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“Alright, troops!” Pinkie Pie growled as she strode with authority through the kitchen of Sugarcube Corner, a cooking pot with four stars on it planted firmly on her head.  “We have a very important cupcake to make! No, I’m not sure which cupcake we’ll be making, but I do know it’ll be important.”

Utter silence met her words. There was neither even the tiniest bit of movement, nor the quietest of sounds. Of course, there wasn’t anypony else in the kitchen with her, either. The table was divided in half, each with its own set of ingredients. In fact, the only difference between the two was that the left side had pink frosting… and the group on the right had pinker frosting.

Pinkie Pie narrowed her eyes and scowled at the eggs on the left side of the table. “You’re not going to crack under the pressure, are you? I don’t have any use for an egg that cracks before its time!”

The egg remained upright, impossibly balanced on the smaller end, and Pinkie Pie nodded at it in satisfaction. “That’s the kind of dedication I’m talking about, soldier! Why, if more eggs had your fortitude, cupcakes would be an art form!”

Just as she turned away from the egg and went back to pacing up and down the length of the table, it happened. Her ears flopped, knees knocked, eyes crossed… and an excessively loud belch escaped her muzzle. Loud and with enough force that one of the overhead pots fell off its hook and squashed the previously praised egg and splattering the less pink frosting into the flour, contaminating both beyond use. Her Pinkie Sense confirmed it; she knew which cupcake to make, now.

From somewhere within her mane, Pinkie Pie withdrew a small tin kazoo and played a surprisingly stirring rendition of ‘Taps’. “Alas, poor egg! It just wasn’t your time! Well… okay. It was your time to get squashed, but not your time to be made into a delicious cupcake!” Her respects paid, she cleared that half of the table off with a single swipe of her foreleg; all the debris fell neatly into a trashcan.

“But don’t worry!” she continued. “It’ll be next time, for sure!” With that, Pinkie Pie turned to the task of making the best cupcake she could, for it would be needed in a few hours. She applied every bit of skill she’d acquired in her years of honing her craft; this cupcake would have to be the very best, and she aimed to not disappoint.

{Elsewhere in Ponyville}

The colt walked through the door, and as his gaze took in the elderly gryphoness in the bed, more memories came flooding back. Bursting into tears, the colt flung himself across the room and crawled into the nest while planting his head underneath the gryphoness’ beak. “Sis? Please don’t go! I’m begging you… don’t go. Don’t leave me! I can’t lose you, too!”

The gryphoness opened an eye and grinned weakly, managing to preen the colt’s mane gently. “I’d stay if I could, but I’m old now. Tired. Worn out. I’m ready to rest.”

That was not the answer the colt was hoping for, and he burst into sobs, burying his muzzle into the gryphoness’ soft feathers.

Carefully holding the colt to her chest with one taloned hand, she whispered. “Hey, now. Come on… my little brother doesn’t cry. Not over something like this. Shh… it’ll be okay, you’ll see.”

“It will be,” the colt mumbled into the gryphoness’ feathers. “It will be, once I find a way to turn the little bastards off that are keeping me alive. Then it will be all right.”

That got the gryphoness’ attention in a big way. “What’d I just hear?” She got both her eyes open and pushed the colt away from her just enough that she could glare at him. “What was that cartload of horse-apples I just heard come from my little brother’s mouth?”

“You think I’m insane enough to want to live forever? You think I want to go through this every fifty to seventy-five years? Immortality is a curse, Sis! It’s the curse of having to say goodbye to friends and family, the curse of having to watch them die in front of you!” he snarled, tears pouring from his eyes. “It is, without doubt, the cruelest thing anypony could do to another!”

“I know,” the gryphoness said, sighing quietly. She gathered the colt back to her chest. Her breath gurgled a bit in her chest; she didn’t have a lot of time left and she knew it. “It might seem cruel, kid. But you’re needed. You think it’s easy for the Princesses? What about the other heroes of Equestria? You think it’s going to be easy for Applejack to lose her brother and sister? Rarity to lose her sister? Was it easy for Pinkie Pie to lose the Cakes? That’s part of what you and only you can do. You can be there for them. You can remind them of what came before, and you can make them smile. You can be their little brother.” The gryphoness grinned a little. “Even if you’re still too scrawny to be a snack.”

