Chapter Seven - The Town Drunk
Having learned a harsh lesson, I collapsed to the ground and moaned. The snow was cold, but the warming enchantment I’d cast kept me comfortable. I was halfway back to Ponyville proper, but I just couldn’t summon the strength to finish the trudge or to teleport.
Rule number one of living in Ponyville: never agree to let the Apple family feed you.
I rolled over onto my back and then rubbed my stomach, futilely trying to comfort it.
“Sooooo much foooood,” I groaned. “So many apples.”
Ungracefully belching, I reviewed my list of potential agricultural engineers, as Twinkleshine would put it, or more colloquially, my list of potential farmers.
The Apple family in general was a no-go despite being my first choice. They were outrageously influential in Equestrian agriculture; there was at least one branch of the family in every city, town, village, and countryside. It would be great to have one of them on the crew, especially one of the main branch, like Big Macintosh.
Well, on second thought, his younger sister, Applejack, instead, not him. I buried my head under the snow to hide my blush. I now knew exactly what it meant to say ‘a whole lot of stallion.’ I was pretty sure we wouldn’t find each other interesting on a personal level, but he just – he was just so distracting.
Ehem. Anyway…the family was so tightly knit, I’d have to take them all, and that probably included all of the extended family, too. And even if I did, they were so – so earth ponies. Even before I’d made my observations, it was obvious they would never leave Sweet Apple Acres. In hindsight, I didn’t know why I’d bothered.
So they were now officially off the list of candidates. That was no big deal. There were more than enough farmers in Ponyville. I was sure I could find two or three who would be interested, preferably ponies I could like. Luna could manage the politics of keeping Equestria fed just fine on her own.
I’d gone through a lot of ponies now with no success. I had tried convincing a few to join my crew, but I’d failed and erased their memory of the event. Ponyville ponies just didn’t have the spirit of adventure in them. I needed a new approach, or at least a different type of farmer.
But that left the question of how or who. Not to sound tribalist or anything, but all of these earth ponies seemed to want the same thing: the simple life. But then that would explain why they lived in Ponyville rather than in a city.
That meant I needed a new approach. And now that I thought about it, I had a good idea who I should try–
“Hello!” shouted a cheery voice. “You know, if you’re not careful, you’re going to end up with pneumonia or something. I mean, being half-buried in snow looks super duper fun and all, but it’s not good for your health. Or” – the voice gasped – “what if somepony stepped on you or ran you over with a wagon?”
She – it did sound like a she – had a point, although she spoke way too fast and too cheerily for my tastes.
I shifted back out from underneath the snow and stood up. The mare in front of me was pink. There really was no better way to describe her. She was pink incarnate. Sure, she was older than me by several years and had three balloons for a cutie mark, but those were incidental details.
“Hello! My name’s Pinkie Pie!” the mare said, grabbing my hoof and shaking it up and down. Earth pony grip magic officially felt as weird when used on a pony as I imagined it would be to use.
“I just got into town. I’m a traveling party pony, going where I’m needed most. I’ve been following my Pinkie Sense for some time now, moving from city to city and helping sad ponies in need of a party. And now it’s led me to Ponyville.”
Oh. My. Gosh. Did she tell her life story to every pony she met?
“That’s nice, but–”
“Anyway, I think I’ve finally found the pony I needed to find here,” she finished, looking straight into my eyes.
Well this was awkward. It wasn’t very often a random pony walked up to you and told you you were so depressed you needed a special party.
“I’m not sad.” Well, maybe I was just a little bit, but that was background noise in my emotions from Luna being banished.
“Hmm…perhaps not. But my ears are twitching, and my tail is swirling, so I know you need a party of some kind. Ooh! Ooh! Let me guess! Hmm… Is it a birthday party?”
“Completely wrong half of the year,” I answered. She might just go away if I said nothing, but I had this sneaking suspicion that was not the case.
“Oh! Then it must be your half-birthday!”
After some quick subtraction, I said, “That was twenty-three days ago.” The Equestrian calender was so much nicer than other ones, especially that crazy thing the Griffins did with months. What could be better than four seasons with a hundred days each?
“Aw, you should have told me.”
What – I didn’t – whatever. I wasn’t going to fight the crazy.
“Maaaaaybe it’s somepony special’s birthday?”
“It’s not anypony’s birthday!”
Ignoring my outburst, Pinkie Pie fell to her haunch and tapped her jaw with her hoof. “So it’s not anypony’s birthday… Is it an anniversary?”
“No. I’m reasonably sure that there’s nothing special about today at all to me or anypony I know.”
“Well, then we’ll just have to make it special!”
“I don’t need a party,” I said.
Wait a second… Something was on the tip of my tongue, something Shining had said sometime. A party. A. Party. Oh, no. Adventuring party.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh! You thought of something, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”
Pinkie Pie stood perfectly still, obviously expecting me to elaborate. It was rather unsettling to see her not moving after how much energy she’d displayed.
