Forest entered his last year of school. Celestia’s school technically finished when the students reached mid-teens, and the students were free to continue their own journeys after that, but there was still an option to keep studying until one received a masters degree in the magical study of choice.

Some ponies did not choose this path. They graduated at eighteen, and there were many tears as Forest, Coal and Slate took photographs in their graduation uniforms and went their separate ways. Forest stayed to study with the princess in Canterlot. Coal went to study further in Manehatten. Gilded Rose, Desert Spine, Amber Flicker, and many of the other students went on their own paths, until it was only Slate and Forest left behind at Canterlot.

Eventually, Slate had decided he’d had enough studying, and got a job with the weather pegasi which required him to move back and forth between Cloudsdale and Canterlot a lot, so Forest began seeing him a lot less. But deep down, he knew that he and Slate were fully grown ponies and trying to keep the same relationship they’d had as foals was a little foolish.

 

Forest ended up getting his degree, but the Princess still believed she had a lot to teach him. Even though Forest was technically not a student of the school anymore, he was still Celestia’s personal student. She offered him an apartment near the palace that was like a small personal library to him, and of course Forest leapt at the chance.

Moving out from his parents was difficult, but it was a necessary stage of adulthood, Forest knew, and he wouldn’t ever be too far away from them. His new home was amazing, with shelves making up all the walls as it curled up the steps that were crammed with magic books. There was a massive glass window that looked out onto all of Canterlot, and Forest loved to sit there and read as he watched life unravel below. Being a full-time student of the princess meant he only had to leave the house periodically to study, but often the princess was busy and he holed himself up at home to catch up on some reading and old assignments.

Celestia had gifted him a red egg with orange flames over the shell, saying she was sure Forest would find a use for it. Forest knew exactly what it was, so when it hatched into a small baby phoenix, he wasn’t surprised at all. The phoenix soon gained the name Ember, and although she was a klutz and had burnt a lot of Forest’s book before, he became used to the company of the bird and she always sat on his head while he was reading. She learnt Ponish slowly as Forest talked to her, and helped him with tasks like reshelving and giving him new quills when his old ones broke.

One day, Forest found out that Celestia had cancelled study sessions with him for a week and tried to dig up why that was. He couldn’t find out - apparently it was all very hush-hush, but after visiting his parents for dinner, his father mentioned that someone from the extended royal family had gone missing. Forest tried to dig into this a little further, curiosity making him ask a few questions, but Burning Branch seemed to realise he’d said too much and refused to explain any more. When he asked Celestia about it the next lesson they had, she smiled at Forest and said not to worry, and Forest decided he’d had enough of asking about it and gave up.

One morning, Forest whipped out a book he hadn’t read before without really looking at the title, and put it into his saddlebags before deciding it would be a nice day to read outside for once. Forest left the apartment, leaving Ember at home,  and found a nice patch in the sun to open the book and read through it.

“Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equest -’” He began reading aloud, before frowning at it. “This seems like a foal’s tale - but why would there be a storybook at home? Maybe there was a mistake…”

Forest blinked at it, remembering Celestia’s words on how all fairytales contained some element of truth, and shrugged, deciding it couldn’t hurt to read through it anyway.

“‘Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, there were two regal sisters who ruled together and created harmony for all the land.’” Forest read again, looking at the intricate (what looked like hoof-drawn) illustrations in the book. They were aged and faded, but the details seemed to have been covered in what looked like gold leaf. Forest blinked, glancing at them. This book seemed to be quite valuable, but he still didn’t know why an expensive story book had ended up in his library.

“To do this, the eldest used her unicorn power to raise the sun at dawn’. This sounds like Celestia.” Forest commented, looking at the image of the white alicorn with a flowing pink mane. “It doesn’t really look like her, though -” He kept reading. “‘The younger brought out the moon to begin night.’ I thought Celestia did them both?” Forest wondered aloud, before continuing reading.

It was a foal’s tale, after all. Maybe some of it was derived from truth after all, but instead of one pony raising the sun and moon, two of them did it instead.

“Thus, the two sisters maintained balance for their kingdom and their subjects. But as time went on, the younger sister became resentful. The ponies relished in the day her elder sister brought forth, but shunned and slept through her beautiful night.’” Forest looked up from the illustrations. “This sounds like a tale told to naughty foals about jealousy.” He muttered to himself, looking at the illustration of the dark mare stood upon a cloud with her head bowed in grief.

“‘One fateful day, the younger sister refused to lower the moon to make way for the dawn. The elder sister tried to reason with her, but the bitterness in the young one’s hart had transformed her into a wicked mare of darkness-’” He stopped suddenly, flicking over the page to see the massive image that crossed two pages of the book, inked with night-black colours of an alicorn shrouded in shadows as she reared her head. “‘- Nightmare Moon. She vowed that she would shroud the land in eternal night.’ Guess she didn’t manage it, huh?” Forest added dryly as he wiped his forehead from the hot rays of the sun making him sweat a little.

“‘Reluctantly, her sister harnessed the most powerful magic known to ponykind - the Elements of Harmony.’” He whispered, his voice trailing off as he widened his eyes at the golden image of a compass-like star, with ornate swirls and patterns that shined around the central purple gem. Surrounding the middle gem was a red gem, a yellow gem, a green gem, a blue gem, and a pink gem. “Using the magic of the Elements of Harmony, she defeated her younger sister, and banished her to the moon.’” Forest blinked, having to sit up for a second. “That’s strange, I’m certain I’ve heard something about this before…”

There was one more page in the book, and he turned it over to see the illustration of the white alicorn with her wings open as she sat upon her golden throne, with the sun above one wing and the moon above the other. “‘The elder sister took on the responsibility of both sun and moon, and harmony has been maintained in Equestria for generations since.’”

He flicked over the page, but there was nothing else in the book. Forest frowned, holding it upside down and shaking it to see if anything fell out.

“Is that it?” He asked in surprise, pawing at the pages in the book with a hoof, but that seemed to be the end of the story. “Way to leave out a lot of detail.”

He knew there was no reason for this intricately written and illustrated storybook to be in his library unless it was important, for some reason. Forest shrugged, tucking the book into his saddlebags and heading off back home to try and do some more research on it.

On the way, he was confronted by a blue unicorn who had studied at school with him called Minuet. She waved a hoof at him, and he stopped for a second.

“Hey, Forest!” She said, and he returned the greeting as he came to a stop by her. “Are you coming to Moondancer’s party?”

He shook his head quickly. “I can’t, I’m sorry - I have a lot to do -” Forest suddenly paused. “I don’t think she even invited me.”

“She invited everyone - did you misplace the invitation?” Minuet asked, and Forest hopped on his hooves, itching to move on.

“Um - that’s probably what happened. Tell her I’m sorry I can’t make it.” Forest spluttered, before opening his wings and shooting off into the air out of earshot.

By staying in the air, Forest managed to avoid any more confrontation from any other ponies, and got home easily. He tossed his saddlebags onto the floor and took out the book, sweeping everything else off his desk with a hoof and putting the jewelled storybook on there before flying up and down the shelves to look for some research books.

“Nope, nope, nope - huh. Ember? Have you seen  -”

“It’s here.” Ember replied, flying up to a top shelf and tossing a book down to him with a gold claw.

Forest opened the blue book with gold detailing along the spine and began flicking through it. “Elements, elements, elements - aha! Elements of Harmony. Guess there is some truth in that story - wait - ‘See Mare in the Moon’?” He glared at the book for a second at seeing that one sentence. Looked like the author of this reference book didn’t have any clue what they were either.

“Mare in the Moon - isn’t that an old pony’s tale?” Forest muttered, dropping the book next to the story book and opening his wings to try and find it. It wasn’t in his main library, but actually found it up in his room with a few boxes of personal stuff he’d taken with him when he’d moved out. “Yeah - mom used to read this to me before bed -   ‘A myth from olden pony times. A powerful pony who wanted to rule Equestria defeated by the Elements of Harmony and trapped in the moon. Legend has it that on the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid her escape and she will bring about -’” His jaw dropped as his voice dropped down to a whisper. “‘Eternal night.’”

He thought about it for a second, before taking the Mare in the Moon book downstairs and opening it on the page he’d just read. He then opened up the storybook to the page with Nightmare Moon rearing her black hooves as her night mane whirled in a tornado of darkness.

“This cannot be a coincidence.” He whispered, looking at the books back and forth. “This storybook looks hundreds of years old, and this Mare in the Moon book was only printed a few years ago. Could the Mare in the Moon possibly be this ancient alicorn who turned into Nightmare Moon?”

“Are you sure this isn’t a bit of a long shot?” Ember asked him, flying down onto his desk and reading through the books too.

Forest was about to decide that maybe he was jumping to conclusions a little bit, before he noticed the scroll Celestia had send him a few weeks ago.

“No!” He gasped, cantering over to it to read it. “I forgot - the day after tomorrow is the Summer Sun celebration. The one thousandth anniversary of the longest day of the year.” He swallowed, recalling what both books had said. “If these are right, then Nightmare Moon will escape in two days.” Forest stamped a hoof on the ground. “I have to tell Celestia.”

He wrote out a letter to her explaining what he’d found out on enchanted parchment that would teleport itself to Celestia, and suddenly sighed as the finished letter vanished. He suddenly felt incredibly guilty at sending it to her when she was clearly very busy getting ready for the Summer Sun celebration, but if Nightmare Moon was going to return, then they were going to have a much bigger problem on their hooves.

Forest tried to tell himself that there wasn’t any point in worrying. Celestia had been his mentor for so long and had never doubted him before, so there was no reason why she should now.

Right?

He’d been pacing for maybe a few minutes, not expecting a reply so soon, but a scroll of parchment shooting out of nowhere and almost hitting him in the face caused Forest to screech and almost fall down the stairs. Ember squawked, hopping out of the way.

“I knew she’d want to take immediate action!” Forest said, unravelling the scroll with both hooves. “‘My dearest and most faithful student Forest. You know that I value your diligence and that I trust you completely.’” He stopped reading, suddenly mortified. “‘But you simply must stop wasting your skills on dusty old foal’s tales!’”

“That’s cold.” Ember commented, landing next to him and reading through the letter too.

“Oh for the love of Equestria!” Forest wailed, dropping the scroll and falling to the floor. “I’ve gone and made myself look like an idiot -” The scroll opened a little more to show more writing, and he stayed where he was, only moving a hoof to pull down the scroll a little further. “‘There is more to a young pony’s life than studying. Although I know you are working incredibly hard to be the best student you can be, I worry that you are not taking enough steps to ensure your health physically and socially.’”

He sat up and glared at the scroll. “I’m fine. I talked to Minuet today.”

But no sooner than the words had flown from his mouth and he glanced at the graduation photograph of him, Slate Cyclone, Coal Comet, Desert Spine and Amber Flicker, did Forest realise he hadn’t seen them in a long time. He hadn’t made any efforts to see them or talk to any of the other ponies around Canterlot except for Celestia and his parents. Even Ember didn’t count - since she was his assistant and companion, they were bound to talk a lot -

That wasn’t the only issue either. Forest was a young adult now; he’d lived in Canterlot for over a decade now, and seemed to have forgotten his old mission of finding his old friends as well. He sighed at that, before the remainder of the letter made him light up slightly.

“‘So, I’m sending you to supervise the preparations for the Summer Sun celebration in this year’s location - Ponyville.” He read aloud, wide eyed at the final sentence. “‘And I have an even more essential task for you to complete - make some friends.’”

He rolled up the scroll and hopped onto his hooves. “The princess is right. I’ve been so caught up in my studying I forgot about who I was.” Forest grabbed his saddlebags and began putting essentials for a two-day trip in there. “Maybe in Ponyville I’ll find some of my old friends. I found Aizawa here; that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Aiz - what?” Ember said, confusion on her face as she screwed up her beak. “I don’t think I know that word -”

“No, it’s okay.” He reassured her, and Ember shrugged, opening her fiery wings and landing on her perch again.

Plus, he thought with slight glee, the princess had arranged for him to stay in a library too. The trip to Ponyville would have taken too long for him to fly on his own, so the Princess sent a chariot to take him and Ember there in half the time the next morning.

The chariot landed and he thanked the two guards who had flown him there, before trotting off with the checklist conveniently in one hoof and Ember on his back.

“Okay - first things first - according to the Summer Sun celebration Official Overseer’s Checklist - we need to go to a shop called Chocol’otel for banquet preparations.” Forest read aloud, and Ember huffed, not commenting on it. “Weird, I’ve never heard of it. How do I get th - oh, look, there’s signs.”

He opened his wings and made it to the shop in no time, landing on both hooves with Ember still perched in between his wings. The gorgeous brown shop looked like a slab of chocolate itself, and the smell inside was divine. He pushed through the door, the bell over the door tinkling slightly.

The shop was full of customers browsing the beautifully decorated treats and cakes that were organised gorgeously. It smelt amazing, but Ember didn’t seem to like it, from the way she was grumbling and complaining as she shifted around on Forest’s back.

“It won’t take long, I promise.” He reassured the phoenix before moving to the counter and ringing the bell. There was nobody at the cash register and it seemed like there was a lot going on in the kitchen, before finally a pony came out from the door.

“I really am sorry about that - we had a bit of a chocolate spillage in there -” The earth pony mare said, wiping her dark brown mane from her face. “Wait - I don’t think I’ve seen you before -”

And Forest suddenly gawked, because he definitely recognised that slightly flushed face, despite the fact it wasn’t necessarily a human one. The light brown-coated pony grinned at him, obviously waiting for him to say something. She had a cutie mark of three sakura flowers surrounded by a sprinkling of chocolate chips.

“Ochak - oh- oh my -” He began spluttering, and she raised an eyebrow, slightly confused, but didn’t stop smiling.

“My name’s Chocolate Blush - and this is my family’s shop. Honestly didn’t think I’d be going into the family business, but what can I say? Nothing else makes you quite as light as a feather as chocolate, right?” She began piping up as she leant on the counter. “What’s your name?”

“F-Forest Flash. I’m not hitting on you, I promise.” He splurged out before he could stop himself, and Chocolate laughed, and Forest’s eyes widened as he recognised Ochako’s light peals of laughter.

“That’s okay, don’t worry.” She snorted, holding out a hoof to shake his. “What can I help you with today, Forest?”

“Um - I’m overseeing the preparations for the Summer Sun celebration for the Princess.” He explained, holding the checklist in a hood. “I was told this is the place providing all the food for the banquet -”

“That’s right!” Chocolate piped up. “I’m assuming you want to try some samples?”

“I don’t have any money at the moment -”

“Hey, that’s all right, I’ve got you covered.” Chocolate said with a smile.

After trying some of the food, he left the shop with a full belly and a full heart as he ticked off the first box on the checklist.

“Thank Celestia that’s over.” Ember said, obviously still feeling a little queasy.

“Sorry, Ember.” Forest said, and the phoenix opened her wings and took the list off him in her claws. Forest shrugged, opening his own wings as the two began flying to their next location.

“Let’s get this over and done with.” Ember muttered, reading through the list. “Next on the list is weather. Apparently a pegasus called Red Riot is in charge of clearing the clouds -”

Forest stopped so fast he almost fell flat on his face. “Did you say Red Riot?”

“Well, whoever he is, he’s not doing a very good job.” Ember said sarcastically, turning her beak up where there were still a lot of clouds in the sky.

Forest was trying to get his thoughts together when a red weight dropped out of the sky with a screech and collided with them, causing Forest to yell, thrashing his wings and legs as he hit the ground and rolled a few metres before coming to a stop. Ember landed on top of him with a squawk.

“Bro! Heck, I didn’t mean to crash into you like that.” A new voice turned up as another pony landed, Forest realised with a scowl, on all four hooves.

He recognised that voice, and Forest inhaled with a gasp, pushing Ember’s wing out of his face to look at the newcomer. The crimson pegasus folded his wings and held out a hoof, pulling Forest up.

“Is your parrot okay?” He asked, and Ember shot her head up.

“Parrot?” She screeched, and Forest clamped her beak shut with a hoof.

“You - you must be Red Riot, right?” Forest stammered, and the red pegasus puffed out his chest.

“Future Wonderbolt Red Riot at your service.” He announced, grinning at Forest with a flourish. His teeth were spiky, Forest gawked, practically unable to even breathe at the sight of the red pegasus with his darker red spiky mane and tail. He had a cutie mark of a thundercloud that was spitting red thunder.

Forest was lost for words as he gawked, his hoof suddenly flying to his own eye at the scar on Red’s eye.

“The scar? Bet you’re wondering where I got such a cool war wound.” Red boasted, flapping his wings so he was floating. “Not such a cool story behind it, though. I crashed into a pole on my first flying lesson.” He laughed nervously, glancing at Forest’s wings. “You can relate, right?”

“Sure.” Forest said on instinct, and Red Riot began beaming. “But Wonderbolt? That’s a bold claim if you can’t keep the sky clear for one day.”

Red’s face set in determination. “Watch me clear it in ten seconds flat.”

“Do it.” Forest ordered, and Red snapped open his wings and shot into the sky, leaving a red blur as he flew so fast through the clouds it was making Forest’s mane whip.

“Told you, bro.” Red smirked, landing next to Forest. “You’re a cool guy - wait, you never told me your name -”

“Forest Flash.” He smiled, holding his hoof out. “Nice to meet you.” He managed to cut his words short before he said ‘again’.

“Hey, I like you. You’re sick.” Red said, slapping Forest’s hoof hard in a hoof-bump. “See ya later, bro.”

Forest watched the red pegasus zip into the sky again, and Ember made a retching noise as she watched him go.

“Parrot?” She spat, and Forest rolled his eyes at her as they kept walking to the next item on the list.

Somehow, he’d found Kirishima today too. Forest was honestly unsure whether he was going to find one pony, let alone two - but only in the first hour, he’d found both Ochako and Kirishima in the bodies of an earth pony called Chocolate Blush and a pegasus called Red Riot.

This Branch was more parallel than Forest had realised, seeing how Kirishima’s hero name seemed to have transcended him into this Branch too. He smiled, suddenly feeling elated as they trotted down the road.

“We’re looking for somepony who’s doing special effects.” Forest read aloud, handing the scroll back to Ember. “Look for some sparks or something -” And hope it’s not another pony I already know because I don’t think I can survive another encounter, he added to himself before the words died in his head.

“Oh, Celestia.” He gawked, seeing a bright yellow pony shoot past him with loud screeches as his tail smoked.

“What an idiot.” Ember scoffed, and Forest shook his head to clear his thoughts before opening his wings to zip after the pony.

“I think I know that idiot.” Forest muttered to himself as he watched the pony launch himself into a small brook with a yell, causing his smoking tail to extinguish with a hiss.

“Hello?” Forest called, landing next to the brook and holding a hoof out to the yellow unicorn.

The unicorn laughed, wiping his sopping mane from his eyes. “Hey -  hope you didn’t see that - wait, who are you?”

The unicorn grabbed his hoof and Forest pulled him from the water as he shook the droplets from his yellow mane. He was a lighter golden yellow than his mane, with a lightning bolt for a cutie mark, and there were black streaks in his mane and tail. Forest glanced at him with wide eyes as the unicorn gave him the most stupid shit-eating grin Forest had ever seen - actually that was a lie - he’d seen that grin plenty of times in another life.

“Are you the pony in charge of special effects?” He asked, feeling his voice shake as the unicorn smirked with a grin.

“I am indeed.” He replied, putting a hoof on his chest. “I was just thinking  that when the princess walks out I could do a little spark shower, but when Red suggested I could try and incorporate some fire in there, I thought - hell yes!” The yellow unicorn pumped the air with a hoof, before laughing sheepishly and glancing at his singed tail. “And then I set my tail on fire.”

“Okay.” Forest said slowly, and the unicorn suddenly looked at him with wide eyes.

“Wait - are you the pony from the princess checking everything?” The unicorn gaped with horror, and kept gushing before Forest could even reply. “Damn! Damn - okay - it’s fine. Just tell her that the pony who will most likely set her on fire is not called Solar Spark.” He suddenly realised what he’d said, before cursing, slamming a hoof on the ground. “Damn it -”

“So your name’s Solar Spark?” Forest asked, and the unicorn squirmed, looking incredibly sheepish.

“No?” Solar tried, and Forest raised an eyebrow at him so he sagged his head.

“It’s fine. I understand you wouldn’t want a health hazard like me to be near the Princess.” He sighed, sagging his still damp head. “Pick someone else to do it, I guess -”

“No, it’s okay.” Forest said encouragingly. “Just maybe leave out the fire, this time?”

“Less is more! You’re right!” Solar perked up with a grin. “What about lightning? A zap or something - yes, that would be awesome! The princess would have the coolest entrance ever -”

“Are you open for constructive criticism?” Forest asked him, and Solar looked at him with a really annoyingly stupid look on his face. “ I personally think a few non-harmful sparks would be perfect.”

“Then sparks it is!” Solar sang, hopping on his hooves. “Thank you - what’s your name?”

“Forest Flash.” Forest answered, obliging to the hoof-bump. “I can’t wait to see it.”

“Then I’ll be sure not to mess up!” Solar Spark chimed, trotting off in the other direction.

Ember muttered something from inside Forest’s saddlebags. He glanced at her as she poked her crested head out.

“Third thing done.” Forest said, ticking the checklist. “Just one more thing left - furniture and decorations at the town hall.”

“Let’s get this done with.” Ember muttered, disappearing back inside Forest’s saddlebags.

They flew off to the town hall, where very quickly, Forest decided he did not want to go back down. He could see an ash blonde pony stalking around on the ground and pushing chairs and ice sculptures around with his head, and Forest swallowed hard, knowing immediately who he was faced with.

“Why are we stopping?” Ember asked from inside Forest’s saddlebags, and he gulped, looking at the checklist with the next task being ‘Furniture - Lava Blast’.

“I think I already know who Lava Blast is.” He began shaking and trembling slightly as he flew down, landing all four hooves on the ground as far away from the spiky maned earth pony as possible.

“What do you fucking want?” The earth pony spat at him, looking up from where he was pushing another alicorn ice sculpture around.

That only confirmed it for him, and Forest made a squeaking noise at the aggressive pony.

“Spit it out, then!” Lava Blast roared, and Forest cringed back. “I’m fucking busy -”

“I’m sorry!” He squeaked again, but this only seemed to make Lava Blast more furious.

Ember was finally woken up by the yelling and poked her head out with a screech. Lava Blast suddenly stopped in his tracks as he fixed his crimson eyes on the angry firebird.

“Is that a phoenix?” He suddenly asked, shoving Forest to the side with a grunt to get to Ember, who was now out of Forest’s saddlebags and preening her feathers. “Can it explode stuff?”

“No, but I can set stuff on fire.” Ember said with an evil side glance at Lava Blast.

“Fucking awesome.” Lava Blast said, picking up Ember so she was perched on his foreleg. Traitor, Forest thought with a glare as Ember squawked in agreement. “Do me a favour and melt these disgusting ice sculptures - half-and-half keeps making more just to make me push the stupid fucking things around -”

“Did you just say ‘half-and-half’?” Forest interrupted suddenly, but Lava Blast didn’t answer as he began walking off with Ember. “Hey! Ka - Lava Blast, give me my phoenix back -”

“Or what?” Lava shot back and Forest gulped, shrinking back.

“Or I will be very, very disappointed in you.” Red Riot interrupted, landing next to Forest and folding his wings. “Give the princess’s student his parrot back.”

“I am not a fucking parrot!” Ember screeched, and Forest visibly cringed back, cursing that Ember now knew swear words. He’d been very careful not to use them around her, but now he could thank this pony version of Katsuki for that.

“He’s the princess’s student?” Lava replied, actually looking surprised rather than angry. “He looks like a fucking nerd.”

“He is a nerd.” Ember said, and Forest grabbed her off Lava and shoved her into his saddlebags with a squawk.

“Well, you seem to be fine with furniture here.” Forest said slightly breathlessly, hastily looking through his checklist. “Last thing is the decorations -”

“You’re looking for the pony in there.” Red pointed to the town hall, and Forest found he really did not want to go in there because he knew what he was going to find.

He swallowed hard, trying to keep his hooves from shaking as he went through the door, looking around. The majority of the decorations in here seemed to have been put up, with purple and light blue ribbons decorations over the pillars and Equestrian flags hung up at an equal interval. There were alicorn ice sculptures lining the sides of the hall near the curtains, all equally placed apart aside from where there was one gap. It seemed like that one was still in progress. There was a unicorn in the centre of the hall, and as he turned slightly, Forest gasped, opening his wings and shooting behind the curtains.

From there, he noticed the white unicorn’s horn ignite with a very strange gradient of red and white, before he conjured a block of ice, which he then worked away with his magic into the flawless alicorn shape, with delicate pointed legs and outstretched wings.

Forest swallowed hard, gazing out from behind the curtains as he saw the unicorn flip his dual coloured mane out of his face, and then he turned, and Forest saw his heterochromic eyes and the burn scar over one side of his face. His heart made a nervous leap in his chest as he noticed the unicorn’s cutie mark, which was a chunk of crystal-like ice that was alight with flame.

“Can I help you?” The unicorn asked in Todoroki’s voice, and it took all of Forest’s being not to blush and fall over or even worse, run away screaming.

Forest cleared his throat, forcing his heart not to beat so loudly and walk in a straight line despite his wobbly knees.

“My name’s Forest Flash. I’m here on behalf of the princess to check how the decorations are coming on?” He asked, cursing silently when his voice cracked slightly.

The unicorn’s eyes widened in what Forest interpreted as horror when he mentioned the princess, and Forest watched, suddenly afraid that he’d said something offensive -

“I’m just finishing up.” The unicorn said, indicating to the freshly made ice sculpture. “I’m just waiting for Lava Blast to move this one.”

“Great. That’s everything on the list then.” Forest said in a trembling voice, ticking it off and tucking the scroll in his saddlebags.

He wanted to run away - leave so awfully badly that it was making him want to cry - yet at the same time, Forest wanted to stay with him. He realised She was right when she said he’d meet them all again - in another life. This time, he had a blank slate, and Todoroki wasn’t looking at him with hatred as he had before, but with a slight amusement.

“I have to go - um - important - uh - royal business to attend to.” Forest choked, opening his wings and making to leave. “W- um - what was your name, again?”

“I didn’t mention it.” The unicorn replied, and Forest flushed so hard he wanted to spontaneously combust.

“What is it?” He asked, before making a squeaking noise of embarrassment and having to fight the urge to fly out of the roof.

The unicorn’s eyes flickered as he paused, before finally answering. “My name is Hallowed Horizon.”

“Hallowed Horizon.” Forest echoed with a whisper. “Beautiful.” It slipped out of his mouth before he could stop himself, and he made a loud inhaling noise of horror and flew so fast out of the town hall his eyes started streaming as he flushed and made spluttering noises of embarrassment.

“Smooth.” Ember said from inside his saddlebags and Forest made a wailing noise as they flew back to the library.

“Shut up.” He hissed back, still blushing furiously as he pushed through the door of the library. “Now, where is the goddamn light?”

He fumbled around for the switch with a hoof, before it turned on on its own accord. He winced, covering his eyes with a hoof as there was a large chorus of ‘Surprise!!’ that almost knocked him flat on his muzzle.

“What in -” Forest began muttering, before Solar Spark, Red Riot and Chocolate Blush revealed themselves, alongside what looked like most of the town (excluding Lava Blast and Hallowed Horizon he realised with relief for both the former and latter).

“Just a little ‘Welcome-to-Ponyville-please-don’t-arrest-me’ party!” Solar chirped, flourishing. “Hope you’re surprised, at least -”

“How did you get in?” Forest managed to splutter, but Solar Spark didn’t seem to hear him as he began playing loud party music.

Ember fought out of his bag as the party began late into the night, despite Forest asking them to leave on more than one occasion so he could continue research on the Mare in the Moon, so he retreated to his room, lying on the bed and looking out of the windows, where, he thought with a lump in his throat, he could see the ghost of an alicorn on the surface of the moon as four polar stars began drifting towards it ever so slowly.

“I really hope Celestia is right.” He said with a slight whimper, still watching the sky with terror on his voice.

Ember finally came into the room in the early morning, where Forest was still watching the stars inch towards the moon.

“Forest, everyone’s going to go and watch the Princess raise the sun now. You should come with us.” Ember said, and Forest looked up at her. She had a stupid paper chain around her neck and was covered in confetti.

“Fine.” He muttered, opening his wings and flying over to Ember, where she hopped on his back and they followed the crowds of ponies leaving their parties and heading over to the town hall.

He stood in the crowds with the other ponies and Ember perched on his head so they could get a better view as Red landed next to him with a spiky-toothed grin.

“This is so exciting. They haven’t held the Summer Sun celebration in Ponyville for over one hundred years.” The red pegasus said, clapping his hooves on the ground.

“Yeah.” Forest tried to politely agree with him, although he’d seen the process in Canterlot many times.

Red saw Lava Blast finally arrive and made an ‘ooh’ noise, trotting off to greet him. Forest watched him with a half smile, seeing how their strong connection seemed to have transcended the Branches as well.

The music announcing the start of the act began, and the spotlight landed on the mayor of Ponyville, who was stood in the lower stage.

“Fillies and gentlecolts!” The mayor announced. “As Mayor of Ponyville, it is my great pleasure to announce the beginning of the Summer Sun celebration!”

At her words, the other ponies exploded into cheers and whoops. Forest didn’t cheer, but politely clapped his hooves on the ground, noticing in the corner of his eye how Hallowed Horizon seemed to be holding back from the main crowd.

“In just a few moments, our town will witness the magic of the sunrise, and celebrate this, the longest day of the year!” The mayor continued, holding her hoof up.

Forest’s eyes wandered to the moon, and he swallowed, physically cringing back as the stars reached the moon and there was a subtle flash on its surface. He found his heart beating rather fast as he saw the ghost of the Mare on the Moon disappear.

“And now, it is my great honour to introduce to you the ruler of our land, the pony who gives us the sun and the moon each and every day, the great, the wise, the bringer of harmony to all of Equestria -”

Forest found himself so afraid he could barely move. His muscles froze suddenly as he recalled all that had been said in that ornately illustrated storybook.

Celestia’s the elder sister. He thought, starting to tremble violently. And her younger sister will have her revenge.

“Princess Celestia!” The mayor announced, raising her hoof as Solar Spark poised from up on the balcony, and the curtains of the balcony drew back.

Solar’s display of sparks began pouring from his horn, but the curtains revealed no Princess. There were some gasps of shock and Forest’s ears flattened against his skull in dread.

“Remain calm, everypony -” The mayor began pleading as Solar disappeared behind the curtains, obviously going to look for Celestia.

The yellow unicorn reappeared, distress on his face. “She’s gone!”

There were more gasps of complete horror, followed by some noises of terror as in the place of where Celestia should have been, a curl of mist began writhing and growing under the spotlight.

“Oh no.” Forest breathed, cringing back in terror as the mist curled and thrashed before revealing the form of the mare of darkness. “Nightmare Moon.”

She stepped forwards, her lithe body a pure black as she opened her wings and narrowed her icy blue eyes. Her misty mane curled and whipped, and it sucked the warmth right out of the room as every pony in there started trembling in fear.

“Oh, my beloved subjects.” Nightmare Moon hissed, ice on her tone as she gazed down on the all with her piercing gaze. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen your precious little sun-loving faces.” She spat the last words, malice dripping from her voice.

“What did you do with the Princess?!” Lava Blast roared, rearing up and looking like he was about to attack her, but Red grabbed him by the tail and dug his hooves into the ground to restrain him.

Nightmare Moon let out a soft cackle, rearing her armoured head back. “Why, am I not royal enough for you? Don’t you know who I am?”

There was silence aside from some more noises of terror.

“Does my crown not count now that I have been imprisoned for a thousand years?” Nightmare Moon hissed, thrusting her head towards Solar Spark, who made a noise of terror and recoiled, teleporting himself down from the balcony away from her. Forest could see the yellow unicorn visibly trembling from where he was next to him. “Did you not recall the legend?” She turned her attention back to the crowd with a look of amusement and evil on her face. “Did you not see the signs?”

“I did!” Forest growled, taking a step forward as he glared up at the shadow mare. “And I know who you are.”

Chocolate and Solar looked at him in shock, and Red glanced at him from where he was still fighting against Lava. Horizon’s mismatched gaze was chilling, and Forest had to swallow hard to stop his voice from trembling.

“You’re the mare in the moon - Nightmare Moon!” Forest spat, and the crowd gasped in horror.

“Well, well, well! Somepony who remembers me!” Nightmare Moon hissed, narrowing her eyes at Forest that sent ice down his spine. “Then you must also know why I am here!”

“You’re here to - to - t-t-to -” Forest’s voice started shaking so much he could hardly speak, and his knees started knocking together in fear.

Nightmare Moon cackled, opening her wings and rearing her horned head back. “Remember this day, my little ponies, for it was your last.” Her mane and tail started whipping  around, sending icy chills around the room.

“From this moment forth, the night will last forever!” Nightmare Moon howled, making way for deafening evil laughs as she reared her head back, just like the illustration in the book, except this was very much real.

Nightmare Moon’s mane grew and swirled in a whirlwind of shadow and ice as thunder clapped and her cackles howled, and the first screams of horror started echoing through Equestria.

Chapter Text

“Sieze her!” The mayor howled, pointing a hoof at the evil mare. “Only she knows where the princess is!”

Celestia’s personal guard, who had been hanging around the entrance, opened their wings and shot at Nightmare Moon. Forest cowered, taking a stop backwards as the three stallions raised their hooves for attack. Nightmare Moon’s eyes narrowed as she bared her sharp teeth.

“Back, you fools!” She roared, swiping at the guards with her mist-like mane and her eyes glowed as she summoned a lightning bolt, shooting it at the armoured stallions.

The guards yelled, convulsing where Nightmare’s mane came in contact with their bodies, and fell like stones out of the air, collapsing to the ground. Nightmare Moon cackled, suddenly dissolving into mist and zipping out from the town hall, scattering ponies as they ran for their lives with high pitched screams.

Red finally lost his grip on Lava Blast’s tail as he wrenched free, galloping after the mist as it vanished into the night.

“Get the fuck back here!” He roared, panting as he finally skidded to a stop.

Forest found his wings opening as in pure panic, he began flying back to the library, shooting through the door. Ember was snoring on his back, and he quickly took her off and tucked her into her perch (she was obviously exhausted from being up all night) and began pulling all the books down from the shelves with panicked gasps.

“Elements - oh Celestia, there’s got to be something here.” Forest gasped, swiping a shelf of books down and pawing through the covers with a hoof. “Celestia used them before - how am I gonna stop Nightmare without the Elements of Harmony -”

“And what the fuck are the Elements of Harmony?” Lava Blast roared, kicking down the door and storming up to Forest so he shrieked, dropping the book and flinching backwards as the aggressive stallion stalked towards him. “How did you know about Nightmare Moon? Are you a spy -”

“Enough.” Red Riot shot at Lava, grabbing the blonde pony by the tail and pulling him back.

Forest was visibly shuddering and shaking in terror as he watched the red pegasus and the other ponies enter the library. Chocolate, Solar, and Horizon poked their heads around the door. Forest noticed how Chocolate’s eyes were wide in concern for him as he shuddered in panic.

“He’s not a spy. He’s the Princess’s student, and he knows what’s going on.” Red continued, looking over Lava’s shoulder. “Don’t you, Forest?”

He blinked, forcing himself to stand up as he sighed and sagged his head. “I read about all the predictions of Nightmare Moon. Celestia banished her to the moon with the Elements of Harmony. They’re some kind of incredibly magic objects - but I don’t know what they are. I don’t know where to find them, or how to use them, or even what they do -”

“‘The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide.’” Solar Spark read out on the other side of the room, and Forest leapt to his hooves, shooting to the yellow unicorn and shoving him out of the way.

“How did you find it?” He gasped, overwhelming relief flooding him as he pulled the beige book out from the shelf and Solar grinned stupidly behind him.

“It was under ‘E’!” He sang, trotting around like an idiot with a grin on his face.

Forest suddenly felt incredibly stupid as he flattened his ears in embarrassment. In his panic, he’d forgotten how a library would have been organised. “Oh.”

“Read it, then.” Chocolate suggested, and Forest decided to swallow his embarrassment and stop his tongue from twisting as Horizon watched him with blazing eyes.

“‘There are six Elements of Harmony, but only five are known.’” He read aloud, looking up at the other ponies as he read them. “‘Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Honesty, and Loyalty. The sixth is a complete mystery.’”

“What kind of reference guide can only name five sixths of what it’s fucking written on?” Lava scoffed, before being interrupted by Red’s elbow jabbing into his ribs.

Forest swallowed, looking over the edge of the book as he read the last sentence on the page. “‘It is said the last known location of the five elements was in the ancient castle of the royal alicorn sisters -’”

He glanced over the book as movement on the opposite window that only he was facing caused him to inhale sharply. The other ponies glanced at him in shock, and Forest swallowed hard as he noticed the tendril of Nightmare Moon’s mane vanish from sight. Solar Spark took the book off him with his horn and read the last bit himself, and Forest had to force himself to breathe. The others hadn’t seem to seen that someone else had been listening in, and he had to force himself to believe that paranoia had made him imagine it.

“‘The castle is located deep in the Everfree Forest.’” Solar pulled a face as he moved the book away from his eyes with his magic. “That’s a nice surprise.”

“What’s the Everfree Forest?” Forest asked, but the other ponies started pulling looks of fear and dread.

“You’ll see.” Chocolate said grimly as they all began cantering out of the library.

Forest opened his wings and followed the ponies as they galloped out of town. They finally skidded to a stop at the edge of the forest, and Forest gulped, folding his wings and landing next to the incredibly hesitant group. Something howled deep in the cluster of dark trees, making Solar flatten his ears.

“Let’s go!” Red chimed, opening his wings and beginning to fly in.

“Wait.” Forest interrupted, making Red skid to a stop. “I really think I should do this alone.”

He recalled that flash of Nightmare Moon’s mane disappearing past the window, and how many evil things she could do to the ponies he cared about most in the world. He’d already lost them once, and he wasn’t going to let it happen again here, even if they had no idea how much Forest cared about them.

“Not a chance.” Chocolate piped, trotting after Red into the deep grove of trees, followed quickly by the other ponies.

Forest sagged, trotting after them quickly, because really, he did not want to be left alone in there - and he did not feel right with sending them off to their deaths either. They were obviously afraid though, but were doing a bit of a better job than him at hiding him.

“So none of you have ever set foot in here?” He asked timidly as the other ponies trotted ahead, who all shook their heads.

“Of course not.” Horizon said, before he was interrupted promptly by Solar.

“Our parents drilled it into us as foals. There’s lots of things who would happily eat a small pony in here.” Solar chirped, skipping ahead a little bit.

Forest gulped, flattening his ears against his head as they started edging around a very prevarious cliff-face path that levelled out into a very steep drop. “What about - um - adult ponies?”

“I don’t know.” Chocolate said, sighing slightly as she drew up to Forest’s side. “Ponies say the forest isn’t natural. A lot of stuff happens here that can’t be explained.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Forest demanded, and Red turned to look at him with an evil glint in his eye.

“Nopony knows!” He drawled out in a spooky voice, holding his hooves up in the air. “Because everypony who’s ever gone in has never come back OUT!”

He slammed his hooves on the ground, and Forest gasped, launching himselves backwards as the ground gave, suddenly causing all of them to scream and begin skidding down the steep slope. Forest shrieked as he tumbled and felt his wing crack against a rock before he could try flying out of danger. Red zipped over him, grabbing Lava by the tail and pulling him from danger, before doing the same with Chocolate and Solar, who were skidding around with high pitched yells.

Forest scrabbled around with his hooves to try and slow his fall, before noticing with a screech that the steep ground fell away completely. He tried to open his wings and fly but the banged up one screamed in agony and he gasped, digging his front hooves into the ground as his hindquarters hung over the edge.

Horizon was holding onto a jagged root with his teeth just above him, still scrabbling around with his own hooves. Forest coughed, trying to force oxygen into his body as he flapped like crazy with one wing, but the ground cracked, threatening to break again.

Horizon’s eyes widened as he noticed Forest’s wild scrabbling and called down to him, but his words were muffled by the root. “Hold on.”

He let go, and started sliding down carefully on his stomach to grab Forest’s hooves with his own. If Forest hadn’t been so utterly terrified he would have probably passed out from blood rushing to his cheeks, but all he could do was keep flapping and gasp in fear.

“What do I do? I can’t fly!” He gasped, and Horizon’s mismatched eyes darted around, before finally they rested on his face with a soft look of complete trust and gentleness in them.

“Stop flapping.” He ordered, and Forest glared at him.

“Are you crazy?” He shrieked, and Horizon shook his dual coloured head slowly.

“I’m not. Please, I promise you.” Horizon said in a gentle voice, and Forest could feel his eyes welling up as he gazed into the eyes of the friend he knew and trusted with his life. “Stop flapping, and I will help you. I promise.”

He looked up at him, and screwed his eyes up before he could change his mind, and folded his other wing. Without the extra help, his body began dropping and the cliff shattered, sending him plummeting. Forest opened his mouth to shriek but before he could even do so, his body stopped, and he was floating. Finally cracking them open, he jolted when he recognised Horizon’s magical aura of a red and white gradient surrounding him, which lowered him carefully to the ground.

Chocolate and the other ponies rushed around him, the brown mare brushing him down carefully with a hoof. “Oh my goodness, are you all right?” She asked, and Forest had to choke in another breath, feeling his injured wing flap limply at his side.

“I think I injured my wing.” He said, trying to move it before wincing. “Yep, that hurts.”

Red mentioned something about finding something to tie it up in case it was broken, and as the red pegasus zipped away, Horizon lowered his own body down to the ground with his magic. Forest averted his gaze, suddenly feeling very embarrassed and flustered that he’d seen Forest’s full panic mode.

“Horizon saved you, Forest!” Solar said with an excited hop, and Forest nodded, turning back to the half-and-half unicorn.

“He did. Thank you.” He said gratefully, and Horizon gazed at him.

“Forgive me for not doing so earlier.” The white unicorn said. “Your struggling was making it hard for me to use my magic.”

“That’s okay.” Forest said, flushing slightly and wanting a distraction in case he said something incredibly stupid or embarrassing.

Just then, Red came back with some vines in his teeth, and just while the red pegasus was tying up Forest’s wing behind his back, there was a deafening roar, causing all the ponies to yell and flinch backwards.

“What was that?” Chocolate shrieked, zipping behind Lava as the large stallion pawed at the ground, snorting in aggression as he tensed up.

Forest squeaked as a paw-step shuddered the ground, and an enormous, maned creature screamed as it bared its teeth and began charging towards the group of ponies. Forest flattened his ears as he recognised the horrific animal from his lessons with Celestia.

“Manticore.” He breathed, before it was interrupted by a battle roar as Lava Blast charged into the beast’s flank, causing the monster to scream, swiping at the stallion with a massive lion paw.

“Is that all you’ve got, you fucking lump?” Lava screeched, ramming against the animal again.

“Blasty!” Red called, looking increasingly uncomfortable as the animal screeched in agony and tried to jab at Lava with its scorpion sting.

Horizon reared, narrowing his eyes as his horn ignited and he charged at the manticore, shooting beams of ice at it so its paws and wings were engulfed in ice as Lava continued to ram the animal with his skull.

The manticore roared, smashing a paw at Horizon and causing the ice to shatter as the smaller unicorn dodged, darting around the back and leaping up, still shooting magic at it from his horn.

“Stop -” Red said, grimacing as the manticore howled in agony, still hanging back as Forest, Chocolate and Solar began pawing at the ground with a hoof.

Solar’s horn ignited, and the ponies roared, beginning to charge towards the animal as Lava and Horizon continued to repeatedly attack the manticore. It swiped at them all, and Forest bared his teeth, hoping to at least kick the manticore hard enough for one of the others to put it out of action -

“STOP!” Red roared, shooting in stop of them and holding his hooves out as he hovered in front of them all.

They all skidded to a halt in shock as Red turned back to the manticore, which raised a clawed paw and looked ready to bat the pegasus out of the air. Forest flinched and had to cover his eyes as Lava stepped forwards, looking ready to defend his friend to the death if he had to -

Red landed in front of the manticore and folded his wings. “Hey, bro - what’s wrong? Is there anything I can do to help -”

The manticore made a whining noise and held its paw out to Red, who glanced down at it with wide eyes. A large thorn was embedded in the flesh of the manticore’s pad, and Forest winced. It looked agonising.

“Oh - that’s why you were so mad.” Red said, putting his face close to the thorn to examine it more closely as the other ponies looked on in awe. “Thorns suck - getting one of those stuck in your hoof is a real pain in the hindquarters - let me get that out for you -”

Red closed his teeth around the thorn and yanked it out. The manticore screamed, and they all gasped, waiting to see the animal maul Red, but it instead grabbed him and started licking his face very roughly as he laughed and patted its mane. Forest’s jaw was dropped open as the manticore started purring, and the other ponies quickly darted past the manticore as it was distracted.

Red finally wriggled free and started trotting after the ponies as they tried to get together what they’d just witnessed.

“How did you know about the thorn?” Forest asked him, and Red shrugged, wiping manticore saliva from his face.

“I didn’t - but I saw it, and it was obviously hurt.” Red explained to them. “I have a little brother, and when foals get stuff stuck in their hooves, they always scream and cry. My mom always used to call them ‘manticore moments’.” Red laughed, grinning at them. “Guess she was right. Everything always gets better when I pull the thorns out of my brother’s hooves.”

“Your mom is a genius.” Solar chirped, giving Red a hoof bump as they began trotting onwards.

“That was amazing.” Forest said to the red pegasus, and he turned to him with a grin. “Pulling thorns out is painful for anypony, even a manticore.”

“Sometimes, a little kindness is all the medicine you need.” Red said, and Forest smiled at him as the group trotted onwards.

The group kept walking, and Chocolate grimaced. “My eyes need a rest from this horrible forest - not you, though, Forest.”

Forest snorted, but the laughter died in his throat as they entered a rather dark part of the forest, and he lost sight of Red, who was trotting right in front of him.

“Although, I didn’t mean that literally.” Chocolate said slowly from behind him.

There was a squishing noise from Forest’s right and he flinched, before Horizon’s voice followed it.

“Oh - uh - hold on. I think I stepped in something.” Horizon said in the most unimpressed voice Forest had ever heard, and Chocolate retched with a squeak.

“I hope that’s just mu - AAAAH!” Chocolate screamed, recoiling and making Forest tumble backwards, where he came face to face with a face. It was twisted and bared its sharp teeth as its ghostly eyes glowed.

He shrieked, turning to run, before he was faced with another tree with a face which was even more horrific than the last. One by one, he heard all the others notice as the dark Forest erupted with yells and screeches and the ponies darted around in a panic, but the more they ran, the more afraid they were getting until -

“Pffff - ha ha ha ha!” Solar howled, doubling over, almost in tears as he gazed at the tree in front of it. “This one looks like my middle-school teacher -” He suddenly started screeching, but not with fear, as he cackled and screamed in laughter.

“What are you doing?” Forest shrieked, and Solar started wailing, tears of laughter running down his face.

“My middle school teacher was the scariest pony in Equestria.” Solar said, still grinning widely. “But my grandma always said that things are always scary as long as you think they are.” He turned back to the tree, looking like he was about to burst into laughter again. “So if you laugh, there’s no way you can be afraid anymore.” He started doubling over with laughter again, wiping tears from his eyes. “Although, I would not recommend that with teachers - she was so furious -”

Solar tipped his head back and laughed again at the memory, before squeaking out a ‘Her face was priceless’, and as Forest gaped, the tree’s face vanished with a puff.

His laughter was contagious, and soon Forest and Chocolate were trying to hold in their laughter and the louder their laughs got, the more the trees puffed and their faces disappeared. Red snorted, beginning to see the stupidity behind the previously frightening faces on the trees.

As they continued to laugh in joy and dart through the darkened part of the forest, they emerged, still grinning. Horizon’s soft smile was making Forest’s heartbeat deafening, and he had to swallow to try and calm himself down.

The group soon came across a river which was churning and spitting with water. Forest winced, feeling his injured wing pulse in protest, and Red squinted, doing a quick fly-by over the water.

“There’s no way over - and I can’t carry you all across.” He muttered, and Chocolate suddenly perked her ears up.

“C’mon, Lava, there’s no need to cry.” She tutted sympathetically, patting the stallion on the back. “We’ll find a way across -”

Lava whipped around, baring his teeth in a snarl. “I’m not fucking crying!” He spat, and Chocolate blinked, looking over her shoulders.

“Are you sure? I thought I heard crying.” Chocolate muttered, and Solar gasped, looking back from where he was peeking through the bushes.

“I think I know why.” The yellow unicorn said, pushing through the undergrowth, followed by the other ponies as they entered a clearing.

Forest flinched when he heard the loud sobbing, wondering what on earth could possibly be happening, when he saw a purple serpent screaming and thrashing around with loud wails as his tail whipped up the water.

“At least we know why the water’s like this.” Horizon said dryly, and Forest gasped in horror as he watched Chocolate trot away from the group towards the wailing reptile.

“Chocolate! Stop!” Forest yelped, trying to follow her and pull her back in case the serpent tried to attack her, but she was already in front of it.

“Hey, mister! Can I ask why you’re crying?” The mare piped up, and the serpent noticed her, still wiping at his eyes with his claws.

“I was just sat here, minding my own business, when a tacky cloud of purple smoke shot past -” The serpent began wailing, slumping his head down in front of Chocolate as she gently stroked his scaly nose.

Forest flinched. So, Nightmare Moon was behind all this. He hadn’t imagined that spying evil cloud of smoke before - and the malicious mare was trying to stop them before they got to the castle.

“- and it sliced half of my beautiful moustache clean off!” The serpent sobbed, flopping back and splashing water across all of them, causing there to stand there irritated and soaking wet. “And now I look simply horrid!”

“That’s what all the fucking fuss is about?” Lava screeched, furious at being soaked, and Red shook himself off, putting a hoof in front of the angry blonde stallion.

“Leave him alone. It means a lot to him, right?” Chocolate pressed, eyes wide as she glanced back at him. “And I can’t let him stay like this. He needs my help.”

She leapt forwards, snatching a scale from the serpent’s neck, pulling the sharp thing right off. The serpent squeaked, recoiling as the pain caused him to flinch, and held the purple blade in her teeth. The light glinted off it.

“Chocolate - don’t -” Forest yelped, jumping forwards, but there was a loud slicing noise and the serpent howled, throwing his hands over his eyes and collapsing back into the water.

Chocolate huffed, tossing the scale aside as she glanced back at her tail, where she’d cut most of it off with the scale, and picked up the severed bit with her teeth and trotted over to the serpent, where she used her hooves to attach it to his face.

Forest’s jaw dropped open as the other ponies watched in shock as Chocolate smiled as she put it on.

“It’s not quite the right colour, I’m afraid -” She began saying, and the serpent whooped in joy, throwing his maned head back as he ran his claws along the new addition.

“It’s perfect! My moustache! You fixed it! Thank you!”

“Not a problem. I’m so happy I could help!” Chocolate grinned, and Forest trotted to her side, where her previously long, glossy brown tail was severed, leaving a short end.

“Chocolate - your lovely tail!” Red said, a mournful look on his face as he glanced at it.

“It’s totally fine! Short tails mean less stuff for me to get chocolate stuck in, right?” Chocolate piped, before trotting into the water, which was now calm and still as the serpent had stopped thrashing.

Forest glanced at her with a smile, and the serpent snapped his tail up under Chocolate to make a bridge.

“Allow me.” He said, and the ponies crossed the river with the bridge made from the purple-scaled serpent’s tail without so much as getting their hooves wet.

As they continued walking down the path, Forest’s eyes widened as he stopped short, gazing ahead. There was a crevice ahead, with the poles of a bridge just within sight, as mist clouded ahead. But just beyond the mist, Forest could see the ruins of the castle, cracked and broken and incredibly creepy under Nightmare’s moon, but was suddenly filled with joy at the sight. The elements!

“There it is! The castle!” He gasped, cantering ahead to try and reach it. “We’re almost there!”

Just as he began crossing the bridge, there was a creak, and Forest yelped, jumping back as a the ruins creaked, sending a massive boulder crashing down, blocking the end of the bridge and severing the rest of it.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Solar gasped, and Red opened his wings, going to fly across, but an updraft from deep in the crevice tossed him back, where he crashed at the hooves of the other ponies with an ‘oof’.

“Guess we can’t fly across. I don’t have enough momentum.” Red winced, rubbing his head with a hoof.

“And how are we going to move that boulder? Even if Red could fly across, he can’t move it alone!” Chocolate pointed out.

Lava suddenly pawed at the ground with a hoof, taking a few steps back as he locked his eyes on the other side. Red realised what he was about to do and began scrambling to his hooves.

“Blasty!! Wait - you can’t possibly -” He began shrieking, but Lava ignored him, his hooves speeding up as he dipped his head and coiled his back legs, and Fores watched in horror as Lava reached the end of the crevice and leapt.

His body seemed to move in slow motion as the other ponies began running forward as if they would be able to catch him, but Lava was in a strong arc, stretching out all four legs as he landed on the other side, rolling slightly to cushion his landing.

He flicked his spiky mane out of his eyes as he brushed himself down with a smirk, and Red promptly fainted, collapsing backwards. Forest exhaled hard.

“He did it!” Chocolate whooped, and they watched Lava as he used his head and strong legs to begin pushing the boulder away from the exit of the bridge.

As the other ponies helped Red up and let Lava keep moving the boulder, Forest glanced over his shoulder and felt his stomach drop so fast he thought he’d vomit when he saw Lava turning and talking to another hooded pony who had definitely not been there before.

“No - no!” Forest yelled, stumbling to his hooves as he ran to the edge. It was Nightmare Moon - he knew it - she was going to try and corrupt Lava so they couldn’t reach the elements -  “Don’t listen to her, Lava!” He howled, and the pony listed her hooded head, and her eyes flashed yellow as the mist instantly thickened, obscuring them from view.

“Blasty!” Red called, eyes wide as they simply gazed into the mist, waiting for something to happen. And then, the mist suddenly cleared, and Lava began trotting across the reattached bridge, a proud smirk on his face. The boulder was gone, and the path was clear.

“Thank Celestia.” He suddenly exhaled to himself, the relief rushing to his head.

“Wouldn’t leave you hanging.” Lava said, turning back towards the castle. “Let’s kick some ass.”

They entered the main building through the creaky, overgrown door, and the shattered pillars were so eery and overgrown with moss that Forest wondered what on earth had made royalty abandon this building in the first place. It was obviously unicorn architecture. He imagined that in its full glory, it would have been magnificent.

And then, his eyes widened in amazement as he saw the pedestal, where upon them, rested the stone orbs with geometric shapes engraved on them that he recognised from the gems in the storybook.

“The Elements of Harmony.” Forest breathed, looking up at them.

Red began flying up and placing them down at Forest’s hooves with gently clinks.

“One, two three, four - there’s only five.” Solar counted, a frown causing his muzzle to crease. “Where’s the sixth?”

Forest quickly ran his thoughts back to the reference guide. “The book said that when the five were present, a spark would cause the sixth to be revealed.”

“How are you going to get a spark, Forest?” Chocolate asked, averting her gaze. “Is it like - a physical spark? Maybe Solar or Horizon can help you -”

“My sparks are all show magic.” Solar shook his head. “Horizon’s a lot more advanced in magic magic -”

“Want me to try?” Horizon asked, and Forest suddenly felt very forlorn, taking a step back.

“Sure.” He said, but in reality, he didn’t know. Something told him this wasn’t the way - there was something else, something else -

Horizon knelt down and his horn ignited, and Forest watched, hoping and praying that it would work, when a dark mist began collecting around the orbs. Horizon’s eyes snapped open and the magic vanished from his horn.

“I didn’t do that -” He began saying, before it began whirling around so fast it knocked the white unicorn backwards so flew across the room and rolled across the floor.

“Horizon!” Forest yelled, cantering over to reach him, but the smoke increased in spead and power, lifting the elements up into the air.

Nightmare Moon was trying to steal them.

He was so torn, seeing the elements being taken and Horizon limp on the floor, but he stiffened, knowing what he had to do, and leapt.

He entered the smoke, and felt his stomach jolt as his vision went black, and he heard the screams of his friends.

When he finally came to, he coughed through the smoke on wobbly hooves, and glanced up, seeing Nightmare Moon standing on the pedestal ahead. Forest recognised the castle architecture and realised they must be in another section of the castle. Nightmare Moon cackled, lightning cracking over her head as she held the Elements in her grasp.

He gasped in horror, knowing he was alone with the mare in the moon.

Suddenly, he narrowed his eyes, pawing at the ground as he tensed his musckes, preparing to charge.

Nightmare’s eyes narrowed. “You’re kidding. You’re kidding me, right?”

She doesn’t see me as a threat. Forest thought, but he snorted, still pawing at the ground with a hoof. Then I’ll make myself a threat.

He began cantering, speeding towards her. Nightmare’s eyes widened and she dropped the elements, beginning to charge towards him as well.

Forest bared his teeth, moving his legs as fast as he could as the dark mare sped towards him, and just as they were about to colide and Nightmare’s horn was alight with night magic, Forest’s wings snapped through the vine binding the injured one, and he flew over her head, landing haphazardly on his stomach next to the elements.

His wing was in agony, but he ignored it, glaring at the orbs.

“A spark! A spark - oh Celestia, I wish Horizon was here -” He began pleading as he fiddled around with the Elements.

Nightmare reared back with a screech, launching herself at Forest as he pawed and rolled around the elements, appearing in front of him and kicking him, launching his body right back so he hit the floor several metres away. He rolled over and screeched to a stop, looking up with blurred vision as Nightmare Moon stood with her hooves over the Elements.

She cackled, rearing her body back as she laughed, before slamming her hooves down, crushing the Elements so they splintered into broken shards of stone. Forest watched on with his mouth open in a silent scream as Nightmare Moon roared, the splinters still raining down.

“You little fool! Thinking you, a pegasus, can defeat me? The mare of darkness?” Nightmare Moon hissed, her mane and tail thrashing about with lightning. “You will now never see your precious Princess or the sun again.”

He watched on in horror as she laughed, before his ears suddenly snapped up and he heard voices.

Their voices.

And suddenly, as he heard those voices, calling for him in concern and hope, something lit inside Forest like a sparkler, and his eyes widened with a gasp.

“You think you can destroy the Elements of Harmony just like that?” Forest spat, turning around to face the wicked mare as she stood in the remains of the stone orbs. “You’re wrong. The spirits of the elements of Harmony are right here!”

They cantered next to him, poised in battle, ready to defend him and themselves without hesitation as Forest spread his wings. Nightmare Moon’s eyes widened in horror as the broken shards began to glow with rainbow colours and shudder, floating into the air around her hooves.

“What?” She gasped, recoiling backwards.

“Hallowed Horizon, who reassured me with the truth when I was afraid, represents the spirit of Honesty!” Forest cried, stamping a hoof on the ground as the blue shards began shooting towards the white unicorn, encircling his body in an orbit.

“Red Riot, who noticed the manticore’s pain due to his compassion, represents the spirit of Kindness!” He continued, and the red shards began speeding towards Red, where they encircled the red pegasus’s body.

“Solar Spark, who laughed in the face of danger, represents the spirit of Laughter!” The yellow shards left Nightmare Mare’s hooves to circle the yellow unicorn, who still had a shit-eating grin on his face.

“Chocolate Blush, who comforted a sorrowful serpent with a meaningful gift represents the spirit of Generosity!” Chocolate squeaked as she wiggled her short tail and the pink shards whipped around her hooves.

“Lava Blast, who refused to abandon us despite your promises and corruption, represents the spirit of Loyalty!” Forest yelled, pointing a hoof at the blonde pony as the orange shards, similar to the explosion on the stallion’s flank as he puffed out his chest, began orbiting him. “The spirits of these five ponies got us through every obstacle you threw at us.” He spat at dark mare, who reared back, snarling and glaring at him.

“You don’t have the sixth element!” Nightmare Moon screeched, glaring at him with flattened ears. “You have no spark. You’re a pegasus - you have no magic!”

“But there was a spark, Nightmare Moon.” Forest said in a soft voice, glancing back at the other ponies. “I felt it the second I heard them. The second I realised it was them. The ponies I care about most in the world.”

Chocolate was gazing at him with tearful eyes as they all grinned and smiled at him. Horizon’s blazing eyes were so intense Forest had to look away for a second as he turned back to Nightmare Moon.

“The spark I felt when I realised they are my everything!” He reared his head back as light poured from above him, and the orb of the sixth element was revealed. Forest glanced up and felt his heart thud at the image of the six-pointed star engraved in the stone - the same one that was on his flank.

Nightmare Moon flinched away, shielding her eyes from the light with her wing.

“Nightmare, when those elements are ignited by the spark - the spark that resides in us all - it creates the sixth element.” Forest opened his wings so he was off the ground. “The Element of Magic!”

The light pouring from the orb heightened and the shards condensed, glowing in their bright colours against the neck of their respective ponies. As each of Forest’s friends reared back, they erupted into light, and there was a flash as they all left the ground, the magic flowing through their bodies, and the orb of Magic unwrapped itself with a burst of light into an amulet which curved around Forest’s neck. And then, the rainbow twisted out from all of them, curling into a double helix at its peak, before combining into one powerful force which, Forest realised, was the same image that had been illustrated in the fairy tale book he’d been reading, which then shot at breakneck speed at Nightmare Moon.

“NO!” She howled as it wrapped her up in a tornado.

She screamed and reared back, trying to fly away, but the magic was too powerful, and she was trapped. And as Nightmare Moon screamed and howled, Forest opened his eyes and spread his wings, and blinding white light poured him and the other ponies.

And then, they were all groaning and struggling to get to their hooves as they rubbed at their heads and Forest had to shake his own several times to try and clear his blurring vision.

“My head.” Lava muttered, rubbing his with a hoof as he tried to lift it.

“Is everypony okay?” Solar asked, managing to struggle up onto his hindquarters.

“Hah! Look at how pretty it is!” Chocolate gasped, prancing around and wiggling her rump around so her tail swished.

Red flew over to her with wide eyes. “It’s so cool!”

“I know! I’ll never part with my tail again!” Chocolate squeaked, curling her regrown tail back around so she could cuddle it.

Forest looked wide eyed at the scene. Chocolate’s tail should have taken months to grow back to the length it was before, yet it was back to its original length. He tested out his wings, and was shocked to feel that his injured one seemed to be good as new. He flapped them a few times and felt no pain. Some strong magic, he thought, glancing back at his friends.

“I mean your necklace.” Red grinned, pointing at the band around Chocolate’s neck. “It looks like your cutie mark!”

“Oh! Yes, it does!” Chocolate squeaked, looking down at the sakura flower-shaped gem on her necklace, and looking back at her rump. “So does yours!”

Red gasped and looked down at his, which was shaped like a cloud. Forest glanced at the others, and grinned to see how the same pattern seemed to occur with theirs too. Solar’s was shaped like his lightning bolt cutie mark, and Lava’s was shaped like an explosion. Horizon glanced down at his with surprise, comparing it with his ice shaped cutie mark.

And then Forest looked down at his own. It was more decorative and had smaller gems on it too, but his glistened a dark emerald green, with the six points of the star shimmering. He smiled back at his friends, who were now struggling up onto wobbly hooves.

“I think that’s proof enough that we represent the Elements of friendship.” Chocolate said, and suddenly there was a bright burst of golden light and all the ponies gasped as the moon vanished and the sun rose, sending light streaming into the broken ruins.

“Indeed you do.” Celestia’s voice rang out as she opened her white wings and flew from the sun and landed in front of them.

Instinctively, all the other ponies bowed right down before her, but Forest found himself tearing up with a gasp at the sight of her.

“Princess Celestia!” He gasped, cantering over to her so he could press right up to her.

She bowed her head and embraced him “Forest Flash, my most faithful student.” She looked at him with a glint in her eyes. “I knew you could do it.”

“But  - you said it was all a foal’s tail.” He whispered tearfully, looking up at her. “Unless - you knew the whole time? Was it you who left that book in my library?”

“I said that you needed to make some friends, Forest.” Celestia said with a soft smile, glancing over the other ponies who were emerging from their bows. “I saw the signs of Nightmare Moon’s return, and knew she would have her revenge on me. And I saw that it was you who had the magic inside of you to defeat her.”

“But - Princess.” Forest whispered, glancing down at his wings. “I have no magic -”

“You may not have unicorn magic, but you have true magic.” Celestia said, touching his chest with a hoof. “And I knew you needed to find some very special ponies and let true friendship into your heart in order to unleash it.” She suddenly turned her attention away from Forest to the scorched and smoking area where Nightmare Moon was previously stood. “Now if only somepony else will as well.”

Forest gasped as he turned and saw a dark pony lying amongst the shattered remains of Nightmare Moon’s armour, which was still smoking and glistening. She gasped, rearing her blue head up as Celestia approached her with her wings open.

“Princess Luna.” Celestia whispered, and Luna’s eyes snapped open and she flinched, gazing up at the white alicorn. “It has been a thousand years since I have seen you like this. It is time for us to put our differences aside. We were meant to rule together, little sister.”

“Sister?” The other ponies gasped simultaneously, but Forest only smiled, thinking back to the book. Celestia was right. All tales did contain some hints of fact - but in this case, it had contained the full, undying truth of what had happened to the Princess of the Moon.

“Will you accept my friendship?” Celestia asked, standing up straight as Luna dipped her head, eyes welling up.

“I’m so sorry!” Luna cried, galloping towards Celestia as the white alicorn embraced her and tears ran down her dark face. “I missed you so much, big sister!”

Celestia sobbed, wrapping a gold hoof around her little sister’s body. “I missed you too.”

There was loud, ugly crying behind them as Solar wiped his face with a hoof and Forest laughed, seeing him grin through his tears. “We need to celebrate as soon as we get back!”

They did. A festival was thrown, with ponies from all across Ponyville rushing to see the new Princess as she arrived with Celestia on the royal chariot. Luna looked uncomfortable at all the attention but even she broke out into a smile as a flower garland was put around her neck by two pegasus foals to welcome the return of the lost princess. Ember flew out of the library and tossed herself at Forest, who laughed and embraced his feathered friend, but as he watched the rest of the parade, there was a mixture of feelings as he smiled, but Celestia noticed how sorrowful he was on the inside.

“Why so glum, my faithful student?” Celestia asked, smiling at him. “Are you not happy that your quest is complete, and you can return to your magic studies in Canterlot?”

“That’s just it, Princess.” Forest whispered, averting his gaze and having to swallow hard. “I can’t return. I don’t want to return. I was holed up in Canterlot for so long I forgot about who I was. I thought magic was my purpose, my reason - and it is, but -” He glanced back at where Chocolate, Solar, Lava, and Red were smiling at him. Horizon gazed at him with blazing, heterochromic eyes. “They’re my reason. They’re my purpose.”

Celestia smiled at him. “Ember, take a note, please.”

Ember whipped out a piece of paper and began scrawling on it with a quill in her claw.

“I, Princess Celestia, hereby decree that my personal student, the pegasus Forest Flash, shall take on a new mission for Equestria. He must continue to study the magic of friendship, and he must report to me his findings from his new home in Ponyville!”

There were cheers as Forest began tearing up, looking up at the princess with wide eyes. “Thank you, Celestia. Thank you so much.”

“I know you will not disappoint me, Forest.” Celestia said to him. “You are welcome to return to Canterlot for your lessons at any time.”

“I’ll study harder than ever, Celestia.” Forest replied, and Chocolate launched herself at him to embrace him with both hooves as the crowd cheered in delight.

As the Celestia passed him to leave, he noticed how Horizon got into a bow as she walked past a lot quicker than the rest of the other ponies, and he saw how the white unicorn maintained eye contact with the princess for a lot longer than was normal. The Princess smiled at Horizon, before she clambered upon her chariot with Luna, and they began flying back to Canterlot. It was definitely strange, but now Forest was here, and glancing at the white, dual-maned unicorn, he realised how much he didn’t know about this pony version of Todoroki.

He sighed, and felt his breathing coming to him a little faster than usual.

Chapter Text

Forest was helping Chocolate move some supplies around the back of the shop as she’d asked for some ‘flying aid’. Forest was a little wary at first, asking her why she hadn’t asked Red to do it, but she commented something about him being occupied and turned to the next ‘friend with flying benefits’, which happened to be Forest.

There had been a new delivery of ingredients and Forest was helping her stock up the back room by putting up the higher boxes on the top shelves while she maneuvered them around on the floor. Ember had insisted she come along to ‘help’, but all she was doing was sitting on a box and preening her feathers. Forest landed in front of her and perked an eyebrow at her until the phoenix noticed him from where she was cleaning the feathers under her wings.

“What?” She asked, and Forest sighed.

“I need to move that one.” He explained to her, and Ember made a very exasperated noise as she made to move.

“Fine, if I must -” She began whining, before her wings began glowing and she shot a sudden burst of ashes at Forest’s face.

He managed to dodge it with a squeak, landing on his face. Chocolate rushed over to help him up, glaring at Ember.

“What was that for?” Forest demanded, but Ember’s eyes were wide in shock as she gazed down at her wings.

“I don’t know - I didn’t do that!” She protested, and Forest turned his attention to where the pile of ashes had landed.

There were no ashes. The fine grey dust had reformed into a scroll, with Celestia’s seal on it.

“What in -” Forest muttered, picking it up. “Has Celestia figured out for a different way to communicate without me having to order that expensive parchment?”

“It makes sense.” Chocolate pointed out. “Since you’re not in Canterlot anymore, I guess it’d be a lot more difficult to use the mail services to talk with her.”

“I guess you’re right. I’ll just read it then -” Forest unravelled the scroll and was rather shocked when two gold slips of paper fell out.

Chocolate gasped, lunging for them and holding it carefully in trembling hooves. “Are these - oh - oh my goodness -”

Forest took the other one off her and squinted at it. “The Grand Galloping Gala - what’s she doing inviting me to this?”

“It’s the best event in Equestria!” Chocolate gushed, gazing at the tickets with wide eyes. “I’ve always dreamed of going but never had the chance -”

“I haven’t.” Forest said to her with a shrug. “She’s invited me a lot before, but it hasn’t really interested me -”

“You have to go! I must insist upon it!” Chocolate said. “You’ll get to see Celestia again, right?”

“I guess you’re right. I could do with seeing her.” Forest said, perking up slightly. “It’s the perfect excuse to go to Canterlot.”

“I hope you have fun.” Chocolate said, averting her gaze slightly. “Ponies like me never go - but, Celestia - if I could! I’d set up a stand for all the shop’s treats! There’d be so many customers - we could earn so much money and hire some more ponies to run the shop so my mom gets a break -”

“A trip to the Gala would mean that much to you?” Forest asked, Ember hopping on his back with the two tickets in his beak as they left the storeroom and stood on the street.

“Did you say the Gala?” Red landed in front of them instantly, making the two ponies shriek in shock and jump backwards.

“Yeah - Forest’s got two tickets to the Gala.” Chocolate said proudly. “And I’m his plus one.”

“Um -” Forest began saying, and Red squeaked, suddenly hopping on his hooves in excitement.

“The Gala! Bro - you have to let me go!” He began begging, grovelling at Forest’s hooves.

He took a step back, full of sudden uncomfortable shock. “You’d hate the Gala. I don’t even want to really go, it’s that boring -”

“Then can I have your ticket?” Red asked, and Chocolate glared at him. “No - seriously - I have to go! The Wonderbolts will be there - this is my chance to really wow them! They’ll instantly ask me to be a Wonderbolt because I’m so cool -”

“Asking Forest for his ticket is not cool, though.” Chocolate said through her teeth. Red didn’t seem to hear her as the two glared at each other.

“Enough!” Forest yelped, darting between the two ponies. “As of right now, Ember is my plus one.”

“WHAT?!” Chocolate, Red and Ember screeched in horror.

“But I don’t want to go -” Ember began wailing, and Forest clamped her beak shut with a hoof.

“I haven’t decided which of you to take - heck - I haven’t decided if I want to go myself.” Forest said firmly, putting the tickets in his saddlebags. “You both have good reasons - so, if Ember is happy to give up her ticket -” There was rapid nodding from the phoenix, but he ignored it. “- just let me sleep on it, okay?”

“Fine.” Both ponies said begrudgingly, and Forest opened his wings to fly back home, only then taking a big sigh of relief.

“Why did you choose me?” Ember moaned. “I’d rather do anything else -”

“Because I panicked, okay?” He answered, landing and going to take the next few miles on foot. “The Gala always brings nothing but trouble, and I know things are going to get way worse if I don’t deal with this right -”

“Hey, Forest.” Solar said, trotting alongside him.

Forest grunted, suddenly very suspicious.

“Word is that you’ve got tickets to the Gala.” Solar said in a low voice with a grin. “Any chance you could take me?”

Forest stopped short with a sudden glare at him.

“Listen - I’ve got a good reason!” The unicorn protested, shuffling his hooves. “I hear the ponies in Canterlot are a whole new breed, right?” He added with a wink, nudging Forest in the ribs.

“Are you telling me you want my ticket to the Gala to hit on some hot Canterlot ponies?” Red spat, shooting in out of nowhere to push his muzzle right into Solar’s face and bare his teeth.

“Red!” Forest yelled, pulling him away. “Were you spying on me?!”

“No!” He protested, before promptly turning right back to Solar with a glare. “Just making sure nobody takes my ticket -”

“It’s not your ticket!” Forest shrieked, but his words flew over the other ponies’ heads as they began arguing again.

“You were the one complaining about how I never have any time to help you with your training, Red.” Chocolate yelled, cantering down the path towards them. “That ticket is my way of getting more staff for the shop so I don’t have to work so much -”

“This is my dream we’re talking about!” Red shrieked back at her.

“Nobody loves me!” Solar began wailing in distress, as the arguing resumed.

“E- nough!” Forest shrieked, opening his wings as the three ponies instantly stopped arguing, flicking their eyes up to him whilst they froze in their arguing muzzle-to-muzzle position. “I am not giving the ticket to anypony at the moment -”

He stopped short, seeing Horizon cross the road, holding his grocery shopping with his horn.

“Horizon gets the ticket.” Forest spat, pointing at the unicorn with a hoof. “He’s the only one who hasn’t been pestering me about the stupid Gala all day -”

Horizon froze, promptly dropping his shopping as he gazed at them in horror.

“Horizon?! You gave the ticket to Horizon?” Red yelped, fury entering his gaze as he planted all four hooves on the ground.

“I don’t want to go to the Gala.” Horizon began protesting, panic entering his eyes, but Forest firmly pressed the ticket into his hooves.

“Take the stupid thing before I get mauled -” Forest began pleading with him, and Horizon shook his head, tossing it onto the floor.

“I am not setting hoof in Canterlot.” Horizon glared, and Forest tilted his head back with a frustrated yell.

“He doesn’t want it! Give it to me!” Chocolate roared, diving for the ticket.

Solar grabbed Chocolate’s tail with his magic and started pulling her back across the floor. “Hooves off! It’s mine!”

“Mine!” Lava Blast bellowed, just arriving and diving on the pile of furiously fighting and shrieking ponies as Forest watched on in horror.

Horizon was stood next to Forest and blinked at the scene. “Whoops. Sorry.”

“STOP!” Forest screeched, and Horizon cast a spell that instantly made the fighting ponies freeze in their fighting positions.

Solar was mid-kicking Red in the face as the pegasus rammed Chocolate in the flank with his head, whilst she was biting him in the wing and Lava was punching Solar in the jaw. Tails were being grabbed and manes and ears were being pulled as Forest glared at them all, breathing heavily as they were frozen by Horizon’s horn.

“You lot are behaving like animals!” He spat, ignoring Solar’s whinny of surprisement. “It’s a ticket! Grow the hell up! I didn’t want to go very much before but I sure as anything don’t want to go now!”

He snatched up the ticket and shoved it back into his saddlebags.

“Go home and think about how you’re behaving.” Forest growled. “I’m going to get something to eat because all this drama has made me physically unable to get lunch!”

He made one more snarl of annoyance before opening his wings and shooting into the air, trying to dispel some of his fury through his nostrils as he flew.

Finally noticing a restaurant that was open for lunch, he landed, finally managing to feel less angry at the prospect of food as his stomach rumbled.

“Hey, Forest.” Chocolate said, trotting next to him as he went towards the restaurant.

“If this is about the ticket -” He began growling, and Chocolate shot in front of him, a hoof on her heart in faux hurt.

“No - I just couldn’t help noticing that my bestest friend ever was going to actually pay for his lunch!” Chocolate said in a sweet voice, fluttering her eyelashes at him.

“That’s generally what law-abiding citizens do -” He began saying, but Chocolate shushed him, finally whipping a plate out of nowhere, where there was an arrangement of things from her shop on there.

The smell was divine, and his eyes widened as his stomach growled, looking at the delicious treats on the plate.

“I shall hear nothing of it! Free of charge, from one generous pony to another!” Chocolate piped up, and Forest finally realised what she was doing, narrowing his eyes at her.

“No!” Forest shot, thwacking the plate out of her hoof. “If this is you trying to butter me up to get that ticket, then it won’t work. Let me just get some lunch - for Celestia’s sake -”

He pushed past her, suddenly fuming again as his stomach kept growling. He sat down harshly at an outside table, with Ember sitting on the opposite seat as the waiter came to take his order. Forest ordered his food and Ember complained about there being no nice food on the menu. After Forest threatened her by saying if she didn’t ask for anything then she was going to have nothing later when she started complaining about being hungry, she begrudgingly ordered some hay fries.

The food arrived, with Forest getting increasingly suspicious that nobody had tried giving him unwanted favours yet, and just as he was about to take his first bite of his sandwich, he noticed how all the other diners began yelling and darting inside the restaurant.

“Sir - are you going to eat your food in the rain?” The waiter asked from the door, and Forest frowned, looking around.

“It’s not raining -” He began saying, before seeing all the other ponies running around with high pitched yelps to try and get home before they got drenched.

But where he was sat was still dry. The sun was beating down on him, and Forest immediately looked upwards, seeing where it was streaming through a massive hole in the clouds.

“Red!” He shouted, glaring at the gap as a sheepish looking pegasus poked his head out from behind.

“Hey, bro!” Red sang, leaning down from where he was still looking through the cloud. “Just saw a friend enjoying his lunch and opened a lil hole in the clouds so he didn’t get wet -”

“Red! You know how I feel about accepting favours from other ponies!” Forest glared at him, the sandwich still in his hooves.

“Hey, now, you have no need to thank me! I’d do it for anypony!” Red piped up, and Forest raised en eyebrow at the other ponies still running around in the torrential rain.

“Anypony who has tickets to the Gala!” Forest spat, glaring at him. “Shut that stupid cloud and let me eat my lunch immediately!”

“Fine!” Red scowled, reaching over and pulling it closed so he was obscured from view.

“That’s better.” Forest chimed, going to take a bite of his sandwich when the rain soaked him, making the bread fall apart and fall back on the plate with a splat.

Ember shrieked at getting soaked and promptly shot into Forest’s saddlebags, and Forest sighed, his dripping mane falling into his eyes as he left a few coins on the table and began walking slowly back home, his head down as he put one hoof in front of the other.

Suddenly, the rain stopped, and Forest tilted his head up, ready to shout at Red again, but was promptly greeted by the sight of an umbrella instead.

Solar grinned at him, walking next to him soaking wet as he held the umbrella over Forest’s head with his horn. “Here to help, my friend!”

“I don’t want your help!” Forest shot, slapping the umbrella away. “For the love of Celestia, why can’t anypony leave me alone?!”

He cantered away from Solar and just as he was about to get through the door, Lava appeared, opening the door for him with a hoof. “Let me get that for you -”

“Lava - stop! That ticket is mine -” Solar roared, and Chocolate, Red and Lava began spouting more arguments at each other.

“Stop!” Forest howled, panting as he glared at them from the door. “I’m not giving any of you the ticket!” He finally noticed Horizon, who was hanging around outside. “Horizon, if you’re sure you don’t want it -”

“No.” The unicorn said firmly, and Forest made a hysterical squeak.

“Then it’s settled. Ember gets the ticket.” Forest spat, glaring at them all. “Now all of you leave me alone for the rest of the day or I will be forced to do something violent!”

He then proceeded to slam the door in their faces, tracking rainwater into the library as he shook his mane and tail violently, and sighed, sagging his head.

“Ember - was I too harsh?” He asked her as she emerged from his saddlebags. “I do feel bad for yelling at them like that -”

“They were being awful.” Ember admitted to him, flying over to her perch.

As Forest sighed again, going over to the shelves and beginning to reorganise them again, he thought back. HIs friends had been incredibly pushy, but yelling at them like that was only bringing back memories of when he’d lost his temper with them before in his previous life.

There was a sudden knock on the door, and he glared at it, knowing who it would be.

Horizon opened the door, his mane plastered to his skull from the rain. “Can I come in?”

Forest only shrugged, turning back to the shelf.

“These four have something they’d like to say.” Horizon said, pointing a hoof to the door as the other ponies came in, looking bedraggled and utterly defeated.

“Is it ‘Can I have your ticket?’” Forest said sarcastically, and Chocolate shook her drenched head, taking a step forward.

“What we did today was so pushy and horrible, Forest.” She whispered, averting her gaze. “If it’s any consolation, I feel awful about it, and now I think about it, no ticket is worth me losing a friend.”

He blinked at her as she looked up at him.

“So, I’m sorry. I don’t want the ticket. You can give it to somepony else.” Chocolate finished, and Lava looked up at him too.

“Yeah. Sorry.” He muttered, followed by apologies from both Solar and Red as well, who seemed unable to look him in the eyes as their ears drooped with guilt.