“But…” the colt began, before his voice caught in his throat. “But I don’t know I can.”

“I know, kid. I know. That’s why I asked your Auntie Celestia for a favor. She agreed. Before I tell you, you promise me right now that you’ll do whatever it takes to live. Whatever it takes. You keep on living, you hear me? Promise me, boy.” The gryphoness’ aged eyes gleamed with a momentary burst of strength and their old predatory nature.

“I promise, Sis. I promise. I swear, I’ll keep living. I promise.” He hugged the gryphoness more tightly again.

 “Good…” her breath rattling in her chest, the gryphoness took one last breath and whispered, “Love you, kid…” before the light went out of her eyes.

No!” the foal cried, trying to hug life back into the gryphoness. Tears poured unchecked from his eyes, dampening the soft feathers of his deceased friend and older sister. He felt his mind begin to break; thoughts and memories began to swirl in his head, faster and faster until he felt a soothing hoof on his shoulder. “A… Auntie Celestia?”

“Yes, little one. I am here.” Celestia tenderly wrapped the unhappy colt in a warm sphere of her magic and gently pulled him away from his deceased friend. “The favor she asked of me was this; I will…”

The colt jerked awake, gasping for breath. He tried to call out for Mother and Father, but he just couldn’t make his voice work. Struggling out of bed, he bolted down the hallway for the front door. Despite hearing the sleepy protestations from the room behind him, he flung the door open and galloped off into the night to escape the terrible nightmare he’d just suffered.

Except… it wasn’t a nightmare. Somehow he knew that to be true; it wasn’t a nightmare. He wasn’t sure how he knew, and he wasn’t sure precisely when it happened… but he did know it was real. If she had died, then there’s only one place she’d be; the Ponyville Cemetery.

He had made it to within sight of Ponyville Cemetery’s gates when another figure from his memory came into sight, descending rapidly from the skies to land in front of the wrought iron door. “Auntie Celestia!”

“Why are you out in the evening, dear one?” Celestia smiled gently, lowering her head so that her nose was on the level with his.

“I had a nightmare, Auntie.” He shivered. “But… it wasn’t a nightmare. It was real.” He looked at the gates to the cemetery, and shivered. “She’s in there. I know it.”

Celestia nodded, then sat down on the soft grass. As she lifted a wing, she said, “It is cold, little one. You have memories, but no context for them, yet. Come, rest with me and I’ll tell you a story. After the story, I will answer your questions.”

The colt nodded, curling up under the offered wing. “I’m… I’m gonna cry, aren’t I?” he asked in a hushed, subdued voice.

“Yes, dear. We both are.” Celestia sighed softly, then gently nuzzled at the colt’s mane. “Now, this story takes place quite a long time ago…”

--  To Chapter 1 --

“May Celestia guide you to your eternal rest, you who were taken from us too soon, Lightning Storm,” Nurse Ivy said, gently closing the pegasus foal’s blue eyes.  She paused a moment, resting her hoof on the foal’s green shoulder. Motherly instincts demanded she gently brush a lock of his flame-red mane from his eyes. Then, with a practiced flick of her hoof, she drew the sheets up and covered the colt’s remains, then stood back from the table upon which the little one lay in repose.

“I’ll notify the parents,” Doctor Whisper said with a quiet sigh. “I’d so hoped to have good news… he was doing so well, for a while.”

Dr. Coltle shook his head. “No parents, Whisper. The poor foal was housed in one of the orphanages after they died several years back. Honestly, I don’t think he had any fight left in him. When he got sick, he just… let go. He had nothing to hold him here I suppose, and the prospect of the Summer-Lands must have been too much to resist.”

“Maybe, but I honestly thought we’d saved him. We’re good… we’re very good,” Whisper complained. “I’d go so far as to say we’re the best medical team in the hospital. We don’t lose often, especially when a patient rebounds as well as little Storm had.” Looking at his hooves, Whisper closed his eyes. “I can’t help but wonder if I did everything I could. Was there one more idea I could’ve gotten that might have tipped the balance? Something? Anything?”