“Look, I’ll just ask you a few questions, and if you say no to all of them, will you go away?”
Getting a nod from Pinkie Pie, I asked, “Do you know how to farm?”
“I totally learned how to farm rocks when I was a filly!”
It took my brain a few seconds to process ‘rock farmer’ into ‘miner’. What kind of parents would make a filly learn how to mine? Mining was dangerous work, even with the highest standards of magical safety.
I shook my head and asked my next question. “So that was a no. How about animal care? Do you know anything about that?”
“Hmm… Weeeeell.” Pinkie Pie pulled an alligator out of her mane. “This is my pet alligator, Gummy! Say hello, Gummy!”
Gummy blinked at me, his eyelids noticeably out-of-sync. For some reason, he had no teeth.
“Right… Um… Anyway, that’s also a no. Do you know how to cook from scratch?”
“Cook and bake!” Pinkie Pie made some motions that vaguely left me with the impression of cooking.
“Just to be clear, by scratch I mean from raw ingredients plucked from the ground.”
“Can you make butterscotch cookies?” Okay, I had to admit that was a really petty question.
“Of course! I know how to make all kinds of sweets.”
“Would you be interested in joining an adventuring party?”
“Ooooooh. I’ve never been in an adventuring party. That sounds like some serious jollification.”
“Great. Come back in a couple days” – after I got a background check and figured out which asylum you’d escaped from – “and I’ll talk to you some more about it.”
“Alright,” Pinkie Pie sang. “I’m gonna go introduce myself to everypony in Ponyville for now, then. See ya!”
I watched Pinkie Pie skip off toward town for a minute or two before remembering I was headed there, too. After a few steps, it occurred to me to wonder something.
What just happened?
Okay, so I probably had a cook now. Fortuitous, but extremely confusing. She could be a spy, but there were far better ways to spy on a pony with magic. I’d think if Celestia wanted to send somepony to check up on me, she’d just do it herself. Or she’d at least pick somepony less obtrusive.
Still, Pinkie Pie was definitely going to be put through a background check. Her appearance was just so…random. Not that she’d given me the impression of being anything less. Anyway, I had more important matters to attend to right now.
Berryshine, or Berry Punch as she was more commonly known, was mid-meeting with somepony named Filthy Rich. Not exactly a subtle name, but the more I observed the ponies of Ponyville, the more I realized that this town didn’t understand subtlety.
Regardless, Berry Punch was purple, and purple, and more purple. What was it about ponies lately and purple? Purple was a great color and all, but there seemed to be a statistically larger number of purple ponies than any single other color.
Anyway, Berry Punch had grapes and a strawberry for a cutie mark, which was rather fitting considering she was the town drunk. I’d had to cast an illusion to make myself look older to get somepony to tell me that a couple weeks ago, annoyingly enough. It wasn’t like she was being subtle about it. She’d been taking drinks at every opportunity all afternoon. Anypony with half a brain could have figured it out after a little shadowing, although she held her liquor well enough that she could fool a casual observer.
More interestingly, despite that, Berry Punch managed to be a reasonably affluent farmer. Her most prominent crop was – who would have guessed – grapes, which was rather impressive in itself. Ponyville wasn’t scheduled for the ideal climate for growing grapes. Not that it was untenable, per se, but it was her magic that made it work.
I’d had some of them, of course. Pretty much everything I ate in Ponyville was grown in Ponyville, after all, and those grapes were pretty good. There must have been something in the soil…or some other plausible farming explanation. Okay, I had no clue. The point was, Berry Punch was good at what she did.
As far as I could tell, she only had one friend in town, the dentist, Colgate, and that relationship was quite strained if what other ponies had told me was accurate. But Berry Punch didn’t strike me as asocial.
On the other hoof, Berry Punch’s daughter, Berry Pinch, had had nothing but praise for her mother. At least, I thought so; it was kind of hard to understand Berry Pinch at her age.
Something was up. Something I could work with.
While I was flipping through my notebook, Berry Punch and Filthy Rich rose and bumped hooves. The conversation they’d had didn’t sound relevant, so I disregarded the latter when he left and continued pursuing Berry Punch invisibly. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the proper invisibility spell – I had more interesting spells to learn – but I was making do with a few fancy illusions. It wasn’t like anypony in town would notice them.
As she walked, Berry Punch continued to drink from the bottle of wine she’d stashed in her saddle bags, keeping in line with her behavior the rest of the day. I would say I disapproved of this, but she was never overtly drunk. She probably had a constant – what was the word – buzz, and while I found the act rather…disturbing, I didn’t see anything fundamentally wrong with it.
Arriving at the dentist’s office, I slipped inside just after Berry Punch opened the door. It was late in the day, and the only ponies present were Colgate and Berry Pinch, both in the lobby playing a game of make believe. I think Berry Pinch was supposed to be a dragon and Colgate a royal knight.