“Th-that’s okay.” Forest managed to stutter out, and suddenly he knew what to do. “But I don’t want to go either. And since Ember and Horizon don’t want the tickets either, there’s only one thing I can do.”

He headed over to his desk and began writing out a letter to Celestia.

“‘Dear Princess Celestia. I’ve learned that one of the joys of friendship is sharing your blessings. But when there's not enough blessings to go around, having more than your friends can make you and everyone else feel awful.’” He read aloud, seeing how his friends blinked at his words. “ ‘So, though I appreciate the invitation, I will be returning both tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala.’” He tucked the tickets into the scroll.

“What?” Solar protested, looking at him with shock. “But we don’t want you to not go - they’re your tickets and your invitation -”

“Celestia’s invited me plenty of times but I really don’t care about the Gala. Maybe I would have if I could have gone with all of you, but that’s not going to happen.” Forest said, rolling up the scroll and sealing it. “If you can’t go, then I don’t want to either.”

He tossed the scroll at Ember, and when it came in contact with her feathers, it erupted into flames, disintegrating into magical smoke and ash which whirled out of the window of the library. Ember made a noise of annoyance before going right back to preening her feathers.

“Hey. That is a lot easier than using teleporting parchment.” Forest muttered to himself, and when his friends looked at him in confusion, he flushed and added a quick “Nothing.”

Ember suddenly perked up, making a squawking noise as her feathers lit up and another reply from the princess formed, the scroll falling at Ember’s claws. She unwravelled it with her talons and began reading it as Forest and the other ponies listened with wide eyes.

“‘Dear Forest. Why didn’t you just say so?’” Ember read, before holding out her other claw, where there were a fan of tickets. “Six tickets to the Gala!”

“Six?” Red asked, before quickly casting his eyes around and counting everyone. “But - that means we can all go!”

“Yeah!” Chocolate and Solar yelled simultaneously, rearing up and high-hoofing each other.

Lava scowled as his ticket landed at his hooves.

“What was your reason for wanting to go, Blasty?” Red suddenly asked, tapping his hoof on his chin. “I don’t think you mentioned it -”

“I didn’t.” Lava responded, glaring at the ticket. “I just wanted it because all of you wanted it.”

They all laughed, and Ember dropped the letter, suddenly looking forlorn.

“Why didn’t I get a ticket?” She muttered, before another scroll disintegrated from her feathers and she leapt back with  squawk.

Forest grabbed the new scroll and read it out loud. “‘And one for you too, Ember!’” He said with a smirk, passing the ticket to her.

There was a look of uncontained delight on Ember’s face as she took it in her beak, before she realised everyone was watching and she scowled again.

“Gross. I don’t want to go to the stupid Gala.” She moaned, but she wasn’t fooling anyone now, and Forest patted her on the head with a laugh.

As the other ponies went home, Forest waved them off, honestly relieved that the whole scene was over and they’d managed to reconcile from all the fighting. As he went to shut the door, he noticed that Horizon was still stood there, glancing at the ticket he was holding with his horn.

“Horizon?” Forest asked, turning around to him. “Is there something wrong?”

Horizon glanced up at him. “I think I have something - um - important on that date.”

“Yeah, like the Gala?” Forest asked him, and Horizon shook his head.

“The Gala’s important, but this is - uh - importanter.” Horizon said, and Forest could tell he was lying through his teeth.

Being the element of Honesty, Hallowed Horizon was a terrible liar.

“You said you weren’t going to set hoof in Canterlot.” Forest pressed, looking at him with a mixture of suspicion and sympathy. “Why is that?”

Horizon sighed, glancing at his reflection in the shiny surface of the ticket. “Bad memories. Things I’d rather not remember.”

“Okay. Well, I know you don’t want to talk about it.” Forest said, trying not to flush at the touchy subject. “But I hope you will, one day.”

He looked up at him with blazing eyes. “Me too.”

Horizon left after that, and Forest went to his room to study, but his thoughts were loud. Despite the fact Forest had lived in Canterlot for over a decade, never had he encountered Horizon once in his time then. Either this was before, when Forest was still in Cloudsdale, or there was another reason.

Later that week, Forest was heading to the boutique to try and find a suit for the Gala, he found it was closed. He frowned at the closed sign, frustrated that he’d flown this far to get a suit and even though the other sign said they were supposed to be open today, they clearly weren’t.

In fact, as Forest walked back home, his hoofsteps were echoing on the road. He frowned, glancing around, yet there was nothing. It was like a desert town. There were no ponies walking around, and all the shops were shut - it seemed like the situation wasn’t unique to the boutique. At one point, Forest swore he saw tumbleweed rolling across the road and was starting to get thoroughly creeped out when he passed Chocol’otel and saw even that was closed.

He gulped, opening his wings to try and fly back before something happened, and there was a short ‘psst’ shot at him. He folded his wings, looking around rapidly to try and see where it was coming from, and noticed that Chocolate was waving at him frantically with a hoof from an upstairs window in the shop. Forest opened his wings, flying through the window feeling incredibly strange about the whole thing, before Chocolate immediately shut the window and closed the curtains. Forest was plunged into darkness, but saw how Chocolate’s eyes were darting around and she was incredibly tense.

“What’s going on?” He demanded, before he was promptly shushed by Chocolate, who had a hoof over her mouth.

“Be quiet!” Another voice hissed from behind him, and Forest shrieked in shock as he realised he and Chocolate weren’t the only ponies in the upstairs room of the shop.

“What are you all doing here?” He hissed, seeing Solar, Red, Lava and Horizon in the corners of the dark room.

Red stepped forward, and for the first time Forest noticed that there was a younger pegasus foal at his side. He remembered Red’s words after pulling the thorn out of the manticore’s paw, and how he had a little brother. The younger pegasus looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but here. He was a lighter red than his older brother was and his mane was a dark crimson with white streaks. He had no cutie mark.

“We’re hiding.” Red hissed, drawing back the curtain back a crack and pointing with a hoof at the window. “From her.”

Forest peeked out, where there was a cloaked figure simply standing in the centre of town and pawing at the ground with a hoof. She wasn’t moving aside from that one hoof, and Forest raised an eyebrow, unsure at what they could possibly be afraid of. He didn’t flinch when the hooded figure suddenly snapped her head up, her eyes glinting at them, and Red and the other ponies squeaked and shot back, pulling the curtain closed again.

“Did you see her? Did you see Zecora?” The colt asked, glancing up at Forest, and he turned back at his words.

“Crimson, I told you never to say that name.” Red said sternly, glaring at his younger brother.

“Well, I saw her glance at us and you freak out for no good reason.” Forest said, raising an eyebrow at all his friends.

“No good reason?” Red asked, shooting out a protective wing around his younger brother. “When Crimson saw Zecora trotting into town the poor thing started shaking in his little horseshoes -”

“Did not!” Crimson spat, glaring at him as he tried to wriggle free.

“So I picked him up and we flew right over here.” Red said, and Crimson grunted, jumping away from his brother’s grip.

“Red! I flew here by myself!” Crimson spat, pawing at the ground in anger. “I’m not a baby! I can take care of myself -”

“Not from Zecora, you can’t.” Red said, and Solar shifted, looking incredibly uncomfortable.

“She’s mysterious and super creepy.” The yellow unicorn said.

Forest glanced out of the window again, and found all the other ponies shooting over to look over his shoulder again. He rolled his eyes and looked at Zecora, where she took her hood down. The other ponies gasped in horror and Chocolate immediately shut the curtain again.

“Cut out the gasping.” Forest glared, and they looked terrified as they shot back to the opposite wall as far away from the window as possible.

“Stripes? You’re joking, right?” Red muttered condescendingly, and Forest made a grunt of annoyance.

“She’s a zebra.” Forest explained, remembering his studies from back in Canterlot with Celestia. “She’s born with stripes. That’s not some kind of creepy war paint or whatever you ponies are thinking -”

“Born where?” Chocolate asked, her knees trembling. “I’ve never seen a pony like her before -”

“Well, she’s probably not from here. And she’s not a pony. She’s not even an equine.” Forest said, looking back out of the window. “Zebras are from a far off land that’s well out of Equestria. But I’ve never seen her before in Ponyville. Where does she live?” He asked them, and the other ponies glanced at each other, looking very uncomfortable.

“That’s just it. She lives in the Everfree Forest.” Solar muttered, looking very afraid all of a sudden at the memories of all the dangers they’d encountered in the forest.

“And that evil enchantress hides away there to do all her evil echantress-ey stuff.” Red announced, slamming a hoof down on the ground.

“This is all just a bunch of gossip and rumours.” Forest said, glaring at him. “How much of that stuff have you actually seen her do?”

“Well - once a month she comes into Ponyville -” Chocolate said, and Forest made a mocking ‘oooooh’ of terror.

“And she fucking lurks by the stores.” Lava said, and Forest threw his hooves over his mouth and said a sarcastic ‘Oh my!’

“And she digs at the ground with her hoof.” Horizon said, pawing at the floor with his own hoof in an imitation.

“Sweet Celestia!” Forest gasped sarcastically, putting a hoof to his forehead in mock terror. “Seriously, this is pathetic. What if she just comes to town to, I don’t know, visit?”

“Yeah. What if she’s just trying to be neighbourly?” Crimson piped up, taking Forest’s other side, and he nodded, agreeing with the smaller pony.

“Maybe she’s not ‘lurking’ by the stores. Maybe she’s just trying to do some shopping?” Forest said as he raised an eyebrow and pointed at the window.

“Exactly - even zebras need groceries -” Crimson began saying, before he was rather roughly moved to the side and interrupted by Red.

“Crimson! Be quiet and let the big ponies talk.” The red pegasus said firmly at him, pointing to the opposite side of the room.

“I am a big pony.” Crimson shot at him, before storming off in the other direction.

“What about digging at the ground? You gotta admit that’s creepy.” Solar protested.

“I am sure there is a reasonable explanation for everything Zecora does if somepony was brave enough to approach her and, I don’t know, maybe ask her?” Forest said condescendingly. “You all are being utterly ridiculous, except maybe Crimson - and he’s younger than all of you -”

“Hey! Where is Crimson?” Solar suddenly yelped, and Red made a screeching noise, whirling around in all directions.

“The window’s open!” Chocolate gasped in horror, and Red shrieked, sticking his head out. “He went outside!”

“That fucking zebra’s out there!” Lava growled, and they could just about see Zecora vanishing back into the forest, promptly tailed by a tiny red blob which was very obviously the little pegasus they were currently missing.

“After them!” Red screeched, and all the ponies began cantering out of the shop and down the deserted road towards the Everfree Forest.

Forest couldn’t help feeling this whole thing was incredibly stupid, but now Crimson was in the Everfree, things could get ugly, because even if he was convinced Zecora wasn’t dangerous, the forest certainly wasn’t.

Red shot off at breakneck speed after his brother, sweeping the colt up and dropping him on his back before landing in the patch of blue flowers as Zecora disappeared into the distance.

“Crimson, you idiot!” Red snapped, stalking back through the flowers towards the others, who were brushing through them to get to Red. “I told you to stay put -”

“Beware, beware! You pony folk!” Zecora’s voice echoed as she backed away into the mist. “Those leaves of blue are not a joke!

“You keep your creepy ass mumbo jumbo to yourself, you fuckwit!” Lava roared, rearing up and crushing a patch of the flowers under his hooves.

“Yeah, was that supposed to scare us?” Red shot back into the mist as the others called a mixture of ‘Get away from here!’ and ‘Don’t come back, coward!’ as the hooded zebra disappeared into the fog.

“Oh, brother.” Forest sighed, rolling his eyes in surrender, not even attempting to scold any of them.

“Beware! Beware!” Zecora’s voice echoed in the distance, and Solar scowled and shook a hoof at the silhouette of the zebra vanishing.

“Right back at you, Zecora! You and your lame curse are the ones who need to beware!” The unicorn yelled, before Zecora and her voice faded into the thickening foc.

“And you, you little mister.” Red shot at his brother with a glare, who was still on his back. “Why can’t you listen to me just once? Who knows what kind of curse she could have put on you?”

“You’re a curse at the moment.” Crimson snarled, looking furious at his brother.

“There’s no such thing as a curse!” Forest snapped, turning back to the other ponies. The blue flowers tickled his stomach, so he pushed them away with a hoof.

“That’s fucking rich coming from Mister I’m-Celestia’s-Personal-Student.” Lava scoffed, and Forest glared at him.

“No, I study real magic. Unicorn magic - that comes from within. It’s a skill unicorns are born with.” Forest explained, indicating to Horizon and Solar. “Curses are artificial magic. You know, potions and incantations and yada-yada-yada - it’s all fake and meant to scare. It’s all an old pony’s tale -”

“Just you wait, Forest.” Red said, turning back at him as he and the other ponies began trotting out of the forest and through the blue flowers. “Some old pony tales really do end up to be true. You of all ponies should know that.”

And deep down, Forest couldn’t help agreeing with him slightly as he followed the other ponies out of the forest. He should know that, since the whole mare-in-the-moon thing had been right all along. Perhaps he shouldn’t be so quick to brush it off -

No. He firmly told himself. He refused to believe curses existed. There was no reason for it, and if it was magic, Celestia would have taught it to him.

He was still plagued by nightmares all night, however, and was tossing and turning all night. When he woke up, Forest grunted, propping himself upright and slithering out of bed. As he left his room he noticed his reflection in the mirror and patted his tangled mane back down.

“Maybe she cursed my mane.” He smirked, patting it flat a bit further before opening his wings to take the stairs.

He shrieked as his wings flapped and he went in the opposite direction, smashing into an opposite wall and sending a photo frame crashing down. Forest yelled, kicking his legs to try and regain control but it was like the more he flapped, the more he spun and shot in random directions. Finally, Forest bashed his muzzle on the wall as he flew head-on into it, and folded his wings with a groan, letting his battered body fall down the stairs.

As he mumbled and gasped in pain, he looked back at his wings in horror.

“Or - she cursed my wings!” He yelped in horror.

It was like they’d been taken off of his body and glued back on so they were stuck on the wrong way. He opened them with his jaw dropping open as he felt the joints bending in the opposite direction. The next few minutes were followed by a lot of screaming and panicked running around the library, tossing books off the shelf and frantically flicking through the pages.

“No - no - no - NO! None of these books have a cure!” Forest shrieked, tossing another one over his shoulder. “There has to be a reasonable explanation for this - an illness? An allergy?”

“Yeah, because an allergy would make your wings look a collage made by a preschooler.” Ember said, not even looking up from the book she was reading.

“What do you suggest then?” He spat at the phoenix, feeling incredibly uncomfortable at the feeling of his wings being the wrong way around.

“A curse?” Ember said, and Forest tossed his head back with an incredibly loud ‘UGH!’

“I said a real reason for this!” He said, glaring at her. “And I can’t find anything that can fix it!”

“What about this one?” Ember suggested, shutting the book she was reading and hopping aside so Forest could read the cover.

“‘Supernaturals’? You’re joking - that suggests ghosts and zombies and a bunch of made up hooey that’s just as fake as curses are!” Forest shot at him, and Ember blinked at him.

“But what if you’re wrong, Forest?” She asked him, a slight sympathy entering her voice.

“It’s a curse!” Solar wailed, cantering into the library with high pitched shrieks.

Forest gawked in horror as Solar screamed, lashing his head around, and Forest’s jaw dropped when he saw how Solar’s horn was flopping limp and flapping around like a wing with no bones in it.

“Solar? What happened?” Forest demanded, and Solar made a wailing noise, prodding at his wobbly horn with a hoof. It squished, and Forest recoiled.

“I dunno - I just woke up like this -” Solar whimpered, and suddenly Chocolate and Lava shot into the library.

Well, what looked like Lava.

“I can’t fucking see!” Lava roared, spitting mouthfuls of his own mane out of his mouth. His coat and mane were completely overgrown and practically dragging on the floor behind him as he stumbled around, close to tripping.

Chocolate made a wailing noise, but that was about as much as she could do because her tongue was so swollen and hanging out of her mouth.

“I hate to tell you ‘I told you so’, Forest, but I told you so!” Red shrieked, and all the ponies gasped in horror when they saw Red - but he was absolutely tiny - shrunk to the size of a small rabbit, and balanced on Crimson’s back, who seemed very amused by the whole thing. “It’s a curse, I’m telling you!’

Horizon had silently stood by Lava’s other side the entire time, and Forest finally turned his attention to him. “Horizon seems fine, though!”

“Yes, there’s not a fucking thing wrong with him.” Lava scowled, lifting his drapes of mane out of his eyes.

Horizon suddenly looked very uncomfortable, flattening his ears.

“Horizon, are you okay?” Forest pressed, and Horizon averted his gaze. “Wait - is there something wrong with you? Like us?”

Horizon nodded timidly, barely able to look Forest in the eyes.

“Are you going to tell us?” Forest asked, and Horizon shook his head rapidly. “No, you’re not going to tell us?”

Horizon nodded firmly again, and Forest sighed, feeling incredibly confused.

“For the love of Celestia, what’s wrong with you?” Red demanded, trotting across the table and hopping on a book to glare at Horizon. “Spit it out.”

“No.” Horizon said, and they all gasped and flinched backwards when Horizon’s deep, rich voice was not the one he spoke in, but that of a high pitched female.

There was silence for a few seconds aside from Ember choking and doubling over, before she erupted into loud, hysterical laughter.

“Ember! This isn’t funny! Go and find some more books!” Forest yelled at her, and she glared at him, still choking down laughter.

“Fine! Fine!” She retorted, still snorting and snickering to herself.

“We need to go to Zecora’s and demand that she fixes this hex she’s cast on us immediately!” Red shrieked.

“It’s not a hex either!” Forest shrieked, stamping a foot on the ground.

“Try telling that to yourself when you can’t fucking see!” Lava screeched, before promptly inhaling his own mane and beginning to cough and choke.

The library erupted into arguments as everyone began yelling in their shock and confusion, and Forest suddenly inhaled when he noticed Crimson begin flying out of the library, with Red barely hanging onto his younger brother’s mane as the he zipped out.

“Where is he going?” Forest inhaled, opening his wings on instinct to follow but quickly changing his mind after the incident he’d had this morning. “Quick! We have to follow them before he squashes Red!”

As they group cantered on (with Horizon mostly using his magic to drag Lava along because he kept tripping over his mane), Chocolate began spluttering in anxiety past her swollen tongue.

“Why did Crimson leave?” Solar asked, and Forest sighed.

“I don’t know. I think Crimson feels guilty that this has all happened.” He replied, following the red pegasus’s path into the Everfree Forest - wait! There’s Red!”

Red was balancing on a tiny branch, howling at the top of his lungs.

“You get back here, mister!” Red screeched, and Forest quickly grabbed him, putting the tiny pegasus on his back as the group began galloping deep into the forest.

“Where’s Crimson?” Forest breathlessly asked him, and Red made another noise of fury.

“I don’t know. He dropped me on the branch and disappeared.”

“Then we have to find him.” Forest growled.

They found Zecora’s hut, which was within a twisted tree that was decorated with incredibly strange ornaments like hanging bottles filled with curiously coloured concoctions, and creepy carved wooden masks.

“This looks horrible.” Solar whispered as they all poked their heads out of the bushes.

Lava made a screeching noise as his mane caught on the undergrowth and he was sent rolling head over heels into mud.

They all poked their heads up to look through the window of the hut. Zecora moved, and they all gasped and tucked away as she tipped the clay jar in her mouth over the cauldron of bubbling green mixture, pouring pink seeds into it.

What made them all gasp further was when she began speaking, her voice echoing a foreign language over the mixture, Forest made a squeaking noise of horror.

“Creepy decor, incantations, a big cauldron of potions - everything is pointing to Zecora being bad.” He whispered, pulling away from the window at the triumphant looks of his friends. He forced a smile on his face. “Or, maybe she’s just making soup?” He tried, with a painful grin on his face.

They looked through the window again. Zecora dipped her hoof in the mixture and licked it off her hoof. “The perfect temperature - all done in a flash.” Zecora muttered, before glancing over her shoulder. “Now, where is that little Crimson Crash?”

They all made a noise of horror, and Forest’s eyes widened as a grimace edged onto his face.

“Or maybe she’s making Crimson Crash soup!” He shrieked, causing them all to scream in panic.

Red shrieked, kicking Forest in the back so that he reared, opening his wings on instinct, and flew upside down through the window, beginning to smash around the walls of the hut. There were incredible smashes as Forest flew headfirst into the wall, sending the masks and bottles on it smashing to the floor and making the entire hut shake.

Zecora yelled something in her foreign language, but Forest could barely hear it as his wings made him spin out of control. Lava smashed down the door with his skull, the other ponies flanking him with roars of battle.

“What have you done with Crimson?” The blonde stallion shrieked.

Just then, Red tugged hard on Forest’s ear, making him shoot into the floor and hit the cauldron with his skull. It tipped on its side, spilling its contents at Lava’s feet.

“NO! You know not what you do!” Zecora cried out, despair on her face as she knelt down to look at her cauldron. “You’ve gone and spilled my precious brew!”

Forest’s head was still spinning as he folded his crooked wings and forced himself to stand upright. “I didn’t want to believe that you were an enchantress, but the evidence against you is damning!”

“You made me look ridiculous!” Lava roared, spitting hair out of his mouth again.

“You made me sound ridiculous!” Horizon said in his high pitched voice.

“How dare you! You destroy my home, destroy my brew?” Zecora snarled, pointing at them all. “And then accuse me of doing this to you?”

“You cursed us, now you’d better un-curse us, pronto!” Solar growled, snorting and tensing his muscles

“It is unwise to venture down this road - your actions will make my actions explode!” Zecora roared, glaring at them all and slamming a hoof on the ground.

“Where - is - Crimson?” Lava bellowed, locking heads with the zebra and pushing against her.

“Zecora! I think I got all the things you asked for -” Crimson’s voice chimed in from behind and they all looked back in horror as the small pegasus stood in the doorway with full saddlebags. “What in Equestria happened here?”

“Crimson!” You’re okay!” Red yelped from where he was balanced on Forest’s head.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Crimson asked incredulously, and Solar leapt in front of the young pony as if he was going to defend him from an immediate threat.

“Because Zecora is an evil enchantress and she’s going to cook you up into a stew!” The yellow unicorn snapped, his horn wobbling as he spoke.

Zecora and Crimson started laughing and all the ponies looked around in shock at the sudden turn of events.

“Did the others finally get in your head, Forest?” Crimson asked, seeing how Forest was standing there with his jaw open. “There’s no such thing as a curse.”

“But Crimson - you can’t just stand there and say this isn’t a curse.” Forest said, pointing to his own wings and the other ailments of the other ponies.

“It isn’t! There’s a reason I didn’t get affected like you.” Crimson explained, trotting over to Zecora.

“If you remember back, the words I said were quite exact.” Zecora said.

“Zecora was warning us about those blue flowers!” Crimson piped up, pointing to his older brother. “It’s called Poison Joke. I didn’t get affected because I was on Red’s back the whole time!”

“That plant is much like poison oak, but its results are like a joke!” Zecora chuckled.

Forest flattened his ears suddenly. “Oh - I see what she’s saying. When we ran to save Crimson, we ran into that patch of Poison Joke. And all this stuff isn’t a curse - it’s just little jokes the plant decided to play on us.”

“So she didn’t curse us!” Red whispered, sounding horrified.

“But what about the chanting? The cauldron? The creepy masks?” Solar demanded, leaning forwards.

“The masks are from Zecora’s native land.” Crimson explained, and Zecora nodded.

“The words I spoke were from olden times - something you ponies call a nursery rhyme.” Zecora smiled, and Forest inhaled.

“What about the cauldron?”

“The cauldron wasn’t soup for me!” Crimson laughed, trotting past it and pointing at an open book on the side. “It was to fix all of your problems from the poison joke! Turns out the cure is just a simple natural remedy.”

Forest leapt over and began scanning the book with a frown on his face. “But I looked through all the books in my library for a cure and couldn’t find anything!”

“Here is the book, you see!” Zecora said, shutting it with a hoof to reveal the green cover that Forest instantly recognised. “Sad that you lack it in your library.”

“Actually, I do have this book.” Forest sighed, sagging his head when he remembered the book Ember had showed him. “But I didn’t look inside because the title was so strange. ‘Supernaturals: Natural Remedies and Cures.’” He averted his gaze, suddenly feeling incredibly guilty. “I’m sorry, Zecora - I had the answer the entire time and I only managed to make everything worse.”

“Maybe next time you will take a look, and not judge the cover of the book.” Zecora chuckled, smiling at them all.

“Would you be kind enough to mix up another batch of the cure, Zecora?” He asked, and she nodded with a smile.

“Mix it up, I certainly will. But I am missing a herb from Ponyville.”

“Every time Zecora goes to town all the shops are closed.” Crimson said, taking Zecora’s side. “She always paws at the ground because she’s getting frustrated that she can’t buy the things she needs.”

Forest gave the others a triumphant look at the others out of the corner of his eye. “I’m sure we can help with that.”

After going around town and knocking on doors in order to explain to them that Zecora wasn’t a threat and never was, they took the freshly made cure (which was meant to be used in a bubble bath) and soon all their problems were instantly cured. Forest walked out of the shower of the spa  with his wings the right way around again, to his relief, and grinned happily, seeing the other ponies still in the bath. Lava’s hair was a normal length now again, and he was now simply lazing on the side of the pool while Chocolate and Solar splashed each other mercilessly.

“Where’s Red?” Crimson suddenly yelped, and all the ponies shrieked and began checking their hooves to make sure they hadn’t stepped on him.

“I’m okay!” Red said from down below, where he currently had a very small bucket stuck on his rump from where they’d made him a smaller version of the bath. “I’m not tiny anymore.”

They all sighed in relief and Chocolate squeaked, sticking her tongue out. “I never realised how horrible it was not being able to talk. Isn’t that right, Horizon?”

They all turned their attention to Horizon, who had just emerged from the sauna with a towel over his back.

“Yes.” He said in his normal voice with a slight smirk, and they all exhaled in relief and laughter.

Later that evening, when Forest was writing out his letter to the Princess about the whole experience, he realised he hadn’t managed to get his suit for the Gala after all.

Anyway, that was okay. A decision on what to wear would take a lot of thought and it was probably best that he had as much time as possible to look somewhat decent.

He looked up, still writing, and wondered when it was that he’d decided he needed to get all dressed up for the occasion. He thought he didn’t care about the Gala before - why was this happening now?

And then when he looked down in horror at his half written letter, in his thoughts he’d subconsciously written a word beginning with H that answered that question immediately.

Forest inhaled and exhaled, before tossing the letter in the trash and starting again.

His sudden flush did not go in the same way.

Chapter Text

Forest was trotting down the road with his new suit over his back when he heard Red’s voice from in the orchard. He blinked, opening his wings to fly over, where he saw Chocolate and Red chatting to each other with horseshoes in their mouths.

“Hey.” He greeted them, trotting over as Red looked up with a blue coloured horseshoe in his mouth. “What are you two doing?”

Chocolate dropped hers and turned to him with a grin. “Red and I are playing a game of horseshoes!”

Forest raised an eyebrow, glancing at the setup. The two ponies were stood behind a scored line in the dirt, and the coloured horseshoes were scattered at their hooves with a stick poking out of the ground a few meters away. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Pfft - Canterlot ponies.” Red said around the horseshoe in his mouth. “It’s easy. You just -” He tilted his head and tossed the horseshoe towards the stake in the ground. The horseshoe clattered a few centimetres away. “You toss it towards the stick. Winner is the pony who gets their horseshoe the closest!”

“Wanna play, Forest?” Chocolate piped up, picking up her own horseshoe in her teeth.

He shook his head slowly. “Sorry, I should probably get my suit home before it gets muddy.”

“Okay.” Chocolate shrugged, before tossing her own horseshoe.

It hit the stick and swung around it a few times before hitting the ground. Red’s jaw dropped.

“I win!” Chocolate squeaked, hopping on all four hooves.

Red sighed and flattened his ears. “Come on, I hate losing.”

“Hey! It’s okay! It’s just a game, after all.” Chocolate said, patting him on the shoulder, but Red shrugged her off.

“I’m supposed to be the best athlete in Equestria!” Red said with another sigh, and Forest watched the conversation unfold slightly uncomfortably.

“You are!” Chocolate said with a smile, before trotting off with an evil glance at him. “I’m just better.”

Red narrowed his eyes and shot after her, flying over her head. “Hey! You’re a pony who lives off chocolate! You’re no athlete -”

“I don’t eat the chocolate, I make it, silly.” Chocolate said with a smile, brushing his face with her tail so he coughed. “But I guess I’m talented at more than one thing.”

“Okay! You know what? Why don’t we prove it - and see who’s better once and for all.” Red demanded, narrowing his eyes.

Forest shuffled his hooves, knowing how competitive both of them were and how neither of them were going to back down now.

“Let’s do it.” Chocolate said with a grin, narrowing her own eyes. “What do you suggest?”

“An Iron Pony contest. Whoever wins the most rounds is the best - once and for all.” Red said, and Chocolate’s eyes flashed in determination.

“Easy.” She said, and the ponies firmly shook hooves.

Forest sighed and flattened his ears, knowing this was not going to end with both ponies being happy.

Later on, as the contest was set up, Forest found himself rudely pulled out of his study session by Chocolate, who led him towards the fields where the contest was being held.

“I really don’t think this is a good idea.” Forest said tentatively, and Chocolate shrugged, grinning at him.

“It’s okay. We both need to do this - and it’ll be fun, right?” She said, and Forest gave her an exasperated glance, before they both looked at Red.

The red pegasus was puffing and panting as he did press ups, stretching his legs as he gave Chocolate another evil glance. Forest scowled at them both.

“And I’m here because..?” Forest asked, and Chocolate glared at Red.

“You’re here to keep count.” Chocolate replied, and Forest shrugged, wondering why they didn’t ask anypony else to do it.

“Fine.”

The first event was where a line of barrels were placed, and the pony had to weave around the barrels. The fastest time out of the two won a point. Chocolate went first, shooting off and zipping around the obstacles with incredible agility. At one point she knocked a barrel slightly, and Forest clicked his tongue at that, before stopping the stopwatch as she crossed the line.

“Seventeen seconds.” He said, and Chocolate beamed, trotting over to where Red and Forest were standing.

“Try beating that one.” She announced confidently, and Forest shook his head.

“You got a five second penalty for hitting the barrel, Chocolate.” He said, and Chocolate’s face immediately fell. “Twenty-two seconds.”

“Hey - that’s still not bad.” She said, and Red smirked, going over to the start line.

He shot through the barrels as Forest yelled ‘Go!’, leaving a crimson streak behind him, and Forest stopped the timer as he cantered over the line. No penalties, he mentally noted.

“Nineteen seconds!” He said, and Red flew over, panting slightly.

“That was some fancy hoofwork.” Chocolate smiled, patting him on the back.

“Red wins!” Forest announced, putting the score as 1:0 to Red on the makeshift board they’d set up.

A crowd was beginning to gather at all the fuss, and Forest rolled his eyes but didn’t complain, wanting to get this over and done with.

The next event was kicking a contraption that caused it to measure the force of it by the hammer moving up it, and  the bell would ring if it reached a certain force and the hammer hit it. Red went first, kicking the target with his back legs. The bell rang, and he trotted past Chocolate with an obnoxious look on his face. Chocolate didn’t even flinch, trotting past him and kicking the target hard so the hammer shot up, causing the bell to shatter and the top of the machine to break off.

Red fell back on his rump with his jaw open as Chocolate smiled and walked past him with her nose in the air.

“That’s earth pony power there, hun.” She grinned, kicking the tree Red was sat next to so an apple landed on his head.

Forest changed the score. 1:1.

The next event consisted of keeping a ball off the floor with the nose as it span. Chocolate was stumbling with grunts and yelps as she tried to keep the ball still, but ended up flat on her muzzle as the ball went flying. Red stuck his back hoof out and caught hers without even flinching as he kept his own balanced perfectly on his nose.

2:1 to Red.

The ponies who were gather whooped and cheered. Forest saw Lava stood in the crowd rolling his eyes in exasperation and found he didn’t disagree with the blonde stallion.

Hay tossing. Red grabbed his hay bale and with a strong jerk of his neck, tossed it far. He flew over to see where it landed, and his eyes lit up as it landed in front of him. He turned back to Chocolate to stick his tongue out, but Chocolate’s own bale landed on top of him, a good few meters away from Red’s score.

2:2, Forest changed the score, but Chocolate was always going to win that round. Hauling all those heavy boxes around made her incredibly strong.

Hoof wrestling. Chocolate slammed Red’s hoof down with so much minimum effort that she was leaning back with her eyes shut.

2:3 to Chocolate. The crowd were getting incredibly riled up as Forest watched with a mixture of annoyance and excitement, but Red was getting very annoyed now and it looked like steam was coming out of his ears.

Red won the next event in the high jump, making it a draw as it drew to the middle of the contest. Forest sighed again, knowing that the two were just as good as each other - but maybe in different ways - but their competitiveness was making it not fun for either of them.

He looked down at the list of events.

Pushups. The ponies were nose to nose as they glared into each others eyes as they moved up and down. Forest counted the push ups as they did them.

“Ninety seven, ninety eight -” Forest said, seeing how the ponies were straining and baring their teeth as they sweated and glared at each other. Neither of them wanted to be the one who gave out first.

“Ninety nine -” Forest counted, and it looked like Red was about to give up as Chocolate strained to finish the last one.

And then, Red flapped his wings. Just once, barely noticeable, but it allowed him to finish the one hundredth pushup. Chocolate’s eyes widened in rage and in her distraction, her legs buckled and she fell on her face.

Forest raised his eyebrows as he looked down on the list but there was nothing there than mentioned that Red couldn’t use his wings, so he changed the score.

4:3.

“Be a good sport, Chocolate.” Forest heard Chocolate mutter as she trotted past him with fury on her face.

Long jump next. Chocolate uncoiled her powerful legs and leapt, landing and leaving a perfect hoofmark on her score. It was high, and Forest nodded, thinking that it was probably unbeatable. Red took his run up and leapt too, and it looked like he was about to come up short, but he opened his wings and glided the last bit, beating Chocolate’s score.

5:3.

Chocolate was looking ready to explode with anger as Red stood confidently next to her for the next event. The aim was to walk through the mud with some chicks on their backs. The winner was the pony who got their chicks to the other side without making them muddy.

Chocolate trotted through, but her hooves were kicking up mud and making the chicks squeak and chirp as they scattered, disappearing off her back. She stopped short with a gasp, and Red trotted past her, with his wings open so that the chicks were shielded from the mud he was flicking up.

Forest was impressed by Red’s use of his wings, because he knew he sure wouldn’t have thought of using them to stop the chicks from getting muddy.

Chocolate made a roaring noise, glaring at Red as she kicked at the ground and stormed off.

6:3.

It wasn’t the end, though. The last event was worth five points, so the winner of this one won it all. A tug of war. The pony who was pulled into the mud by the other would lose. Chocolate and Red poised, an end of the rope in their mouths, and there was incredible tension between the two.

“Give it your all! Go!” Forest yelled, swiping a hoof down to start the game. The crowd cheered in excitement.

Chocolate gave an allmighty wrench with her strong neck, planting her hooves in the ground firmly. Red tugged and heaved, but Chocolate was incredibly strong and only dragged him closer to the mud, despite his efforts.

And then, Red opened his wings and flew up just as he was about to be pulled into the mud, pulling Chocolate and the rope up so she was hanging over the mud. Red continued to pull with his wings as Chocolate wriggled in middair.

“That’s not fair! You can’t use your wings to help you win!” Chocolate yelled past the rope in her mouth, but her words were incredibly muffled.

“Huh?” Red asked back, his own words distorted.

“You’re cheating!” She roared back, her teeth still clamped around the rope.

“What? I can’t hear you!” Red mocked, and Forest flattened his ears, knowing this had gone too far.

“I said -” Chocolate yelled, but as she spoke, she lost her grip on the rope and fell, landing face-first in the mud.

“Yeah! Red Riot wins!” Red whooped, dropping the rope and doing a celebratory loop-de-loop in the air. “I won by a landslide - or perhaps a mud-slide in your case -” He smirked, flying over Chocolate’s head, who was sat there silently fuming in the mud.

“You won because you cheated!” Chocolate shrieked, climbing out of the mud and pointing an accusing hoof at him. “I would have won that event if you hadn’t broken the rules!”

“What rules? I didn’t do anything!” Red snapped, flying down to her so they were muzzle to muzzle.

“You used your wings to win all of those last contests.” She growled, glaring at him with murder in her eyes.

“Sounds like you’re just sour that I won and you lost.” Red spat, and Chocolate made a growling noise low in her throat.

“You used earth pony power.” Red narrowed his eyes. “So I used pegasus power.”

“To cheat!” Chocolate roared, pushing him back with a hoof.

“You never said I couldn’t use my wings!” Red retorted with a glare.

Forest sighed and stepped in, ready to intervene.

“I didn’t think I’d need to tell you to play fair!”

“I would have won those contests without using my wings, anyway!” Red snapped, and Chocolate’s eyes snapped open as she narrowed them with an evil look on her face.

“Prove it.” She spat, and the ponies growled, glaring at each other as Forest finally moved between them.

“Enough!” He said, pushing them apart. “Tomorrow’s the annual Running of the Leaves race. The hooves of the racers are what make the autumn leaves fall from the trees. The whole point is to run, not to fly.”

“So?” Red said, finally turning his attention to Fores, who rolled his eyes before continuing.

“So, you two take part. Whoever wins that race -”

“-gets full bragging rights and the Iron Pony title.” Chocolate interrupted, and Forest sighed loudly, turning away.

“Whatever.” He said, finally going back home as the two ponies took up another aggressive stare contest.

At the race, Forest arrived with Solar and Horizon, who soon left to go to the finish line to wait for the winners. Forest actually had wanted to participate in the Ponyville tradition of the Running of the Leaves for a while, since it seemed rather fun. It was interesting to see Ponyville ways of changing the seasons instead of the Canterlot way of using magic to do it for them. He received his racer number which was stuck on his flank, before he began heading over to where Chocolate and Red were stretching by the line.

“You ready to win second place, Chocolate?” Red smirked, dusting off his hooves in front of her.

The mare scowled at him. “I’m ready to run an honest race. You are not allowed to use your wings.”

Red scoffed. “I could win this race with both wings tied behind my back.”

Chocolate’s eyes glinted. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

Forest glared at them as he trotted next to them, where Chocolate was midway through tying Red’s wings shut with what looked like ribbon from her shop. “Want to tie up mine too?”

Chocolate looked up in shock. “Forest - what are you doing here?”

Forest shrugged, indicating to his number. “I’m here to race.”

Red choked, putting a hoof over his mouth to stifle his laughter. “Have you ever run a race before?”

“No.” Forest answered, suddenly a little embarrassed. “But I have read about them before.”

The two exchanged a looked before dissolving into peals of laughter. Forest rolled his eyes and turned away from them. He didn’t even react as Red began tying Forest’s wings up too, only choosing to roll his eyes again.

“Can’t trust me to cheat either?” Forest said through his teeth, and Red only snorted as he laughed loudly.

The announcer told the ponies to line up, and they all posed, waiting for the start sound as Chocolate and Red continued to snicker loudly.

“See you at the finish line - tomorrow.” Red added, and the klaxon went.

The ponies shot off, and Forest cantered after them, watching Chocolate and Red disappear into the distance. He kept up slowly, being careful to not overexert himself, but the two were incredibly close to each other.

Forest glared at the two, but his eyes widened when Chocolate suddenly went tumbling, rolling over a few times before coming to a stop. The other ponies cantered past, and Forest trotted up to her, helping her up carefully.

“I don’t believe it!” Chocolate spat, glaring into the distance.

“I know, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Forest answered, looking at the glorious scene of the golden and fire red leaves falling like molten copper to the ground.

“Not the scenery, Forest! Red tripped me!” Chocolate roared, and Forest glanced around before turning to her with a glare.

“He did not.” He said firmly, and Chocolate made a snorting noise.

“Yes, he did -”

“No, he did not. If you had slowed down and actually looked at your surroundings, you’d have seen you tripped over a rock! Look, all your scuff marks in the ground show that was what happened.” Forest said, pointing a hoof at the rock.

“Damn it! I’ve got a lot of ground to catch up on.” Chocolate stamped a hoof on the ground before shooting off into the distance.

Forest trotted after them again, and no sooner than he had watched Chocolate catch up with Red, it was Red’s turn to go tumbling so the other ponies disappeared into the distance.

“Chocolate tripped me!” Red spat leaves out of his mouth as Forest finally caught up.

“No, you weren’t looking where you were going! You tripped over a tree stump!” He snapped, pointing to the offending object.

“No, she cheated! And two can play at that game.” Red growled, shooting off before Forest could reply.

So Forest instead decided to ignore it, because their competition had gone too far and now the two had no chance of winning if this was what was going to keep happening. Instead, he took in the scenery and tried to take his mind off the two’s stupid feud.

But as he kept going, he saw Red howling and laughing as he leant on a sign that were placed around the course. Forest narrowed his eyes and shot behind a tree, seeing how Chocolate was trotting up the wrong way, and how the sign was the wrong way around.

That was a nasty trick, and Forest scowled, trotting up to Red, who was hysterical. The other ponies cantered past, and the red pegasus didn’t even notice.

As he emerged, pretending he hadn’t seen, Forest noticed Red hastily turn the sign away the right way.

“Shouldn’t you be up ahead?” Forest asked Red dryly, who smirked at him with a spiky toothed grin,

“I’m sure to win now.” The crimson pegasus smirked, and Forest glared.

“Yeah, if you’d noticed that the other ponies had just passed you.” He growled, trotting away to try and focus on his own race.

He heard Red curse before a red blur shot past him, and Forest ignored him. Later on, Forest noticed the air balloon of the announcer fly overhead and drop Chocolate back in the race. She must have asked them to take her down, because Forest knew that the path she’d gone up as the result of Red’s cheating led to only rocky cliffs with no trees.

“You said no flying!” He heard Red screech, and Chocolate glared back at him.

“No, I said no wings!” Forest heard her reply as the race entered the maple syrup farms, where the buckets on the trees were lined up and filling up with the tree’s sap.

Forest barely managed to duck a flying bucket as Chocolate kicked one of the buckets off, spilling sap in front of Red, whose hooves immediately got stuck as Chocolate snickered and vanished off. Forest was still pacing himself and trotting at a reasonable pace as he watched Red struggle to get free, before he pulled himself out, but the sap was like a slingshot and pulled him back. Red quickly realised he could use this to his advantage, and pulled himself as far back as possible, before the tension in the sap twanged and Red’s body was sent shooting forward.

But as he caught up with Chocolate, the mare yelped as he hit her and the two went flying up, spinning out of control out of the race as the other ponies overtook them. The two went collapsing to the ground as Forest finally caught up with them.

As the two argued and spat at each other, Forest chimed in a quick “Isn’t the Running of the Leaves actually supposed to include, I dunno, running?”

The two immediately began racing each other again, but Forest noticed how the other ponies were beginning to pant and puff as the finish line came in sight. Forest glanced back, seeing Chocolate and Red still bumping and fighting each other deliberately. Forest narrowed his own eyes in determination, seeing that Solar and Horizon were waiting at the finish line and waving their hooves at him.

Forest’s hooves sped up and the other ponies, who were exhausted, disappeared behind him as he sprinted for the finish. He crossed the line and Solar cheered, along with the other ponies, and Forest panted, dipping his head as the referee gave him his medal.

As Forest grinned in delight and Solar and Horizon congratulated him on his placement, the other ponies crossed the line, but there was still no sight of Chocolate or Red.

“Where in Equestria are those two?” Solar asked, and Forest shrugged.

“The two were bickering and fighting the entire way. They’ll be here soon.” Forest said, and sure enough the two were cantering ahead, pushing and shoving each other the entire way before both ponies rolled into a tussel, spitting and caterwauling as they rolled over the line.

“I won!” Chocolate yowled, hopping to her hooves with a manic look in her eyes as her ragged mane draped in her face.

“No, I won!” Red snapped, pushing his muzzle into her face.

“Actually, it was a draw.” The referee said, glaring at the two of them.

“A draw?” The two gasped in horror.

“For first?” Red asked, and Solar shook his head.

“No, for last.” The yellow unicorn answered, and the two ponies made a shrieking noise of shock.

“Then who won?” Chocolate demanded, before she finally noticed Forest and his medal around his neck. “You?!”

“Oh, no - I came fourth. But I still think that was good for my first race.” Forest answered with a small smile, and Red’s jaw was flapping open like a fish.

“How? You were running so slowly the whole time?” The pegasus choked out, and Forest let out a knowing laugh.

“My book said to pace myself. So, I did! And then when the other ponies were tired out, and you two were so busy fighting, I snuck ahead and managed to grab a place.” Forest answered, shining his medal with a hoof. “With my wings tied behind my back, may I add.” He said with a side glance, indicating to the ribbon still binding his wings tightly.

“I don’t believe it. Forest beat us both.” Chocolate sighed, sagging her head. “We were both behaving awfully.”

“I know. We weren’t being good sportsponies at all.” Red pawed at the ground.

“Sounds like you all learned a pretty important lesson today.” Celestia’s voice rang out, and Forest gaped and whirled around to see his mentor emerging from the crowd.

“Celestia?” He gasped, trotting over to her. “What are you doing here?”

“Fall is one of my favourite seasons, Forest.” She answered with a smile, embracing him gently. “So, I came to Ponyville, as the Running of the Leaves is a unique tradition I do not wish to miss.”

“I’m so sorry we ruined it, Princess.” Red said, finally emerging from his bow.

“We’ll remember from now on that the friendship is always more important than the competition.” Chocolate finished, and Celestia nodded, smiling as she was obviously satisfied with than answer.

“Due to all the drama, many of the trees here do not have fallen leaves.” Celestia said, indicating to the other trees. “Care to take care of that for me, Chocolate and Red?”

The two ponies looked at each other and nodded eagerly.

“We’ll take care of that for you, Princess!” Red winked, and the two reared before cantering off into the distance with loud laughter and chatter.

Forest turned to Celestia, shaking his head slowly in disbelief. Celestia smiled, using her magic to untie Forest’s wings from behind his back.

“Congratulations on your medal, my dear.” She said, and Forest flushed slightly, looking up at her.

“Thank you, Princess. I really am happy to see you, even if it was unexpected.” He said, and Celestia nodded in agreement.

“Yes - although we aren’t  both in Canterlot anymore, I am sure you’ll bump into me a lot, Forest.” The white alicorn responded. “I believe your red friend is competing in the Young Flier’s competition soon?”

Forest nodded slowly. “Yeah - will you be judging that?”

“Indeed.” Celestia said. “I am sure you will be going to support him, right?”

“He hasn’t actually asked me yet, but I’m sure he will soon.” Forest said, and Celestia nodded.

“I look forward to seeing you both, then, my faithful student.” Celestia said, walking past him to her chariot. “But unfortunately, I must get back to Canterlot. Duty calls.”

“Goodbye!” Forest waved her off as the chariot vanished, before turning back to Solar and Lava, who had been waiting the whole time. “Where’s Horizon?”

Solar shrugged. “He left.”

“Oh. Okay.” Forest responded, and decided not to focus on it for too long.

But Horizon’s sudden unexplained vanishings bothered him still. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it was annoying Forest quite a bit.

He sighed, and began making his way home. His medal was light, but there was a weight on his shoulders that refused to leave, no matter how much he tried to shrug it off.

 

-

 

Crimson was in school, currently writing stuff down as Cheerilee entered, beaming as usual as she went to start the lesson.

“Hello, my little ponies!” His teacher piped up, and they all muttered back a quick “Good afternoon, Ms Cheerilee”.

Cheerilee laughed. “No need to be so forlorn! I’ve got an incredibly interesting lesson for us all to discuss before we head home.”

Crimson perked up, putting his pencil down and folding his wings as Cheerilee trotted over to the paper board and flipped over the first page.

“Today, we are talking about cutie marks!” Cheerilee said, and there were many images of random cutie marks drawn on the paper. Crimson immediately perked up when he actually recognised both Forest Flash’s and his big brother’s cutie mark on there - the two of them were quite well known around town, after all -

“Boring.” The pink filly next to Crimson scoffed, and he glared at her, because actually some ponies did find it interesting and she should be quiet.

“You can all see my cutie mark, right?” Cheerilee asked, indicating to her flank, were there was an image of three smiling flowers. “Well, it wasn’t always there. Like all ponies, I wasn’t born with a cutie mark.”

She flipped the page and there was an image of a baby Cheerilee, who was smiling at the camera. Her flank, like Crimson’s was at the moment, was blank. There were a few ‘aww’s around the class at the cute image.

“Then, one day, when I was your age, my cutie mark appeared! I had decided to be a teacher!” Cheerilee said, flipping the page over to show a drawn image of her cutie mark. “Cutie marks always have some sort of symbolic meaning. The flowers on mine represent how I wish to make my student bloom when I nurture them with knowledge, and the smiles symbolise the cheer I wish to bring to them while they’re learning!”

Crimson was writing rapidly, finding it all incredibly interesting, and the pink filly on his right yawned loudly and rudely.

“Now, can anypony tell me when a cutie mark appears on somepony’s flank?” Cheerilee asked, and a pony in front of Crimson put her hoof up.

“When they discover something that makes them special!”

“That’s correct!” Cheerilee chimed, moving behind her desk. “A pony’s cutie mark appears when they find that certain something that makes them different from every other pony. Discovering what makes you unique doesn’t happen overnight, and no amount of hoping or wishing will cause your cutie mark to appear before its time.”

As Crimson was trying to write, the pink filly, Diamond Tiara, kept ‘psst’ing him, and he chose to ignore her the first few times, but finally he gave in with a glare. She held a note towards him with her teeth, and Crimson turned, seeing Diamond Tiara’s friend, Silver Spoon, beckoning him for the note. He rolled his eyes and finally took it to try and get them both to leave him alone, but the second he did, Cheerilee noticed.

“Crimson Crash! Are you passing notes?” His teacher demanded and his eyes widened as the paper dropped from his mouth.

“No - uh - um -” Crimson began stammering, as Cheerilee walked over, anger on her face.

“What could be so important that it couldn’t wait until after sch - oh, it’s blank.” Cheerilee said, picking up the note, where there was no message at all.

Diamond Tiara giggled maliciously, giving Crimson a side eye. “Remind you of anypony?”

Crimson flinched, looking away as he covered his blank flank with his tail and the rest of the ponies in the class giggled loudly when Cheerilee was out of earshot.

The bell soon rang to indicate the end of school and Crimson slouched out of school with his head down. Diamond Tiara took his side as he tried to get home fast.

“Go away, Diamond Tiara.” He muttered, flattening his ears.

“I don’t know why we just had a lecture on cutie marks. Waiting for your cutie mark is so last week.” She drawled, and Crimson glared at her. “Silver’s got hers. I just got mine.” The fillies wiggled their rumps, flaunting off their shiny cutie marks. “We all have them already - oops! Well, almost everypony has them.” She said, indicating to Crimson’s blank flank.

He ground his teeth in reply.

Diamond Tiara flaunted past him. “Don’t worry. You’re still totally invited to my cuteceañera tomorrow - an entire party dedicated to me and my new cutie mark.”

“I don’t want to go to your stupid party.” Crimson said jaggedly through his teeth.

“Of course you don’t, blank flank.” Diamond Tiara sang in a malicious voice as she and Silver Spoon began strutting away down the road. “But I’d turn up if I were you, or you’ll like like more of a loser than you are already.”

Crimson stood there silently fuming for a few more seconds before he headed home. He sat on the couch numbly for almost an hour before his brother came home, pushing open the door. Red was sweating heavily as he sighed, panting as he went in the house.

“Crimson! Crims - oh, there you are.” His brother said, looking in the living room as Crimson grunted in response. “How was school?”

“You stink.” Was Crimson’s only response as Red blinked at him before laughing sheepishly, rubbing a hoof behind his head.

“Yeah, the Running of the Leaves was pretty - uh - wild. I had to do the course twice - as a matter of fact.” His brother responded, and Crimson decided to ignore him. “Wait, what’s wrong?”

“Nuh. Thing.” He moaned, and Red brought his eyebrows together.

“But it must be something, right?”

He sighed loudly. “You can’t help. Unless you know how to make a cutie mark appear - preferably in the next twelve hours.”

Red made a snorting noise at that. “You and I both know that’s impossible, bro.” Crimson didn’t move as his brother sat next to him on the couch. “If it’s the party you’re worried about, just go. Nopony’s going to judge you for going to a party with no cutie mark -”

Crimson made a strained noise, because that was incredibly untrue.

“Listen, if you’re going to mope about all day, I’ve got some errands I need you to do.” Red said, standing up as he headed up to shower.

“Fine.” Crimson moaned, and his brother smiled and ruffled his mane before disappearing up the stairs.

Crimson lived with Red because their parents lived in Manehattan. Both their mom and dad worked full time and didn’t want to leave Crimson at home all day with nobody to look after him in the big city, so Crimson moved to Ponyville with his adult brother. He actually liked living with Red because his brother was pretty chilled out and his friends were nice as well, but in the Ponyville schoolhouse there were no other ponies with blank flanks aside from him.

But the next day, as he went to Sugarcube Corner to pick up something for Red, he realised he’d been set up.

“Red.” He gasped in horror, shooting behind a table with cake on it, because in reality, there was no delivery to pick up. Diamond Tiara’s cuteceañera was being hosted here, and now he was trapped in here with no way out.

“No.” He wailed, glancing out from behind because he was here and he was still a blank flank.

He managed to dart into the kitchen, where he found Chocolate Blush, one of Red’s friends, in there with Forest Flash. They looked surprised at seeing Crimson so panicked.

“Hey Crimson. What’s wrong? Are the cakes that bad?” Chocolate asked desperately, and he shook his head, seeing how concerned the older ponies were.

“I need a cutie mark.” He blurted out, gazing at them in desperation. “Can you help me?”

The ponies exchanged a look.

“Crimson, cutie marks are something that can’t be forced.” Forest said, and Crimson sighed, drooping his ears, which immediately perked up when he saw another one of Red’s friends enter.

“Horizon! You’re magic right?” Crimson demanded, shooting up to the white unicorn, who took a step back. He had a present on his back, a gift for Diamond Tiara, no doubt. “Can you help me get my cutie mark?”

“Crimson, I studied cutie marks under Celestia. A cutie mark has to be something you discover by yourself.” Forest said, looking slightly worried.

“I could at least try.” Horizon pointed out, and Crimson gasped in surprise, eyes wide in delight.

“Thank you! Thank you!” He piped up, hopping on all four hooves.

Horizon’s horn ignited and there was a chill as Crimson turned to see an image of a red fireball on his flank. He rejoiced.

“I knew you could do it! Yes! Yes! Yes - oh.” Crimson’s face fell as it faded.

Horizon shook his head. “Not even magic can make a cutie mark appear before its time, Crimson. I’m sorry.”

“Does Red know you’re here?” Forest asked, but it fell upon deaf ears as he started wandering back outside to go home.

Party music caused him to shriek and he shot behind a table again. Chocolate trotted past him and put a party hat on his head with a grin. He shook it off and tried hiding behind things to get to the door. He was almost there and was about to make a break for it when Red appeared in front of him, pushing past him to get to the party.

“Crimson! Great, I’m glad you decided to stay!” Red piped up, pushing him away from the door.

He panicked and tried flying away, but Red was too strong and Diamond Tiara immediately noticed him.

They started cackling the second Red entered the kitchen to see his friends.

“Blank flank Crimson! So you did decide to show.” Diamond Tiara spat with an evil grin, moving menacingly towards him.

He took a step back, shame already causing him to flatten his ears and he was fighting every instinct to turn around and run away, but a new voice shot through the air, causing him to stop in his tracks.

“Do you have a problem with blank flanks?” The filly said, emerging from where she was behind a table. She was flanked by another colt, and Diamond Tiara scowled, looking slightly taken aback by the defiance.

“The problem is that he’s, like,  not special.” Silver Spoon scoffed, and the filly and colt took Crimson’s sides.

“No, it means he’s full of potential.” The colt said, stepping forwards. He was a light brown earth pony with dark freckles and a short dark brown mane and tail.

“It means he could be great at anything. The possibilities are, like, endless.” The filly mimicked Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon’s drawl, pulling an ugly face as she glared at them. She was a cream coloured unicorn with an electric yellow mane and golden eyes.

“He could be a famous scientist, or an author, or an artist. He could even be the mayor of Ponyville one day. But at least he’s not stuck being stuck up like you two.” The colt said, pointing at the two bullies.

The other ponies at the party started snickering at Diamond Tiara’s furious face.

“Hey! This is my party! Why are you taking his side?” She spat, and the two foals turned, showing their flanks to be completely blank too.

Crimson’s jaw dropped. “You don’t have your cutie marks either?”

“I, for one, think they are three incredibly lucky foals.” Forest said, emerging from the kitchen. “They still get to experience the joy of discovering who they truly are.”

“And they’ve got all the time in the world to figure it out.” Red said, leaning down to Crimson and winking at his younger brother.

Diamond Tiara stalked off as the other ponies began giving her condescending looks. The colt and filly turned to him, and they were smiling in relief and joy as Crimson sagged in relief.

“My name’s Summer Breeze.” The filly said, holding out a hoof to him.

Crimson took it with a slightly shaking hoof. “I’m Crimson Crash.”

“And I’m Coffee Caramel.” The colt said, pointing over to where Chocolate was talking with Red. “That’s my big sister.”

“Chocolate’s your sister?” He gawked, suddenly lost for words as Coffee nodded with a grin. “Red’s my brother - he never told me Chocolate had a younger brother -”

“He probably didn’t know.” Coffee said, shrugging. “I’ve been travelling with our dad, and we finally decided to come back to Ponyville and help Chocolate and our mom run the shop.”

“So that’s why I haven’t seen you before.” Crimson realised, turning to look at Summer. “What about you?”

“I have a big brother too.” Summer said casually, pointing to Solar Spark, who was helping himself to punch in the corner. “He’s an idiot.”

“Solar’s your brother?” Crimson squeaked, freezing in shock. “Red never mentioned you either -”

“Solar and I didn’t live together before, but we do now.” Summer said, forcing a smile when Solar waved a hoof at her before returning promptly to the punch. “I sometimes can’t believe we’re related, to be honest.”

Crimson scuffed a hoof on the ground. “I thought I knew Red’s friends well, but I actually don’t know as much about them as I thought -”

“Hey, that’s okay!” Coffee said with a grin, hopping on his hooves. “Because we’re your friends now, right?”

“Really?” Crimson asked, and the other foals yelled out a ‘yeah!’ in a chorus.

“We should totally work together to get our cutie marks. Three brains is surely better than one, right?” Coffee suggested, and Summer perked up suddenly.

“Like a society? A club? That would be so epic!” She yelped, hopping on her hooves. “What should we call ourselves? The Cutie - um - yeah, I don’t have anything -”

She glanced at Crimson, who shrugged, showing he had nothing too.

“What about the Cutie Mark Crusaders?” Coffee suggested, and Summer and Crimson both snapped their heads up, eyes wide.

“I like that one.” Crimson said with excitement in his voice.

They laughed, and high-hoofed.

“Can I join?” Red asked with a shit-eating grin on his face.

Crimson threw a cupcake at him.

Chapter Text

Following a failed attempt at ziplining that ended in three little ponies muttering in pain as they unglued themselves from each other, Crimson was beginning to lose hope a little bit. Coffee squeaked, straining to try and pull his tail out from where it was stuck to Summer’s face with a gross mixture of tree sap and pine needles.

“That was incredibly unsafe.” Summer shuddered, spitting out Coffee’s tail as she wriggled out of her ziplining harness. “I’m almost glad I didn’t get a cutie mark in that because it was terrifying!”

Crimson couldn’t help agreeing as he pulled off his helmet and dumped his harness off as well. “I prefer to be able to control where I can fly, to be honest.”

“Can we try something less dangerous this time?” Summer asked Coffee as the brown colt made a muttering sound of annoyance. “Any plan Bs, Coffee?”

“Unless you know where I can find a cannon at this time -” Coffee said with an evil grin, before it fell off his face at the looks of his friends and he sighed, tossing his own helmet aside. “Sorry. I just don’t want to be stuck making food like my mom and Chocolate are - I want a cool cutie mark - I just don’t know where to start -”

“This town is full of ponies who have their cutie marks.” Summer pointed out as the three bedraggled foals trotted to a stream to begin washing the sap off their coats and out of their manes. “We should go and ask them?”

“That’s a great idea. And it’s safe too!” Crimson said, grinning at his friends.

“We can start with the coolest pony in town!” Coffee piped up, hopping on all four hooves.

“Solar Spark!” Summer yelled, and Coffee shook his head.

“No - I was more thinking -”

“Chocolate?” Crimson asked, and Coffee began looking frustrated.

“No - my sister’s dumb - I mean  the most coolest and confident pony in Ponyville!”

“Lava Blast?” Crimson asked.

“Hallowed Horizon?” Summer suggested.

“No!” Coffee yelped, face-hoofing. “The most coolest and confident pony to ever come out of Cloudsdale!”

Crimson and Summer exchanged a glance.

“Forest Flash?” They asked simultaneously, and Coffee made a loud groaning noise.

“Crimson, I mean your brother! Red Riot!” The brown colt explained as he waved his hooves wildley.

“Oh. I guess?” Crimson said, frowning slightly. “I guess he’s cool, but -”

“He’s the coolest!” Coffee grinned, stamping a front hoof on the ground. “We’ll ask him how he got his cutie mark and we’ll be sure to figure out how to get our own!”

“Let’s do it then!” Summer yelled, and they all high-hoofed, but soon regretted it when their hooves got stuck together with the leftover tree sap on Summer’s hooves.

Once they’d gotten unstuck, the three ponies were zipping at breakneck speed down the road towards Crimson’s house, they were promptly stopped by Chocolate shooting out of the shop with loud caterwauls as a few thieving bunnies darted out and under their hooves with cake they obviously hadn’t paid for.

“Get back here!” The mare howled, finally panting to a stop as the three ponies untangled their hooves.

Crimson rubbed his head with a groan as the bunnies vanished out of sight and Chocolate made another noise of fury. He glanced at Chocolate, and his eyes widened in delight when he saw her cutie mark, which was a cluster of three sakura flowers surrounded by chocolate chips.

“Hey, Chocolate, how did you get your cutie mark?” He asked, standing up and pointing at it.

The fury suddenly fell off Chocolate’s face as she glanced at her cutie mark before turning to the three foals with slight confusion on her face. “Did I never tell that to you, Coffee?”

Coffee made a loud groaning noise. “No! I don’t want to hear yours, I want to hear Red’s -”

Summer turned to him. “Hey! It’s okay, we need as much help as we can get, right?”

Crimson nodded. “I agree with Summer.”

“Okay, then.” Chocolate said, turning to the foals with a smile on her face. “Well, this was when I was even younger than you. As much as I loved helping mom and dad working in the shop and learning how to make all these amazing foods, I felt like this wasn’t my place. I was searching for something more.”

“So what did you do?” Summer asked with wide eyes as Coffee made a noise of annoyance.

“So, I left. I went all the way to Manehattan, thinking that I’d find exactly what I wanted to find there. Making it in the big city was everypony’s dream - so why couldn’t it be mine?” Chocolate said, obviously thinking back to it. “So I went all the way to our aunt and uncle who lived there. They started teaching me all the ways of a city pony: the accent, the etiquette, the food.” She sighed, sagging her head slightly. “The food was awful. So bland and small - I was so hungry, and as I looked out of the windows one night as the sun rose, all I could think about was what mom and dad were doing in the shop at home. I’d never felt so homesick in all my life as I did in that moment. Life became grey, and all I wanted to see was the beautiful pink flowers outside my mom and dad’s shop. I wanted enough of it, and I still hadn’t found my purpose in Manehattan.”

“And then what happened?” Crimson asked, leaning forward in anticipation.

“And then - there was a bang. An explosion, so bright and full of colours it blinded me momentarily. The shockwaves sent me falling to the floor as I saw all those colours fill the sky.” Chocolate breathed, making an arc in the air with her hoof. “And when I looked out of the window again, I saw a rainbow. Pointing towards home. Ponyville.”

Crimson and Summer gasped in delight.

“The shockwaves sent pink petals flying showering through my window, and I like to believe they were the ones from the shop that were ticking my face and hooves. So right then I knew exactly what I had to do. It was like the world was telling me that that was where I was meant to be.” Chocolate smiled at them. “So I cantered all the way back home, realising I’d be looking for something that I’d had all along.” She turned back to her cutie mark. “And then this appeared just as I got home.”

“That’s amazing.” Crimson breathed, and Summer nodded rapidly in agreement.

“Eh, but it’s not cool, is it?” Coffee scoffed, and Chocolate grinned, ruffling her younger brother’s mane with a hoof.

“Keep searching, Coffee. Somepony else will be bound to tell you where Red is - wait, there they are!” Chocolate leapt to her hooves with a yowl as she noticed the thieving bunnies running away from her again before giving chase. “Get your fluffy butts back here!”

“I liked that one.” Summer piped up as the foals began cantering down the road again. “I’ve always thought Chocolate’s cutie mark is super pretty.”

“Okay, fine, but the sooner we find Red the better - woah!” Coffee yelped, crashing into a large stallion who was crossing the road.

Coffee fell on his rump, and Summer and Crimson quickly helped him up as Lava Blast glanced down at them, looking furious at first but didn’t yell at them as he obviously recognised Crimson.

“Hey, Lava!” Crimson said, and Lava snorted, glaring at him, but Crimson only grinned stupidly because he knew Lava had a soft spot for him anyway.

“What do you little runts want?” Lava growled, and Summer gasped, pointing to Lava’s cutie mark.

“How did you get yours?” The unicorn filly demanded, and Lava suddenly looked happy at the mention of his cutie mark.

“It’s a fucking awesome story.” Lava said, turning to face the foals with an evil grin on his face. “Not much to it though. As a foal I know I used to bully other ponies a lot, but it didn’t fill me with power. There was no self-fulfilling feeling for me. But one day there was an explosion I couldn’t explain, but as I looked up at it I knew I wanted to use my strength for protecting ponies instead of hurting them.” The stallion shrugged, before glaring at Crimson. “Although, I will not hesitate to destroy you little shits if you ever tell anypony that.”

“We won’t Lava! We promise!” Crimson piped up, and the stallion ruffled Crimson’s mane and pulled him into a noogie so he squeaked in laughter, before he went on his way.

Summer watched him go. “Lava scares me a bit.”

“He used to scare me too, but Red says he has a heart of gold under all his prickles.” Crimson shrugged, and Coffee moaned something about wanting to find Red because all of the other stories they’d heard so far were lame.

But as they were darting through the middle of town, Summer noticed her brother obviously heading back home and holding their groceries with his horn.

“Look! There’s Solar - should we ask him where Red is?” The filly asked, and Crimson shrugged in response as they approached the yellow unicorn.

Solar dropped his groceries to the floor as he noticed the three foals and his eyes lit up. “Aha! Word on the block is that you’re asking around for cutie mark stories - well, you’ve come to the right place! Mine is awesome -”

“Nooooo!” Coffee wailed, covering his face with his hooves. “Just tell us where Red is and -”

“You might not believe it, but as a colt I was incredibly bad at magic.” Solar Spark began, plonking down on the ground as Summer rolled her eyes.

“Never would have guessed.” She said in a dry voice, but Solar seemed to ignore her and keep talking.

“A unicorn who couldn’t do magic? Yeah, that sucked. A lot.” Solar said, suddenly looking forlorn. “I couldn’t control it at all. When I wanted to use my horn, I couldn’t, and when I didn’t want to use it, I ended up doing stuff I regretted. It changed when I accidentally hurt one of my classmates. I never wanted to use magic again.” Solar continued. “So I ran away. But I didn’t get very far, because soon I got caught in a horrific thunder storm. I was cold and afraid and I didn’t know what to do. Have you ever heard of a thunderbird?”

“That’s just an old pony’s tale.” Coffee said, but Solar shook his head firmly.

“Oh, no, they’re very much real. I wouldn’t joke about that.” Solar said, and his face set, which startled Crimson, because Solar was serious so rarely that he found he didn’t want to disagree with the other pony. “The thunderbird swooped out of the storm. They’re enormous - big enough to pick up a lost foal with one talon, and they’re the embodiment of lightning. Full of undiluted electrical power.”

“What did you do?” Crimson asked with wide afraid eyes, and Solar laughed softly, suddenly glancing away.

“What I could do. But my horn wasn’t doing anything. I thought that was the end. And then, this burst of colours seemed to clear the storm. The clouds dissipated and as I was caught off guard, my horn suddenly did things it’s never done before. I managed to shoot the thunderbird with this massive bolt of lightning.” Solar smirked, looking down at the ponies. “I looked so cool. But as the thunderbird vanished, I suddenly realised that actually, just because my magic is unpredictable, I shouldn’t give up on it.”

“And that’s when you got your cutie mark?” Summer asked, glancing at it. “I was so sure you just got it after being struck by lightning or something. Would probably explain what’s going on in your head -”

“Yep! This baby appeared on my flank and now I’m not afraid to set my mane on fire anymore.” Solar said, standing up and picking up the groceries again. “I saw Red at Sugarcube Corner earlier. If you hurry you might catch him.”

The ponies clambered to their hooves and began cantering to Sugarcube Corner with loud shouts of “Thank you!”.

“Okay, a thunderbird? You’ve gotta admit that one’s cool!” Summer said to Coffee, who shrugged slightly.

“It could be a lie, though.” Coffee sighed, and Crimson didn’t really know whether to agree with him or not.

The three ponies were stopped going into the bakery as Forest and Horizon were obviously just leaving. Forest’s eyes widened at the sight of the three panting foals.

“Have - you - seen - Red?” Coffee gasped, glancing up at the older ponies.

Horizon blinked. “He left a second ago.”

“Damn it!” Coffee wailed, collapsing onto the ground where he fought to catch his breath.

“Hey, come inside and rest a little bit. He’ll probably be back soon.” Forest offered, and Summer nodded, pulling Coffee inside by the tail.

“Why don’t we ask Horizon and Forest about their cutie marks while we wait for Red?” Crimson asked Coffee, and Coffee only grunted in response, seemingly too tired from running up and down Ponyville all day.

“Oh - I guess you could.” Forest answered, shuffling his hooves sheepishly. “The first time I saw Celestia raising the sun at the Summer Sun celebration made something inside me light up. I was a tiny foal, still up in Cloudsdale. And seeing all the unicorn inspectors and reading about the spells that allow them to walk on the clouds made me want to study magic within an inch of its life.” The green pegasus laughed, looking down at them. “And then we moved to Canterlot, and I was lucky enough to meet Celestia face to face. She read my studies, and offered me access to the magic school’s library.”

“Even though you’re not a unicorn?” Summer asked with intrigue.

Forest nodded. “Yep. And one day, when I was in the library, this explosion of rainbow colours made the library shake and shudder and it sent all my notes and studies flying. I was in this raw panic as I tried to save them because in that moment I knew they meant everything to me - magic meant everything to me. And then I passed out, and this had appeared on my flank.” Forest pointed to his cutie mark, which showed a dark green six pointed star which crackled with green electricity and was surrounded by smaller sparks. “Celestia invited me to join her school the day after she saw it. I’m still not sure why she did that even to this day.”

Horizon’s eyes were wide in shock. “Did you say a rainbow explosion?”

Before Forest could answer, Coffee let out a yelp of delight when Lava entered, with Chocolate, Solar and Red tailing him.

“There you go, Crusaders, I found him for you.” Chocolate announced, followed by Lava scowling at her and spitting a “No, I fucking found him.” at her.

“I heard some little ponies were going around asking about my cutie mark story.” Red said with a stupid smirk, and Crimson huffed, blowing his bangs out of his eyes with a pout because he didn’t want to admit that actually, he was rather curious about the details of how Red had gotten his cutie mark.

“Yes! You have no idea how much we had to go through to get here!” Coffee grovelled, and Chocolate scoffed, thwacking her younger brother over the head with a hoof.

“So I was in Cloudsdale - first day in flight school, and some older colts decided it would be fun to pick on me. But they soon found out that was the wrong decision to make, because nobody mocks Red Riot. So, I challenged them to a race!” Red said, excitement in his voice as Crimson, Summer and Coffee gasped with their eyes wide open.

“The klaxon went and those bullies were no match for me at all! And the speed! I just knew I needed to get faster and faster and faster until my eyes were streaming and I could barely open them!” Red’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I was going so fast I stretched my body out and dived, and then suddenly there was an explosion! The colours exploded around my vision and the rainbow followed me - I’d never seen anything like it -”

“A sonic rainboom?” Forest’s eyes widened in realisation. “But those are supposed to be mythical - nopony’s ever managed to do that before -”

“But I did!” Red announced, with a hoof on his chest as he puffed it out with pride. “And that explosion that I caused made everything inside me bloom into the brightest colours I could imagine -”

“But - that rainbow was what made me realise my destiny was here - at home.” Chocolate suddenly interrupted, shock edging onto her face. “Was that explosion I saw yours?”

“There was an explosion for me too.” Lava said, his eyebrows furrowing. “Right before I got my cutie mark -”

“Me too! The explosion was what caused the storm to clear and me to fight the thunderbird!” Solar yelped, and Red’s eyes were getting wider and wider.

“And that rainbow was what caused me to realise how much magic meant to me - if it wasn’t for your rainboom, Red, I wouldn’t have gotten my cutie mark, and Celestia wouldn’t have taken me as my personal student.” Forest breathed.

“The explosion ignited my own magic.” Horizon whispered, as they all turned to face him. “Red’s rainboom caused us all to get our cutie marks at the same time - is it possible that we were all connected before we met?”

“Maybe.” Forest’s voice was a whisper, barely audible, and Crimson’s eyes were wide in wonder at this sudden realisation between his brother and his friends.

Later on, as Summer, Coffee and Crimson were heading back to their Crusader clubhouse (it used to belong to Chocolate when she was a filly), the events of that day refused to leave Crimson’s mind.

“Can you imagine if we got our cutie marks at the same time?” Summer asked in excitement, and Crimson grinned.

“Yeah, it would be awesome!” Coffee yelped, and the Crusaders high-hoofed with a simultanious cheer.

It may not have bothered the Crusaders as much, but Forest was plagued with questions and confusion as he paced the library late into the night.

Somehow, the rainboom had caused all six of them to get their cutie marks at the exact same time - despite the fact that they had never met before - supposedly.

But Forest knew otherwise. They had met before, although they would never know that. Only Forest knew - these personalities existed in parallel lines alongside the Branches.

Todoroki existed in one Branch, but Horizon existed in the other. Although they had physical differences, and no knowledge of each other, they were the same in mind. The same personality, thoughts, soul - and Forest’s connection with his friends in his old life transcended the Branch when he’d moved across them.

Although the ponies never knew that Forest had known them all before in another life, Forest did - and it was scaring him greatly, because this was getting incredibly strange. Maybe there was a connection in Forest’s life as Izuku that couldn’t have been expressed properly due to the limits of his old Branch? They didn’t have magic, after all -

Forest almost wondered whether each soul existed in millions of different Forms, just like She. Maybe Forest was not just Forest and Izuku - but he existed in a million different versions in a million different Branches.

Maybe there were a million versions of himself in different universes. But was he just himself, or was he a million different lives? Would those souls ever come together? What would happen if all these millions and billions of Forms of himself with that same soul merged?

Forest often thought about this before. He had the capacity to wonder about this since he had been exposed to the wisdom of She and the Multiverse.

He sighed, and decided to go to bed, because it was hurting his brain.

He didn’t have much time to think about it anymore because he still didn’t know the details about how Horizon had gotten his cutie mark. He’d only mentioned seeing the coloured explosion caused by Red’s rainboom and how it had ‘ignited’ his magic, but nothing more than that.

And there were all of his disappearances and the fact he was flat out refusing to go to Canterlot for the Gala, even after Forest had given him a ticket.

Forest was determined to find out why.

But there was no time for it, because, as Celestia had correctly predicted, Red soon asked Forest to support him in the Young Flier’s contest that was going to be held in Cloudsdale very soon. Forest agreed to help him oversee his practices for his routine, which made sense, since he was the only other pegasus that Red was actively friends with, although Forest definitely wasn’t as advanced a flier as Red. Lava was watching him too, obviously dragged along by his red friend.

Forest watched Red begin the routine and complete the first part, zipping over Forest’s head and causing him to almost fall over as he weaved with expert precision through the line of trees.

Forest bobbed his head in agreement at the sight, since this seemed to be going well so far. The second phase seemed to be doing okay too. Red was speeding around the clumps of cloud with expert control to make them all spin around at once.

And then Forest saw Red begin to fly up, and bit his lip, because he knew Red had tried this move a thousand times already. Red began diving, and Forest suddenly sighed, not wanting to watch it any longer.

“What the fuck is wrong?” Lava demanded Forest, and he finally put his eyes back on Red, who was still diving.

“He’s trying to do a sonic rainboom to finish his routine but he hasn’t come even close to making it yet.” Forest said through his teeth, and the two ponies suddenly gasped when Red’s windstream twanged, launching him way into the distance with a high pitched screech before he even got close to breaking the sound barrier.

They quickly cantered after him, seeing that he’d crashed through the window of Forest’s library and caused every single book to fall off the shelf.

“Red! I reshelved this yesterday!” Forest wailed at the sight of it, and Red coughed up a scroll, looking forlorn.

“I’m sorry, Forest - I guess I’m just not feeling it today.” Red muttered as Solar, Chocolate and Horizon entered the library, obviously hearing the crash.

“What happened here?” Chocolate asked in shock, and Forest opened his mouth to answer, but Lava beat him to it.

“Red’s competing in the Young Flier’s competition.” Lava answered, and Red suddenly piped up.

“Yeah! You wait, I’ll blow both Celestia and the Wonderbolts out of their seats with my sonic rainboom as a finale!” Red grinned, and Forest’s anxiety was still clear on his face. “And plus, the prize is a whole day of flying with the Wonderbolts! It’ll be a dream come true!”

“The rainboom? But I always thought it was an old mare’s tale until we found out that was what caused us all to get our cutie marks.” Solar pointed out, and Red puffed his chest out.

“Red is the only pony ever to pull it off. I don’t doubt he can do it again for his competition!” Chocolate said with a hop on her hooves, and Red suddenly flattened his ears.

“Sorry - it’s -it’s just - I wish you guys could be there to support me. I guess I am starting to feel a bit nervous that I won’t manage it -”

“I’ll be there! Don’t worry!” Forest tried to reassure him, but Red still didn’t look convinced.

“Anywho!” Red obviously tried to force a smile on his face, as if they wouldn’t notice the pressure he was feeling as he opened his wings and decided to leave through the window. “I’ll go and practice again on my own - bye!”

Forest looked out of the window as he flew away before turning back to his friends. “He’s nowhere near a sonic rainboom at this rate, and he’s practised that move a million times already.”

“We have to do something.” Lava demanded, stamping a hoof on the ground. “He’s shitting himself, the stupid fucker -”

“What if we find a spell that can help the rest of us get into Cloudsdale? He needs us all to be there.” Solar said, and Forest flattened his ears.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but I can’t exactly do magic -” He began saying, but Horizon interrupted, holding a book with his horn.

“This one’s got lots of complex spells in here - if you can find something, I’ll try it -” Horizon offered, passing the book to Forest.

Forest began flicking through it. “Aha - a flight spell - something that’ll allow a wingless pony to fly for three days.” He frowned as he began looking through it. “This is incredibly advanced magic - are you sure you’ll be able to do it, Horizon?”

Horizon took the book back off him and began reading through it again. “Not sure - I’ll try though. Any volunteers for the test round?”

There was silence and Forest forced a grotesque grin, sheepishly flapping his own wings. None of the others looked particularly comfortable at the idea of being tested on.

Solar shrugged. “I’ll do it.”

They all gasped and glanced at him.

“Are you sure, Solar?” Forest asked him with wide eyes and Solar blinked in response.

“Red’s my best friend. Of course I’d do anything to help him.” Solar replied instantly, and Horizon nodded, seemingly satisfied with that response.

“Okay. Here goes.” Horizon muttered, and his horn ignited, glowing a bright white as Solar stood there nervously and his hooves left the ground.

Horizon gasped, eyes snapping shut as he screwed up his face. His horn glowed brighter as he strained and grunted, and Solar’s body was slowly wrapped up in a bright golden weave of magic which engulfed him. Horizon yelled, jerking his head up as his horn spat out a white ball of light just as Solar vanished from view under the golden ribbon wrapping him up, and there was a massive flash that threw them all backwards.

As they all rubbed their heads with groans, a soft golden light cast on them all and Forest perked his ears up in delight as he helped Horizon sit up.

“I think it worked.” Horizon slurred, rubbing at his head as his eyes rolled in his head.

Solar squeaked, obviously feeling uncomfortable at being off the floor, but Forest shook his head in wonder at what Horizon had managed to achieve in one go. He’d managed to conjure up a pair of beautiful golden webbed dragonfly wings, and Solar made a noise of delight as he landed, fluttering them experimentally.

“Horizon’s in no shape to try that again. There’s no way he’s going to be able to redo that spell for me, Lava and himself.” Chocolate pointed out, where Horizon was still wobbling on his hooves.

Forest suddenly yelped, rummaging through the piles of books to try and find the one he was after. “Here! Unicorn inspectors for the weather factory in Cloudsdale use this spell to walk on the clouds. It’s incredibly simple as well -”

“I can do that.” Horizon said, before promptly falling on his face.

Later on, following Horizon’s recovery, the posse of ponies headed off to Cloudsdale, with Horizon, Chocolate and Lava taking the hot air balloon, and Solar and Forest flying up themselves. Forest found it incredibly strange going back to Cloudsdale after so long being away from it, but he loved the feel of soft cloud under his hooves again. He reached Cloudsdale first, waiting for Solar and the ballon to get there as he saw Red shuddering and shaking on his own.