“I don’t know, but I do know that we did do our best. We may have lost this fight, but there’ll be another.” Wryly, Coltle added, “There’s always another.”

Their contemplation was cut short by the scent of ozone and a soft electrical crackle. Looking up, they saw a spark of electricity blossom against the concrete ceiling centered over the table.

Get back!” Coltle yelled as he took his own advice. “The last thing we need is to get electrocuted!”

They shared uncertain glances as the spark grew in size and began to emit a more ominous crackling buzz. The scent of ozone was joined by that of melting insulation from the smoldering ceiling tiles, resulting in an acrid odor that stung the eyes and nose of those in the room.

“Shouldn’t we get out of here?” asked one of the nurses.

Whisper disagreed. “No… wait, look. It’s gone. What the hay was that? I think we’d best get Maintenance in here to check it before something really bad-”

The ceiling exploded into a whirling silver-blue vortex of energy, coring out a perfectly circular hole centered over the deceased foal. Screams of terror and pain that could not have come from any pony was heard from the other side of whatever it was; this was enough to send the medical team bolting for the door. As the doors swung closed behind the medical staff, a last burst of small metallic debris came through and peppered the table. Thankfully, the screams were cut off abruptly as the vortex disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, leaving only the evening’s rain to fall through the ceiling.

Fire alarms began to flash and klaxons began to howl, adding greatly to the chaos that was rapidly consuming the ward. This served only to irritate Dr. Coltle, who had happened to be the last pony out of the treatment room.

Foals! You’re all foals!” yelled the gravelly-voiced old earth pony doctor. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on! Our responsibility is to our patients!” the old stallion growled. “Whisper! You head downstairs and get on the logistics of finding more beds for this ward.” Seeing one of the interns who hadn’t fled, he yelled, “You! Chamomile! You go get the rest of the residents back up here and start evacuating the ward in an orderly fashion.”

The unicorn mare nodded and turned, running off towards where the residents had fled. “Right away, Doctor Coltle.”

Dr. Coltle watched her depart a second, and then shook his head. “Amazing. She’s got more stones than the boys do, put together. Least I know who to make Chief Resident, now.” He turned to the chaos and with the expertise of a long life having served as Chief Medical Officer in the Royal Equestrian Guards, started making extremely short work of the situation.

Under his watchful eye, order was restored with almost as much rapidity as it had been lost. All the ambulatory patients had been escorted to another ward, and the more critical ones had been wheeled off. The ward was evacuated except for himself, Chamomile, and two orderlies that had come back up from another floor to see if more help was needed.

“Alright, that should be it,” Dr. Coltle said with a satisfied nod. “We’re done. Let’s head downstairs and see about settling things down.”

 The doors to all the stairwells burst open, disgorging squads of golden-armored guardsponies, all of whom were storming towards them.

Hearing a soft squeak from Chamomile, Dr. Coltle whispered softly, “Deep breath. Don’t worry about them. I can handle it.”

One of the guards had a red crest on his helmet, Dr. Coltle noted, placing him at the rank of Captain. This stallion came over and saluted. “General Coltle,” the stallion said formally, despite his grin. “Causing trouble even in your dotage, eh?”

“Now that voice, I know,” grumbled Doctor Coltle. “They finally screwed up and promoted you to Captain, eh, Cobalt?”

“Well, it’s your own fault, you old coot. That last glowing fitness report you sent over to the Board certainly made it easy. But aside from all that, what’s the situation?”