I tried ignoring the play fight, but it made me feel…awkward. Unable to look away, I watched Colgate’s dramatic death, honestly unable to figure out if I should be cheering or not.
Berry Punch scooped up her daughter into a hug. “That’s my little Blossom! So strong and fierce!”
‘Blossom’ giggled, but that was as far as she got before Colgate spoke.
“You’re late, Berry.”
“Sorry. Rich keep dragging on and on in legal speak. I kept having to ask him to translate.”
“Yeah. Imagine that.” Colgate was frowning, and her tone was clearly frustrated, but Berry Punch either didn’t notice or didn’t care. My bet was on the former, given the attention Berry Punch was giving her daughter.
When mother and daughter were done with their displays of affection that I had zero inclination to repeat with Spike, Berry Punch said, “Thanks for watching Pinch for me today.”
Sighing, Colgate said, “It’s fine.” She walked over to her desk and pulled out a few papers. “I only had a few appointments today, and I needed to give Pinch her checkup, anyway.”
“Oh? How was that, Pinch?”
“Heh. No kidding. How much do I owe you?”
“You could–” Colgate rubbed her head with her hoof. “Nevermind. It’s on the house.”
“Cool. Thanks, Colgate. See ya tomorrow.”
“Yeah. See ya.”
I briefly wrestled with deciding who I should follow. In the end, I decided to stick with Colgate in her office for the moment. After a couple minutes of her doing nothing but paperwork with a huge frown, it was clear she wasn’t going to give me any useful information.
I ran up to a window and peered outside. Nopony was around, so I teleported directly outside the window and checked to make sure I hadn’t missed a pony. An instant later, my illusion spells caught up to the discontinuous change in scenery, hiding me once more. I then began the walk to Berry Punch’s house.
So far, I hadn’t picked up anything new today. Berry Punch’s friendship with Colgate was definitely strained, but I wasn’t ready to blame it on the alcohol. While that was certainly a part of it, I had a feeling it was a symptom of a different problem. If not, then why wouldn’t Colgate have pressed the issue already? She clearly expressed her dislike of something about Berry Punch, even in front of Berry Pinch. If she was already that frustrated, she would have confronted Berry Punch by now if the problem was something as simple as alcoholism. There had to be some deeper explanation, a bigger trouble.
Well, there didn’t have to be, but I found it more probable given the information I had.
Anyway, I arrived at Berry Punch’s house and peered in a window as I had back at Colgate’s business slash home. Seeing nopony nearby, I teleported in and headed toward the kitchen. There, Berry Punch was busy making a light dinner for her and Berry Pinch, the latter of whom had made a mess of both herself and the counter with strawberry jam.
I left a scrying spell to listen in – they were both giggling like fillies and doing nothing important – and left to explore the house.
Now I knew I did not have a normal life, what with Luna, politics, intrigue, magic, flaring, a princess foalsitter, et cetera, but I’d never actually taken the time to investigate a more ordinary home. I figured it would be boring and disillusioning, and I could at least pretend other ponies secretly led exciting lives that way.
But wow, was this house mundane. It was like my own little slice of Tartarus brought up to Equestria. Paradoxically, it reminded me just how glad I was that my life had played out like it had. Past Twilight might not have minded a simple life like this, but Present Twilight certainly would. I would go out of my mind with boredom.
That didn’t mean I didn’t still hate Celestia, but I did feel a certain sort of grudging gratitude for ripping my heart out.
I sighed and returned to my hunt for clues. Clues Berry Punch certainly wasn’t going to give me, if the nonsense I was hearing through my scrying spell was any hint. I didn’t know what just happened with that jam, nor did I want to know.
Jumping onto the living room sofa, I sat down and thought over what I’d seen: some books, but mostly books about how to raise a unicorn; no signs of abuse in either direction, nor from an outside party; plenty of pictures of Colgate and Berry Punch when they were younger, and even more of Berry Punch and Berry Pinch plus or minus Colgate.
All of the alcohol was locked securely in the basement so far as I could tell. The house was clean, but not too clean, although Berry Pinch’s room could qualify for disaster relief funding. I suspected nopony would notice that I’d knocked a few toys around when I’d tripped on them.
Berry Punch’s room, on the other hoof, was rather tidy. Her closet was the only exception, as it was stuffed with the random junk a pony collected throughout her life. Some of it had been in boxes. Most of it had not.
I rubbed the tip of my horn, remembering that unpleasant surprise.
Nothing in particular jumped out at me, but there was something off about the house. I just couldn’t figure out what.
“Argh!” I whispered, rubbing my mane vigorously. Why couldn’t I figure this out? There had to be something. Ponyville struck me as the kind of town that wouldn’t just sit back and let Berry Punch drug herself like this without a reason. It was just populated by too nice of ponies for that.
I needed to meet sober Berry Punch.
The next morning – I’d magicked myself asleep during the night – I rose bright and early, rushing to Berry Punch’s house with only a few daffodils for breakfast. I was only a few minutes early, but that was enough.