“Hey, Red.” He began saying as he landed, and Red wailed.

“I’m doomed! I’ll make myself look like a fool in front of my childhood heroes! Celestia’s going to banish me!” He sobbed, collapsing at Forest’s hooves.

“No, you’re not.” Forest replied with a smile, and Red looked up as his face was suddenly covered with golden light.

“Wait - is that - Solar? Is that you?” Red breathed, and Solar flourished, flapping his golden dragonfly wings.

“Yep! Prince Solar Spark at your service!” Solar sang, landing next to Red, whose jaw was dropped so low it almost was hitting the ground.

“You really do look like a prince.” Red said, and Solar grinned, patting him on the back. “How is that even possible?”

“Horizon cast a spell that grants wingless ponies the ability to fly for a few days.” Forest explained.

“Hey. I could have died - but I’d do anything to help you, even if it’s just cheering you on! I know you can do it!” Solar said with a grin, and Forest nodded in agreement.

“I suspect the others will be here soon.” Forest replied, and just as he spoke, the balloon finally pushed through the clouds, revealing the other three ponies.

Red’s eyes were wide in shock and delight at the sight of them, before he yelled out a warning as Lava hopped out of the balloon. He shot towards the stallion, obviously going to catch him, but ended up crashing into him when Lava did not fall through the clouds.

“But - how? Only pegasi can walk on clouds.” Red gasped, and Lava smirked, helping him up.

“The wing spell was too difficult for me to do on all of us, so Forest suggested an easier spell that can help us walk on the clouds.” Horizon explained, jumping out with Chocolate.

“And we’re all here to support you!” Chocolate squealed, leaping for Red and hugging him tightly.

Red looked like he was on the verge of tears. “Not going to lie - I was definitely starting to get nervous. But I feel a lot better now you guys are here.”

Forest smiled. “Hey, there’s still some time before the competition. Red, shall we show the others around before we have to go?”

Red nodded. “Non-pegasi very rarely get to look around Cloudsdale. I think that’s a great idea.”

As the group trotted up the blander part of Cloudsdale, Red turned to them all with a glint in his eye as he pointed a hoof out.

“Welcome to Cloudsdale - the city in the sky!” He announced, and there were gasps of delight and wonder as they looked out.

Cloudsdale was made up of many smaller sections but all were grand and beautiful with blue pillars and gorgeously crafted pegasi-architecture. The bright blue was stunning as all the pegasus ponies flitted around and leaving cloud trails behind them. Solar was making ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ at his own reflection in one of the windows, causing a roll of the eyes from all of the group as they trotted past him and ignored him.

Solar yelped a quick “Wait for me!” as he took flight and followed them.

The construction workers who were building a new area were watching with their jaws open as Solar flew past them with mutters of “Those wings are amazing.”

“Why, thank you!” Solar grinned, obviously flirting as he glided past them all, before doing a swift loop above them, which caused a chorus of gasps from onlookers as his wings glinted and sparkled.

One of the female workers’ jaw dropped open and the jackhammer she was using fell from her hooves and dropped from the cloud as Solar glided past her.

“Be careful with those wings, Solar!” Forest warned him, remembering what he’d read in the book. “They’re made of gossamer and morning dew, and they’re incredibly delicate.”

“I’m sure they can’t be worn out from too much attention.” Solar smirked, before winking at the construction workers so all of them gasping with delight at the sight of this flirtatious “prince”.

“Actually, now we’re up here, I’d like to see where the weather is made.” Chocolate suggested, trying to draw attention away from Solar, and Red and Forest nodded simultaneously.

“Good idea. We’ll go to the weather factory!” Red announced, deciding to ignore his friend. Forest tried to push Solar’s actions to the back of his mind and interpret them as him just enjoying being a temporary alicorn for now.

After Forest and Red had acquired factory uniforms and they had all put them on, the door to the factory opened and the group entered, with Chocolate and Horizon making noises of interest as Red and Forest led them through. Forest had been inside the factory a few times on school field trips back when he’d lived in Cloudsdale, and actually even recognised some of his old classmates working in the snowflake room.

“Each snowflake is hoof-made.” Red explained, pointing to the ponies currently chipping out the unique shapes of each snowflake under their magnifying glasses. “Which is why there’s a strict no-flying policy in this room - Solar! Get down here -”

“What?” Solar asked innocently, deliberately posing to show off his wings as they caused a breeze that sent snowflakes flying everywhere.

There were yelps of annoyance and despair as the pegasi leapt to their hooves and began running around trying to catch all the snowflakes as they floated around and began shattering on the ground.

“We should get out of here before Solar causes a drought and ruins winter.” Forest winced as another snowflake shattered at his hooves.

They all quickly trotted out of the room, and Red lead them to the place where rainbows were manufactured. Chocolate’s face lit up at the sight of the beautiful rivers and waterfalls of rainbow liquid being stirred and running through the room.

“This is where rainbows are made - although it’s a highly guarded secret on how they do it.” Red explained as they stopped at a pool of all the colours being made. “Y’know, there’s an old pegasus tale where they say that Celestia used to control the sun and the rainbows, but after Luna was banished the responsibility of both the sun and the moon was too much, so she passed the rainbows onto the pegasi.”

Forest nodded at that. “I asked Celestia about it more than once, but she’d never tell me on where they get the spectra from. I think only one pony in Equestria actually knows.”

“That’s incredibly weird. How do they extract the colours, then? Where do they get them from?” Horizon wondered aloud, dipping his head to look at the rainbow pool as he obviously tried to pick it apart with his eyes.

“I think since the responsibility of rainbows was passed from Celestia to pegasi, they’ve never managed to quite get the same bright spectra since.” Red shrugged, and Forest suddenly looked up.

“But what about your rainboom? When I saw that explosion it was the brightest colours I’d ever seen in my life.” Forest pointed out, and Red suddenly thought back.

“But sonic rainbooms were supposed to be old pony tales too, but Red’s actually pulled it off once.” Chocolate said, and Red suddenly looked very confused.

“I guess -” Red was suddenly cut short as he noticed Solar fluttering around overhead with three worker pegasi, two mares and a stallion, tailing him with loud noises of wonder and delight at his glittering wings.

“Those wings are amazing! Where can I get a pair?” The mare asked, and Solar smirked, finally lifting the hard hat of the factory uniform to reveal his horn.

“Sorry, mares, a prince never reveals his secrets.” Solar drawled, and the two mares (and Forest swore even the stallion) squeaked and blushed enormously, suddenly giggling and flirting with him massively.

“Give me a break.” Chocolate gagged, rolling her eyes.

Red suddenly made a noise of anxiety, his ears drooping at the sight.

“Hey - why don’t we go and see where the clouds are made?” Forest tried to change the subject, before turning his attention back to Red in order to reassure him. “Ignore Solar. You’ll win the competition for sure.”

“Are you kidding? I can’t do a sonic rainboom. I’m doomed!” He wailed, falling to the ground and covering his eyes. “I might have had a chance if maybe I didn’t have these stupid, boring feathered wings -”

As they entered the cloud room, where the weather pegasi were chattering as they poured cloud mixture into the specialised funnels that puffed them up and converted it into soft, fluffly clouds, Solar glided over them all, the gold sparkling light he cast over the room making the weather ponies gasp in awe and begin gathering around him with excited chatter.

“What, these old things?” Solar asked, eyes wide with false shock. “They are incredibly handsome, aren’t they?”

“Solar!” Lava snapped, pushing aside the crowded ponies to glare up at the yellow unicorn. “We’re supposed to be here to support Red and look what he’s fucking like now!” He aggressively pointed at Red, who was curled up in a ball and shuddering and muttering incoherent words. “Put those ugly ass wings away and let’s go. Now.”

“How can you ask me to put away perfection?” Solar asked, flying up and opening his wings up wide so the sun beamed through them, causing beautiful golden rays to flow through them and his form to be illuminated by the light.

There were loud gasps of delight and wonder as Solar basked in the light, and Red wailed, still shuddering and shaking as he trembled.

“Red, are you okay?” Chocolate asked him sympathetically, noticing how badly the stage fright was affecting him now.

“Okay? Of course I’m okay! Everyone’s so in love with Solar they won’t even notice when I die in the middle of the competition!” Red spat, barely able to stand up as he whimpered and shuddered in impending doom.

“Hey! There’s an idea!” A purple pegasus worker piped up to Solar. “You should enter the competition!”

Solar put his hoof on his chin as if pretending to think. “Well - there isn’t anypony who flies quite the way I do - maybe I should!”

“What?!” Red, Lava and Forest shrieked at the same time.

Solar folded his wings and swooped away, causing the crowds of ponies to follow him with loud gasps of delight and joy at his sparkling wings. Red was stood there with his jaw so wide open he looked like a fish.

“I’ll never win now!” Red whimpered, and Forest opened his mouth to tell him that it was all in his head and Forest would go and tell Solar to back off, but Red flew off before he could say anything.

“That idiot’s fucking done it now.” Lava roared, going to trail the vain unicorn, but Forest found himself stopping Lava from moving by putting a hoof in front of him.

“We can’t stop him from entering. He’s a fully grown pony.” Forest said with a sigh. “I just hope Solar realises what he’s doing before he ends up hurting Red.”

Later on, they’d taken their places at the Cloudosseum, and Forest found himself incredibly anxious as he shuffled around where he was sat on the cloud with Lava, Chocolate and Horizon. The announcer’s cloud rose up, and his voice echoed around the stadium as the crowd cheered in delight.

“Fillies and gentlecolts! Welcome to this year’s annual Best Young Fliers competition!” The announcer called, raising a hoof as the stadium exploded. Forest didn’t cheer, because worry was still eating at his stomach.

“And now, please welcome our guest of honour and judge - Princess Celestia!” The announcer yelled, flourishing as Celestia flew into sight, flanked by two white pegasus guards as she landed in her section in the Cloudosseum underneath the grand alicorn statue.

The crowd cheered in delight as Celestia folded her wings and waved a gold hoof at them, and Forest found himself beaming and waving back as she noticed him and smiled at him.

“And finally, please welcome our guest judges - the greatest fliers in Equestria - the Wonderbolts!”

Forest’s eyes were wide in joy as he watched the six pegasi roar across the stadium with trailing black thunderclouds, and the stadium erupted into roars as they weaved and dived, before condensing together and exploding outwards, leaving firework trails behind them. Forest couldn’t help being incredibly impressed with the routine as the Wonderbolts landed in the section below Celestia.

The competition continued, and as each contestant went on and did their routines, Forest found himself getting increasingly anxious.

“The competition’s almost over and we haven’t seen Red or Solar yet.” Horizon commented, politely clapping his hooves when the fourteenth contestant finished his routine with a flourish.

“Maybe that’s a good thing - maybe it means Solar’s not going to compete after all and has left the last spot for Red - there isn’t enough time for both of them to perform separately -” Forest began before the words died in his mouth when Solar suddenly emerged from the contestant area.

“And finally, contestant number fifteen!” The announcer began.

“Where the fuck is Red?” Lava demanded, standing up sharply.

“And - uh - apparently contestant number four as well.” The announcer added on hastily as a red blob finally managed to wobble out from the contestant area.

“There he is.” Chocolate’s eyes were wide as they saw Red shakily fly out as well. “He looks like he’s about to pass out.”

The music began and as Solar began gracefully swooping and dancing, causing practically all the mares (and some of the stallions) in the stadium to swoon, Red began composing himself and Forest watched as he began weaving in and out of the cloud columns that had been set up for him.

It seemed to be going well, but Forest visibly winced as Red’s anxiety finally got to him seeing his extravagent friend flitting around with his golden wings, and undershot one of the columns, crashing into it and bounching muzzle first into the side of the arena underneath where Forest and the rest of them were sitting.

“Get your shit together, idiot!” Lava got on all four hooves and screeched at him. “Fucking destroy him! I know you can fucking do it!”

Red shook his head rapidly to obviously clear his head as he managed to recover, looking up at Lava, grinning past his bloody nose. Lava was obviously incredibly motivating, even though he swore every two seconds. As Lava sat down again when Red flew off to begin the next phase of his routine, Forest glanced at him.

“That was great. How did you know that would work?” Chocolate asked the blonde stallion, and he only shrugged in response.

They craned their necks as Red flew from the stadium and began spinning the clouds, just as he’d done in practice, and Forest leapt to his hooves with a gasp of delight as he began making the clouds all move simultaneously.

“Look! It’s working!” He yelled, and they erupted into cheers, stamping their hooves as Red flew.

But still, Red was becoming sloppy as the pressure of performing in competition conditions got to him, and a fragment of cloud hit him in the face as he was flying at high speed. He recoiled, causing the cloud to go flying as it crashed into the area above Celestia.

She ducked it with a gasp, and Forest grimaced, mouthing a ‘sorry’ at her as she shook her head to compose herself.

And as Forest turned his attention back to Red, both he and Solar were beginning to fly upwards.

“That’s his last chance to redeem himself.” Forest whispered, and Lava narrowed his eyes. “The sonic rainboom.”

“Come on, idiot.” Lava hissed through his teeth as Red kept flying upwards.

And then Solar reached the sun, wings wide as he performed his own finale, casting the bright gold glimmers of his wings all across Cloudsdale. The crowd gasped in utmost joy at this beautiful finished, and Forest and Horizon suddenly hopped to their hooves in horror, knowing what was going to happen next.

Solar’s wings disintegrated under the heat of the sun, and he screeched, pummetting like a stone.

“I told him! I told how delicate they were!” Forest yelled in terror, opening his wings to try and catch him in necessary, but the Wonderbolts beat him to it, diving after Solar as he fell through the stadium with high pitched screams.

However, as the crowd screamed and gasped in horror, Solar’s flailing managed to take out all three Wonderbolts who were diving after him. One hoof cracking with their skulls put all three of them out of commission.

The commotion had finally reached Red, who suddenly noticed, and began diving after them. He shot through the stadium at breakneck speed, and Forest gasped, on his hooves when he noticed the streaming beginning to form at the peak of Red’s streamlined body. Solar’s eyes widened in shock as he noticed, and there was a crack, followed by a boom and an explosion of pure, bright colour as Red’s body cracked through the sound barrier, pulling his body up as the rainbow trailed him, snatching up Solar and the unconscious Wonderbolts right before they collided with the ground.

“A sonic rainboom! He fucking did it! Hell fucking yes!” Lava roared, stamping his hooves and shrieking in delight as Red curved upwards, the beautiful pure rainbow trailing behind him as he performed a final arc over the Cloudosseum.

Red landed as the Wonderbolts came to, finally flapping away as they held onto Solar so he wouldn’t fall through the clouds, and the stadium erupted, with screeches and roars of delight, and Red noticed Forest and Lava cheering and waving their hooves as confetti rained on them all.

Forest flew down to him to help the Wonderbolts hold Solar clear of the clouds, and the other ponies trotted down too.

“I did it.” Red breathed, eyes welling up as he glanced up at the still pure, imperfect rainbow glittering over the stadium.

“Thank you so much Red. You saved me.” Solar said, beginning to tear up too, and Red snapped his head up, wings open in sudden delight.

“Oh yeah! I did that too!” He chirped, and they gathered around him to embrace him hard.

Later on, when they’d put Solar in the hot air balloon so he wouldn’t fall through the clouds, he leant over it, despair on his face.

“I want to apologise to all of you for getting so carried away. I lost my head because my wings were so beautiful and I became a terrible pony because of it.” Solar whispered, bowing his head in shame, and they all said something along the lines of them forgiving him because everypony made mistakes every once in a while. “And I especially want to apologise to you, Red.” Solar turned to him, where he was stood next to Lava with his wings folded. “All I wanted to do was support you, and all I ended up doing was being so thoughtless I jumped into something you’ve worked so hard to achieve. I’m so sorry -”

Red jumped up and embraced him hard before he could finish. “It’s okay. It’s fine. Everything turned out okay in the end. The competition doesn’t mean that much to me - I’m just happy you’re okay.” He let go, suddenly forlorn. “I just wish I could have met the Wonderbolts while they were awake -”

A hoof tapped him on the shoulder and Forest suddenly grinned when Red turned to see the three main Wonderbolts, wings open as they stood in a triangle formation (and they were conscious too, Forest thought in amusement). Red’s jaw dropped and all he made was a choking noise as he suddenly forgot how to speak.

“So you’re the pony who saved our lives.” The yellow and orange mare said, holding a hoof out towards him. “We really wanted to say thank you personally.”

Red made another squeaking noise, like a mouse being trodden on. “Y- you’re welcome.”

Celestia and her guards landed behind Forest, and he turned to face her with a noise of delight. “Princess!”

“Hello, Forest Flash, my dear student.” Celestia said as Forest trotted over and embraced her hard. “And hello to your friends too.”

“I’m so sorry for ruining the competition, Princess.” Solar blurted out with a hasty bow. “Red really is the best flier in Equestria. I just wish I hadn’t jeopardised everything for him -”

“I know he is, my dear Solar Spark. And that is why for his incredible act of bravery and his flawless sonic rainboom, I am awarding the title of this year’s best young flier to Red Riot!” Celestia announced, placing the winged crown on Red’s head as the crowd erupted into cheers.

Red promptly began crying, and there were louder cheers as Horizon, Lava and Chocolate lifted him up and began carrying him around the stadium.

Celestia finally turned her attention back to Forest and Solar. “So, Forest, did you learn anything new about this experience?”

“I did, Princess - but I think Solar learned even more than me.” Forest answered, giving Solar an encouraging glance.

“He’s right. I learnt that being there for your friends is worth more than anything, and how incredibly important it is to think of them before thinking of yourself.” Solar answered, gazing up at the Princess. “And I also learnt that it’s better for everypony if I keep my clumsy hooves on the ground from now on.”

“Wonderful. I am incredibly proud of all of you.” Celestia said, smiling as the others came back and Red hopped onto the ground. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something behind the scenes to take care of. I’ll see you five at the Gala.”

“But Celestia - the six of us are going -” Forest began with a frown, turning back to her, but she’d vanished. “Huh - Celestia doesn’t normally make mistakes -”

“But she’s right! Where’s Horizon?” Chocolate asked, and Forest inhaled sharply, turning around again, but he too seemed to have disappeared from sight.

But that doesn’t make any sense - she couldn’t have counted incorrectly, even if Horizon was gone, because she sent us all six of us tickets! Forest realised, finally incredibly comfortable. Is she assuming one of us won’t go? Or perhaps she already knew -

A search around Cloudsdale revealed no Horizon, and they eventually came to the conclusion that he’d just gone back to Ponyville without telling them. It was certainly possible, since Horizon knew advanced enough magic to teleport, so that was what had probably happened.

Horizon didn’t show up for the rest of the day, so the following morning Forest left the Ponyville library early to go and search for him, and get answers once and for all.

He found Horizon helping Chocolate move about orders with his horn outside the shop. Chocolate noticed him and waved, and Forest waved back as he landed, folding his wings.

“Horizon, why don’t you want to go to the Gala?” Forest asked him in a low voice, and Horizon looked startled, almost losing his magical grip on the box he was floating.

“Not here.” He replied curtly, eyeing Chocolate in the corner.

“Is it something to do with Celestia?” He asked, and Horizon glanced at him, and put the box down harshly.

“I am leaving now.” Horizon said in a flat voice, and Chocolate looked up with surprise.

“Um - okay -” She began saying, but Horizon was already trotting off with Forest tailing him anxiously.

“It’s just that - Horizon! Stop walking away!” Forest said desperately, having to fly to catch up with the half-and-half unicorn.

“Stop following me then.” Horizon glared, and Forest flinched, hating seeing him like this.

“Horizon - I don’t care if you don’t want to tell me why you don’t want to go to Canterlot. What I want to know is if you’re going to go to the Gala because - because -” Forest began stuttering as Horizon stopped short and turned to face him.

“What?” He said, and Forest began tripping over his tongue very quickly.

“It’s just that - everyone else is going. Chocolate, Solar, Lava, Red - even Ember’s going.” Forest said, scuffing his hooves on the ground. “And the thing is, I don’t really want to go if you’re not going.”

Horizon looked surprised at this sudden confession of Forest’s. “Why is that?”

“Because I feel like all of us should be there.” Forest whispered, managing to not say the real reason why.

“I’m sorry, Forest. Unless there is a reason - a real reason - for me to ever step hoof in Canterlot, then I will go.” Horizon said, flame igniting his his heterochromic eyes. “But I fought tooth and horn to get out of that damned place and I am not going near it again. Ever.”

“Ever?” Forest whispered, and Horizon’s eyes flashed.

“Ever.”

Horizon whipped around and disappeared, and Forest watched him go, and did not attempt to follow him.

Chapter Text

It was beginning to get late, and Forest shut his book, knowing that someone was going to knock on his door and demand that he begin getting ready for the Gala. He had a heavy heart, knowing that Horizon wasn’t going to show, but kept his chin up, knowing he was going to get a whole evening with the Princess to catch up and discuss all the things he’d learnt whilst in Ponyville.

The first pony to knock on the door was Chocolate, and Forest forced a smile as she grinned at him.

“Hey, Forest!” She chirped, before waving at Ember. “Hey, Ember!”

Ember nodded her crested head in response at her before returning to her own book. Chocolate went into the library past Forest, and he noticed how she had her own outfit in a dress bag over her back.

“Can I see your dress, Chocolate?” Forest asked, and she shook her head firmly.

“Absolutely not. You get to see it when I get to see you boys in your attire.” Chocolate smiled, before turning back to him. “Where are the others, actually?”

“I don’t know, actually. What’s your plan for tonight?” Forest asked her, and Chocolate thought for a second.

“Well, I was planning to go to the spa with Solar to get our manes done. I think Red and Lava said they’d meet us there - as for Horizon -”

“Horizon isn’t going.” Forest said flatly, and Chocolate’s eyes widened as she whipped around to face him.

“What? I knew he didn’t seem keen before but he never mentioned outright not going -” Chocolate began protesting, and Forest exhaled slowly.

“He won’t tell me why, but I guess it’ll just be the five of us for tonight - and Ember.” Forest said to her. “But we’ll just have to respect his decision to stay at home.”

“I-I guess.” Chocolate said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Well, if that’s the case, do you and Ember want to get ready with me and Solar? That’s why I came here, after all -”

“Ember? Is that okay?” Forest asked the phoenix, and she didn’t respond, which was the closest thing to a ‘fine’ that Forest knew he was going to get from her. “Okay. I guess we’re in.”

Forest flew upstairs to grab his and Ember’s clothes before following Chocolate to the spa. When he entered, he saw Solar already leant back with his eyes shut in bliss as he chattered non-stop to the poor spa-pony who was trying to wash and cut his mane.

“Hey, Solar!” Chocolate piped up, causing the unicorn to open an eye to look at them.

“Hey, Chocolate - oh, hi Forest! And Ember!” Solar said, before shutting his eye again.

Forest decided against getting his mane and tail done, like Chocolate and Solar were, but he still enjoyed talking to them both and Ember as they underwent spa treatment. Ember refused flat out to get wet at all, which Forest understood, but helped her with preening her feathers, since he often cleaned his own feathers.

As it entered early evening, the three ponies and one phoenix left. Forest and Solar were dressed in their brand new shiny dress suits with white shirts, and Forest just had a nice green tie like his cutie mark, but Solar was going down the bow tie route, and he had golden cufflinks and a red rose in his breast pocket. Chocolate’s dress was themed like sakura flowers - light, delicate, and floating like petals, all in a beautiful pink and white that complemented her mane and tail perfectly. She’d had pink flowers woven into her mane and tail as well. Ember couldn’t wear normal clothes due to her feathers setting them alight, but had settled for one single fire-flower on the right side of her head.

“You three look amazing!” Chocolate squeaked, clapping her hooves on the ground in delight.

“Thanks! Your dress is beautiful!” Solar grinned, eyes wide in delight at Chocolate’s outfit.

“I’m interested to see if Red managed to get Lava to wear a suit.” Forest wondered aloud, and Chocolate grinned, pointing into the distance, where Canterlot was illuminated in the distance, a golden speck on the side of the mountain.

“Let’s find out. We don’t want to be late, right?” Chocolate piped up, and they got into the carriage that Princess Celestia had sent for them that was being pulled by two Guards.

The flight to Canterlot was short, and Forest felt incredibly strange heading back. Ember was perched on the front of the chariot as Solar and Chocolate chattered in excitement.

“Forest! Can you believe it? Canterlot, our home town! I can’t wait to show you guys it!” Ember chirped, and Forest nodded in agreement. “Chocolate, you should see my favourite donut shop, I know you’d love it -”

“That sounds wonderful, Ember!” Chocolate smiled at her, before resuming her conversation with Solar.

Forest blinked and decided to instead look at the dark scenery down below as Ponyville dipped into late evening. He recognised Horizon’s house on the edge of town, and felt a pang as he noticed the lights were on, suggesting he was still at home, and had no intention of changing his mind whatsoever. He turned away, exhaling slowly as Ponyville flew out of sight and the coloured turrets of Canterlot entered his vision.

The chariot landed with a bump, and as Chocolate and Solar trotted away with Ember on Solar’s back, Forest got out a lot slower than the rest of them. He turned to thank the Guards for flying them there, and one of them broke his poker face to smile at him.

“Dad?” Forest suddenly inhaled hard as he recognised his father’s grin. “What are you -”

“Hey, son.” His dad said, nodding to his colleague before heading towards him. “The Princess mentioned you were going to the Gala - I thought I’d say hi -”

“I wasn’t expecting to see you - I thought you’d be dealing with security and all -” Forest’s face broke into a grin as he embraced his dad, who was still being hidden by the illusion cast by his enchanted helmet.

“Oh, no - the Princess said it was okay for me to see you.” Burning Branch said, letting go of his son.

“That’s great to hear - not gonna lie, I really did need to see you. Being away from Canterlot for so long was something I didn’t think was ever going to happen -” Forest suddenly trailed off, seeing his dad looking him up and down. “Um - Dad - is there something wrong?” He asked, concern edging into his voice as he folded his wings and looked behind him.

His father looked at him with pride in his eyes. “Just wondering how my adorable little colt grew up to be such a handsome stallion -”

“Dad! Shut up!” Forest hissed, his face flushing massively as he heard Chocolate and Solar snickering behind him.

“It’s the truth!” Burning Branch said, noticing Chocolate and Solar behind him. “Hey - you’re Forest’s friends right? I’m sure I can give an exception to either of you if you’d like to date my son -”

“Dad!!” Forest gaped in horror, still flushing and squeaking in embarrassment as Solar miraculously managed to keep a straight face as Chocolate howled with laughter, doubling over.

“That’s a very kind offer, sir.” Solar grinned, and Chocolate only made an ugly shrieking noise as tears of laughter ran down her face.

“Enough!” Forest yelped, shoving his dad away from his friends so they were out of earshot. “Don’t you, I dunno, have a city to protect?” He hissed, glaring at his dad, fully aware that he was still blushing in embarrassment.

“Our new captain’s got it covered, don’t you worry.” His dad said, smiling as he patted his son on the head. “Now you go and have fun tonight - the Princess was really looking forward to seeing you -”

“She is?” Forest asked, finally managing to calm down to the point he wasn’t blushing furiously anymore.

“Yep!” His father said, smiling at him.

Forest scowled at him, looking over his shoulder to see that Solar and Chocolate were waiting for him, and they’d obviously been joint by Lava and Red in that time. He turned back to his dad and firmly told him not to embarrass him anymore.

“Okay - it’s my job, though!” His father called after him as Forest flew back to his friends.

“No, your job is to stop terrorists from killing the princesses.” He muttered through his teeth as he landed next to Chocolate.

“What was that?” She asked him, and Forest forced a smile and managed to squeak a “Nothing!” in response.

“Okay, then - look, Red and Lava got here before us!” Chocolate responded, deciding to ignore his other comment.

Red and Lava were both wearing suits as well, but Lava had already taken his tie off and unbuttoned his collar. It seemed like Red must have negotiated with him to the point that he wouldn’t have to wear the tie if he wore the rest of the suit. Red took a step forwards, and Forest noticed he had a crimson tie on.

“The Gala’s starting!” The pegasus said in excitement as fireworks went off across the palace.

“So, what’s the plan for tonight?” Forest asked his friends as the group (minus one, he thought with a pang as he thought about Horizon holed up at home again). “I hope you don’t mind if I disappear off to see Celestia -”

“No, that’s totally okay!” Chocolate assured him. “I’m going to start setting up my shop in the garden effectively immediately so I can earn as much money as possible.”

“My true love is waiting in that palace, just you wait.” Solar sighed dramatically.

“And the Wonderbolts!” Red cried out, gasping as he turned his muzzle skywards to see the group shoot across the sky through the fireworks. “I have to prove myself to them - this is the perfect opportunity - it’s going to be the best night ever -”

They all went through the main palace door and were looking around with wide eyes.

“But you know what I’m most looking forward?” Ember asked, where she was perched on Lava’s back (she really did seem to be good friends with the massive stallion, since he wasn’t complaining about her at all. “That we’re all going to spend it toge -”

Chocolate shot off into the gardens. Solar vanished into the main hall. Red flew into the VIP section.

“-ther.” Ember finished, a hurt look on her face as she turned to Forest.

“Sorry, Ember.” Forest said sheepishly, taking a step away. “I’ve got to go and find the princess - I hope you don’t mind -”

“No. Not at all.” Ember said, and Forest could tell she and Lava weren’t happy about it at all.

“Thanks - you’re a great friend.” Forest said, patting her on the head gently before trotting off.

He forced lightness into his heart and a spring into his step as he looked up the stairs to see Celesta standing regal and tall at the top, with her mane flowing and her golden hooves sparkling.

“Celestia!” He gasped, opening his wings and flying up to her.

“Forest Flash! How good it is to see you again!” Celestia answered with a smile, tapping a hoof next to her. “I expect we have a lot to catch up on, correct?”

“Yes - there’s so much I’ve wanted to tell you about my experiences.” Forest answered, slightly breathless as he looked up at her.

“Well, I want you by my side the whole evening. That way, we’ll have plenty of time together.” Celestia said, tapping a hoof next to her.

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Forest said in delight, immediately standing next to her as she nodded and welcomed the next pair of ponies heading up the stairs into the Gala.

He grinned and watched Ember and Lava head off together, and felt slightly relieved that at least those two were together, and wondered how the others were getting on.

But about an hour into the Gala, Forest was beginning to realise that this hadn’t been as good of an idea as he’d originally thought. Celestia was obviously trying to talk to him, but every so often another pony would arrive and she’d immediately stop talking to smile and say “Welcome to the Gala!” to them. Forest forced a smile and would politely shake the ponies’ hooves, but as more ponies arrived and lines began forming up the stairs, he was beginning to doubt that this was going to work.

“Maybe I should check on Chocolate.” He decided, excusing himself from the Princess and flying into the garden, where he saw Chocolate’s stand saw the brown earth pony leant on her stand, looking incredibly bored.

She immediately perked up when she noticed him. “Forest! How are things going with the Princess?”

“Um - okay.” He lied, smiling at her. “What about you?”

“Uh - not so great.” She admitted, glancing at her bucket where she was collecting money. There were only about three bits in there. “I’ve been here for an hour and only sold one cake -” She waved a hoof at the stallion - a Wonderbolt, Forest realised, recognising the telltale uniform - as he was trotting back towards the VIP section with the massive chocolate gateau in one hoof.

“I think I know why -” Forest added through his teeth, seeing a waiter trot past with a tray of canapes, and remembering flying past the buffet on the way there. “There’s a buffet in the main hall -”

“So that’s why I haven’t been selling anything!” Chocolate yelped, slamming a hoof on the table. “Everyone’s been eating the posh all-inclusive in the hall!”

“I’ll buy something, if you’d like.” Forest offered hastily, and she shook her head firmly.

“It’s okay. I have a plan.” She said, and Forest shrugged, trusting her to be sensible.

“Okay, I’ll come and check up on you later - mind if I go and see if Red’s had more luck with the Wonderbolts?” Forest asked her, and she waved him off, not saying anything past the mixing bowl in her teeth.

Forest opened his wings and followed the Wonderbolt he’d seen earlier, because he knew he’d find Red in whatever place he was headed to.

He saw Red talking to the Wonderbolt leader, Spifire, (he immediately recognised the yellow and orange mare), and as the other Wonderbolt with Chocolate’s gateau approached her, he landed, managing to overhear the conversation.

“Always hungry after a show, huh, Soarin?” The female Wonderbold asked with amusement in her voice, and the stallion nodded.

“Yeah -” As he answered, the cake slipped from his hooves and began plummeting towards the floor. “NO!! MY CAKE -”

Red reacted quickly, opening his wings and launching himself for it, catching it before it hit the floor. Forest nodded in amusement, seeing that Red had managed to impress the Wonderbolts again and internally cheered for him.

“That’s twice you’ve saved us now, Mister Best Young Flier.” Spitfire said in amusement as Red passed Soarin’s cake back to him. “Or, at least, Soarin’s chocolate gateau -”

Soarin was immediately demolishing the cake with loud chewing, to Forest’s amusement.

“Wanna hang out with us?” Spitfire asked Red, who nodded immediately and when her back was turned, silently punched the air with a silent screech of delight, before following her into the VIP section.

He seems to be doing okay, Forest thought, and opened his wings to try and find Solar, and see if he was having any luck finding his “true love”. A quick search over the gardens revealed the yellow unicorn obviously eyeing up a mare who was stood over the rose bushes smelling the flowers. He looked incredibly nervous, and Forest landed next to him, causing Solar to yelp and jump.

“Chill, Romeo.” Forest assured him, patting him on the back.

“I’m sorry! I guess - she’s super pretty and I don’t know how to start -” Solar admitted, shuffling his hooves, and Forest rolled his eyes.

“Okay, well you’re the master of flirting, you tell me.” Forest smiled reassuringly, pointing at the mare, who had her head dipped to smell the flowers. She had a beautiful, galaxy like gown on which glimmered with stars and constellations.

“Well - um, she’s smelling the roses, so maybe I should try and give her one?” Solar asked him, and Forest smiled, nudging him forward.

“Let that inner flirt out - listen, just because she’s super cute doesn’t mean you shouldn’t flirt like you normally do.” Forest said to him. “You managed to make every mare in Cloudsdale practically froth at the mouth -”

“Yeah, but then I had pretty dragonfly wings and looked like a glorified alicorn.” Solar said sarcastically, but Forest knew he was just trying to hide how nervous he was.

“Listen, if you don’t feel comfortable flirting, then don’t. Just go over to her and be yourself, and conversation will spark up. I know you can do it, okay?” Forest said, nudging him with an elbow.

Look at you, giving love advice when you’re a nervous wreck around -

He swallowed hard and forced a smile, cutting away that train of thought.

“Right. I can do it! I can do it!” Solar told himself firmly, trotting confidently up to the mare.

Forest watched him as he approached the mare and listened into the conversation carefully.

“The roses are so pretty, aren’t they?” He heard Solar say to her, and the mare laughed gently, turning to face him.

“Flowers are gorgeous, but I prefer the stars.” She said, pawing at the rose in Solar’s pocket to straighten it. “After all, stars have been there and burn bright for millions of moons, but flowers wither after a while.”

“Well, I was going to offer you a flower, but I don’t have any stars on me at the moment.” Solar laughed, and the mare laughed too.

Humour. Great, Solar seemed to be more relaxed around the mare now. Forest went to open his wings to go back to Red, but the mare finally turned around, and he saw her face for the first time. His heart stopped and his jaw dropped.

“Coal?” The word left him as the wind was knocked out of him, and the mare snapped her head up, gazing at him with wide eyes.

“Forest?” She gasped, and her mane was clipped out of her face and curled beautifully.

She looked incredibly different, even though it had only been a few years at most. Forest found himself beaming as he practically cantered over to him to embrace her. Comet gasped in joy and hugged him tightly, and tears began running down her dark face.

“Long time no see.” Forest smiled, letting go of her as she wiped at her face.

“It really has been - I came back from Manehatten to visit hoping to see you or Slate, but when I went to your apartment and saw it was empty -” Coal’s voice trembled slightly. “I didn’t know where you were. I thought I was never going to see you again -”

“You should have gone to see my mom or dad. They could have pointed you towards Ponyville.” Forest said to her, and she blinked at that.

“Wait - do you two know each other?” Solar demanded, drawing his eyebrows together as he trotted next to Coal.

“Yeah - Solar, this is my old friend Coal Comet. We went to school together.” Forest said breathlessly, turning to face her. “Coal, this is my friend Solar Spark.”

“Forest, you have no idea how much I worried about you after you left, and Slate writing to me about his new job. I knew you were going to isolate yourself.” Coal admitted, smiling at Solar. “I’m happy you managed to make some new friends in Ponyville -”

“Yeah, me too.” Forest said, hugging her again. “We seriously need to keep in contact more often - I’ll give you my new address -”

“I’d love that - we have so much we need to catch up on.” Coal smiled.

Forest suddenly stiffened, hearing Solar sigh. He saw the yellow unicorn walking away slowly with his head dipped, and internally cursed, knowing Solar really wanted a chance with Coal.

“Um - Coal, can you excuse me for a second?” He blurted out, letting go of her.

“Yes, sure!” Coal said, and Forest opened his wings to shoot after Solar.

“Solar! Where are you going?” He asked, and Solar turned to glare at him.

“Of course she likes you! Celestia, why did I think for a second that I’d have a chance with her?” Solar wailed, and Forest flattened his ears at this information.

“She doesn’t like me, we’re old friends -”

“Give me a break, Forest, she literally cried when she recognised you.” Solar snapped, stamping a hoof on the ground.

Forest was suddenly getting angry as the pressure of the situation and his already internalised worries suddenly bubbled to the surface. “It doesn’t matter! I don’t like her in that way, so you’re fine! Try again, there’s no point in giving up after literally talking to her for two seconds -”

“Why should I bother? That’s a lie, she’s wayyy too pretty for you not to like her.” Solar scoffed, and Forest internally flinched, trying not to think of that specific pony.

He failed.

“I like somepony else!” He blurted out, and Solar suddenly froze in his tracks.

“Really?” The yellow unicorn asked skeptically, and Forest swallowed, nodding sharply.

“Yeah. And Coal and I - we go back so far, I seriously see her as a sister.” Forest said to him, and it was the truth.

Solar looked utterly torn, but Forest’s raw, genuine look of despair on his face seemed to convince him slightly. He turned away and looked like he was going to try storming away again, but Forest opened his wings and quickly shot in front of him.

“Solar! For Celestia’s sake - come on, try talking to her again.” He said, forcing a smile and indicating with his head towards Coal, who was currently using her magic to rearrange the flowers in the bush. “She was just happy to see me again. I think you’ve interester her for sure - please take my word for it -”

“Fine!” Solar flattened his ears. “I’ll try again -”

“Great! I know you can do it.” Forest yelped, patting him hastily on the back with a hoof. “I’ll leave this time - let me know how it goes -”

He flew off before Solar could respond, and internally screamed, shoving a hoof in his mouth and kicking his legs in fury as he flew. That could have gone incredibly badly - but at least he’d managed to convince Solar to try hitting on Coal again, even if he’d nearly outed himself in the process -

No. He told himself firmly, focusing on flying. No, you panicked, and it’s not the truth. You’re just disappointed that not all of us are at the Gala and everything seems to be going wrong -

Plus, he really didn’t know what he was going to do about Coal if she really did like him in that way. If there was anything Forest didn’t want, it was a love triangle - or potentially a love square if he chose to include Solar.

He flew into the main hall and saw that in the VIP section, things seemed to be going south for Red too. He was having to squash through the crowds of ponies talking loudly, and there was despair on his face as he was obviously trying to speak to Spitfire and Soarin, but they were engaged in loud conversation, and the second he got near, somepony else would drag the Wonderbolts away for photographs.

“This isn’t hanging out.” Red sagged his head, and Forest winced.

Red then obviously decided to make the Wonderbolts notice him, and deliberately rammed one of the other guests so he dropped his drink, spilling water everywhere, and sending the stallion flying with a scream. Red then shot in front and conveniently caught him, but a turn over his shoulder and seeing that the Wonderbolts didn’t even notice, he dropped the stallion and cursed, obviously getting angry now as well.

Then, the main doors burst open, and Chocolate came in, wheeling an absolutely enormous ten tiered cake on a trolley. How she’d managed to make it in such short time with such limited equipment, Forest didn’t know.

“All right, ponies, who could resist this bad boy?” Forest heard her say.

The side doors opened, with Solar holding it open with his magic. Coal wriggled past him without even acknowledging him, and began trotting towards Forest.

“Forest! There you are - I was just wondering if you’d like to get drinks - woAHH!!” Coal shrieked, slipping on the spill from the other guest’s drink and going flying.

“Coal!” Forest heard Solar shriek as he cantered towards her, his horn igniting to try and catch her, but he was so focused on her that he crashed right into Chocolate’s trolley, sending the massive cake flying in slow motion through the air.

“NO! I just had my mane done!” Solar shrieked, catching Coal with his horn and holding her over his head as cake began raining down on all the guests, who began running around with panicked shrieks.

Coal screamed in fury and wriggled free, absolutely coated with chocolate as she stormed towards Solar with her horn ignited. “You idiot! Afraid to get dirty, are you?”

She shook herself, causing Solar to wail in horror and step back as more chocolate sprayed from Coal’s mane and onto his pristine mane and suit, but as he did so, he accidentally knocked into the decorative pillar, which fell and shattered, but not before it crashed into the others, causing a domino effect as all the decorations fell and exploded, spraying shards of marble everywhere.

“Solar!” Forest yelled, wiping chocolate frosting out of his eyes as he ran over to both Solar and Coal, who were now beginning to properly fight, with the two tussling ponies spitting and rolling across the whole hall as ponies were still running around in a panic.

The last pillar fell, hitting the massive centrepiece alicorn statue, which wobbled.

“This is my chance!” Red yelled, zipping towards it and catching it on his back, but it was way too heavy and it tipped, sending Red rolling across the floor and into the floor.

The statue smashed through the door, rolling across the garden and destroying every flowerbed and squashing Chocolate’s stand, before the statue itself shattered into a million tiny pieces. However, as Forest looked over his shoulder in horror, still trying to hold Solar and Coal apart (Coal was winning), the statue had obviously disturbed a lot of animals and, to Forest’s horror, knocked a beehive from its tree.

The guests started running around screaming as swarms of bees and flocks of angry birds and squirrels and other rodents from the garden entered the hall, and Forest gasped in relief as Celestia appeared in the other door with her wings open.

“Run!” She ordered Forest and his other friends, and they immediately obeyed as Celestia’s horn lit up and all four ponies (and Coal) cantered away, deciding to wander the street with defeated groans in their tattered and stained outfits.

“That was an utter disaster.” Forest winced, rubbing at a bee sting on his leg with a hoof.

“I guess I’ll go home. I’m sorry our reunion ended up like that.” Coal said, sweeping her tattered mane out of her eyes. “I hope I’ll see you soon.” She turned to face Solar, and there was genuine regret on her face. “I’m sorry, Solar.”

The four ponies watched numbly as Coal disappeared down the dark street, and Forest sighed loudly again, before Chocolate suddenly perked up.

“Forest! Look - isn’t that the donut shop? The one Ember likes?” She asked, pointing to the shop, and Forest immediately recognised it from going there all the time with Ember for study snacks.

“Yes - and it’s still open!” Forest gaped, before seeing the silhouette of a bird on the inside. “Ember!”

They pushed through the door so the bell tinkled, and Ember and Lava turned around, eyes wide in shock when they saw all four of them looking so bedraggled. Lava still had half a donut in his mouth as he ran his eyes up and down them.

“Woah. Was the Gala really that wild?” Ember asked, a donut still halfway to her beak as she glanced at Forest’s tangled mane and chocolate stained outfit.

“It was awful. Don’t even get me started.” Forest wailed, sitting next to her and planting his face on the table.

Ember blinked at him. “Well, you’re too late. I ordered stuff for you but Lava ate yours.”

Lava snorted. “Shut up.”

“Have you two really been here the whole time?” Solar asked quietly, and the phoenix and the blonde stallion nodded curtly.

“Yeah.” Lava said, and Red smiled, reaching out to brush the sprinkles out of Lava’s collar.

“And how was it? Was it better than what our time was?” Forest asked dryly, and Ember smirked.

“Yes. It was - tell me what happened to make you look like - this.” Ember said flatly with a slight smirk as she gestured towards the absolutely filthy ponies.

“I didn’t get to see Celestia. She was so busy we barely talked.” Forest explained, glancing at his friends.

“I didn’t sell anything because of the buffet.” Chocolate sighed.

“I messed up with one of the prettiest mares I’ve ever seen.” Solar’s ears drooped.

“And the Wonderbolts barely noticed me.” Red sagged his own head with an exhale of disappointment.

“And when we all tried harder, everything just went chaotic. There were bees.” Forest put his face down flat on the table. “So the Gala was ruined because of the combined efforts of all of us.”

The donuts Ember must have ordered were put on the table and they all begrudgingly reached for one.

“So I guess nobody got what they wanted in the end.” Chocolate said flatly through a mouthful of donut. “Except maybe you two -”

“Actually, I didn’t. But Ember did.” Lava said, indicating to the firebird, who hopped onto Lava’s head.

“Yeah. This is what I wanted all along. For all of us to spend time together!” Ember chirped, and the others suddenly nodded in agreement. “Even if Horizon isn’t here.”

“Actually, you’re right, Ember.” Red said, eyes suddenly wide. “This is the most relaxed I’ve been the entire night - but wait, Blasty - what was it you wanted at the Gala? You said you didn’t get what you wanted -”

“I didn’t.” Lava said, looking away slightly. “I wanted to spend time with you.”

“Me?” Red’s voice dropped down to a whisper, and Forest smiled softly at the two. “Why didn’t you say?”

“Because the Wonderbolts are all you fucking talk about.” Lava smirked slightly. “That was what you wanted, and it means a lot to you.”

“But -” Red began saying, before Celestia suddenly appeared in the door of the donut shop.

“That was the best night ever!” She declared, and they all gasped in shock and disbelief.

“With all due respect, Princess, the Gala was a disaster.” Forest admitted, dipping his head in shame.

“Yeah - we all managed to ruin it.” Solar replied, and Celestia shook her shimmering head as she trotted over to them.

“Oh, my little ponies, if my dear Forest had attended the Gala all those other times I’d invited him, he’d have known that the Gala is always a disaster.” Celestia smiled down at them all. “So, that’s why I was hoping you all would attend this year to liven things up a little.”

“I literally caused a zoo to invade the grand hall, Celestia.” Red spluttered, and Celestia only laughed merrily.

“Which livened it all up! I have to admit, I’m not allowed to think this, but I always find the Gala desperately boring.” Celestia told them with a smile. “And really, thinking back, was it really all that bad?”

Forest thought about it. “Actually, no - Ember was right the whole time. I’ve had more fun sat here with a donut than I think I would have done in the Gala itself.”

There were noises of agreement around the table, and Ember puffed her feather chest out in pride (or it might have been all the donuts going to her stomach).

“Now, if you must excuse me, I have a swarm of bees to get out of the castle.” Celestia grinned, clapping her hooves together. “What fun!”

“Celestia, wait.” Solar blurted, trotting over to her. “If you see Coal, can you tell her I’m sorry? I feel really bad for all that -”

“Solar Spark, I don’t think I need to.” Celestia smiled, indicating outside, where Coal was standing on the opposite side of the road.

As Forest paid for the donuts (which came to a very large sum; he had Ember to thank for that), the ponies trotted down the dark road as Solar was quietly talking to Coal outside the shop.

“I think Horizon’s going to be grateful he didn’t go after that.” Chocolate commented to him, and Forest only smiled softly in response as she, Solar and Ember began chattering to each other as they headed down to the train station to get the train back to Ponyville.

But as Forest walked, his hooves echoing softly on the road, he noticed how Red and Lava had pulled behind the group slightly, and how they seemed to be moving closer to each other as they walked, and Forest averted his gaze, afraid that he was imposing on them by simply looking.

He ruffled his wings and sighed as the cold night air made his body cold, and wondered why the thought of walking side by side with another particular pony was making his heart beat a little faster than usual.




Chapter Text

Forest was asked to help Cheerilee chaperone the Ponyville school field trip to the Royal Canterlot Gardens. When he asked her why him specifically, and not a pony who was a lot better with foals than he was, Cheerilee explained that with his knowledge of Canterlot and of the cultural history there he could provide invaluable knowledge.

So he agreed to it, knowing that maybe a visit to Canterlot since the Gala was overdue (plus Crimson had practically begged him to go since Red was busy and couldn’t chaperone), and Cheerilee led the group of young ponies down the path next to the Canterlot maze and into the sculpture garden. Forest had visited this place many a time as a young pony with Slate and Coal and the rest of their class, and it was certainly interesting seeing everything again from an adult point of view.

“I’d like to finish our field trip here, in the Equestria-famous Canterlot sculpture garden!” Cheerilee announced, pointing to all the statues as she walked. “This one represents friendship.”

She pointed at the white marble statue of three young foals, leaping and smiling as they played with joy on their face. Forest glanced up at it with interest, noticing how one was an earth pony, one was a pegasus, and one was a unicorn. He thought back to his studies with Celestia and found it a lot more interesting than before - the statue represented more than just friendship, but harmony between the three pony tribes that previously fought and disputed, and the innocence and no prejudice that only a young pony could achieve.

Crimson stopped to look at the statue, and Summer and Coffee promptly bumped into him, and they all growled and glared at each other. Forest knew that tensions were slightly worn down due to the long train ride and being on their hooves all day.

“This one represents victory!” Cheerilee continued, pointing to the statue of a marble alicorn holding a flag across their head as they reared.

“That would be a cool cutie mark.” Coffee said, looking up at the statue with wide eyes.

“Yeah, if you were ever victorious at something.” Summer scoffed, causing a loud growl of annoyance from the other two ponies.

“Moving on!” Cheerilee piped up, pointing at the next statue. “This one is incredibly interesting. What’s different about this creature?”

Forest already knew but found it amusing to see the ponies hopping around eagerly with their hooves in the air.

“It has an eagle claw!” Summer yelled.

“And a lion paw!” Coffee interrupted, stepping in front of her.

“And a snake tail!” Crimson yelped, gazing up and down the statue with curiosity.

“Yes. This creature is what is known as - Forest, can you tell us?” Cheerilee asked him, and Forest coughed lightly, surprised at being called on.

“Yes, of course - um, this creature is what’s known as a draconequus.” Forest explained, stepping up towards the statue and pointing at all its mismatched body parts. “It has the head of a pony, and is made up of random other body parts - like the eagle claw, and the bat wing, and the gazelle antlers.”

“Can anypony tell us what this represents?” Cheerilee asked, and the Crusaders, already competitive, began getting irritated at each other and determined to top the other.

“Confusion!” Coffee yelled, shoving Summer to the side.

“Evil!” Summer shrieked, shoving Coffee and Crimson aside.

“Chaos!” Crimson snapped, shoving her back, and the ponies began immediately tussling and spitting as they yelled out their own contribution, each insisting that theirs was right.

As the ponies fought and snapped and snarled, Forest couldn’t help noticing a pulse of red light beginning to softly glow in the draconequus’ chest. Forest flattened his ears at this, looking around to see if anypony else had noticed, but Cheerilee remained smiling, despite the fact it was obvious she was furious at her students fighting.

“Actually, you’re all right in a way.” Cheerilee said through her teeth, still beaming as the three ponies immediately stopped fighting. “This draconequus symbolises discord - or, better explained as the absence of harmony between ponies, which you three have demonstrated perfectly for me today. I shall expect an essay from each of you three on the subject.”

“Aww!” The Crusaders wailed, and Cheerilee swiftly moved onwards, chattering to the class about the remaining statues.

Forest trailed, seeing the Crusaders still arguing and shoving each other as they stormed away from the statue, and couldn’t help noticing that the draconequus statue had cracked slightly across where the light was pulsing in its chest.

He gulped, and quickly trotted after the class, deciding to blame it on his imagination.

Later on, when Forest had taken Crimson back home after the trip (Red was busy with weather duties), he headed off to see he he could find anypony else, since the town seemed strangely empty for a Friday afternoon.

No sooner than he began trotting towards Chocolate’s shop, he saw a cloud hovering over him and frowned.

“Hey - wasn’t it supposed to rain tomo -” He began saying, before the cloud promptly emptied on him, drenching his mane so it was plastered to his skull. “-rrow.” He finished, spitting the rainwater out, and frowning when it didn’t taste like water. “What on -”

The cloud suddenly shot away, followed by Red caterwauling as he flew after it. “Get back here! It’s not supposed to rain until tomorrow!”

“Hold on -” Forest muttered, licking his hoof. “This tastes like chocolate -  chocolate rain?”

“Woaahhh!!” Red shrieked as the cloud suddenly ground to a halt and he crashed into it, where he was glued to it and having to fight to get away from it. “Ew!! What is this stuff?” Red flapped a hoof, trying to shake the pink, gluey cloud off his coat.

Forest shook himself dry, wiping chocolate milk out of his eyes. “Red? What’s going on?”

“Beats me!” Red shook his head in disbelief, searching around for the cloud. “Where is it -”

Chocolate was lying on her back underneath it with her mouth open, letting the chocolate milk rain from the cotton candy cloud into her mouth.

“Chocolate? What are you doing?” Forest demanded, trotting over to her, and she grinned at him.

“Making the most of it - wow, this tastes so good -” Chocolate mumbled, before promptly going back to drinking the gallons of chocolate milk pouring from the cloud.

Red and Forest watched her in sudden awe, unsure how to react, when Lava, Solar and Horizon arrived, with the two unicorns holding objects (a newspaper and a grocery bag) over their heads with their magic as the chocolate rain downpour worsened. Ember was hiding in Lava’s saddlebags, and Forest rolled his eyes, knowing Lava had decided to abduct his assistant again whilst he was in Canterlot (not that Ember minded, of course - anything to hang out with her “favourite pony”).

“What in fuck is going on here?” Lava shot, shaking chocolate milk out of his mane with a gag. “This is fucking disgusting -”

“I don’t know. Red and I are completely baffled.” Forest admitted, and Solar groaned, still holding the newspaper over his head.

“That sucks - we were hoping one of you two would know -” The unicorn muttered, before shrieking and hopping to the side away from Lava as his saddlebags began smoking. “Lava! You’re on fire -”

Lava yelled, recoiling and dropping his bags as Ember rolled out with a squawk, before she shot a burst of red hot ashes at Forest’s face. It formed a scroll from Celestia, which hit him in the face and rolled down his nose before landing at his feet. He gasped, picking it up and reading through it quickly.

“Celestia says she needs us in Canterlot immediately. It’s an emergency.” Forest gasped, and the six ponies made noises of shock.

Horizon flattened his ears in horror.

“Come on! We’ve got no time to waste!” Red yelled, opening his wings and dragging Chocolate away from the cotton candy cloud.

“I really don’t -” Horizon began saying as Forest cantered behind the other ponies.

He skidded to a stop, turning around as the other ponies galloped towards the train station, to see that Horizon hadn’t even moved from before. Forest blinked, turning back towards him.

“Celestia needs us - and if things like this are happening all over Equestria, we have to do something.” Forest insisted, and Horizon looked incredibly agitated.

“In Canterlot?” He said in a flat voice, and Forest tilted his head, holding up the letter.

“Well, yeah, that’s usually where Celestia lives.” Forest said, sympathy suddenly entering his voice. “Is there somepony there you want to avoid, Horizon?”

Horizon’s eyes flashed, and he hesitated for a second, before tilting his head in a sharp nod. Forest glanced around, seeing the library and quickly darting into it to grab a cloak from the cupboard. He brought it back to Horizon and gave it to him. Horizon took it with his magic and looked at him. The question was clear on his face.

“If you put the hood up, maybe you won’t be recognised?” Forest began pleading with him, hearing the train whistle blow, indicating it was about to leave. “Please Horizon, she said she needs us all -”

“Fine.” Horizon said, his face set like stone as he put the cloak on so the drapes covered most of his body and cutie mark except for his hooves, and pulled the hood over his head so it obscured his mane and horn.

Forest internally rejoiced, elated that Horizon had begrudgingly agreed to go, and gasped, pulling Horizon by the hoof to try and get the train. “Come on, we have to hurry.”

They hopped on the train and took a seat next to the other ponies as the whistle went and the machine pulled away from the station towards Canterlot. Horizon looked incredibly uneasy, constantly glancing around and pulling the hood further over his face as he deliberately dipped his head and hid next to Forest.

Forest didn’t want to think about it, and instead glanced at his uncomfortable friends, who were obviously anxious at Celestia’s emergency summoning of them to Canterlot.

“What’s with the getup, half-and-half?” Lava demanded, and Horizon gave him a steely look past the hood.

“I am cold.” He said firmly though his teeth, and Lava looked like he was ready to dig into it more, but Red quickly nudged him in the ribs to shut him up.

They were rushed into the palace by Celestia’s guards, and as the doors to the throne room creaked open, Forest found himself incredibly nervous as they cantered as a group towards Celestia. Not even Forest had ever set foot in here - only the Princesses and incredibly important ponies were allowed in this room, with the exception of special events held in here. But otherwise, these floors were practically untouched by any other hooves than that of royalty.

“Celestia! We came as quickly as we could!” Forest called to her, where she was stood at the entrance.

“Come with me. I have called you all here for a matter of great importance.” Celestia said with a look of grim determination on her face as she turned around and they followed her into the long hall of the red carpet, with the beautiful stained glass illustrations lining each side of the throne room. “It seems an old foe of mine - someone I thought I had defeated a long time ago - has returned.” Celestia stopped sharply in front of one of the windows.

“His name is Discord.” Celestia said, disgust on her voice as she pointed at it, where there was an image of a grotesque creature, with incredibly mismatched features and the head of a pony twisted its face up in an evil cackle as it toyed around with the three ponies under its claws.

Forest flattened his ears in horror as he recognised the draconequus in the statue. Had the shattering of the statue freed this foul creature that was illustrated in the window?

“Discord is the mischievous spirit of disharmony. Before my sister and I defeated him, he ruled this area in an eternal state of unrest and chaos. He tortured and attacked all three tribes until we discovered the Elements of Harmony, and combined our powers to defeat him.” Celestia indicated to the next window, where the alicorn of light and the alicorn of dark surrounded the evil draconequus. “He was turned to stone - but alas, I fear it was a prison that could not hold him for long enough -”

“What happened, then? Why is he free now?” Solar asked her, and Celestia began pacing down the hall again.

“I thought the spell would trap Discord forever, but since Luna and I are no longer connected to the Elements, the spell has been broken.” Celestia sighed, leading the ponies down the hall.

“No longer connected?” Forest echoed, trotting up next to her.

Celestia turned down a side corridor and led them to some ornately decorated doors. “This is Canterlot Tower, where I have been storing the Elements of Harmony. I need you six to wield them once again, and stop Discord before he plunges Equestria into a state of eternal disharmony.”

“But why us -” Chocolate began asking, before she was promptly interrupted by Solar.

“Look, we’re famous!” Solar said, pointing at the other stained glass window, which depicted all six of them shooting coloured rays at Nightmare Moon, who reared under the power that was engulfing her. Forest gasped, looking it up and down as Celestia spoke.

“You six showed the full potential of the Elements by harnessing your connection and using it to defeat a mighty foe.” Celestia said in a soft voice, walking behind them as they all looked the window up and down.

Horizon flinched at the sight of his illustration and pulled his hood further over his face.

“Although Luna and I once wielded the Elements, it is you who now control their powers.” Celestia said, turning to Forest and bending down to look him in the eyes. “And it is you who must defeat Discord!” She announced, opening her wings as she reared back in determination.

Forest’s heart thudded, and he suddenly had a thought. Was this what true heroism was suposed to feel like? Was it finally his time to be the hero he’d always wanted to be? With all of his friends too?

“You can count on us, Celestia.” He replied, puffing his chest out. “We’d be honoured to use the Elements again.”

“Then we must begin at once.” Celestia responded, turning back to the door and slotting her horn into the hole in the door.

Her horn ignited, and the star in the centre of the door lit up, bright blue lines running down the patterns of the door, before the lights in the door lit, spilling bright blue light on them all as the coloured doors slid open. Inside, there was a pedestal with a bejewelled case in it, that contained the Elements, no doubt.

“I have complete confidence that you will defeat Discord with these.” Celestia said, floating the box out of the vault and flipping it open.

There was a simultaneous gasp of horror when the looked inside the box to see it was empty. There were no Elements of Harmony. Celestia shrieked, dropping the box and beginning to paw through it in despair.

“They’re gone? Where are they?!” Forest gaped, shaking his head to try and make sure he wasn’t imagining it, but the others looked just as horrified as he did.

“I don’t understand!” Celestia snarled, beginning to pace in fury. “That vault is protected by a spell only I can break - this doesn’t make any sense -”

She was interrupted by a loud, echoing laugh over the hall that caused her to snap her head up and narrow her eyes.

“What fun is there in making sense?” The voice cackled, bouncing around the walls as they all looked around rapidly in terror.

“Discord.” Celestia growled, opening her wings and looking around rapidly. “Show yourself!”

“Did you miss me, Celestia?” Discord chuckled, the illustration of himself on the window suddenly bursting to life and crawling away into the other window. “I missed you - it’s quite lonely being encased in stone - but you wouldn’t know that, would you? Because I don’t go around turning ponies into stone.” He spat , glaring at her from the window.

“Enough!” Celestia roared, glaring at him. “What have you done with the Elements?”

“Oh, I just borrowed them for a teensy little while.” Discord drawled, clicking the fingers on his eagle hand so the illustration of the Elements on the window vanished from sight.

“You’ll never get away with this.” Celestia snarled, pawing a hoof on the ground in fury.

“Oh, I’d forgotten how grim you could be, Celestia. It’s really quite boring.” Discord said, the moving image of himself glancing at the claws on his lion paw as he leant back on the image of Celestia disrespectfully.

“Hey! Nopony insults the Princess!” Lava roared, beginning to leap toward the window, but Discord vanished, making Lava crash into the window and fall to the floor with a groan.

Discord reappeared on the window, but larger in size this time. “You must be Lava Blast, the pony famed for his loyalty.”

“That’s right. I’ll always be loyal to the Princess.” Lava seethed, glaring at Discord with murder in his eyes.

“Oh, we’ll see about that.” Discord laughed evilly, vanishing from the window again.

“I can’t believe we’re wasting our time talking to a window.” Chocolate scoffed, and Discord reappeared on the window next to her, making her flinch.

“Ah! The generous Chocolate Blush. I’ve heard all about you.” Discord grinned, and Forest took a step forward with a glare.

“So you know who we are - and you seem to know our strengths too.” He snapped, and Discord’s stained glass eyes lit up.

“Forest Flash, the most powerful Element - the Element of Magic - an interesting choice, since you seem to be lacking up here.” Discord said with malice in his voice as he stood on Forest’s illustration on the window and poked at his head where there was no horn.

Forest snorted, pawing at the ground in fury as Celestia stepped in front of him.

“Stop stalling, Discord. Tell us where the Elements are now!” She demanded, flaring her wings in fury.

“So predictable and boring, Celestie-poo.” Discord drawled, leaning on his eagle hand with a sigh. “Fine, I’ll tell you, but I’ll tell you my way.”

Discord vanished, but his voice echoed around the room, causing chills to run up their spines.

 

“To retrieve your missing Elements,

You must make sense of this change of events.

Twists and turns of my master plan,

And then find the Elements back where you began!”

 

The image of Discord floated back to its original window, before settling in its position. Discord was gone, and they were only left more confused and angered than ever.

“What does he mean? Twists and turns?” Solar asked Forest, and he frowned, beginning to pace.

“Twists and turns, twists and turns -” Forest muttered, wandering over to a clear window before his eyes lit up as he remembered the school field trip from this morning. “That’s it! Discord must have hidden the Elements in the Canterlot maze!”

“Good luck, my little ponies.” Celestia bowed her head towards them. “The fate of Equestria is in your hooves.”

“We won’t let you down, Celestia.” Forest said determinedly to her, and they cantered out of the throne room as Discord’s evil cackle echoed around the room again.

They ended up at the entrance of the maze, where the six stood there hesitantly, gulping at the massive, gloomy entrance to the hedge maze (which was absolutely massive, and Forest definitely had avoided this as  a foal, but here he was now).

“Can we go home, please?” Chocolate asked timidly, pawing at the ground. “Do we have to go in there?”

“Nope!” Red grinned, opening his wings and flaring them. “Stupid Discord forgot about these bad boys!”

Forest nodded in agreement at his quick thinking, opening his wings to follow Red into the air.

“Forest and I will do a quick fly-by and we’ll have the Elements in no time!” Red announced to the other ponies, and Forest noted that with the two of them, they could scan half the maze each for the fastest path.

But as Forest was flying, there was a tingling sensation where his wings should be and they vanished. Red’s disappeared too, and the two pegasi shrieked as they immediately plummeted, rolling over the floor.

“My wings!” Red and Forest shrieked in horror, twisting their necks to gape at their bare backs.

Horizon, who was still cloaked heavily, and Solar were standing next to each other when there was a flash, and their horns vanished. They gaped at each other.

“Your horn -” Solar gasped, before glancing up at his own. “My horn!”

Solar screamed in panic and began running around in a crazed panic, shaking his head and rummaging around in his mane for his horn, which was obviously no longer there. Red fainted, flopping out cold to the floor.

As Lava propped up the red pegasus, there was a bright flash as Discord materialised in front of them in his full menace, rearing back and cackling in evil laughter as thunder and lightning flashed over his head. “You should see the looks on your little faces! Priceless!”

“Give us our wings and horns back!” Forest spat, trotting up a to Discord in fury as the other ponies cowered back away from him.

“You’ll get them back in due time.” Discord said, before vanishing and reappearing next to Chocolate, nudging her in the side. “I simply took them to ensure there was no cheating. You see, this is the first rule of our game.” Discord appeared next to Red and poked him on the muzzle. “No flying.” He reappeared next to Solar and lifted his chin up to look right into his eyes. “And no magic.”

“The first rule?” Horizon asked, glaring at Discord from under his hood, and the draconequus laughed, lounging back on the hedge of the maze.

“The second rule is that everpony must play, or the game is over, and I win!” Discord giggled, rubbing his mismatched paw and claws together in glee. “If one of you quits, then you all lose. Good luck everypony!” Discord announced with a laugh, before he vanished from sight.

“Don’t worry, everypony.” Forest said, turning around to face them. “We still have each other.”

“Yeah. What he said - we defeated Nightmare Moon together, and we can overcome any challenge Discord throws at us if we work together.” Chocolate said, and hope began to edge into the faces of the ponies again.

“Okay then. Together!” Forest announced as they stood at the entrance.

There were sudden shrieks as walls of hedge suddenly shot up, seperating them all from each other so they were all in individual brackets. Forest cursed, having to quell down the panic in his stomach.

“Head to the middle - we can regroup there?” Lava’s loud voice echoed, and Forest silently agreed with him.

“Okay. See you all at the centre!” Forest called, and they all replied in agreement.

Although Forest tried to keep his spirits up as he trotted alone through the dark maze, he couldn’t help feeling like Discord wasn’t finished with them yet.

 

-

 

Chocolate was making her merry way towards the middle when she frowned, seeing a bunch of sakura flowers on the middle of the path. One was white, one was pink, and one was a deeper pink.

“What the -” She began saying, before the wind caught the flowers and she followed them, suddenly forgetting her main mission as she cantered after them.

She skidded after them into a clearing, where there were three sakura trees, all with the same coloured blossoms. As she wondered what in Equestria was happening, the petals began falling from the trees, and as they did so, they turned into bright, golden bits.

She gasped and began collecting them into her hooves, and the trees grew faces which smiled and laughed as Chocolate began desperately scooping as much of the money into her hooves as possible.

“Please take as much as you need.” The trees chorused, and Chocolate bared her teeth in a cackle, seeing a pair of saddlebags at the foot of one of the trees and filling them with as many bits as she could.

“All of this money! To help the shop! To help my mom!” She gasped, scrabbling around maniacally in the dirt to get every coin as she cackled.

“For you mom? Dear Chocolate, isn’t there something you want for yourself?” The trees asked, and she frowned, still putting the bits in the saddlebags.

“But, that wouldn’t be very generous -”

“Chocolate, Chocolate - there is more than enough! Why should you share it when you can have it all to yourself?”

She laughed, lunging for the coins with psychotic laughs. “You’re right. It’s mine! It’s mine!”

She was so busy screeching and fighting to pick up as many coins as possible that she did not hear Discord laughing softly as his voice echoed through the breeze, and as she lunged for the last coin, his bright, hypnotizing eyes were all she saw before she gave into the black.

 

-

 

Horizon was remaining calm, as always, but was shocked when he noticed ice. Ice chunks - glistening and gleaming in the light as they trailed down the path. He followed them, suddenly wary, but wanting to know whether this was an indicator to where he could get his horn back. He scowled, pulling the hood over the place where his horn should have been.

But as he did so, he followed the ice into a clearing, where the ice suddenly merged into a wolf like ice creature that circled him, its voice whispering as Horizon took a step back, pawing a hoof at the ground.

“Who are you?” He demanded, and the wolf spoke, its voice like a whistle of the north wind.

“I am the Guardian of the Lake of Truth, Hallowed Horizon.” The wolf breathed, drawing up alongside him. “Ask me anything - past, present, or future - and I shall tell you.”

Horizon was incredibly wary as he glared at the wolf, its icy fur flimmering as its eyes flashed. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch. Just know that the truth might not always be so pleasant.” The wolf whispered, menace on its voice, but Horizon swallowed, desperately wanting some kind of validation after his encounter with Forest and his refusal to go to Canterlot.

“Fine, then. I want to know what will happen at the end of this mission. Do we succeed?” Horizon asked the wolf, and its eyes glinted as it gestured to an icy lake, telling him to look into it.

“For the answers you seek - go ahead, take a peek.” The wolf smiled its icy fangs at him as Horizon swallowed hesitantly, looking into the water.

An image formed, and Horizon was watching them all argue in Ponyville.

“I hope I never see you again!” Chocolate shrieked at them as they all fought and roared at each other.

“Wait -” Horizon saw himself try to reason with them, but the Forest in the lake pushed him away hard, pure hatred on his face that made Horizon gape in horror.

“This is all your fault, Horizon. You’ve been an inconvenience since the day we met!” Forest roared, and Horizon recoiled away from the water, blinking rapidly as he tried to gather his thoughts.

“This isn’t the truth. It’s not.” He said to the wolf firmly.

“As the Element of Honesty, Hallowed Horizon, you haven’t been telling it a lot lately, have you?” The wolf hissed, taking a step towards him.

Horizon bared his teeth at it. “I haven’t been lying - I just refused to tell them -”

“All the truth does is make your heart ache.” The wolf whispered, its breath cold on his face. “Sometimes a lie is easier to take.”

Its eyes glinted, and Horizon tried to fight away from Discord’s hypnotism, but he felt his legs give and let out a soft “No!” as his vision disappeared and everything went black.

 

-

 

Solar was bouncing along with a relative spring in his step, determined to make the most of a bad situation, but was immediately drawn to the side when he noticed a crowd of thunderbird chicks chirping and hopping along as he went past. He was immediately wary, but soon realised the chicks were in fact laughing in joy, and he grinned, smiling as he hoped past them.

“Woah! You are the cutest little birdies I’ve ever seen -” He began chirping, before he fell flat on his face into mud.

The chick he’d tripped over began cackling, and all the other chicks began echoing the cruel laughter, making him flinch as he struggled out of the mud.

“Hey! What gives?” He spat, standing up on his hooves as Discord appeared in front of him.

“What’s wrong, Solar Spark? I thought you appreciate a good laugh.” Discord asked him, patting him on the head, but Solar swallowed hard, shaking the mud out of his eyes.

“This is different. They’re laughing at me.” He whispered, and Discord scoffed, flapping a paw.

“It’s hardly different.” The draconequus said, turning into a chick version of himself and floating around Solar’s head. “Your friends laugh at you all the time.”

“No - they laugh with me, not at me.” Solar insisted, feeling uncomfortable now.

“Oh, really?” Discord asked, and all the chicks erupted into cruel laughter, causing Solar to gasp and physically flinch away from him, but they were surrounding him and wouldn’t stop.

“No! Stop it - please!” Solar wailed, putting his hooves over his eyes as five of the chicks turned into chick versions of his friends, who also began cackling and whooping with horrific, bullying laughter at him that made him want to keel over and die and try and block it out because it hurt more than anything -

“Oh, poor Solar Spark!” The Discord Chick pouted, fake sympathy in his voice. “And here I thought laughter made you happy.”

Discord’s eyes flashed, and Solar let them whisk him away.

 

-

 

Red was definitely feeling nervous now, and he couldn’t stop worrying about his friends, especially Lava, as he trotted anxiously up the random paths of the maze. He hadn’t seen any of them yet, and was biting at his lip as he forced himself to keep one hoof in front of the other and not fall for any of Discord’s tricks.

He gasped and shot into the hedge when he saw a cloud spitting red thunder shoot past him, just like his cutie mark, and quickly cantered after it, not wanting to lost it because it was incredibly strange -

But just as Red caught up with it, he realised what Discord was up to when the face of the draconequus appeared in the cloud.

“Oh, Red - looks like you’ve been left behind by your so-called friends, huh?” The Discord-cloud pouted, and the words suddenly struck Red right through the chest although he forced himself to keep smiling in determination and optimism.

“Oh no, I’m doing my best to find them - and I’m sure they are too.” Red responded, and the cloud suddenly looked a bit annoyed at that response.

“But it must hurt to know how they think how annoying and weak you are without your wings.” The cloud said to him, and Red shrugged at that.

“Well, I am annoying - I already know that. Blasty especially does.” Red said back to him with a grin. “And sure, my wings are the best part of me, so it’s no wonder I’m a little lost without them -”

“But - but - surely it must burn you up inside? Knowing that ‘Blasty’ can’t stand you?” The cloud persisted, looking desperate now, but Red only laughed at that.

“I know Blasty can’t stand me! It’s part of why I stick around him so much!” Red chirped, and the cloud flashed, finally turning into Discord and Red cowered back as Discord bared his teeth, glaring at him.

“Oh for chaos’s sake. You’ve been kind for far too long, Red Riot. Time to be cruel.” Discord snarled, adn Red tried to fly away, but panicked because his wings were gone, and Discord’s claws on his head caused a black curtain he tried to fight against but it was too strong -

“Blasty.” Red whimpered, before he collapsed to the ground and couldn’t remember anything aside from Discord’s swirling irises and his echoing laughter.

 

-

 

Forest heard voices and gasped, cantering ahead to try and follow it. It was Horizon! He heard Horizon’s voice! He skidded around the corner and sighed in relief, seeing Horizon stood in the centre of a completely bare clearing with his eyes blank and his jaw dropped. He didn’t respond to Forest as he trotted over, and Forest swore the red in his mane seemed a little duller than usual.

“Horizon! I thought I heard voices over here!” Forest said in delight, trotting over to him. “I’m so happy I found you - who were you talking to?”

Horizon turned around slowly, eyes darting around in his head. “I - I was  - I was talking to nopony. Nopony at all.”

“What?” Forest frowned, seeing Horizon shuffling his hooves and suddenly breaking out a sweat.

Horizon was a terrible liar - but he wouldn’t lie directly to Forest’s face, right? He was too honest for that -
“Let’s go. Um - now.” Horizon said in a flat voice, trotting right past Forest as he gawked in confusion.

“Okay then.” Forest muttered, following him, but they didn’t get very far before he heard more voices.

He skidded around to see Solar lying there in the mud, in a completely bare clearing too with his eyes completely void of emotion as Forest trotted over to him, with Horizon shuffling behind him.

“Solar! I’m so glad to see you!” He grinned, going to help Solar out of the mud, but was shocked, when the unicorn slapped his hoof away hard.

“Oh, you are, are you? Here for a good laugh?” Solar spat at him, glaring at him with fury and disgust in his eyes.

Forest took a step back, glancing the unicorn up and down, and blinked when he saw that Solar’s golden coat seemed to be a lot duller and greyer than usual. Solar pushed past him and promptly trotted out past Horizon. Forest frowned, going up to the half-and-half unicorn, who ignored him and pulled his hood over his face further.

“Did you see how differently Solar was behaving?” Forest asked him, and Horizon, averted his gaze, unable to look him in the eyes.

“Uh - no. No. He - uh - seems - normal.” Horizon lied through his teeth, and Forest glared at him, before trailing after Solar as he stormed away.

“Weird.” Forest whispered to himself as he followed the two dull ponies. “Better hurry up before the stress of this gets to all of us.”

As they turned another corner, Forest yelped in delight when he saw Chocolate emerge from the other side.

“Chocolate! Oh, Celestia, how happy I am to see you -” Forest stopped short when he noticed Chocolate heaving and straining her saddlebags, which were absolutely full to the brim with - “Why are you carrying so many rocks?”

“What do you mean, rocks?” Chocolate snarled, whipping around to glare at him, and Forest realised with a jolt that she was greying too. “These bags are full with money! My money - and it’s all mine!”

She shot up to Forest and jabbed him in the chest with a hoof hard so he had to take a step back. “Keep your envious eyes off them! I found them, and they’re mine! All - mine!!” She shrieked the last word, before straining and gasping to drag her absolutely full bags of rocks past the others.

Forest knew this was getting incredibly weird now, but all then needed to find was Red and Lava and then hopefully everyone would get back to normal so that they could find the elements.

“Red!” He gasped, seeing the pegasus sat in the middle of the path with a blank look in his eyes. “Oh, how relieved I am to see a friendly face! Everyone else is behaving so -”

He couldn’t find the right word as he turned to see Chocolate cackling as she ran her hooves over her rock collection, Solar glaring and baring his teeth at him, and Horizon shuffling and glancing around suspiciously as he ignored them all.

“Boo. Hoo. Hoo.” Red snarled, whipping around with complete spite and disgust on his face which Forest was so startled at seeing that he had to take a step back. “Why don’t you go and wave your magic little horn and make everything alright. Oh, wait.” Red turned back to him with malice on his face. “You can’t. You don’t have one.”

He whipped around and deliberately slapped Forest in the face with his tail as he stormed off. Forest’s hoof flitted to his cheek as he watched in complete shock and confusion as the greyer version of Red deliberately shoved Solar to the side so he fell over. Horizon began laughing cruelly at Solar, who was still lying on the ground.

“What are you laughing at?” Solar shrieked, pushing his muzzle into Horizon’s face.

“Nothing.” Horizon lied, before promptly going back to ignoring everyone.

“What is happening?!” Forest shrieked, beginning to get desperate as he trotted after them all (except Chocolate, who was still struggling with her massive bags full of rocks).

He needed to find Lava - now - and just hope that Discord hadn’t gotten to him too.

 

-

 

Lava saw an explosion over the wall of the hedge and narrowed his eyes in triumph, galloping after it.

“I’ve fucking got you now, Elements of Harmony.” He spat, skidding around the corner only to see Discord lounging back on a cloud hammock between two trees.

“Oh, I can see why pegasi love these clouds so much - very good for the spine.” Discord yawned in bliss, leaning back on the cloud as Lava roared, charging towards him.

“Stick em up, you sick fucker! Fucking fight me you coward!” Lava shrieked, lunging towards him, but Discord promptly clicked his claws to make Lava freeze, and his frozen body fell to the floor as Discord stood.

“Hang on, Lava Blast, I am simply here to deliver a message.” Discord said, false hurt entering his voice.

“I’ve got a fucking message for you too.” Lava spat through his frozen jaw, and Discord scowled, taking his stupid tropical sunglasses off.

“Listen closely, this is important.” Discord said to him firmly.

“A weighty choice is yours to make: the right selection, or a big mistake.

If the wrong choice you choose to pursue,  the foundations of home will crumble without you.”

Lava was about to tell the stupid fucker to fuck right on back off to where he came from when Discord clicked his fingers and a series of explosions went off in front of Lava’s face, causing his eyes to glue onto the swirling patterns and his jaw to go slack.

“Fillydelphia will crumble - without me?”  Lava slurred, the image of his home town shattering and falling apart. “No - no -”

Discord clicked and a box appeared in front of them both. “This box contains a pair of wings that’ll let you out of the game. You can take them and fly back to Fillydelphia, or you can carry on aimlessly wandering the maze.”

Lava’s vision was darkening as he heard Discord’s voice echo through his skull.

“The choice is yours, Lava Blast.”

 

-

 

Forest ended up dragging Chocolate’s bags of rocks for her as he panted with dwindling determination.

“Must… find… Lava Blast …” He gasped, heaving for air and suddenly bumping into Horizon as he glared into the sky.

“Look at that. Lava Blast is flying away. He’s abandoning us.” Horizon spat, all of the grey ponies giving the sky a murderous look.

“Well, I know that’s definitely a lie - Lava doesn’t have any -” Forest glanced up, his jaw dropping in horror as he did indeed see the blonde stallion flying out of the maze. “What? But how -”

He shrieked as all the walls of the maze suddenly sunk down with slams, sending dirt and leaves flying up everywhere as clouds flew across the sky. Discord cackled, lightning striking across the sky as he appeared in front of them all in the blank plane where the maze used to be.

“Well, well, well. Somepony broke the ‘no wings, no magic rule’.” Discord grinned, clicking his fingers once again.

Forest's wings reappeared, and Horizon and Solar’s horns flashed onto their heads again. Red snarled, seeing that his wings were still gone and his back was still bare.

"Where the fuck are my wings?" Red demanded, spitting and shrieking at the very amused draconequus.

"Your precious Blasty took them, Red Riot." Discord cackled, and Red looked utterly furious, malice flashing across his face.