“We’re fine, Captain,” Dr. Coltle replied. “The staff that witnessed the event are down below seeing to the patients. From what little I’ve seen, it was probably an explosion due to magical interaction, or maybe chemical. I’ve been warning these idiots to be more careful in…”

Captain Cobalt shook his head. “It wasn’t from inside, General. Let me tell you what little I know. It was a beam of energy the likes of which we’d never seen before; the instant it lit up your roof, the Canterlot defensive spells were tripped. That beam blew right through the shielding and simply detonated seven of the ten arcane crystals that powered them while fracturing the other three. Canterlot is utterly defenseless; that’s why we were activated. General, this is the first full-scale military mobilization Equestria has seen since the King and Queen departed some twenty five hundred years ago. We don’t know if this was an attack, or what. All the Grand Magus was able to tell us is that whatever that thing was, it was not magical. Aside from that, we’re clueless.”

“How in the name of Luna’s buttocks did that happen?” For the first time in memory, Doctor Coltle was actually shocked, and slightly scared. “Why are you here and not getting the Princesses out of Canterlot?”

“Because the Princesses can’t find anything wrong. Princess Luna is being moved to a fallback location in Ponyville with two companies of Royal Guard. Princess Celestia has the entire staff from the Gifted Unicorn Academy working on regenerating the shielding. She herself detected no invasion, and no further ‘events’.  She authorized the full activation of Royal Guard and reserves, assigning a division to secure Canterlot itself and two companies to secure the hospital.”

Coltle shook his head. “There’s nothing to secure, Captain. Aside from blowing the hay out of my roof, absolutely nothing is going on over here. We’ve no casualties, just structural damage.”

The two stallions continued to talk, but Chamomile began paying attention to something else entirely. She could’ve sworn she’d heard something hit the floor a moment ago in a room that by rights should have been silent and empty. Quietly walking away so as to not disturb anypony, she put her ear to the door of the treatment room. Something was moving around in there. Carefully, Chamomile nosed the door open and peeked inside, grimacing at the destruction therein. Spotting something, she stepped inside, quietly letting the door close behind her.

Treatment room three was an unmitigated disaster. A perfectly circular hole about two or three lengths wide had been bored through the ceiling, allowing the rain to come in and soak everything. There was oddly shaped metallic debris scattered all over the room, with some of it still glowing with heat and hissing when the patter of rain splashed upon it.

Perhaps most notable of all was that the table in the center of the room, which should have supported a recently deceased foal, was empty. The thump that Chamomile had heard was the foal sliding off of the table. That foal, rather than being deceased, was wrapped in a sheet against the rain and sitting in a corner watching her intently.

Smiling gently, Chamomile slowly walked towards the poor thing, who hunched down, and folded his ears back.

“Shh. It’s okay, little one. I won’t hurt you,” Chamomile said, pausing a moment to try and look a bit less threatening.

While he didn’t reply, the foal did lift his head up a bit, swiveling his ears back and forth as he listened to her. It was strange, almost as if he couldn’t understand her.

Advancing a little closer, Chamomile noticed that the sheet was doing far more harm than good in keeping him warm and dry; the linen was completely soaked and the foal was shivering underneath it. Despite that, he was unwilling to leave that spot, protecting three small objects that lay between his forelegs.

The foal’s eyes welled up with tears, and his ears folded back as he looked down to those small scraps of metal. Looking up at her, the foal nudged one of the shards to the side.  With surprising delicacy, he tapped it with a hoof, then rested the hoof to his chest. Somehow, his eyes softened still further as tears ran down his muzzle.

When Chamomile nodded, the foal then tapped the other bits of metal and then to the hole in the ceiling. He nudged the three pieces of metal together, and though they didn’t really fit any longer, it was rather obvious that not only should they fit, that when they did a heart shaped object would be formed. Smiling sadly up at her, Storm folded his ears back and then rested his chin upon the melted heart.

Chamomile understood. Nodding, she turned and went over to a supply cabinet, withdrawing a waterproof warming blanket. She used her telekinesis to pull the sodden sheet from the foal, who was shivering quite badly as the evening grew cooler. The foal looked at her and smiled gratefully as she wrapped the blanket around him and activated the warming charm.

His immediate needs tended to, Chamomile left the foal under the blanket and went to speak to Dr. Coltle and the guard Captain. Nosing open the door, Chamomile poked her head out into the corridor. “Excuse me, Sirs. But we have a little bit of a problem.”