Berry Punch had her bottle of wine in her saddlebags, both lying unprotected on her couch. She had gone upstairs, probably to check on Berry Pinch. It was winter vacation for the normal foals, so she was likely still asleep.
I teleported myself and the wine bottle to the kitchen sink, subsequently teleporting most of the wine into the sink and letting it flow down the drain. I left just enough to leave the right flavor behind after I watered it down. I then put the diluted wine back and began the world’s worst game: the waiting game.
Berry Punch went about her business as usual – shopping today, it would seem – and it wasn’t until an hour later that she obviously noticed something was wrong. She’d been twitching for a good ten minutes now, and the last five had had double takes. It was as if she were terrified of something, and the added haste in her step was not a good sign.
Her eyes widened, and she pulled out her wine. She took a sip and washed it around in her mouth, spitting it out soon after. Her eyes grew even wider, and she bolted off toward her home, taking the most direct route available.
As bad as I felt about this, I couldn’t let her ruin this now. Berry Punch turned down an alley – what she’d thought would be a shortcut, no doubt – and I cast a spell from my growing pool of dark magic, trapping her in an endless alleyway. At least, that was how it worked for her. It was rather disconcerting to watch the space warp from the outside.
It took Berry Punch a whole minute to realize she wasn’t going anywhere. A look of panic shot through her face, and she turned. She turned on a wall and proceeded to break it down. Little good that did her.
After bursting through a few more walls, she finally gave up and fell to the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. I heard her whisper the name Noteworthy, and something occurred to me. I had no idea who Berry Pinch’s father was. That hadn’t even registered with me when I’d been investigating.
Alright, so based on how she’d whispered that name, he was probably well-loved and dead. But would Berry Punch really go through all this just over the death of a loved one?
It was possible, but that would make her such a statistical outlier that the thought wasn’t even worth entertaining without evidence. No, there had to be something else at work here, especially considering her pure terror. That wasn’t the kind of fear a pony showed with a normal death.
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves; I had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t going to like what I would hear. I teleported silently a couple meters behind Berry Punch and placed a new illusion on myself. Going with a classic, I made myself look like a filly sized, pink elephant only a few shades away from Berry Punch’s coat color. My voice was, naturally, disguised as well.
“Hello,” I said.
As soon as I’d made a sound, Berry Punch scrambled to get away from me. I waited patiently until the warped space we were in sent her back to me. Hearing her hooves screech to a halt behind me, I turned around slowly with a smile.
“Berry Punch, dear, please listen to me.”
“W-who are you?” she shouted.
“I’m the rational part of you that you’ve kept locked away. You’re going through alcohol withdraw and hallucinating.” I had no idea how frequent that symptom was or how quickly it set in, but I knew that it was a symptom. I hoped sober Berry Punch bought it.
“A-a hallucination? Oh, thank Celestia!”
Rather proud of myself, I didn’t so much as twitch, much less turn white or burst into flames.
“Yes,” I began, “but I’m afraid we won’t be of much use to anypony until I disappear, so I thought this would be a lovely time to chat.”
“Chat?” Berry Punch echoed the word, eyes widening. “No! Never! I need to–”
“No.” I said, my voice amplified tenfold with magic. “I have been locked away for forever, and you will talk to me.”
Backpedaling, Berry Punch tripped over her own hooves in tears again. I crossed the distance between us and put a hoof on her withers.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” I said, softly and sweetly, my magic giving my voice a loving singsong quality. “Talk to me. Tell me about the good times.”
“I – I…” Her head falling, Berry Punch whispered, “Okay.”
I caressed Berry Punch’s mane for her as she recovered enough to talk. She was shivering no less now than before, but her twitching had died down. Well, it mostly had.
“The day Pinch was born was the happiest of my…our…” – Berry Punch looked to me, and shrugging, I smiled – “my life. Well, besides my wedding night.”
“No doubt. That Noteworthy, right?”
Berry Punch actually managed a weak laugh. “Yeah. Practically zero experience, but he was so passionate.”
“He was. He was. There’ll never be a better stallion.”
“Mmm… I could never forget his kindness, or his crazy love of music, or his warmth next to me, or…anything about him.”
“If only Pinch could’ve known him,” I said, hoping the conversation would move along.
“Yeah… I almost think he was even happier about her than I was. Neither of us expected a unicorn, but I suppose our parents didn’t expect earth ponies, either. Genetics are crazy like that. And let me tell you…err…tell me. My mom had it easy. Earth ponies? Psh, no problem. Unicorns? Ow. That horn hurts like Tartarus and gets caught on all the wrong spots.”
Note to self: never give birth. Stick with adopting dragons.
“You know, now that I think about it, that was what brought us together to begin with: two earth ponies born to unicorn parents. They had no idea what they were doing, and Noteworthy and I always felt like outsiders in our own families.”