Forest was gawking in shock and fear. This wasn't just a a betrayal for all of them, but a personal treachery too. Lava hadn't just betrayed them all, but betrayed Red especially by taking Red's wings for his own gain. Red shrieked in horror again, snarling and pacing as he began muttering under his breath how hell was going to break loose the second he got his hooves on Lava -

“You lost the game, and you didn’t find your precious Elements.” Discord cackled, opening up an umbrella that was inside out and held it over his head. “Looks like we’re forecast for a storm of chaos!”

Forest gaped in horror as Discord cackled and the storm clouds rumbled, and could only look into the distance as Lava flew from sight and think about how much the betrayal made his heart hurt.

But that wasn’t all. He’d failed, and now Equestria would suffer.

Forest fell to his knees, and let Discord’s echoing laughter wash over him.

Chapter Text

Discord howled in hysterical laughter as he rolled on the ground, clutching at his stomach, and Forest watched him with horror causing his jaw to drop. Solar Spark stormed up to the draconequus with fury on his face.

“And what the hell are you laughing at?” Solar spat, pushing his muzzle aggressively into Discord’s face.

“Oh, my dear Solar Spark, you ponies are the most fun I’ve had in eons!” Discord said, dramatically wiping his tears of laughter from his eyes with a claw.

“Yeah? Well think twice before you laugh at me, asshole!” Solar roared, his horn sparking as he snorted aggresively out of his nose.

“Oh, laugh?” Red, who was still wingless, said, malice edging onto his face. “Well, ha ha.”

“Stop it!” Solar shrieked, turning his attention back to Red, who smirked and glared at him with a look of pure hatred in his gaze.

“No. Ha. Ha.” Red spat, pushing into Solar’s face.

“Quit it!” Solar roared, and Red only laughed loudly and cruelly as Solar screamed at him.

As Forest tried to force himself to try and regain some kind of peace, Horizon appeared behind Chocolate, who was still drooling and obsessing over her piles of rocks.

“Chocolate? Forest - uh - he said we should split this six ways since we technically found it together.” Horizon said, spite in his voice as he gave Forest a glare of hatred over his shoulder.

“Never!” Chocolate screamed, launching herself at Horizon and sending him flying.

The two ponies immediately started tussling and fighting as they rolled around in Chocolate’s collection of rocks, where Solar was still shrieking at Red’s cruel and deliberately spiteful laughter.

“Stop! We need to stay together -” Forest began pleading with the four fighting ponies, and Discord laughed, where he was lounging back on a conjured cough with a box of popcorn on his lap.

“You are just too entertaining.” Discord commented with a chuckle before tossing another popcorn piece in his mouth and munching loudly.

“Discord! You were not playing fair!” Forest turned his fury to Discord, storming over to him.

“F - fair? Oh ho ho ho!” Discord cackled. “I don’t know if I properly introduced myself - I’m Discord, the spirit of chaos and disharmony, and you really thought I was going to play fair?”

“You took away the labyrinth before we even got a chance to find the Elements.” Forest accused him, pointing a hoof at the draconequus.

“The - the labyrinth?” Discord tossed his head back in laughter, before moving it back to narrow his eyes at Forest. “I never said the Elements were in the labyrinth.”

“N - never in the -” Forest turned away suddenly thinking back to Discord’s riddle. “Twists and turns - but - but -”

“Try again in five to six business days, Forest Flash. Maybe the ‘magic of friendship’ will help you this time.” Discord lisped condescendingly as he strutted away with his nose in the air. “For now, I have chaos to organise.”

He clicked his claws and vanished, but the second he did, more cotton candy clouds immediately covered the sky and began raining with chocolate milk, drenching Forest so his mane was plastered to his skull.

“Chocolate milk?! Ugh, I hate chocolate milk!” Chocolate gagged, spitting and retching as Forest stood there stiffening with fury.

“Ugh!” Forest shrieked, tossing his head back in fury before hitting himself in the skull with a hoof hard. “‘Back where you began’ - back where you began? What does that even mean?!” He yelled at the sky as Chocolate chased Horizon away from her rocks with guttural screams.

“I’m touching your money, Chocolate.” Red laughed cruelly, picking up one of her rocks and running off with it as Chocolate abandoned Horizon and began screeching at the top of her voice as she shot after the red pegasus.

“Stop fucking laughing at me!” Solar screamed, launching himself at Red with sparks scrackling off his horn.

“I just want to go home.” Forest finally sighed, dragging his head, before he suddenly widened his eyes and perked up. “Home! That’s it! ‘Back where you began!’ The Elements must be in Ponyville!”

After dragging four incredibly complaining and constantly fighting violent ponies, whose coats and manes only seemed to be getting greyer by the second, Forest tried to remain positive as he trotted ahead of the group into Ponyville, which was completely chaoitic with houses floating above on islands, and the ground grossly patterned and warped into hills. The clouds were still made of cotton candy and were spitting chocolate milk still.

“Come on, ponies! I’m certain this is what Discord meant. I’ve got the perfect book back at home that I know will help us -” He called back to his friends, and shrieked when a flock of birds with enormous wings flew past him and sent Forest tumbling to the floor.

“Good birdies.” Red smirked, malice flashing in his eyes as Forest muttered, climbing to his hooves.

The sun promptly shot down, plunging them into darkness as Forest moaned in pain on wobbly hooves.

“Wow. I can see so much better now.” Horizon said sarcastically, and he suddenly yelled as he slipped and crashed into all of the other ponies, who exploded into screams and shrieks of fury as they tried to get back on their hooves.

The sun shot back up again, and Forest could quickly see what Discord had done.

“Discord’s turned all the paths to soap.” Forest scowled, having to balance carefully so he didn’t slip over too.

“Wonderful, isn’t it?” The draconequus said, skating past the wobbling ponies with a grin on his face. “It looks stunning already, and these are only my first changes.”

Discord grabbed Forest by the shoulders and lifted him up so he could look at the chaotic Ponyville. He didn’t react, staying limp in complete tiredness and submission as Discord spoke.

“Picture it - Ponyville, the chaos capital of the world.” Discord announced, and the sun went down again.

“I would, if I could see anything.” It was Forest’s turn to be sarcastic now, and Discord huffed, dropping him so he landed on his rump in the soapy paths.

“Wait a few minutes and the sun’ll be back up soon.” Discord said with a grin, before vanishing.

“The chaos capital of the world? Not if I can help it.” Forest said determinedly, carefully get backing up onto his hooves.

“Don’t worry, you won’t.” Red laughed cruelly, skating gracefully past Forest as he groaned loudly in frustration at the behaviour of his friends.

The sun went back up by the time Forest and his friends had made their way back to the library, which Discord hadn’t seemed to have touched yet.

“Okay, we’re here -  can we all just please please PLEASE go inside and behave?” Forest muttered, exhaustion on his voice as he turned back to his furious friends.

“I absolutely refuse.” Horizon lied, trotting past him into the library with his muzzle in the air as his coat turned completely grey.

“With pleasure.” Red said maliciously, stomping on the flowers outside the door before stalking in as his coat too turned monochrome.

Forest bared his teeth, beginning to shake in fury as Solar turned grey, spitting a “I hate libraries!” as he disappeared in through the door.

Chocolate was still straining with her bags full of rocks as Forest sighed and turned to her.

“Please! We have to hurry!” Forest snapped at her, and she gazed up at him with wild eyes and sweat pouring down her face

“Forget it. I know what you’re up to - if I leave these outside your little minion Ember will steal them! And they’re mine! Mine!” Her voice heightened to a psychotic shriek, as she too turned a darker shade of grey. “It’s not going to work!”

Forest roared, grabbing the bags and as fury gave him strength, he pulled the stupid piles of rocks inside. Chocolate stalked past him, immediately snatching them back off him as Forest kicked the door shut, panting and puffing with exertion and fury.

He turned around to see Red grab a bucket of water that Ember must have been using to clean the floor, before pouring it all over the sleeping phoenix. Ember screamed, jumping up and wailing as the cold water extinguished her feathers.

“Red! What the everlasting fuck was that for?!” Ember howled, shaking her feathers dry, and Forest winced, knowing how much Ember hated water.

“You just looked so peaceful.” Red smirked, still holding the bucket in his hooves.

“Forest, what’s going on?” Ember demanded, flying over to him. “Why do they all look so -” She stopped, obviously thinking of the word. “-grey? And why does Red not have his wings -”

“Don’t even ask - listen, I need you to help me find something.” Forest said to her, opening his wings and flapping over to the shelves.

“Forest, what’s soaking wet and clueless?” Solar chimed innocently, but there was malice in his gaze.

“Solar, I don’t have time for this -” Forest began spitting, before Solar used his horn to pour another bucket of water over his head.

“Your face!” Solar cackled, before Red slammed the bucket he was holding over Forest’s head.

Cruel laughter echoed around the library and Forest stiffened, trying not to explode as he pulled the bucket off and began ignoring them, still looking for the book.

“What’s happened to everypony?” Ember asked, eyes wide as Forest shook himself dry from the water.

“No time to explain.” Forest muttered, still scanning the shelves. “We’ve got to find the reference guide for the Elements before somepony does something they’ll regret.” He spat the word out through his teeth as he turned his head to glare at the grey ponies.

“I know where that is - I was reading it.” Ember piped up, grabbing the book with a claw. “Here it is - ow!”

Red tossed a scroll at Ember, hitting her in the face so she dropped the book and the red pegasus grabbed it with his teeth.

“Red! Give me that book!” Forest shrieked, and Red tossing it to Chocolate.

Chocolate balanced the book on her nose perfectly as she cantered away from Forest, before tossing it to Horizon, who caught it with his magic and as Forest lunged for it, Horizon cast a teleportation spell that made it appear in front of Solar, who also grabbed it with his magic and cantered away from Forest, who was flying after him.

“Give it to me!” Forest screamed, dodging the wooden statue in the middle of the room that Solar kicked at him with his hind legs and attacking the unicorn, finally managing to snatch the book from him and shrink away into the corner with his hooves around it protectively.

“Get back!” Forest howled, panting as the other ponies closed in on him and Ember hopped in front of him, her wings igniting as she defended him. “This is my book, and I’m gonna read it!”

He finally managed to paw the book open, and gasped as he looked in the pages, which had been cut out, and suddenly forgot how to breathe when he saw all of the amulets of the Elements hidden inside the book.

“The Elements! They were here all along!” Forest gasped in delight as the gems glinted. “We can defeat Discord and put everything back to normal! We did it! We found them -”

The ponies scoffed and glared at him where they were slouched back and either ignoring him or counting their ‘money’ (only Chocolate was doing that, actually). Horizon yawned loudly and rudely.

“You don’t even care, do you?” Forest flat toned as he glared right back at them.

“No.” They all said simultaneously, and Forest made a groan of annoyance.

“You all are behaving like idiots.” Forest spat, snatching up the elements and storming over to them. “Necklace. Necklace. Necklace. Necklace.” He shot out, roughly slamming one on each one of their necks as he said the words. “Big amulet thingie.” He spat, putting his own on and beginning to storm out. “Come on, let’s go -”

“Forest! Aren’t you forgetting somepony?” Ember asked desperately, and Forest snorted loudly with a glare.

“No, I don’t think I am. We’ve got the Liar, the Hoarder, the Grump, and the Brute.” Forest spat, pointing to Horizon, Chocolate, Solar and Red in turn. “I think that just about covers it.”

“What about Lava Blast?” Ember asked, indicating to the abandoned orange element of Loyalty, which was still in the book.

Forest ground his teeth, snatching the necklace up and putting it on Ember. “Congratulations, Ember. You’re the new Lava Blast. Now let’s go.”

Ember looked horrified. “But - what if Lava finds out i’ve been impersonating him? That really won’t end well -”

“Tough. You’re Lava Blast. Now let’s hurry up and defeat Discord so we don’t ever have to talk to each other again!” Forest roared in fury, and the other ponies suddenly perked up at those last words, which made Forest irrationally furious.

Forest noticed how Chocolate was lagging behind dragging her bags of rocks, and ground his teeth loudly, grabbing the stupid bags and tossing them though the window so the glass shattered, before flying down to meet the other grey ponies.

“Well, well well. Looks like you’ve found your Elements.” Discord commented, grinning at their necklaces. “I’m trembling in terror.”

“You’re in for it now, Discord. I figured out your lame riddle.” Forest spat as they got into formation.

“Oh, no - you’ve clearly out-fooled me, and now it’s time to meet my fate.” Discord moaned sarcastically, a paw flitting to his forehead in mock distress. He put on a pair of oversized sunglasses. “I am prepared to be defeated. Fire when ready.” Discord summoned a bullseye target on his stomach.

“Okay, ponies. Get ready.” Forest ordered, and they all moaned in annoyance. “Lava Blast, get your feathery ass over here right now.”

Ember looked terrified as she hesitantly flew over to them from where she was hiding behind Chocolate’s piles of rocks. Forest closed his eyes as his Element glowed, and his hooves left the ground. The other ponies almost looked tired as their Elements ignited and they all floated too, and Discord suddenly looked uncomfortable as he took down his sunglasses to glance at them. But just as Forest was sure it was going to work, the magic immediately ceased and they all fell to the ground.

“What’s going on?” He muttered, looking down at his Element.

“Mine’s working. Must be something wrong with yours.” Horizon said flatly, tapping at his Element with distaste on his face.

“I hate the Elements of Harmony.” Solar spat, pulling his off and tossing it on the floor.

“Garbage.” Red scoffed, yanking his off and tossing it across the floor.

“Mine!” Chocolate yowled, pouncing on both Red and Solar’s Elements and beginning to obsess over her hoard again.

“Sorry, Forest. I think you need the real Lava Blast to fix this.” Ember said, taking Lava’s Element off and passing it to him. “I’ll just go and clean up the library - woah!”

She shrieked as she landed on her face again as Red deliberately bashed her out of the air with a hoof, before he started cackling loudly and cruelly.

“Bravo ponies! Bravo!” Discord said, clapping his paw and claws together as he approached them. “Harmony in Equestria is officially dead. Discord rules, Celestia drools.” He bent down to Forest and poked him on the muzzle hard.

Forest snarled and snapped at him, trying to bite his claw, but Discord was too fast. He cackled and began skating down the soap paths away.

“Ugh! This is all your fault!” Solar yelled at them all, stalking away. “You all suck - I hate you all!”

“I’m going back home. I’ve got better friends there.” Horizon said, his muzzle in the air as he trotted past Forest, shoving him hard.

“That’s a lie!” Forest shrieked at him, but Horizon ignored him.

Chocolate began dragging her rocks off without even acknowledging him. Red stalked past him. “Yeah. I’m sick of you losers. I’m going to find Discord so I can beat him up the old fashioned way.”

“Fine! Leave! See if I care!” Forest screamed after them, breathing heavily in fury. “I don’t need you either. With friends like you -” He trailed off suddenly, sagging his head as his eyes finally welled up. “-who needs enemies?”

He barely even noticed his own green coat turning a dark shade of grey as he walked off slowly in the other direction.

A cotton candy cloud rained on him as he walked, following him around everywhere, but Forest barely noticed it as Discord appeared in front of him.

“Why the long face, Forest Flash?” Discord asked, brandishing a cone and scooping the cloud up as he decided to eat it loudly. “Lighten up! This is your new home, after all!”

Forest looked up blankly to glare at him. “Not anymore.”

He began walking home as Discord punched the air with a “YES!” of triumph and began cackling evilly. Forest pushed through the door and glanced around.

“Pack your things, Ember, we’re leaving.” Forest spat, and was suddenly shocked when he saw Ember lying down in the middle of the room surrounded by scrolls. She groaned, and Forest opened a suitcase and began putting books in it. “Don’t ask me where - because - I don’t know yet - but it definitely isn’t here.” He pulled his amulet off and tossed it into the trashcan.

“I can’t move.” Ember muttered, writhing on the floor. “The princess has been sending these since I first went back upstairs -” Her feathers glowed and another scroll shot from her plumage, and she gasped for air, flopping back with a wail. “Make it stop!”

Forest frowned as he unwravelled one of the scrolls. “Huh - these are all the letters about friendship I’ve been sending to the Princess since I moved here.” He put it down to think suddenly. “Why is she sending them all back again?”

But as he read through them, he found his heart getting lighter as the memories flowed back. All the things he’d achieved and done when here. Forest remembered the poison joke, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, the Gala, the ticket incident -

They rushed over him as he read the letters aloud and he felt colour edging back into his heart and over his coat, the greys making way for a wave of fresh green as he finally looked up with a gasp. “It makes sense! It all makes sense - Discord knows how powerful our connection is! He’s trying to distract us from our Elements in order to make us forget what’s important!” He picked up Ember and put her on her perch gently as she moaned in exhaustion. “Those ponies have saved me more times than I can count - and together we stopped Nightmare Moon - so now we have to do the same with Discord.”

Ember groaned.

“You’re right, Ember. I have to fight for them.” Forest said determinedly, snatching the Element of Magic out of the trash and putting it on. “Now I just have to figure out how to make them remember…”

He left Ember to rest and opened his wings, flying over to Horizon’s house, where he saw the unicorn eating an apple on his doorstep - well, the core. Every time he took a bite of the core, the apple only reappeared (a trick of Discord’s no doubt).

“I tried to fight Discord by myself, but nopony lifted a hoof to help me.” Horizon lied to the mailpony, who only barked and bounded off, wagging her tail as she shredded the envelopes in her teeth.

Forest landed next to him, folding his wings. Horizon scrambled to his hooves, beginning to run away, but Forest leapt for him, pinning him to the floor by his shoulders. “Snap out of it! This isn’t you - you’re not a liar.”

Horizon bared his teeth at Forest, trying to struggle free.

“Remember, Horizon? When you saved me from the cliff? I was so afraid, but you told me the truth. And remember that palava about the tickets? Everyone fighting over them, but you were the only pony seeing sense? And remember when we all got tricked by the poison joke? It wasn’t funny at the time, but wow, not going to lie, it was kinda funny when we think about it now -” Forest was tearing up, and shut his eyes as he kept going. “And the Running of the Leaves, and the Winter Wrap Up, and -”

Horizon was no longer struggling, and Forest cracked an eye open, and Horizon exhaled slowly as colour began running back into his mane and coat. Forest let him go, suddenly elated as he scrubbed his face, and Horizon wobbled to his hooves, rubbing at his head.

“What happened?” Horizon muttered, before his eyes widened. “Forest - I saw a vision in the labyrinth of us fighting and I didn’t want to believe it - so I started to lie.” He glanced away in shame. “Guess it was the truth, after all -”

“Horizon, it’s fine. Discord tricked us all. But I know how to fix everypony else now.” Forest said in relief, smiling at him. “I need your help to do it, though.”

Horizon nodded with a small smile, and they both cantered off. They managed to tackle Chocolate in her shop as she shrieked over them stealing her ‘money’, but Horizon cast the memory spell Forest had asked him to do, and Chocolate went limp, her rich brown coat blooming through the grey.

After a quick explanation, Chocolate tossed the rocks out of the shop, flushing with embarrassment. “Let’s never speak of this again.”

Solar next. With Forest and Chocolate pinning the furious and violent pony down, it was a lot easier for Horizon to cast the spell, and the bright yellow of Solar’s coat began flowing back, and he was soon following them with loud laughs about how absurd the whole thing had been.

Red was harder to find, but without his wings, it was very easy for Solar to grab the shrieking red pony with his magic for Horizon to dip his head and wash the calming light of the memory spell on him. Red went limp and Solar let go of him as his normal crimson colour flooded over him, and Red groaned, rubbing at his head.

“Ugh, I had the worst dream -” Red began muttering, before his eyes widened and he glanced over his shoulder and noticing his wings were still gone. “Or maybe I’m still having it.”

“Lava took your wings when Discord corrupted his loyalty, Red.” Forest explained, pointing towards the train to Fillydelphia. “We’ve got to try and catch up with him - he’s an inexperienced flier and he can’t have gotten too far.”

“Say no more! We’ll get your wings back, Red!” Solar cheered, and the ponies cantered towards the train, hopping on it as it began pulling out of the station.

As Forest was leaning out of the window, scanning around for Lava, his eyes suddenly lit up seeing the pony trotting alongside the tracks ahead, obviously taking a rest from flying.

“Look! There he is!” Solar yelled, and Lava’s ears suddenly perked up and he roared, opening his wings and suddenly shooting off.

“Damn it! Come on, we have to get him!” Red called, and the ponies all managed to get on the roof of the moving train and cantered along the tops of the carriages as Lava flew ahead of them.

The wings Lava was flying with were still the same red as Red’s coat, and it looked incredibly strange, just like Discord’s mismatched wings. Forest tried flying after him, but Lava kept shrieking and kicking at him, and was incredibly agile despite the fact he was an inexperienced flier. Forest retreated, landing on the roof of the train again to catch his breath.

“He’s too strong. I can’t get him down by himself.” He muttered, and Red scowled, pawing at the ground.

Chocolate realised what he was doing. “Wait! NO! You’ll hurt both of you -”

Red leapt off the roof and wrapped his arms around Lava as he flew parallel to them. Lava couldn’t keep the both of them in the air, and shrieked, the two ponies crashing to the ground and rolling around as they fought and Lava screamed, trying to get free. The other ponies leapt down and Forest quickly flew over to them to help him hold Lava down.

“Horizon! The spell!” Forest called to him, and Horizon’s horn ignited as he touched it to Lava’s head.

Lava went limp and they all stood back anxiously, and Forest beamed as Lava’s ash blonde colour began running through his previously grey coat. Red was beginning to tear up as Lava stumbled, muttering as he shook his head to clear his swimming vision.

“Fuck -” Lava managed to slur before Red leapt for him and embraced him hard.

“The second I get my wings back I’m kicking your ass.” Red muttered, and Solar rolled his eyes with a loud groan.

“No time for hugs!” Solar yelled over them, and they all began cantering back towards Ponyville. “We still have to stop Discord!”

After rounding up the Elements, the six finally found Discord sat upon his throne and about to take a sip of chocolate milk. He sighed loudly.

“Ugh, this again?” Discord moaned, before drinking up the glass instead of the actual milk, and tossing the remainder over his shoulder so it exploded with loud puffs of smoke. “I thought you’d learned the hard way to give up.” He popped the ‘p’ with a glare, and Forest stepped forward.

“I tell you what we’ve learned, Discord. We’ve learnt that friendship isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth fighting for.” He spat, and Discord gagged, sticking his tongue out.

“Okay, fine, fine, try again if you must.” Discord flapped a paw, leaning back lazily. “Just make it quick. I have chaos to wreak.”

“Fine.” Forest responded, before his Element ignited, spilling white light.

Immediately after his, each of the others’ Elements lit too. Discord yawned noisily.

Chocolate’s sakrura shaped Element started shooting pink beams, followed soon by the colours of the other elements. Discord’s eyes snapped open, and he frowned, having to dodge beams from each of the Elements.

“What’s this?” Discord muttered, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “No -”

Suddenly they all lined up, and Discord’s eyes snapped open when their hooves left the ground and they started floating, and then white light poured from Forest’s Element. And then, there was an explosion of rainbow colours as the rainbow shot from them all into a peak, where it twisted into a double helix, before shooting at Discord with breakneck speed.

“NOOOOOOO!” Discord shrieked as it engulfed him, screaming and thrashing around as his form began being encased in stone, before his movements finally stopped as he was frozen, his jaw still wide open in a screech.

The rainbow unfolded, sweeping over Ponyville and creating a great, white orb over it, and there was a massive flash as the Elements returned Ponyville back to its original state. The ponies landed back down on their hooves, glancing at each other with delight. Red whooped, rearing up and flapping his wings, which were now back where they should have been.

Later on back in Canterlot, Forest and the other four approached Celestia with delight on their faces as she stood by her throne. There was a crowd of Canterlot ponies in the audience, including Forest’s mom and dad. Royal music played Luna and the guards were there too, and Forest couldn’t help having to force his smile a little bit when he glanced behind him and saw no Horizon. He didn’t go, he realised with a  slight pang, when in reality, Horizon had been the reason that they were able to defeat Discord.

“We are gathered here to once again honour the heroism of these five young ponies, who saved Equestria from the villain Discord, and protected Equestria from eternal chaos!” Celestia’s voice rang out, and Forest internally cringed, because no - it was the six of them! But Celestia didn’t make mistakes -

Celestia’s horn ignited and she undid the cord of the curtains, revealing a beautiful new stained glass window, which showed all of them defeating Discord in order to mark their achievement. Horizon was not on the window, Forest suddenly realised with alarm, but managed to keep a forced smile on his face as the crowd whooped and clapped their hooves on the ground.

After the initial celebration, Forest lingered, waiting for everypony to leave before he spoke to Celestia.

“Celestia - Hallowed Horizon was there. He’s one of the Elements, so his presence was crucial to defeating Discord -” He began saying to her, but Celesta silenced him by raising a hoof.

“Forest Flash, I know Horizon was essential to your achievement, but he specifically asked me to not include him in the celebration or the window.” Celestia explained, before pointing to the other one of Nightmare Moon with her horn. “And he asked me to remove him off that one too.”

Forest’s jaw dropped so low it almost hit the ground as he looked at the window and saw that there too, only Lava, Chocolate, Solar, Red and himself were on there. There was no Horizon on the window anymore.

“But - why?” Forest managed to choke out, turning back to Celestia, who only looked at him with an emotion in her eyes he couldn’t read.

“I am sure Hallowed Horizon has his reasons, Forest.” She said gently to him. “I am afraid I cannot give you the answers. Only he can.”

Forest dipped his head in defeat. “But he won’t give them to me -”

Celestia smiled softly at him. “As the Element of Honesty, Horizon is not one to keep the truth. And I am sure when - not if - when - he is ready, he will tell you.”

“But when will that be?” Forest asked her, and Celestia smiled as she began leaving the throne room.

“I may be the Princess of the Sun, Forest, but even I cannot tell the future.” She responded, looking over her shoulder at him. “Have patience. It’ll happen soon, I promise.”

Her flowing tail vanished around the corner, and the arched doors slammed shut, and Forest was left alone in the darkened throne room.

Chapter Text

“Today’s the day, Crusaders!” Crimson announced to Coffee and Summer. “I can feel it. Today’s the day we’re going to be getting our cutie marks in -” He trailed off dramatically before flourishing and pointing at the building he was stood outside of. “Bowling!”

“But I’ve never bowled before.” Summer said with anxiety on her face, and Crimson grinned at her.

“Then there’s more of a chance that you’ll get your cutie mark - heck, I’ve just got a great feeling about this.” Crimson declared as the three foals trotted through the door. “Red said that generally ponies are either great or awful at bowling, so I think we’ve got a good chance.”

“Let’s bowl them over!” Coffee declared as they chose a lane and began.

There were lots of other groups of ponies out at the bowling lanes today, since it was a weekend and Crimson knew that lots of ponies liked to go bowling whilst socialising. The clatter of pins was making him incredibly excited - today was the day, he just knew it -

“Okay! Me first!” Coffee piped, selecting a relatively light bowling ball and rolling it with his muzzle up to the lane.

He put his hoof on top, and carefully aimed, tensing his leg, and pushed it hard with a determined look on his face, which quickly fell when the ball weaved on the lane before falling in the gutter. Summer trotted past him, rolling a ball with her hoof.

“Hey, it’s okay, Coffee, maybe you just need to use a little more force!” Summer emphasised the last word as she stopped the ball rolling with a hoof so it was still, and kicked it hard with her back legs.

It shot into the air, hitting the ceiling, flying over the heads of the bowling alley staff, knocked over a rack of balls, and rolled across five lanes before falling in the gutter again on the far side of the alley. Summer made a loud groaning noise of frustration, but sheepishly forced a grin and flushed with embarrassment as the other ponies in the bowling alley turned at her with a glare.

Crimson snorted, trying to pick up his bowling ball with his teeth and tottering over to the lane, wobbling around on his hooves to stay upright due to the massive weight in his mouth, and tripped with a yelp, falling flat on his face. The ball shot out of his grip, and he looked up with a gasp of joy to see the ball crash into the pins, knocking every single one over and winning him a strike.

The other ponies in the alley cheered in delight, applauding by clapping their hooves on the ground as Crimson wriggled around where he was still on the floor.

“Amazing! A bowling cutie mark!” One of the players gasped, pointing, and Crimson gasped in delight.

“I did it!” He yelped, turning to look at his flank, suddenly feeling sick to his stomach when he saw it was still blank. “Wait - what?”

He finally looked up, seeing a beige colt with a blue and white mane in the lane next to them jumping and grinning with delight as he looked at his cutie mark, which showed a skittle and a bowling ball. The ponies swarmed him with coos of attention as the colt grinned and flushed, whilst Crimson was still lying there on the floor as he felt the disappointment and jealousy make his heart crack.

“But - what happened to my -” He whispered, turning back to the lane, and seeing his own ball barely moving as it rolled wobbly down the lane, before it fell into the gutter. “-ball. Oh.” Crimson said, his ears drooping as he realised he must have been looking at the lane next to him when the other colt got a strike and thought it was his own.

They left after that, but Crimson walked with his head down and sadness on his face as Summer and Coffee chattered, the two foals trotting in front of him.

“Hey, I enjoyed bowling, even if I only got gutter balls.” Coffee said with delight, and Summer grinned, nodding at him as she hopped on all four hooves.

“Yeah, me too - but at least you managed to keep your ball in the lane instead of bouncing it all over the alley - I doubt they’ll ever let me back inside the building again -” Summer said, before trailing off and the smile falling off her face when she saw Crimson still deliberately dragging his hooves in the dirt as he walked. “Hey, Crimson - what’s wrong?”

“I’m going to go.” He sighed, having to fight back tears as he opened his wings and flew away from them. “Nothing will make me feel better.”

“Come on, Crimson? It’s just a cutie mark!” Coffee called after him as Crimson flew into the Everfree Forest.

“Or lack of one.” Summer said, before she was harshly shoved by Coffee, but Crimson didn’t hear the rest of the sentence as he landed, and began wandering sadly into the forest.

His friends exchanged a look and shrugged, obviously unsure how to comfort him, but Crimson was glad they didn’t try, because nothing would make the crushing disappointment in his heart at the moment ease. He sighed loudly again, listening to his hooves on the dirt of the forest.

He didn’t know where he was going so kept wandering aimlessly, before he caught a hoof on a tree root. Crimson screeched as he tripped, letting out screams of pain as he bounced and tumbled down a small ridge and promptly landed on his face. He groaned in agony as he shook his head to clear it, and winced as pain shot through his teeth.

“Well, who is it that we have here?” A familiar voice asked, and Crimson looked up with tears of pain in his eyes as he recognised Zecora and her thickly accented voice. “Why, it’s Crimson Crash, my dear!”

Crimson spat out blood and a fragment of tooth as he opened his mouth and made another noise of pain as he ran his tongue over his tooth, where one of them was badly broken from his fall. Zecora leaned forwards to examine it better.

“Come with me. I have the trick that will fix you up quite quick.” Zecora said with a sympathetic smile as she lead him away towards her hut.

“I’ve thried everything, Thecora!” Crimson said in anxiety, his broken tooth making him lisp as Zecora tinkered around her hut. “I’m going to be ath old ath Celethtia before I ever get my cutie mark!”

“Your frustration is well understood, but one must be patient for all things good.” Zecora answered, looking into her cauldron and wandering over to her shelves to look through the various patterned jars on there.

“I’ve heard that from almotht everypony I know, Thecora!” Crimson whined, sagging his head in sadness as he kicked at the ground with a hoof. “And now every theebra I know. I’m jutht too impathient to be pathient! I want my cutie mark and I want it now!” He stamped a hoof as Zecora was pouring leaves into her cauldron and she accidentally dropped the jar in it.

Zecora gave him a glare and he grinned sheepishly, zipping way out of the way as she continued to mix up her cauldron.

“For your cutie mark, you’ll have to wait. But we must fix that tooth before it’s too late.” Zecora responded, taking a ladle and scooping out a bowl of the pink potion and setting it in front of him. “Now drink down every little drop - this mixture will mend that tooth on top!”

Crimson eyed it skeptically for a second, suspicious of its exotic smell and colour, before gulping it down before he could change his mind. As he swallowed the last drop, his eyes widened as he felt his teeth begin to itch - a sensation he never thought he’d ever feel - and opened his jaw as he turned to look in a shiny pot of Zecora’s to see his reflection. His teeth jerked and stretched slightly, sending shivers down his spine, before they reverted back to normal. He grinned, running his tongue over his teeth and suddenly elated when they felt normal and his lisp was gone.

“It worked! Thanks, Zecora!” Crimson yelped, turning back to the zebra as she began tidying all her potions away again. “You must have potions to fix almost anything, right?”

“Yes, my little one. It is true - I have many a-healing brew!” Zecora said proudly as Crimson looked through her shelves.

“Hmm.” Crimson said, eyeing her as an idea suddenly came to mind. “I bet you could do something about - this?” He wiggled his rump to show off his blank flank, and Zecora’s smile suddenly fell of her face as she dipped her head to give him a firm look.

“I simply must be upfront - none of these mixtures are what you want.” Zecora said to him. “A magic potion does not hold the key - for a cutie mark, time is the only remedy.”

“Fine.” Crimson muttered.

Zecora turned around and poured some green seeds into her mortar and pestle, before using her tail to whack down three purple berries where they were strung across her ceiling. As she went over to a basket to look for something, Crimson hopped up, putting his front hooves on the table so he could look at what she was doing.

“What are you making, Zecora?”

“I am brewing up a mix for a rooster and his chicks.” Zecora explained, putting her head in the basket to rummage around in it. “It seems the rooster has lost his crow, making mornings very slow.”

She emerged from the basket with a bright pink, heart shaped flower with lush green leaves and smaller heart shaped petals dangling off it in her teeth.

“Hey, I’ve seen that flower in Ponyville, but the flower ponies never sell it to foals.” Crimson said, pointing to it as Zecora trotted over to him. “What is it?”

“It is one that’s known as Heart’s Desire. A dash should ignite the rooster’s fire!” Zecora explained, tapping the flower on the rim of the mortar to dislodge some of the petals so they fluttered into the mixture. “With this flower, his talent will come into view. He’ll give a mighty cock-a-doodle-do!”

“Heart’s desire, huh?” Crimson said in a low voice as he eyed up what was in the bowl.

“Woe is me - what is this?” Zecora said in despair, as she pushed aside some bottles on her shelves. “I seem to have run out of amethyst!” She began trotting towards the door. “I must go and get this purple flower for my brew to have full power.”

Crimson didn’t take his eyes off the bowl. “Yeah, yeah - you go and get it, Zecora.”

Zecora left, and a devious look edged onto Crimson’s face as he saw the rest of the Heart’s Desire lying innocently on the bench, oh-so temptingly within his reach. He checked over his shoulder to check Zecora was gone, before taking a petal off with his teeth and swallowing it. Checking again, Crimson stole a few more petals, and then an extra for good luck.

“Haha, you little genius, Crimson.” He muttered to himself as he left Zecora’s hut. “Heart’s Desire! Nopony’s thought of that one before.”

The next day, Crimson strutted proudly into school as the ponies played before school began. Coffee and Summer were talking to each other and their words died in their mouth as they saw Crimson eye them out of the corner of his eye.

Their jaws dropped as he turned and flashed his flank at them. Crimson grinned in delight.

“Crimson! You got your cutie mark!” Summer yelped in shock and excitement as Crimson strutted around, ruffling his feathers as the other ponies were playing began gathering around him with interested chatters. Summer suddenly frowned. “What is it?”

Crimson smiled, looking back at his cutie mark, where there was a silver ring on his flank.

“Is it an ‘O’? Is your talent spelling?” Coffee asked, squinting at it.

“No! It’s a ring - jewelry making, right?” Summer piped up, and Crimson shook his head.

“No, it’s a loopty-hoop!” Crimson said, reaching over and grabbing the hoop as he began spinning it around his waist.

“A what?” Coffee asked, looking confused, and Crimson laughed, still spinning the hoop around his waist.

“It’s a loopty-hoop! Red made it for me out of one of those rings he used to practice flying through when I was little.” Crimson piped. “Who would have thought that was my special talent?”

“Ugh - that’s it?” Diamond Tiara scoffed, flapping a hoof. “That’s your special talent? Spinning a hoop around your waist?”

“You haven’t seen anything yet.” Crimson shot back with a devious grin on his face.

He stood on his back legs, expertly maneuvering the hoop to so it was spinning around his neck. He then, seeing how Diamond Tiara wasn’t impressed by that at all, spun the hoop down his body so it was around his tail, before balancing on his front legs and kicking the hoop with his hind legs so it spun through the air, and hit his target of the flag pole with ease. As it fell down the pole, Crimson zipped over, catching it with his muzzle and pushing it back up the pole, before opening his wings and somersaulting through the hoop while it was in midair, and landing perfectly on all four hooves with the hoop around his neck.

The other ponies erupted into cheers of excitement as Crimson stood there, beginning to flush from all the attention. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon’s jaws dropped in shock.

“That was amazing!” Coffee yelped in delight, hopping on his hooves. “Can you show us some more difficult ones?”

“Yep!” Crimson said, beginning to roll the hoop across his arms and shoulders in a wave motion and spinning it on his hoof, before tossing it into the air, leaping through it and catching the hoop on the tip of his nose whilst it spun like a basketball.

“Crimson Crash!” Cheerilee suddenly said sternly, making him gasp and drop the hoop, suddenly afraid he was in trouble.

“Yes, Cheerilee?” He asked timidly, and Cheerilee broke out into a massive smile.

“Congratulations on your cutie mark!” She said in delight, applauding her hooves on the ground. “Show us some more tricks!”

“Okay!” Crimson said happily. “But this one’s really difficult. Not for beginners.” He added, giving Diamond Tiara an evil side glance. She growled in fury, stiffening and baring her teeth.

He began spinning the hoop around his tail with expert precision and speed, causing a sudden wind to begin buffeting the manes of the watching ponies. He folded his wings, speeding up the hoop so it was almost a blur around his tail, and his hooves began leaving the ground as the sheer speed of the hoop lifted his body.

But as he was up there, a tingling on his flank and a flash broke his concentration and he shrieked, suddenly falling out of the air and on his face.

“Another cutie mark?” Diamond Tiara shrieked, horror on her face as she stalked up to him. “Those cutie marks are fake!”

The other ponies gasped in horror and Crimson flinched.

“No, they’re not!” Crimson shot back at her.

“Miss Cheerilee, is it possible for ponies to have more than one cutie mark?” Silver Spoon asked her with venom dripping off her voice.

“I must say that I don’t know - but maybe Crimson Crash has two special talents?” Cheerilee answered with confusion on her face.

“Oh yeah? Then let’s see him do that!” Diamond Tiara spat, pointing to Crimson’s flank. He glanced at it, seeing that underneath the ring, there was an image of two plates spinning on sticks.

“Spinning plates? Here you go!” Another pony in Crimson’s class piped, tossing a couple of plates and some sticks at him so they were spinning through the air.

Crimson barely had time to react and screwed his eyes shut, but miraculously caught both plates on his muzzle and balanced both sticks there without ceasing to stop the hoop spinning around his tail. There were more gasps of shock and delight at this new discovery as Crimson beamed.

“Two cutie marks - two special talents!” Summer cried out in happiness. “Crimson’s amazing!”

“All right!” Crimson trotted confidently into the centre of the pony circle. “You thought before was cool - get ready for a real show!”

He used his tail to toss the hoop into the air, before flicking his neck to throw the sticks and the plates. The plates went through the hoop in midair, and he opened his wings to fly up and catch the plates on his nose, one plate on top of the other, and landed, before sticking out a back leg to catch the hoop and spin that around there.

He ran around on his back legs, rolling the hoop under his hooves but not falling off it, with a plate in each hoof, and he managed to do it on his front legs too with a plate on each back hoof with ease. It was incredible, Crimson thought - it was like he had this inane ability to just do it, even with no practice, and it was making him feel amazing.

The ponies cheered in delight, and Crimson’s heart was so light he felt like he could float away.

Later at home, Red was so excited he could barely talk. He began babbling on how he was going to write to their parents about it right away.

“Congratulations on getting not one, but two cutie marks!” Red said in delight, hugging his brother as Crimson followed him into the house. “I’m so proud of you - that was totally worth the wait, huh?”

“Yeah.” Crimson answered, fatigue on his voice as he continued to spin the hoop on his tail and balance the plates on his head. “I’m exhausted. I think I’ll hit the hay - see you in the morning, Red.”

“Goodnight, Crimson!” He heard his big brother say.

Crimson did not get much sleep, because for some reason, it was like his body was moving of its own accord, and he could not stop his tail from spinning the hoop. As it began edging into the early hours of the morning, Crimson tried again to stop the plates from spinning and the hoop rolling around his tail, when another flash appeared on his flank and he gawked in horror as he looked at it to see a tap shoe.

“No -” He began to say, before his hooves began tapping and moving so fast he could barely see them, all whilst still spinning the plates and the hoops.

The tapping woke up Red, who looked immensely sleep ruffled as he pushed open Crimson’s door with a glare, ready to shout at him.

“Crimson - what’s with all this noise, it’s almost 3am -” Red began muttering, before it was cut short with a horrified gasp as he noticed Crimson’s third cutie mark. “Three cutie marks?”

“Help me.” Was all Crimson managed to choke out, the repeated movements making his muscles scream and agony twist his words, and Red’s face of pure horror was something Crimson never wanted to see again as long as he lived.

 

-

 

Forest and Ember were both woken up by panicked hammering on their door. Forest muttered sleepily as he flew downstairs. The night was starting to edge into morning, but it was still way too early for ponies to be knocking on his door, and was preparing to shout at them for waking him -

He opened the door and was suddenly jolted wide awake when a very panicked Red pulled a spasming Crimson into the library.

“Holy Celestia.” Forest breathed as Crimson tap-danced into the house with loud wails of pain as the plates kept spinning on his head and the hoop around his tail. “I thought you were lying when you said he got two - but three cutie marks? Three special talents?”

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” Red said in a panic, shaking his head in terror. “I tried taking the hoops and plates off him but it was like his body wouldn’t let me. The hoop hit me in the face so hard I got a bruise -” Red indicated to his purpling cheek, and Forest squatted down to look at Crimson’s rapidly moving hooves.

“And you can’t stop? At all?” Forest pressed, and Crimson made a noise of pain as he strained to nod his head.

“What was that book on exotic equine illnesses, Forest?” Ember asked where she was perched on the shelf. “I think I might know where that is -”

Ember scanned the shelves before tossing the brown book down to Forest. He placed the book hurriedly on the table.

“‘Perplexing Pony Plagues’ - that’s got to have something on whatever’s happening to Crimson.” Forest muttered, flicking through the pages as Red looked fearfully over his shoulder. “Hay fever, the trots - oh, Celestia!” Forest gasped in horror as he flicked over another page to see a diagram of a pony with cutie marks all over her body. “The Cutie Pox!”

“Cutie Pox?” Crimson and Red both yelped in shock, and Forest shook his head, forcing himself to read through it after confirming the symptoms were very much the same ones Crimson was experiencing.

“‘This puzzling plague completely devastated small villages during the Amorean pony period.’” Forest whispered, scanning the book. “‘Random cutie marks appeared all over the ponies’ bodies, forcing them to continually perform the talents that came with them.’”

“What’s the cure?” Red demanded, grimacing as Crimson cried out in pain again.

Forest’s jaw dropped in horror as he looked at the ‘Cure’ section on the page. “It says there’s no known cure.”

“No known cure?!” Crimson practically sobbed, tears streaming down his face as his hooves continued to tap violently.

“The book says that the cause of the breakout was unclear, and the disease vanished as quickly as it started - it’s not contagious, however.” Forest read aloud, before looking back at the other ponies with defeat and panic on his face.

“No -” Crimson began saying, before his flank flashed again and he gasped in horror as another cutie mark appeared, which caused him to begin speaking in Old Ponish.

Forest flattened his ears. “Oh, Celestia.”

“We need to find somepony who can help us, stat!” Red said in terror, turning back to Forest. “Any ideas?”

“Not somepony - some-zebra!” Forest suddenly realised, opening his wings as he flew out of the library. “Quick - we have to fly to Zecora’s -”

Red began flying after him, but Crimson was tap dancing so much he couldn’t fly. Red zipped back to try and pick him up but was battered up by the hoop and Crimson’s hooves they both went crashing to the ground.

“Hurry! We have to hurry before -” Forest began, and another flash, this time on Crimson’s leg, revealed another cutie mark of a hammer and chisel.

Crimson immediately zipped off to begin whirring away at a chunk of marble that was left outside a house that was undergoing construction, producing a flawless statue of a merpony with a flowing mane and standing on a conch shell. Forest and Red watched in shock, and another cutie mark appeared on Crimson’s back.

He immediately began chimney sweeping, flying up to the houses and getting covered in soot as he brushed them vigorously, still spinning the hoop around his tail and the plates on his head. Forest and Red could barely react to that before another cutie mark appeared on Crimson’s chest of some chess pieces, and he zipped off, challenging an elderly pony to a match and managing to checkmate him in two moves.

A cutie mark appeared on his other back leg, and Crimson was tap-dancing past them whilst playing an accordion which he must have stolen from somepony else.

Red looked horrified as there was another flash, and Crimson was suddenly fencing with another pony who was obviously an expert, but Crimson was jabbing at him with well aimed thrusts and blocking his moves like he was an athlete, not a young pony.

“He’s cursed!” An observing pony yelped as Crimson began tightrope walking on  the bunting between the houses.

“Hexed!” Another pony called as he pointed at Crimson, who was now hang gliding in the air above them.

“Enchanted!” Someone else said as Crimson began graffiting flawless art on one of the walls of the buildings.

“No he’s not.” Ember shot at them, causing all three ponies to gasp in relief, wiping their foreheads. “He just has some mysterious disease with no known cure called the Cutie Pox.”

There were screams as the ponies scattered, shooting into buildings and slamming doors and windows. Ember, Red and Forest were left standing there as a tumbleweed rolled past them and Crimson abandoned the graffiti and resumed playing the accordion. Forest glared at Ember, who chuckled sheepishly and immediately flew away back to the library.

“I thought I had removed their fear the last time that I visited here.” Zecora said, and they turned to see her trotting down the path from the Everfree with her saddlebags on her back. “But doors are closed and shutters shut - guess I should have stayed inside my hut.”

“Zecora!” Red gasped in relief, his face crumpling as he turned to face her. “Crimson Crash has cutie pox!”

He pointed at Crimson, who was doing incredibly complex algebra by scraping the numbers and letters in the ground using his hoof while the others continued to tap dance at full speed.

“We were just on our way to see you.” Forest explained. “Did you sense that something was happening?”

“I am afraid that is not why I am here - my missing ingredients are rather sheer. After my visit from Crimson Crash, some of the flower had disappeared in a flash.” Zecora frowned, approaching Crimson, who was sweating immensely with fatigue and pain as he was lifting 1000kg weights with his tail. “Crimson Crash, what do you say? Did the Heart’s Desire just walk away?” She said with suspicion on her voice as she bent her head to look him right in the eye.

“I - um -” Crimson managed to choke out, before a cutie mark of a sponge appeared on his head and he shot away to start scrubbing the windows.

The ponies in the house pulled biohazard masks over their face as Crimson did that, and Forest rolled his eyes, knowing they were behaving stupidly because the cutie pox wasn’t contagious.

“A cutie pox cure, I have forsooth - for healing power is in the Seeds of Truth.” Zecora said, diping her tail into her saddlebags and withdrawing three sparkling golden seeds.

“Go on then, give them to him!” Red said desperately, and Zecora shook her head.

“These seeds must be planted in the ground, with the truth they’ll grow, and the cure is found.” Zecora explained. “The Seeds of Truth do hold the cure, but words must be spoken -” She glared accusingly at Crimson as he tap danced past her. “- true and pure.”

“Let’s do it.” Red said, grabbing the seeds and burying them into the ground with his hooves. “Now somepony tell the truth!”

A whirlwind appeared on Crimson’s cheek and he began yelping in terror and pain as his body immediately began spinning so fast he was simply a red and white blur. Red was beginning to panic.

“Somepony! Anypony!” He called, but all the ponies were hidden in their houses and didn’t move a muscle.

Solar was sat outside Chocolate’s shop, sweating immensely with a horrific forced grin on his face. Forest caught onto it and glared accusingly at him, and Solar gulped.

“Yesterday I told Chocolate’s mom I ate two corn cakes, but I really ate three!” Solar choked out, still sweating.

Forest and Red looked down at the ground, but nothing was growing. They looked back at Solar, who was still trembling and sweating as his eyes darted from side to side.

“Okay fine! I ate six corn cakes!” Solar cracked, and when nothing grew from the seeds, Forest perked an eyebrow at the trembling and sweating unicorn.

“Make it stop!” Solar wailed, covering his eyes with his hooves and collapsing to the ground.

Red looked at Forest desperately as the crimson whirlwind shot past them again with Crimson’s high pitched shrieks making him visibly recoil. “Should we get Horizon? He’s the Element of Honesty after all -”

Forest opened his mouth to answer, before Crimson sobbed, still spinning around in circles.

“I’m sorry! I admit it - I lied. My cutie marks are all fake.” Crimson cried out, finally stopping spinning as he resumed tap dancing immediately.

Forest’s eyes lit up when the mound where the seeds were buried jerked a little, but there was still more that needed to be said. He gave the colt a reassuring smile as he sagged and tears ran down his face over the cutie marks he had imprinted on his cheeks.

“I thought the Heart’s desire would help me get what I wanted most. So I stole it when Zecora had her back turned. And it was the worst mistake of my life.” Crimson whimpered, and a bud grew from the soil, blooming into a beautiful white and pink flower.

Crimson leapt for it and grabbed the flower in his teeth, chewing it down and swallowing it with what seemed to be the last of his strength. He sighed in relief, collapsing to the ground as his legs stopped moving and the plates and hoop fell from his body. The cutie marks flashed and vanished with pops one by one, and Red visibly sagged in sudden relief as Crimson panted and tried to catch his breath.

“Crimson!” Coffee and Summer darted out from where they had been hiding in Chocolate’s shop behind Solar. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay.” He wobbled to his hooves with a meek smile. “I’ve never been so glad to be a blank flank in my life.” Crimson turned to Zecora with shame on his face as he glanced down at his hooves. “I’m so sorry for lying to all of you, especially Zecora. “I don’t think you’ll understand how sorry I am. I understand if you never want me to visit again -”

“Crimson Crash, do not be a dolt! You are always welcome, my little colt!” Zecora laughed, her eyes sparkling as she gently lifted Crimson’s face by the chin with her hoof. “With each mistake, you learn something new - growing up into a better you.”

Zecora turned away, trotting into the flower shop and tucking more Heart’s Desire into her bags, before vanishing back into the Forest without another word.

Forest turned back to the Crusaders. “Crimson, would you be okay with writing a letter to the princess about this?”

“Sure thing, Forest.” Crimson agreed, and later on that day, Red came by with Crimson’s letter for him to send off to the Princess using Ember’s magical fire. Horizon was sat in the library reading through the plague book with interest when Forest went to answer the door and brought back Crimson’s letter to read.

Forest read through it aloud with a small smile on his face. “‘Dear Princess Celestia. Sometimes waiting for what your heart desires can be really hard, so sometimes we might try to take shortcuts. But this dishonesty never works, because you didn’t work for what your heart desired. The only cure is being honest with yourself and others, because that’s something every heart desires.’”

Horizon was pricking an ear as he listened, and as Forest looked up from the scroll, he saw some emotions flickering in Horizon’s heterochromic eyes that he couldn’t decipher.

He put the scroll down and looked at Horizon, who was still reading through the book on pony plagues. “That colt is going to replace you as Honesty if you’re not careful, Horizon.”

“He’s got a way with words.” Horizon commented, and Forest smiled as he tossed the scroll at Ember so it disintegrated and vanished off to the castle.

Forest observed his body language for a little while longer before nodding in agreement.

Forest was flying through Ponyville with Red the next week, relieved that all the drama with Crimson’s cutie mark conundrum, on the agreement to help him move some of the white clouds that were blocking popular picnic sites due to the fact it was scheduled to be a nice day on this weekend.

Forest helped him in moving the soft clouds but the two pegasi immediately froze when a cry out for help caused their ears to pick up.

“Help! Help!”

“That’s a foal.” Forest realised in horror, and Red’s eyes widened when he pointed down from the cloud.

“Somepony’s fallen down that old well there!” Red opened his wings and shot down the well at breakneck speed.

Forest flew down to the well and glanced down as Red disappeared out of site with fear making his knees tremble. Horizon, Solar, Chocolate and Lava heard the commotion and were glancing down the well as they waited for Red.

Finally, Red flew back up with a small earth pony filly on his back, who was covered in leaves and mud and was still afraid but obviously very relieved as Red landed carefully, helping the filly to the ground. There were cheers of delight from the other ponies, and Red honestly looked surprised at the crowds of previously picnicking ponies gathered around him.

“Wow - thanks everypony - it really was no big deal -” He began saying, and Forest was pleased at how humble he was being.

“To me it was! You’re my hero, Red Riot!” The filly said in delight, and the crowd exploded into cheers of praise again as Red grinned and flushed and rubbed the back of his head.

Forest patted Red on the back, before turning to his other friends. “Red and I have some more clouds to move, otherwise there won’t be any sun left for everypony to enjoy.”

“You’re right. We’ll see you ponies later. Bye, Blasty!” Red waved at him as the two pegasi flew off, searching for more clouds to clear.

As they flew over the centre of Ponyville, Forest glanced at the steep path that led down to a plummeting cliff. As they flew towards the clouds covering it, Forest couldn’t help feeling slightly uncomfortable at it.

“That’s incredibly unsafe - that path is so steep and literally falls off a cliff.” Forest commented to Red, who was pushing the clouds through the sky.

“Yeah - the original road collapsed in a storm and accidents happen practically all the -” Red began, and was promptly interrupted when a piercing scream caused both pegasi to stiffen so their spines were rigid.

A mare was screeching in terror when her pram zipped down the steep path, with the wailing baby inside of it making Forest’s jaw drop in horror. The mare was running after it but she was nowehere near fast enough, but Red reacted instantly, folding his wings and shooting after the pram.

Forest could barely watch as Red closed his sharp teeth around the handle of the pram and dug his back hooves into the ground, screeching the out of control object to a stop just before the path broke away, sending gravel falling down. The baby immediately stopped crying as Red shushed it, pulling it out and cradling it gently.

The crowd at the bottom of the cliff began cheering in delight and relief as Red stroked the baby’s mane, and Red flushed at the attention, smiling as he handed the baby and pram back to the mare, who was sobbing in relief as Red smiled confidently.

The media seemed to have caught up as journalists with cameras immediately started taking photos of Red, who instead of waving them off, began posing and flicking his mane in front of them as Forest and Horizon and the others approached him slowly with skeptical looks on their faces.

“I can’t think of any other words in the dictionary that show how awesome Red Riot is.” Coffee sighed dramatically, leaning on his big sister with wide, joyful eyes as Red continued to smirk and pose in front of the cameras.

“I can think of a few words.” Forest muttered through his teeth to Solar, who looked incredibly irritated at how Red was reacting to the attention.

“Yeah, I don’t think modest is one of them.” Solar responded, disgust on his face as Red took to the air again, blowing kisses at the crowd who were still cheering in delight.

Forest and the other ponies had quickly decided to put Red back in check by following him over town and cutting him off before he had a chance to show off, since due to the nice weather, the number of accidents over town seemed to be increasing. It didn’t take long before a few elderly ponies, going out onto the balcony to enjoy the nice weather, were taken by surprise when a fourth pony went onto the balcony and the wood was unable to take their weight.

The balcony broke away from the main building as the ponies babbled and gasped in horror, but Red suddenly appeared, puffing out his chest as he hovered in the air.

“Never fear, Red Riot is here!” Red announced, and Forest rolled his eyes in annoyance.

“Give me a fucking break.” Lava muttered, glaring at him, but Red zipped and grabbed the balcony from underneath, lowering it gently to the ground as the crowd of ponies whooped and cheered when he landed.

“Red Riot! Red Riot! Red Riot!” They began chanting, and Red grinned, flying above them with pride and a smirk on his face.

“I can’t hear you!” He shouted to the crowd, and they chanted again at a louder volume.

“Red Riot! Red Riot! Red Riot!”

Red was zipping around in the air and doing spins and loop de loops, obviously just to show off, and it was beginning to get to Forest and the other ponies as they glared at him. Red had obviously forgotten what humility and modesty was in his sudden bid for heroism.

“Call me a hipocrite, but I think all this hero stuff has gone to Red’s head.” Chocolate said, glaring up at him as he did a stage dive, letting the crowds of ponies carry him around with their hooves above their heads.

Later on at Sugarcube Corner, the other ponies were gathered and watching Red with barely contained eye rolls as Red strutted around on the stage with expensive designer sunglasses on as he recalled the events to the gathered young ponies, including the Crusaders, who were watching with wide eyes.

“I was so awesome. You foals probably won’t see anything like it again.” Red announced as the foals gasped with joy.

“Awesome, but incredibly arrogant ever since.” Horizon muttered, and reared in shock when Red zipped over, putting his arm around Horizon’s shoulders as he smirked.

“Hey Horizon - how does it feel being immortalised as the friend of the amazing Red Riot?” Red asked him, dragging the white unicorn and posing for the journalist as he photographed the two, Horizon struggling to get out of his grip.

“Let Horizon go.” Forest said to Red, gritting his teeth as he shoved Red aside. “Don’t we have, I dunno, clouds to move?”

“Oh no - I’m far too busy performing the daring acts of bravery that nopony else has the guts to perform.” Red said, sliding his sunglasses back over his eyes as the photographer took another photo of him. “It takes guts, but it also takes brains. Being a hero surely isn’t for everypony, but I’m up to the challenge.”

Forest, Chocolate, Solar and Horizon were stood there glaring at him in annoyance as Red turned away and started taking photographs with the young ponies, and even Lava seemed incredibly irritated by Red’s ego.

Forest turned to face them with determination on his face. “We need to put Red back in his place - anypony got any suggestions?”

Solar’s eyes flashed as he took a step forward.

“I have an idea.”

 

-

 

Red was strutting down the street  and signing photographs of himself for the crowds of young pony fans. The filly grinned up at him as she tucked her photograph into her saddlebags.

“Some day, I wanna be just like you.” The filly gushed, and Red grinned, ruffling her mane.

“Aim high, kid, but don’t aim for the impossible.” He said, flicking his mane, but gasped and looked over his shoulder when a scream echoed through the air.

The crowd gasped when they saw the a hot air balloon plummeting through the air - obviously broken from, there was a gaping hole in the main balloon. Red blinked at it, before promptly going back to signing more photographs.

“Aren’t you going to help?” One of the ponies asked.

“Yeah - I’ve got a good ten seconds to spare, let me just sign a few more.” He muttered past the pencil in his teeth, before finally opening his wings and zipping towards the plummeting balloon.

He was flying with his back to the balloon and casually waving at his fans as he was going towards the screaming pony in the broken balloon, but as he was approaching it, a stallion in a dark purple cape and mask leapt onto the roof, his cloak blowing in the wind, before he leapt, snatching the pony out of the balloon right in front of Red’s eyes.

Red gasped, barely able to react as the stallion landed, helping the balloon pony to the ground, and promptly flew into the remains of the balloon, sending him crashing to the ground and having to fight to get out from the torn material.

The crowd whooped and cheered the stallion as he bowed, before he disappeared into the distance without a word.

“Incredible. He came out of nowhere!” A witness gasped in the crowd.

“I’ve never seen such bravery before.” Another pony said as they watched the masked stallion vanish out of sight.

“That’s right! Ponyville has a new hero!” The mayor announced to the crowd as she looked up in delight. “A mysterious stallion that has done well by our fair city. Our new saviour: The Mysterious Masked Do Well!”

Red ground his teeth in fury as he emerged from under the balloon. “Masked Do Well, huh? He’d better stay out of my way - because Ponyville only has room for one hero, and that hero is me!”

He went to fly away but the rope from the balloon tangled around his hoof and he fell flat on his face, feeling more embarrassed and humiliated than ever.

“Later, Red. You’ll get your chance.” He muttered, stalking away from the riled up crowd.

Just as predicted, another out of control carriage was plummeting down that same steep path as before towards the cliff, carrying a bunch of tourists who were screaming in terror. Red flew alongside it, clearing his throat.

“Never fear, Red Riot -” He began, before he was promptly interrupted by one of the tourists.

“Mind skipping your catchphrase and save us?!” She shrieked, and Red shrugged, flying in front of the carriage and pressing his back to it, and digging his hooves in.

He gasped and strained but the force of the carriage completely overwhelmed him and his hooves were just pushed along, until one of the wheels caught his tail and he was sent rolling away underneath the carriage with a yell. As he struggled to stand up, his eyes were wide when a flash of purple zipped in front of his vision and the masked stallion appeared in front of the carriage.

He lifted his back legs and dug in his front hooves as he pushed against the carriage, and Red gawked as the sheer force of this stallion’s strong front and back legs caused the carriage to screech to a stop right before the edge of the cliff, causing some pebbles to fall off the edge.

The tourists and crowd erupted into cheers, and as the tourists began to thank him, the stallion disappeared, vanishing into the distance without accepting the praise.

“What? Masked Do Well is stronger than me?!” Red spat, glaring at where the stallion had disappeared. “Well, a hero is more than just strength, and he’s going to learn that the hard way.”

Red was flying overhead when the wobbly frame of a building under construction was under attack from the crane, which was malfunctioning and slamming the beam it was carrying into the unstable structure. It began raining debris very fast, making the builders scream and try to get out from danger.

He could barely get in his catchphrase as he tried to weave around the raining rubble, but flying was incredibly difficult as he screamed and dodged lumps of brick and metal threatening to knock him out of the air.

“Maybe flying for this isn’t the best idea - woah!” Red shrieked as another beam threatened to squash him, and he barely managed to dodge it.

A female builder shrieked, and just as Red tried to swoop in to save her, Masked Do Well zipped in front of him, snatching up the female builder onto his back.

Red could barely save himself from the falling rubble, but the masked stallion was so light and nimble on his hooves, tossing the female out of danger and immediately going back for the other builders. Red was almost in complete awe - without wings, Masked Do Well was managing perfectly fine, if not better, in dodging all the rubble.

Another builder yelled where he was trapped on the top of the collapsing building, and Red went to go and save him, but screamed when he couldn’t get up, and the builder was in danger because not even Masked Do Well would be able to get him without wings -

Red shrieked as a purple blur flew past him, knocking him out of the range of the rubble, and as he tumbled down to the grass out of danger, his jaw dropped when he saw Masked Do Well’s wings flapping under his cape as he snatched the builder and flew him out of danger just as the building collapsed to the ground.

The builders cheered and trotted after the masked stallion as he galloped away without acknowledging the praise, and Red snarled, baring his teeth.

“Okay, so he’s strong, he’s fast and agile, and he can fly.” Red muttered, opening his own wings to fly away. “I have to step up my game.”

As he was doing a fly by over the river, he immediately clocked that there was a tiny crack in the dam that was dripping, and Red gasped, zipping over to it.

“If the dam bursts, Ponyville will be flooded! I can’t let that happen!” He declared, flying over to it and putting his hoof over the crack. “Easy peasy, town saved. If only somepony were here to pat me on the back. I’ll do it myself, hold on -” He let fo of the dam to to pat himself on the back, and his eyes widened in horror when he saw the crack in the dam grow slightly. “Wait -”

A burst of water shot through as the dam shattered, plunging Red into swirling rapids so he was kicking widley to try and keep his head out of the freezing water. He tried flying out but his wings were too wet and panic was beginning to settle in.

“Help!” He howled, and gasped when Masked Do Well flew in, snatching Red out of the water and disappearing almost immediately.

Red coughed up water, glancing around for the stallion and finally seeing him on the opposite side of the river.

“If you think I’m going to thank you, you’ve got another thing -” Red began spitting at him, before there was a white glow from underneath Masked Do Well’s hat, and the chunks of rubble from the dam suddenly began floating back towards their original places.

Masked Do Well’s cape fluttered as he focused on the rubble, magically welding the dam back together and evaporating all the water as he posed there, and Red sat in a puddle with his jaw open when the dam sparkled, perfectly repaired and with no evidence that it had even broken at all. Now Red glanced at Masked Do Well, he could see the outline of a horn underneath his hat and growled in fury as the stallion whipped around and vanished with only a wave at the cheering ponies.

“Wait - so he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s agile, he can fly - and he has magic?!” Red snapped, seething as he watched the stallion disappear. “How is that even possible?”

He stormed back into town, still soaking wet as he pushed into Sugarcube Corner, where his friends were there tinkering about. Chocolate beamed at him, despite the fact Red was absolutely fuming with frustration.

“I have to hand it to him, that Masked Do Well is amazing. He’s done some pretty heroic acts.” Chocolate said to Forest, who nodded at her.

“I’m incredibly impressed by that spell he used to fix the dam - I bet that took a lot of study.” Forest said with a smile.

Red growled loudly, going back to his corner and turning over so his back was facing them.

“He genuinely cares about everypony.” Solar commented, where he was walking around with a drinks tray on his back. “And even though he can fly, he doesn’t rely on his wings all the time.”

“And he’s modest and humble.” Horizon said. “His actions speak for themselves.”

“I agree. His agility and strength is really fucking awesome.” Lava said, and Red made a loud groan, glaring at them all.

“You too?! I don’t have to admire Masked Do Well for anything!” Red snapped, throwing his hooves into the air in frustration as he flared his wings in fury. “The only thing I have to admire about him is that he’s a royal pain in the backside!”

“Sounds like you’re jealous, Red.” Solar said with a side glance, and Red immediately snorted, glaring at him.

“I am not jealous.” He spat, and his friends chuckled at that, making him even more furious. “Fine! Laugh all you want! But I’ll be the one laughing when I prove to you all that I’m a better hero than that idiotic Masked Do Well!”

He shot out of the cafe and began scouring town for any trouble, landing on roofs and looking across the streets. He flew back to the cliff-road, sighing with annoyance when it was deserted.

“Come on, where is an out of control vehicle when you need one!” He snapped, whipping around and trying to find some disaster going on, but there was nothing happening.

His ears pricked up when he heard squeaks from inside the park and shot down when he saw a purple straining to open a jar of peanut butter with her horn. She was one of the many picnicking ponies enjoying the nice weather today - he couldn’t let that pesky jar ruin her day! That was a job for a hero!

“Are you in trouble, miss? Don’t worry, Red Riot is here to save the day!” He announced, snatching the jar off her. “You must allow me to handle this one. For your own safety, I advise you stand back!”

“Oh, brother.” The unicorn rolled her eyes.

Red pretended not to notice as he cracked his neck and then strained to twist the lid off the jar. He squeaked and groaned as he dug his hooves into the lid and pulled with all his might to the point he was stretching, but the lid did not shift. He eventually went to attack the lid with his teeth, but the unicorn took it off him, a look of distaste on her face as she floated the jar over to the fountain and tapped the lid harshly on the stone a few times.

Red then leant over and flicked the lid off with a smug grin on his face. “Tada! There is no need to thank me. I know I’m so incredibly amazing -”

“Aren’t you milking this a bit?” The unicorn said with annoyance on her face as she tried to spread peanut butter on the sandwiches for the little filly she was with.

“Another great feat of heroism!” Red announced, punching the air with a hoof.

“Lame.” Some other pony in the park said, and there were mutters of agreement as everypony started to walk away with mutters of disapproval.

Red sighed in despair as he flew away with disappointment and frustration as he lay down on a darkened crowd. “All anypony talks about is Masked Do Well this and Masked Do Well that - why did everypony forget about me?”

He sighed, a tear rolling down his nose as he lay down flat on the cloud.

“No! I’m still awesome! They’re just all wrong.” He said to himself, before his voice dropped off to a pathetic whisper. “Then why am I all alone?”

“Red Riot!” He heard Coffee Caramel and Crimson Crash’s voices calling for him, and he immediately perked up, flying down to them.

“I knew you didn’t forget about me. No need to aplogise, anypony would have made the same mistake.” Red announced, ruffling the two colts on the heads.

“What mistake?” Coffee asked with confusion on his face.

Red scowled at them. “Wait - why are you two here?”

“We’re here to invite you to Masked Do Well’s thank you celebration.” Crimson explained with a grin.

“NO! I’m not going. Forget it.” Red snapped, turning away and folding his hooves, waiting for the colts to try and persuade him to go.

“Oh. Okay, then.” They said, and his heart suddenly dropped when they turned away without asking him again.

“I’m not saying thank you to Masked Do Well. ‘Thank you, you masked lump, for ruining everything!’” Red said mockingly, before he widened his eyes.

If he went to the celebration, he might have a chance to figure out who this mysterious winged and horned stallion really was. He rubbed his hooves together deviously before zipping after the two colts to follow them to the celebration.

The mayor stepped up to the pew and tapped a hoof on it for silence as Red pushed through the crowd to the front row.

“Welcome to the first, but surely not the last, celebration of Ponyville’s greatest hero, the Mysterious Masked Do Well!” The mayor announced, raising a hoof as the masked stallion burst through the paper illustration of himself.

The crowd cheered and tossed confetti and waved their banners as the stallion dipped his masked head in acknowledgement, but did not speak. Red scowled, opening his wings and shooting up to the stallion, pushing his muzzle right up to Masked Do Well’s.

“The Mysterious Masked Do Well, huh? What are you hiding?” Red spat, ignoring the horrified gasps of the crowd. “Let’s see how mysterious you are without that mask!”

He tried to snatch it with his teeth but Masked Do Well dodged, cantering off into the maze of shops and back alleys as Red zipped after him. Red went the other way, knowing the path the stallion had cantered down would lead into this area, but he seemed to have vanished.

Masked Do Well cantered across from another street, and as Red flew after him, there was a whistle, and he whipped around, seeing Masked Do Well vanish around another corner.

He kept flying down the alleys, getting madder and madder, and no matter where he went, Masked Do Well would either canter down the other end of the alley or fly above him, and the second he caught up, the stallion would reappear somewhere else.

“What the hay?” He muttered, following Masked Do Well down another alley into a dead end, and saw his cape disappear over the steep top of the wall.

Another whistle caused him to whip around again, and he saw Masked Do Well vanish in the other direction. Red snarled, flying up and hiding on the roof of a building, peeking over the edge to get an aerial view of the alleyways.

“I’ve got you now.” He hissed, seeing Masked Do Well idly walking down one of the alleyways, and shot down, grabbing the stallion by the shoulders and pressing him down firmly with all four hooves.

“All right, Mister Mysterious.” Red snapped, grabbing the mask and pulling it from the stallion’s face. “Mystery solved - huh?!” He fell back on his rump with his jaw open and could barely form words when the stallion proved not to be a stallion after all. “Chocolate?!”

As he made unintelligible spluttering noises, he looked up to see another Masked Do Well standing ahead of him with his mask still on. He pulled the mask off and pushed his brimmed hat back to reveal -

“Blasty?” Red squeaked in horror as he recognised Lava’s ash blonde coat.

Three more Masked Do Wells appeared from around the corner and also pulled off their masks to reveal Forest, Horizon and Solar, the latter of which was grinning at Red’s squeaking and shocked spluttering.

“There were five Masked Do Wells?” Red whispered, and Forest bobbed his head.

“Yep. We all played Masked Do Well at different times.” Forest explained.

“I rescued the pony from the balloon. Nopony’s better at leaping than me.” Lava said proudly, puffing out his chest.

“I stopped the runaway carriage with these bad babies.” Chocolate said, indicating to her back legs. “Hauling around boxes all day means I can carry pretty much anything.”

“I saved the builders on the ground.” Solar said with a grin. “Being in danger all the time has given me a sixth sense for falling objects - plus, I’m actually pretty fast on my hooves.”

“I did the fly by and saved that builder on the building, and pulled you out of the river.” Forest explained, flapping his wings.

“And I fixed the dam with my magic.” Horizon finished, a knowing glint in his eye.

“I don’t understand.” Red finally found his tongue, sagging his head as he looked up at them. “Why? Don’t you want me to be a hero?”

“Of course we do, Red!” Forest said with a small smile. “But we want you to be a humble and modest hero who doesn’t brag.”

“Oh - I guess I did start to brag.” Red realised, drooping his ears in shame.

“Celebrating your accomplishments is natural, Red.” Forest explained to him.

“But rubbing them in other ponies’ faces isn’t.” Solar finished for him with a wink.

“What we’re trying to say is that it’s okay to be good at something, but it’s important to act with grace and humility.” Chocolate smiled at him.

“I guess that makes sense. You’re right. And I think that I should’ve acted with more grace and humility when I was outshined by somepony else. Like Masked Do Well.” Red said, indicating to his friends, who were still in their costumes. “Thanks so much for knocking the sense into me.”

As Forest went back home and tossed the Masked Do Well costume over the back of his bed and flopped down, he let out a wailing noise of disappointment. Ember flew over to him and perched on his bedframe.

“What’s wrong?” She asked, and Forest dragged his hooves down his face in frustration.

“I was the one who gave Horizon that spell. It took me hours to teach him the technique.” He said, his words muffled behind his hooves.

“And? What’s the issue? You managed to teach Red a lesson and you got a letter from him for Celestia.” Ember said, glancing down at him.

“It’s just that - I wish I could have done the spell. It’s not fair on Horizon to do an incredibly difficult spell he had no interest in learning previously and -” He swallowed hard, turning over in defeat. “I wish I could have just done it myself.”

Ember didn’t answer, because they both knew that unless she had a unicorn horn lying around somewhere, nothing she could say would make Forest feel any less worthless and defeated.

He should have been happy, but if anything, all it did was make his heart cry.

Chapter Text

Forest and the rest of the ponies had decided to go out for lunch because the weather was so nice. Red was lounging back on his seat with his stupid designer sunglasses on while Forest chattered with Chocolate and Solar, and the general ambience of the table was nice as they talked over their drinks. The food arrived, and Forest’s sandwich was just put down in front of him when they heard a phoenix call and saw Ember flapping and panting towards them as she flew.

“Ember? Are you okay?” Forest asked her, and the phoenix gasped, rolling across the table and narrowly missing all the glasses, before she exhaled hard, and a burst of ashes fell from her feathers.

The scroll landed at Forest’s hooves and he made a noise of surprise as he picked it up.

“Who’s it from?” Chocolate asked, and Forest glanced at the seal.

“Celestia. What’s she doing mailing me today?” He muttered, unwravelling and beginning to read through it. “Woah. This is new. Ahem.” He cleared his throat before he began talking.

“‘Dear Forest Flash. I am sure you are as excited as I am about the upcoming wedding in Canterlot.’” He frowned at his friends, who were watching him with interest on his face.

“Wedding?” Solar asked, and Forest shrugged before he kept reading.

“‘I will be conducting the ceremony, but I would very much like you and your friends to help with the preparations for this wonderful occasion.’” Forest read aloud, before smiling at them. “She’s given us all instructions for what to do.”

“Read them, then!” Red demanded, and Forest complied.

“Lava Blast, I would like you to be in charge of setting up the throne room with decorations and furniture.” Lava nodded in response, seemingly satisfied with that. “Chocolate Blush, I would like it if you were in charge for the catering for the reception.”

“Really? What an honour!” Chocolate squeaked in delight, clapping her hooves together.

“Solar Spark, I would like you to help organise the reception and be in charge of special effects for the ceremony. Red Riot, it would be astounding if you could perform a sonic rainboom after the couple have said their vows -”

“A sonic rainboom? At a wedding?” Red squeaked in delight. “Best wedding ever!”

“‘Hallowed Horizon, I can think of no pony qualified enough to be in charge of all the ice sculptures and decorations -’”

“No.” Horizon shook his head firmly, ignoring the gasps of the ponies as they turned to face him. “She’ll have to find somepony else -”

“‘- and finally, Forest, I would like you to be doing what you do best - making sure everything goes to plan. See you all very soon, Princess Celestia.’” Forest suddenly frowned, reading through the letter again and flipping it over, before glancing up at his friends. “That’s weird. It doesn’t say whose wedding we’re going to -”

“Oh - wait.” Ember finally spoke, lifting her head from where she was still lying flat on the table. “I probably should have given you this one first.”

She hopped up and handed the scroll she had in her claws to him. Forest exhaled hard, unravelling that one, and immediately beginning to read through that one too.

“Princess Celestia cordially invites you to to the union and wedding of Prince Arctic Aurora and Captain -” Forest’s heart suddenly fell to his chest and he choked as he inhaled his own saliva. He was suddenly gasping for air as he dropped the scroll and wheezed.

Horizon looked equally as horrified as Chocolate immediately reached forward and patted Forest on the back hard. He managed to regulate his breathing, his heart still jumping wildly from the shock,  pawing open the letter again to check he hadn’t imagined it.

“- Captain Slate Cyclone.’” He managed to whisper, and Solar and Red exchanged a look.

“Who’s -”

“Slate Cyclone’s my foalhood friend.” Forest explained numbly, glancing up at them again.

The others looked shocked, but Horizon looked like he’d forgotten how to breathe as he froze. Forest gulped, putting the scroll back and getting to his hooves, feeling his knees wobble as he tried to pace out the shock that was still making his heartbeat ring in his ears.

“Captain?” Red echoed, and Forest shook his head to try and clear his thought.

“Captain. Of the Royal Guard.” Forest realised himself, flattening his ears in realisation. “No way it can be anything else. Dad mentioned they had a new captain when we went to the Gala -”

“Then - what’s the issue, Forest? You should be happy for your friend -” Solar began saying, but Forest snarled, whipping around as he bared his teeth.

“That’s not the issue! Slate and I were so close - we spent literally the majority of our school and university years together - and he’s telling me that he’s getting married? Through a letter? And he never bothered to tell me that he’s Captain? Of the Royal fucking Guard?” Forest spat, pacing wildly and pawing at the ground with his hooves in frustration. “Why couldn’t he have told me personally - he literally outranks my dad - my dad! How did this happen -”

“A lot’s happened since you moved to Ponyville, Forest.” Chocolate said sympathetically to him. “Does Slate even know your new address?”

“Well - um - n-no, but -” Forest sagged his head and flattened his ears. “I just felt like I meant more to him than somepony who gets life-changing news like that through a piece of paper -”

“Well, you’ll get to see him again, right?” Red asked him, and Forest made a whinnying noise of annoyance.

“It’s just that Slate and I were always so close. I thought of him as my brother, my twin. We went through so much together.” Forest sagged, turning away from them. “But since he was working with the pegasi and I went to be Celestia’s personal students, we began seeing each other less and less. And then I moved to Ponyville and -” He swallowed hard, glancing down at his hooves. “Now he’s Captain and getting married, we’ll probably never see each other.”

“I think he sounds like a really nice pony, Forest.” Chocolate said, trotting up to him sympathetically and patting him on the back soothingly. “And whoever this prince pony is probably thinks so too, if they’re getting married -”

“I mean - Prince Arctic Aurora?!” Forest scoffed, new fury edging into his tone and  sarcasm dripping off his voice as he dramatically rolled his eyes. “Who in the hay is that?!”

“My brother.” Horizon said, and they all gasped in shock, whipping around to face the white unicorn.

Horizon was on his hooves and visibly shaking. Forest’s eyes and jaw were wide open as he watched Horizon swallow hard, looking incredibly uncomfortable. Red and Lava exchanged a look as they glanced at Horizon with their mouths open. Chocolate made a squeaking noise.

“I - I’m sorry - I think, for a second there - we thought you said that this Prince was your brother -” Solar began spluttering, laughing nervously as Horizon stiffened.

“No. You heard right.” Horizon answered, and although his face was cold and showing no emotion, Forest could tell how anxious and shocked from the way Horizon’s knees were trembling. “Prince Arctic Aurora is my brother.”

“No - no - this can’t be right.” Lava mumbled, shaking his head to try and clear it. “You’re literally an ‘I don’t talk about my fucking past’ emo orphan - I always assumed that all your family died in a tragic accident -”

“I wish.” Horizon snapped, baring his teeth as he began storming away.

“Oh, Celestia.” Forest muttered, forcing himself to move.

“Forest, where are you going?” His friends called after him, but he ignored them and focused on flying after Horizon panickedly.

“Horizon, wait.” Forest managed to say to him, landing in front of him and putting a hoof out to stop him from storming around him. “We - we’re both in shock, okay? So everything seems pretty bad -”

“It is bad.” Horizon snapped, and Forest couldn’t help agreeing with him internally.

“Let’s sit down, okay? We both need time to process this.” Forest tried pleading with him, and Horizon snorted air out of his nose and finally obliged, sitting down on the grass with his back away from Forest.

Forest sat next to him and folded his wings, and there was silence aside from Horizon’s ragged breathing. Forest gulped again, tapping his hooves in anxiety on the ground, because for the first time since he’d met Horizon, things seemed to be clicking together.

And that ‘Prince’ still refused to leave his mind.

“I can’t go back to Canterlot. Not now.” Horizon’s voice cracked, and Forest blinked, turning to face him.

“It’s to do with your family, isn’t it, Horizon?” Forest said in a soft voice, and Horizon blinked at him with a grimace on his face.

“I left Canterlot to get away from them.” Horizon visibly shuddered.

Forest swallowed, beginning his words carefully because he knew he was treading on thin ice. “Your brother is a Prince.”

“Yes.” Horizon said softly, glancing away with despair in his eyes. “And I am too.”

Forest inhaled sharply, forcing himself to keep a neutral look on his face. “You’re  - you’re -”

“Not many ponies realise how extended the royal family is outside of Celestia.” Horizon said in a low voice, turning away. “Not necessarily the alicorn side, but just the ones who have titles and royal blood.” Horizon shrugged, looking at his own hooves in disgust. “But my father wasn’t content with just having royal children. He wanted alicorn children.”