“What sort of problem?” Dr. Coltle and the Captain asked simultaneously. Both were, after all, used to being in charge of any given situation. The two stallions shared a grin before turning back to Chamomile.

“Somepony needs to be sent back to medical school and learn how to take a pulse, sir.”

A dangerous expression crossed Dr. Coltle’s muzzle. “What. Did. You. Say?” Coltle demanded, eyes sparking with wrath. “I’ll have you know, resident Chamomile, that I took that foal’s pulse myself.”

“Well, you might just want to check it again, Doctor, because that foal is very much alive and is currently resting under the blanket. Also, the foal appears to be nearly totally aphasic. He doesn’t understand spoken language. He can’t speak. But he is mobile, and he is very much alive.”

“Aphasic… brain damage?” Dr. Coltle said, shocked.

“It… seems so, Doctor.” A loud snore came from behind her, and she stifled a soft giggle. “Well, he WAS fully conscious before falling asleep. His eyes and ears tracked properly, and he could certainly hear me. He has trouble walking… he can, but must be unrealistically careful about it. Perhaps it is just a transient ischemic attack.” At the Captain’s lost look, Chamomile clarified. “A temporary stroke. It’s a brief deprivation of blood to the brain. Something that will clear up on its own, as well.”


“The question now is, of course, what next?” the Captain asked. “We’ve got to do something with him.”

“And with me,” Coltle spat, anger and derision in his voice. “If that colt has brain damage because of my incompetence...”

Turning to Chamomile, Dr. Coltle forced himself to calm down. “You’ve already got chief resident in the bag, but there’s more to the position than ability in medicine and leadership; there’s also politics. Tell me, what do you recommend?”

“That’s easy.” Chamomile shrugged. “The Captain was dispatched here in command of two companies of soldiers on the authority of Princess Celestia, and not the Council of Lords. Therefore, legally and politically, the report should go directly to her. She’ll want very much to speak with the foal, I’m certain. He had a ringside seat to whatever happened in there.

“In the meantime, he is our patient once again. We can’t leave him in there; he will get sick from the cold and rain despite the blanket. We can begin the process of assessing the true extent of the damage, if any, once he’s settled in.”

“Cobalt, if you would be so kind, pass the word directly to Princess Celestia or Princess Luna about the foal’s survival. She’ll decide when… and if… the Magi get their turn to talk to him.” Coltle shook his head dismissively. “Assuming they don’t set themselves or something else on fire before. Also, if you could put in for a Royal Investigation, I’d appreciate it. I’ll work with your investigators and put them in contact with our own internal affairs staff.”

Captain Cobalt nodded. “I’m on it, General. The guards will remain on station here, until the Princess orders their withdrawal. That likely won’t happen for a few weeks; she’s got to let the Magi have their way. Investigations, interviews, that sort of thing.” He grinned, shaking his head to interrupt Doctor Coltle before he could say anything more. “Don’t worry. The report and recommendation will be done in private. The Magi wouldn’t hurt the foal, but the Princess definitely has the more delicate touch.”

“Heh. Good. Knew there was a reason I let my senility get the better of me when I recommended your promotion. Now get the hay out of my hospital,” Coltle grumbled, with an amused glint in his eyes.

The Captain departed with a half-salute and a laugh as the doors closed behind him.

“Alright. You’re two for two, Chamomile. What’s next?”

“Besides getting a pay raise?” Chamomile said with a cheeky grin. When she received the obligatory negative snort and laugh in reply, she continued. “I’d recommend the pediatric ward. It’s brightly colored, well lit. It has a wide-open floor plan and a gorgeous view of Canterlot, so he’d not feel boxed in. He’d have plenty of exposure to other foals, and perhaps a good bit of play would help him recover more quickly.”

Coltle nodded. “Toss in some physical therapy so his flight muscles don’t atrophy, and you’ve a solid idea.” He chewed his lower lip a moment. “He’d recognize you, Chamomile. I’d like you to transfer to Pediatrics for a while. Maybe a familiar face will help.”