Berry Pinch sighed. “I know I’m going to be just as bad with Pinch, even with Colgate helping, and that drives me mad. And that new teacher, Cheerilee, down at Ponyville Elementary. She’s great at what she does, but she doesn’t have the first clue about how to teach unicorns. I don’t know what I’m going to do…”
Aha! Now here was something I could work with. “Let’s just get her a good tutor.”
“What? In Ponyville? There’s nopony here that can do that.”
“What? Did the alcohol keep those memories from getting past the hippocampus?”
“The hippowhat now?”
Drat. “Remember back in the day? No, the alcohol probably took that away, too. The hippocampus does the heavy lifting in moving memories from short-term to long-term storage.”
“Ah. Right. Of course I remember that. I’m not dumber than me.”
I had to put all my willpower into not rolling my eyes or laughing. Tell somepony they’re hallucinating you, and they’d believe anything, apparently.
“Don’t you remember meeting Twilight Sparkle?” I asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.
“Yeeeees. But why don’t you remind me?”
This time I did roll my eyes. I could see even Berry Punch wanted to herself.
“She met Pinch yesterday, and you two talked for a little bit while Pinch was distracted. She’s one of the most knowledgeable unicorns we’ve ever heard of.”
“Really?” Berry Punch put a hoof to her forehead and massaged it a bit, as if that could make her memory work better or something. “I can’t believe I forgot that. What else am I forgetting?”
I shrugged. “Probably a lot. I’m afraid I’m just a halluciiiiination,” I said, barely remembering in time to keep my vocab in check. I was going to say ‘hallucinatory construct,’ and as great as that would be, I didn’t want to raise any more red flags.
“I can only remember what you could remember,” I added.
“I see… Oh, well. I’ll just have to go about remembering Twilight Sparkle the hard way, then.”
“I’m proud of you,” I said, patting Berry Punch on the withers. “That’s a good first step. Pinch deserves so much more than we’ve been able to be.”
Sighing, Berry Punch said, “I know. I don’t understand how she can love me, but I’d be an even worse wreck without her.”
“It’s probably because we act pretty foalish when we’re drunk. She probably sees us as a playmate as much as a mother. Maybe more.”
Berry Punch bit her lip. “Rational me, why do you have to be so…honest?”
“Comes with being rational, I’m afraid. We can’t be rational unless we’re willing to face the truth, whatever it is.”
“The truth…” Berry Punch’s eyes went wide, and she threw me off her. “Oh, Dear Celestia, no! No! Not again!” She fetched her saddlebags and pulled out her wine bottle, only to remember it was useless at the last second.
I walked up to her and locked eyes. I had to hold her head steady in my hooves as she weakly tried to squirm away.
“Hey! Don’t revert now! We’re making progress. Just a little more. Just a little more, and we can move on. We can move on once and for all and be everything Pinch deserves!”
“No! No, I can’t! Not again. Please, no! Not the Everfree again!”
Oh no. This wasn’t going to be good.
“We have to do this,” I whispered, moving as close to Berry Punch’s face as I dared. “For Pinch.”
Berry Punch threw me off again and stared at her trembling forehooves.
“S-so m-much b-b-blood. I could hear him. I could hear him! The screaming. It only lasted a few seconds, but I could hear.”
I forced Berry Punch to look me in the eyes again.
“Listen. I’m here for you. Pinch is here for you. Colgate is here for you. Buck, I’m sure even Twilight Sparkle would be there for you if you just asked. You don’t need to bottle it up anymore.”
I wheezed as Berry Punch squeezed the air out of me, but I didn’t say anything. Hallucinations didn’t need to breathe, after all, and she needed this hug.
“Oh, Celestia. It ate him. It ate Noteworthy! It didn’t even do it whole! It didn’t even kill him first! It tore him in half and swallowed him alive. Those screams still haunt my nightmares.”
I froze. I had expected something bad, but stars above, that was horrifying. If Luna hadn’t told me a similar story of her own experience with an ursa major, I would’ve teleported away and vomited just thinking about it. Even now, I was still struggling. And Berry Punch had lived it.
“I can’t even imagine a worse way to die,” Berry Punch continued. “Alone. Dark. Eaten. His last word to me was ‘run.’ And I did. I never even looked back. I could hear his bones snapping, but I didn’t even look! That monster wasn’t even interested in me anymore, and I still ran. It was full!”
I hugged Berry Punch as tight as I could, which wasn’t much at all right now.
“It was all my fault. I wanted to get a rare flower for Pinch’s birthday. ‘It’s a short trip,’ I said. ‘It’s not far,’ I said. ‘The scary things live deeper in,’ I said.
“And when I got back, nopony blamed me. Nopony! Not a single pony! I can’t deal with this. I can’t. I – I need to get home. I–”
I slapped Berry Punch.
“You do not need to go home. You do not need to go to our cellar. You do not need to drown the memories.” I paused, waiting for Berry Punch to turn back to me. When she did, I smiled as kindly as I could. “You need your friend. You need your daughter. You need” – I felt a bit guilty about this, but it was true – “to get away from this accursed forest.”