“Alicorn children?” Forest breathed, flattening his ears. “But that’s not possible. Alicorns can’t be born - becoming an alicorn is something only incredible ponies achieve, and it hasn’t happened in thousands of years  -”

“My father refused to believe that. So he forcibly married my mom - she was a pegasus - to try and churn out an alicorn.” Horizon’s face twisted up in disgust. “It didn’t work. He only ended up with three pegasus kids because -”

“In a unicorn-pegasus relationship, the unicorn is recessive.” Forest breathed, remembering his studies with Celestia on genetics with all his punnet squares -

“Yeah. And by the time I came along, he’d given up on trying to breed -” Horizon retched out the word. “- an alicorn. So he decided instead to train his unicorn kid into becoming powerful and earning that alicorn status. Brutally.” Horizon’s hoof flitted to his scarred eye, and Forest’s stomach dropped.

“And that was you.” Forest breathed, and Horizon nodded slowly.

“Turns out that it ended up not being me anyway.” Horizon shrugged, like he was trying to shrug off the weight of his past from his shoulders as his eyes glazed over. “My brother - Arctic Aurora - he’s only a year older than me, but he’d had enough. He asked Celestia for a mission, and she gave him one, and he was gone for maybe about five or so years when we were both colts. And then he came back -” Horizon trailed off, glancing away. “And he’d done it. He’d earned his horn.”

“Your brother’s an alicorn?” Forest gaped, and Horizon flinched, nodding slowly.

“And things got so much worse. My father put so much pressure on me I collapsed and almost died.” Horizon explained to him. “He wanted me to be better than my brother. And I decided to leave. So one night I just left Canterlot. I didn’t tell anypony, I didn’t have anything aside from a few bits in my saddlebags. And that was that. I’ve lived here ever since.” Horizon’s eyes flickered. “Celestia found me, though. But she already knew why I’d left and my reasons. So she let me stay, and went back to Canterlot and told everypony I was missing and she didn’t manage to find me. Arctic knows, though.” Horizon’s hoof went to his heart. “I owe them both my life.”

Forest’s eyes widened. “You’re that missing royal? The one she wouldn’t tell me about?”

“Maybe. How many missing princes do you know of?” Horizon said dryly.

“Not many.” Forest admitted, rubbing at his shoulder with a hoof. “And now my foalhood friend is marrying one.”

“I want to go to the wedding.” Horizon whispered, glancing down at the ground. “I guess I owe Arctic that much. He’s one of the only ponies who treated me like I was an actual pony during that time. But I think our father thinks I’m dead. If I go back -”

“No. We have to figure out a way to get you into the wedding without being recognised -” Forest’s eyes suddenly widened in realisation. “Actually - I have an idea -” He paused suddenly as he got to his hooves. “Maybe - I dunno, we’ll have to see when we get there -”

“Forest - wait -” Horizon interrupted, putting a hoof out to stop him before he headed back to the other ponies. “You can’t tell the others.”

“About what we just talked about?” Forest asked him, and Horizon looked torn. “But they already know your brother’s a prince. They’re not stupid; you know at least one of them will figure out you’re one as well -”

Horizon was silent for a second.

“I could go and say that you are from the royal family but you’ve, I dunno, been exiled?” Forest suggested to him. “If I ask them to not mention it to anypony I know they’ll listen.”

Horizon nodded slowly. “That would make sense - tell them that I don’t have a title anymore and as far as the royal family are concerned, I’m dead. And I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll tell them.” Forest said, and he went back to the ponies as they were leaving the restaurant, and he explained it to them in a hushed voice, without mentioning all the extra bits about Horizon’s father or his family.

They nodded and agreed to keep it silent, and Forest was incredibly relieved that that much was going to be kept quiet for Horizon’s sake. He trusted them to not mention it at all.

But his thoughts were still incredibly loud as they got the train to Canterlot and Forest was glancing miserably out of the window, despite the fact that everyone else seemed incredibly excited for the wedding.

Chocolate instantly noticed how Forest was behaving and sat next to him with sympathy on her face. “What’s wrong, Forest?”

“I’m just thinking about Slate.” Forest sighed, resting his muzzle on his hooves as he continued to look out of the window. “Everything’s changed a lot. And now he’s got a new job and he’s starting a new family, we’ll probably never see each other again -”

“You said you two were like brothers, right?” Chocolate asked. “Then he’s your family too. He’ll always make some time for you.”

“Couldn’t seem to find enough time to tell me he was getting married.” Forest said with a snort, whipping away from the window and pulling the blind down.

The train slowed as they approached the gates to Canterlot. Forest was surprised when he glanced out and saw the two guards at the entrance lifting their spears for the train to move past, and he shuddered with a grunt as a blue bubble wall went through him and the train.

“Is this a force field?” He muttered, and as they got off the train, Forest was shocked to see a massive blue bubble completely surrounding Canterlot.

“Woah. What’s with all the Guards?” Red asked as they trotted off the carriage, and there were tens of the armoured ponies standing all over the platform.

“I’m sure it’s just precautions for the wedding.” Chocolate said hesitantly.

“We’ll go and start doing all the things the Princess asked us to do.” Solar gave Forest and Horizon a nudge. “You two have some ponies to go congratulate.”

Horizon shuffled next to Forest, pulling the hood of his cloak further over his head. Forest indicated to him and the white unicorn followed him off the platform.

“Congratulate.” Forest said sarcastically. “Yeah, sure. And then give him a piece of my mind.”

Horizon trailed him hesitantly as Forest trotted ahead, glancing around with his eyebrows drawn together. He didn’t have enough capacity to wonder why there was a force field surrounding Canterlot and why Celestia was on the highest turret and currently scanning for things beyond the city with her telescope - funily enough, Forest didn’t think she was just stargazing.

He saw the iconic purple and gold armour of the captain and immediately stiffened as he saw the unicorn giving orders so the group of guards and sending them off to different places.

“I’ve got something to say to you, mister.” Forest snapped, stalking up to him.

The guards immediately reacted, aiming their spears at him as the captain poked his head up from behind the wall, and his concern immediately gave way to delight as he recognised Forest. Forest did not smile, still fuming as Slate waved down the guards.

“Forest!” Slate said in delight, whipping his helmet off and practically galloping like a foal down to him. “How have you been? Seriously - oh my gosh - long time no see, huh -”

Forest whacked his offered hoof out of the way with a steely glare. “How dare you not tell me in person you’re getting married? And what’s with this getup? Forget to tell me about this too?”

Slate looked incredibly taken aback as he glanced at Forest with a slight sorrow in his gaze.  “I’m sorry, Forest - I really am - I moved back to Canterlot because Celestia offered me this job but when I did you were gone and -”

“And you didn’t ask anypony for my address?” Forest glared at him. “Even Coal’s made more of an effort to talk to me and she’s in Manehattan most of the time -”

“I did try. I tried so hard, Forest. I missed you.” Slate sighed, his ears drooping. “But Celestia requested a major increase in security since the Gala. I’ve been so incredibly busy - didn’t you see all the guards at the train station -”

“Yeah! There’s a royal wedding coming up! Maybe you heard about it?” Forest shot, and Slate’s face fell.

“It has nothing to do with the wedding. A threat was made against Canterlot, and nopony’s taking responsibility for it, so Celestia asked me to provide additional protection.” Slate said to him, explaining it gently. “I have to keep the force field up with my magic - look -”

Slate’s horn glowed and he screwed his eyes up with a grunt as his magic sparked violently and he shot a blue beam up at the force field, making it glow and pulse with reinforced colour. Forest watched the display with wide eyes, and Slate made a noise of pain as he rubbed at his forehead with a hoof.

“The responsibility of keeping Canterlot safe and secure is resting squarely on my shoulders at the moment, Forest.” Slate explained to him as he put his hoof back down on the ground. “Staying focused on that has been my top priority at the moment.”

“Okay, I get it.” Forest whispered, his ears drooping. “It’s so important. I understand. But I’m just upset that you didn’t tell me about something as important as your wedding. Am I not that important to you anymore?” He ended as he glanced up at Slate, who reached over and embraced him hard.

“You’re my brother - maybe not by blood, but you are my brother. Of course you’re important to me.” Slate let go, giving him a sly look from the corner of his eye. “But I’d understand if you don’t want to be my best stallion now, huh?”

“You’re asking me to be your best stallion?” Forest gawked, and Slate nodded with a grin.

“Yep. Unless you don’t want to?” Slate asked carefully, and Forest nodded vigorously.

“I’d love to. Thank you.” He said with delight. “But I need your help first. I can’t explain it just yet, but my friend over there -” he pointed to Horizon, who was still hiding under his cloak. “-could potentially be in danger from his father -”

“That’s Hallowed Horizon, huh?” Slate whispered, finally noticing him.

Forest was shocked, and turned to him with wide eyes. “How did you know?”

“Arctic told me.” Slate said in a low voice. “He mentioned his little brother a few months ago.”

“Well, he wanted to go to the wedding, but he’s incredibly afraid that his identity might be revealed. Do you have a spare set of Guard armour?” Forest asked him, and Slate’s eyes lit up.

“That’s an amazing idea. If I get a set that casts the uniformity illusion on him, he’ll be free to move around without being recognised.” Slate muttered, a hoof to his chin. “Wait here. I’ll get it for you.”

As Slate left, Forest went back to Horizon, who was still hiding under his cloak.

“Arctic knows you’re here, apparently.” He said to Horizon, and the unicorn nodded in response.

Slate returned with the armour and Horizon quickly pulled on the chest and back pieces, slipped his hooves into the armoured shoes, and put the helmet on with his magic. The illusion flickered, and Horizon immediately vanished under the magically cast image of a white guard unicorn. Slate quickly explained to Horizon that his badge was identification and to just show it to anypony who asked.

Slate led them into the building and down the hallways to see Celestia. Forest was beginning to ask Slate why he was marrying a pony that he didn’t even know, when another pony marching through the hallway caused him to hop backwards before he bumped into them.

“Hope I’m not interrupting anything important.” The stallion scoffed, and Forest took a very hesitant step backwards next to Horizon as Slate broke out into a smile.

The new arrival was an alicorn, and Forest knew right away that this was Prince Arctic Aurora. He was a pure white, with blue tinted hooves and wings, and his mane and tail were both short and a pure icy blue that shimmered. He had a cutie mark of an incredibly detailed snowflake and ice shards, and his royal crown, armoured shoes and amulet glimmered a bright silver.

“Get back to work immediately, you low life.” Arctic Aura spat at Horizon, his face darkening as he noticed the ‘guard’ standing next to Forest.

“Arctic! Look, my brother Forest is here - the one I’ve told you all about.” Slate said in excitement to the white and blue stallion, who did not look impressed at all as he glanced Forest up and down. “And that’s Horizon there.” Slate pointed to the disguised unicorn, and Forest expected Arctic to at least smile or react, but the stallion was stone cold. He didn’t even flinch.

Horizon suddenly looked incredibly disturbed. Forest forced a grin at the unicorn, holding out a hoof in greeting. Arctic Aura ignored it, instead turning his attention to Horizon, who was still disguised as a Guard.

“Horizon. Uh huh.” Arctic Aura said slowly, detest on his voice as he then proceeded to shove past them both roughly so they both stumbled and went to Slate’s side, pressing up to him.

Slate responded by putting a hoof around Arctic’s neck and rubbing his cheek against his. Forest and Horizon both went slightly rigid for reasons Forest didn’t know, and he forced himself to remain calm.

“I have to get back to my station, Forest - but Arctic will be checking in on all of you to make sure everything’s going to plan.” Slate said, letting go of Arctic to put his helmet back on. “I think I speak for us both when I say how happy you’re all here.”

“Absolutely.” Arctic said, venom dripping on his voice as he gave them both a glare, but Slate didn’t seem to notice.

Later on, Forest was fuming and sulking as Chocolate galloped around the kitchen wildly. Horizon wasn’t speaking as he continued to make more and more ice sculptures in the corner. Forest was feeling incredibly grumpy and irritable as he sat there with his tick list because Slate - his kind, shy, wonderful friend - was marrying somepony who was vile. A brat, all stuck up with his glares and foul behaviour to not only Forest, but Horizon - his own brother -

“Cake! Check!” Chocolate called to him, sliding down the ladder she had propped out next to the massive eight tiered cake, still with a piping bag in her mouth.

Forest ticked it off with a lot more force than necessary, folding his arms in anger.

Chocolate galloped past him, pulling massive trays of canapes out of the oven. “Canapes - check!”

Forest ticked it off so hard it left blotchy ink down the paper and ground his teeth loudly, drooping his ears in anger even more.

“Best goddamn truffles you’ve ever tasted -” Chocolate snatched one off the tray and shoved it into Forest’s mouth.

“Mm - check!” He said around his mouthful as he ticked that one off too.

“‘I do! Do you?’” Forest heard Ember saying in play voices, seeing her sat on the counter with a cake statue of Slate and Prince Arctic in each claw. She was obviously just reenacting with them because she was bored. “‘I do!’”

Forest had had enough and took the cake statues off her. She laughed nervously, opening her wings and leaving the room sheepishly. The door opened and Forest turned to see who had turned up.

“Hi there, Prince!” Chocolate piped up, bowing so low her muzzle brushed the floor.

“Please, call me Prince Arctic Aurora.” The alicorn said in his snobbish voice, glaring at her and shooting another glare at Forest and Horizon (who was still disguised).

Forest deliberately went slowly and annoyingly into a bow, glaring at the ‘Prince’ as he stalked past both him and Horizon towards Chocolate.

“Hi there, Prince Arctic Aurora!” Chocolate piped up, not even reacting to the Prince’s tone of voice as she stayed in her bow.

Forest rolled his eyes in annoyance, glaring at the alicorn as he scowled down at the brown earth pony, but as she looked up, Arctic Aurora immediately forced a smile at her.

“Have you come to check on the food for your big day?” Chocolate asked him, and Arctic Aurora continued to pull that ugly fake smile.

“I have.” Arctic Aurora responded, and as Chocolate turned away to go to the counter, he followed her with a disgusted look of annoyance on his face.

Forest followed him with narrowed eyes, very angry towards this snobbish Prince. How on earth had such a vile pony possibly have done anything to earn an alicorn title? Horizon was stiffened and looked incredibly uncomfortable as he watched his brother stand behind Chocolate as she offered him the tray of truffles.

Arctic Aurora’s horn ignited a neon green as he picked up a truffle and ate it. Forest noticed how his face twisted bit and he forcibly swallowed it, forcing another disgusting fake grin on his face again.

“Delicious. I love them.” Arctic Aurora said in a fake voice, obviously lying right to Chocolate’s face.

Forest and Horizon were both watching him with fury on their faces. Horizon looked ready to stalk right up to Arctic Aurora and give him a piece of his mind as the Element of Honesty, but Arctic Aurora immediately noticed the “Guard” that was actually Horizon and told him loudly and rudely to get back to work.

“Here, why don’t you take a few to go?” Chocolate asked, passing Arctic Aurora a paper bag full of truffles. The alicorn took it in his teeth, curling his lip in distaste, but Chocolate didn’t seem to notice, although Forest and Horizon were both eyeing them up in horror. “You’re going to be so busy - might as well have a little snack if there’s no time for lunch -”

Chocolate got back to work and as Forest watched Arctic Aurora leave, his jaw dropped and he gasped in horror when the alicorn immediately tossed the paper bag in the trash can as he left. He exchanged a glance with Horizon to check he hadn’t imagined it, but Horizon looked just as horrified as Forest felt. Forest ground his teeth and stormed from the kitchen, followed quickly by Horizon as they trotted angrily towards where Lava and Solar were preparing the rooms for the ceremony and the reception.

“Oh, tell me I wasn’t the only pony who imagined how he acted back there.” Forest scoffed as the two ponies stalked into the room.

“I don’t know when he changed, but he changed.” Horizon said, fury and sorrow on his face.

“‘Please, call me Prince Arctic Aurora.’” Forest drawled in a fake and mocking voice as they walked past where Lava had Solar on his shoulders as the unicorn maneuvered banners around the ceiling with his horn.

“Did somepony say my name?” The alicorn announced accusingly, stalking into the room and flanked by the three flower ponies as Forest and Horizon immediately flinched.

“Ah! Prince!” Solar yelped, losing his balance and falling off Lava’s shoulders with a loud crash and an ‘oof’. “May I just say what an honour it is to play such a role in a momentous occasion like this one -”

“Yeah, whatever.” Arctic Aurora said, waving the unicorn off with disgust on his face. “Is the room ready?”

“Almost! Lava and I spent hours putting up all the banners, flowers and ribbons and moving all the ice sculptures around - I think you’ll be pleased with the results!” Solar piped up, flourishing a hoof at the room.

Forest thought they really had done an amazing job. It was stunning - Solar and Lava both definitely had an eye for colour and placement in order to make the throne room as aesthetically pleasing and beautiful as possible.  Arctic Aurora gave one glance and immediately wrinkled his muzzle in distaste.

“Make the flowers a different colour.” Arctic Aurora demanded, and Lava immediately nodded, writing that down in a notebook.

“Sure, of course!” Solar said cheerfully, like he wasn’t going to have to redo the entire room in order to make it all match.

“I like it.” One of the flower ponies said.

“Yeah, I think it’s wonderful -” Another one said, and Arctic Aurora whipped around to glare at them, and all three ponies immediately silenced.

“Make them a different colour.” He said snootily, before stalking right out.

Forest growled, grinding his teeth as Lava and Solar immediately started ripping down the flower arrangements they must have spent hours doing. “Jeez, maybe his name should be Prince Demandey-Pants.”

Forest noticed how Horizon did not respond, and only sagged his head in agreement. Forest glanced sympathetically at him, realising for the first time that Horizon had risked everything he’d worked for in Ponyville to be here for his brother, and Arctic Aurora hadn’t acknowledged him once since they’d arrived.

“I have to go.” Horizon muttered, vanishing around the corner after Arctic Aurora.

Forest watched him go, wondering where he had gone, when almost a few seconds after that, Horizon came back. He looked stiffer, like he didn’t know what he was doing at all, and the helmet was a little lopsided on his head, like he’d put it on hurridly.

“Are you okay?” Forest asked him, and Horizon shrugged.

“Absolutely okay.” Horizon responded, and Forest couldn’t help feeling suspicious at Horizon’s behaviour now.

He was lying. Forest was sure of it. And Horizon didn’t lie.

As the evening drew into night, Forest stormed out of the cafe the others were sat outside of with his drink of juice in his hoof and slamming it down on the table where the others (and Horizon sat in his guard disguise still) were talking and drinking their own beverages.

“I know what you’re all thinking. Prince Arctic Aurora is the worst groom-to-be ever.” He said with a scowl.

They all turned to look at him in shock. Horizon averted his gaze, looking incredibly uncomfortable.

“‘Who, me?’” Ember said in her fake, deep voice, lifting up the cake statue of Arctic Aurora in a claw.

“Ember! That’s supposed to be on the cake!” Chocolate said, taking it off him as she giggled nervously. “But whatever are you talking about, Forest? Arctic Aurora is an absolute sweetheart!”

“Did you know after he told you how much he loved your truffles he tossed them in the trash, Chocolate?” Forest shot at her, and Chocolate didn’t even flinch, only smiling.

“He probably didn’t know how to say no, Forest.” She smiled at him. “He might have just been full from breakfast.”

Forest glared, turning his attention to Lava and Solar. “And what about all those demands? Asking to change all the flowers after you’d just finished -”

“Hey, it’s his wedding. I can’t be angry at him for wanting everything to be perfect.” Solar shrugged, taking another sip from the straw in his glass.

“I agree.” Lava said, looking skeptically at Forest, who was beginning to fume now.

“No, he was just being fake and totally insincere!” Forest snapped, glaring at them all. “Horizon and Red - you’re both with me, right?”

“Sorry, Forest. I’ve been prepping for the rainboom all day - I haven’t had enough time to pay attention to him -” Red began, massaging away at a knot in his wing.

“Horizon - you saw it all!” Forest demanded, slamming both hooves down on the table. “He’s awful, right? He didn’t even say hi to you at all -”

Horizon’s eyes flickered. “I think he’s behaving like this because of stress.”

Forest’s jaw dropped as everypony exchanged judging looks of Forest’s insistence that Arctic Aurora was so awful.

“The Prince is about to get married. I’m sure any bad attitude he’s displaying is due to nerves.” Chocolate tried to reassure him, and Forest finally snapped.

“And I’m sure that it’s due to him being an awful pony who doesn’t even deserve to know Slate, let alone marry him!” Forest growled, standing on his back hooves and whacking a hoof on the table again so the glasses jumped.

“Are you sure you’re not being a tiny bit possessive of Slate?” Solar asked, and the other ponies nodded their heads slowly in agreement - even Ember. Horizon didn’t move.

“I am not being possessive! And I am not taking it out on Arctic!” Forest roared, glaring at all of them. “You’re all just so caught up in your wedding preparations to notice that there shouldn’t even be a wedding!” He finally blew his top, slamming a hoof down on the table so all the glasses fell over and spilt, before storming off.

He didn’t get very far before tears began running down his face and he decided he needed to talk to Slate now, face to face, before things got worse. He trotted down towards where the Captain lived in the palace and knocked on the door hesitantly. Slate answered it, beaming in delight when he recognised Forest.

“Forest! Do you like my outfit?” Slate asked, posing to show off his royal uniform for official events with a shining shield on the front. He suddenly trailed off, seeing Forest sagging his head with drooped ears. “Hey, what’s up?”

“We need to talk.” Forest blurted out, looking up at hi. “I think you’re making a big mis -”

“Ahem.” Arctic Aurora appeared at the top of the stairs, glaring down at them both.

“Oh, hey, Arctic.” Slate said as the alicorn made his way down the stairs.

Forest glared right back at him.

“Can I speak to you for a moment, dear?” Arctic Aurora asked in his snobbish and fake voice, before stalking into the other room.

“I’ll be right back.” Slate said to Forest before trotting after the alicorn and the door shut behind the two stallions.

It was slightly ajar and Forest, unable to resist, glanced through the crack to spy and see what was really going on.

“We need to talk.” Arctic Aurora said.

“I’m here to talk!” Slate protested.

“Just - listen to me -”

“And I’m here to listen -” Slate responded, and Forest visibly flinched at the sight of his golden-hearted friend starting to raise his voice.

“Listen. Now.” Arctic Aurora snapped, and Forest glared at him as Slate put his hoof down. “I thought I made it perfectly clear that I didn’t want you wearing that.”

“This belonged to my late grandfather.” Slate responded firmly, obviously talking about the shield decoration on his front.

“And?” Arctic Aurora scoffed, making Forest irrationally furious.

“And, I think I should wear it.” Slate shot back, raising his voice again.

“Are you disagreeing with me?” The alicorn narrowed his eyes, and Slate’s face went cold.

“I guess I am - agh!” Slate cried out as he threw a hoof to his head, eyes watering as he grunted and groaned in pain where his hoof was over his forehead.

He shuddered and strained, screwing his eyes together as Arctic Aurora took a step towards him. Slate glared at him with his teeth bared as he spasmed.

“Oh, sweetie, are you getting one of those headaches again?” Arctic Aurora said just as Slate collapsed to the floor, and his horn ignited green and shot a writhing ray of neon green light that hit Slate in the head at the base of his own horn.

Forest watched in horror as Slate’s eyes went green and they rolled around in his head as the magic from Arctic Aurora’s horn made him go limp. Forest was frozen as the alicorn stopped, finally pulling Slate to his hoove again.

“Feeling better?” Arctic Aurora asked him, and Slate’s eyes were still unfocused and glassy as he stood there like he was in a trance.

“Mhmm.” He muttered in a flat tone, his eyes blank.

“He’s not just awful and rude - he’s downright evil!” Forest gasped, before whipping around and cantering out of the house in terror.

He flew in a panic back to where the others were staying. His movement alarmed Luna, who was on guard on the highest turret.

“Stay indoors, Forest Flash.” He heard Luna call as he slammed open the door.

“Slate’s in real trouble - we have to help -” He managed to choke out, and his jaw suddenly dropped when he saw Chocolate, Solar and Red fussing over their younger siblings as the Crusaders made noises of delight at their new outfits.

“What are you -” He choked out, before Crimson trotted over to him with delight on his little face as he strutted around in his white and ice blue suit.

“Can you believe it, Forest? Prince Arctic Aurora asked me and the Crusaders to be his new flower ponies!” Crimson squeaked, and Summer and Coffee made yowls of delight as they hopped around in excitement.

“New flower ponies?! What happened to his old flower ponies?!” Forest yelped, but his words fell upon deaf ears as Chocolate smiled, brushing her brother’s mane down.

“How kind of him, huh? Asking these three little ponies to do such an important job - maybe you’ll get your cutie marks in petal scattering.” Chocolate said to her brother.

“And you had your doubts about him, Forest.” Red grinned at him as Forest stood there with his jaw open and eyes wide.

Horizon didn’t move from where he was in the corner of the room. “Arctic Aurora hasn’t done anything wrong, Forest. Just - leave him alone. Now.”

Forest walked out with his head down. “Looks like I really am on my own.”

The next morning, Forest was watching the rehearsal for the wedding through the window, not caring that he was supposed to be in there with them. His friends were lined up in the front row with massive grins on their faces, aside from Horizon, who hadn't even turned up, to Forest's confusion.

The Crusaders hopped down the aisle, tossing imaginary petals as Celestia praised them.

“Perfect, just like that.” Celestia said where she was at the end with Slate and Ember, before turning her attention towards the door. “And then, Prince Arctic will enter.”

The two guards' horn glowed, taking a handle for each door and opening them to reveal the Prince. Forest scowled as he watched the alicorn walk down the aisle to the end, and stand face to face with Slate, with the two unicorns affectionately rubbing their horns together. He couldn’t help his blood from boiling at seeing the joy and adoration in Slate’s eyes.

“I’ll say a few words, and then we’ll start the vows.” Celestia explained to them all. “Slate Cyclone, you will receive the rings from your best stallion -”

They glanced behind, seeing that Forest wasn’t there. Ember shrugged, still with the cushion she was going to carry the rings in as the ring bearer.

“Has anypony seen Forest?” Slate asked, and Forest finally emerged from the doors, fury on his face.

“I’m here. But I’m not standing near him!” He spat, pointing an accusing hoof at Arctic Aurora. “And neither should you, Slate!”

His friends gasped in horror, and Celestia looked shocked as Forest set his shoulders and snorted aggressively.

Slate flinched, his ears flattening to his skull as Arctic Aurora glared at him. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why he’s acting like that -”

“Maybe we should just ignore him.” The alicorn spat, glaring at Forest.

“Shut up! I have something to say, and I’m not afraid to say it in front of you all.” Forest stalked up to the thrones, and pointed a hoof at Arctic Aurora. “He’s evil!”

His friends suddenly started babbling in shock as Arctic Aurora took a step back, and Slate looked furious, moving his body so he was in between Forest and Arctic

“He’s been downright disgusting to my friends -” Forest spat, flying over to the alicorn and appearing behind him as he hesitantly began backing away from him. “He’s obviously done something with his flower ponies -”

Arctic Aurora was backing away, a grimace of horror on his face as Forest continued to aggressively push him towards the wall. “And if that wasn’t enough, I saw him put a spell on Slate that made his eyes roll around in his head and collapse!”

Arctic Aurora forced a grin at the horrified ponies before it quickly fell off his face when Forest pushed his muzzle into his face with an accusing smile that said ‘I know exactly what you’ve done.’ Arctic Aurora began tearing up and pushed him away, and Forest grinned triumphantly.

“Why are you doing this to me?” He sobbed, before galloping out of the hall as Forest chased him.

“Because you’re evil! Evil!” He yelled after him, shaking a hoof at the alicorn as he vanished with loud cries. “And if I don’t stop you you’re going to ruin Slate’s life!”

Lava, Red, Chocolate and Solar’s mouths were all open in horror as they gazed at him with wide eyes. Forest whipped around triumphantly and began trotting back inside, but bumped into Slate, falling back on his rump. His blood ran cold when Slate towered over him, fury on his face.

“You want to know why my eyes rolled in my head?” Slate spat, glaring at him. “It’s because ever since I had to start casting that force field, I’ve been getting terrible migraines. Arctic hasn’t been casting spells on me - he’s been using his magic to heal me!”

Forest’s tongue was twisted as he tried to say something, but Slate beat him to it.

“And he replaced the flower ponies because the only reason they wanted to go to the wedding was to meet Canterlot royalty!” Slate snarled, pacing rapidly around Forest as he sat there numbly on the floor as his friends watched on in horror.

“And if he hasn’t had the best attitude around your friends, it’s because of me being so busy that he’s had to make all the decisions about the wedding!” Slate shrieked in fury, pacing around Forest furiously as he began tearing up.

“I- I was just -” Forest choked up, but Slate interrupted again, rearing and slamming his front hooves onto the ground in pure anger, making a loud cracking noise.

“He’s completely stressed out because it’s so important to us that this wedding is perfect!” Slate roared, pushing his muzzle into Forest’s face. “Something that obviously wasn’t important to you.” He bared his teeth in fury as Forest flinched back, and Slate suddenly gasped, his eyes screwing shut as his hoof flitted to his head in pain.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me - I have to go and find my fiance.” Slate spat, storming off as tears ran down Forest’s face. He stopped and turned back to Forest just before he left. “You can forget about being best stallion. In fact, if I were you -” Slate turned away and disappeared. “I wouldn’t show up to the wedding at all.”

Forest sagged his head in defeat as tears ran down his face, and reached out lamely to the back of his friends as they trotted past him without even acknowledging him.

“Ember.” He whispered, and she didn’t look at him as she sat on Lava’s back as the stallion and the rest of his friends ignored him and left the room.

Celestia walked past them.

“I - I was -” He began saying, before she immediately interrupted with a stone cold face.

“You have a lot to think about.” She said, and the fury and complete disappointment in her voice made Forest’s legs collapse as he fell to the floor, tears running over his hooves.

The doors slammed shut, and Forest was left alone in the room.

“Maybe I was being possessive.” Forest whispered to himself, crawling up to the steps and lying on them as shame and grief wracked his body. “I could have gained a brother - but I just lost two.”

Hoofsteps made him look up, and he saw Horizon approaching him and taking his helmet off so the illusion vanished.

“Horizon.” Forest breathed, and he walked up the steps next to him. “I’m sorry.”

Horizon gazed at him for a few seconds longer, before both eyes flashed a neon green and Horizon vanished with a burst of green magic, Arctic Aurora taking his place instead but with those same, evil green eyes.

“You will be.” Arctic Aurora hissed, his horn exploding into green magic that sparked and spluttered.

Forest opened his wings in terror to fly away, but the green fire surrounded him and began pressing down on him so he was gasping for air as the heat of it burned him and compressed his body into the floor.

As the Horizon-that-wasn’t-Horizon walked away in the body of Arctic Aurora, Forest’s last panicked thoughts before he blacked out were:

WHERE IS HORIZON?

Chapter Text

Forest grunted, his eyes rolling in his head as his vision swam. He had to swallow hard several times, still resting his face down on a hard surface, to try and stop himself from being sick. There was a soft red glow that was edging through his eyelids as he tried to move, but aside from that, it was pitch black.

“Easy. Take it slow.” A low voice said, and Forest’s eyes snapped open when he recognised it.

“Horizon?” He managed to slur, and a gentle hoof at his back helped him prop up slightly so he was off the hard floor.

“It’s okay, Forest. It’s me. The real me.” Horizon added with fury on his voice as Forest finally managed to focus on his face.

Horizon’s horn was glowing with a soft light that was keeping his features illuminated, and Forest finally remembered what had happened. That Horizon who had approached him was Arctic Aura in disguise. He’d known all along that the alicorn had had malicious intentions - and just when he was doubting himself, he’d been proven right. And nopony knew at all -

“What was it I said to you after I read Crimson’s letter to you a few weeks ago?” Forest demanded to him, narrowing his eyes in suspicion, and Horizon’s eyes flickered.

“You said that ‘that colt is going to replace you as Honesty if you’re not careful, Horizon.’” Horizon recited, and Forest visibly sagged in relief, wobbling to his hooves in the dark and cold room they were in.

“Thank Celestia it’s you.” Forest breathed, and Horizon propped him up gently with a shoulder as he shuddered on his still shaking hooves. “Arctic Aurora sent me down here after I accused him of putting spells on Slate - and I thought it was me being possessive at first, but now I know it was true all along -”

“I’ve been down here since yesterday morning.” Horizon explained to him, narrowing his eyes. “After Arctic ordered Solar and Lava to redo the room, after I left you to confront him, he sent me down here -”

Forest’s eyes widened. “I thought your behaviour was strange after that - he was pretending to be you! And then after that I never saw you or Arctic in the same room together -”

“Damn it!” Horizon swore, slamming a hoof on the ground. “I knew something was wrong from the second I saw him. He didn’t recognise my name at all when Slate told him -”

They both flinched with grimaces as Arctic’s echoing, evil laughter bounced faintly around the room.

“Has Arctic’s behaviour been unlike him? This entire time?” Forest asked him, and Horizon sighed, dipping his head.

“He has a heart of gold. He’s so cheerful it’s incredibly irritating but it’s contagious and there’s nopony who can spend time with him without smiling. He was kind to me when nopony else was.” Horizon looked up. “That cold, horrible pony up there wasn’t him.”

“He’s sending ponies who figure that out down here so we can’t tell anypony -” Forest muttered, glancing around and squinting to try and decipher their surroundings. “Where are we?”

“The caves beneath Canterlot.” A green tinted image of Arctic Aurora appeared on the walls, shattered and broken by the gems the image was reflected upon. “Once home to greedy unicorns who wanted to claim the gems that could be found inside.”

Horizon and Forest shrank back with gasps. Forest cowered back in fear as Arctic’s green eyes flashed at them, and Horizon’s horn pulsed as he took a step in front of Forest to shield him with his body.

“And now -” Arctic’s image vanished as the two ponies took a step back, their eyes darting around in terror, before it reappeared in the crystal wall behind them, making them both gasp and shoot away again. “- your prison.”

“Can anypony hear us?” Horizon called, his voice shaking slightly.

“It’s no use. Nopony will hear you - and nopony will think to look for you two either.” Arctic’s echoing voice cackled as his shattered image appeared on the gems in front of them. “The jealous foalhood friend and the disowned brother - it’s just perfect!”

“Shut up! We’ll find a way out -” Forest began spitting, but Arctic’s image immediately flashed up on the floor under his hooves, his face twisted into a grin of malice.

“Most ponies have forgotten these caves even exist. They’re miles below Canterlot - which is why they are the ideal place to keep those who interfere with my plans.” Arctic narrowed his eyes with a grin before he exploded into cruel, echoing laughter again.

“What plans?” Horizon shot at the evil stallion as his image vanished from the crystal floor again.

Arctic’s image reappeared, twisted and shattered by the distorted crystal walls of the cave. “The plans I have for your brother, of course.” His eyes flashed a bright green as he glanced at Forest and Horizon in turn. “Both of them.”

Horizon and Forest immediately gaped in horror when they realised Arctic - this fake Arctic - meant both Slate and the real Arctic. Horizon’s face went cold, before it twisted in a fury Forest had never believed was possible for him.

“Don’t you lay a hoof on Arctic, you monster!” Horizon howled, his horn glowing brighter and spitting white sparks as he snorted through his nose and pawed his hooves on the ground. Forest tensed his body in fury too, opening his wings and spreading his hooves as the Arctic image cackled on the opposite wall.

“Only way to stop me is to catch me!” Arctic cackled, vanishing from the wall and showing only Forest and Horizon’s faces reflected tens of times in the crystal surfaces.

“Over here!” Arctic taunted from the opposite side of the cave, and Horizon roared, shooting a red beam of magic at the crystal.

Arctic’s image vanished with loud, hysterical laughs just before Horizon’s spell hit it, and it immediately bounced off the wall and began shooting around the cave randomly as both ponies flinched and ducked it.

“Nope.” Arctic giggled with narrowed eyes, appearing under their feet before vanishing again. “Over here.”

Forest opened his wings and shot at him, only smashing through the crystal shards with his hooves, but Arctic vanished again with loud, cruel laughter. He kept reappearing randomly, still cackling and finding the whole thing incredibly amusing as Horizon continued to shoot magic at the crystals and Forest flew at them, but Arctic was incredibly fast and only disappeared again.

He’s toying with us, Forest realised, and landed next to Horizon as his horn glowed a bright white and his face twisted in fury, and they both immediately charged at the wall when Arctic reappeared, Horizon’s magic smashing right through the wall and Forest’s hooves breaking through as he flew at it.

Arctic vanished as they skidded to a stop with heavy breaths, still baring their teeth in fury as Horizon snorted loudly, his horn still spilling sparks as the dust cleared and light suddenly began streaming into the dark cave. The debris finally cleared and both ponies made growling noises, preparing to attack again when they saw Arctic fall to the floor, coughing and wiping at his eyes as he pushed his tangled mane out of his face.

“No! Wait!” Arctic yelped in sudden terror as Horizon roared, leaping for him.

Arctic waved his hooves in surrender and tried to scuttle away, but Horizon grabbed him, pinning him down firmly and standing over him with his horn still glowing and spitting sparks. Arctic finally cracked open an eye, before his face softened in recognition and a smile edged onto his face.

“Horizon! It’s me!” Arctic began pleading with him, and Horizon only made a growling noise, tightening his restraint on the alicorn.

“Don’t trust him, Horizon -” Forest began saying to him, flying over to the two.

“Hey - come on, Horizon, buddy.” Arctic was saying breathlessly, still coughing and trying to breathe past the dust in the air. “I’ve been trapped here for weeks now - that other Arctic is an imposter -”

“Prove it.” Horizon spat, curling his lip as he pushed his muzzle into Arctic’s face so he flinched.

“Remember when you and I would try to get away from dad? And we’d hide in the Castle of the Two Sisters and always play hide and seek and I’d always pretend I couldn’t find you because you really, really sucked at hiding -” Arctic began saying in a fast paced whisper, and Forest watched as Horizon’s eyes widened and his grip loosened slightly, but Arctic kept talking. “- and even though you hated flying I always tried to pick you up and carry you but you were an incredibly heavy little colt - and - and - you loved noodles and I remember you ate so much you got so physically sick -”

Horizon let him go, standing back with a sudden flicker of joy in his eyes. “It’s you - it’s really you -”

Arctic got to his hooves and embraced him quickly, a sigh escaping his lips. Forest folded his wings and finally relaxed, smiling as Horizon made a noise of surprise, but accepted the affection without complaining. This Arctic - the real Arctic - was absolutely covered in dust and filth and his mane, tail and feathers were incredibly ragged and tangled. It really did indicate that he’d been down here for a while. Forest saw that Arctic’s royal armoured shoes were dented and worn down, like he’d been scratching away at walls to dig through for days now.

All three ponies immediately glanced up with widened eyes of fury and horror when they heard Arctic - the fake Arctic’s - loud, cruel laughter echoing down the cave in the distance. Arctic let go of Horizon and wobbled to his hooves with despair edging into his grey eyes.

“How long was I out for?” Forest suddenly demanded to Horizon, who turned to face him.

“Almost nine hours after that fake sent you to the cave -” Horizon said, and Forest’s jaw dropped.

“Nine hours? But - when he sent me here it was the evening -” He swallowed hard, his throat tightening. “-before the wedding.”

“But - that means the wedding’s in a few hours!” Arctic said in horror, leaping to his hooves.

“We have to stop him! Come on!” Forest yelled, whipping around to see that his and Horizon’s attack on the walls of the cave had caused another wall to shatter, revealing a maze of tunnels outside of the caves they’d been trapped in.

Forest opened his wings and began shooting down the main hall with Horizon and Arctic cantering right behind his heels as the fake Arctic’s howls of laughter kept echoing down all the tunnels. Arctic was muttering to himself in despair as Forest kept doing flybys of all the tunnels and coming back with dead ends.

“This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.” Arctic mumbled, and Horizon helped him sit down as Forest flew back, landing beside the hysterical alicorn.

“We’ve got to find a way out.” Forest said, panting heavily as he folded his wings.

“There is no way out!” Arctic said, his face suddenly crumpling as tears ran down his face. “I’ve tried for weeks now -”

“There!” Horizon called, pointing with a hoof as a glimmer of light blinked in the distance. “That’s sunlight -”

“Quick! We don’t have much time!” Forest called, and as they cantered towards it, they immediately skidded to a stop when the ground fell away into a dark abyss.

“The fake Arctic said that these caves were once gem mines.” Horizon recalled, lighting up his horn as he began scouring the edge. “Look -”

He pointed to where there was an old, abandoned mine cart, weighed down with rocks as the tracks creaked ominously. Forest swallowed, suddenly feeling uncomfortable, but Arctic cantered past them both, scrabbling away at the debris with his bare hooves in desperate, raw panic. The two watched him with wide eyes, but Arctic sobbed loudly, his horn fizzing and barely lighting up as he tried to move the rocks, before he fell back on his haunches. He was obviously incredibly weak from being down here for so long, Forest realised.

“I need to get to him.” Arctic whispered, making one last effort to lift the rocks with his magic, but his horn made another noise like a flame being doused in water, and he sobbed again. “I love him - I can’t lose him -”

Horizon and Forest immediately began trotting over to start clearing the rocks. Horizon’s horn ignited as he lifted Arctic’s body and put him in the cart as he tossed away the rest of the debris, and Forest used his hooves to scrabble away at the track to clear away anything else that was blocking the way.

“Get in.” Forest ordered Horizon, before he planted both hooves on the cartand began heaving and pushing away with his back legs to try and get the cart to shift.

It squeaked, and Forest gasped, opening his wings and pushing again with his legs and flappign to try and get more force, and the cart’s wheels finally uncaught from the track and it shot down the track.

Forest screeched, barely holding onto the edge of the cart as it zipped up and down, and around in loops. It sped up as it reached a peak, before shooting down so fast it made Forest’s eyes water. Horizon made a sudden noise of anxiety as Forest gasped, still flapping behind the cart like a limp rag.

“Um - Forest. The track ends -” Horizon began shouting past the noise of the wheels, and Forest barely had time to react when it hit the barrier on the end of the track.

They screamed as they were flung into the air, and Forest opened his wings on instinct, seeing that they were above another abyss in the caves that must have been mined down to oblivion, since they were so dark that they could barely see the bottom. Horizon was flailing around as his body reached full peak of the force from the mine cart flinging them, and Forest grabbed him by one front leg. Arctic opened his white and blue massive wings and snatched Horizon’s other leg, and with what seemed to be the last of his strength, helped Forest pull Horizon over to a ledge of rock in the side of the cave.

Arctic made a muttering noise as he tottered, obviously near to passing out, and Forest grabbed him and made him sit down as Horizon helped him. They all made noises of horror when they heard the royal fanfare and bells in the background, incredibly muffled as they looked up at the ceiling of the cave.

“No! The wedding - we’re not going to make it!” Arctic wailed, horror in his eyes as he wobbled to his hooves and began scrabbling at the solid walls with his hooves again.

“Slate’s going to marry a fake.” Forest breathed in terror, and they all craned their necks up to the jagged gem ceiling when they heard Celestia’s voice. “We must be below the throne room -”

“Mares and stallions, we are gathered here today to witness the union of Prince Arctic Aurora and Captain Slate Cyclone…”   Celestia said, her voice muffled from the many

Forest cursed, hearing Celestia beginning the wedding, before turning back to Horizon. “There has to be a way out -”

“I don’t know -” Horizon began saying, turning away to squint out over the ledge, before his eyes widened when he pointed to the opposite ledge. “There! There’s the light again -”

Forest gasped, whipping around to look where he was pointing, and there was a gap in the rocks spilling sunlight that made the gems surrounding it glisten. That was their way out, he just knew it.

“How do we get there? I can’t carry you and Arctic -” Forest muttered in terror, and Horizon’s eyes suddenly lit up.

“I have an idea - fly over and wait for us - we don’t have enough time.” Horizon ordered him, and Forest nodded.

He opened his wings and quickly flew to the ledge, but no sooner had he planted all four hooves on it, did three pairs of glowing green eyes snap into existence, approaching him as they slunk out of the darkness. He gasped in horror and took a step back, feeling his hooves on the edge of the ledge knock a few fragments of cave gem down into the abyss.

“You’re not going anywhere.” The slurred, monotone voice of the ponies rumbled, and Forest immediately recognised the fake Arctic’s three flower ponies - the ones he’d swapped out for the Crusaders.

He didn’t have enough time to realise he’d been right about fake Arctic’s intentions with his old flower ponies, because they were aggressively walking towards him with their glowing, hypnotised eyes which were obviously under the power of fake Arctic’s neon green, evil magic.

“H - Horizon!” Forest yelled in terror, his voice cracking as the horn of one of the hypnotised flower ponies ignited, and just as he thought he was going to have to open his wings and fly to safety, there was a bright red teleporting flash, and Horizon appeared alongside Arctic.

Arctic’s eyes widened and he immediately took a step in front of Horizon and Forest, separating them from the enchanted ponies. Horizon watched when Arctic’s face set, and he forced a cold gaze onto it and twisted his face in fury.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Arctic spat, and Forest flinched when he realised how much like the fake Arctic he sounded like - and it seemed to be working on the flower ponies too, as they immediately hesitated and looked up at him with glowing green eyes. “You have one job, and that is to scatter flowers!”

Arctic’s horn glowed weakly for a second as he used it to pick up some cave flowers that were growing in the cracks of the ledge and passed them to the hypnotised ponies. “Get back to it immediately.”

“Yes, sir.” The ponies slurred as they moved past them and began heading back deeper into the cave, tossing petals behind them as they went.

Arctic stumbled, having to catch his breath as the evil look fell off his face and he winced from having to use his magic when he was already so weak. Horizon went to help him stand up, but Arctic waved him off.

“No time - we have to hurry.” Arctic said, wobbling on unsteady hooves as they clambered out of the tunnel.

The sunlight burnt Forest’s eyes and he had to blink rapidly so they adjusted to it, but as he was cantering towards the throne room (they’d emerged under a drain outside of the castle), he gasped in shock and frustration when he saw that Arctic could barely walk and it was taking too long for Horizon to help him walk.

“Forest, you need to stop the wedding.” Horizon said to him with a grim determination on his face. “It’s going to take too long for us to get there together - by then it’ll be too late.”

“Okay. Meet me there.” Forest answered, immediately opening his wings and shooting into the b=castle, ignoring the calls from the guards telling him to stop.

As he flew through the halls, he saw the doors of the throne room shut, and the guards next to it recognised him as he landed. Celestia began talking on the other side of the room, and Forest’s jaw dropped, because they were almost out of time.

“Prince Arctic Aurora and Captain Slate Cyclone, it is with great pleasure that I pronounce you -”

“STOP!” Forest howled, pushing past the guards and flying into the door at full speed so it opened with a smash.

As he landed, breathing heavily, the Arctic standing next to Celestia’s jaw dropped, narrowing his eyes as he recognised Forest. Celestia looked horrified, and the crowd gasped in shock. Forest glared, tensing and spreading his hooves as even the Crusaders and his friends looked at him with horror on their faces. Ember had so much disappointment on her face it made Forest internally cringe, but he stood his ground, knowing he could prove it all once Horizon got here.

Slate glanced blankly ahead, not flinching. Forest swallowed hard when he saw that telltale green tint on Slate’s eyes and the massive bags under his eyes as he stood there stone still like a zombie.

“Why does he have to be so possessive of Slate?” The fake Arctic snapped, his face darkening in fury, before he realised that was the wrong reaction, and his face immediately crumpled. “Why does he have to ruin my wedding?” He began sobbing loudly, and Forest glared, not sure how he was going to convince the room that he was right - he’d been right all along, when Horizon pulled alongside him.

“Because it’s not your wedding, it’s mine!” The real Arctic snapped, fury on his face as he stepped in front of Forest. His knees were still trembling in exhaustion, but the prince stood his ground as the crowd gasped even louder in shock, and even Celestia made a noise as she took a step back.

The fake Arctic’s face twisted in fury. “What?! How did you escape the caves?”

“That’s not important. What matters is that we’re here to stop you.” Horizon said coldly, his face void of emotion as his eyes flashed.

“You’re still too late.” Fake Arctic spat, flaring his wings as his face twisted up further.

Chocolate shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t understand! How are there two Prince Arctics?”

“He’s a changeling.” Arctic said, glaring at his furious doppelganger. “He takes the form of somepony you love and gains power by feeding off your love for them.”

The crowd began muttering in disbelief, and Forest flattened his ears. He’d never heard of them before - which was incredibly strange, considering how Celestia had taught him about almost every exotic creature she knew of - but this seemed to be a shock to even her, Forest realised, as he saw the Princess stiffen.

Fake Arctic’s eyes and horn glowed a bright green as his face twisted in fury, and suddenly a bright green ring of fire encircled him as he tensed, arching his back and flaring his wings as it engulfed him in a column of bright burning, neon green light. The ponies gasped, and Forest’s friends yelped and cantered away from it as the fire cast green light across the entire room. The fake Arctic opened his wings as they shattered and crumbled, revealing ragged, bug like green transparent wings, and his white coat melted away to reveal dark skin. His pristine hooves vanished, showing long, dark legs which looked like they were moth-eaten and broken, with holes passing all the way through the limbs so that Forest could see right through them. Ragged, teal mane whipped through as the fire melted away the rest of Arctic’s white coat, and finally, his white horn twisted into a jagged and twisted black one.

Green, slitted eyes snapped open, and the changeling cackled, her voice echoing as she bared her fangs and flapped her bug-like wings as she landed on her moth-eaten hooves.

“Right you are, Prince.” The female changeling hissed, her forked tongue darting out from between her lips as she slunk down the stairs of the throne room towards them. “And as Queen Chrysalis of the changelings, it is up to me to find food for my subjects.” Her eyes flashed as her hollow hooves echoed on the floor of the throne room. “Equestria has more love than any place I have ever encountered. My changelings will be able to devour so much of it that we shall gain more power than we could ever dream of!”

“They’ll never get the chance! Slate Cyclone’s protection spell will keep them from reaching us!” Arctic spat, pushing his muzzle into the queen’s face.

Chrysalis chuckled, putting a hoof to her chin. “Oh, I doubt that. Isn’t that right, dear?”

She turned back to where Slate was still stood unblinking and unmoving at the end of the throne room, and her twisted horn ignited a bright green.

“Mhmm.” Slate muttered, his eyes unfocused and glowing a bright green as Chrysalis jerked his head up and down with her magic.

Arctic stiffened and began cantering towards him, but Chrysalis planted a hoof in front of him.

“Ah ah ah! Don’t want to go back to the caves, do you?” She spat, her horn glowing again, and Arctic hesitantly took a step back again. “Ever since I took your place, I have been feeding off his love for you. Every minute, he and his spell grows weaker, and I grow stronger. Even now my hive is chipping away at this pathetic force field.” She indicated outside, where Forest flinched at seeing thousands of swarms of changelings biting and slashing away at the spell, which was now weakly pulsing.

Chrysalis ran a hoof under Slate’s chin, forcibly turning his limp body so she caressed him gently. “Slate may not be my husband, but he is under my complete control - and unable to complete his duties as captain of the Royal Guard.” She finished her sentence with a hiss, fluttering her bug-like wings as she bared her fangs.

“Slate!” Arctic called to him in horror as tears of despair welled in his eyes, but Slate remained limp and unmoving, with his eyes blank.

“Once we break through the spell, we will take Canterlot, and then, we will take all of Equestria!” Chrysalis cackled, flapping her wings and throwing her front legs into the air in victory.

“No. You won’t.” Forest gasped and Chrysalis immediately scowled and bared her teeth when Celestia stepped forward, fury on her face that Forest had never seen before on the Princess and hoped he would never see again.

“You may have made it impossible for Slate Cyclone to perform his spell, but now you have so foolishly revealed your true self -” Celestia lunged forwards, locking horns with Chrysalis as the two mares scowled and bared their teeth in fury. “I can protect my subjects - from you!”

She reared back, opening her massive white wings as her horn exploded into bright golden light and she shot a beam of pure white at Chrysalis. Chrysalis reacted, shooting a green one back, and as the coloured spells collided, Chrysalis screamed in agony as Celestia began powering hers down towards Chrysalis’s horn. The evil queen squeezed her eyes shut, but as she pushed back, the green spell began shooting incredibly fast back towards Celestia. The princess’ eyes widened in horror, and there was a bright green flash that made Forest throw a hoof over his eyes.

Celestia’s crown flew through the air, and her body hit the floor with an echoing thud as her blackened horn smoked and her mane stopped flowing. The crown made an empty clatter as it landed next to her. The crowd began screaming in horror.

“Celestia!” Forest shrieked, opening his wings and flying over to her as Horizon and the rest of his friends joint him.

“Ah! Slate Cyclone’s love for you is stronger than I thought.” The queen hissed, rearing back as she glared triumphantly at Arctic. “Consuming it has made me more powerful than Celestia!”

“The Elements of Harmony.” Celestia managed to choke out to Forest as he propped her up with a hoof, her voice incredibly weak as she fought to keep her head up. “It’s the only way to defeat Chrysalis.”

“Forest -” Red began saying, a pained expression on his face and the rest of the ponies. “We’re so sorry -”

“There’s no time for that now. It can wait.” Forest said, resting Celestia’s head back down on the floor. “We have to hurry - come on!”

The ponies pulled their ties off and Chocolate tossed her dress behind her as the six ponies immediately cantered out of the throne room. Arctic wobbled over to Celestia to help her as Chrysalis buzzed after them with loud cackles.

“You can run, but you can’t hide!” She howled after them, and Forest gulped when he glanced up to see swarms of changelings hissing and buzzing around the outside of the forcefield.

As they cantered, the changelings began smashing their skulls against the shield, and Forest visibly grimaced when he saw the shield crack from the force. The repeated bashing was making the force field split and crack further, and the changelings retreated, before all slamming against it at once. The shield made an almighty crack, before it began shattering in tiny shards that rained over them. Forest and the ponies stopped for a second as their jaws dropped in horror and debris rained down on them, but quickly resumed running when the changelings began shooting down like comets. Their spiked horns glowed, making their shooting bodies glow bright green, before they slammed into the ground around them, hissing and spitting as they climbed out of the craters in the paths and roads they’d made.

They kept having to dodge the swarms of changelings trying to slam into them, weaving around them with panicked gasps. One landed right in front of Forest with a hiss, baring its disgusting long fangs, and Lava yelled, rearing up and slamming his front hooves down on its skull and treading over it. But as they galloped up the stairs leading to the building where the Elements of Harmony were kept, they all immediately skidded to a stop when lines and lines of changelings hissed and bared their teeth, blocking their way to the building.

“Looks like we’re going to do this the hard way.” Red spat, opening his wings and lunging forward, but immediately stopping when he came face to face with himself.

He lifted a hoof in surprise, and the copy did the same. He put the hoof down and narrowed his eyes, leaning in to get a better look, and the copy of Red finally opened its wings and broke the mirroring, ramming him with its skull and sending Red flying. He tumbled to Forest’s feet.

“What the -” Was all Red managed to get in, before a row of changelings began flashing green and their dark, bug like forms vanished to replicate Red perfectly in all ways, except for the evil sneers they had on their faces.

The others gasped in horror when the other changelings swiftly followed suit, disguising themselves as all of them. Lava, Solar, Chocolate, Red, Horizon - and there were Forest replicas too, which was making him incredibly uncomfortable. They froze, suddenly faced with glaring and sneering versions of themselves.

“They’re changelings, remember?” Forest said with a gasp.

“They’re changelings, remember?” Five Forests said in his voice in a very unsettling chorus, before smirking as Red choked on his own tongue.

“I don’t like this.” Solar said, flattening his ears as three versions of himself began sneaking aggressively towards him with malice on their faces.

“Don’t let them distract you - we have to get to the Elements.” Forest said, tensing and opening his wings.

The six ponies attacked with a roar, and Forest launched himself towards another version of himself, screeching as he kicked the changeling and slammed its skull into the ground with both hooves. Lava roared, mowing down changelings with his head so they went flying. As Red shot around, mostly attacking versions of himself, Forest gasped to see Red completely outnumbered by four Chocolates, and he tried to get over to help him, but a Solar attacked him, pinning him to the ground.

As he watched the four Chocolates rear up, Red opened his wings for attack, but the Chocolate on the end suddenly smiled, and kicked two of the others with her back legs, and punched the other one in the jaw, and the changeling was out cold, collapsing to the ground. Forest sagged in relief seeing Chocolate helping Red up before the three immediately launched themselves back into battle.

Forest reared, shaking his body and bucking and kicking until the Solar copy lost its grip and fell to the ground. Forest closed his eyes when he went to kick it in the head, having to keep telling himself it wasn’t Solar and he was only hurting the copy. His hooves collided, and when he opened his eyes, he let out a breath of relief when the illusion flickered off, revealing the changeling (which was out cold from the kick).

Solar backed up and went back to back with Lava, his horn glowing gold with sparks as he prepared to zap some more changelings, and he screeched when the Lava illusion vanished to reveal that he was actually back to back with a fake.

“Okay. This is incredibly weird.” Solar grimaced, recoiling and hitting the changeling with a pulse of sparks so it spasmed and collapsed, before he was promptly covered by a massive pile of more Solar copies.

Red wasn’t hesitating attacking his own copies, but Forest was noticing how he was deliberately avoiding fighting the Lava copies, as if he was afraid of hurting the real one. Forest gulped as five Horizons began galloping aggressively towards him with loud screeches, and he found his hooves glued to the ground. He tensed, ready for impact, when a red beam of magic began shooting down the attacking Horizons one by one so their illusions flickered off, revealing dazed and beaten changelings.

The real Horizon hopped next to him, his horn glowing still as he whipped around, still shooting the spell at the other fakes. He began picking off the Solar copies who were still attacking the real one underneath, and there was a second where Horizon had picked up a Solar, which was wriggling upside down with noises of anxiety.

“Real me! Real me!” Solar yelped, and Horizon immediately put him back down on his hooves when the spell didn’t work.

“This isn’t working - it’s taking us too long to try and figure out who to fight.” Forest muttered, and Horizon suddenly made a noise of realisation.

“Here.” Horizon’s horn glowed and he summoned some red ribbon, and hastily handed strands to each of them. “Put them around your neck or something -”

Forest grabbed a ribbon and knotted it around his neck, and Solar followed suit. Horizon tossed the ribbons to the real Red and Chocolate, who were still attacking the changelings together. The real Lava cantered past them through the battle, and after Horizon cast the spell to make sure it really was him, he used his magic to put the ribbon around his neck too.

With the markers indicating who was who, the ponies could immediately figure out who was who as they fought. No ribbon meant immediate attack, but having to punch Horizon in the face wasn’t getting any easier for Forest, even if it wasn’t really him, and he had to stop for a second, feeling his heart beat in anxiety as he couldn’t help a memory flitting past his vision of himself - Izuku - pulling his fist back and punching Todoroki across the jaw so hard blood started running through his teeth.

He shook his head to clear it before he became useless and panicked, but it was too late and he cried out when a Chocolate copy leapt onto his back, closing her hooves around his neck and starting to suffocate him. He tried to buck her off but her grip was too tight, and it was only when Red swooped by and slammed into her so she went flying with a hiss.

“Forest? Are you okay?” Red asked him, and Forest had to swallow hard to reign in the panic before trying to speak.

“Yeah - look! There’s a gap! Quick, we have to get to the Elements -” He pointed, and the six ponies with ribbons on began weaving around the defeated changelings to get to the door.

More changelings began buzzing in from behind them, and as Forest shot through the door, he saw the enchanted vault that contained the Elements and grinned in triumph, but it quickly fell off his face when he saw the swarms of changelings in the air and lined up in rows between them and tha vault.

The six glanced back, and only made noises of horror when more changelings landed behind them, completely surrounding them, and began closing in before they could even fight back. The changelings immediately began bustling them back towards the throne room, and Forest sagged his head in defeat and shame as they were roughly manhandled through the door and restrained by the worker changelings.

“You won’t get away with this! Horizon and Forest will -” Arctic was yelling at Chrysalis where she was currently hanging Celestia upside down in a green cocoon from the ceiling.

Forest saw how Arctic was currently glued to the floor by green goo all over his hooves next to Slate, who was still enchanted and standing blankly and unmoving like a zombie. Ember was cowering behind the wedding arch. Chrysalis landed with a sly look at the trapped ponies and then back at Arctic.

“You were saying, Prince?” Chrysalis said, malice flashing in her eyes as Arctic suddenly looked at them with despair in his eyes, and turning her attention back to Forest and the others. “You do realise the reception’s been cancelled?” She sneered, before turning to her changelings. “Go! Feed!”

The changelings buzzed out of the windows and doors and they slammed behind them, leaving the ponies, Ember and Chrysalis alone in the throne room, with Celestia still floating above them in the disgusting, gooey cocoon.

“Funny, isn’t it?” Chrysalis put a hoof under Forest’s chin and lifted his head up harshly. “Forest and Horizon were suspicious of my behaviour all along. Getting rid of Horizon was easy - and you didn’t even notice he was gone, did you?”

Lava, Solar, Red, and Chocolate immediately sagged their heads in shame and guilt.

“I left Forest because I knew that he had no chance in convincing any of you.” Chrysalis giggled as Forest slapped her hoof away harshly. “Guess I was right. Too bad all of you were so caught up in your wedding plans to notice their suspicions were correct all along!”

As she flew back towards where Arctic was still struggling against his sticky restraints, the other ponies immediately turned to Horizon and Forest.

“We should have listened to you, Forest.” Solar said, fury and frustration on his face as he stamped a hoof.

“It’s not your fault. She fooled everypony, even Celestia.” Forest pointed out, and Chocolate took a step forward.

“No. You were obviously incredibly distressed and we ignored you. We waved off your worries because we thought they weren’t justified, but we should have listened anyway, no matter how irrational we thought it was.” Chocolate said, and Forest perked a small smile at her as Lava and Red nodded in agreement.

“I did fool everypony, didn’t I?” Chrysalis said with delight in her echoing voice as she glanced out of the window. “Just beautiful. Everything I could have possible dreamed of - who says a girl can’t have it all?”

There were screams as changelings chased ponies around town with hisses and bolts of neon green magic shot everywhere, shattering buildings and causing more ponies to run around with panicked shrieks. The guards were being attacked and tied up and tossed around like they were ragdolls, and Arctic made another noise as he tried to break free of his restraints.

“Quick, Horizon.” Forest whispered to him, and the two ponies snuck over to Arctic as Chrysalis continued to look out of the window with contented sighs at the chaos.

Horizon got his drift and cast a quick spell which disintegrated Arctic’s sticky restraints so he could move his hooves.

“Go to him while you have the chance, Arctic.” Forest whispered to the alicorn as he pointed at Slate.

The look in his eyes said enough as Arctic immediately cantered over to Slate, who only stared blankly ahead and didn’t move. He smiled softly and gazed into Slate’s eyes, but Slate didn’t react, and Arctic’s eyes welled up as he ran a hoof down Slate’s face. He made a soft sobbing noise as the tears finally ran down his face and he wrapped his hooves around Slate’s neck as he stood there stiffly.

Forest blinked, grief edging into his throat at the sight of Slate standing there so empty, like he was a shell, when Arctic’s horn made a fizzing noise and a tiny snowflake managed to spurt out, fluttering through the air and delicately landing on Slate’s muzzle. It stayed there for a second longer before it melted into his coat with a subtle blue flash, and Slate made a noise, blinking once and screwing up his eyes before opening them again.

Forest was suddenly elated as Slate’s eyes refocused and he shook his head several times as Arctic let go of him, gently running a hoof over his head and brushing his mane out of his tired and bloodshot eyes.

“Is the wedding over?” Slate slurred, and Chrysalis immediately landed in front of them with a loud bang as she slammed her hooves on the ground.

“It’s all over!” She hissed, and Slate muttered, stumbling slightly as he glared at the evil queen.

“The spell! Slate, the protection spell!” Forest yelled to him, and Chrysalis cackled, her voice echoing around the room.

“Good luck with that. My changelings already roam free, and your magic will do nothing!” Chrysalis spat, baring her fangs again.

“No!” Slate gasped in horror, seeing the destruction outside and despair twisting his face up.

Forest watched in terror as Slate screwed his eyes up, straining and gasping as a tiny blue orb of light appeared at the tip of his horn, but as much as Slate strained, nothing more seemed to come of it as sweat began running down his face.

“She’s drained everything from me. I don’t have the strength to repel them.” Slate whispered, sagging his head as he swooned, close to collapsing.

“My love will give you strength.” Arctic breathed, propping him up and immediately wrapping his hooves around Slate’s neck.

“What a lovely but absolutely ridiculous sentiment.” Chrysalis spat mockingly at the two stallions as they pressed up against each other. “Neither of you have enough magic to lift a feather. You ponies are just pathetic. I win.” She hissed, fluttering her wings as she turned back to the window.

Arctic leant back, hooves still around Slate’s shoulders as they looked deep into each others eyes. Slate grunted quietly, shutting his eyes again and straining hard as his horn glowed faintly with a teal blue aura. It was obviously taking up all of his energy just to achieve that. Arctic leant forwards, shutting his own eyes gently as his horn ignited into his own icy blue, and as his horn reached Slate’s, a sudden spark of blue lightning fizzed between the two as their horns touched.

A bright flash of white light gleamed where the tips of their horns were touching, and Forest watched in awe as it writhed and glowed into a bright blue and purple orb at the tips of the horns where the two blues of Slate and Arctic’s magic mixed, and beams of white light began spilling from it, swirling and beaming around their horns as it became brighter and brighter.

The two stallions stood there, both with their bodies facing opposite directions and their heads turned back so their horns were still touching, and the white and blue light expanded, sparkling and wreathing around them in bright ribbons as it washed over them. The ponies watched with wide eyes at the magic making Slate and Arctic’s manes and tails swirling like Celestia’s - bright and ever flowing as they kept their eyes shut.

Slate opened his eyes and looked shocked, his jaw dropping, before he looked back at Arctic, who opened his eyes and looked shocked too. The alicorn looked back into Slate’s eyes and pressed their horns back together. As their eyes shut again, the intensity of the swirling light increased tenfold, causing Forest to have to squint as the two stallions began to float, their hooves leaving the ground as the magic lifted their bodies. They had to throw their hooves over their eyes, it was so bright.

This finally caught Chrysalis’s attention and her jaw dropped seeing the glowing stallions hovering right above the throne room with the bright swirls of white light enveloping them as it sparkled and pulsed, with ribbons of star like blue clouds wrapping around their forms as they reached peak. She barely had time to say anything before the intensity of it began making the entire room shudder, and the speed of the swirling blue ribbons of magic increased, flashing and glittering further.

Slate and Arctic opened their eyes, and white light spilled from them, condensing into an orb that shuddered and swirled until finally it exploded into pure white light, and Forest could just about see the white silhouette of the two stallions curled back with their tails touching on one end and their heads reared back so their horns were touching. Forest finally had to snap his eyes shut as bright blue light spilled from them, slamming into Chrysalis so she screamed, getting flung out of the window of the palace. It exploded outwards, flinging her and the changelings so far they flew screaming into the distance, completely repelled out of Canterlot. Every changeling made a noise of terror as they were flung right into the distance, and Forest finally cracked his eyes open, seeing Slate and Arctic lowed slowly to the ground as the light ceased and their manes stopped flowing, before the two immediately embraced.

The magic had caused Celestia’s cocoon to disintegrate, and she was now getting up off the floor, using her magic to put her crown back on. As Forest cantered over to her, her mane started flowing again, and she started struggling to her feet.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” She assured Forest with a soft voice as he helped her up.

“I’m sorry we didn’t manage to get the Elements -” He began saying, but she cut him off with a shake of the head.

“My dear Forest, it I who should be sorry.” Celestia whispered, shame on her face as she dipped her head. “I was not the only pony who learnt a lesson today. I always say I trust you completely, and yet yesterday I did not - and it may have cost me everything. It was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes I have made in my life - and one I have kept making over and over again with my students -”

Forest was startled to see that she began crying, and he reached up a hoof to wipe her eyes. “Celestia, it’s okay. Let’s both promise to trust each other completely from now on, all right?”

“Definitely.” Celestia said, snuffling and wiping her eyes with a hoof. “Looks like you have real wedding to prepare now.”

She indicated to where Slate and Arctic were currently touching muzzles affectionately with each other, and Forest found he couldn’t agree more.

Horizon in his guard outfit and Ember both followed Forest as he revisited all the places before with his checklist. In the kitchen, he saw Arctic fanboying over how massive the cake was with massive wide eyes of shock and comments on how he didn’t think it was possible for food to be so big, and Chocolate laughing as the alicorn kept helping himself to truffles between every other word.

Even Horizon smiled at that, and Ember quickly flew past Chocolate as she tossed the cake figures up at her. She caught one in each claw and put them on the top of the cake, before giving both Chocolate and Arctic a high hoof with her wing when she landed. Forest quirked a smile and ticked food off on the list.

He entered the throne room and saw Arctic obsessing and grinning in delight at all of the flowers and decorations that Lava and Solar had both put back up, constantly complimenting them on it all and barely able to stay in one place as he darted all over the room to look at it all.

Forest ticked that off the list. Solar began using his magic to float in all the ice sculptures Horizon had made, and as he began laying them out at regular intervals with Lava helping him push them around, he noticed how Arctic was smiling and complimenting Horizon’s ice work (he’d made a mixture of alicorns and heart sculptures) and even Horizon seemed incredibly flustered from his brother’s praise. Forest smiled as he saw Arctic embrace Horizon, and Horizon hug him back.

Ice: check. Forest rolled up the list and passed it to Ember as Slate trotted in, looking delighted at the sight of his fiance so happy and chattering in excitement to Lava and Solar.

As the guests started arriving again for the wedding, Forest was back in his old apartment, tugging around at his tie and trying to pat his mane down again as he wriggled around in his suit. Ember fluttered down and landed on his back where she had fire flowers professionally woven into her feathers.

“You look fine, Forest.” She reassured him, and Forest scowled, trying to squash down his mane again. “Well - I think you do. And I’m sure Horizon will too -”

“Hey! What - what - what makes you think I care about what Horizon thinks?” Forest spluttered, whipping around and glaring at her.

“Bitch, please, I may be a bird but I can sure as heck notice gay tension when I see it -” Ember began saying, and Forest tossed a pillow at her which send her flying across the room with a squawk.

The pillow fell off the wall, revealing Ember squashed across the wall too, before she eventually peeled off with a groan and fell on the floor with a puff of feathers.

“Enough of this crazy talk - hey, we’re going to be late!” He suddenly yelped, darting to the door.

“This conversation isn’t over, Forest!” Ember screeched, and Forest ignored her, opening the door and was surprised when he opened it to see a Guard there.

“Wait - Horizon, it’s you.” He realised, and Horizon nodded, dipping his head.

“I’ll be opening the door for Arctic, so I’ll see the wedding from there.” Horizon shrugged as they began heading towards the venue again.

Forest’s heart was whirring in his chest and he swallowed hard, forcing himself to calm down, but Ember’s words still wouldn’t leave his head.

Horizon still seemed tense, so Forest opened his mouth, knowing he was going to pry in very sensitive areas. “What’s your father’s relationship with Arctic, Horizon?”

Horizon’s face set. “Hates him almost as much as he hates me.”

“Did Arctic invite him?” Forest pressed, and Horizon shook his head slowly. “So there shouldn’t be a problem, okay?”

“Knowing that old stallion, I bet there will be.” Horizon said through his teeth.

Horizon took his position by the door on one side of the aisle as guests began filling in, and Forest saw his friends taking their places at the front with Ember taking the rings from Celestia as she organised what was happening at the front.

He found Slate in the other room, who was pacing around, obviously incredibly nervous as Forest approached him. He exhaled when he noticed Forest, who approached him and patted him supportively on the back.

“It’s okay. You’ll be fine.” Forest reassured him, advising him to take some deep breaths.

“No! What if I say something wrong  -” Slate began saying, and Forest rolled his eyes.

“You’ll be fine.” He insisted, before steering Slate towards the door. “And guess who just got off the train from Manehatten?”

“Hello, boys!” Coal announced, pushing through the doors with a beautiful iridescent blue gown on. “Hope you didn’t think for a second I’d miss this, huh?”

“Coal?” Slate gasped, and they all embraced for a second as she laughed loudly, her horn igniting to straighten out Forest’s tie.

“In the flesh!” She sang, letting go of them. “The trio’s back, baby!”

The three left to go and take their places by Celestia. Due to the fact there was no bride, and therefore no bridesmaids, Slate had taken it upon himself to make both Forest and Coal his best ponies. Forest was very happy at this information after hearing from Coal that she was on the way to the wedding not too long after Chrysalis had been defeated. Just before he was about to follow Coal and Slate into the hall, he hesitated, seeing Arctic’s tail poking out from around the corner.

“You go - I just have to check something.” Forest muttered, waving them off as he trotted over towards where he saw Arctic’s tail.

Horizon saw him go and followed him, immediately figuring out that Forest had picked up on something, and pretended he was a Guard outside the opposite room as Arctic moved, finally moving back along the corridor. Forest darted behind Horizon to hide, who suddenly stiffened as Arctic appeared, trailed by an incredibly large unicorn stallion.

“We have nothing to talk about, father.” Arctic said coldly, suddenly stopping and whipping around to face the unicorn.

He was a flame orange with an auburn and orange mane and beard that looked like fire.

“That commoner is not worthy of a royal alicorn.” The unicorn spat, and from the way Horizon’s breathing seemed to stop, Forest knew immediately that this was Horizon’s father. “Come, you disobedient whelp. Only the finest of pure blooded royal mares shall do for you.”

Arctic stiffened, and Forest’s jaw dropped in horror as Arctic suddenly whipped around, fire flashing in his blue eyes.

“‘That commoner’ is my fiance and soon-to-be husband.” Arctic said in a low, dangerous voice that made Forest’s blood run cold. “Speak like that about him again and you and I are going to have more problems than just your shitty parenting. I love him - which is more than what you and mom had.” He spat the last words, and Horizon’s father looked ready to explode with fury. “Or do you not know what love is at all?”

“No protege of mine will marry a stallion.” Horizon’s father roared.

“I am NOT your protege!” Arctic shrieked, stamping a hoof on the ground. “Just because Hallowed Horizon went missing does not mean you can just go onto your next best son. That’s not how it f ucking works. You didn’t give a shit about Horizon or me until I got my horn, and here you are just marching in like you own the place when in reality, all you have is your title.”

“Hallowed Horizon is dead to me. And you will be too, if you don’t go into that room and tell all those ponies to go home because you’re making a colossal mistake.” Horizon’s father growled, pushing his muzzle into Arctic’s face.

Arctic didn’t flinch as ice flashed in his gaze. “Then I guess you’d better prepare the funeral march, father.”

The fury in Horizon’s father’s gaze made Forest’s breathing catch and his heart race.

“Get. Out. Now.” Arctic snarled, narrowing his eyes as he pointed to the exit with a hoof. “Or I’ll make sure Celestia has you arrested. You’re not the only one with authority now, you sick bastard.”

Four guards immediately flocked around the stallion and began forcibly removing the unicorn from the building as he roared and made noises of fury. Forest let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, and Horizon stalked off, immediately taking his place by the door with fury stiffening his gait. Arctic noticed Forest, and sagged, finally sighing in relief as his confidence immediately left him once his father was out of sight.

“How much of that did you see?” Arctic asked him, and Forest shrugged, suddenly embarrassed.

“Enough.” Forest said truthfully, eyeing up Horizon, who was waiting by the door. “Thanks for standing up for Horizon, by the way.”

“He’s my brother. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” Arctic answered, and the bells outside went, indicating that the wedding was about to start.

Forest excused himself and cantered up the aisle to take his place by Slate and Coal just as the wedding began.

“What took so long?” Coal asked, and Forest shrugged, indicating it wasn’t anything to worry about.

He recognised Slate’s parents in the crowd, who were already wiping their eyes and noses before the wedding had even started. Forest even noticed his own parents in the crowd, who waved at him with massive grins as Forest stood there in his suit and tie. He smiled at them, finding it sweet that Slate had decided Forest’s parents should go to his wedding.

The fanfare and the wedding march began, and Slate immediately perked up when the music caused the crowd to turn their attention to the closed doors. Horizon, still disguised as a guard, and the other guard on the other side of the door, used their magic to open a door each.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders immediately began bouncing through with their buckets of petals, scattering pink and white petals all over the aisle as they grinned in delight at all the attention. As they dropped off to the side, Arctic was finally revealed, walking slowly down the aisle in his pristine suit and tie. Chocolate and Solar were already tearing up and wiping at their eyes with their hooves.

“I get why the Queen of the Changelings would want you, but how did you manage to get a prince to want to marry you?” Forest asked cheekily as he nudged Slate in the ribs.

“I’m just incredibly charming, what can I say?” Slate said proudly, and Coal snorted loudly.

“Arctic told me that he’d had enough of waiting for you to make a move and he proposed to you.” She narrowed her eyes with delight and an evil look in her gaze, and Slate stiffened, suddenly looking incredibly embarrassed, and Forest managed to get in a laugh just as Arctic arrived at the end of the aisle standing next to Slate in front of Celestia.

Slate rubbed his horn affectionately against Arctic’s as the music ended, and Celestia stepped forward, opening her wings.

“Mares and stallions!” She announced, joy on her face as Slate and Arctic turned to face her. “We are gathered here today to celebrate the union of the real Prince Arctic Aurora and Captain Slate Cyclone. The strength of their commitment is clear. The power of their love is undeniable.”

As Celestia began going through the vows, Coal sighed, a few tears running down her face as she looked happily at the couple.

“Our little Slate is all grown up, Forest.” Coal sighed, leaning on his shoulder. “He was such a pathetic little foal, wasn’t he? Can’t believe he’s the first one getting married out of all of us -”

“Hey.” Foal snorted, nudging her gently. “You’ll get married too, I guarantee it.”

“Like hell. All the stallions who have asked me out are butt ugly.” Coal sighed dramatically, a hoof on her forehead, and Forest nudged her again.

“What about stallions who haven’t had the guts to ask you out?” Forest asked in a low voice, indicating to where Solar was standing.

He was shuffling his hooves about, looking incredibly nervous, and Forest grinned when the two finally made eye contact and immediately broke it, looking at their hooves again. Coal coughed, pawing at the ground with her own hooves as colour flowed to her cheeks.

“Shut up.” She managed to hiss, glaring at him. “Like you can talk.”

“What the hay is that supposed to mean?” Forest demanded, and before she could answer, Celestia turned her attention to Forest and Coal.

Ember cawed, flying down the aisle with the ring cushion strapped to her back and the two rings nestled on top. She sprayed a beautiful display of ashes and fire that made the crowd ooh and aah in delight, and as she landed, Forest and Coal took one ring each in a hoof.

“May we have the rings, please?” Celestia asked, picking up the rings from them with her horn. “Now, please repeat after me, Arctic Aurora.” She passed one of the rings to Arctic, who took it with his horn.

“‘Slate Cyclone, I give you this ring, that you may wear it, as a symbol of the vows we have made this day. I pledge you my love, and respect, my laughter and my tears. With all that I am, I honour you.’” Arctic repeated after Celestia said it first, his voice quaking slightly as he floated the ring over to Slate and put it on his horn.

“Please repeat after me, Slate Cyclone.” Celestia said, passing the other ring to Slate, who took it with his magic.

“‘Arctic Aurora, I give you this ring, that you may wear it, as a symbol of the vows we have made this day. I pledge you my love, and respect, my laughter and my tears. With all that I am, I honour you.’” Slate repeated, placing the ring over Arctic’s horn with his magic.

“Arctic Aurora and Slate Cyclone, we have heard your promise to share your lives in marriage. We recognize and respect the covenant you have made here this day before each one of us as witnesses. Therefore in the honesty and sincerity of what you have said and done here today and by the power vested in me, it is my honour and delight to declare you married and partners in life, for life.” Celestia announced with delight, opening her wings.

Coal started wailing loudly, blowing and wiping her nose as Forest swallowed hard, having to wipe away at his own eyes. The crowd exploded with cheers as Slate and Arctic touched their horns together, and Celestia indicated for them to enter the balcony and look out onto Canterlot, where there were crowds of ponies outside cheering as confetti rained down on the newly-weds. Slate and Arctic began waving to them, and Celestia shot a ‘psst’ at Red.

“That’s your cue, Red Riot.” She whispered to him, and Red’s eyes widened as he discarded his suit and immediately shot out of the window and began flying up to prepare for his rainboom.

Back inside, Celestia approached Forest and the rest of them as Slate and Arctic were on the balcony. Horizon trotted over, still in his guard disguise. “This is as much your victory as it is theirs. You persisted in the face of doubt, and your actions brought the real Prince Arctic Aurora and Slate Cyclone together. Learning to trust your instincts - and your friends - is a valuable lesson you have learnt today.” Celestia winked at Forest. “And I have learnt today as well.”

Forest smiled gently, and Slate and Arctic leant in to kiss just as Red reached the peak of his rainboom, sending a bright burst of colour across Canterlot as the crowd cheered as the royal couple exchanged their vow-sealing kiss. Red arched a rainbow across the entirety of Canterlot, and Forest swore he heard the pegasus yowl “Best wedding ever!” as he flew over them.

The reception began and took place in the Canterlot gardens. As the day edged into early evening, and the evening edged into night, Celestia lowered the sun just as they gathered to watch the couple begin their first slow dance of the night, leaning on each other and pressing their bodies against each other.

“Hello, everypony. Did I miss much?” Luna asked, landing next to Celestia, Forest, Coal and the rest of them.

“Nothing at all, Luna.” Forest assured her, even though she’d missed the changeling invasion and most of the wedding as well.

The slow dance finished and Solar finally got his hooves on the music, immediately changing it to cheerful and loud party music as the reception exploded. Forest went around taking photographs of the couple dancing, of the Crusaders stuffing their faces with cake and food, of Red fanboying over the Wonderbolts as Lava barely restrained him, Chocolate and Coal chattering and laughing with each other and Solar behind the DJ table.