“Might I recommend a pediatric ketamine dose, so he doesn’t panic when we wheel him over? Probably would help him to make certain he gets a good, long sleep. He fell asleep under a warming blanket in a room with a hole blown through the roof; he’ll wake up in a soft bed, brightly colored, and warm,” Chamomile suggested, looking in on the foal.

“Good idea. I’ll get you the dart and have the other nurses prep a bed for our guest.”

The ketamine arrived in short order and Chamomile snuck back into the room; since he was still sleeping, it was easy to jab him in the rump with the dart. The foal didn’t even have enough time to wake up; he  just made a few sleepy noises and softly kicked his hind-leg before the ketamine made sure he went to –and stayed- asleep for at least three hours.

Once Chamomile was certain that the little one was out like a light, she levitated him onto a gurney and covered him again with the warming blanket. Knowing how important it was to him, she picked up and put the charm he valued so much on the gurney next to him so it’d be there when he finally awoke; it’s presence undoubtedly would soothe him. After making sure Storm was snug and secure on the gurney, she wheeled him through the hallway and onto a patient elevator, selecting the stop for the pediatric ward.

Protocols had the temperature and humidity in Pediatrics set higher than the adult wards since foals needed the warmth. One of the other nurses had drawn a bath for the colt; that was good thinking, for he was still soaking wet and a trifle dirty from the debris. After a thorough warm bath with obligatory drying and grooming afterwards, the now clean colt was put to bed.

Instinctively, the foal curled up in a tight ball, his red tail draped over his nose. His little green wings fluttered slightly as Chamomile covered him with a fuzzy blanket. She spent a moment just watching him, a soft smile on her muzzle.

“Well… you certainly made one hay of an entrance. I wonder what you’re going to do for an encore?” Chamomile chuckled and gently nosed the foal’s ear. “Sleep well, Storm… I’ll see you in the morning when you wake up.”

Lightning Storm not only slept through the night, but straight through the next morning’s breakfast as well. While this didn’t sit well with Doctor Coltle and Chief Resident Chamomile, they decided that perhaps a touch more sleep trumped food. Besides, they could easily make up the lost meal at lunchtime.

Storm woke abruptly as a burst of nearby laughter startled him. He looked about in a panic until he found the remains of his charm. Sighing gustily, he nosed them, then looked around to find little ponies sitting in a semi-circle around the nurse He’d seen last night. There was also a group of four unicorns off to the side that spent their time glaring at the others. One in particular looked like bad news; he was a bit larger than the others, having a black mane and a shining white coat.

Fortunately, the ones enjoying themselves either were ignorant of the fact or simply didn’t care. They clustered about the nurse, who was somehow levitating a book in front of her, which she began to read from. He couldn’t understand the words of course, but he could see the pictures from where he was at with remarkable clarity. It had something to do with two winged and horned horses, arranged in a Daoist Yin-Yang symbol, if the pictures were any indication. Since the story held no draw to him; he sighed gustily and put his head back down, closing his eyes to lose himself in his own mind.

After an unknown period of time however, a gentle pressure on his shoulder interrupted Storm’s melancholy thoughts. He flinched a bit, jerking his head up, but found that the nurse had set a different book on his bed, and was gently wiping tears from his face and muzzle. He could see compassion in her eyes, an acknowledgement of his own hurt.

Chamomile smiled a bit, and gently nosed Lightning Storm’s ear. “Alright. I know you can’t understand me, but we’ll work on that right now. My name is Chamomile.” She tapped her chest with a hoof. “Chamomile.”

 “Ca..mile?” the foal tried, as if unused to speaking.

“Close! Try again. Cha. Mo. Mile,” she said with a bright smile.

 “Chamomile.” Moving his hoof to his own chest, the foal looked up at her expectantly.

“Light. Ning. Storm.” Touching her hoof to her chest again, she pushed the lesson home. “Chamomile.” She touched his hoof. “Lightning Storm.”

 “Light..ning Storm?” the foal said, ears folding back uncertainly.

“Well, we’re off to a good start! Now let’s teach you a little bit more, shall we?” Chamomile opened the book, propping it up on her hoof in front of him. “ ‘A’ is for apple. Ap. Ple. Can you say apple?”