Berry Punch remained quiet, a thoughtful expression on her face underneath the twitching and anxiety.
“Where would I go? What would I do? My whole life is in Ponyville.”
“I – ah…”
I pretended to notice something, and Berry Punch turned her head to look the same way I was. When she saw nothing – there was nothing to see – she turned back.
“Nothing,” I said, smiling. It was time to end this conversation. “I’m sure something will come up soon. For now, just be better for Pinch.”
I cast my usual sleeping spell, but let it take effect slowly instead of instantaneously.
“And remember,” I began, “just because I was a hallucination doesn’t make this any less real. I hope we never meet again.”
After another second or two, Berry Punch collapsed onto the ground. She’d wake up in a couple minutes, so I quickly swapped out my elephant illusion for the invisibility illusions and dismantled this warped space. We were back in a regular old alley again, and I teleported on top of a roof; alleys were rather narrow, and I didn’t need Berry Punch bumping into me.
When she woke up, Berry Punch did it with a moan. She struggled to her hooves, still trembling. She didn’t rush to them, but she did go to her saddlebags. I frowned when she pulled out her wine bottle. If she didn’t learn anything from…that, I was going to throw in the towel and pretend she didn’t exist.
Leaning forward, I watched with eyes wide as she turned the bottle to the side, but then she said, “Oh, right. It’s mostly water.” She then promptly drank the whole mixture.
Well, symbolism averted, but she did learn something, and that was what counted. I watched her for another minute as she walked away into town.
Into town toward Colgate’s house.
I smiled and teleported home.
I looked up from my book when somepony triggered my ward. I squeed when I looked out my window and saw Berry Punch walking this way. I had a good feeling this time. Soon, so soon, I would have my first farmer. Walking downstairs, I was nearly to the door when the knock came.
“I’ve got it!” I called out with barely suppressed glee.
I stood on the inside of the door and did a short dance to get all the excitement out of my system. With one last deep breath, I opened the door, smiling warmly.
“Um…hello,” Berry Punch said. If the slight blush weren’t enough, she was also rubbing her foreleg with her other forehoof. It would seem somepony was embarrassed – or nervous, perhaps – about getting her life back on track. She still twitched, and her eyes still wandered, but it was great to see her relatively peaceful.
“Hello, Berry Punch! It’s good to see you again.”
“Yeah… I was hoping to talk to Twilight Sparkle. I heard she lives here.”
I made a slightly hurt expression and said, “Sure. Would you like to come in?”
Berry Punch nodded. “If I could.”
I smiled again and teleported the two of us onto couches in the living room. Berry Punch was understandably confused, but for the wrong reason.
“Oh Celestia,” she said. “Did I just blank out for a while? Have…have we been talking?”
Hmm… This was a rather unfortunate unintended consequence, but it shouldn’t take too long for Berry Punch to trust her memory again.
“No, I teleported us here. I’m kind of lazy.” Well, I was, but I’d really done it to quickly demonstrate competency. Berry Punch didn’t recognize me when she showed up, so I assumed she didn’t find out how old Twilight Sparkle was when she tracked me down.
“You did? You…teleported us?”
I nodded. “So what was it that you wanted with me?”
Yep, she’d definitely never bothered to ask how old I was; Berry Punch’s face was more of an open book than most ponies’. That, or she’d asked Berry Pinch and had gotten an unhelpful answer like ‘she’s super old’.
“Excuse me, but you’re Twilight Sparkle?”
Just loud enough for her to hear, I whispered, “I guess you forgot me.”
“I – I think I made a mistake.” Berry Punch moved to get to her hooves. “Sorry.”
“I see…” I made a sad smile and looked to the floor. “I don’t get to meet many ponies with my sleep schedule.” I sighed and let the invitation hang in the air.
Berry Punch bit her lip, looking about the room somewhere between anxiously and embarrassingly, before sitting back down and fidgeting with her hooves.
“So,” I asked again, “what did you need me for? Is it about what we talked abou – no, you forgot me.” I sighed again before smiling. “It must be about magic, then!”
I giggled a bit. I’d always wanted to try the traveling salespony voice but had never found the right moment before now. “Have a problem with a tough spell? Need some insight on which direction to go? A magical disaster on the horizon? Look no further than Twilight Sparkle to cure all your spellcraft related woes and…uh…goals.”
Wow, I’d felt so confident going into that rhyme, but it just fell flat on its face. Oh well. At least Berry Punch was amused.
“Seriously, though. What do you need?”
“Ah, well…” Berry Punch played with her forehooves nervously and avoided my eyes. “I was, at the time, hoping you could help tutor Pinch, but–”
“Sure,” I answered, not letting her make excuses. If she never actually said them, they weren’t real. Stupid, yes, but Luna said most ponies gave a lot more weight to their thoughts once they’d actually said them to another pony.