As he put his camera down, he noticed how finally Coal and Solar seemed to be talking on the other end of the garden quietly to each other, and then after he put the camera to his eye, he was looking around and saw that Red and Lava were moving incredibly close to each other too.

“Seems like we won’t be short of weddings for a while, Forest.” Celestia commented as he jumped and put the camera down.

“Y-yeah - look at those two -” Forest said, pointing to Lava and Red, and Celestia shook her head with a  glint of mischief in her eyes.

“I didn’t mean those two. And I didn’t mean Coal and Solar, either.” Celestia said cheekily, and before Forest could ask her what she meant by that, she’d somehow managed to disappear from sight.

He sighed, and noticed Horizon, still in his guard disguise, hanging around by the tables. Forest grabbed a glass of wine from the side and sipped it, willing the alcohol to calm him down slightly and cool his face down.

“Can I have some?” Ember asked him, and Forest snatched the glass away.

“No way. You can’t have alcohol.” He snapped, waving the phoenix off, and she left with annoyed grumbles.

Just as he went to go and talk to Horizon, he was stopped by a white pegasus mare with red streaks in her mane.

“Is that Horizon?” She asked him in a low voice, and Forest, just about to take another sip of wine, choked, spitting it out and bashing himself on the chest before he made loud choking noises.

“What? How did you -”

“Typical Horizon. Even in disguise he still acts like a party would murder him.” She muttered, and Forest wiped his mouth, putting the glass down on the table.

“I’m sorry - who are you?” He asked the mare.

“Ah - I’m Frozen Serenade - Horizon and Arctic’s sister.” She explained, holding out a hoof. “Nice to meet you - uh -”

“Forest Flash. I’m - uh - Horizon’s friend.” He said, forcing a smile onto his face as he shook her hoof.

He remembered Horizon mentioning that his father had ‘ended up with’ three pegasus children and one unicorn one. Since Horizon was the unicorn one, and Arctic used to be one of the pegasus ones before he’d earnt his horn, then Frozen Serenade was one of the other two.

“Does Horizon know that you know he’s not dead?” Forest asked her, and she shook her head slightly.

“No, but I figured out what happened. Horizon and I weren’t very close.” She sighed, grabbing Forest’s remaining wine and downing it in one gulp. “Oh, well. At least he’s making sure he doesn’t draw attention to himself.”

“Is your other sibling here?” Forest asked her. Frozen Serenade suddenly stiffened, and Forest swallowed. “I - I thought Horizon had three siblings and I’ve only met you and Arctic -”

“Um - uh - he must  - he must have made a mistake - we don’t have another sibling.” Frozen Serenade said, coughing past her hoof and putting the glass down.

“R-really? But I could have sworn -” Forest began saying, and Frozen Serenade opened her wings.

“Would you look at the time? Sorry about that - nice to meet you, Forest.” Frozen Serenade said, before she flew over Forest’s head.

Forest shrugged, uneasy but not uncomfortable, and trotted over to Horizon, who was waiting by the tables still. They stood there in silence for a little bit, watching Slate and Arctic still greeting the other guests and the Crusaders beginning to enter a food coma as they all began snoring and lying on top of each other, still with cake all over their faces.

“I’m sorry about your dad.” Forest whispered, and Horizon only shrugged.

“What is there to be sorry about? I didn’t choose to have him as a father. I was just unlucky.” Horizon said, and Forest huffed, his breath frosting slightly as the cold night air started edging in.

“He’s not your father. Nopony who treats their kids like that deserves to be called one.” Forest said to him, and Horizon glanced at him.

“I guess you’re right. If there’s one thing I can take comfort out of, it’s that Arctic doesn’t answer to him anymore - and neither do I.” Horizon said. “My sister left when Arctic and I were just foals. He doesn’t have anypony anymore, and that’s everything he deserves.”

“I g-guess.” Forest said, about to mention Horizon’s other mystery sibling, but ended up silently cursing when his voice shuddered from the cold, and Horizon immediately noticed, putting a hoof around Forest’s shoulders and pulling him in closer without taking his eyes off the party in front of them.

It may have been the alcohol, but Forest’s heart was screaming and whirring around in his chest and bouncing off his ribcage as he forced himself to remain calm at the gentle pressure of Horizon’s front leg on his back and shoulders. He heaved in a breath, praying to Celestia that he wasn’t blushing. It was working, though - he definitely wasn’t cold anymore.

“Hey - look! Arctic and Slate are leaving now!” Forest pointed out, seeing the carriage being pulled by the Guards arrive at the venue.

Horizon made a noise of surprise and let go of Forest, beginning to walk over to the carriage as the couple trotted over to it, surrounded by the guests as they tossed petals and confetti everywhere. Forest couldn’t help sighing as a hoof flitted to his shoulder, as if he was hoping Horizon’s hoof was still there. Ember flew over and landed on Forest’s back, and Forest ignored her when she raised an eyebrow at him.

“I saw that.” She said in a mischievous voice, and Forest glared at her.

“Enough. We’re not talking about that now.” He told her sternly, and opened the door to the carriage as Slate and Arctic approached them with massive smiles on their faces.

“Forest!” Slate said, trotting over to him with a beam on his face. “None of this would have been possible without you. Thank you so much.”

“I had a lot of help.” Forest said, indicating to his friends behind him, and Coal waved a hoof at him with a grin.

Arctic trotted over to Horizon and Forest saw the two exchange a few words before hugging too. Slate embraced him hard, before the couple finally clambered into the carriage ready to go for their honeymoon.

“Ready to go?” Slate asked Arctic, and his eyes widened in sudden realisation.

“Wait! Almost forgot!” Arctic’s horn glowed and he summoned a bouquet of icy blue and white roses, and leant out of the carriage window to toss it over his shoulder.

There was a commotion as the ponies scrabbled around, some of them lunging for the bouquet, but most of them seemed to overshoot it as it tossed through the air. As Forest watched the flowers soar through the air, he saw it was heading towards the table where Lava was currently pouring himself a drink. Lava immediately sensed something was flying towards his head and dropped his glass to snatch it out of the air with lightning reflexes, only to widen his eyes in horror when he realised what it was.

“YEAH! Blasty, we’re getting hitched!” Red howled, leaping up and punching the air with a hoof as Lava stood there holding the bouquet with horror on his face.

“NO!” Lava screeched, tossing the bouquet away and galloping for his life as Red streaked after him.

Forest watched the two chasing each other and shrieking, and turned to Chocolate and Solar, who were stood there with their jaws open and eyes wide. “How long have those two been dating for?”

“Absolutely no clue.” Solar said, still watching Red chasing Lava around the garden with high pitched shrieks.

“They never mentioned it. I think they assumed that we knew.” Chocolate said with a smirk. “But I guess that confirms it.”

The carriage pulled out, and Forest and Coal and the rest of the ponies waved them off as Slate and Arctic waved out of the windows as they disappeared from sight. Forest put his hoof down, before turning to Solar.

“Your turn now, Solar.” Forest said to him, and Solar immediately turned his horn skyward and set off magical fireworks, sending bright coloured pops of sparks and bursts of light all across the sky.

Ember wobbled through the air with nonsensical noises as she landed on her claws and promptly fell on her beak. Forest picked her up, and recoiled when the smell of vodka on her feathers entered his nostrils. Her breath smelt so bad Forest was sure he could get tipsy just from smelling it.

“Ember! Are you drunk?” He shrieked, and Ember didn’t respond, only slurring something along the lines of ‘We have to save the circles’ and passed out, falling flat on her face again.

Forest put her on his back and glanced around, seeing Lava had knocked several vodka bottles off the table running away from Red, and Ember had obviously been drinking it up off the floor. Forest rolled his eyes when Ember made another groaning noise, and gently propped her up and patted her on the back when she started vomiting loudly.

And with that, all the tired guests decided to head home. Forest sighed, feeling weary on his hooves as Ember snored on his back and his friends exchanged soft mutters of chatter as they headed back towards their guest rooms that Celestia had prepared for them. Forest flew back to his old apartment, only stopping again for Ember to be sick, and eventually deciding against putting her on her perch in case she fell off. He settled for tucking her in an old washing basket padded with towels, and put the trash can next to her in case she was sick again.

“You are not going to be happy when you’re hungover, Ember.” Forest said to her with a small smirk, gently stroking her on the head and putting a towel over her before heading off to bed himself.

He was asleep the second his head hit the pillow.

Chapter Text

Ember yawned loudly as Forest cantered and flew around the library frantically. She looked utterly unimpressed and only shuffled where she was on her perch as Forest made another noise of anxiety and immediately zipped over her head to begin rummaging through drawers.

“Forest, what’s going on?” She asked, rubbing her eyes with a wing as Forest yelped again, skidding around on his hooves.

He immediately tossed an open scroll at her and didn’t explain further, still panicked as he rushed around and Ember read the letter aloud.

“‘Dear Forest Flash. You must come to Canterlot immediately. It is of utmost importance that you must arrive prepared. Yours, Princess Celestia.’” Ember read, before looking up at him. “Is that is? Why do you need to go?”

“It’s a test! It must be a test!” Forest practically shrieked, hyperventilating as he tapped his hooves erratically on the ground, before immediately tossing about thirty quills at Ember. “Quills! Emergency quills! Emergency emergency quills -”

Ember snatched them out of the air and put them into Forest’s already bulging saddlebags as he continued to zip around, tossing books off the shelves as he looked around frantically. He didn’t even look back as Ember squawked, having to dodge all the flying books as they flew at her.

“No, no, no, no! Ack!” Forest yelled, tilting his head to the sky in frustration before immediately going back to sweeping more books off the shelves. “I need the Magical Companion Volumes One to Thirty Six - where are they? Where are they -”

“Woah -” Chocolate yelped as Forest shot past the door as she and the rest of the ponies poked their heads in to see what was going on. “What’s got Forest’s tail?”

Forest ignored them, heaving a massive book off the shelf and promptly dropping it next to his saddlebags, narrowly missing squashing Ember. He stopped for a second to pant, before shooting over to his desk.

“Flashcards! I should make flashcards!” Forest yelped, pulling out the drawer and immediately taking out massive stacks of blank cards. “Ember, I need you to quiz me on everything I’ve ever learnt. Every magic study, every specification, every friendship lesson - everything!” Ember shrieked as she vanished under the piles of cards. Forest stopped for a second, narrowing his eyes at the pile. “That isn’t going to be nearly enough cards.”

“Forest! Come on, it’s just a test!” Ember protested with a scowl as she gasped for air, her head shooting up from under the piles of cards.

Forest froze, turning around to face her. “Just a test?! Princess Celestia is obviously going to give me some exam on magic and you’re saying it’s just a test?!”

He began shrieking and cantering around frantically, still tearing the library apart as his friends watched in awe and shock.

“I’d say he’s handling this remarkably well.” Red commented with a grin, and there were noises of annoyance as the other ponies glared at him.

“No time to get the train!” Forest said slightly manically as he wriggled under his absolutely overspilling saddlebags and stood up. “We’re going by wing! Come on, Ember!”

Ember grumbled, but obliged, flying after him.

“We’ll get the next train!” Solar called after them as they flew out of the library and began making their way towards Canterlot.

Ember roosted on the wall outside the throne room as Forest landed and began cantering in, skidding to a halt when he saw Celestia and Luna in there, looking up at the stained glass of a new window. It depicted Arctic and Slate in the moment that the power of their undeniable connection saved Canterlot and repelled the changelings, and it was glistening in the morning light. Forest cleared his throat, grinning sheepishly as the Princesses turned.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to head over?” Luna asked Celestia, looking very unsure, and Celestia shook her head shortly.

“No, my sister. Arctic and Slate are already there, and the others shall join them shortly.” Celestia said gently.

Luna nodded and disappeared past Forest as he stood there, watching her go. Celestia finally beckoned to Forest and he trotted in, still with his saddlebags over his shoulders.

“You wanted to see me? To give me an urgent test, right?” Forest asked, increasingly nervous as he approached her steadily. “I’ve got my own quills - plus plenty of paper to show my work -”

He dropped his bags and they exploded, scattering books and quills and rolls of paper everywhere. One of the parchment rolls unwravelled, rolling across the floor several feet before it stopped at Celestia’s hooves. Forest gasped, suddenly incredibly embarrassed as he made a noise of horror and began rolling it up with his nose.

“Sorry! Sorry -” He began squeaking, but Celestia shook her head, her horn igniting gold as she picked up the end of the parchment and began rolling it up swiftly.

“This is not the kind of test you are thinking of, Forest.” Celestia said, finishing rolling up the scroll and using her magic to pack up Forest’s saddlebags again, before moving them to the side.

“Then - what did you call me here for, Celestia?” Forest asked quietly, sudden surprise making him stop panicking as Celestia sighed, dipping her head as if the news she carried bore great weight.

“You are here because the Crystal Empire has returned.” Celestia said, drawing herself upright.

Forest flattened his ears. “Oh - oh my - I don’t think I studied for any of that -” His stomach dropped as he began rummaging through his books again. “I don’t think there’s anything in any of my books about that -”

Celestia remained patient, taking the books off him with her magic and moving them all to the side so they were beyond his reach. “There wouldn’t be. Few remember it ever existed at all.”

She turned away, moving towards where there was a beautifully decorated plinth near the throne which contained a shard of shimmering crystal. Forest couldn’t recognise what type of crystal it was - that was beyond even his knowledge of magical gemstones. He didn’t recognise what relic it could possibly be either despite all his speed-cramming on the subject before he’d flown over here - but it must have been important, or it wouldn’t be in the throne room at all.

Celestia used her magic to lift the glass dome covering the crystal and took it out, holding it in the golden aura that her horn produced.

“My knowledge of the Empire is limited. The last time I saw it, I managed to take this single shard of crystal before it vanished.” Celestia floated it in front of Forest as he looked up at it, seeing his reflection replicated thousands of times in its shiny surface. “I believe that even I would have trouble convincing myself the Empire existed at all if it were not for this single piece of evidence I have in my posession.”

She placed  the shard on the floor and shot a golden beam at it. The crystal glowed and immediately, white light spilled from it, forming into a magical hologram. It showed paths and villages and a beautiful, shimmering castle in the centre that glowed so brightly Forest could barely look at it.

“But what I do know is that the Empire possesses a powerful magic. It is constructed from these crystals, and this single shard contains such extraordinary abilities that even I do not know the extent of.” Celestia’s horn glowed as the map changed, showing Forest images of beautiful ponies who sparkled and were full of light as they thrived in their home. “However, a thousand years ago, King Sombra, a unicorn whose heart was as black as night, took over the Crystal Empire.”

Black shards of jagged crystal began spiking and spearing through the hologram of the Empire, and Forest flinched back as it ate up the castle like a virus, spreading all over the map in black flecks, before it completely enveloped the castle. An image of the evil unicorn formed at the top, and he snarled, baring his fangs as his eyes erupted into a blue flame from his bright green eyes. Forest watched in horror as the evil king formed on the map, his horrific, deep laughs echoing over the map as his black, shadow like mane flowed from his spiked crown and his armoured hooves glinted.

“He enslaved the crystal ponies because he saw the power of them and their home.” Celestia’s eyes flickered as an image of the now dull, unpolished and sagging ponies wailed and cried as they were pulled around in chains and trapped in cages. “Luna and I defeated Sombra with the Elements and turned him to shadow, banishing him away in the arctic ice.”

The hologram of Sombra screamed as he disintegrated and his echoing roars chilled Forest as he vanished under the ice and snow surrounding the Empire.

“However, I believe Sombra knew he was no match for the Elements, so he placed a curse on the Empire before we banished him, causing it to vanish. This is why it has remained undetected for so long.” Celestia said as Forest watched the map flash, and it disappeared, leaving the crystal shard glinting behind.

Celestia lifted the crystal up with her magic. “Sombra saw the powerful potential of these crystals. If the Empire is filled with hope and love, this is reflected across all of Equestria.” She shot a golden beam at the crystal, causing it to erupt into beautiful rainbow colours that shined and glimmered and filled Forest with a light sense of joy.

“But Sombra did not want the crystals for this purpose. He wanted them for his own personal gain. Which is why when the Empire is filled with fear and hatred -” Celestia narrowed her eyes and her wings snapped open.

She shut her eyelids, before opening them again as her horn crackled a neon purple and green with black sparks and lightning spitting off it, and her eyes were the same, bleeding green with deep, purple smoke spilling from her eyelids as Sombra. Forest took a step back, alarmed as he had never seen such magic before, and Celestia shot a black and green crackle of electricity at the shard. The crystal crackled and turned black as shadow spilled from it, cold and a night black, and where it touched the ground, violent, jagged spears of ink black crystal shot from it. Forest yelped and dodged it as it grew and twisted, and immediately Celestia cast pure white light over it, clearing the throne room of the black crystal and landing on the ground as the coldness of that evil magic left Forest shivering.

Celestia floated the crystal, now its normal holographic purple, back to the magic dome. “This is why I need you to help me find a way to protect it. When the power of the Empire falls into the wrong hooves, it is catastrophic. We cannot have a repeat of what happened with Sombra.”

Forest’s ears flattened in anxiety. “You want me to help you protect an entire Empire?”

“It is, as I said, a different kind of test, my dear.” Celestia said, turning back to face him. “But it is one I am certain you will pass.”

Forest shut his eyes, before opening them again, forcing determination onto his voice. “How do I start?”

“By joining the Princes in the Crystal Empire.” Celestia said with a smile, walking past him towards the doors as Forest followed her.

“Slate’s there? And Arctic?” Forest said in delight, and Celestia nodded.

“Indeed. Your Ponyville friends will join you there too. I believe with the efforts of all of you, a solution will be found before the Empire is too vulnerable to ponies like Sombra.” Celestia said, stopping by the door. “I have every confidence you will succeed, and when you do, I shall be waiting here for you in order to move onto the next level of your studies.”

Luna was stood there, looking very uncomfortable. Forest knew she was looking at his wings and immediately dipped his head, afraid and embarrassed as he subconsciously pulled his mane over where he had no horn. Even Luna knew that this was no task for an unmagical pony, and Forest sighed, flattening his ears.

“What if I fail, Celestia?” He whispered, and Celestia shook her head.

“You won’t.” She insisted, and Forest opened his mouth to protest again, but she cut him short with a knowing smile. “I promise you, you will not fail, Forest.”

As Forest began leaving to find Ember, Celestia stopped him. “Forest. In the end, it must be you, and only you, who assists Arctic Aurora and Slate Cyclone in ultimately saving the Empire. Your friends may help, but the task cannot be done by anypony else. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Celestia.” Forest answered, and Celestia nodded, determination and trust in her gaze as Luna drew up by her side by the throne room door.

“Good. Then you must get going at once. There is no time to lose.” Celestia announced, and the throne room door shut, and Forest was alone.

He left the building to see where Ember was on the steps waiting for him. He trotted down with his ears flat and his head drooped as she hopped to her claws.

“That was quick!” She chirped, hopping onto Forest’s back as he walked. “Let my guess - you got full marks?”

“No, Ember.” He sighed loudly.

Ember grimaced. “Did you - uh - fail?” The words were tight, like she had to force them out.

Forest shook his head. “No. It’s not that kind of test. Nothing I could have possibly prepared for. Magical history, calculus, method, relics, creatures, objects, potions, substances, enhancers, wizards -” He counted them off, listing them aloud. “I would have aced that. But no! Forest, please go and protect a one thousand year old Empire with no guidance whatsoever -”

Ember blinked. “Oh. Yeah, that sucks.”

He opened his wings and flew down to the Canterlot train station, where the train was pulling in. As Forest put his hooves on the ground, he saw Lava, Red, Chocolate, Solar, and Horizon just getting out onto the platform. Red was excited to be back in Canterlot - Horizon, not so much, still with the cloak covering most of his body except for his hooves and the bottom of his face.

“Forest! Did you pass?” Chocolate asked him as she trotted over.

“Back on the train, everypony!” Forest finally said, forcing determination into his step and voice. “We’re going to the Crystal Empire!”

There were mutters of confusion from the ponies as they went back on the train, but Forest promised to explain everything on the way. As the ponies and Ember took their seats again, he stopped to speak to the conductor, who was just as confused as they were when Forest asked him whether the train line went to the Empire.

“What’s the most Northernmost station that the train goes to?” He asked the conductor as he checked their tickets.

“Oh - there is a station, but we rarely go that far since there’s nothing but arctic wasteland - nopony wants to go there.” The conductor shrugged, stamping Forest’s ticket. “Can’t think why there’s a station built there -”

“Can you tell the driver we need to go there, please?” Forest asked him, and although the conductor was incredibly confused at that, he agreed, since they’d already paid for tickets.

Forest sat down with the others as the train pulled out of Canterlot and began going deep into the mountains surrounding Northern Equestria.

“Fill us in, Forest.” Solar said, and Forest nodded as Ember flew off his back to go and land on Lava’s head.

Passengers filtered off the train as Forest explained, and eventually, the six ponies and one phoenix were completely alone on the empty train as it pulled out into freezing snow and blistering winds. Finally, after several hours, it pulled to a stop, and as the doors opened, Forest flinched, immediately shaking and trembling with cold as snow blew into his face.

Chocolate’s teeth began chattering as they cantered off the train onto the barren wooden station. Forest could barely see ahead of him and had to shield his eyes as the arctic wind howled and sent shivers right down to the bone. Ember shrieked, absolutely despising the cold, and shot under Horizon’s cloak and hid under it on his back, making Horizon look like a camel.

A figure began fighting through the snow towards them, and Forest squinted again, trying to make out who it was.

“Slate?” He asked, and the unicorn pulled up to them, pulling his scarf down from over his face.

“Forest! You made it!” Slate trotted over and embraced him quickly, before immediately passing scarves around to all the other ponies. Forest pulled his own on as the others did the same, and Slate turned, indicating away. “Quick, ponies. No time to catch up - we have to get moving.”

“Why?” Forest asked, anxiety on his voice as they all began trotting after Slate, who kept looking around rapidly as his scarf thrashed in the wind.

“There are things out here we really don’t want to meet after dark.” Slate said through clamped teeth. “When the Empire returned, it wasn’t the only thing that came back.”

“Sombra.” Lava whispered, and Forest swallowed hard as they continued to follow Slate through the endless snow dunes and fighting against the freezing wind.

“Something keeps trying to get into the Empire.” Slate had to shout over his shoulder at them as they followed him. “We think it’s that unicorn king who originally cursed the place -”

“But Celestia told me that I had to find a way to protect the Empire - if Sombra’s trying to get in, then doesn’t that mean it’s already protected?” Forest began asking, but when Slate opened his mouth to reply, a loud wailing howl began echoing through the wind, making them all freeze to a stop as they looked around in terror.

“We have to go! NOW!” Slate ordered with a yell, and for a second, Forest saw that Captain of the Royal Guard in him that was so authoritative and was impressed at how such a timid foal had changed so much, but didn’t have much time to think about it before a cloud of pure shadow began curling and exploding behind them.

The ponies scattered with yells of fear as Slate ushered them all ahead. Forest flew after Red in fear as a pair of neon green eyes with red irises and spilling a bright purple smoke snapped open in the depths of the rolling shadow clouds. Forest’s stomach dropped so fast he thought he might be sick when he recognised Sombra’s malicious, evil gaze. Chocolate screamed and Forest’s heart was beating so fast in fear as they all flew and galloped away from the evil shadows as it gave chase.

“We’re almost there!” Slate yelled as they galloped, and Forest could just see the glimmering bubble of bright blue unicorn magic gleaming ahead.

They all cantered through the bubble, hooves suddenly going from snow to lush green grass, and Forest panted, whipping around to see everyone around him but Slate.

“Where’s Slate?” Forest suddenly demanded, and Horizon pointed out.

“He tried to stall it -” Horizon started, but Forest immediately ran back out, seeing Slate attempting to shoot magical beams at Sombra, but it had no effect on him.

Sombra snarled and wrapped around Slate as his horn sparked and fizzed, and Slate cried out and convulsed where Sombra’s shadows came in contact with him. Forest immediately flew through, ignoring the yells of his friends, and grabbed Slate, flying him back through the bubble surrounding the Empire as Sombra screamed, throwing himself against the bubble, but only ending up vanishing with a howl when he realised he couldn’t get through.

Forest sat there panting for a second before he tried to help Slate up. Slate wobbled with a gasp, and Forest’s eyes widened when he saw black crystal growths all over Slate’s horn.

“Slate - your horn -” Forest gasped, and Slate looked up, trying to ignite his horn, but it only glowed at the base and crackled pathetically and spat some black sparks. He shook his head.

“Don’t worry. It’s fine.” Slate reassured him, and Forest lead him over to where his friends and Ember (just emerging from under Horizon’s cloak) were looking over the gleaming empire at the crystal gates.

“Wow. That’s bright.” Solar commented, having to cover his eyes with a hoof for a second at the glimmering houses and the sheer whiteness of the light spilling from the castle.

Slate led them down the paths to the Castle. The castle arched over a plaza which was ornately decorated with a massive, snowflake design, and the whole thing looked like it was sculpted from ice. Slate showed them up the stairs through the palace doors and to the throne room, where Forest’s eyes widened to see Prince Arctic slouched upon the crystal throne, his head sagged and his horn constantly glowing a bright blue as he sat there. He perked up, delight edging onto his exhausted face when he recognised his brother entering the room.

“Horizon!” Arctic chimed, trotting down the steps and embracing his brother after Horizon took his cloak off. “You sure are a sight for sore eyes. I’m so happy to see you out of that Guard disguise -”

Arctic’s horn flickered and he suddenly groaned, flinching and having to screw up his eyes as the orb surrounding the Empire stuttered. Forest and Slate approached him, and for the first time Forest noticed the massive bags under Arctic’s eyes as he forced his horn to stay alight.

“Hey, Forest. I really wish we could meet when the fate of Equestria doesn’t hang in the balance.” Arctic slurred, his eyes drooping as he tried to focus on Forest.

“Are you okay?” Forest asked, concern on his and Horizon’s face as Slate took his husband’s side to prop him up.

“Arctic has been using his magic to spread love and light across the Empire, and that seems to be what’s protecting it. For now.” Slate explained as Arctic sighed, leaning against Slate again. “But he hasn’t slept for days. He’s barely eaten too. I want to help, but my protection spells have already been countered by Sombra. I can’t do anything now.” Slate’s voice dropped as his eyes flicked up to his crystallised horn.

“It’s okay, Slate. I’m okay.” Arctic said, and his voice slurred again, making Horizon’s face set.

“You’re not fine. Your magic won’t last forever.” Horizon said with narrowed eyes, and Slate took a step forward.

“And you all saw what’s out there waiting for Arctic’s magic to fail.” Slate added, brushing up against Arctic’s side supportingly and affectionately.

“That’s why we’re here. Why we’re all here.” Forest said with a smile, and the other ponies and Ember made noises of agreement. “Any ideas on where to start, Slate?”

Slate thought for a second. “With Arctic here all the time casting his spell, and with me busy keeping an eye on trouble outside in the snow, neither of us have had much time to speak to the residents. I’m almost certain that at least one of the crystal ponies will have an idea on how they protected the Empire without using Arctic’s magic.”

“Don’t worry. I’m really good at this sort of thing. Arctic needs you, so you stay here.” Forest turned his attention to his friends. “Let’s split up across town so we can cover as many houses as possible.”

They all made noises of agreement and quickly left the castle, with Ember on Forest’s back as he went and knocked on a door. A light blue pony with a drooping, dull purple mane opened the door. Her eyes were tired and blank, like she couldn’t focus on Forest properly. Even her cutie mark - of a golden branch sprig - seemed faded and washed out.

Forest asked her about King Sombra and the Empire before his rule, but she only seemed to get more afraid past her monotone tired voice.

“Are you sure that that’s all you know?” Forest asked her gently again, and the pony blinked slowly, sorrow flickering in her gaze.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could help you, but I can’t seem to remember anything before King Sombra came to power -” She suddenly flinched, making a noise of terror as she was obviously overwhelmed by a flashback of Sombra’s cruelty. “I don’t want to remember it.”

“Sombra’s curse must by why the crystal ponies aren’t - uh - crystal-ey.” Forest whispered to Ember, remembering the difference of the appearances of the ponies in the vision Celestia had shown him and the pony in front of him now.

“Have we really been gone a thousand years?” The pony asked in her tired, monotone voice, and Forest nodded sympathetically. “It was like we were in limbo for only a day. Nothingness. Might as well have been yesterday.”

“If you think of anything, even the smallest thing, please let us know, all right? We’re here to help you all.” Forest said, and the pony didn’t even look at him.

“I will.” She said, before turning away and shutting the door.

“Well, that was a total bust.” Ember said as Forest began trotting down the steps.

“Yeah. Let’s hope the others are having better luck than us.” Forest said, opening his wings and flying back towards their rendezvous point that they’d agreed on in the plaza underneath the legs of the castle.

“Anything, anypony?” Forest asked Chocolate and Solar, who were already there.

They shook their heads.

“No. It’s like trying to talk to a brick wall.” Solar said with a sigh, and Chocolate nodded in agreement.

“They’ve got some super amnesia or something. Couldn’t remember anything.” Chocolate answered, and Forest sagged, turning to where Horizon and Lava had just arrived, and Red flew in over their heads too.

“Any luck?” He asked them with a little bit of dread on his voice, because deep down he knew what the answer was going to be.

“I got nothing so far.” Red said with an annoyed tone, shrugging as he landed next to Lava.

“Me either. Fucking useless.” Lava scoffed, scuffling at the floor with a hoof.

“Sorry, Forest. The only thing I could get out of them was about a library.” Horizon said, and Forest immediately perked up, eyes wide as he hopped into the air, flapping his wings erratically.

“A library? There’s a library?” He gasped in delight, his hooves on his face, and Lava rolled his eyes with a snort.

“Well if there’s anything in there, we should probably get going.” Solar said, wincing when Arctic’s spell visibly flickered again. “Poor Arctic probably won’t last much longer.”

They found the library since it was one of the biggest buildings in the town aside from the castle, with ornate crystal griffon statues guarding the steps and bejewelled doors. They trotted up the steps and pushed through the doors, revealing infinite shelves on glass floors and steps leading up and down several floors, and all were utterly crammed with books. Forest’s jaw dropped as he froze, glancing up and down the thousands of shelves he could see in front of him.

“Normally, I’d be super excited about this, but how are we going to find anything -” Forest began saying in a dry voice, before a quick ‘ahem’ in the corner made them all turn.

“Can I help you?” An elderly crystal pony with large round glasses and a roll of parchment as a cutie mark asked them. Like the other ponies, her coat was dull and her rosy pink mane was drooping and sagging as she looked at them with tired eyes.

“We’re looking for a book!” Forest announced to her.

“No shit, Sherclop.” Lava said sarcastically as the librarian blinked at Forest slowly, like a lizard.

“We have lots of those.” The librarian answered, and her answer wasn’t sarcastic like Lava’s but more like a plain, bland statement.

“We want a history book. Something that might tell us about how the Empire protected itself in the past?” Chocolate asked, pushing past Lava to stand next to Forest.

“Ah - oh yes, you want the history section.” The librarian thought for a second, before smiling at them.

Forest pulled a grin, waiting for her to say more, but she kept looking at them with a smile on her face.

“Which is - where?” Forest asked awkwardly, and the librarian blinked suddenly, her eyes refocusing on Forest.

The librarian looked around over her shoulder. “I - I can’t remember. I don’t think I even work here -”

“For the love of Celestia!” Lava groaned, face-hoofing in annoyance.

Forest folded his wings and turned to the others, trying to remain calm although his patience was limited. “It’s okay. We’ll take a look around and see if we can find it.”

“Let me know if you find anything.” The librarian said tiredly, before retreating into the corner again.

They spent the next hour aimlessly wandering the thousands of shelves. Whilst Chocolate and Lava kept trotting down shelves and scanning the bottom rows, Red and Forest kept flying up and down the higher shelves and knocking some down while Solar and Horizon sorted through the ones on the floor with their magic and horns making sorting through titles a lot easier.

As Red knocked piles of books to the floor, Forest and the unicorns rummaged through the titles, trying to find anything even remotely related to the history of the Empire. Horizon was floating lines of books in front of him in a conveyor belt like fashion and putting discarded books into a massive pile as he looked at them. Ember kept rummaging through the highest shelves too.

“Anyone else starting to think this is a lost cause?” Red asked, a massive pile of books in his front hooves as he hovered over them.

“Yeah. Maybe Sombra covered his tracks and got rid of anything that could help us?” Horizon suggested, still holding books with his magic as he turned to Forest as he panickedly zipped across the shelves, tossing books down to the floor.

“Or -” There was an oof as Chocolate shrieked and fell from the book ladder to the floor, before she got up with loud noises of delight as she cantered over to them with a book in her teeth. “Maybe I found one!”

Horizon and Solar immediately dropped the books they were holding with their magic as Forest gasped in joy, taking the book from her and sweeping discarded books aside to look at the cover.

“‘History of the Crystal Empire’ - this has got to be it. Let’s just hope it has the answers we need.” Forest whispered as he flicked the book open.

The ponies immediately returned to the castle upon scanning the book and deciding it was useful in order to inform Slate and Arctic, who was still keeping his spell up despite the fact he looked like he was on the verge of passing out.

“The book talks about the Crystal Faire. It was established by their first queen and it became their most important tradition. It says it was held every year to ‘renew the spirit of love and unity within the Empire in order to protect it from harm.’” Forest read aloud from the book, before looking up with shining eyes. “We can put the Faire together - the book has all the information we need to do it.”

“That sounds pretty promising!” Slate said in delight, turning to see what Arctic’s reaction was, and his smile quickly fell off his face when he saw how Artic was barely managing to sit up, let alone comment on it.

Forest set his face in determination. “We’ll get started right away. Come on, Ember.”

“The book says that they like jousting. I’ll track down the jousting equipment and set up a stand for it.” Red read as Forest trotted down the road with the book in his hoof as his friends trailed him.

“Traditional corn on the cob, fritters, crystal berry desserts - easy, I’ll get started on those.” Chocolate read, muttering the ingredients to herself for the faire stands. “I might need Ember to help me collect berries and cook the food.”

Ember immediately agreed, very happy to be able to help out.

“Lava and Solar, are you okay with setting up all the tents and stuff? We need places for the foods etcetera, so - tables, chairs - and we also need a paddock set up for the petting zoo.” Forest read aloud from the book.

“Not a problem, Forest!” Solar saluted him and Lava nodded at that too.

“Horizon - they need a traditional flag with their town colours, and we need bunting and other festival decorations stat. It’s also mentioned something about a crystal heart being the centrepiece - are you able to try and make one?” Forest looked up at Horizon.

“Okay. Don’t know how good the heart will be since I’m used to carving ice, not crystal, but I’ll try.” Horizon said, and Forest nodded, shutting the book.

“Let’s get started, then. We don’t have any time to lose.” Forest announced, and they all immediately got to their jobs.

Forest flew around checking how everything was going. With Lava’s strength and Solar’s magic, the two were making quick work in setting up all the stands and tents. It was clear that the two were very coordinated from working together when planning Slate and Arctic’s wedding.

As Forest flew past them, he saw Red flying past in the traditional jousting armour as he was pulling past strands of bunting that Horizon was putting together. Horizon seemed to be skilled in fabric as well, summoning and stitching things together with his magic at ease. Red was weaving past Forest and tying up bunting and flags and banners as fast as Horizon was making them.

He watched Chocolate rushing past with carts full of fresh food as Ember kept it all warm with her feathers, and setting up all the stands full of things she’d just baked. Immediately after she’d finished emptying the cart, she’d rush back to the palace kitchens and emerge with more and more amazing smelling carnival food.

Ember flew past Horizon and picked up the massive traditional Crystal Empire flag with her claws, hanging it from the balcony as he finished embroidering the massive detailed snowflake detailing across the royal purple fabric.

Solar trotted underneath Forest as he was trailed by several brightly coloured lambs, which Forest now knew were the most common livestock of the Empire and used in the petting zoo for the younger ponies who attended the festival.

Lava was setting up another stand full of crystal buglehorns that Forest read were a traditional instrument of the Empire, and often bought as souvenirs at the festival. Horizon swiftly moved onto using his magic to weave straw into lanterns and other objects that also would dominate the stands as something that the ponies loved to buy.

As it drew into midday, Forest landed, wiping his forehead as he shut the book and the other ponies looked around in delight at what they’d done. Ember let loose a bunch of balloons as they escaped into the sky, and Forest was so genuinely delighted at what they’d all managed to achieve.

“This looks amazing! Horizon - how was the crystal heart coming on?” Forest asked the unicorn as he approached them.

“All done. I hope that’s okay.” Horizon said, floating the chiselled blue heart over to him, and Forest made another noise of excitement as he flapped his wings and took the heart, putting it on the plinth in the middle of the plaza.

“Nice work, everypony. I think we’re ready to get this festival up and running.” Chocolate announced, and Forest quickly flew up to the balcony of the castle that overlooked the empire to tell Slate and Arctic that they’d finished.

“Hear ye, hear ye!” Slate called, his voice echoing out over the entire empire as Arctic stood drooping next to him with his horn still glowing. “Prince Arctic Aurora and Captain Slate Cyclone do cordially invite all the residents of the Crystal Empire to attend the Crystal Faire!”

Forest looked over the balcony and his eyes lit up when there were gasps of realisation and shock from the crystal ponies as they looked up and saw all the festivities. There were flashes as their dull coats suddenly bloomed into bright, sparkling colour and their eyes finally glistened with joy and the purity of the Empire. There was chattering and gasps as all the ponies rushed from their houses into the faire, with their coats sparkling again once their memories came flooding back.

Forest opened his wings and flew down to where his friends were waiting, who looked delighted at this turnout already.

“Hey, everypony!” Chocolate said, leading the ponies into the faire. “Food and drinks are that way, games and crafts are that way, and the Crystal Heart is in the back with the Princes!”

“Did she just say the crystal heart?” One of the crystal ponies muttered in excitement to his friend as the crowd erupted into excited chatter again as they dispersed amongst all the stores and tents.

Forest landed next to Solar, where he was tucking into one of the crystal corn-on-the-cobs that Chocolate had made. He watched as a couple of crystal ponies walked past, still with dull coats and drooping manes.

“Seeing all this - I feel like I’m starting to remember things. Things from before the King.” One of them said, who had a green balloon tied to her hoof as she walked.

“Me too.” The other one replied, and there was silence for a second before the two mares gasped, delight on their faces as their coats erupted back into bright crystal colours and sparkled as they looked at each other.

“The Crystal Heart!” They said simultaneously, grins of joy on their faces.

“Do you think they really have it?” One of the mares said to her friend.

“Of course we have it.” Solar said with a grin, slinging an arm around the neck of one of the mares. “Can’t have a Crystal Faire without the Crystal Heart, right?”

“Of course you can’t.” A new voice mumbled, and Forest and Solar turned to see the librarian standing there with a traditional hat on and a few balloons in her hooves. She was muttering to herself, her eyes darting around behind her glasses as her memories flowed back and her voice got louder and more excited the more she remembered. “The purpose of the Crystal Faire is to lift the spirits of the crystal ponies, so that the light within them can power the Crystal Heart, so that the Crystal Heart can protect the Empire!” She gasped, and her coat flashed as it began sparkling and blooming into colour again. “And I do work at the library!”

“Um - what was that about powering the Crystal Heart?” Forest asked hastily, pushing past Solar as his stomach dropped.

“I just can’t believe you’ve found it! King Sombra said he’d hidden it away where we’d never see it again!” The librarian clapped her hooves in joy, letting loose her coloured balloons. “I hope it’s just as powerful as it was all those years ago - ooh, funnel cake.” Distracted, she trotted away as Solar and Forest exchanged horrified looks.

Forest immediately zipped over the tents and snatched down the massive flag, landing down and covering the heart Horizon had made with it, panting as terror made him begin shaking in fear. Solar cantered after him, skidding to a halt as Forest pulled the flag right over the plinth holding the fake heart. Horizon made a noise when the flag covered his head slightly as he sat next to it reading the book.

“What are you -”

“I think we may have a problem!” Solar said in terror, tapping his hooves erratically as Forest panted and gasped for air.

Forest and Horizon immediately went up to the balcony where Slate and Arctic were, leaving Solar behind to guard the covered heart.

“I didn’t know the Heart was an actual relic!” Forest yelped in horror, flicking through the book rapidly. “It didn’t mention anything about the crystal ponies powering the heart -” He suddenly stopped short with a gasp of horror when he saw the ragged edge of a torn out page at the end of the book. “Horizon, you were right. Sombra did cover his tracks after all so we wouldn’t find out about the Heart!”

“It’s okay, Forest.” Arctic slurred, and Horizon and Forest watched in horror as Arctic swooned, his eyes rolling back in his head as his legs gave.

Slate caught Arctic as he fell, and the three ponies made noises of terror as Arctic’s horn flickered before his magical aura completely dissipated, and the icy magic globe surrounding the Empire and keeping Sombra out fizzed and melted away.

With no barrier, Sombra’s glowing green eyes snapped open.

The shadows advanced, billowing and engulfing the Empire, and all Forest and Horizon could do was watch as Sombra’s laughs echoed across the castle.

Chapter Text

“The Empire is under attack!” Slate said in horror, his ears flattening as Sombra’s shadows advanced.

There was a low rumbling as Forest leant over the balcony, his mane ruffling in the sudden freezing arctic wind, and he gasped when Sombra’s eyes glowed in the distance, and his head began reforming as he advanced towards the gates with his curved red horn ablaze.

Arctic wobbled to his hooves, determination and agony on his face as he reared his head back, his own horn igniting in his ice blue magic again, and the shield began flickering and reforming. Sombra screamed as he lunged towards the gates, trying to get through, but he was too slow, and Arctic’ magic immediately solidified in front of his face, slicing off the tip of Sombra’s curved red horn. Sombra howled in agony, and vanished behind the shields.

Forest could barely breathe a sigh of relief because he knew that they were far from safe yet. Arctic swooned again, his horn still flickering with faint magic as Slate immediately moved in to prop him up again.

“I have to find the Heart.” Slate growled, pain on his face as he watched Arctic have to fall back on his haunches, still panting with absolute agony flickering in his eyes.

“No. You’ve got to stay with Arctic.” Forest said as Arctic leant against Slate with his eyes screwed shut. “He needs you, Slate.”

Slate’s eyes were full of conflicting emotions at seeing his husband in so much pain and obviously wanting to do whatever he could to help him, but not wanting to leave him at the same time.

“I’ll go and get the Heart.” Forest opened his wings and Ember and Horizon immediately began following him as he began zipping right through the castle.

“Let’s do it!” Ember announced, and Forest bit his lip as he flew down the corridors.

“I’ve been thinking about what it was Celestia wanted me to do. Finding the Heart must be it.” Forest said as he thought hard, still focusing on flying through the corridors. “But I need you and Horizon to do something else -”

“Name it.” Horizon said as he cantered alongside Forest as he began flying down the stairs.

“You and the other ponies have to keep the Faire going.” Forest answered, out of breath as they went down the staircase.

“What? With Sombra trying to get in?” Ember squawked.

“Exactly - the whole point of the Faire is to lift the spirits of the crystal ponies so they can power the Heart. If they find out that Sombra’s attacking again, their spirits will be anything but lifted.” Forest puffed, flying through the doors of the castle as they went towards where Solar was still hiding the fake heart with the flag. “It won’t matter if I find the Heart or not - if they’re not happy, they won’t be able to make it work. You have to keep them distracted while I try and get the real Heart.”

“Keep the Faire going. You got it!” Solar saluted at Forest as he flew over his head and Horizon began guarding the fake heart too.

“Be careful, Forest!” Slate called down to him from the balcony as Forest immediately began flying over the Faire.

Chocolate was still making food and passing it out to ponies from one of her stands as they began gasping in delight as their coats reverted back to their crystally sheens, and Forest and Ember landed next to her as she was holding a crystal berry pie out to one of the other ponies.

“Chocolate!” Forest hissed, beckoning over to her so she could hear what he was whispering in her ear as he filled her in on the Heart and Sombra attacking.

“Huh?” Chocolate suddenly gasped in horror, before flinching when all the crystal ponies turned to look at her with suspicion on their faces.

“I - I mean, I just found out - um - that they’re offering face paint for the little ones.” Chocolate scrabbled around and managed to spit out the lie, grinning sheepishly as she scooped up Ember in her forelegs and began rocking the phoenix around like a baby.

The ponies started smiling at that and started leaving for the other stalls. Chocolate sighed and put Ember down, who only huffed and poked her beak into the air, obviously embarrassed.

“Can you tell Red and Lava to keep the ambience up as much as possible while I go and look for it? Make them start a jousting match or something.” Forest asked her in a low voice, and Chocolate nodded immediately.

“Sure - good luck though, Forest.” Chocolate said, gulping nervously at the sight of Arctic’s force field stuttering and flickering again.

As Forest turned, unsure of where to go next, the castle immediately began shimmering in the light, and he gasped, a sparkler lighting in his head as he opened his wings and began flying towards it. Ember began trailing him as he flew, stretching his body out as he shot towards it.

“Where are you going, Forest?” She asked, and Forest gritted his teeth.

“I think the Heart might be in the castle. Sombra must have hidden it in there because he knew none of the crystal ponies would dare to look for it in there.” He answered, and Ember shot in front of him, forcing him still in his tracks.

“I’m coming with you.” Ember said, setting her face in determination, and Forest widened his eyes, shaking his head at her.

“You can’t, I’m sorry - Celestia said I have to do this by myself -”

“I know - I won’t help you, I promise. Just let me be there, please!” Ember began pleading, and Forest couldn’t help sighing in relief at that, because in reality, he was hoping Ember would insist. He really didn’t want to be undergoing that immense pressure alone.

“Okay. Come on.” He answered, and they flew over where Horizon and Solar were still distracting ponies from the fake Heart and waving them away before they got too near.

“I really hope you’re right about the castle.” Ember whispered as they flew through the door.

“Me too.” Forest muttered.

He was flying up and down the castle like an utter lunatic, zipping down corridors and pushing furniture across the room as he was panting and trying to look behind every crystal in the entire castle. Ember followed him, looking upset that she couldn’t help him search, but Forest was glad she wasn’t because that would have been an additional weight on his mind that he wouldn’t have been able to deal with.

Forest pushed another statue aside with a gasp of exhaustion and groaning loudly when another room proved to be empty of any stolen relics. He immediately opened his wings again and began scouring another room.

“It has to be here somewhere!” He muttered, landing on his hooves and starting to scour the skirting boards lining the crystal pillars. “Ember! Don’t help me!” He shot out as Ember sheepishly grinned and laid the corner of the rug she was lifting up back down again.

“Okay - but Forest, what if we - I mean - you - don’t find it in time?” Ember asked, wincing as Arctic’s spell flickered again from the window.

Forest’s ears flattened at her words as they trotted past the door to the throne room, which they’d already searched. “I don’t know - wait!”

Something caught the corner of his eye and he gasped, immediately flying back through the throne room doors as Ember followed him. He landed, walking hesitantly towards the throne along the rug lining it as his hooves echoed in the empty room.

He looked up at the massive crystal throne with wide eyes, his breathing catching in his throat as the holographic purple of the gem glittered. As he flew up to it and scoured around, he felt his stomach constrict when he recognised the gem formations. He ran a hoof over the surface of the bottom of the throne, feeling his hoof catch against a ripped out section of the throne where some of the gem must have been torn out.

Forest ran his hoof over it again, suddenly remembering Celestia holding the fragment of gem that she said she’d managed to take from the Empire before it vanished.

“Is this where you got it from?” He breathed to himself as he narrowed his eyes and glanced up and down the throne again.

“When the Empire is filled with fear and hatred -” A ghost of Celestia’s voice echoed as he gazed up at the top gem formation of the throne, and Forest gasped when he remembered Celestia’s horn and eyes glowing with that same, cold, evil magic of Sombra’s as she used it on the gem back in Canterlot -

“I understand now!” Forest yelped as Ember landed on his back, still running his hoof over the gems. “This castle isn’t King Sombra’s! That’s why we can’t find the Heart -”

“But - isn’t this where he lived when he was in control?” Ember asked, and Forest nodded hard, the sudden realisation rushing so fast to his head that he thought he might faint.

“Yes, but it didn’t look like this!” He breathed, his eyes glazing over when he remembered how the touch of Sombra’s magic on the gem of Celestia’s had turned it that cold, inky black. “Quick - go and get Horizon!” Forest suddenly yelled, tossing her off his back as she squeaked and flapped her wings to get upright.

“Horizon - but - what about -” Ember asked hesitantly, and Forest scowled at her, stamping a hoof on the ground.

“I know - but there isn’t time for me to find another way.” He said, raising his voice when she hesitated again. “Go! NOW!”

She immediately shot off out of the window whilst Forest paced, still flying up and running his hooves around the throne to try and see if he could find a secret entrance that didn’t need magic to activate it, although deep down Forest knew that Sombra was a unicorn. There was no way that he would have hidden the Heart in a place that any pony could access - after all, crystal ponies did not have unicorn magic. He swallowed hard to ease the tightness in his throat.

Ember screeched, flying back into the room as she was tailed by Horizon cantering behind her down the throne room.

“No time to explain -” Forest panted as Horizon skidded to a stop, and Forest pointed a hoof up at the top crystal in the throne. “I need you to think the darkest thoughts you possibly can -”

“Dark thoughts?” Horizon asked, confusion on his face, and Forest nodded, forcing himself not to back down now.

“Fear, hatred - every negative emotion you can think of - and concentrate that into your horn and try and cast it onto the throne -” Forest explained hastily. “Please, I know it’s strange, but you’re going to have to trust me -”

Horizon looked at him with a soft understanding in his eyes. “With my life.”

Forest took a step back, Ember landing on Forest’s back as Horizon spread his hooves and his horn ignited. He didn’t have time to think about how fast his heart was beating when Horizon screwed his eyes shut as he grunted, twisting up his face as his normal red and white gradient of his magical aura began darkening. It looked horrifying, and Horizon audibly made a noise of agony as his magic turned that same inky black and began crackling.

“More!” Forest yelled at Horizon as he cried out again, his eyes beginning to leak that same purple smoke as Sombra.

Horizon screwed his eyes tighter as his horn began bubbling with the neon greens and purples of Sombra’s evil magic, before rearing his head back and shooting a crackling ray of black electricity at the top of the throne. Forest immediately rejoiced when it encircled the throne and the purple colour of the crystals began draining away when the shadow of the magic cast across them. As the shadow cast across the ground, the floor of the throne room began melting away, revealing a hidden staircase that winded down into darkness.

Horizon’s horn crackled as he gasped, blinking and wiping at his head when the magic vanished from his horn and eyes. Forest flew over to help him stand up steady on his hooves.

“You did it, Horizon!” Forest gasped, looking down at the winding stone staircase.

“That much hatred in magic is dangerous.” Horizon breathed, still swallowing hard as he swayed slightly on his hooves.

“I don’t think the kind of magic Sombra uses is harmful on its own, but when it’s combined with these crystals -” Forest shook his head to get back into focus as Arctic’s magic stuttered again. “Only the Heart can produce the love and light needed to repel it forever.”

“How did you know to get Horizon to do that?” Ember asked, gulping loudly as they looked down into the seemingly endless winding stairs that vanished into the shadows.

“A little trick Celestia taught me.” Forest said dryly, opening his wings as he began flying down the centre of the stairs. Ember and Horizon made to follow, but he turned back, shaking his head. “You two wait here.”

“If you insist.” Ember whispered, shuddering as a gust of cold wind blew up from the hidden staircase.

He was flying for a few seconds when Horizon’s voice called down. “Can you see how far down this goes?”

“I don’t know - I can’t even see the bottom!” Forest called back, frowning and squinting as he hovered in the middle of the spiral staircase.

He turned back and kicked off a fragment of rock from the side of the wall of the staircase with a hoof, before nudging it off the edge and pricking his ears to hear it clatter when it hit the bottom. But as he waited for about 30 seconds, he began frowning, rubbing at his ears to try and clear them, when a clunk suddenly echoed up the staircase.

He grimaced, running the numbers through his head. By multiplying the amount of time it took for the rock to fall by the speed of gravity, then he had a lot of stairs to get through.

“Ember? What’s it like outside?” He called up, sudden fear in his stomach as Ember’s head vanished from where they were looking down at him.

He heard Ember gasp as she flew back to look down at him next to where Horizon was looking too, and they both had grimaces of fear on their faces.

“Not good - Sombra’s starting to get through the shield. Arctic’s magic must be fading by the second!” Ember called, and Forest flinched with a gasp as Sombra’s voice began echoing through the castle.

‘Yes… crystal…”

Forest panicked and shot down the stairs, folding his wings close to his sides as the cold, damp cave air rushed against his face and buffeted his mane. He was incredibly grateful that he wasn’t going to have to take the stairs by hoof, and had to screw his eyes shut as it blew into his eyes. The cave seemed to be getting narrower and he suddenly yelped, kicking his legs and trying to slow his speed, but as he scraped around, one of his wings caught the side of the wall and he shrieked. Tumbling through the air, Forest managed to flail out his legs, managing to jam his front and back hooves on the wall, scraping down and just about coming to a stop as he panted and gasped in shock and pain.

As he cracked an eye open, he saw how close his muzzle was to the floor of the staircase and exhaled hard, carefully letting himself down to the floor with winces and groans of agony as he twitched his wing, seeing how battered it was. He yelped in pain when he tried to touch it with a hoof.

“Forest? Are you okay?” Horizon’s voice echoed down, and it was faint from how far he’d fallen down.

“Yep!” His voice was strained as he gritted his teeth, his eyes streaming in pain.

He didn’t have time to focus on how much his wing hurt when he noticed a door opposite him. As he hobbled over to it, he suddenly forgot his pain when he realised in delight that this had to be it - the Heart had to be behind this door.

Forest grabbed the handle and pulled it open, and light spilled out.

“I think I found it!” He gasped, trotting through the doorway and into the bright light.

But as the light faded and his eyes focused, he frowned with a gasp as he looked around to recognise the throne room - in Canterlot. Forest’s jaw dropped as he turned around, darting his eyes around, when a voice behind him, steely and cold, made him flinch.

“What are you doing here?!” Celestia snarled, glaring at him with fury on her face as Forest gasped and took a step back from her.

“I don’t know - I went through the door and -” Forest’s words suddenly died in his mouth when he saw his friends stood behind her. Ember, Solar, Chocolate, Lava, Red - and Horizon - all turned there with their backs towards him.

Celestia’s face twisted as she opened her wings, taking an aggressive step towards Forest. “Get out of here, Forest. Go away.”

“Go? Go where?” Forest asked her, shock making his voice tremble and waver, and Celestia scoffed loudly, baring her teeth.

“Doesn’t matter to me. You’re not my student anymore!”  Celestia roared, slamming a hoof down on the ground in front of him so he flinched backwards. “You’re a failure - here and in every universe!”

“What? But - how did you know -” Forest gaped, tears beginning to run down his face as she towered over him.

But as she advanced aggressively towards him, pure hatred and fury rolling off her, he looked through her legs to see his friends walking away. They moved slowly, but they didn’t look back - and as Forest watched in horror, completely ignored him when he called.

“Wait - guys - Chocolate? Ember - wait - don’t leave me!” He wailed, trying to get around Celestia, but she grabbed him with her magic so he couldn’t move. He shrieked, trying to struggle free, but she was too strong, and Forest wailed, tears running down his face as his friends began vanishing.

“No! Horizon - Horizon! Wait - please don’t go - don’t leave me! Horizon!” He howled, but Horizon didn’t even flinch. “Shouto!”

And then, to Forest’s horror, their pony bodies vanished, and it wasn’t his pony friends he saw abandoning him, but the human ones. The ones who had abandoned him once before - and they were doing it again.

“NO! No - no -” His voice trailed off to a pathetic whimper as they vanished, and Celestia dropped him, but Forest lay there and didn’t get up as he sobbed.

Celestia cackled, loud and cruelly, and her voice distorted into Sombra’s evil laughs as Forest looked up and saw how one of the glass windows in the throne room was different - and it showed Forest writhing and burning in a ball of flame as Sombra’s glass jaws opened, threatening to engulf him.

But just when Forest wanted to give in and let it take him away, a bright gold light bathed all over him.

Her voice echoed across it all.

“Enough.”

Celestia disintegrated, and the throne room melted away, and Forest was left sat in an empty bright white void. There was nothing as far as his eyes could see.

And then She approached him.

She walked in front of him in an alicorn Form - but She was as bright and ethereal as the night Forest had met Her. Her legs were long and delicate and Her mane and tail shone with the entire light of the Multiverse as She opened her four enormous wings, blazing pure beams onto his tiny pathetic body. Forest barely reached the top of Her shining, twisted armoured hooves.

“She.” Forest breathed, craning his neck to look up at Her as her kind, bright eyes trained down on her, full of the wisdom of the Multiverse.

“Izuku. Or maybe This One should call you Forest?” She said, and Forest hurriedly got to his hooves as Her delicate neck bent down to get a better look at him.

“I - I guess you saw all that, huh?” Forest said timidly, his voice still cracking as the tip of She’s flowing mane brushed against him.

“This One sees all, my child.”

“Listen, She - I’m sorry. I am - I don’t think it matters where I am - but I’m useless as ever.” Forest breathed, his eyes down to his hooves.

“Your fears are still here.” She commented, and Forest nodded pathetically as She gently bowed her head so the tip of her enormous, curved golden horn touched him on the top of his head.

She noticed how he looked up at Her horn with such a burning desire and jealousy and want and hope, and Forest immediately felt horrified, but She only seemed to be amused as she lifted her head again and folded her four wings.

“Come, my child. Let us walk.”

She was a thousand times bigger than he was, and he had to take about ten steps for every one of Hers, but Her hooves made no noise on the glowing floor of the void. They were going somewhere, since they were walking, but at the same time they were going nowhere. Only the pure white void surrounded them.

Forest finally spoke. “I feel like this is only a repeat of everything from before. I didn’t have a quirk, and all that -” He swallowed and shook his head to clear it. “-happened. And now I don’t have a horn and I- I - I’m scared it’s going to happen again -”

“I cannot grant you a horn, Forest.” She said, suddenly stopping as Forest skidded to a halt next to Her.

“I mean, Celestia I could understand, but why can’t you?” Forest asked Her, his voice trailing off as She turned to him, her eyes ablaze with the light of the Multiverse.

“Forest. There are two single things that This One cannot change.” She answered. “This One cannot interfere with free will, and This One cannot change the flow of the Multiverse.”

He was silent for a few seconds. “Would giving me a horn change the Multiverse that much?”

“Beyond anything imaginable.” She replied. “The smallest act can cause everything to spiral beyond control.”

“But She -” Forest’s eyes welled up and he was crying before he could stop himself. “I don’t see how anything else can make me feel like I’m worth something - like I -”

She silenced him with a hoof against his mouth.

“Nothing is beyond This One’s knowledge.” She said. “You and This One both know that your fears are not from your lack of magic, Forest.”

Forest was silent again as She drew Herself upright. But Forest didn’t object, because She knew everything, and She was never wrong.

“Go back, Forest. This One thinks that somepony is looking for you.” She said with amusement on Her voice.

“She? What do you mean -” He began asking her, but She opened Her four white wings and Forest was blinded, yelling as he felt Her push him from the void.

And there was a noise like water rushing through his head as he froze, falling into the black, when noises finally pushed through the river running through his ears.

“...rest? Forest? Forest!”

Forest gasped, his stomach lurching when he screwed his eyes shut and opened them again.

“Forest? Oh Celestia - Forest, are you okay?” He heard Ember and Horizon’s voices and his heart was suddenly light because they were here and they hadn’t abandoned him -

The cave came into focus and Forest muttered, shaking his head to clear his swimming vision when Horizon helped him to his hooves.

“Forest - I’m sorry, I know you told me to stay up there but you went quiet for ages and then you started crying and yelling and I couldn’t wait here -” Ember began spilling as tears ran down her face and Forest immediately embraced her hard.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.” Forest whispered, running a hoof over her head, and Horizon’s gentle but firm presence at his shoulder kept him steady.

“The door’s open - why didn’t you go through?” Horizon began saying, turning towards it.

“Horizon - wait!” Forest yelled, but it was too late, and the magic from the top of the door flashed, making Horizon freeze as his eyes glazed over and turned green as he stared at the entrance like a statue.

“Canterlot - no - no - gotta get out -” Horizon began muttering, his eyes wide and his body froze as Forest and Ember watched. “Not here - not here  - no! What are you doing? No - stop - stop it -”

Forest flinched as Horizon cried out and his form stiffened, his hooves flying to his scarred eye as he writhed and wailed in agony.

“No - leave him alone! NO! Me, not him - no! Stop it! NO! NO!” Horizon began screaming, his horn sparking, and Forest couldn’t watch it any longer, lunging into Horizon and knocking him clear of the door so they tumbled away.

The enchanted lock of the door flickered off and Horizon’s eyes refocused as the green faded from his irises, but Forest didn’t miss the tears running down his face as he wobbled to his feet.

“Are you okay?” Forest asked him gently, helping him up to his hooves again.

“What was that?” Horizon asked in a shaking voice, and Forest gazed back at the door.

“Another trick of Sombra’s. A door that shows you your worst fear.” Forest breathed, turning to Horizon. “What did you see?”

Horizon dipped his head. “My father.”

He didn’t go any further than that, and Forest frowned.

“You didn’t see a four winged alicorn, right?” He asked, and from the confused looks on his and Ember’s faces, he internally sighed in relief when Horizon obviously hadn’t seen She.  “Uh - never mind, it’s fine.”

“How are we going to get through that door?” Ember asked, visibly trembling, and Forest suddenly lit up when he remembered Celestia’s lesson from before -

“If the Empire is filled with hope and love, this is reflected across all of Equestria.”

“Love and light neutralises Sombra’s magic. Horizon, are you okay with trying that?” Forest asked him, and Horizon wobbled to his hooves, wiping his face hastily with a hoof.

“Yeah.”

A pink curl of magic flew from Horizon’s horn as he exhaled slowly, his eyes sliding shut, and the door frame glowed a bright gold as a rainbow sheen spilled from it, and the frame flashed for a second. The door swung open, and Forest stepped through it hesitantly, but wasn’t faced with Canterlot. He grinned in delight when he looked up to see what seemed to be another part of the crystal palace.

“What can you see?” Ember asked as Forest glanced up and his smile promptly fell off his face.

“More stairs.” He sighed, and Horizon and Ember followed him through the door, having to crane their necks  to look up, where the pillars of winding stairs only got smaller and smaller and disappeared from sight. “Lots of stairs.”

Forest glanced down at his wing, which was still hanging limp by his side from where he’d injured it earlier. “Guess I’m not flying this one.”

As he took the first few steps by hoof, he noticed how Horizon and Ember were still hanging around at the bottom. Forest turned to them, his heart thudding slightly when he saw how intently Horizon was looking at him with his heterochromic eyes.

“Maybe you two should come with me this time.” Forest smiled, and Ember’s face immediately lit up as Horizon blinked in agreement.

Forest began trotting up, full of renewed energy as Horizon followed closely behind with Ember on his back, but after almost half an hour of just walking up endless stairs, Forest was beginning to have to pull himself up them with loud pants. Horizon exhaled hard, sitting down for a second to catch his breath as they looked up again to see more winding stairs that stretched up further than he could see.

“What if this is more of Sombra’s magic?” Ember asked, frowning as she craned her neck to look up. “He made a door that leads to your worst fear - why not a staircase that goes on forever?”

“Hm…” Forest muttered, looking up at the stairs again. “The undersides of the stairs are smooth - would sure be easy if we could just slide down those -” He gasped, hopping upright again. “A gravity spell! I studied those this morning thinking it would be on my test -”

“I can try that - hold onto me.” Horizon ordered, and Forest did so, feeling his heart stutter slightly when Horizon pulled Forest’s hoof around his neck.

Horizon grunted, his horn lighting up as he lifted Forest and Ember off the ground with his own body, before there was a bright flash, forcing the three of them upside down as it reversed their gravity. Forest yelped as they landed on the underside of the stairs, and Ember screeched in terror as she held on tight to Forest’s back as he began sliding down on his hooves.

“AAHH!!” Forest shrieked, spinning around as they zipped down the stairs like a slide, and Horizon was making noises of shock as he too struggled to get control.

Ember soon began to see the amusement behind it all as she whooped in joy and Horizon and Forest yelled in fear.

“That - that’s light!” Forest yelped, having to force his eyes open past the wind blowing in his face. “We’re at the top of the castle -”

Horizon’s horn ignited again and he flipped them all the right way up as they reached the top. Forest gulped, trying to force down his nausea as he glanced out of an opening in the staircase to look out. His stomach dropped when he saw Sombra’s black crystal spreading through the Empire as the crystal ponies screamed and ran out of control. The Faire seemed to have been forgotten as Forest noticed how they were beginning to gather where the fake crystal heart was.

“Quick, we have to hurry -” Forest whipped around where the wind was buffeting through the top of the castle tower, and he gasped in joy when he saw the Crystal Heart - the real Crystal Heart - hovering in the centre of the tower, gleaming as brightly as ever like a true relic of powerful magic.

He hesitated, and Horizon and Ember beckoned him forwards, telling him that it was his mission to get it. Forest nodded, silently thanking them both, and took a step towards where the Crystal Heart was levitating.

The second his hooves touched the tiles under the Heart, it immediately turned black, and Forest gasped in horror as Sombra howled, his screeching making the entire Empire tremble as he obviously sensed somepony was near the Heart.

“Forest!” Horizon yelled, leaping for him, and he collided with Forest, pushing him out of the way and knocking the Heart out from the circle just as black crystal shot up, encasing them both and trapping them in the tower.

Sombra’s laugh echoed as Horizon and Forest scrambled to their hooves, and thunder clashed outside when Arctic’s magic flickered again.

“The Heart? Where’s the Crystal Heart?” Forest began panicking, rushing around their crystal circle.

“Here - it rolled over here when you two knocked it -” Ember said, squawking as she tried to fly over to it, but black crystal kept spiking up where she tried to land and get over to the Heart.

“Don’t move - we’ll try and get out -” Forest muttered, opening his wings and trying to fly out of the top.

His injured wing screamed in pain and he gasped as it gave out in the air. Horizon immediately caught him with his magic before he hit the ground.

“Let me try this -” Horizon grabbed Forest’s hoof and his horn lit up as he tried teleporting them both.

Forest’s stomach twisted as they appeared outside the crystal prison, but Sombra’s dark magic immediately grabbed them and forced their bodies back inside almost immediately. Forest yelped when he realised that Horizon’s magic had failed too.

“No! NO!” Forest cried out, trying to scrabble away at the crystal with his hooves.

“Forest, you have to get out - you have to be the one to get the Crystal Heart back to Arctic -” Ember said in terror, and Forest wailed, trying to push at the crystal with his back as he scrabbled with his back hooves.

Forest peeked through a gap in the crystal, his heart dropping when he saw how Sombra’s dark crystals were spreading like a disease over the Empire. “It’s too late. Sombra is already attacking the Empire - he’s going to reach the crystal ponies any second now - he could hurt them, and Slate, and Arctic, and our friends -”

“We can find a way out -” Horizon started saying, but Forest shook his head, his face suddenly setting in determination.

“There isn’t enough time.” He cantered over to the other side of the crystal walls, peeking through to see Ember still backing away from the crystals spiking up as the Heart began rolling towards her. Forest exhaled, before standing upright. “Ember - you have to take the Crystal Heart down to the Faire -”

“What - but -” Ember began protesting, but Forest cut her short.

“Go!” Forest yelled.

“But -”

“Just go, Ember!” Forest howled, and Ember gasped, scrabbling to pick up the Heart with her sweaty claws as she opened her wings to try and fly it out.

The crystal growth around the tower immediately intensified and Forest could barely watch as Ember struggled to dodge it with the massive weight in her claws. Horizon was breathing heavily as they both squinted out through the gaps in the crystal.

Arctic’s spell flickered, before it completely collapsed, melting away so that Sombra’s storm began moving in.

“No - Arctic -” Horizon grimaced, terror on his face when they both realised that Arctic’s magic must have given out.

There were screams from the crystal ponies as they realised what was happening. As Forest watched them scatter and run, the Sombra cloud immediately engulfed them with loud laughs.

“My wonderful little slaves.” Sombra cackled as the crystal ponies shrieked and wailed in terror when more of Sombra’s black crystal kept springing up and encasing them.

“Here! Slate! Solar!” Forest heard Ember yell as she struggled to fly down. “I have the Crystal Heart!”

He heard Solar and the other ponies gasp when they looked up from the balcony to see Ember with the Heart in her claws. Sombra’s eyes flashed and he roared, baring his teeth as he leapt forwards, melting his body into the ground.

“That belongs to ME!” Sombra screamed, a massive shard of black crystal spiking and cracking from the ground as it shot upwards, his full unicorn from solidifying on the tip of the crystal as he lunged towards Ember.

Ember screeched when Sombra’s crystals caught her wings and she dropped the Crystal Heart, but as Sombra’s horn sparked, ready to snatch the Heart from her, Ember immediately lunged for it in midair with her beak despite the obviously agonising crystal growths in her wings stopping her flight.

There were gasps of horror from Solar and the other ponies down below when they saw that Sombra was going to get to it first. Sombra roared, licking his lips as he opened his jaw to snatch it from the air as it and Ember plummeted towards him.

Something in Arctic sparked as his eyes caught the distant glint of the Crystal Heart, and Forest and Horizon watched with wide eyes as a white and blue blur shot in front of Sombra, grabbing Ember from the air and holding the Crystal Heart with his magic as Sombra roared, craning his neck when Arctic flew over him.

There were gasps of joy from the crystal ponies as Arctic and the Heart flew over them.

“Behold, the Crystal Prince!” One of the ponies gasped as Arctic landed, the Crystal Heart glowing brightly as his cutie mark exploded into light as well.

“The Crystal Heart has returned!” Arctic’s voice rang out strong and clear, with no evidence that this was the same weak pony that they’d seen before, completely exhausted of his magic. “Use the light and love within you to ensure than King Sombra does not!”

Arctic’s magic floated the Heart over to the centre of the plaza, where the snowflake engravings immediately began lighting up in response to the presence of the ancient relic. The crystal pillars holding the heart shot up, and as it did so, the colour and shine came back to the drooping crystal ponies as they bowed down to the Heart and the Prince. Where their muzzles touched the floor, it immediately began glowing with the light and joy inside their hearts.

“Wait - stop! NO!” Sombra roared as the light of the paths spread out, before condensing right to the centre of the Empire, collecting inside the Crystal Heart as it began spinning and glowing so fast that it was almost invisible to the naked eye.

The light pulsed outwards, spreading all over the Empire and crystallising Arctic and Ember so their coats and feathers glowed like the crystal ponies, and destroyed the black crystal of the evil king. Forest and Horizon let the light of the Crystal Heart wash over them and Forest gasped, lifting a hoof to see how his own coat was glimmering like the crystal ponies as the Crystal Heart continued to spin and pulse its magical waves of pure light.

Sombra howled as the light made him disintegrate, and Horizon and Forest immediately cantered over to look over the edge of the tower as Sombra and his forces were pushed outwards and destroyed, flung into the distance. The light of the Crystal Heart condensed in the castle and shot out from the top tower in bright rainbow colours, spreading across the entirety of Equestria.

“If the Empire is filled with hope and love, this is reflected across all of Equestria.”

Forest realised this was what Celestia had meant by it all. The Crystal Heart had the power to spread the love all across the nation from the Empire as its source.

“Good job, Ember. I’m proud of you.” Forest whispered, glancing over the edge of the tower.

Horizon turned to face him, and he too was glittering and sparkling like the crystal ponies and it just made that shine of joy in his irises glow brighter than the Empire. Forest found his heart beating incredibly hard and fast against his ribcage.

The crystal effect wore off as the ponies were walking back towards the train station. Forest’s wing had been healed by the Crystal Heart, but there was still a hollow feeling in his chest as Slate walked supportively alongside him.

“Everything’s going to be okay.” Slate said with a smile as Forest sagged his head. “You have got to stop saving my rump like this. It’s starting to get embarrassing -”

“But it wasn’t me that saved you. It was Ember.” Forest whispered, drooping his ears.

“Don’t worry. It’ll be okay - Celestia is a fair pony -” Arctic began saying, but Forest shook his head.

“No. I broke the one rule she said I had to follow. I guess I failed.” Forest breathed, and Arctic and Slate didn’t say anymore as Forest opened his wings and flew ahead of them.

He couldn’t stop thinking about what Sombra’s magic had shown him behind the door.

“You’re not my student anymore! You’re a failure - here and in every universe!”

“I guess some fears do end up to be true.” Forest whispered to himself as he walked slowly up to the throne room once they’d arrived back in Canterlot.

Celestia was looking out of the window, where the bright tendrils emanating from the Crystal Empire were lighting up the sky above Canterlot. “It is beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yeah - it is, but I wish it had been me who’d made it like that.” Forest sighed, barely able to look her in the eye. “I’m sorry. I broke that rule you gave me -”

“Forest. Ember brought Prince Arctic the Crystal Heart because you weren’t sure how quickly you were able to escape the tower.” Celestia said gently as they both glanced up at the new addition to the stained glass windows, which depicted Ember with her wings wide open as she glowed with the light of the Crystal Heart that hovered over her spread wings. “You weren’t willing to risk the safety of the crystal ponies in an effort to guarantee your own.”

“Really? You’re - you’re not angry with me?” Forest asked, and Celestia shook her head gently as she gently lifted Forest’s chin with a hoof.

“I would much rather have a student who understands the meaning of self-sacrifice than one who only looks out for his own best interests.” Celestia said in a soft voice as Forest gasped, looking up at her.

“Does this mean - does this mean I can move on? To the next level of study?” Forest asked with wide eyes, and Celestia smiled.

“Oh my stars - Forest’s going to lose it -” Ember was wailing as Forest pushed through the door, where she and the rest of Forest’s friends were waiting on edge, obviously incredibly afraid at what the verdict was.

“Well?” Red demanded, and Forest grinned.

“I passed!” He said in delight, and Chocolate whooped, immediately launching forwards to embrace him hard.

After an initial celebration, they began heading back to the train station to catch the next train back to Ponyville. Solar and Chocolate trotted ahead, chatting with each other, and Lava and Red walked behind them side by side with each other whilst Ember lay passed out and snoring on Lava’s back (the excitement of the day had absolutely worn her out).

Horizon was walking next to Forest with his cloak on as they trailed behind the other ponies. Forest bit his lip, finally forcing himself to say something.

“Horizon, you didn’t have to wait.” He said softly, hearing their hooves echo on the ground. “You could have gone home; there was no need for you to wait around in Canterlot -”

Horizon shook his head. “It’s all right -”

“No, Horizon - what was behind that door really scared you, didn’t it?” Forest breathed, turning to face him. “You were muttering about Canterlot - I - I just feel awful that I forced you to stay here when you obviously feel so unsafe here -”

“Nopony forced me to wait for you, Forest.” Horizon said in a stern but surprisingly gentle voice as he stopped, turning to face Forest. “That was my decision. I decided to wait for you.”

“Really? But -” Forest began saying, and Horizon shook his head again to stop him from saying any more.

“Things have really changed for me since I met you, Forest Flash.” Horizon said in a low voice, his eyes aflame under the shadow his cloak hood cast over his face. “I swear I’m never going to return to Canterlot but ever since you arrived in Ponyville I’ve set hoof in there more times in the last few months than I have for years.”

Forest’s mouth was dry. “Is that a bad thing?”

Horizon was silent for a second, before he looked up at him with such intensity in his eyes Forest almost wanted to avert his gaze.

“No. I don’t think so.” Horizon responded, before finally breaking eye contact and starting to follow the others.

Forest swallowed hard, before making to follow him, but Horizon suddenly stopped, turning to face him.

“Forest?”

“Yeah?” Forest responded, his voice threatening to crack as Horizon glanced at him.

“When I was under Sombra’s magic from the door - you said I was talking about Canterlot.” Horizon said in a low voice, sudden anxiety edging into his gaze. “Did - did you hear me mention anything else?”

“No - leave him alone! NO! Me, not him - no! Stop it! NO! NO!”

Horizon’s howls of complete terror refused to leave his head, but Forest looked up to see that almost pleading look in Horizon’s eyes that Forest hadn’t heard him. So Forest only forced his best look of confusion on his face and tilted his head.

“Anything else?” He echoed, pretending to think about it. “No. Nothing at all.”

The relief in Horizon’s eyes should have told him that that was the right answer, but if anything, Forest found himself more conflicted than ever.

Chapter Text

“Oh Celestia! What if I got it all wrong? What if all those flashcards I wrote weren’t enough?” Forest gasped, pacing up and down before he skidded to a halt with a gasp. “What if those textbooks didn’t have enough information in them? What if those textbooks were -” His voice dropped to a whisper. “- outdated?!”

“I ordered those textbooks last month, Forest.” Ember pointed out as Forest began yelping and hyperventilating, tapping his hooves erratically.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Red the one who’s waiting for the acceptance letter to the Wonderbolt Academy, not Forest?” Chocolate asked with confusion on her face as Forest made another noise of anxiety, immediately resuming his pacing.

“Yes, but Forest was the one who was tutoring Red in the written exam.” Horizon pointed out, all of the ponies giving Forest a side glance as he shrieked and fell to his knees.

“I can’t deal with this! I can’t - I can’t!” Forest wailed into his hooves, and Ember gave him a supporting pat on his head as he began shuddering and muttering to himself.

Red looked up from where he was leaning against his post box. “Forest, you gotta chill. There’s no point in being nervous - when I get into the Academy -”

“If you get into the Academy!” Forest yelled, leaping to his hooves and shaking Red harshly by the shoulders. “What if you don’t? It’ll be my fault - my fault that your dreams are crushed!”

Forest flopped backwards onto his back with another wail of despair as the other ponies exchanged another look. Red snorted.

“It’s fine. I got it in the bag.” Red announced, taking to the air and flourishing. “Forest’s tutoring was great - definitely wouldn’t have passed the written exam without him -”

“But we don’t know if you passed it yet!” Forest’s voice was muffled past his hooves. “Anything less than one-hundred percent  is a failure on my part -”

“Letter for Red Riot.” The mailpony, who had just arrived, said as she pulled it out of her bag, looking confused at why so many ponies were gathered around one post box.

The others were on the edges of their hooves as Red took the letter and opened it with his teeth, unfolding the paper with a massive grin on his face. But as he did so, the smile fell off his face and Forest gaped, forgetting to breathe as Red’s face suddenly went blank, and it looked like he was about to start tearing up.

“I didn’t get in.” Red whispered, and Forest made a whimpering noise as he collapsed backwards with his hooves over his face. The other ponies gasped in horror as Red looked away, and Lava looked ready to blow up the entirety of Cloudsdale with the rage on his face.

“That’s gotta be a mistake - no way they wouldn’t let Equestria’s Best Young Flier in -” Solar began protesting in denial, and Red suddenly grinned.

“I gotcha.” Red snickered, turning the page around to show that there was a big stamp of acceptance on there, making Forest’s eyes roll back in his head as he practically fainted in relief. The others sighed, relaxing their shoulders as Red flapped his wings, posing in the air again. “You guys are so gullible - sorry for messing with ya -”

“Like he wasn’t gonna get in.” Solar said, flapping a hoof, but he was obviously trying to calm down from his obvious distress from earlier.

Forest muttered something incoherent, still in shock as he wobbled to his hooves, finally managing to get back into a normal state as relief rushed over his head. Red zipped into his house, grabbing his saddlebags and putting the letter into it as the others turned to face him.

“They’ll practically ask me to be a Wonderbolt on the spot once I show them my stuff.” Red said confidently as he made to go and fly away, before skidding to a halt and turning back to Forest. “Forest, are you still okay with foalsitting Crimson?”

“Yep, no problem.” Forest answered, and Red looked relieved that Forest hadn’t suddenly changed his mind. Lava was originally going to be looking after Crimson but had ended up having to cancel since he’d had an increase in work with the mailponies (Lava used his increased strength to help them carry around large deliveries).

“Crimson’s saddlebags are in the living room - he’s at school and needs picking up in fifteen minutes -” Red seemed anxious to get going, and Forest smiled reassuringly.

“It’s fine. You should go - Crimson will be fine with me and Ember.” Forest reassured him, and Red sighed in relief, bro-hoofing Forest before trotting over to Lava, where the two exchanged an affectionate muzzle-rub.

Forest watched the two as they obviously said goodbye to each other with soft words that he couldn’t hear, and he scuffed at the ground with a hoof at the feeling of Horizon stood behind him. He sighed softly, but still perked a smile when Lava made a growling noise, annoyed at Red being affectionate in public, but Red only stuck his tongue out with a shit-eating grin, and Forest didn’t miss how Lava was flushing like he couldn’t believe Red was doing this.

“Okay then! See you all in a week!” Red called, opening his wings and zipping off as the other ponies waved and called after him.

“Good luck!” Chocolate yelled after him.

“Won’t need it!” Red yowled back as they waved him off.

“Right, Ember.” Forest said once Red had disappeared from sight as he put Crimson’s saddlebags over his back and started heading towards the Ponyville schoolhouse. “Let’s go get Crimson.”

 

-

 

Red flew through a dense patch of cloud and gasped in delight when he saw the mountains and cliffs where the Academy was located come into view. The massive runway for take offs came into focus, a massive long rectangle of grey, and Red could barely contain his excitement at how massive the facilities there were from his view above.