“A… aphul,” Storm tried to say.

“Very close! A. Pull. Apple,” Chamomile encouraged.

“A. Apple.”

The language lesson was interrupted by cruel sounding laughter coming from the other side of the room. “Hah! He’s just a little foal. I bet he’s a retar.. no, Uncle Blueblood said I shouldn’t use that word in public. Even if it is true. I bet he’s… challenged. Just like that drooling idiot that staggers by Uncle’s mansion now and then.”

Prince Alabaster,” Chamomile growled. “You will maintain a civil tongue in your head. Relative of Prince Blueblood or not, you will not speak like that here. Is that understood?”

Smirking, Prince Alabaster gave a derisive bow. “By all means, Nurse Chamomile. My most sincere apologies for interrupting your special patient’s drooling lesson.” Alabaster’s ‘gang’ snickered from behind him.

Slamming the book shut with enough force to make Storm flinch, Chamomile rounded on the Prince, getting right up in his face. “Now you listen to me, you little haystack…”

“Ah, ah! Temper, Nurse! Uncle Blueblood is a patron of this hospital and it would be such a shame if I had to tell Uncle about the horrible treatment I received here. Why, he might just withdraw his patronage and then where would this place be?”

Fairly fuming, Chamomile gritted her teeth, though her eyes flashed with anger. “Now you listen to me, Alabaster. That colt died, do you hear me? He died and was nearly to the Summer-Lands before he came back here.”

“Then he is a retard because only a retard would want to come back here from there,” Prince Alabaster said, visibly shaken a bit. He turned and looked at his cronies. “Let’s leave the… special… colt to his lessons, shall we?” He turned and ignored Chamomile entirely and went back to doing whatever it was he had been.

One of these days, you little horseapple. One of these days you’ll get what’s coming to you. Shaking with rage, she walked back to Storm’s bed.

The language lesson continued at a swift enough pace where Chamomile began to have her doubts. Since his learning was unimpaired and his speech was not slurred, it was not following the usual path brain damage usually took. Something wasn’t adding up.

About thirty minutes later, an earth pony orderly came in, pushing a tray of food. Chamomile smiled and put the book away in order to start setting down the trays; one went in front of each bed. Once the food was distributed, she pushed the cart out into the hallway and left the foals to eat.

Sniffing at the offering and finding it not to his liking, Storm scrunched his muzzle and pushed the tray away a bit with a hoof. He was almost grateful as a loud burst of laughter erupted from the bed next to his. Turning, Storm discovered the troublemaker from earlier harassing the little pegasus filly with the bandaged wings on the bed next to his own.

“Oh dear. Glimmer, shall I get the nurse for you?” Alabaster asked in a kind tone of voice that was decidedly at odds with the glint in his eyes. “You seem to have spilled your lunch all over your bed. Just like breakfast.”

Glimmer didn’t answer. She just lowered her head in shame while picking the scattered burger from her blankets.

“Really. It wouldn’t be any trouble at all. Wouldn’t a nice clean bed and a fresh lunch be so much better? Why, I’d even help you by levitating it for you, just so you wouldn’t waste it. Again.” Alabaster smirked.

“N.. No thank you,” Glimmer said, barely able to keep back the tears.

“It won’t be any trouble at all, I assure you! See? Open wide!” Alabaster snickered as he levitated over one of his fries over to Glimmer and dangled it in front of her muzzle.

“P…please. Just leave me alone…” Glimmer begged, unable to hold the tears back any longer. “Please?”

Alabaster shrugged, but kept right on smirking. “As you wish. Just remember… I tried to help. I offered, but you turned me down.” He turned back to his own lunch, ignoring Glimmer completely.

Glimmer cried softly, until she felt a thump on her bed. She turned angrily, but blinked in surprise when she saw Storm looking at her, his eyes soft and understanding. He’d tried to put his tray on her bed but had dropped it, scattering most of the fries and vegetable burger onto her covers.

“H… Hey!” Glimmer said, sniffling. “What are… you’re giving this to me?” Her eyes widened a bit.