Berry Punch looked straight at me and blinked a couple times. “Really? Can you? Just like that?”
“Yes, yes, and no, I’m afraid.”
“Oh! I wasn’t asking you to do it for free!”
I waved a hoof dismissively. “No, don’t worry about that. I have all the funding I could ever need.”
“Funding?” Berry Punch echoed quietly.
I smirked – just a little bit to let her know I’d heard – and continued, “I’m willing to do it for free, but I won’t be in Ponyville during Berry Pinch’s early education, which is probably the most important part to get right.”
I held up a hoof. “However, that doesn’t mean you two can’t be with me. I’m leaving in a season or two on a jaunty, peaceful adventure with a group of ponies, and you two would be welcome to tag along if you help us.”
“I don’t…” began Berry Punch, but she quickly lost her enthusiasm. Her brows scrunched up, and she descended into a silent contemplation. Eventually, she asked, “Could you tell me more?”
“Certainly! Although I would much prefer to show you when you have a free night instead. You could bring Berry Pinch with, too. In fact, I’d recommend it.” Of course, that recommendation came from knowing somepony Berry Pinch’s age would beg to go on a space adventure.
“I suppose it couldn’t hurt. I’m free tomorrow night, if that would work.”
“Tomorrow it is, then.”
It took me longer than I had hoped to convince Berry Punch that she was, in fact, not hallucinating. Berry Pinch, on the other hoof, was predictably excited and running about the ship. I didn’t know what she could have found interesting about a mostly empty glass and metal shell, but we were in space, and that made everything better. Unfortunately, the novelty of space had worn off for me.
There were the doors, though. Those were pretty cool. At Twinkleshine’s…request, I’d made the airlocks between rooms open and close automatically and split at the middle rather than swinging open like a normal door. I’d drawn the line at ‘spacey sound effects’, but still.
Speaking of whom, Twinkleshine was in the library ‘looking busy’. I’d brought her up earlier in the afternoon with a load of bookshelves, books, and miscellaneous furnishings and had asked her to get to work. Mostly I just wanted the ship to seem more alive for Berry Punch’s first impression, but also, the work just needed doing.
Of course, I wasn’t making Twinkleshine do a bunch of heavy lifting; she still didn’t have the magic for that. She was instead directing a small swarm of changelings – all disguised as ponies – in the construction of the library.
And I had to say, I’d been impressed with how effective changelings were with group tasks. In retrospect, that should have been obvious, but it was quite the sight to watch them throw books around fast enough to qualify the exchanges as a flow of books.
“Twilight Sparkle,” Berry Punch began. Her voice was distant and her eyes were wandering. “Who–”
“Again, just ‘Twilight’, please.” I had nothing against my full name, but it was a bit of a mouthful, and it wasn’t called for here.
“Who are you really? Whose…thing is this? Where are you going?”
“Well, I’m still the one and only Twilight Sparkle, but I suppose you meant that in a more political sense. If you must know, I have connections to three…well, four royals, and one of them commissioned the construction of this spaceship.”
“Wait, wait. Four Royals?” Berry Punch asked, punctuating each word. “You know the entire royal family?”
“Ah, no. That’s an easy mistake to make. I don’t know Prince Blueblood or his mother, but it’s not like they’re real royalty, anyway. Cadance, that is Mi Amore Cadenza never has anything good to say about those two. Well, not anymore. Blueblood was apparently much nicer when Sunset Shimmer was around to keep him in line. Anyway, there are other royals in this world than just Cadance and” – I nearly spat the name – “Celestia.”
I giggled at Berry Punch’s gape. Ponies weren’t used to Cadance and Celestia – especially Celestia – being addressed so informally.
“Moving on, I built this ship–”
“You built this? I don’t – how could – I can’t believe that. You’re only, what, eleven? Twelve? Thirteen?”
“Twelve-and-a-half, but I started construction at twelve proper. And I’m the pony that brought you and Berry Pinch here.” I exaggerated a sigh and locked eyes with Berry Punch.
“I’m not a filly, whatever my biological age might have you believe. Twinkleshine is.” I gestured off toward the filly in question. “She tries. She really does. But she doesn’t have the experiences or the responsibilities that make a pony an adult. But I do.”
I frowned, narrowed my brows, and turned away to gaze out into space. I didn’t actually want to talk about myself that much at the moment. Instead, I simply said, “We’ll have plenty of time to get to know one another if you decide to join us, but I don’t have the time or interest to spin sob stories right now.”
When the silence was just about to become overbearing, I sighed and turned back purposefully slowly.
“Anyway, to answer your last question, we’re going to recover one of Equestria’s long-lost artifacts, which we believe was placed on a comet centuries ago. Given that this hasn’t been announced to the public, I trust you realize that this is a secret, and should not be discussed with anypony.”
After a sufficiently long stare down, Berry Punch said, “I promise. Ah, what about Pinch?”