As he flew through it, he kept darting his eyes around and looking at all the buildings in the clouds such as the dorms and the mess hall. He watched in delight as he saw the instructors on the runway set off a group of cadets into the air, and looked up as he saw more groups of pegasi in their cadet uniforms making loops in the cloud circles. Yeah, they looked okay, but Red knew he was better than them, he thought as he puffed out his chest.

There were more cadets marching by in form as they were scrutinised by the coaches and more doing push-ups and chin-ups as other practiced their agility through the hoops. One of the pegasi was grunting and straining to finish his chin up, and Red scoffed.

“Amateurs. This is going to be awesome!” He whispered to himself as he flew past all the cadets to where the new arrivals were lining up. 

He landed, shrugging his saddlebags off as the other new cadets exchanged chatter of excitement. There were about seven other cadets there waiting. From what Red could see, he recognised Snowflake, the massive white buff pegasus stallion from Ponyville waiting there, along with another white pegasus stallion, a dark stallion with a light blue mane, a yellow mare, a pink mare and a purple mare. Red wriggled through them to get to a gap, standing between Snowflake and a silver pegasus stallion, who looked incredibly confident - almost enough to rival Red’s confidence, which made him, if anything, slightly underconfident.

“Well, lookee what we have here!” A new voice barked as they all immediately jumped to attention in shock, and Red recognised Spitfire, the leader of the Wonderbolts, march down the runway in her instructor’s uniform.

She was flanked by two other instructors and looked incredibly aggressive - nothing like the same pony who had thanked Red after he’d saved her and Solar from falling during the Young Flier’s competition. 

“Bet you all think you’re Wonderbolt material, right?” Spitfire spat, stalking past them with her sunglasses on and her whistle around her neck.

“Yes ma’am!” The cadets and Red all said simultaneously, all stood to attention as Spitfire eyed them all through her glasses with contempt and malice on her face.

“Think you’ve got what it takes to be an elite flier?” Spitfire shot at them all, whipping around and stalking back the other way.

I already am, Red thought to himself as he and the other cadets chanted “Yes ma’am!” at her again. Spitfire didn’t flinch, turning away and walking as she spoke.

“Well, let me be the first to say -” Spitfire whipped around and pushed her nose right into the yellow pegasus mare’s face as she shrunk back, a grimace on her face. “YOU DON’T!” Spitfire roared, causing them all to flinch in shock when she raised her voice.

“If you had what it takes to be an elite flier you’d already be a Wonderbolt!” Spitfire yelled, suddenly cornering the purple pegasus mare as her knees knocked in terror. “Still think you’re something special?” She demanded as the purple mare shrunk back.

“N-no, ma’am.” The purple mare’s voice trembled as Spitfire whipped back, continuing to stalk back down the line.

Oh - my turn now, Red internally cringed as Spitfire turned her attention onto him. This is just an act to scare the others into line - she already knows who I am -

“You look like you’re the worst flier in the whole Academy.” Spitfire growled, pushing her face into Red’s as he forced himself to remain stood to attention and looking straight ahead. “I bet you’d quit after the first day -”

Interesting choice of words considering I’m the one with the title of Best Young Flier. Red thought to himself as he blocked out her insults. She’s trying to knock me down because she knows I have an advantage over the others.

“No, ma’am. I’d never quit, ma’am!” Red barked out, still standing to attention and letting her know that she hadn’t gotten to him.

“Hm.” Spitfire said, before turning her attention to the silver stallion on Red’s left.

Red risked a look to the side to see who was going to be the unlucky pony who was going to get eh brunt of Spitfire’s aggression. His coat was silver, almost shining in the light, and his mane and tail were spiky, kind of like Red’s. He also had some strange markings around his eyes in darker grey, and he had a cutie mark of what looked like three silver claw marks down his flank.

“And you.” Spitfire shoved her muzzle into the silver pegasus’ face. He didn’t flinch. “You look like you couldn’t get to the first flagpole without getting winded -”

“Try me, ma’am.” The silver pegasus said with a confident smirk on his face.

Red’s eyes darted in his head and it took his entire being to not gasp in horror, because there was no way anypony would talk to Spitfire like that and get out of it alive -

“What’s that?” Spitfire said in a dangerously low voice, pulling her glasses down so she could look over them at the silver pegasus.

“Let me show you what I’ve got, ma’am!” The pegasus said confidently, puffing his chest out. Red realised in alarm that he had sharp teeth just like himself - guess that trait wasn’t as uncommon as he’d previously thought.

“Ah, I see - you want a chance to prove yourself!” Spitfire spat, glaring at him as she pushed her muzzle closer into his face.

“Yes, ma’am!” The pegasus replied, and Red internally cursed, wondering why he hadn’t thought of that before him.

“Well, now’s your chance.” Spitfire said in a sickly sweet voice, before her face twisted and she leapt into the air. “FIVE HUNDRED LAPS!! ALL OF YOU!” She screamed so loudly that Red almost fell over, before blowing her whistle so his ears began ringing.

He opened his wings and zipped off, leaving a red lightning trail behind him. He couldn’t help noticing as he pulled in front of the other cadets (who were, as he’d predicted, not exceptional fliers) that the silver pegasus was flanking him. Red narrowed his eyes with a grin at him, and the silver pegasus responded with a grin too, obviously seeing it as a challenge.

They were neck and neck practically the entire way around, lapping the other cadets several times, and as they drew up to their four hundred and ninety ninth lap, they flew so fast past the purple pegasus she gasped and tumbled in the air. The sheer speed of the red and silver pegasi caused a cloud of dust to fly into Spitfire’s face so she and the instructors coughed.

“Four hundred and ninety nine!” She yelled after them.

“One more lap to go!” Red grinned to himself, giving the silver pegasus a glance out of the corner of his eye.

“You’re on!” The pegasus said, narrowing his eyes with a grin, and they immediately sped up.

Red forced his body into an even more streamlined shape, the wind whistling around them. Occasionally one of them would pull up in front of the other and both were equally determined to win this final lap and finish first, but as they tucked their wings in and landed, skidding to a halt, it was pretty much equal as they stood there panting for air.

“Not bad - for a couple of newbies.” Spitfire commented with distaste on her voice, before disappearing in the other direction.

The silver pegasus turned to Red with a grin. “My name’s Steel Storm.”

“Red Riot.” Red answered with a grin, obliging to the wing-shake and hoof-bump.

“Wanna grab some food in the mess hall?” Steel asked with a smirk, and Red grinned back, liking him immediately.

“Definitely.” He answered, and they opened their wings and headed off.

Red was incredibly happy to have met some other pegasi who shared his competitiveness and hunger for victory - someone he could race and fly with. Sure, he had Forest, but Forest would always fly like a snail grew a pair of wings and complain that he was moving too fast. Red loved Forest, of course - he was one of his friends - but this change of pace and shared goals with another pegasus was something he could definitely get behind.

Once they’d eaten, they were issued with their cadet uniforms and a pair of flight goggles. After they’d changed in the locker rooms, Spitfire ordered them all outside, where they stood to attention and Spitfire paced in front of them. Steel looked pumped, and just seeing him looking confident was making Red all the more determined to beat him in whatever task was coming next.

“The Wonderbolts are the fastest and high precision fliers in the world -” Spitfire began, standing in front of a massive purple cover which was obscuring something inside. “But spin-outs can still happen to even the most experienced fliers. When that happens, a Wonderbolt has to recover quickly.”

She pulled the cover off, revealing a massive neon green and purple wheel, with other mechanics attached to it, like some kind of sick fairground ride. Red could feel his adrenaline already pumping just at the sight of it.

“This is the Dizzitron - and it’s going to make you very - I repeat - very dizzy.” Spitfire barked, putting emphasis on the word. “Your task is to try and recover as quickly as you can and fly straight again in order to make a smooth landing. We will be timing you - just because this is your first time does not excuse poor results!”

Easy, Red could practically hear both him and Steel thinking.

“Who’s first?” Spitfire shot at them, and Red and Steel immediately put their hooves up. “You!” Spitfire ignored them, pointing to the pink pegasus mare.

“M-me?” She gulped, hesitating, and Spitfire’s face set.

“NOW!” Spitfire screamed, and the pink mare shot out, opening her wings and flying into the machine, resting her hooves on the bar that strapped her to one of the cogs. “Ready?”

“Y-yes, ma’am!” The pink mare said, gulping again and pulling her goggles down.

“Begin!” Spitfire ordered, and the instructor at the machine pulled the red lever down to start the Dizzitron’s spinning.

Every time the Dizzitron rotated, the cog the mare was strapped to spun about ten times, making her rotate so fast Red was getting dizzy just watching her. Spitfire watched for about ten seconds before yelling “Release!”

The Dizzitron flung the mare into the air, making her spin in the air, before she opened her wings and managed to pull her body around, wobbling and landing on her rump, bouncing and spinning a few times with groans and mutters, before coming to a stop at Spitfire’s hooves. 

“Fifteen seconds. Decent.” Spitfire said curtly, putting her pocket watch away. “But I wouldn’t go writing home about it. Who’s next?”

Red’s hoof shot up a second before Steel’s, and Spitfire’s eyes locked onto him. He internally cheered. Time to show her how it was really done.

“Red Riot - let’s see what you’ve got.”

Red opened his wings and pulled his goggles down, positioning himself in the Dizzitron as he grinned, his heart pumping in excitement.

“Okay - begin!” Spitfire roared, and the Dizzitron started, making Red cling on hard to the bar as the sheer speed of the spinning was making it almost feel like he wasn’t spinning at all. The air rushing into his mouth was making his eyes water even past his goggles. He tensed waiting for Spitfire’s order.

“Release!”

The bar fell away, flinging Red into the air. Instead of fighting against getting out of the initial spin, he let himself fly whilst still spinning. When the speed lessened slightly, he snapped open his wings and zipped around, forcing himself to keep his eyes straight despite the fact his head was spinning, and tuck in his wings, piling past Spitfire and skidding to a perfect halt in front of her.

Spitfire looked astounded as she glanced down at her stopwatch. “Six seconds. That’s an academy record!”

Red puffed out his chest in delight as he flew back down to take his place in the line between Steel and the pink mare. Breaking academy records already - well, he’d expected this.

“You made it look so easy -” The pink mare started saying to him, before Spitfire cut them short.

“Steel Storm, you’re next!” She ordered.

Steel opened his wings and as he was flying to the Dizzitron he spoke.

“Ma’am, can you put the Dizzitron on maximum speed? I wanna push my limits.” Steel said with a grin, pulling his goggles down.

Spitfire genuinely looked shocked for a second. “You sure about that?”

“Yes, ma’am!” Steel announced, tensing his body for the start of the machine.

“Okay. You asked for it.” Spitfire indicated to the machine as the instructor stood there clicked the lever so the arrow changed from the tortoise indicated speed, past the rabbit indicated speed, to the speed level indicated with a skull.

The Dizzitron began spinning so fast Steel was barely visible - Red couldn’t even see a silver blur as he had to avert his gaze, the hypnotising greens and purples of the Dizzitron’s face making him feel slightly sick. He could barely imagine how Steel was taking it.

“Release!” Spitfire ordered, and Steel went flying, a silver trail behind him as he looped, whipping around and tucking his body in as he came in for a landing, all four hooves on the runway as he skidded to a halt, panting slightly as Spitfire glanced down at her stopwatch.

“Eight seconds. Not bad.” Spitfire sounded impressed - for the first time today - and although Red felt a little disappointed at how it wasn’t directed at him, but he and Steel exchanged a hoof bump with confident grins.

Following the other cadets’ attempts leaving them all wobbling around with their eyes rolling around in their heads, Red and Steel exchanged a glance.

“Nopony came close to our times!” Red began boasting to Steel as he snickered.

“Yeah, they should make us Wonderbolts right now -” Steel began responding, before cutting short when Spitfire began stalking towards the cadets.

“Listen up!” Spitfire barked at them. “For the rest of the camp, you’ll be working in pairs. Tomorrow morning I’ll put up the teams along with who will be lead pony and who will be wing pony. Good luck.”

As Spitfire stalked off, Red and Steel exchanged another confident glance.

“Like we’ll need it.” Steel scoffed, grinning as Red smirked back.

“Yeah.” He snorted, responding to another hoof-bump.

The following morning, Red was a little late getting into his cadet uniform, and as he headed into the mess hall, he could see there was already a list on the wall with the cadets gathered around it. Red trotted over confidently, seeing the pink and purple pegasus mares walking towards him.

“So, which one of you lucky gals gets to be my wing pony?” Red asked, a hoof on his chest.

The two mares exchanged a glance before they started giggling to each other.

“What?” Red demanded, suddenly taken aback.

“You might wanna check the wall.” The purple mare said, and Red pushed past them all, panickedly scanning the list for his name and -

“A wing pony? I’m not a lead pony?” Red whispered, his ears drooping in shock and disappointment as he reread it just to make sure it wasn’t a mistake - but there, sure as day, under wing pony was his name.

“Look, Spitfire made us a team!” Steel said in delight, wrapping a hoof around Red’s neck, and for the first time, Red could not bring himself to grin at him.

Red shrugged him off and immediately stalked towards Spitfire’s office, fury suddenly overwhelming his disappointment as he knocked on it firmly. There was a “Enter!” shot out from behind it and he pushed the door open, forcing himself to remain calm and cool as he straightened his posture where he was stood in the entrance.

Spitfire looked up in exasperation where she was signing Wonderbolt posters with her hoofprints. “What is it, Red Riot?” She spat, a glare on her face at being interrupted.

“I had the best time on the Dizzitron - only six seconds - plus I broke an academy record on my first day!” Red said desperately as Spitfire kept stamping the posters without even looking at him.

“And?” She deadpanned, setting her eyebrows as she kept putting poster in front of poster, stamping them, and then pushing them to the other side.

“And you made me a wingpony, not a leadpony!” Red protested, and Spitfire looked up dangerously, making him gulp and internally cringe.

Spitfire pulled her glasses off and folded the arms slowly and threateningly, before leaning forwards on her hooves to look at him. “I think you and Steel Storm will be an unstoppable team - do you not think you two will be an unstoppable team?”

“Y - yes ma’am - I mean - no ma’am -  I mean -” Red cast his eyes away, sighing because of how much her questions made him squirm. “I think we’ll be an unstoppable team, but -”

“Then what’s the issue?” Spitfire demanded, leaning sharply forwards on her desk towards him.

Red sighed, flattening his ears, before standing up straight with a look of determination on his face. “I think I should be lead pony, ma’am.”

“And I think Steel Storm likes to push himself a little bit harder than you do.” Spitfire immediately shot back, making Red take a step backwards. “That’s why I made him lead pony. Got it?” Spitfire growled, slamming her hooves down on her desk so the posters jumped into the air a tiny bit.

Red glanced away, looking at his hooves in shame, because she’s not wrong, but he wanted to argue with her - but he knew that was not going to get him what he wanted, so he dipped his head in submission.

“Yes, ma’am.” He whispered.

“Good.” Spitfire said, before returning right back to stamping the posters with a hoof as Red left the office with his head down and his ears flat in shame and disappointment.

Later on, the cadets were given their badges. Red took Steel’s side with sadness making his ears droop, and it just made him even more disappointed and angry when he saw Steel polishing his gold lead pony badge and pinning it to his uniform as Red glanced down at his boring silver one.

“Today you will be participating in a flag hunt - but make no mistake, this is training, not recess!” Spitfire roared, stalking past them all. “You will be divided into two teams - pair one and two are the Red team, and pairs three and four are the Blue team!”

Red and Steel were pair four, so they were in the blue team.

“Whoever gets the most flags of the opposing team’s colour wins!” Spitfire barked, coming to a stop in front of them. “Lead ponies and wing ponies must fly together. If you separate you will be immediately disqualified - got that?” Spitfire growled, at one pair, making them immediately gasp and squeeze up right next to each other. “Do you understand!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Red did not chant it as enthusiastically as he had the previous day.

“Then let’s start right away! Go!” Spitfire screamed, before blowing her whistle in their faces.

Steel zipped off, and Red gasped, having to fight to catch up with him. Steel didn’t seem to care that he was darting up and down in random directions looking for red flags, but Red was having to skid around to try and make sure they didn’t separate and get disqualified. The second Steel stopped moving he’d immediately dive down, looking somewhere else.

“Have you seen any flags yet?” Steel demanded as they began flying up in a straight line.

“No - oh, there’s one!” Red pointed out, pointing a hoof down in a crevasse where the flag was hiding. 

There were two fallen trees over the crevasse, making the gaps a lot more difficult for a pony to squeeze through, but Steel didn’t seem to care as he dived down, forcing his body into a streamline position as he aimed his hooves for the gap. Red followed, suddenly very anxious.

“Steel, I don’t think both of us will make it through that gap at this speed - we should slow down -” He began shouting past the wind.

“Pshaw.” Steel scoffed, flapping a hoof, and Red gaped, trying to look around Steel’s body to get a better view of where he was trying to go, but Steel moved, rotating his body and folding his wings so that he squeezed through the gap back hooves first.

Red reacted late due to Steel obscuring all of his vision and clipped his wing on one of the trees on his way down, and he yelped in agony as Steel opened his wings and grabbed the flag in his teeth. Red gasped in pain as he fought to follow Steel out of the crevasse and back to where Spitfire was waiting.

“Red Riot and Steel Storm have found the first flag!” Spitfire announced as Red landed clumsily, eyes still watering as he flexed his wing and gasped again when pain shot down it.

“Come on! Let’s go find more!” Steel demanded, opening his wings again, and Red winced, trying to work out the pain in his wing.

“Sure - just - give me a sec -” He tried saying, but Steel immediately brushed it off.

“You’re fine - come on -” Steel waved him off, and Red anxiously looked around, seeing where Spitfire was looking at him - scrutinising him - from behind her dark glasses.

Steel pushes himself more than I do. He thought to himself, opening his wings despite the fact his injured one screamed in agony. So, I’ll push myself through this.

“Yeah. I’m fine.” He muttered, forcing his body off the ground after him, ignoring the pain in his wing and shoulder.

 

-

 

“Hey, Crimson. Are you okay?” Forest asked him as he and the young pegasus were flying to the store to get more groceries.

“I dunno, Forest - I -  I guess I’m just missing Red a bit, that’s all.” Crimson muttered as the two pegasi landed and started heading on foot towards Chocol’otel.

“Hm - well, it has been four days, I guess -” Forest answered, seeing Solar and Lava hanging around outside the shop.

“Lava! Are you missing Red too?” Crimson demanded, stalking over to the massive stallion as Lava looked down at him, seemingly alarmed by the question.

“Why do you ask that, squirt?” Lava shot back, obviously trying to remain prickly towards the foal, but Crimson didn’t flinch, knowing Lava actually adored him. Forest could tell that Crimson had hit a nerve, as Lava suddenly looked apprehensive and Forest could pick up a hint of sadness edging across Lava’s face.

“Well, I dunno - I guess I just assumed that because Red’s your special somepony that you missed him too.” Crimson said, scuffing a hoof against the ground as Lava suddenly sighed, his ears drooping slightly.

Lava sighed again, before he perked up and ruffled Crimson’s mane with a hoof and a slightly pained grin on his face. “Then you’d be absolutely right, squirt. I do miss him.”

“We all miss Red, Crimson.” Solar added. “And he’s probably missing us too now, huh?”

“I guess - but wait!” Crimson suddenly yelped, springing to his hooves. “What if because Red is missing us all that his performance is bad? What if he can’t fly as well because he’s homesick? What if -”

Forest seriously doubted that Red was missing them so much that his flying would suffer - if anything, he’d probably forgotten all about them because he was in his absolute element. This was, of course, his dream he was fighting to achieve. But Crimson suddenly seemed distraught at the idea, and seeing Lava and Solar obviously missing seeing Red made Forest quickly settle upon a solution.

“Well, since it’s the weekend tomorrow, how about you and I fly up to the academy and pay him a visit, Crimson?” Forest interjected as Crimson wailed, looking like he was on the verge of tears. “Listen - I’m sure he’d be delighted to see you after working so hard -”

“Really?” Crimson gasped, whipping around to look at Forest, who nodded in response.

“Yeah, I’m sure that would be okay -”

“Actually, we should all go.” Chocolate said, glancing at them from where she was fiddling with the displays outside the shop. “I mean - I’d like to go see him too.”

“I wouldn’t mind a trip.” Horizon said as Lava, Solar and Crimson looked shocked at the prospects of everyone going, before it gave way to delight.

“I mean - Lava and I wouldn’t have bothered if it was just the two of us but if Forest and Crimson are going over anyway, then I don’t see why we can’t all go.” Solar added, giving Lava a side glance.

“Oh Lava - please, you gotta come with us!” Crimson gushed, falling to his stomach and beginning to grovel at Lava’s hooves. “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE -”

“Get off, you little shit!” Lava snapped, shaking his hoof to dislodge Crimson, but Crimson held on tightly without even flinching, pouting at Lava and widening his eyes like a puppy as Lava tried so agonisingly hard to stay angry with him but failing miserably. Finally, Lava sighed, glancing away. “Fine.”

“Yes!!” Crimson yowled, leaping into the air and doing a celebratory loop-de-loop. 

“All right then, it’s settled. I’ll go and organise a balloon to take us there.” Chocolate piped, disappearing back into the shop as Crimson punched the air, still celebrating in excitement at seeing his brother again.

Forest sighed, because the others were so excited about seeing Red even though if they waited a few more days he’d have finished the camp and returned home anyway.

Oh well, he thought as he watched Crimson practically skip back to the library. 

A field trip couldn’t hurt.

 

-

 

The following day after a good night’s rest, Red’s wing had recovered enough so that it was a dull ache across the muscles and into his shoulder. It may have made a full recovery if he hadn’t strained it trying to follow Steel after he’d originally injured it, but Red couldn’t muster up the will to be proud of the fact he’d struggled through the pain in order to impress Spitfire.

The cadets lined up as the fanfare of the Wonderbolts played, and Spitfire entered just as the last cadets landed.

“This morning, you will be attempting our world famous obstacle course.” Spitfire announced, indicating to where the cadets in the other groups were setting up the machines.

Red felt incredibly unenthusiastic, forcing a smile when Steel landed next to him, and obliged to the bro-hoof even though it was making his stomach churn. He was shocked at himself, since he couldn’t even be bothered to be excited about the fact he was going to be doing the obstacle course that Wonderbolts used to train for their routines.

From what Red could see, there were cadets pouring cloud mixture into funnels, causing clouds to rise up and become obstacles. Other cadets were kicking said clouds so that they spat lightning, and there were wind-producing machines in the distance that howled. Red sighed again loudly, sagging his head as Steel’s eyes glinted in excitement.

“The purpose of these exercise is to work on your precision flying under extreme circumstances.” Spitfire said, indicating to the obstacles with a hoof. She turned her attention back to the cadets with a stern tone on her voice. “Don’t worry about winning. It is not a race.”

Red felt slightly relieved at that, but his heart dropped when Steel turned to face him, and winked. No - Red wanted to just refuse flat out to make this into a race when there was no need, especially after yesterday when he’d injured himself as a result of Steel’s leadership. But he was in no position to refuse orders from his lead-pony - especially in front of Spitfire, so he swallowed and told himself that he’d just try and reason with Steel when they were flying.

“Everypony, get on your marks!” Spitfire barked, and the cadets poised, pulling their goggles over their eyes. 

The whistle blew, and the cadets cantered a few steps before taking off, and Red had to force down all of his negative emotions and focus on flying next to Steel. He flinched as he saw two of the other cadets not manage to manoeuvre around a burst of cloud and fly right into it with screeches.

The wind was pulling at them from all directions but it was nothing that Red wasn’t already used to from moving around clouds back in Ponyville, so focusing on going through cloud rings was easy. But as they approached the cloud funnels, Steel indicated to Red with a hoof, and he set his face, following Steel as they sped up, speeding around the corner and weaving around bursts of cloud with expert precision.

But that feeling of dread still remained within Red as he flew with Steel. They were getting faster and faster - and then, they skidded to a halt when they were caught behind two cadets who were actually listening to the rules and taking their time on the obstacle course.

“Ugh - can’t they go any faster?” Steel moaned, waving a hoof in the air of frustration. He tried a few times to get around them, before he fell back, anger on his face. “Slow fliers - I can’t get around -”

“It’s okay. It’s not a race - plus we can use this time to really impress Spitfire.” Red tried to negotiate with Steel, and he didn’t look convinced, but saw the logic in Red’s words.

Every time the slower cadets went through a cloud ring, they deliberately loop-de-looped around the rings twice to pass the time. As Steel and Red flew into a darker patch of cloud with rain and stronger wind, the cadets they were stuck behind were fighting against the wind and having to flap wildely to try and keep moving.

“What are they, a couple of snails?” Steel scoffed, getting even more frustrated. “It’s just a bit of weather.”

Red didn’t respond, slightly relieved that the two cadets were stopping them from flying ahead before Steel did something that Red was going to get caught up in. The cadets were panting and their wings were thrashing against the wind despite Red and Steel were flying with ease. Steel had a point about the ability of those two cadets - it wasn’t severe wind and yet they were still struggling despite it.

The clouds started clearing to show the wind generating machines ahead. The crackles of lightning and charged clouds that were preventing them from passing the two cadets ahead were no longer there and Red gulped, seeing Steel’s eyes light up.

“Come on, now’s our chance to pass these slowpokes!” Steel ordered, rearing back slightly and zooming ahead.

Red swallowed hard and followed him, anxiety rising in his stomach as Steel indicated for him to draw level with him, and Steel then deliberately led them right through the two cadets ahead at high speed, making them crash and fly backwards with a scream. Steel kept flying as Red gasped, looking over his shoulder to see that the two cadets they'd hit had crashed into the other cadets behind them and sent them tumbling out of the course and into the clouds.

He forced himself to keep following Steel, remembering how Spitfire practically frothed at the mouth at anything Steel did, since he was supposed to be peak Wonderbolt material, and weaved with him around the wind stream machines, which was the last obstacle of the course. Red kept telling himself that this was normal - if Spitfire rewarded them, then the fact the other cadets were knocked out wasn’t a big deal - right? Everything Steel had done this far had seemed to be a tick in Spitfire’s book -

They landed, tucking their wings in and skidding to a halt in front of Spitfire.

“Not bad!” Spitfire said, looking at her stopwatch, and she sounded genuinely impressed, but this didn’t make Red feel good at all. “In a record time, too. I think I made the right decision making you two a team.”

Steel puffed out his chest in delight whilst Red forced a polite smile on his face. Spitfire glanced up where the other teams were still struggling to get out of the clouds. 

“Looks like the other cadets are having trouble with the ‘precision’ side of the exercise -” Spitfire mumbled disapprovingly, making Red visibly flinch at the sight of them. “I’ll go and help them out.” She took flight, followed by the other instructors. “Why don’t you two go and hit the mess hall early?” She called behind her as she flew off

“Yes, ma’am!” Steel said proudly, walking off with his head in the air.

Red swallowed as he watched Steel, before finally standing up straight and setting his face.

“Steel Storm?” He asked, pulling his goggles up off his face as Steel turned to face him. “Next time, can we not cut the other teams off like that? That wasn’t a great thing to do -”

“Hey, ya snooze, ya lose!” Steel interrupted, a grin on his face that made Red’s stomach crawl because it was clear that Steel didn’t even feel slightly bad at jeopardising the other teams’ chances in order to win a non-existent race. “Besides, Wonderbolts are supposed to be able to recover from a spin-out!” He did a few rapid loop-de-loops in the air before flourishing. “You saw their times on the Dizzitron - they could use the practice.”

Red opened his mouth to protest, but Steel kept talking.

“I mean, it’s not our fault we’re so much better than them. Not everypony is destined to be a Wonderbolt. Only the best of the best, right?” Steel said over his shoulder as he flew towards the mess hall and Red followed him.

Red swallowed hard, remembering Spitfire’s words about Steel pushing himself harder than Red did. Like he’d thought to himself before - Spitfire liked everything Steel did, so this was just another one of those things that she praised. So he only forced another smile on his face, despite the fact his heart felt otherwise.

“Y-yeah, I guess you’re right.” He said, the anxiety and unenthusiasm on his voice obvious, but Steel didn’t seem to notice it as he landed outside the mess hall.

“Of course I’m right.” Steel answered with a smirk, kicking open the door with his hind legs. “Let’s go fuel up for the next drill - kicking all that tail has made me hungry.”

Red followed him with flattened ears and his head drooped in shame, and found he couldn’t muster up the will to stomach any food.

The next drill was a cloud-busting drill - something that Red had done countless times in Ponyville, so he knew this would be a breeze - but something in his now empty stomach still crawled and squirmed because he knew deep down that Steel was going to do something again that wouldn’t sit right with him. However, every time, Steel’s actions were getting worse - and Red was absolutely dreading what would happen.

He followed Steel as they simultaneously kicked clouds with their hooves, slicing through them in rows, and bouncing off them so they were getting rid of five clouds to every one of the other teams. The instructor on the chalk boards down below were having to fight to try and keep count of every one of the clouds that Red and Steel busted.

Red could hardly concentrate, though. An activity that was so second-nature to him was becoming a drag and a worry as he constantly looked over his shoulder at Steel. They were winning this drill by an absolute land-slide - so there was no need for any of Steel’s dirty tricks -

Steel drew up next to them as they were flying fast, and the smirk on his face was making Red’s skin crawl. “I have an idea that will literally blow away our competition.”

“But we’re already way ahead -” Red began protesting.

“Are you in or not?” Steel interrupted, annoyance on his face.

“Steel Storm likes to push himself a little bit harder than you do.” Spitfire’s voice echoed in his head again, and Red narrowed his eyes, a grin edging onto his face despite the fact something in his heart still fought against it.

“I’m in.” He answered, turning to Steel as his eyes lit up.

“Follow my lead.” Steel ordered, and Red followed him as Steel immediately began flying at high speed in circles.

Red forced his body into a more streamlined position as the speed of the two pegasi caused a twister to form, spinning around and sucking in the clouds as it whipped around. The other cadets started flying away with screams as the tornado began crashing through the training grounds, making the instructors fly away as it absolutely demolished the chalk board and shattered it into pieces.

Red was beginning to get dizzy as he fought to keep control of the tornado, but Steel grimaced, suddenly tumbling in the air with a yell.

“I can’t hold it!” Steel howled over the tornado, and his body was whipped away as Red, suddenly trying to hold a massive tornado by himself, yelled when he too was ejected from the high speed winds and went tumbling to the grass as the out-of-control weather started disappearing from sight.

Just as he was fighting to climb to his hooves, he saw the air balloon from Ponyville pushing through the clouds - just as the twister was roaring towards it. The balloon was pulled into the raging winds, and Red suddenly gaped in horror when the ropes snapped, sending the six ponies inside it plummeting with high pitched screams.

“NO!” Red howled, seeing the bodies wriggling and flailing in the air as they fell, and his stomach dropped when he recognised Crimson, Solar and Lava amongst his other friends.

He reacted before his brain could even catch up, diving from the edge of the cliff of the training ledge and folding in his wings as he dove down after them. His eyes started streaming past the wind in his face despite the fact he still had his goggles on, and he could feel the beginnings of a sonic rainboom forming at his hooves as he tightened his muscles further and stretched out his legs as far as they would go.

Just as the rainboom cracked behind him, sending a burst of colours around his body, Red streamed around his falling friends as they continued to screech, whipping around them in a circle, sending them all flinging back up into the air. Red skidded to a halt, craning his neck as he panted, seeing the other cadets had caught his friends on their way back up. Crimson was clinging to Forest’s neck and seemed frozen in shock, and as his friends gasped in relief from where the other pegasi were holding them, Forest flapped his own wings, grinning sheepishly at the purple pegasus who had caught him as she glared at him for somehow managing to forget that he could fly.

As the other cadets helped the ponies to the ground, Red flung himself at Lava, embracing him hard with a gasp of relief. Lava stiffened in shock, before responding to the embrace and holding him firmly. Red could feel Lava still shaking from the fall.

“Are you all okay?” Red demanded, letting go of Lava to see Horizon, Chocolate and Solar brushing themselves down. They all nodded in response, still panting and shaking slightly from the fall. Red turned his attention to Forest, who still had Crimson wrapped around his neck. “Crimson - are you all right?”

“Red!” Crimson wailed, finally peeling off Forest to launch himself at his brother. Red gasped, hugging Crimson hard as the colt began crying loudly. “You remember me!”

“How could I forget you?” Red said dryly, ruffling his brother’s mane as he set Crimson down on the floor. “I mean- of course I remember you - but what are you all doing here?”

“We all missed you, Red!” Solar said with a grin. “So we thought a visit to you would be good for all of us - especially Crimson and Lava -“

“Shut the fuck up, Sparky!” Lava spat at him, but nobody missed the flush across his face.

“Didn’t realise you would be in the middle of some crazy tornado drill, though.” Horizon commented, glancing up at where the tornado was now dissipating in the distance.

“That - was - awesome!” Steel yelled, pushing through the crowd of cadets as he punched the air with a silver hoof. 

Red finally snapped, whipping around and stalking up to Steel with rage across his face. “Awesome? You could have killed my friends and family with your fucking tornado!”

“Uh - yeah, but I didn’t, did I?” Steel scoffed, flapping a hoof in such dismissal it was making Red fume. “And plus - you agreed to it. Just look at the sky -” The sky was completely clear, but Red couldn’t care less. “The other cadets would have to be up there for days to achieve what we just did.”

The other cadets suddenly narrowed their eyes in fury as they glared at Steel, who was now leaning back in the air as he held out a hoof to Red. Red snarled, whacking it out of the way.

“A hoof-bump? You’re fucking joking, right?” Red growled, standing his ground as he took a step towards Steel. “You made me clip my wing in the flag hunt. You deliberately sabotaged the other cadets’ chances in the obstacle course. And you created a dangerous tornado that could have killed the ponies I care most about in the world!”

“Yeah. And?” Steel didn’t even flinch, still smirking despite the fact his actions had almost caused harm to almost every pony in the academy.

“And - I get that you want to be the best - so do I.” Red’s voice suddenly dropped off. “But this isn’t the right way to go about it.”

“The Wonderbolts don’t seem to think so.” Steel shot back with a glare. “Spitfire made me leadpony, after all.”

Red’s face set. “You’re right. She did.”

Red immediately stormed over to Spitfire’s office after checking with his friends and Crimson that they were okay. He pushed open the door, seeing Spitfire at her desk.

“This better be important, Red Riot.” Spitfire growled, not even looking up from her work. “You’re supposed to be up there busting clouds -”

“We already finished, ma’am.” Red answered, pushing his goggles up and saluting half-heartedly.

Spitfire’s eyes widened as she glanced over her shoulder to look up at the clock. “Already? That should have taken you hours - explain your methods.” She demanded, leaning forwards on her desk.

“That’s why I’m here. Steel Storm decided to use a tornado when I clearly wasn’t happy about it -“ Red began explaining, but Spitfire pulled off her glasses and tapped them on her chin as she thought.

“A tornado? A bit excessive for cloud-busting, but clearly by your time it was an effective tactic -” Spitfire began saying, but Red had had enough and suddenly snapped, forgetting his respectfulness for the lead Wonderbolt as he slammed a hoof down on the desk.

“Yeah? Well that ‘effective tactic’ could have killed my friends!” Red’s voice dropped to a whisper as they weight of what could have happened suddenly caught up with him. “You know my special somepony was in that group? You know my little brother was there too? He’s ten years old, ma’am. He could have died, and it would have been Steel’s fault.”

He left out the bit where he’d agreed to doing the tornado with Steel, because it was still weighing on him that it would have been his fault too.

“No disrespect, ma’am, but there’s a fine line between pushing yourself as hard as you can, and just being reckless.” Red whispered, seeing how Spitfire’s eyes were wide at the mention of Crimson. “And if being reckless is what gets rewarded around here - if that what it means to be a Wonderbolt - then I don’t want any part of it.”

“What are you saying, newbie?” Spitfire said in a low voice, her eyes narrowing.

Red took off his silver badge and dropped it on the table as he looked Spitfire right in the eyes. “I quit.”

He turned tail and left before he could see the look of shock and disappointment on Spitfire’s face, and although he remained strong and defiant as he left, the second the door shut, his head immediately dropped and tears began running down his face.

As he walked out of the building, he could see his friends waiting for him with wide eyes.

“What did you do?” Solar asked, looking genuinely afraid at the answer as Red wiped at his face and forced himself to stand upright.

“I dropped out.” Red answered, causing the others to gasp in horror.

“You did what?!” Lava practically shrieked, and Red held up a hoof, causing the protests and noises of shock to stop.

“But being a Wonderbolt is your dream, Red.” Crimson whispered, tears running down his face as Red pulled his saddlebags over his back.

“Not anymore.” Red said firmly, shaking his head.

“I’m sorry, Red. We know how much this meant to you.” Forest said with sadness in his tone, and Lava immediately went up to Red to embrace him hard, not even caring that the others were watching.

They whipped around when they heard furious trotting from behind them, and saw Spitfire stalking up to them with rage on her face. Red and Lava pulled apart as she yelled.

“Red Riot! How dare you storm out of my office without giving me a chance to respond!” Spitfire roared, and Lava immediately got defensive, going to draw up in front of Red, but Red held out a hoof to stop him as Spitfire sighed, her anger leaving her as she glanced down at her hooves. “The Wonderbolts are looking for the best fliers in Equestria. You were right.” She took off her glasses, looking up at him. “Being the best should never come at the cost of our fellow ponies. It’s not just about pushing ourselves - it’s about pushing ourselves in the right direction. You’ve shown you’re capable of doing just that.”

Spitfire indicated to the instructors behind her, who moved aside to show Steel Storm there with his head bowed. Spitfire went up to him and tore the lead-pony badge off his uniform so the material ripped, and pointed firmly towards the dorms. The message was clear to Steel as he turned and walked away with his hooves scuffing at the ground in shame.

“You’re no wing-pony, Red Riot. You’re a leader.” Spitfire said with a smile, passing the badge to Red and putting it on his front.

Red was lost for words and his only response was a squeak as Spitfire immediately went back to her instructor mode, yelling past her grin. “Now get up there and give me two hundred laps!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Red yelped in delight, shrugging off his saddlebags and zipping off as the other cadets waited in the air, cheering and high-hoofing him as they flew off to complete their laps.

Forest waved them off, and Crimson sighed in happiness, leaning against Forest’s leg.

“I was worried about him, y’know, Forest.” Crimson said, looking up at him.

“Why was that, Crimson?” Forest asked him, and Crimson made a noise as he watched Red disappear into the sky.

“I guess I was just scared that because he was the Element of Kindness he might not have been able to stand up for himself because he’s so constantly afraid about pleasing everypony.” Crimson answered. 

Forest raised his eyebrows at that, before gently patting Crimson on the head. 

“Guess you had nothing to worry about.” Solar said with a grin.

“If there’s anything about Red that we know for sure, it’s that he’s not going to let an injustice thrive, Crimson.” Forest answered as they watched the pegasi fly in front of the sun so that their bodies turned into silhouettes.

“He’ll be the best fucking Wonderbolt in history, squirt.” Lava rumbled, scoooping Crimson up so he squeaked in delight when he stood on Lava’s back,  his front hooves on Lava’s head so he could get a better look at Red flying.

Red had undergone a moment when he’d seen flaws in his dream. He’d fought and grappled with it, and eventually decided that the path he was upon was the right one - he just needed to fix the flaws in the road in order to keep moving.

But as Forest thought about his own path, he swallowed when he realised his own was covered with mist, obscuring the end of it from sight.

What do I want? He thought to himself, and found himself numb when he couldn’t come up with an answer.

Chapter Text

Forest was happily trotting through Ponyville with Ember on his back on a wonderful summer morning, smelling the fresh air and sighing happily at the sights of ponies minding their own business. He waved to the mayor as she was en route to the town hall. He noticed the Cutie Mark Crusaders chattering and laughing as they ran to school. He exchanged a ‘Good morning!’ with the sofa clerk as he stood outside his shop.

The market was bustling with ponies doing their morning shopping and smelt the restaurants and cafes preparing their breakfast specials. Forest had a little skip in his step as he exchanged another greeting with the waiters and moved on, nodding and smiling at ponies he was mutual with.

“You’re in an annoyingly good mood, Forest.” Ember muttered, obviously tired from Forest whipping her off her perch for an early morning stroll.

“Sorry, Ember - it’s just such a nice day - honestly, it feels like nothing could possibly go wrong.” Forest gushed, doing a happy twirl as he opened his wings and started practically swimming in the fluffy clouds which were warmed by the morning sun.

“Okay, well - whatever, I’m going back to my perch.” Ember said, opening her wings and heading back to the library as Forest made a noise in response and focused on the clouds tickling his wings.

He sighed, leaning back and letting the sun beat on his face where he was resting on the cloud, and feeling so light it was like his body was suspended in the air without him having to even use his wings, when a sudden rush of absolutely freezing water poured over him, making him leap up with a scream of shock as he stood there dripping wet and panting hard.

“Red! That wasn’t funny!” He began yelling up above him, before the words quickly died in his throat when he saw the cloud enveloped in red and white unicorn magic as it began moving again.

“Sorry, Forest. I’m still having trouble with the rainclouds.” He heard Horizon say from underneath him, and as Forest shook himself off and peeked over the cloud, his heart dropped to his stomach as he gaped in horror when Horizon turned away slightly, his horn still alight as he continued to move clouds around randomly.

On Horizon’s flank, there was no usual fire-ice cutie mark - but a cloud spitting red thunder - an image Forest was very used to seeing, but not on that particular pony. He was barely able to breathe as his jaw dropped and cold rain water ran into his mouth.

“Horizon!” Forest practically shrieked, zipping down onto the ground as he harshly pushed the unicorn to the side, causing Horizon to yelp and drop a cloud with his magic, which struck a tree with lightning so it smoked and fell into the plaza with a crash.

Forest squinted and rubbed a hoof over Horizon’s cutie mark, gasping again when it did not smudge. This was no prank - it was as real as the unicorn in front of him as Horizon pushed his hoof away and started rearranging the clouds again into a chaotic order.

“What are you doing? What happened to your cutie mark?” Forest demanded as Horizon’s horn glowed and the clouds wobbled in the air under his clumsy magical grip.

“What do you mean, Forest?” Horizon asked, genuine confusion on his face. “I’m doing what I’ve done since the day it appeared on my flank.”

“No - that’s Red’s cutie mark, not yours!” Forest practically shouted at him, but his voice was drowned out as the angry ponies began swamping Horizon, yelling at him to change the mixture of weather that was causing rain and snow to fall at once.

After he panickedly picked up Ember, filling her in briefly, they began walking towards Chocol’otel with urgency in Forest’s stride as his heart thudded with confusion and anxiety.

“Horizon said that this was Red’s shop. Something awful is going on.” Forest whispered, glancing up at the shop as he tried to muster up the will to open the door.

The second he did, there was utter chaos. He narrowly ducked a mixing bowl and a couple of whisks from the electric mixer as they were launched across the room when the machine exploded. Forest coughed past the smoke, holding a wing over his nose as he forced his eyes open.

Red was cantering around the shop with gasps as he fought to try and clean up the mess of chocolate and cake batter and icing sugar, but was only making it a million times worse by smearing it all over the windows and floor. His mane was down and in his eyes and face and completely matted with dried cake mixture as he sweated and panted for air, still fighting to try and use a wooden spoon to mix a bowl with a rank looking batter in it. Forest swore he saw whole eggshells and another wooden spoon mixed in with the batter.

“Red? What’s going on here?” Forest gasped, trying to step over the filthy floor but deciding to stay where he was by the entrance as smoke began pouring from the kitchen.

Red shrieked, darting into the room and coughing loudly as the oven smoked. The fire alarm went off as Red emerged with a tray of something black and very, incredibly burnt - and then proceeded to scream when the hot tray burnt his hooves and sent the contents rolling across the disgusting floor. The sound the burnt items made when they hit the floor sounded like pebbles being dropped. One of them rolled to Forest’s hooves, before it then proceeded to shatter into pure charcoal.

“Hi, Forest.” Red mumbled, sighing as he tried to wipe chocolate off his face, but only managed to smear it further over his muzzle from his filthy hooves.

“What are you doing here?” Forest asked him with shock making his voice crack as Red tried to pick up the mixing bowl and fly it into the kitchen, but it only slipped from his grasp and shattered on the counter, sending ceramic and gloopy mess flying all over the shop and splattering on the windows.

“C -can you give me a hoof here, Forest?” Red whimpered, practically on the verge of tears.

“Red!” Forest ignored the question as Red fell to his rump, sitting in the mess and looking down at his hooves. “Why are you trying to bake? What -”

“Because it’s obviously my destiny, Forest.” Red said in a low voice, his matted and tangled mane hanging in his eyes as he painfully slowly turned away and used his hoof to rub off some more chocolate where it was plastered all over his flank and back.

And there, a gross contrast on his crimson coat, were the pink sakura flowers of Chocolate’s cutie mark. Forest resisted the urge to puke in sudden terror.

“I know. I know this is a disaster - I - I know - I -” Red turned his face away from his flank as he dipped his head in sorrow again. “I don’t know why my destiny is something I’m s-so - bad - at -” Tears began running down Red’s muzzle and dripping onto his hooves as Forest could only watch in horror. “But I have to keep going. I have to - I don’t see any other options -”

The smoke alarm went off again and Red sobbed, low and mournfully, before he flew into the kitchen as more dark black smoke poured from it. Forest whipped around, Ember silent in shock and horror as they immediately flew towards the town centre.

“We have to find Chocolate -” Forest began whispering, his limbs trembling in fear.

They didn’t get far before they immediately saw Chocolate lining up fireworks - in the middle of the plaza in broad daylight. Forest opened his mouth to yell at her to stop, when the fireworks went off in her face, making her shriek and launch herself backwards when her mane and tail started smoking. Forest landed as Chocolate wheezed, soot staining her face.

“Chocolate -”

“The mayor wants special effects for her ribbon cutting ceremony this afternoon, Forest - the fireworks are a bust -” She broke away to cough loudly, the noise echoing in her chest from inhaling the smoke. “Do you have any other ideas?”

“The fireworks -” Forest began repeating numbly, before shaking his head and turning his attention back to her. “Why are you doing this? Why aren’t you running the shop? Why isn’t Solar doing this for you -”

“Oh, no - Solar’s way too busy moving big orders around. The mayor said he was working at the building site of the new shopping mall -” Chocolate began saying in a monotone voice as she sighed loudly again, coughing up some more smoke.

Forest gulped, looking down at Chocolate’s flank, where, in a jolt of expected but horrifying terror, he saw Solar’s lightning bolt cutie mark nestled in Chocolate’s soft brown coat.

“Don’t set off any more fireworks!” Forest ordered her, before opening his wings and zooming off, followed closely by Ember. “Come on, we gotta find Solar -”

As Chocolate had predicted, they did a fly by over where a new shopping mall was being constructed, the bare skeleton of the building exposed as the builders swarmed around below. But nothing seemed to be happening as Forest squinted, before seeing that the furious builders were surrounding Solar.

Solar had the same hard hat and hi-vis vest on as the rest of the builders, but looked like he could barely deal with the pressure of the other builders yelling at him as he strained to pull along a massive wooden beam which was attached to him by his harness.

“Come on -  we don’t have weeks!” The builder in the crane hollered down, and Solar looked up, sweat and a few tears running down his face as he looked up at them.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry - I - I can’t pull it -” Solar began protesting, digging his hooves in and straining with audible gasps of agony as his face twisted up. He strained a second longer, his flailing hooves digging grooves into the ground but the beam didn’t budge an inch, and Solar yelped when his knees gave out and he fell flat on his face, still heaving and gasping for air as his chest rose and fell in exhausted shudders.

“You’re utterly useless - so much for your cutie mark -” Another builder spat, and it was a grim but expected shock as Forest glanced at Solar’s flank and saw Lava’s explosion cutie mark adorned upon Solar’s golden coat.

“Wait - wait!” Solar yelped desperately, waving a hoof as he wriggled out of the harness and, still panting, turned back to the beam. “I promise I can do this - it’s my purpose -”

His horn ignited and his magical aura surrounded the massive wooden beam. Forest could barely watch as Solar’s face began going red as he grunted and strained, trying to lift the beam by even an inch, but it was clearly too heavy for him, and when his magic flickered, Solar physically cried out in agony when his power faltered from the sheer weight of the beam. It fell back to the ground with a crask, sending puffs of dust into the builders’ faces.

Forest couldn’t watch any longer and flew out of the building site with Ember trailing him. The distraught silence between the two conveyed the severity and horror of the situation.

They couldn’t find Lava anywhere, but Forest figured that from a process of elimination, Lava was the one in possession of Horizon’s cutie mark.

“This is bad. This is very, very bad.” Forest gasped, zipping back into the library as Ember followed him.

Forest landed and tapped his hooves erratically, sweeping all the books on his desk to the floor as Ember hopped onto her perch, concern all over her face.

“How is this happening, Forest?” Ember asked, and Forest looked up, gasping as he snatched the open parcel he’d left on the desk and pulled it forwards, pulling the contents out as Ember watched.

“Last night, when you decided to take one of your spontaneous naps, I got a special delivery from Princess Celestia.” Forest recalled, realisation dawning on his face when he pulled the book out of the parcel wrapping where he’d put it back in there after looking at it yesterday. 

The scroll that had attended with the book was slotted in the cover, and Forest passed it to Ember so she could read it and fill herself in as he immediately flicked through the book again.

“Dear Forest Flash. The spell contained on the last page of this book is Starswirl the Bearded’s secret unfinished masterpiece. He was never able to get it right, and thus abandoned it. I believe that you are the only pony who can understand and rewrite it. Yours, Princess Celestia.” Ember read aloud, before looking up from the scroll. “Is this what Celestia meant when she said you could move on to the next level of study?”

“I think so - but I was already confused that she sent me a spell when I clearly couldn’t cast it -” Forest sighed, sadness edging into his heart past the panic. “But the Princess and I agreed to trust each other from now on - and so I read out the spell aloud to try and make some sense of it -”

He flicked over to the last page, where Starswirl’s cursive horn-writing adorned the page.

 

From one to another, another to one.

A mark of one’s destiny singled out alone fulfilled.

 

“I-I was confused - it didn’t make any sense - it didn’t even rhyme!” Forest wailed, panic in his voice as he put the book down open on that page. “I was going to ask Horizon in the morning if he could cast it to see if I could figure out what it did -” He whipped around, where the Elements were in their glass case in the library. 

He swallowed hard, his mouth dry when he saw that his own Element was its same green, but the others had changed their colours - no longer conforming to the cutie marks they were representing. “But it turns out something did happen when I read out the spell! The Elements of Harmony have changed - and that must be why their cutie marks are all wrong!”

“What about a counter spell to switch them back?” Ember asked, and Forest shook his head hard, looking down at the book again.

“There isn’t a counter spell - and even if there was, how am I supposed to cast it, Ember?” Forest cried out, his hooves on his head in panic. “Horizon’s the one who casts spells I can’t do - and he can’t do magic when his destiny is different -”

“What about the memory spell -”

“No, Ember! I don’t have a horn!” Forest cried out, banging his hooves on the floor in frustration. “I can’t do it! Horizon can’t do it either! There’s nopony here with advanced enough magic to do the spell - and even if there was, it wouldn’t work! It’s not their memories that are the problem, it’s their true selves that have been altered!”

“Zecora’s cure for the cutie pox?” Ember whispered, but they both knew she was clutching at straws, and Forest dipped his head, tears finally running down his muzzle.

“It won’t work. None of it will.” Forest whispered, his entire body sagging as he dipped his head and started heading back into the cold rain outside.

“Forest - wait - maybe it won’t end up so badly - maybe they’ll all end up liking their new lives?” Ember started saying to him, but her trembling voice betrayed her true feelings.

“No, Ember. They’re not who they’re meant to be anymore.” Forest breathed, his face crumpling as he gave way to sobs. “And it’s all my fault.”

The rain quickly made him soaked through and plastered his mane to his skull but he barely noticed as he walked slowly through the mud, his hooves dragging as tears ran down his face and mixed with the rain.

He tore his gaze away when he saw Red boarding up the windows and doors of Chocol’otel with a hammer and nails. The echoing sound of the hammer hitting the nails into the planks as he boarded up the door physically hurt Forest’s heart.

He saw Chocolate, still standing in the rain and getting soaking wet, half-heartedly fiddling with fireworks, and one made a squeaking noise, before falling with a splat at her hooves. She sighed and then proceeded to drag the crate of fireworks away, and tossing them into the trash.

Solar was walking stiffly past him, his head down so low that his nose was almost brushing the ground, and Forest could see how the harness from trying to drag the beams around had chafed his neck and back, and how he could barely summon up the magic to pull his hard hat off. Solar made a noise of agony through his teeth as his magic faltered on the grip of the hat, causing it to fall from the ground due to the strain of using his magic on an object he obviously couldn’t lift.

But perhaps what hurt the most was when Forest came to a stop, seeing Horizon stood on the bridge, his face twisted up as he panted and fought to regain control of the crazy weather. Forest knew unicorn magic was practically useless on weather unless the pony had exceptional talent in it, like Slate, but Horizon persisted, still trying to rearrange the clouds so they weren’t spitting cold rain.

A pony yelled something inaudible from her upstairs window at Horizon, making him physically flinch, before she slammed her shutters closed. The street was deserted except for Horizon and Forest. Horizon sagged his head, the red and white of his mane mixing as he was absolutely drenched by the cold rain and snow, and his horn stopped glowing as he let go of the clouds and simply stood there in the rain, almost as if he wished it would wash him away.

The pain in Forest’s heart at seeing him like this hurt so much he could barely breathe. Fresh tears ran down his face as he watched Horizon drag his hooves and walk painfully slowly back to Red’s house, his head dipped so low his nose was practically brushing the ground.

Forest sobbed, lamely reaching out a hoof after him, but Horizon didn’t even notice, turning the corner so he was out of sight, and Forest was left alone in the thundering rain.

Ember landed next to him as Forest fell to his knees and cried into his hooves, a gentle wing stroking him on the head, despite the fact Ember absolutely despised the rain, she stood there in it and let Forest sob.

“Ember - what have I done?” Forest breathed, looking up from his hooves as the phoenix watched him with sorrow in her eyes and rainwater running down her beak.

“Forest - come on - I know you’ll figure out a way to fix this.” Ember said softly to him, putting a soft and supporting wing on his face to wipe his tears away. “These are your friends, right?”

Forest looked away for a second, his eyes still puffy and drooping. He thought about Chocolate and Red as they cantered through the Running of the Leaves course, their manes and tails whipping in the air and beaming like there was no tomorrow. He thought about Solar as he howled with stupidly annoying and contagious laughter at the trees that Nightmare Moon had cursed. He thought about Red and Lava exchanging muzzle rubs and soft words meant only for each other. And he thought about Horizon - that look of patience and a soft smile on his normally cold face as he waited for Forest outside in Canterlot despite the fact he was so afraid to be there.

“You’re right, Ember.” Forest snuffled, finally looking up as determination edged onto his face and he wobbled to his hooves.

He turned around, seeing Horizon walking away into the distance.

“And they mean more to me than anything.” Forest breathed, a sudden lightness in his heart as he looked up. “My friends.”

There was a sudden bright green glow around him as he looked up, and Ember threw her wings over her eyes to shield them as Forest suddenly gasped, his mane whipping in the breeze.

“I know what to do, Ember!” Forest yelped, and Ember hopped onto his back as he immediately flew back to the library, kicking open the door and cantering over to where the mismatched Elements still resided. “I might not be able to remind them of who they are - but I can show them what they mean to each other!”

He pulled on the Element of Magic as he scooped up the other five and put them into a case, tossing it over to Ember where she caught it in her claws. Forest was suddenly optimistic and determined as the Element of Magic gleamed.

“They’ll find the part of themselves they’re missing when they’re helping the ponies they care so much about.” Forest whispered, flying over through the door as Ember followed him “I know we can - wait!” Forest skidded to a halt, suddenly shocked when he saw Lava dragging luggage behind him as he was heading to the train station.

As Forest had correctly predicted, Lava had Horizon’s cutie mark, and was passing his ticket to the conductor with none of his previous fire. He seemed empty - broken - like a shell with nothing inside it.

“Lava - where are you going?” Forest demanded, flying in front of him before he could get on the train.

“Why the fuck does it matter?” Lava immediately got defensive, prickling and baring his teeth. “I’m moving back to Fillydelphia. There’s nothing left for me here.”

“What do you mean?” Forest asked him, sadness in his tone.

Lava’s aggression suddenly left him as he sagged his head. “I don’t know what this fucking cutie mark means - I just - I can’t stay here when I don’t understand my own destiny -”

In truth, Forest didn’t quite understand the symbolism of Horizon’s cutie mark either. He doubted Horizon’s talent was only ice sculpting - there had to be something more to it. But either way, it made sense that Lava was so broken. As an earth pony with a unicorn cutie mark, he must have felt like a mistake. Useless.

“Well - I can’t stop you going - but before the train leaves, would you be willing to help Solar?” Forest asked him desperately, indicating to the other side of town where the building site was. “He’s really struggling with his job at the moment -”

“What? I can’t do Solar’s job for him -” Lava began getting defensive again, but Forest cut him short.

“Lava, you might not know anything about Solar’s job, but you do know something about Solar, right?” Forest persisted, and Lava suddenly looked up, something flickering in his eyes.

“I know that he’s an annoying fucker - but he’s all right.” Lava muttered, before standing up straight. “If he’s struggling, I’d do anything to help him.”

“Then there’s no time to lose - come on!” Forest ordered, and they cantered off, trailed by Ember holding the crate of Elements.

When they’d got there, the building site had descended into chaos. It was obvious that Solar had replaced Lava’s duty in leadership and organisation, along with dragging heavy materials around - but with Solar, the whole operation had grounded to a halt. He was completely surrounded by furious builders as they yelled at him to hurry up.

“Come on! We can’t finish these tasks if you don’t give us orders -” The builder shouted, making Solar flinch.

“I know - I know - j-just let me -” Solar began protesting, his voice cracking has his trembling hooves tried to fumble through the architecture plands, but he could barely keep ahold of it as the builders exploded into annoyed yells again.

“We have to move this beam - we can’t finish the structure or move in anymore materials whilst that’s in the way -” Another builder shrieked from where she was trying to move in another truck of bricks.

“I’m s-sorry - I - I-” Solar looked like he was about to cry as he dropped the plans into a puddle, causing more of an outraged rabble to break out from the builders. One of the builders pulled his hat off and tossed it at Solar’s hooves, making a statement as he then proceeded to immediately storm out when Solar made another whimpering noise.

“Lava - he needs you.” Forest pointed out, urgently, and there was a grimace on Lava’s face as he hesitated. “Please, Lava - you have to try.”

Lava took another hesitant step, but when the builders’ angry shouts died down when Lava’s authoritative figure came into view, Lava’s anxiety slowly died off. Forest internally cheered when Lava passed the plans to another builder and helped Solar up where he was collapsed on the floor from trying to pull the beam, and pushed it with his nose, moving it out of the way for the trucks to move in.

Forest watched as Lava then beckoned the trucks carrying materials in, looking at the plans and proceeding to order the builders away, giving them the tasks he could decipher from the plans. The builders obeyed as Lava put on the discarded hard hat and started pulling around crates of bricks when they were unloaded. The builders got back to work and the crane finally started moving again when the materials they needed to move were there.

Solar was sat there, still trying to catch his breath as Lava stopped for a second, a confident grin on his face.

“That - was easy. I - I can understand this - it feels like this is what I’m meant to do -” Lava began muttering, and Forest gasped when Lava’s form began glowing a bright orange. “Like this is my destiny -”

Forest reacted quickly, snatching the Element of Loyalty and putting it on Lava. Lava froze, his eyes wide as they flickered with thousands of memories, and there was a white flash that caused Forest and Ember to cover their eyes.

And then, when the light ceased and they cracked their eyes open, Lava was struggling to his hooves, muttering and rubbing at his eyes.

“Lava! Your cutie mark!” Forest yelped in delight, hopping up and down on his hooves when Lava finally stood upright, and his explosion cutie mark was back in its rightful place. “Oh - it worked! I’m so glad you’re back!”

“Back from what?” Lava demanded, and Forest ignored the question because there was no time to explain.

“I’ll explain later - but we need to hurry. Chocolate’s trying to use fireworks at the mayor’s ribbon cutting ceremony.” Forest said breathlessly.

“Say no more - come on, Sparky!” Lava roared, nudging Solar to his feet as he sat there numbly with a dead look in his eyes.

After dragging Solar to where Chocolate was still standing there in the rain trying to figure out how to make the fireworks ignite, Solar drew back, anxiety and fear on his face at seeing something so unfamiliar. Lava gave Solar a harsh nudge.

“Sparky - grow the fuck up. She needs your help - do something about it.” Lava ordered him, and Solar swallowed hard, before taking some more hesitant steps towards her.

Chocolate looked up, tears running down her face as Solar offered her a hoof, helping her up from the ground.

“I think these ones are ruined, Chocolate - see, the fuses are wet from the rain.” Solar started explaining to her. “Maybe fireworks aren’t a good idea at the mayor’s ceremony -”

“But - I can’t think of anything else -” Chocolate’s bottom lip was wobbling as Solar thought hard.

“What if I just did a little -” Solar’s horn ignited, and he cast a few sparks that bounced off the floor. “See - non-harmful, and they’re super pretty too, right?” Solar turned his head away, and his eyes flickered as he started thinking. “What about magical fireworks rather than real ones? Those look great in the daytime - not just at night-time -”

“Solar - you’re really good at this.” Forest heard Chocolate say to him, and Solar shot upright, eyes wide as he began glowing a bright yellow, like Lava had before.

“I - I guess I am - wait - this feels familiar - like I’ve done this before -” Solar gasped, his eyes glazing over when Forest grabbed the Element of Laughter and flew past Solar and put it around his neck.

Solar stiffened as his jaw dropped, and the yellow light intensified before it condensed into a white flash, and when Forest cracked his eyes open again, Solar was lying there on the ground, muttering and rubbing at his head. Forest yelped in delight when he saw Solar’s lightning bolt cutie mark was back in its rightful place again.

“W-what just happened?” Solar slurred as Forest helped him to his hooves again.

“Not enough time to explain - Red’s about to lose Chocol’otel.” Forest said breathlessly, indicating to where there was smoke billowing from inside the shop.

“Red’s making food?! We have to stop him!” Solar gasped in horror, before they all turned to where Chocolate was standing there, looking shocked and fearful at the suggestion.

“Red needs your help, Chocolate.” Forest said to her as they cantered towards the shop.

“But - I can’t make food - I don’t know anything about it -” Chocolate started protesting, looking like she was about to cry as Forest pulled down the boards over the shop’s door.

“But you do know that Red’s your friend, right?” Forest insisted, indicating towards the door. “Please - just try - you might find that you’ll start to understand -”

Determination edged onto Chocolate’s face as she pushed through the door. Forest watched as Red tried to use the electric mixer again, making it whirr uncontrollably and short-circuit so it smoked. Chocolate pushed the mixer aside and put the attempted mixture in the trash, smiling softly at Red as he looked up with frustrated tears running down his face.

Chocolate started cleaning, using her swift hooves to polish and mop the floor and windows, which were still filthy from Red’s assault on them earlier. Red stood and watched numbly as Chocolate’s stride suddenly got more confident as she understood what she was doing more. Chocolate cleaned the counter and started reading a recipe from the book, hoof-crafting the ingredients as her eyes lit up in understanding. A wonderful smell started filling she shop again as the stench of smoke filtered out. As she pulled the finished cupcakes from the oven, a pink glow surrounded her, and Forest flew past her, putting the Element of Generosity on her.

Chocolate froze, her eyes glazing over as thousands of memories flew before her vision, and the white flash caused them all to throw their hooves over their eyes. Chocolate whooped, rearing up in delight as her sakura cutie mark sparkled in the light.

“Yes! That’s more like it!” She yelled, pawing her hooves in the air as she reared, before planting them on the ground and looking around. “What’s next?”

“The weather is awful. We need Red to fix it again!” Forest yelled, the ponies leaving and cantering from the shop.

“The weather? But I can’t do that - isn’t that Horizon’s job?” Red started asking in anxiety, and Lava shoved the red pegasus forwards as Horizon, still on the bridge, made a noise of pain when his magical grip on the clouds faltered, sending more rain pelting down.

“Horizon needs help, Red - you’re the only pony who can help him!” Solar encouraged as another grimace of fear edged onto Red’s face.

“Okay. Okay - I’ll t-try.” Red whispered, opening his wings and flying apprehensively up to a cloud and giving it a tentative nudge with a hoof.

The cloud dissipated, and a look of surprise edged onto Red’s face. Forest felt the warm sun beating down on his face again as Red reared back, zipping through the sky and pushing the clouds from under his hooves so they puffed and vanished. Red let out a yell of delight as he used his wings to disintegrate more clouds, bouncing off them with puffs.

Horizon cracked his eyes open, watching with tiredness on his face as Red streaked past him, trailing a crimson speed-trail as he completely cleared the sky, still whooping in joy as he flew right through a fluffy cloud. As Red landed, panting and wiping at his forehead, a red glow started surrounding him, and Forest cantered forwards, putting Red’s Element on his neck.

Red stiffened as his eyes also went blank and thousands of memories flitted in front of his vision, and the red light intensified into bright white light, making Forest look away as his heart thudded, and he grinned in delight when Red flapped his wings with a yell of joy, doing a loop-de-loop in the air when his cutie-mark reappeared on his flank.

“Wahoo! I feel great -” Red yelled, before stopping short when he saw Horizon still stood numbly there with Red’s cutie mark still on his flank. “Looks like we’re not done yet.”

“What is Horizon’s talent, Forest?” Chocolate asked in confusion, and Forest shook his head, showing he wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know. He’s never told us - and plus, we don’t know how he got his cutie mark either.” Solar muttered. “When the Crusaders were asking us, Horizon said that Red’s rainboom caused him to get his cutie mark but he didn’t say how or why.”

Forest cursed, pawing a hoof against the floor as his eyes darted in his head when he thought rapidly. He gasped, jolting upright.

“We’re going to Canterlot, Horizon.” He announced breathlessly, before turning to the others. “Come on, everypony!”

They immediately cantered to the train station. Forest only stopped to grab a cloak for Horizon before they got on the train. Horizon sat there blankly, obviously void of any emotion as Forest fidgeted, aching for the train to move faster as it headed up the mountain that Canterlot was built on. Forest had to practically pull Horizon off the train as the others waited on the platform, still wearing their Elements.

“Wait here. Horizon and I are going into the castle.” Forest ordered them, and they cantered across the courtyard as Forest looked around, before he bumped into a female Guard.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going - huh?” The female gasped, and Forest’s spine tingled when the voice cast deja vu right through his bones. “Forest Flash?”

“Gilded Rose?” Forest breathed, looking at her.

She was adorned in what looked like a Lieutenant's uniform. Her gold eyes were wide as she glanced down at Forest, and Forest suddenly tapped his hooves anxiety.

“You’re a Guard?” Forest gaped, and Rose looked embarrassed.

“I - I guess - but what are you doing here? The princess said your studies were in Ponyville now -” Rose looked shocked, and Forest nodded rapidly, the urgency of the situation making him curt and anxious.

“They are - I’ve just got a serious emergency -” Forest answered, and Rose’s eyes widened.

“Do you need the princess?” She asked in concern, and Forest shook his head.

“No - do you know where I can find Princess Frozen Serenade?” Forest asked her, and Rose’s eyes moved as she obviously thought. “I don’t know if she lives here anymore - but I need to find the place where Princess Frozen Serenade and Prince Arctic Aurora maybe lived before they grew up -”

“You probably want the royal quarters.” Gilded Rose answered, pointing with a hoof towards another section of the castle, away from the place Celestia and Luna lived.

Forest nodded and started trying to get around her, his hoof still dragging Horizon along, but Gilded Rose’s hoof shot out, stopping him in his path. He stopped, glancing up at her as she pulled her helmet off and her wine-red and gold mane fluttered out.

“Listen, Forest -” Her eyes were wide. “I’m -”

“I’m sorry, Gilded Rose - I don’t have time to do this at the moment.” Forest said, pain on his voice as he forced himself to turn away and pull Horizon after him. “I’m sorry.”

Rose stood there in the corridor and didn’t follow him.

Horizon started trembling and muttering to himself as his eyes glazed over. Forest forced himself to keep pulling Horizon along, and as they turned a corner, Forest found himself looking into what looked like the magical training rooms for intense magical battle that they used for training Guards - and Horizon immediately started whimpering and shaking uncontrollably at the sight of it.

“Is this where -” Forest began asking him, and Horizon wailed, his hoof going over his scarred eye as he tried to wobble away.

“G-gotta get to Ponyville - move the clouds - clouds - gotta move the clouds -” Horizon started muttering and mumbling to himself, and Forest grabbed him by the cloak and pulled him back, having to flap his wings to get more force since Horizon was incredibly strong.

“Horizon!” Forest yelled past the material in his teeth, wrenching his neck back as he pulled them both into the room, and Horizon screamed, fighting to get away.

“NO! NO! NO!” Horizon wailed, fighting to get away, and Forest persisted, tears running down his own face. 

“Horizon - listen to me -” Forest began yelling, before he reached out and a hoof touched Horizon on the back. The second it made contact, they both froze as the Element of Magic around Forest’s neck exploded into light.

Forest found himself standing in this very room. Horizon was stood next to him, except his cloak was gone. Forest tried to move, but he was frozen, and Horizon was already crying, tears dripping from his eyelids. Just when Forest tried to figure out what was going on, Horizon’s father entered - except he walked right through them, sending chills all through Forest’s body.

“This isn’t real. It’s a memory.” Forest breathed, watching as two colts followed the massive auburn and orange unicorn.

He recognised a tiny, blank-flank version of Horizon with short legs and a fluffy mane and tail so his horn was barely peeking out from it. His face was unscarred too, and Forest flinched at the sight of it. A slightly older pegasus colt followed Horizon, and Forest recognised Arctic immediately.

“Prince Arctic Aurora, you will leave this room immediately.” Horizon’s father snarled at him, but young Arctic stood his ground.

“Why are you only training Horizon? He deserves to play too -” Arctic’s voice was high pitched and unbroken, but he yelped and stepped back when his father slammed a hoof down in front of him, sending a sharp cracking noise through the air.

“Prince Hallowed Horizon is destined to be the most powerful pony in Equestria, you disobedient colt. Get out NOW!” Horizon’s father screamed, his horn igniting as he picked Arctic up with his magic. 

“Father! Let him go!” Young Horizon shrieked, his voice also high-pitched and immature as Arctic yelped and struggled.

Where Horizon was stood next to him, Forest saw how Horizon was silently crying, rivulets of tears still pooling in his eyelids at the sight of the horrific scene. Young Horizon attacked his father’s hoof, hitting him with his tiny hooves and high pitched cries as Arctic struggled in their father’s magical aura.

Horizon’s father lifted up a hoof and kicked young Horizon in the skull, sending his tiny body flying across the room so he hit the opposite window and collapsed to the ground. Forest had to close his eyes, unable to move to cover them with his hooves, and Horizon let out a sob next to him - a low, mournful sound.

Arctic went absolutely mental, screaming and thrashing around at the sight of it. Horizon’s father kept a tight magical grip on Arctic, squeezing him so he started gasping for air past his pained screams.

“Come on, boy. I know you asked the Princess for a magical mission. Since you’re so desperate for power, you useless pile of feathers, how about we force that horn out of you?” Horizon’s father snarled, a manic grin on his face as he squeezed Arctic tighter so he could barely even scream.

Forest had to tear his eyes away. It was too horrific to watch, and he saw how young Horizon was coughing up blood where he was still slumped under the window, and trying to reach his older brother, but he could barely move.

And then, there was a crack - and a burst of bright colours blasted through the window, and Forest recognised  Red’s rainboom out of the glass panels - and something happened to the younger memory version of Horizon as his form convulsed, his body floating from the floor. Forest watched as young Horizon’s head jerked back when his spine curved, and white light poured from his eyes.

This caught the attention of Horizon’s father and he turned, his eyes glinting in malice at the sight of his son floating there and twitching from the power that was pouring from his eyes and making his mane flow. 

“I knew it.” Horizon’s father growled past his manic grin, and young Horizon cried out, his magical power shooting from his horn and hitting his father in the throat so he yelled and dropped Arctic.

Arctic ran for his life, disappearing behind the door and only peeking out as their father gasped for air, winded and his throat bleeding heavily as ice growths started to push from the skin where Horizon’s magic had come into contact with him.

“The power.” Horizon’s father breathed, before his face twisted up in rage.

Forest heard Horizon next to him make another noise of terror as he shut his eyes. Forest couldn’t look away despite the fact his stomach was churning in horror and he was resisting the urge to be sick. 

And then, Horizon’s father stormed up to young Horizon, and his horn lit with flame, and he sent a burst of raging fire into the colt’s face.

Forest finally shut his eyes just before he saw it, but he heard the long, high pitched scream of a colt in agony, and when he dared to open his eyes again, he saw young Horizon writhing and screaming on the floor, spraying blood everywhere.

“You brought this upon yourself, Prince - and now your face is marked. Disgusting.” His father spat, kicking the colt in the ribs so he shrieked. He picked up Horizon with his magic as the colt continued to wail and scream, and brought his muzzle close to young Horizon’s ear as his voice dropped to a low, menacing whisper. “I want you to remember this pain. This fear. This agony. Think about what you are feeling now the next time you defy me. I will not stop. You will never escape me.”

He dropped the colt to the floor harshly as the colt continued to cry and wail as blood ran through the hooves he had over his eye. As Horizon’s father vanished, the young, bleeding Horizon of memories lay there in his own blood, and as the memory faded, the last thing Forest saw was the cutie mark of flaming crystals of ice glinting on the foal’s flank past the blood smearing his white coat.

Forest blinked, and the room came back into focus again. Horizon collapsed to his knees, shuddering and shaking as he sobbed and gasped for air. His breathing was rapid and loud and wheezing, and Forest was suddenly terrified.

“H - Horizon!” Forest whispered, and Horizon cried out again, collapsing back as he threw his hooves over his eyes, his breathing still loud and rapid.

“N- no! Don’t  - DON’T LOOK AT ME!” Horizon screamed, trying to shuffle away from Forest. “I don’t - I don’t want you t-to see me like this -”

“Horizon. I’m here. I’m not judging you.” Forest breathed, immediately sitting in front of him and gently holding his hoof in his own.

“No! NO - don’t hate me - please don’t hate me - please don’t -” Horizon sobbed loudly, and Forest felt himself tearing up too, having to sniff slightly as he focused on holding Horizon’s trembling hooves.

“I could never hate you.” He whispered, and he couldn’t take it any longer as he embraced Horizon hard, wrapping his front legs around him and gently put a hoof on the back of his neck as Horizon cried and wailed.

“I t-tried to forget - I tried to forget it all - but it never stops - I just want everything to be okay - and it n-never is - every time I look at myself all I can see is him - everything he did to me -” Horizon screamed, and Forest was silent, only focusing on holding him gently. “What if I die - what if I die like my mom? What if - what if -”

“You won’t. You’re with me, and I’m not going to leave you.” Forest whispered, and the feeling of Horizon’s face so close to his neck was making his spine tingle.

Horizon let out a low, mournful sob, and eventually, his harsh breathing stopped. It was like his body couldn’t deal with the hyperventilating anymore that it just had to calm down.

Horizon sat there blankly, looking at where his hoof was still between Forest’s. Forest looked up at him, seeing how his face was red and his eyes were puffy from crying so much.

“Can I hug you?” Forest asked in a whisper, the words leaving his mouth before he could stop them, and Horizon nodded as Forest leant forwards and wrapped his forelegs around him again.

Horizon sighed and he moved in slightly closer. Forest could feel how vulnerable he was - this was no strong, cold unicorn that he’d first met - this was an injured colt forced to grow up before his time - his heart and brain were broken - but still, Forest could feel his soul - the true pieces of Horizon, of Todoroki - pulsing gently within his body.

Forest could feel Horizon’s cool breath on his neck sending shivers down his spine, which contrasted with how warm his body was. Horizon muttered something, and Forest jumped.

“What was that?” He asked softly, and Horizon looked up slightly.

“When you do that - with your wings -” Horizon mumbled, suddenly looking embarrassed as Forest looked, seeing that he’d wrapped his wings around Horizon so he was almost enveloped. “- feels nice.”

“Oh. Okay - I’ll keep doing it, then.” Forest answered with a small smile, stretching his wings out further.

The feeling of his feathers brushing against Horizon’s coat was making his whole body tingle, and he sighs, pressing up closer to him. Horizon exhaled, reacting positively to it, and Forest wondered whether Horizon’s pegasus mother wrapped her wings around him as a foal. Either way, Horizon seemed to be more relaxed now, although his breathing sometimes shuddered against Forest’s neck.

“I’m sorry -” Horizon started saying, and Forest looked at him as Horizon began crying again, fresh tears running down his face.

“Are you crazy? Why are you apologising?” Forest whispered back, and Horizon glanced away.

“Because - I - I - I - sometimes my thoughts get so loud and it’s like there’s a switch in my head that makes me break -” Horizon said in a soft voice as his tears started dropping onto Forest’s hooves. 

“I was so worried - I’m just so happy you’re okay.” Forest cried, wrapping his arms tighter around Horizon. “But you’re fine. You’re fine -”

“I’m so sorry - I’m sorry -” Horizon sobbed, beginning to cry again.

“Don’t apologise! What are you apologising for?” Forest demanded, wiping at his face hastily.

“I - I made you worry - I’m sorry - I - I just - I never wanted you to see me like that - it just happens -” Horizon whispered, and Forest was silent as he kept his hooves around Horizon’s shoulders and his wings wrapped around his entire body. “Just seeing it all again - remembering it - it makes something in my brain explode and everything goes blank - but it’s all so loud and I can’t escape it and all I can see is him.” Horizon stopped to inhale, still crying softly. “And it’s like this feeling of dread all over my body - all because of how scared I am that I’m going to be like him - and it doesn’t even matter because I can’t change it -”

“But you did change it. You left him. You’re not your father, Horizon.” Forest whispered firmly, and Horizon’s head shot up as he looked at him with wide eyes.

“So much for me being a locked book.” Horizon breathed, and their foreheads were touching so their noses were so close to each other Forest could barely breathe.

“It’s okay being a locked book as long as you let somepony read it at some point, Horizon.” Forest whispered, and Horizon shifted where their foreheads were touching, and the feeling of his horn resting in Forest’s mane was making his heart leap. “And listen to me - you aren’t your father. You never were and never will be.”

Horizon was silent for a second, and Forest continued.

 “Your magic is incredible - and ever since I’ve met you, you’ve used your magic for good. You’ve helped me in every way possible. You rescued me from the cliff when we defeated Nightmare Moon. You were the one who cast the memory spell to save the others from Discord. You were the one who got me past all of King Sombra’s obstacles to get the Crystal Heart.” Forest was getting breathless and he stopped for a second to breathe before he kept going. “Just because you’re powerful does not mean you are your father. It’s not your magic that defines you - and that is the absolute truth.”

There was silence for a few seconds aside from the breathing of the two ponies.

Horizon snorted softly, flicking his heterochromic eyes up to look right at Forest, and he started glowing a bright blue, just like the others. 

“Who’s the Element of Honesty now?” Horizon breathed, amusement in his soft tone as his form glowed brighter.

“You are, Hallowed Horizon.” Forest said with a soft laugh as he reached behind him and picked up the Element so it was resting in his hooves, and he placed it around Horizon’s neck.

Horizon stiffened, arching his back as Forest took a step backwards and the Element exploded into light, making Forest throw his hooves over his eyes. The light forced through his eyelids as Forest folded his wings and turned away, and then the light ceased, and as Forest cracked his eyes open, he saw Horizon struggling to his hooves, where his crystalised fire-ice cutie mark was glimmering on his pristine white flank.

“Horizon!” Forest sobbed, launching himself at him and Horizon responded, wrapping his hooves around Forest’s neck as they embraced hard, pressing their bodies up against each other.

Forest held on so tightly he was sure he was never going to let go. They moved apart for a second, and the gentle pressure of Horizon’s hoof on the back of his neck was making Forest’s brain catch up with his body as his face exploded into heat and his heart started screaming where it was bouncing against his ribcage

They pressed their foreheads against each other so their noses were barely apart. Horizon sighed, a soft sound as his eyes slid shut.

“You really are something else, Forest Flash.” Horizon whispered, and Forest snorted softly, readjusting his arms where they were resting on Horizon’s shoulders.

“Wow. You’re close.” Was all Forest managed to say as it flew out in a breath, and Horizon looked up at him.

“Huh. I guess I am.” Horizon breathed, and Forest swallowed hard, feeling his heart thudding against his ribcage.

“I -” Forest began saying, his voice cracking horrifically, when his own voice reading the spell echoed through his head.

 

A mark of one’s destiny singled out alone fulfilled.

 

He suddenly gasped, shooting upright as a tiny fizz in his heart made him practically jump up and leap through the ceiling.

“Forest? What’s wrong?” Horizon asked him, and Forest thought for a second longer, muttering to himself as his eyes darted around in his head.

“I - I know how to fix the spell!” He gasped, and although he didn’t want to move - it physically pained him to have to move when Horizon was so close and they were alone and just - it was sending so many emotions through his head and heart.

“Then let’s go.” Horizon insisted, getting to his hooves as Forest blinked up at him.

“But -” He whispered, and Horizon looked down at him with a pained look in his eyes.

“Tomorrow.” Horizon said, and Forest felt his throat tightening. 

“Horizon -”

“Tomorrow, Forest. I promise.” Horizon said in a raw, pained voice, and Forest nodded, and the two ponies immediately left the room, galloping down the stairs to the train station, where the others were waiting.

“Forest! Horizon’s back!” Chocolate cheered, and Forest ushered them back onto the train with urgency on his face.