I waved a hoof dismissively. “Nopony will take anything she says seriously, so don’t worry.” And I was going to have both of you watched until you moved up here permanently. Or until you lost your memory of this. I loved having changeling minions so much. They made life so much simpler.
“I… When you said I had to help, what did you mean?”
“Oh, not much. This will be a multi-year journey, so we need to produce our own food. We also need earth ponies to do it, because my magic doesn’t mix well with growing things. The closest I can get with any ease is conjuring air and water. There’d probably be some other miscellaneous tasks, but your main responsibility would be farming – something I hear you are very good at.”
“Ah, well, maybe.” Berry Punch’s gaze dropped to her hooves, and I could make out just the faintest blush.
“So what do you think? Would you like to get away from Ponyville for a few years and see things practically nopony else ever has? We’re even going to make a stop at the moon, if Twinkleshine can figure out the technical difficulties.” Difficulties like the sun incinerating us if we stuck around past moonset.
Biting her lip, Berry Punch said, “Maybe. I…would like to get away from Ponyville for a while.”
“Oh, before I forget,” I interrupted, “as this is a crown-sponsored, secret mission, we’d have a pair of agents take care of your property and make sure nopony knows you’re missing.”
“Nopony?” Berry Punch asked. “Not even my family or a close friend?”
Now that I thought of it, I’d never updated that policy to account for the hive mind. Luna was a slow and clunky means of communication who didn’t want to act as such and had no idea what her max range was in banishment. The changelings were none of those things, although Queen Chrysalis might share in the ‘not wanting to do it’ aspect.
Twinkleshine’s case was still an open and shut book. I probably could convince her parents to let her come without cheating eventually, but I wasn’t going to waste my time doing so. And changeling surveillance was good, but not perfect. The more potential leaks – especially ones that would march straight to open court if given the chance – the more likely this mission was to fail.
And Queen Chrysalis might get moody if I asked too much from her or induced too many risks into this operation.
However, Berry Punch’s case was different. Her parents…were still questionable choices. Parents in general had this sense of duty to protect their foals, and that was an unnecessary risk.
But if she told Colgate, it would probably be okay. The replacements would be spending a lot of time with Colgate already anyway, so it wouldn’t be asking for much more from them to keep an eye on her. Although that might interfere with the love they would otherwise get from her.
And yet the replacements could work to get love that was intended for them instead of for Berry Punch and Berry Pinch. I didn’t know if that made any difference in the love’s nutritional value, but it made sense on an intuitive level that it would.
“Twilight?” Berry Punch called.
And now I realized I’d zoned out for several minutes. How awkward.
“Sorry. Anyway, you might be allowed to tell one particularly close friend who’s not a family member. I’d have to consult a couple ponies first. But no matter whom, you would have to keep the exact details of this mission secret.
“Well, only until we get back, that is. We’ll let you know when you’re free to talk about this adventure, but I’d imagine it wouldn’t be too long after we return to Equus that you’d be free to speak of it.”
A thought struck me. “Or you can not talk about it and ask to have your participation kept quiet, if you wish. Either way, the crown would be in your debt.”
Another idea came to me. I laughed and added, “Berry Pinch would be in your debt, too. She seems quite taken with space, after all.”
Looking into the farm area from one of the adjoining rooms, I saw Berry Pinch cannon ball into the pond after pushing one of the changelings into it. Hopefully she wouldn’t roll around in the dirt afterward and track mud everywhere, but I was under few illusions about that.
Berry Punch turned to look the same way I was and watched Berry Pinch for a minute or two. I idly wished Spike would be as enthusiastic about water. It would make baths so much easier.
Sigh. Maybe I should switch the bathwater to lava. I wouldn’t even have to use soap that way.
“Do I have to decide right now?” Berry Punch finally asked.
“No, but I do need a prompt answer from you especially. We have a nonnegotiable deadline to meet, and we need to get our food supply going before we can leave.”
After a few seconds, Berry Punch asked, “Why aren’t you just using government employees like you are for unpacking right now?”
I was so glad I’d asked Cadance for a legitimate answer to that in advance.
“We employ a number of very talented gardeners, but no proper farmers. Part of why I moved to Ponyville was to scout for ponies who could both do the job and keep a secret. That’s why I asked your daughter a few questions about you a number of days ago.”
Turning my head toward Berry Punch, I continued, “She was very informative. You’re lucky to have her.”
It took her a few seconds, but her eyes widened when she fully processed that I had been investigating her. “Wait. Did you–”
“No,” I interrupted. “But I was watching. When I couldn’t bear it anymore, I cast a sleep spell on you. After you woke up, you looked…better, so I left. I was actually going to offer you this job tonight, but you came to me yesterday, instead.”
A silence fell, and when I felt it was right, I asked, “Do you want to get away from the Everfree?”
Berry Punch’s head fell to the ground. “Yes,” she whispered.
There was just enough space between Berry Punch and the wall for me to walk in front of her and hold out a hoof. Holding my breath in anticipation, I waited.
And then I smiled.