“I know how to fix the spell - we have to get back to the library!” Forest yelped, and the train started moving.

He did not miss how Horizon sat a little closer to him than usual, and Forest smiled softly, edging closer to him as Horizon exhaled. He wasn’t wearing the cloak anymore.

Forest pushed through the door of the library, followed by his friends as he leapt for Starswirl’s book, and grabbed a quill in his teeth.

He shut his eyes, inhaled and exhaled slowly, before pressing the quill to the paper as Ember and the others watched anxiously.

 

“From all of us together - 

Together we are friends.

With the marks of our destinies made one,

There is magic without end!”

 

Forest pressed the quill down to finish the sentence and shut the book, exhaling in relief as he put it back down on the desk. The others surrounded him in delight, and Forest turned, seeing Horizon looking at him with such an intense fire in his eyes it was making Forest’s knees go weak.

There was a noise as Forest suddenly glanced down when his Element started glowing. Forest frowned, rubbing at it with a hoof as he wondered why on earth it was reacting to the spell when he hadn’t cast it. It suddenly exploded into white light, sending rainbow waves spilling out, and when they came into contact with the others’ Elements, they too reacted.

Red shrieked when his Element started spitting a beam of red light, which collided with Forest’s back. Forest reared with a gasp, and although it didn’t hurt, he was beyond confused. Chocolate and the others started yelling when their Elements started shooting beams of coloured light, which also collided with Forest, freezing him to the spot.

Horizon tried to wrench his Element away so the beam of blue light stopped hitting Forest in the chest, but it clearly wasn’t working, and Forest found himself being lifted off the floor in a swirling orb of white magic even though he wasn’t using his wings.

There was an explosion of white light and Forest squeezed his eyes shut as everything disappeared, and the last thing he managed to hear was Horizon’s panicked scream.

“Forest!”

 

-

 

He finally came to, and he was floating in a blue void that was like an ocean filled with bright, firefly lights. Forest swallowed down his nausea as he planted his hooves down, despite the fact there was no ground.

“Hello?” Forest called out, his voice echoing and bouncing. “She? Did you do this?”

A bright light in the distance glowed, and Celestia revealed herself - regal and proud, with her white form glowing and her wings open as she approached him. Forest was slightly relieved, since if Celestia was here then there was probably a magical explanation for it all. When She interacted with him, it was something beyond the understanding of any entity in the Multiverse.

“Congratulations, Forest. I knew you could do it.” Celestia smiled, and Forest cantered over to her to embrace her.

“Princess - but I don’t understand. What did I do?” Forest asked her, and Celestia smiled, looking up as her horn glowed and she summoned Starswirl’s book so it was floating above Forest.

“You did something that has never been done before - by anypony, magical or not. Even Starswirl the Bearded could not have possibly achieved what you did today.” She answered, flicking through the book to reveal Starswirl’s cursive hornwriting in dark ink next to the new addition of Forest’s writing in purple ink. “This is because he did not understand friendship like you do. Everything you have learned here and in Canterlot - every pony you have met and touched the lives of - has taught you something beyond what even Starswirl was capable of understanding.”

Forest thought back to Japan, where there was an ancient myth about a red string that would be tied around the little finger, and it would wrap around every person whose lives one was destined to touch. On the end of the string, however, would be the destined soulmate of the person. The string may stretch, or tangle, but would never break.

For a second, Forest wondered whether the string stretched across Multiverses too.

“You have proven that you are ready, Forest.” Celestia said, indicating for him to follow her.

“Ready for what? The next level of study?” Forest asked her, trotting after her, and Celestia laughed, a soft tinkling noise echoing out.

“My dear Forest - you have come such a long way since you were a tiny colt trespassing on my school’s property.” Celestia answered with another laugh, causing Forest to flush and look away. “But since that day we met, I haven’t stopped watching you grow and develop.”

“You mean - even before you invited me to the school? When I just used the library?” Forest asked her, and Celestia nodded as they began walking on a path made of stardust that led through the void.

“Forest - I was intrigued by you - a pegasus with no magic had the most magical talent I had ever seen. It was the day you got your cutie mark that I realised there was no point in denying you of magical study any longer - no point in pretending I couldn’t have you as my personal student.” Celestia answered, turning to look at him. “Do you know what your cutie mark symbolises, Forest?”

Forest turned to look at it, and his ears drooped with a sigh. “I mean - I guess I just assumed that it was about my love for studying magic, even if it meant I couldn’t do it -”

“Did you not read the cutie mark encyclopedia?” Celestia asked, her horn summoning the book as she flipped it over to where there was a red bookmark in the page.

Forest shook his head. “No - I guess I was just terrified it would mean something I didn’t understand -”

Celestia flipped the book over and showed it to him. “Forest, a six pointed star is the most powerful rune of magical power that exists. Not in magical study, but in magic itself. This is why the Element of Magic is a six pointed star, and why you have a cutie mark of one.”

Forest swallowed, his throat dry.

“But that doesn’t make any sense - why would I have the most powerful rune of magic as a cutie mark when I can’t do magic?” Forest said, his voice cracking slightly.

“On the contrary, my dear. Remember what I said to you the first day we met, Forest?” Celestia said, making the book vanish as they turned to the side, where a memory appeared before them, like a gallery filled with Forest’s own memories.

“Not all magic requires a horn, Forest.” Celestia said on the memory and Forest sighed, casting his gaze away.

“It still doesn’t make any sense though. Surely a unicorn would have been a better choice to wield the Element of Magic - maybe Horizon or something -” Forest started saying, and Celestia shook her head.

“Because it was not Horizon’s destiny to do so. It was yours.” Celestia smiled, and they walked down the memories.

Forest’s studies in school, their defeat of Nightmare Moon, the Running of the Leaves, the Gala, the Winter Wrap up, the Mysterious Masked Do Well, Zecora, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, their defeat of Discord, Slate and Arctic defeating the changelings, the Crystal Heart and Sombra -

Forest looked up, seeing a memory of that tender and vulnerable moment he’d shared with Horizon merely hours before, and stopped, looking up at Celestia as she turned to him.

“I am so incredibly proud of you, Forest.” Celestia said, her mane flowing as ethereal as ever. “But you’ve grown up, and a new change must come in order for you to continue your path.”

Forest looked up at her, his heart beating fast against his chest as he swallowed hard again. “Does this mean -”

“Yes, Forest. It is time for you to fulfil your destiny.” Celestia opened her wings and reared back as light poured from her frame.

Forest could barely react as a green pulse of magic suddenly pulled from his chest, where the Element of Magic should have been residing, and it began spinning and writhing around him as it lifted his body from the ground.

As it whirled around his body and lifted him up high, Forest found himself a little afraid, but Celestia watched him, pride and joy in her eyes as Forest felt his mane blowing despite the fact there was no breeze. The light swirling around him intensified as a white glow began pouring from his body, and suddenly Forest convulsed, arching his back and opening his wings when the magic wrapped his body up, sending a massive flash across his vision.

He felt warmth across his entire body and snapped his eyes shut, still feeling light even though he wasn’t flying, and then the void melted away, and he was descending. Forest felt his hooves hit the ground and crouched for a second, his knees shaking and trembling as the light began to cease.

An image of his cutie mark glowed in the sky for a second longer before it faded, and Forest muttered to himself, eyes rolling in his head slightly when he squinted past the light

His friends were waiting outside the library for him, and they had their hooves over their eyes past the light as Forest forced himself to his hooves.

“Forest? Is that you?” Chocolate yelped, and Forest opened his wings, causing a glow of light to pour from his body.

The others made loud gasps of shock, and Forest made another noise of queasiness, rubbing at his face again. His friends didn’t move - they were frozen as Forest forced himself to not wobble on his unsteady feet. Ember’s beak was so wide open it was almost hitting the ground.

“Hey guys -” Forest started saying, and Red leant in close to Lava, not tearing his eyes off Forest.

“Has he seriously not even noticed yet?” Red hissed through his teeth, and Forest frowned at them.

“Noticed wh -” Forest began saying, reaching up to rub the back of his neck in confusion, but suddenly froze when he felt his mane falling weirdly over his skull.

Forest immediately froze, terror on his face as he looked at the others still gazing at him with wide eyes and open mouths. He began freaking out very quickly.

“Is there something on my head?” He asked slowly, his voice rising into a high pitched squeak as he began rifling around in his mane and resisting the urge to shake it like crazy and scream.

“You could say that.” Lava said dryly, but it was clear that he was just as shocked as the others.

Forest edged a hoof towards his head, and froze when his hoof knocked against something hard. It sent sensation into his skull and made a clacking noise, and when it didn’t move when he knocked it a bit harder, it finally dawned on Forest.

He froze, and promptly forgot how to breathe.

“Is this real?” He squeaked, turning painfully slowly to his friends as they watched him with wide eyes.

“You’re not dreaming, if that’s what you mean.” Chocolate answered slowly, and Forest immediately began panicking due to the masses of emotions that were rushing through his body.

He stumbled over to the window of the library, and shut his eyes, exhaling slowly to try and dissipate some of the panic, before cracking them open. Forest saw his reflection’s eyes widening, and he flicked his vision up to his head -

“Oh, for the love of She.” The words left his mouth in a whisper, and Solar yelled in delight, leaping at Forest and hugging him hard as Forest stood there frozen with his jaw open, unable to tear his eyes off his reflection.

He could almost hear She’s laugh of ‘I told you so’ on the breeze.

“Yeah!! Forest’s got a horn! Awesome!! A new magic buddy!” Solar whooped, still holding onto Forest as he remained there frozen, almost afraid that if he looked away then he’d have imagined it all and he would be a pegasus again, but he reached a hoof up and tapped it again, where it was still there.

“Wait for the freak-out.” Ember muttered to Lava, and the initial shock finally left Forest as he shrieked - mostly in terror and disbelief.

“Wh - what?! How - what - why - just  huh?” Forest made another squeak of shock, and the others started making delighted noises as they crowded him to get a better look.

“You’ve become an alicorn - like Celestia and Arctic!” Chocolate cheered, gasping when she poked Forest’s horn with a hoof like she was checking it was real.

“I didn’t think it was possible.” Lava commented, and Horizon shook his head.

“Arctic wasn’t born an alicorn.” Horizon pointed out, causing the others to look at him. “It’s definitely possible.”

“Clearly - since Forest’s got a horn now.” Red grinned, patting Forest on the back in congratulations.

It finally settled on Forest and a massive beam broke out on his face as he looked up at his horn, fighting the urge to shriek in excitement. He could do magic! He could do magic now - and not just imagine it or study it but actually physically do the magic -

“Forest looks like a Prince!” Chocolate piped up, punching the air in delight as Forest opened his wings again, twitching the feathers slightly. Even they seemed to have changed slightly - they were bigger, shaped more like Arctic’s than they used to be.

“That’s because he is a Prince.” Celestia’s voice rang out as she descended from the sky, landing and folding her wings.

“Huh?” Everyone practically shrieked, including Forest.

“A - a Prince? That can’t be right - I’m just a normal pegasus from Cloudsdale -” Forest began protesting, tripping over his words.

“Forest. Since you have come to Ponyville, you have displayed the charity, compassion, devotion, integrity, optimism and of course, the leadership of a true Prince.” Celestia said gently as the others looked at him with joy and pride in their eyes.

“But - does this mean I’m not your student anymore?” Forest flattened his ears as he looked up at Celestia.

She laughed softly. “Not in the same way as before. I’ll still be here to help and guide you through this new process, but we’re all your students now too.” Celestia suddenly bowed, bringing her head to the floor as his other friends followed suit. “You are an inspiration to us all, Prince Forest.”

Ember bowed too, her wing out as she gave him a look of utmost happiness in her shining eyes. Forest was suddenly slightly overwhelmed as the others came out of their bows, and he started to panic again.

“What am I supposed to do now? Is there a book on being a Prince I should read?” Forest demanded, folding his wings and looking up at Celestia.

“There will be time for all of that later, my dear.” Celestia said with a short giggle, and as she began heading off, she looked over her shoulder with a hint of mischief in her eyes. “And I know you’ll want to start chipping through that list of spells you’ve wanted to try that you started as a colt, right?”

Forest froze in horror, his jaw dropping open.

“How do you know about my list?” He squeaked, and Celestia only answered with a laugh as she opened her wings and flew back towards Canterlot.

Forest did not want a fuss about his coronation but unfortunately there was no avoiding it. Celestia insisted he’d be fine, along with Chocolate and his other friends saying they’d be here to support him. There was a massive deal about getting him dressed up in royal garments (again, Celestia said that he wouldn’t have to wear them all the time, of course).

His friends stood at the end of the throne room in their best clothes with Celestia, Luna and Arctic (Lava was even wearing a tie). The three alicorns stood with their wings open and their own royal garments on as Celestia stepped forward to address the crowd in the ornately decorated room.

“We are gathered here today to celebrate a momentous occasion. My most faithful student, Forest Flash, has done many incredible things since I met him as a tiny colt. He was the pony behind my reunion with Princess Luna, and the defeat of Discord and King Sombra.” Celestia turned to Luna, who smiled softly at her.

“But today, Forest Flash did something extraordinary. He created new magic - fighting past all the physical and mental obstacles. The lives of the ponies he has touched are changed for the better - which is why he is ready to be crowned Equestria’s newest Prince!” Celestia said, turning her attention towards the door.

Forest exhaled, moving away from the window to get ready by the door for it to be opened by the Guards.

“Mares and stallions, may I present for the first time: Prince Forest Flash!” Celestia announced, and the doors opened.

Forest kept his head up as he walked with his wings open. As he walked, he saw his mom and dad in the crowd (already crying, as per usual), and he also saw Slate and Coal near the front of the crowd (who were, as predicted, also crying). He smiled at that, but what touched him the most was that Horizon was stood at the top near Celestia and he wasn’t in disguise either. He stood tall and proud, with no evidence of his previous vulnerability and fears. Forest couldn’t have felt more joy and pride in that moment.

The Guards marching behind him had Forest’s cutie mark on their banners, and the royal music played as Forest took his place in the centre of the stage as Ember held out the cushion with his crown on it. Celestia took the crown with her magic and placed it upon Forest’s head so it was nestled behind his new horn, and even more joy spread through Forest’s body as he turned to face the crowd. The Element of Magic, which was around his neck and settled on his chest, flashed as he opened his wings and the crowd exploded into cheers and whistles.

He was ushered onto the balcony to address Canterlot as confetti rained down from above, and he politely waved to them all as Celestia leaned in and whispered a quick “Say something, Prince.”

“Uh - okay. Ahem.” Forest’s voice cracked as he turned to the crowd. “Thank you so much, everypony. I’m afraid I’m not great with speeches, so you’ll just have to bear with me.”

The crowd laughed light-heartedly at that, and Forest saw out of the corner of his eye Horizon crack a small smile at that. He felt his heart beating hard, and turned back to the crowd.

“A little while ago, my mentor, Princess Celestia, sent me to Ponyville in order to study friendship after I’d practically exhausted all of her magical teaching here in Canterlot. I didn’t think at the time that friendship was something I needed - but she was right. I was so intent on studying magic I forgot what was important.” He beckoned to his friends to come up to where he was standing. “I think I thought if I only focused on the one thing I cared about that I’d get what I wanted - which was to be able to do magic - but if it wasn’t for the friendships I’ve made in Ponyville, and the new magic I created there, I can honestly say I wouldn’t be standing here right now.”

Horizon drew up next to him, and Forest felt his heart stutter as he continued.

“I couldn’t have possibly achieved this without them.” Or you, he added silently to himself as he eyed Horizon slightly, and Horizon’s eyes flickered, showing he’d understood.  “Things go wrong. I know first hand that they do. But trust me when I say that things turn around. With help from others, the only way things can go is up - and today, I consider myself the luckiest pony in Equestria.”

The crowd exploded into cheers again as Forest and his friends, Celestia, and Luna left the balcony. Slate launched himself at Forest as he and Arctic trotted over to them.

“Forest! I’m so proud of you!” Slate began gushing, still sobbing loudly as Forest laughed and hugged him back.

As he looked up, he saw Coal standing there with tears running down her face.

“Why are you crying, Coal?” Forest asked her, hugging her gently once Slate had let go.

“Because I know how much not being able to do magic hurt you, Forest.” Coal whispered, hugging him tightly. “You deserve this so much.”

“I love you two so much.” Forest sniffled as Coal and Slate wailed a bit more and they all collapsed into another group hug.

Following another catch up with Forest’s parents, which included more tears on their part, and a congratulations from Arctic, Forest finally got to catch up with Horizon when the celebration in the castle was still happened. Horizon was hiding in the corner of the garden and Forest managed to get a few seconds to breathe when he tracked him down. Horizon was currently holding a glass with his magic, and Forest suddenly turned his attention to his own horn.

He focused on another glass on the table and grunted when he narrowed his eyes on the glass, concentrating the thought of lifting it into his horn. The glass was surrounded by a light green aura as Forest puffed his cheeks out, trying to lift it further, when his magic faltered and he shrieked when he dropped it.

Horizon reacted quickly, snatching the glass up with his own magic before it shattered on the floor.

“Careful. You’re not used to your own magic yet.” Horizon said, putting the glass back on the table. “Might be worth practicing with feathers or something later -”

“Horizon.” Forest said, turning back him, and Horizon suddenly stopped talking when he saw the look of seriousness on Forest’s face. “We need to talk about what happened yesterday -”

Horizon froze, but managed to keep a calm look on his face as he sighed, putting his own glass back down as he sighed.

“I know I said that we’d talk about it today - but it’s your coronation, I can’t -”

Forest shook his head hard. “Horizon - stop making excuses - I can’t - I can’t go on knowing that there was stuff we left unsaid and -”

Horizon’s eyes suddenly flashed. 

“You’re right. I’m sorry - I keep making excuses -” Horizon sighed, suddenly averting his gaze. “I - I can’t lie to you, Forest - but can we just leave it -”

“Stop apologising - and no, I don’t want to leave it. There’s something you want to say and you’re not telling me! What is it?” Forest persisted, and Horizon flicked his eyes up.

“You wouldn’t understand.” Horizon finally said after a pause, averting his gaze.

“But that’s the thing, Horizon - maybe I could.” Forest said softly, reaching out a hoof to take his, half expecting Horizon to push it off, but he didn’t. 

The silence was absolute as their eyes met. Forest felt like he was balanced on a knife edge as he suddenly felt like he couldn’t move, his body rooted to the spot, unable to look away as the air became thick with tension. 

Horizon finally tore his eyes away, his expression pained and conflicted. “I’ll explain another time.”

“Horizon -” Forest’s voice dropped down to a whisper.

“Another time  - I promise I will -” Horizon cut his words short, exhaling shortly as again he turned his gaze away, unable to look Forest in the eyes. “I just need to think.”

There was silence for a second, and Forest suddenly felt incredibly guilty for trying to force Horizon into speaking, and he edged in closer so they were standing next to each other, their bodies pressed up against each other.

“That’s okay - it’s okay - I’m sorry, Horizon. I can wait - I don’t mind waiting.” He breathed as Horizon looked down at him. “I’d wait forever.”

Horizon’s eyes were full of a gentle flame as he wrapped a foreleg around Forest’s shoulders. “I know you would.”

But actually, Forest wondered how long he was really willing to wait - whether he was willing to wait weeks, months, years - but after feeling Horizon shift against him and feeling Horizon’s tail intwine with his own, he quickly decided that he was more than willing to wait.

Because if Horizon wasn’t worth it, then nothing was.

Chapter Text

Chocolate ducked a barrage of feathers flying at her head quill first, and Forest let out another shriek as he panted and tried to turn his attention back to the feathers, but in his panic he seemed to have forgotten how to stand up and ended up tripping over his own hooves, which led to him promptly falling on his face.

“That was better that time!” Solar said encouragingly as he helped Forest back up onto his hooves.

Forest spat gravel out of his mouth and sighed loudly, wiping at his face to clear the dirt streak running across his muzzle.

“You have to really direct your thoughts from your head into your horn. That’s the basis of all magic.” Horizon explained patiently, and Forest nodded, immediately narrowing his eyes again to try and pick up a feather.

The green aura surrounded it and Forest strained and groaned, twisting his face up as he lifted it. The others’ faces lit up with delight as Forest held the feather up, and Forest suddenly broke into a beam of delight when he realised he’d actually done it – when the magical grip around the feather wavered and he ended up accidentally hitting himself in the eye with it.

“Ouch!” Forest yelped, his hoof flying over his eye with a whimper of pain.

“Looking good, Prince Forest!” Red announced, trotting over and patting him on the back firmly as Forest’s ears drooped and he sighed again.

“You don’t need to call me that, Red.” Forest muttered, still rubbing at his eye with a hoof (he’d managed to poke himself in the eye with the pointy end of the feather, and by Celestia it hurt).

“What do you mean, Forest? You’ve already given up wearing your crown like the Princesses and Arctic – the least you can do is embrace your title.” Chocolate piped up, taking Red and Lava’s side where they were stood next to Forest.

“If other ponies want to call me that, I guess they can – but it still doesn’t feel right when my own friends call me that. I’m not a different pony to who I was a week ago.” Forest pointed out, taking his hoof away from his eye with a wince before planting it back down on the floor again. He sighed and sagged his head. “And this magic business doesn’t feel right either. I’ve studied it all my life and I can’t even pick up a stupid feather – I feel so useless -”

He kicked one of the feathers on the floor with a hoof. The other ponies exchanged a glance and Forest sighed loudly again before continuing, because it was clear they weren’t sure how to respond to that.

“The Summer Sun Celebration is soon – I have to be able to play my part in it, and I don’t feel like I’m going to be ready in time -”

“Not if you’re gonna stand here sulking all day!” Solar chimed, using his horn to pick up another feather and hold it out to Forest, the golden aura of his magic glittering. “Horizon and I will help you keep practicing – try one more time, Forest?”

Horizon nodded encouragingly, and Forest smiled at him, before turning back to the feather still floating in Solar’s magical grip. He puffed out his cheeks and closed his eyes, before taking a slow exhale as he let his magic run through his body and fixated his eyes on the feather. The thought of ‘lift’ settled in his horn and Forest felt it ignite – a strange, foreign feeling, just like he’d felt when he’d first been reborn with wings – and Solar’s gold aura vanished as Forest’s own magic took the feather from him.

“Yes, that’s it, Forest!” Red cheered, punching the air, and Forest gasped as he held the feather steady, moving it in a shaky circle in the air using his magic.

Horizon and Solar kept passing him feathers as Forest forced himself to keep his focus on as many of them as possible and move them around in circles like orbiting planets around a sun. The others whooped and clapped their hooves in delight, and just as Forest thought he was getting the hang of it, the sun flashed in his eyes and he yelped, tripping over his hooves (again), faceplanting the floor (again), and then being buried in a pile of phoenix feathers.

The other ponies let out a hiss through their teeth and a mixture of ‘good try’ and ‘that was better!’ rang in his ears, but Forest let out a miserable wail as he stood up and shook the feathers off his coat. Ember looked unimpressed that all of her feathers she’d shed from moulting were being used for this but had the decency to stay quiet as Forest was obviously distressed.

Solar suggested they took a break and the ponies followed Forest as he trotted through the throne room, still unable to shake his sadness at being unable to perform even the simplest magic that even a unicorn foal was able to achieve. The glinting light of the stained glass windows kept catching his eye. The six (well, five, since Horizon still hadn’t asked Celestia to put him back on the window) of them defeating Nightmare Moon, then defeating Discord, Slate and Arctic’s wedding and defeat of Queen Chrysalis, and Ember with the Crystal Heart and Sombra – and then, of course, the window that Forest did not like as much as his friends did.

“You look incredibly regal, Forest!” Chocolate said in delight as she and the other ponies gathered around the newest window to the collection.

It depicted Forest’s coronation, his wings spread and his newly horned head rearing back as the Element of Magic glowed its glittering green around his neck. Forest flattened his ears at the sight of it – it was making him look like an untouchable deity, and he didn’t like it. Why should he be treated any differently because he had a horn now?

“I – I guess.” He muttered in response, not knowing what else to say.

Chocolate gave him a side glance. “Don’t be so modest. It’s everypony’s dream to wear a crown and have their coronation preserved forever in stained glass for everypony to see -”

“I dunno if it’s everypony’s dream.” Lava muttered, rolling his eyes in dismissal.

“Hm.” Forest sighed again, drooping his head as he turned away from the window, but the coloured light streaming through it still cast its image onto the floor.

“Well – sorry Forest, but we’ll have to get going now. We don’t want to miss the train back to Ponyville.” Red said, tapping his hooves on the floor as he indicated towards the door to the throne room.

“Yeah, you’re right – I’m not sure about everypony else, but even though the Summer Sun Celebration is in Canterlot this year, I know I’ve still got loads to do back home.” Solar said, grinning at his red friend. “The mayor’s got so much planned – it’s gonna be such an awesome party.”

Forest’s heart panged at their words and he drooped his ears and sagged his head before he could stop himself. The others immediately picked up on it and suddenly looked terribly guilty. Chocolate had a soft, reassuring smile on her face as she clopped over to him and gently put a hoof around his neck.

“Don’t be like that, Forest. You’re going to be right here with Celestia, Luna, Arctic and Slate when Celestia raises the sun.” She said, and although Forest knew that was supposed to comfort him, it didn’t make him feel much better.

“And I’m honoured – I am – but the Summer Sun Celebration is what brought us together in the first place. It doesn’t feel right that I’m not spending it with you ponies.” He answered, and Ember landed on his back, giving him a reassuring nuzzle on the cheek with her beak.

“It doesn’t feel right for us either – and if the mayor wasn’t relying on us so much, of course we would have spent the Celebration here with you, Forest.” Solar said, and Horizon nodded.

Forest saw that Horizon hadn’t actually said a word since they’d been doing magic practice. He glanced at the unicorn, and Horizon flicked his gaze away, like he was avoiding Forest’s eyes.

“We understand your royal duties have to come first!” Red said with a grin, and Forest only sighed at that.

“Listen, Forest – the Celebration may have been what brought us together, but it’s something much bigger that keeps us connected.” Chocolate said, and Forest’s stomach jolted at her words.

Was she – could she possibly be talking much, much bigger? Like the tendrils across universes? Like the Multiverse? Like She having a plan for them all, and their friendships still crossing different worlds despite the fact they were completely different?

“Exhibit A!” Chocolate announced, pointing up at the window where they were defeating Nightmare Moon with the coloured light from their Elements engulfing the evil mare. Forest internally sighed in relief as Chocolate kept talking. “The six of us are united by the Elements of Harmony. No amount of royal duties can change that, okay?” 

The others made noises as they nodded in agreement. Forest looked up, feeling a little better at that, and he smiled at his friends. Horizon still wasn’t looking at him, and for a second, Forest was wondering whether Horizon was deliberately avoiding him outside of the magic lessons.

He didn’t have much time to think about it, as they rushed out to catch their train. Forest’s heart hurt too much to wave them off, so made up some excuse about having something to do back in the castle. What hurt the most was the fact that they instantly believed his spontaneous lie.

Ember was on his back as Forest flew up the stairs to his royal quarters in one of the top towers in the castle.

“I can’t help it, Ember – I just feel like I’m missing something.” He sighed loudly as he pushed through the doors and pawed at the infinitely long checklist rolling down his desk.

As Forest filtered through documents and went through each item on the checklist, Ember read through them all and ticked them off as he did them. Whilst Ember was muttering ‘check, check, check’ under her breath, Forest puffed out his cheeks with a little grunt as he forced himself to pick up a quill with his horn, just like he’d practiced.

“Well, would you look at that – we’re way ahead of schedule, Forest.” Ember said, looking up from the list as Forest held the quill in his magical aura and concentrated hard on it. “You know, the Celebration is the day after tomorrow – we could probably fit in a quick trip to Ponyville and visit the others, and then finish these last few things when we get back -”

“That would be nice, Ember.” Forest said, clearly unconvinced as he turned back to Ember with the quill still floating in front of his face. “But what if something came up when we were gone?” He gasped, suddenly feeling stress roll over his body as he picked up another quill from the desk with his magic. 

“What if we were delayed getting back and I wasn’t able to finish everything on the list?” He immediately began pacing, picking up pages of paper and more quills and rubbish with his horn almost on autopilot, still jabbering and muttering to himself. “What if we lost the list on the way to Ponyville and we couldn’t remember what things we had done and what things we hadn’t done, that we spent so much time trying to remember what things we had done and what things we hadn’t done, that we ruin the entire celebration because we hadn’t done the one thing we were supposed to do – OUCH!”

In his stressing and pacing, he’d picked up the incredibly long list from Ember with his horn, and ended up tripping over it, rolling head over heels into a wall, and dropped all the quills and paper and trash on top of himself. Ember sighed, flying over and brushing the debris off him and helping him to his hooves as Forest muttered and rubbed at his skull.

“So that’s a no then?” Ember asked as Forest made another groaning noise, pain running through his head from his collision with the wall.

“These are the first royal duties Celestia has given me.” Forest shot, pushing his muzzle into Ember’s face so her beak was touching his nose. “I can’t risk letting her down -”

“I’m sure you won’t.” Celestia’s voice rang out, and they both whipped around to see her standing regal and proud in the hallway with her mane glittering and flowing in the evening light.

“Your Highness!” Ember yelped, immediately dropping the list and bowing with one wing out and one wing in front of her chest.

Forest scrabbled around hastily to bow too, but Celestia only laughed softly, helping him back up again.

“There is no need for that here, Prince Forest.” Celestia said with a wink, and Forest flushed.

“Sorry.” He yelped, sheepishly grinning as he looked up at his mentor.

“No need to apologise.”

“Sorry!” He answered again on instinct, flushing even further when he’d realised what he’d done, and Celestia chuckled again, gently patting him on the head.

“I have to admit, it is wonderful to actually be looking forward to a Summer Sun Celebration.” Celestia said, moving past him to look out of the window.

“What do you mean?” Forest asked, following her to look out of the window as Celestia watched what was going on in the tower opposite.

“For my subjects, it was a celebration of my defeat of Nightmare Moon.” Celestia answered in a low and sombre voice as they both looked out of the window, where they could see a silhouette of Luna as her horn glowed whilst she raised the moon in the orange and midnight-blue sky on the opposite tower. “But for me -” She sighed softly, bowing her head as she watched Luna. “It was just a terrible reminder that I’d had to banish my own sister.”

“I – I guess I never thought about it in that way before.” Forest admitted, and Celestia’s eyes glinted, showing she already understood and knew that.

“But now it is a wonderful celebration of Nightmare Moon’s transformation back into Princess Luna, and our happy reunion! I am so pleased you will be playing your role amongst myself, Luna and Prince Arctic in this year’s festivities.” Celestia said, pride and joy sparking in her gaze, before she looked down at Forest, who still looked forlorn – as always, she immediately picked up on it. “I know it must have been hard to say goodbye to your friends, Forest.”

“Um – maybe a little.” He said softly, flattening his ears when he thought about them going, and Horizon’s deliberate avoidance of his gaze.

“You may no longer be my student, Forest, but I hope you know that I will always be here for you – just as I know that you will always be here when I need you.” She finished, dipping her head down to nuzzle Forest affectionately.

He returned the gesture with a sigh of content, genuinely feeling lighter at that. Celestia’s words were all he needed at this moment, but remembering Horizon was making his heart ache again.

“I expect you have a lot to do, Prince.” Celestia said, standing upright as Ember yawned, the list crinkling in her claws.

“Yes, you’re right – Ember, where were we?” Forest asked her light-heartedly, and Ember glanced up with bleary eyes.

“About to call it a night?” The phoenix tried, and Forest laughed, shaking his head.

“Let’s go over the list one more time before we go to sleep.” He snorted, and Ember sighed loudly, unravelling the list again.

“I knew you were going to say that.” She muttered, and Celestia let out a light tinkle of a laugh as she walked through the door.

“I’ll leave you to it. Goodnight, Forest!” Celestia said as she disappeared down the hall.

“Goodnight, Princess!” Forest waved her off, before shutting the door behind her.

It didn’t take long for either of them to fall asleep after a long and high-pressure day.

Forest muttered, blinking and making ugly snorting noises as he blinked open his eyes and squinted under his hooves, where the list was crumpled and covered with drool. He turned up his nose at that, realising he must have fallen asleep at his desk. He wiped his mouth and rubbed his eyes, before blinking his bleary eyes to look out of the window.

He gasped, suddenly wide away as he opened his wings and shot over to where Ember was snoring on her perch with a pencil still in her claws.

“Ember! Wake up!” He hissed, shaking her awake as she muttered something along the lines of ‘check, check, check’ in her sleep.

“Wh – wah!” Ember shot awake, the pencil dropping from her grip as she squinted at Forest through her sleep-crusted eyelids. “What time is it, Forest?”

“It’s the middle of the night – but it could be midday – that’s just it! I can’t tell!” Forest yelped in anxiety as Ember flew over to where he was looking out of the window with both hooves on the glass.

“Woah.” Ember gawked as she looked at the sky, which was an incredibly strange split of both night and day, the two merging in a gradient in the centre, whilst both sun and moon were floating parallel to each other in their respective halves. “That is weird.”

“Come on, Ember, we have to find out what’s going on!” Forest ordered, and Ember leapt onto his back as Forest opened his wings and shot out of his sleeping quarters, panic making his heart race.

As he flew outside he saw the incredibly spooked and concerned Canterlot ponies craning their necks up to look at the sky with frightened babbles. He hesitated outside of the door of the castle as one of the ponies cried a “What do you think it means?”

“Prince Forest will know!” Another pony yelled, pointing at Forest as he landed on his hooves, and Forest gasped, flattening his ears and lifting a hoof as he was suddenly surrounded by scared ponies who needed reassurance.

What am I supposed to say?

“Uh – I’m sure it’s just -” Forest muttered, glancing around as he looked for an escape route, and his words were practically drowned out by the fearful chatter. “I’m sure there’s a reasonable -”

As he scrabbled around for some kind of response that would satisfy them enough to go away but not send them into a panic, Forest was beginning to lapse into panic himself, since he knew just about as much about it as the other ponies surrounding him. Just when he thought he was going to lose it, a beige Guard in golden armour shot through the crowd, ushering Forest away.

“You must come with me, your Highness.” The Guard whispered, and Forest swallowed hard, following the Guard into the doors.

The Guard shut the door with his magic, and the anxiety on his face was making Forest feel ill. 

“It’s Princess Celestia and Princess Luna – they’re – they’re -” The Guard choked, his face twisting up in a grimace as he tried to spit out the words.

“They’re missing!” Another Guard finished for him, and Forest’s jaw dropped as he gasped so loudly he thought he might collapse when terror suddenly rushed to his head and his knees started shaking.

“I don’t understand! Where have they gone?” Forest yelped, flattening his ears as the Guards ushered him away from the door, as if they were worried of being overheard.

“They’ve vanished – we cannot find them anywhere.” The first Guard answered, and Forest had to force himself to not faint in terror.

“We await your command, Prince.” The other Guard answered, and they both immediately sank into a bow at Forest’s hooves.

“M-my command?” Forest choked, and the Guards drew out of their bows as they remained cold and poker-faced, but still submissive to him.

“We are officers of the Royal Guard. We take our orders from royalty – and with Princess Celestia and Princess Luna missing, and with Prince Arctic and Captain Slate Cyclone overseeing the Crystal Empire, that means we take our orders from you.” The Guard explained, and they both sank into a bow again as Forest’s jaw dropped and his knees started knocking together again.

They didn’t let him have enough time to even process what was happening as Forest forced himself not to faint from the rush running to his head.

“There’s no time to waste, Prince Forest. We need to know what you want us to do.” The other Guard said, and Forest had an internal panic, before narrowing his eyes and forcing himself to put his hoof down and stand upright. If he was going to be giving orders, then he had to give them when not shaking like a leaf in the wind.

He opened his wings, put his muzzle in the air, and puffed out his chest to stop his voice from shaking. “I want Lieutenant Gilded Rose to be in charge of the search for the Princesses -”

The Guards exchanged a glance. “Lieutenant Gilded Rose isn’t a member of the Guard anymore, Prince.”

His eyebrows shot up at that, but he knew he couldn’t focus on that any longer since there were greater problems at hand. “Alright, then – have Major Burning Branch continue the search. Look everywhere – leave no stone unturned – there must be some clues of where they could have possibly gone. If you find anything, let me know immediately.”

The Guards saluted, before immediately cantering off. Forest sagged and let out a long exhale, feeling himself sweat and his heart pound. Ember smirked, giving him a nudge.

“Way to take charge, Forest.” Ember snickered, but Forest couldn’t relax yet.

He whipped around when a white Guard bashed through the door. She was sweating and gasping, like she’d cantered everywhere looking for Forest, and Forest ran over to her as she looked up at him through her helmet.

“News from Ponyville, your Highness!” The female Guard gasped, forcing herself to stand upright. “The Everfree Forest – is – well – invading!”

“The surprises just keep coming.” Ember said dryly as Forest gaped, forcing himself not to pass out with panic for the fifth time today.

In his frenzied tizzy, Forest managed to put his Element around his neck as he was cantering – with his magic as well – which was incredible, but he had no time to be proud of himself. He opened his wings and took off, Ember on his back still as he flew towards Ponyville in the incredibly weird split of day and night.

As he flew over the square, he saw ponies cantering around like crazy. He saw Lava and Chocolate digging their hooves in to try and yank massive black and blue writhing roots and shoots from the ground, but they were only increasing in size as their spiked branches grew all over the buildings and ground. Even Lava and Chocolate’s strength was no match for the plants as they strained their necks to try and pull them from the ground.

Forest had to duck an incredibly strange dark black cloud with spikes protruding from it as Red yowled, chasing the cloud over Forest’s head.

“Get back here – we aren’t due for rain until after the Celebration – AGGGH!” Red screamed as the cloud skidded to a halt and he flew into it, and instead of it disipatting like a normal cloud, it stuck around him in a gloopy mess and made him fall to the ground.

When Red came back for round two, the strange Everfree clouds immediately started ganging up on him, shooting thunderbolts at him as he screamed and tried to fly away from them.

Plants and spiked trees and roots continued to engulf Ponyville, and the clouds and sky weren’t the only weird problem going on. Horizon and Solar were having issues too – like their horns were having an allergic reaction to the blue pollen the plants were producing. Every time the two tried to cast a spell, their horns sparked and fizzled, before their magic turned on their casters, causing them to be dragged around face down in the dirt by their own horns.

Chocolate screeched when a tendril snapped around her leg, pulling her away, and Forest shot into action, darting down and snapping through the plant with his hooves as he dived down. Chocolate panted as Forest helped her to her hooves.

“What’s going on here?” Forest asked breathlessly, and the others looked horrified as more Ponyville citizens screamed, trying to avoid the other plants as they continued to curl over the town hall.

“These plants and clouds are moving in from the Everfree forest – and it’s moving so fast I don’t think it’s going to cover just Ponyville. It’s going to completely take over half of Equestria at this rate!” Solar yelped, spitting out dirt as his horn fizzed and he wobbled to his hooves again.

“I don’t have an answer right now – to the library!” Forest yelled, and the others cantered after him as Forest pushed through the door of the library (which normally, he would have been happy to be back living amongst his books again, but the panic was so overwhelming he couldn’t even possibly think about it at the moment).

They started rifling through the books, tossing them on the floor as they discarded them and Forest didn’t even care – he just needed to find an answer for this because at the moment he was alone

Solar yelled as a spiky black thorn branch shattered the window and they all had to duck it as it curled in the centre of the room. Chocolate trotted over and used her hooves to break the branch off, where it shrivelled up into nothing once she’d done so.

“Is Princess Celestia coming to fix this, Forest?” Red asked, looking up from a book he was flicking through.

Forest gulped, averting his gaze as the others looked at him – even Horizon, and his heterochromic gaze was blazing.

“No. She’s not – um – she and – she and Luna are – well – they’re missing.” He spluttered out, and the ponies gasped in horror, their jaws dropping. This was definitely not the answer they were hoping for as they were rifling through all the books.

“But – I know we can figure this out – and I think we’re going to need the Elements to help us this time.” Forest continued, lifting the glass case in the library and floating out all the Elements and putting them onto the owner’s necks with his magic.

Solar cheered. “Forest, your magic is getting better!”

Horizon’s eyes glittered as Forest clasped the Element of Honesty around his neck, but Forest didn’t need words to decipher the emotion in Horizon’s gaze.

“Strange what missing Princesses can do to my magical ability, huh?” Forest said dryly as he turned to the others.

“I told you we’d always be connected by the Elements, Forest.” Chocolate said, trotting up to him with a smile as her sakura Element glistened in the light. “Now we just have to figure out who to aim are sparkly rainbow lights of friendship at to get the Princesses back – any ideas?”

Forest screwed up his face in thought. “Half day, half night. Strange clouds, missing Princesses, invading out of control plants – I think I might have an idea who we’re up against.”

They trotted outside and arranged themselves in a circle. Forest shut his eyes and felt his horn and Element ignite as the white pouring from them made his body lift off the ground. The wind picked up as the other Elements responded, and there was a soft rainbow glow joining the Elements together as the others were floating from the floor as well. Forest snapped open his eyes as the magic condensed in the centre of the circle, and Discord’s stone statue materialised, before it all splintered to bits and the draconequus broke free with a roar, his jaw still open from the scream he was frozen in.

Prince Forest. Now you decide to free me.” Discord sneered, his tongue flicking out from his lips like a snake as he whipped around to face Forest. “You know, Celestia never freed me from my stone prison – that automatically makes you my favourite –“

“E-nough!” Forest shrieked, rearing up and pushing Discord hard with his front hooves so the draconequus stumbled backwards. “You will release Princess Celestia and Princess Luna immediately, and stop the forest from invading Equestria!”

Discord backed away with a frown on his face as Forest stalked towards him. Forest froze as a tendril of black thorns curled around him like a snake, before it flashed, revealing Discord wrapped around him. Horizon was obviously fuming as he took a step towards Discord, who was still smirking.

“Why, whatever are you talking about, Forest?” Discord sneered, pushing his face right into Forest’s so he cringed. 

“Don’t play dumb, you fucking bastard!” Lava roared, galloping towards Discord and ramming him off Forest with his skull. “We know it was you who did this!”

“Me?” Discord blinked his wide, innocent doe eyes as he disappeared and reappeared on the roof of one of the buildings engulfed by black thorns. “Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love what you’ve done with the place.” He whipped out a camera and started taking photos with obnoxiously bright flashes. “But I couldn’t possibly take responsibility – I’ve been stuck in stone for months, remember?”

“Yeah, right – this has got your cloven hoofprints all over it!” Red snapped, flying up to Discord’s face.

Discord’s smile fell off his face as he scowled at the red Pegasus. “I’ll have you know I only have one cloven hoof.” Said cloven hoof hopped dismembered from Discord’s body, floated up, and kicked Red hard in the rear end so he went flying with a screech.

“Such accusations! I’m incredibly saddened by them.” Discord continued, walking down the road with his head dipped and all four limbs attacked again, before he turned back with his wide doe eyes and a halo above his head.

“Drop the act! We’re onto you!” Solar howled, and Discord shushed him, putting his eagle clawed hand and his lion paw together in an act of innocence as he turned towards them.

“Come on, now – would I lie to you?” Discord asked, pouting dramatically, and they all immediately shot back a simultaneous ‘YES!’, making Discord sigh loudly and lean backwards so he was floating in the air.

“Well, it seems we have reached an impasse. I’m telling the truth, yet you all think I’m lying. What do friends like us do in a situation like this, Prince Forest?” Discord sighed, wrapping his paw around Forest’s neck and pulling him into a tight grip so he choked. “Congrats on the promotion by the way, you totally deserve it.” He said sarcastically with a smirk, poking Forest hard on the horn with his eagle claw hand.

“I say we blast him back to stone.” Horizon said coldly, stepping forward as his eyes flashed and his Element started to pulse blue light.

“I agree.” Lava spat, his own Element glowing.

“Me too!” Chocolate growled, taking the others’ side with her Element spilling light.

“But wait – guys -” Forest wriggled out of Discord’s grip and sagged his head, unable to believe he was about to say this. “What if he is telling the truth? He was in stone all this time -”

Discord locked his hands together and fluttered his eyelashes as his angel wings and halo reappeared again. The others grumbled and scuffed their hooves on the ground as their Elements stopped glowing. 

“Fine, if you’re not the one responsible, then tell us who is!” Solar growled, glaring at Discord as he slouched back, floating in the air again.

“Weeellll, I could, but after all the hoof-pointing and mindless besmirching of my good name, I’m just not sure if I’m up for it.” Discord drawled, folding his arms and turning his back to them as he stalked away.

Discord snatched a tendril of one of the plants and started knitting it with a pair of needles he’d summoned, choosing to ignore Forest as he focused on his knitting. Forest roared in frustration as Discord’s needles clicked, and his stupid dumb look of smugness was making Forest begin to shake in rage.

“Why don’t you ask your zebra friend if she knows anything?” Discord sneered, and Forest looked up to see Discord’s knitting had made up the shape of an arrow, which was pointing to Zecora as she stumbled out of the forest, pulling a cart full of potions and possessions behind her and full sacks and saddlebags weighing down her body.

Discord forgotten, they rushed over to her. Red and the unicorns immediately lifted the heavy bags off her, Forest helped her to her hooves as Zecora panted, lying down on the floor.

“From my home, I’ve had to flee! The forest has grown too wild – even for me!” The zebra gasped for air, and Forest propped her up as she caught her breath.

“Do you have any idea why this is happening, Zecora?” Red asked her, and Zecora shook her head.

“I’m afraid it is a mystery to me as well – but I may have something that if combined with a spell…” She trailed off as she turned to her cart and started rummaging through the masks and bottles and other possessions she had piled in there. She withdrew a clear flask with a golden decorative neck and bottom, and she placed in front of Forest so the purple liquid inside it sloshed against the sides. “I do not dare to use it myself – the results would be tragic! The potion only responds to alicorn magic.”

Forest froze at her words. The others glanced at him as he opened his wings and glanced up at his horn.

Oh. Alicorn. She means me.

“Prince Forest, you can turn the potion from purple to white. After a sip, you may see why the sky is both day and night.” Zecora finished, pointing a hoof to the sky as Forest felt his knees beginning to tremble again.

Solar took a step forward, a kind, reassuring smile on his face as Forest began to get nervous. “Don’t worry Forest. We’ve practiced a lot – I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“I’m not.” Forest whispered, his voice cracking as he glanced down at the flask on the floor. His vision doubled for a second and he gulped, trying to swallow down his nausea.

Horizon moved, and Forest jumped with a gasp, turning to face the unicorn as he drew alongside Forest. His breathing caught as Horizon finally met his gaze and his heterochromic eyes flickered with a soft, warm flame.

“I was afraid of my own magic until you helped me see otherwise, Forest. Don’t be afraid of your own.” Horizon said, and Forest glanced up at him, his heart beating erratically in his ribcage at his words.

He dipped his head, his voice dropping down to a whisper. “Okay.”

Forest screwed up his face and gasped as his horn ignited, but this was different from just lifting and moving items. It heated up the entire core of his horn as he grunted and gasped, his breathing speeding up and his heart thudding. His magic bubbled and spat, and another cry left Forest’s lips as he snapped his eyes open, and a spike of green magic left his horn and struck the potion, making it writhe and boil within the flask. He stopped, panting hard, and wondering whether after all that, he’d done something wrong, when the others gasped in delight when the rich purple of the potion melted into milky white, as Zecora had wanted.

“Well done.” Horizon said, and it was such a soft whisper Forest wondered whether Horizon had even meant to say it out loud, but it didn’t matter, since he was the only one who’d heard it. His heart smiled and made a tiny flutter in his chest.

His tongue peeked out from his lips as he lifted the flask up with a wobbly magical grip, and Zecora nodded approvingly as Horizon moved around Forest so he was facing him. Horizon helped him tip the flask with his muzzle as Forest took a tentative sip of the potion, swallowing it down and wincing at its acrid taste.

The others were watching him with wide eyes as Forest looked around, a frown on his face as he waited for something to happen.

Forest shrugged, drawing his eyebrows together. “Doesn’t seem to be work -”

White light flashed behind his eyes, and he felt his knees buckle and his body hit the floor, and then he saw no more.

Chapter Text

Forest shook his head to clear the swirling white light, and when he cracked his eyes open, he was suddenly met with an unfamiliar setting. He frowned, folding his wings and looking around to see where he was. He was stood apon a bright royal red carpet in a throne room - although it wasn’t a throne room he knew. There were banners and tapestries hanging off the walls of the castle - he recognised it to be unicorn architecture.

“Where am I -” He started asking himself, when an echoing voice shot through the darkness.

“Not another step!” The voice yelled, and Forest froze, darting around to see who had spoken.

He turned, trotting up to the steps that led to where the two thrones were sat side by side - one a bright, sunny golden, and the other a dark silver, decorated with lunar patterns. As Forest reached the bottom of the steps, he suddenly perked up, seeing Luna emerge from behind the silver throne. Her face was stone cold, but Forest was delighted.

“Luna! I’m so happy you’re okay - why did you and Celestia disappear? Where are we?” Forest asked her, and Luna’s eyes narrowed.

“Did you really think I would stand by whilst they all basked in your precious light?” Luna spat, her face twisting up further as Forest backed up a little, his ears flattening.

“Precious light?” Forest repeated, confusion and a sudden dread on his voice when Luna started stalking up to the altar between the thrones. He knew Luna didn’t like him that much but this was crazy - why was she acting like this?

“There can only be one ruler of Equestria! And that princess will be ME!” Luna screamed, rearing up and slamming her hooves down on the alter so it shattered. As she screamed, her eyes flashed a bright blue, and the cracks from the force of her hooves started splintering up the wall behind her and up to the stained glass window, which shattered, revealing the sun as it beat down on Forest’s face.

Forest flinched with a gasp as he covered his face with his hooves to avoid the debris flying everywhere. Luna opened her wings and reared back with her hooves above her head and her horn ignited, the moon rising up behind her in broad daylight. Forest could only watch with wide, horrified eyes as Luna snarled, her eyes flashing as the moon covered the sun, sending them plunging into darkness.

Luna landed, and the dark shadows of the moon cast over her body, encasing her in spluttering ink like magic which drained the heat of the air so Forest was shivering and shaking. The moon started spinning - spitting and heating up with the heat of the sun so it was turning into a red orb in the sky, and Forest’s jaw dropped as the shadows engulfed Luna, lifting her up off the ground.

And then it condensed, and the dark silhouette of Luna broke out - slender and pitch black - and it was when the night-mist clouds of shimmering mane erupted from her frame and slitted eyes snapped open that Forest knew, and his heart fell to his stomach so fast that he thought he would vomit.

Nightmare Moon’s hooves hit the ground, and Forest was paralysed in terror as she opened her massive dark wings and cackled, her laughs echoing all around him.

He began backing away, his breathing coming to him fast, and Nightmare roared, her horn igniting electric blue as she shot a beam of magic at an alicorn statue above his head. It exploded, sending stone everywhere, and Nightmare jerked her head back, her magic cutting through the roof of the throne room. Debris rained down around Forest and he gasped, leaping out of the way and landing on his stomach. He whimpered, gasping for air as his heart thudded in terror, before he looked up, and he recognised a set of gold hooves in front of him.

Celestia had her wings open, and the look of fury and sadness on her face made Forest cringe where he was on the floor. Nightmare Moon emerged out from the dust clouding the destructed throne room, her face twisted in a sneer.

Before Forest could even say anything, Celestia took flight. Nightmare bared her teeth and shot another beam of magic at her, but Celestia dodged it, and it smashed through the roof of the castle so the night sky and the moon was revealed where it was still blocking the sun.

Celestia landed and Forest leapt into action, skidding desperately in front of Celestia.

“Luna! Think about how long you were banished to the moon - if you don’t stop, you’ll have to be sent back!” Forest pleaded, trying not to let his voice crack as Nightmare reared her dark head.

“Luna - I will not fight you.” Celestia said coldly, her face conflicted and pained as Nightmare took another step. “You must lower the moon! It is your duty!”

“Luna? Luna is gone. I am Nightmare Moon!” Nightmare spat, glaring at her sister. “And I have only one royal duty now-” She leapt into the air, her horn sparking as she opened her wings and reared. “TO DESTROY YOU!” She screamed, unleashing the magic at Celestia at break-neck speed.

Celestia took flight, dodging it again, and flying up out of the hole in the roof. Forest craned his neck to see where she was going, panting heavily from dodging the spell as well.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Nightmare snarled with a grin, unfurling her black wings and flying after her.

Forest was panicked and terrified, but flew after them as well, seeing Celestia hovering in front of the bloated moon. Nightmare was relentless, chasing her with a horn spitting sparks as Celestia skillfully dodged all her attacks. The two were fast, and Forest was panting trying to keep up with them. They zigzagged across and around the buildings and towers, Nightmare’s magic sending explosions of debris and dusty clouds across Forest’s vision. Celestia flew out of range of another attack which tore through the stone bridge of the castle, shattering it to bits so a massive chunk fell to the ground with a crash that shook the earth.

And then, Nightmare reared, and a blue beam of light left her horn and struck Celestia in the chest. Celestia screamed, a high, piercing noise that echoed, and Forest froze with his jaw open in his own yell as Celestia went limp, falling through the air and back into the throne room where Nightmare had previously torn a hole through it.

“Celestia!” Forest howled, diving after her body as it plummeted down and hit the red floor of the throne room.

Nightmare threw her head back and screamed with laughter, baring her fangs as her body was silhouetted by the moon hanging in the sky.

“No!” Forest whispered, tears running down his face as he landed next to Celestia.

Her body was limp and her mane and tail weren’t flowing and glittering anymore. Forest sobbed, bowing his head as he fell to his knees next to her. His heart shattered, and just when Forest was going to lie down there and die himself out of grief, Celestia shifted.

Forest looked up with wide, tearful eyes as Celestia grunted, shuddering and gasping in pain as she struggled to her hooves. Her mane started flowing again, and Forest was suddenly so relieved he thought he might pass out from it all rushing to his head. Celestia tipped her head back and glared at the sky.

“Y- you’re okay - Celestia!” Forest started whispering, but she didn’t tear her eyes off the sky. Forest put his extended hoof down, and his smile fell off his face. “Celestia?”

“Oh, my dear sister. You have given me no choice but to use these.” Celestia shut her eyes with a sigh, before turning her attention to the floor behind her.

Her horn ignited and the slabs of the floor shifted, opening to reveal a stone pedestal as it rose from the ground with a puff of dust. The platforms surrounding the large stone orb in the centre displayed a gem. Forest widened his eyes when he recognised the bright colours of the gems, hovering in their pedestals, but they were all the same uniform hexagonal shape and not the cutie mark replicas he was used to seeing, and he suddenly realised.

“The Elements of Harmony - but that’s how they looked in the - the past.” Forest’s voice dropped down to a whisper as Celestia ignored him again, opening her white wings and flying up to the pedestal so she hovered above it. “This is a memory - the one in that storybook. The night you banished her.”

Celestia shut her eyes and her horn glowed as her golden magical aura surrounded the gems where they hovered. Forest watched her as she picked them up and brought them towards herself, and she pulled the Element of Magic out from its hidden place inside the stone orb in the centre. Forest swallowed, his hard thudding when he saw how the green Element of Magic was its six pointed star shape - unlike the others in their uniform gem shape - and his cutie mark tingled slightly from the sight.

Celestia’s face was pained as she circled the Elements around herself whilst she hovered in midair, their speed picking up as they orbited her like planets around a sun. They moved so fast in their circling that they turned into a rainbow blur, and white light suddenly exploded from Celestia so her mane flowed and shone at twice its usual speed where the light of the Elements was holding her body off the ground.

The light was pulsing off her in rainbow waves, and Forest had to look away it was so bright, but he forced to turn back to her as she flew out through the destroyed roof again with the Elements. Nightmare snarled, her horn and eyes flashing, and Celestia’s eyes shut, her tears running down her face as she held the Element of Magic out in front of her with the other five Elements surrounding it.

Nightmare unleashed her attack, and the light from the Elements touched the Magic Element in individual light waves, before it all condensed into one enormous stream of magic that rocketed from the central Element of Magic. It roared and chimed, colliding with Nightmare’s spell, forcing her back with ease, and engulfed her as her magic flickered against the force of it.

Nightmare screamed as the Elements surrounded her, and she dissipated, the rainbow soaring up and slamming into the moon, and Forest watched with awe as the craters forming the Mare in the Moon flickered into place with a burst of rainbow light spreading from it.

And then Forest’s stomach jolted and he blinked, feeling light force through his eyelids. He coughed, feeling how he was now lying on the ground, and tried to force his head up, still blinking his eyes rapidly. 

Horizon helped him up with a gentle hoof, and Forest was feeling too queasy to even feel embarrassed about it. The other ponies, Ember and Zecora were looking at him with wide eyes, seemingly unable to tear their gaze off him, and Forest flinched, suddenly feeling apprehensive.

“Why are you all looking at me like that?” Forest asked carefully, and the ponies exchanged a glance before Chocolate spoke.

“You - well, you just collapsed, and were just mumbling to yourself -” Chocolate said, and Solar butted in.

“And there was a lot of uncontrollable sobbing as well.” Solar said, and Forest was suddenly incredibly embarrassed at that.

“We were worried about you, is all.” Ember shot Solar a glare, who shrugged as if to say ‘but it’s the truth, though’.

“I for one, found it delightful!” Discord chimed from where he was lounging back on one of the spiky Everfree plants. “Like a one-pony theatre production. Incredibly entertaining; you should take it on the road -”

Horizon glared at the draconequus before looking at Forest with concern on his face. “Did you find anything out?”

“Not exactly. I saw Luna’s banishing from a thousand years ago, but it doesn’t explain why all this is happening now.” Forest said, and Zecora stepped forward with the potion in her hoof.

“Perhaps father back still are the answers you seek. Another sip of the potion will give you a peek.” Zecora rhymed, the potion offered out to him, and Forest apprehensively took the flask in his horn, his magical grip now unwobbling.

“Are you sure about this, Forest?” Red asked him, and Forest sighed, looking down at the liquid in the bottle.

“I don’t have a choice. I need to know how to fix this.” Forest said, trying to force determination into his voice, but it only made it crack.

He sighed, and tentatively poured the potion into his mouth and swallowed, trying to get its taste from his tongue by swallowing again. The others watched with wide eyes as Forest sat down this time so he didn’t fall from his full height.

Discord appeared next to them with a full director’s outfit on and a massive film camera. “Ooh, I do hope he breaks out into a song this time!”

That was the last thing Forest saw before the white light flashed behind his eyes again and he was snatched from the realm of the present by the potion.

He blinked, and gasped when a shoal of fish flew in front of him. Flew. Forest gasped, turning around, and this time he did recognise where he was. Ponyville - well, kind of. The ground was warped and checkered with gross contrasting patterns, and many sections of ground were floating chaotically in islands around the pink sky. Forest immediately knew who was responsible here.

He turned around to see Celestia and Luna on the path in front of him, and followed them quickly to see that they had stopped in front of Discord’s throne. He had his back to them, and Forest watched as the princesses stopped where they were.

“Oh hoh! This is so much fun!” Discord cackled, whipping around to face the princesses. “How about a game of ‘Pin the tail on the pony’?” Discord asked, lifting up his claws, where Celestia’s tail was hanging in his grip.

Celestia gasped in horror, turning around to see that her tail was indeed gone and remained in Discord’s claws. Discord whistled nonchalantly, twirling Celestia’s tail around his claw as the princesses stiffened, turning back to face him.

“Playtime is over, Discord.” Celestia snapped at him, and Discord rolled his eyes.

“Oh, I doubt that.” Discord drawled, dramatically flinging his paw (which had a bag of what looked like some black gravel in it) so its contents scattered at his hooves. He tossed a clawful of whatever it was into his mouth and chewed noisily, still spilling it from the bag and his mouth onto the ground. “Hungry?” He asked condescendingly, offering a handful of black stones to them so they fell onto the ground from his lazy grip.

One of them hit Celestia on the nose. She didn’t flinch. Discord raised an eyebrow.

“Suit yourself.” He chortled, tossing his handful into his mouth. Most of them missed and fell to the ground around his throne as well.

Celestia’s horn glowed as she turned her attention to her saddlebags and withdrew the Element of Magic, Generosity and Honesty. Luna did the same, bringing out the remaining Elements from her own saddlebags, before they held them with their magic in a row, with the Magic Element in the centre. This got Discord’s attention.

“Oh!” Discord sang, eyes wide as he tossed the bag of small rocks aside to squint and put a claw on his chin as he analysed the Elements. “What have you got there?”

“The Elements of Harmony.” Celestia said in a cold voice, and she and Luna began spinning the Elements around their bodies so they began exploding into white light.

“You do not stand a chance against them, Discord.” Luna spat, the light around them intensifying.

“This was when they first turned Discord into stone.” Forest whispered aloud to himself, and Discord was unintimidated, leaning back in his throne and cackling loudly.

“Ahahahaha!! You should see the looks on your faces - so serious -” Discord giggled, still roaring and pointing in laughter as the Princesses kept their faces stone cold and narrowed their eyes at the evil spirit.

He kept screaming with laughter, even when Luna and Celestia touched their horns together so their magic merged, and a rainbow twisted up from them in a double helix, before merging at its peak and crashing towards Discord at breakneck speed. 

“Hilarious!” Discord howled as the rainbow engulfed him, and before he could even register what had happened, it had turned his body to stone, his roar of laughter frozen - Forest jolted in alarm when he realised that this was the original statue of Discord he’d seen in the Canterlot Statue Garden when he’d visited with the schoolponies.

And then he was blinking and coughing again when the vision ceased. He shook his head to clear it, before opening his eyes, expecting to see his friends again, but gasped when instead he saw a sight that practically blinded him.

A bright, crystalised tree, its branches in jagged lines and trailing beautiful vines with crystals growing off them like fruit. The tree was inside a cavern, and Forest couldn’t tell where they were, but he was suddenly fighting for air when he recognised the original Elements of Harmony settled within the tree’s branches.

Luna and Celestia walked through him, and Forest shuddered, realising the vision must still be occurring. Luna gasped, coming to a halt.

“The Tree of Harmony.” Luna breathed in awe, and Forest started, glancing at the princesses in shock.

“The Tree of Harmony?” He echoed, unable to fathom what that could possibly even mean.

He glanced up the tree’s twisted trunk, seeing the moon of Luna’s cutie mark engraved there, followed by Celestia’s sun cutie mark above that, and then, right in the centre of the tree where the branches were protruding from, a six pointed star. 

“My cutie mark.” Forest whispered, and Celestia opened her wings, flying up to the star as her horn lit up.

The star exploded into light, and Luna took a step back, sudden discomfort on her face. “Are you sure?” She asked as she flew up to meet her sister in front of the tree.

“We have managed to discover the only means of defeating Discord and freeing the citizens of Equestria.” Celestia’s magical aura surrounded the Elements in the branches as she took them from the crystal Tree with soft clinks. “Even without the Elements, the Tree of Harmony will possess a powerful magic.”

The star in the centre of the tree opened revealing the green Element of Magic. Celestia picked it up with her horn, circling the Elements around her body. “As long as this magic remains, the Tree will continue to contain and control all that grows here.”

As Forest looked up at them, his eyes erupted into white light again and he was pulled from the vision. He gasped for air, shaking his head and looking up to see he was on the floor again, and Horizon helped him up carefully on wobbly hooves.

“What did you find out?” Ember demanded where she was perched on Lava’s head.

“I don’t know what’s happened to Luna and Celestia, but I think I know why the Everfree Forest is reacting this way.” Forest answered, and Discord pulled his 3D glasses down where he was sitting on a summoned theatre chair and munching loudly on popcorn, his interest obviously piqued. “Something must have happened to the Tree of Harmony.”

The ponies did not react to his words, only looking blankly at each other.

“The Tree of what?” Red repeated, and Forest glanced down at his hooves.

“The Tree is where Celestia and Luna got the Elements from. I think it’s in danger - Celestia said that as long as the Tree contained its magic then it would maintain everything that grew where it was -”

“Which is where?” Chocolate asked, looking like she was dreading the answer.

“The Everfree Forest. It has to be - it’s the only thing that would explain why it’s out of control.” Forest said, pointing to where the plants were writhing around the entrance to the dark woods.

The other ponies made a mixture of horrified noises, and Discord giggled.

“I’m going to need more popcorn!” The draconequus cackled, shaking his empty carton as he looked at them over his glasses.

They were standing at the entrance, and Forest forced himself upright, looking into the depths of the trees as deja vu cast through his body. The other ponies were feeling it too, evidently.

“Seems like it was only yesterday that we were going into the forest to find the Elements.” Solar commented, flinching backwards as another branch began writhing at his hooves.

“I don’t know what we’re going to find in there, but I know we’ll be fine as long as we stick together.” Forest answered, shifting the Element of Magic where it was around his neck.

The others made noises of agreement, and Forest felt incredibly determined walking into the dangerous woods with his friends walking either side of him.

Eventually, they came across a bog of stanglant green water. It bubbled and spat like it was boiling, and it absolutely reeked. Forest coughed, squinting through watery eyes to see there were stones in the water that would keep them clear of it, since not all of them could just fly across.

“We can use these.” Forest called back to them, opening his wings and leaping the first bit to land on the stones.

They were not as solid as they looked, and Forest squeaked with a gasp of terror as they moved and lifted out of the water. He fought to keep his balance as the rocks in front of him also moved, and the green water parted to reveal a massive monster - its disgusting crocodile body and jagged rock-like skin rising from where it was hidden - and Forest could only watch where he was fighting for balance on its tail.

The cragodile screamed, flicking Forest off its tail so he fell on his back at his friends hooves. He landed badly on his wing and gasped, his eyes watering in pain as he fought to get to his hooves whilst the swamp-dwelling creature turned to face them.

“Cragodile! Run!” Red howled, and they all scattered in different directions as the cragodile pulled itself from the stagnant water.

Forest and Ember ran in the other direction, but came face to face with a very steep cliff wall with no way of escaping. Forest internally cursed, scrabbling around with his hooves to try and manually climb out, knowing he’d just gotten himself cornered.

The cragodile, of course, pursued him, and Forest cried out in terror as the massive animal stalked towards him with low rumbles in its throat. His heart was racing as he opened his wings and tried to lift his body off the ground, but his injured one was having none of it, and in his panic he was paralysed. Ember squawked, trying to pull Forest off the ground but she couldn’t lift his weight at all. Forest cowered as the creature roared, its thundering footsteps deafening as it approached him, knowing Forest was easy prey - cornered and injured.

Forest squeezed his eyes shut and cried out, his horn lighting up as he forced as much of his power into his horn as he could. Teleport - teleport! He screamed at himself, panting and shrieking to try and get his stupid magic to just WORK for the love of Celestia, but nothing was happening, and he was going to die, oh Celestia he was going to die -

The cragodile lunged, and Forest grabbed Ember, tossing her to safety and squeezing his eyes shut as he waited for stalagtite teeth to tear into him, but they didn’t come. He cracked an eye open to see that Red had looped a black vine from the invading plants around the cragodile’s tail and the others were pulling with all their might as the cragodile snapped a few inches away from Forest’s face.

Horizon and Solar’s horns ignited as they looped more vines around the animal’s legs and nose, before tying each vine to a tree so the cragodile was completely immobilized and barely able to even wriggle. Forest cantered out of range of its nose, panting and gasping for air.

“That was close.” He managed to wheeze out, forcing his panic down as the others approached him.

“Too close.” Horizon said, and his eyes were flickering, which made Forest’s heart sink.

“It - it’s just - I can’t get my horn to do what I want when I need it to do it.” Forest whispered, and Solar’s eyes twinkled supportively as they followed Forest out of the clearing with the cragodile in it and back into the forest.

“You’ll get the hang of it eventually.” Solar said, and it was supposed to be reassuring but it wasn’t for Forest.

“Eventually isn’t soon enough.” Forest scowled, walking ahead of the group.

“Forest.” Horizon said, and he stopped walking, turning around to see that the others had stopped walking, and Forest was ahead of them. They were all exchanging concerned glances as Horizon stepped forward, his eyes still flickering. “We don’t know what else we might come across here. I think you should go back to Ponyville and wait for us while we go and look for the Tree.”

Forest was suddenly frozen as shock and horror and betrayal cast through him, and he glared at Horizon. “What?! Why?”

“You almost got eaten by a cragodile!” Horizon shot back, and Forest was just getting angrier and angrier as the others were silent and Horizon - well, Horizon said exactly what he was thinking. That just made the betrayal hurt more.

“We all almost got eaten by a cragodile!” Forest spat, pawing a hoof on the ground as Horizon stiffened.

“But we’re not Princes, Forest.” Horizon said flatly, and Forest was fuming now.

“What’s that got to do with anything?!” Forest snarled, and Horizon sighed, dipping his head as if he couldn’t look Forest in the eyes.

“Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are gone. Arctic and Slate are both in the Crystal Empire - if something happened to you - Equestria can’t afford to lose a Prince.” Horizon said, before his voice dropped down to a whisper. “I can’t afford to lose you.”

Forest’s anger suddenly quelled and he teared up, looking at Horizon as the unicorn stared at his hooves. None of the others seemed to have heard that last bit, and Chocolate stepped forward, looking incredibly conflicted and hurt.

“Horizon makes a valid point. Even if we find the Tree, it doesn’t guarantee that Celestia and Luna will come back. We don’t even know if the two things are connected at this point.” Chocolate explained in a low voice, and there was pain in her tone, like she couldn’t bear to be defending Horizon’s point when it was hurting Forest so much. “If they don’t return, Equestria needs a Prince to lead them.”

“B-but the Tree - I’m the only pony who knows what it looks like -” Forest whispered, casting his gaze away as he tried to protest, but Red looked up.

“Big, crystally tree? Cutie marks on the trunk? Probably being attacked by something awful? I think we’ll know when we see it, Forest.” Red said, and Forest’s throat tightened, his voice trembling and tears falling down his nose.

“And all of you feel that way? That I shouldn’t be here?” Forest’s voice quavered.

The others were looking down at the ground and their hooves in shame, but none of them denied it. The fact that none of them, not even Ember, said a word, hurt so much it was like Forest had been stabbed right in the heart.

“It’s for the best, Forest.” Solar said in a low, saddened voice, and Forest walked past them with his head hanging down and tears of sorrow running down his face.

Ember looked at the others and followed Forest as the ponies turned and kept walking into the forest, and Forest opened his wings on instinct to fly away, but his wing still hurt from the cragodile attack and he ended up walking back with his head drooped down and Ember flying after him.

By the time he got back to Ponyville, his distress gave way to fury when he saw Discord lounging back on a vine, filing his claws with a tiny alligator. There were two Ponyville citizens strung up by another vine who were screaming for help as Discord lay back, obviously finding joy in their cries.

“Discord!” Forest yelled, and Discord’s eyes widened as he shot upright with a grimace, before snapping his fingers so the vine holding the two ponies disappeared.

They fell to the ground, before running away with panicked yelps. Forest stood his ground, glaring at the draconequus.

“You’re welcome!” Discord called sarcastically after the two ponies, before turning back to Forest. “No luck finding your Tree?”

“We - ran into trouble. The others told me to go back whilst they looked for it because Equestria will need me if Celestia and Luna don’t return.” Forest said, his ears drooping, before snapping his head up and glaring at Discord. “But I don’t know why I’m telling you that. You should be back in your statue -”

“I’m just surprised that you agreed to it.” Discord said, and his tone of voice was slightly mocking as he floated over Forest’s head. “I didn’t think you were the kind of pony who thinks that he’s better than everypony else!”

“I don’t think I’m better than everypony else!” Forest snapped, tensing as he began storming up to where Discord was floating.

“He’s trying to wind you up, Forest -” Ember started saying, but Forest ignored her.

“Oh! How silly of me to assume that! After all, all you did was put your precious prince self out of harm’s way -” Discord wrapped around Forest and Forest stiffened with a glare as the draconequus summoned a garish royal cloak and sceptre which were forcibly put on Forest’s back and in his hoof. “-whilst your subjects thrust themselves right into it! I’m sure you’ll all be the best of friends when they return from their perilous quest and bonding friendship experience that they’re having without you.” Discord drawled from where he was now tiny and hanging out of Forest’s ear like a parasitic worm.

Forest narrowed his eyes, before pulling Discord out of his ear and cantering back towards the Everfree before he could change his mind. Ember flew after him as Forest panted, his hooves clattering on the ground.

“I never should have agreed to go back.” Forest growled as Ember drew up alongside him.

“Come on! Discord is still a villain - maybe not as much as he was before, but he’s still evil! He’s trying to get under your skin -” Ember protested, but Forest shook his head, scooping the phoenix up onto his back as he entered the dense undergrowth.

“Well, it’s working!” Forest yelled, not looking back as Discord raised a paw and waved him off with a slightly knowing smile on his face.

Eventually, Forest got too tired to keep running and he was struggling for air as he kept forcing himself to move despite the terror that was starting to make him shake. He’d already passed the swamp and the trapped cragodile but now he was wandering dense undergrowth and looking around in fear every time something rustled or howled.

“Are we there yet?” Ember asked from where she was perched on his back, and Forest whimpered.

“I don’t know - we’re lost! I never should have left the others -” Forest started wailing, and Ember patted him supportively with a wing.

“Don’t worry. Maybe if I can fly up to that try I’ll see them?” Ember suggested, opening her wings and doing that as Forest watched her.

“Okay. You do that -” Forest began answering, and felt himself shivering when Ember’s warm glowing feathers vanished up the tree.

Something rustled and Forest flinched, turning around rapidly as he trembled. Suddenly, when he turned around, he was face to face with the large jaws of some kind of snapping, Everfree plant. Before he could even yell it was spraying smoke and pollen into his face so he snapped his eyes shut and began coughing and spasming uncontrollably. His knees buckled and he collapsed as the plants advanced, still spraying him so he could barely breathe past his own terror.

“Forest - I can see them - FOREST!” Ember shrieked as she noticed him.

Forest didn’t respond because it felt like his lungs were closing up past the choking green smoke that the plants were still spraying him with. He couldn’t hear Ember anymore and his eyelids were getting heavy as he lay there paralysed from the plants.

Just when it seemed like one of the plants was going to try and attack him with its jaws, there was a phoenix screech as she flew across and snatched at it with her claws. The plant tried to snap at her, and Forest managed to crack his eyes open to see the head of the plant suddenly get engulfed in red and white magic, before it was impaled by a shard of ice so the entire plant withered away.

Lava and Chocolate reared with battle calls as the ponies attacked the remaining plants. The two earth ponies snapped and stomped at the plants as they writhed, using their strength to uproot several of them so they ceased to move. Red dodged the lightning fast sprays of smoke and collided with one, wrestling it to the ground and squashing it with sharp hooves. Horizon and Solar’s horns were blazing as they fought with the plants and crushed them so they withered and exploded.

Ember swooped down to Forest and helped him up onto wobbling hooves as Horizon finished off the last plant so it was engulfed in ice and crashed to the ground, shattering the plant and ice into pieces.

“We’re so glad you came to look for us, Forest.” Chocolate said, panting as she wiped her stained hooves on the grass.

“Not as glad as I am to see you.” Forest answered, still trembling from the shock as Horizon immediately helped to prop him up. He was too tired to even feel embarrassed.

“We found the Tree.” Red said, landing next to him, and from the looks on their faces, Forest swallowed, knowing it obviously wasn’t good news.

“It’s being killed by these Everfree plants. We tried to save it, but everything we tried didn’t work.” Solar added, and Horizon looked at him.

“I realised I’d sent the only pony who would know what to do back home. We’re lost without you, Forest.” Horizon said, his voice dropping off slightly as Forest finally managed to stand upright without having to lean on him.

“Show me the Tree. I need to see it.” Forest said, determination in his voice as the others immediately led him down into a cavern, not far from the Castle of the Two Sisters where they’d first battled Nightmare Moon.

The gross, spiky vines were practically engulfing the poor Tree, and it was grey and practically lifeless as the plants writhed over it like a snake around its prey. Forest opened his wings and tested the injured one, which seemed to be okay, and flew up to where the six-pointed star in the centre of the branches was. He reached out a hoof and then gasped in horror when a vine snapped around his hoof, but managed to react quickly and shoot a controlled beam of magic at it to cut through it.

He moved back a safe distance, his heart still thudding in fear and sudden relief that he’d managed to use his magic with no issues, even in his panic, but frowned when more vines immediately began slithering over the star where there was previously a gap.

Forest glanced up, seeing the empty slots where the Elements of Harmony previously resided, and widened his eyes when Celestia’s words from the memory echoed in his ears.

 

Even without the Elements, the Tree of Harmony will possess a powerful magic. As long as this magic remains, the Tree will continue to contain and control all that grows here.

 

“I know how we can save the Tree.” Forest said, flying down to the ponies as they waited down below. “But you’re not going to like it.” He sighed as the ponies widened their eyes, looking at him expectantly. “We have to give it back the Elements of Harmony.”

“Woah woah woah! Give it the Elements?” Red yelped, folding his wings and landing in front of him. “How are we supposed to protect Equestria?”

“How are we supposed to keep fucking Discord under control if we don’t have the Elements?” Lava demanded, and Chocolate made a noise of anxiety as she buried her face in her hoof.

“Holy Celestia, we forgot to turn him back to stone before we left -” She muttered, horror at that realisation in her voice.

Horizon took a step forward to face Forest. “We can’t give it the Elements. Like Chocolate said before - they’re what keep us all connected no matter what.”

Forest suddenly gasped, a light going off behind his eyes as Horizon’s words made him realise. He shook his head to clear it before speaking.

“You’re right about one thing. The Elements did bring us all together - but they’re not what keep us connected.” Forest answered, suddenly feeling She’s presence wrapped around all the universes. “It’s something way bigger than that. We’re connected because of our friendship, and that’s something infinitely stronger. It’ll bring us all together no matter what.”

No matter what. No matter if something goes so wrong that the Guardian of the Multiverse has to step in and move one of them across universes. Despite that, it still brought all of them back together. Despite everything.

He wanted to tell them so badly.

But there was no way any of them could possibly understand.

So he didn’t tell them.

“My new role in Equestria might mean things are different and our relationships are tested, but there’s something more powerful than anything in the universe. It won’t ever be broken.” Forest finished, seeing how the other ponies seemed reassured by that and were nodding to his words.

He opened his wings and flew up, looking down at them. “We can’t waste any more time. Let’s do it.”

Forest shut his eyes and exhaled slowly, before opening them and with immense concentration, he let his horn ignite. The green aura of his magic wrapped around Lava’s Element, unclicking it from the amulet. Forest lifted the orange gem up, before removing the other’s Elements from their amulets as they looked up at him. As Forest floated the Elements around him, he took Horizon’s blue Element from his neck, and Horizon’s eyes were shining, possibly at the sight of Forest using his magic. Or maybe it was something else.

But Forest didn’t have time to focus on it as he turned his attention to the Element of Magic and lifted it too so all six Elements were hovering in his magical grip, and he began floating them all to their branches on the tree. 

When it mattered - when it truly mattered - Forest’s magic obeyed him. His heart was thudding so hard it was threatening to break loose.

And then, suddenly vines shot at him, like they sensed what was happening, and he was concentrating too hard to dodge it. They grabbed him, wrapping around him like a snake, and the others yelled, trying to get to him but another vine blocked them.

Forest gasped for air, but couldn’t let himself panic and drop the Elements as the vines wrapped around them. He wriggled his head free and forced himself to yank the Elements free from the vine’s grip with his magic, and floated them back to their branches.

The soft clinks of the Elements in the branches echoed through the cave, and they began glowing when they came in contact with the Tree. Forest choked as the vines wrapped around his neck and over his face, but went from memory as he floated the Element of Magic to the centre of the Tree. The six-pointed star opened, responding to the Element, and slotted around the green gem.

A high pitched whining hit Forest’s ears as the light of the Tree began whirring and glowing and intensifying, before it exploded outwards, disintegrating the vines where they were wrapped around it and suffocating Forest.

The Tree was white with the amount of light it was producing, and the vines broke and shattered from existence where the light touched it. Forest struggled up from the ground, squinting as the vines vanished from all across the Forest. The Tree was once again maintaining what was growing here, and Forest beamed when he saw the tree glowing and shimmering in glory again with the Elements safely nestled in its branches.

Forest squinted as he saw the two writhing piles of vines next to the Tree began melting down, and he gasped when Luna and Celestia’s forms were revealed, the two of them looking shocked at the sight of the Tree glowing again.

Forest immediately cantered over to Celestia to embrace her hard, relief making his legs shake as Celestia sighed, returning the affection immediately.

“We know how hard it must have been to return the Elements. It took immense courage to relinquish them.” Celestia said with a soft smile, and Forest didn’t let go, like he was still trying to convince himself that she was here and safe.

But a sudden spark made him look up with his eyes wide, and he let go of Celestia to see the Tree responding to him suddenly. A coloured beam of light writhed down from each Element to the Element of Magic in the centre, merging into a yellow snake-like beam of light which lit up the sun on the trun, before writhing down to the moon which consequently lit up as well. It then merged into a soft rainbow, which ran down one of the roots of the tree, and a small flower broke loose, growing before their eyes into a soft flower bud.

Forest stepped forwards as Celestia gave him an encouraging nudge, and he was almost hypnotised by the soft green flower as he reached out a hoof and touched it. The petals opened with a burst of light and Forest blinked as it ceased to show a hexagonal, six sided chest nestled in the centre.

“What does this mean? How are we supposed to open it?” Forest asked in confusion as the princesses took either side of him.

“Six locks, six keys.” Luna said, sounding as confused as she and Forest looked up at Celestia.

“I do not know where they are, but I do know that this is a mystery you will not be solving alone.” Celestia answered with a knowing tone in her voice as she and Luna both made their way