Storm smiled a bit, then walked to the far side of the girl’s bed and sat there, making sure that he was between her and Alabaster.

“So the commoner decides to help? I don’t know why you bothered to try, seeing as you made the mess even worse,” Alabaster chuckled.

Lightning Storm simply sat there, staring at him; slowly mantling his wings albeit in little fits and starts as he tried to get the muscle coordination right. His eyes focused on the colt with a steady and even gaze.

Not getting any reaction was tantamount to a hoof to the face to Alabaster, though. “Really. You should know better than that.” He folded his ears back and put his nose a fraction of an inch away from. “Explain precisely why I shouldn’t call for the doctor and have you dealt with appropriately.

Storm narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth. Instinctively, his wings spread and his head lowered just a smidge.

Alabaster’s horn began to glow, and a sneer spread across his muzzle. “I am so going to enjoy this,” he whispered. “I’ll teach you to ignore me…”

“What in the name of the Sister Princesses is going on in here?” Chamomile demanded, stepping into the room from the hallway.

Quickly extinguishing his horn, Alabaster affected an air of personal injury and affront. “He threatened me! This barbarian threatened to attack me!”

That’s not true!” Glimmer yelled, which caused Storm to flinch. “He didn’t…”

“Glimmer. Please be quiet a moment. I will ask you what happened after I hear from him,” Chamomile said patiently. “Please, Prince Alabaster, do continue,” Chamomile said, keeping her tone even and reasonable.

“Well! This is a pleasant surprise, Nurse! But yes, this ruffian threatened to attack me! I have witnesses!” Alabaster said, smugly.

Chamomile turned to the three unicorns standing behind Alabaster. “Is this true?” When they nodded in agreement, Chamomile sighed. “I see. Prince Alabaster, I will return straight away with Doctor Coltle. I’m sure he will deal with this appropriately.” She turned and left the room.

“Oh, this is fantastic, you retard! I don’t even have to beat you down; Coltle will do it for me!” Alabaster laughed, turning his back on Storm and walking back to the corner where his friends were waiting.

Lightning Storm simply turned and walked unsteadily back to his bed, flopping down on it with a gusty sigh.

Two minutes later, Doctor Coltle came in with fury in his eyes, but somehow managed to keep an even tone of voice. “Prince Alabaster. Nurse Chamomile tells me that you have an issue I need to address?”

“Indeed, Doctor Coltle. I was just accosted and threatened by that foal, there. Lightning Storm, I believe his name was,” Alabaster said, surprisingly politely.

Coltle arched an eyebrow. “He did, did he? Well, I can’t have that, now can I? Your uncle is always one to ask for clarity and I would surely be remiss in not following his example, wouldn’t you say? So, why don’t you tell me precisely how he threatened you?”

“Of course, Doctor Coltle. That is a most reasonable idea,” Alabaster said, buttering the commoner up as Uncle had been teaching him. “He physically imposed himself between myself and Glimmer when I was only trying to be friendly. He verbally threatened me to stay away from her.”

“Verbally threatened you?” Coltle arched an eyebrow and flicked his glance to Alabaster’s friends. “Did you three see and hear this? Is this accurate?”

When they nodded, Coltle walked over to Glimmer’s bed. “Now then, Glimmer. What did you want to say?”

Glimmer lifted her muzzle and nodded. “He didn’t say a word, I promise!” she said earnestly.

Coltle gently ruffled her mane with a hoof, and his muzzle split with a smile. “I know he didn’t. That’s why I didn’t want you to say anything. If you had, then Prince Alabaster might have realized his mistake.”

Excuse me!” Alabaster said, affronted.

Calmly, Doctor Coltle lifted his head and glanced over in the Prince’s direction. In a dangerously cool tone of voice he said softly, “Prince Alabaster, if I may, I’d ask that you sit down and be quiet. ”

Turning back to Glimmer, he smiled again. “I know Lightning Storm hasn’t said a word, sweetheart. Because he can’t.”

“You mean…” Glimmer gasped, covering her mouth with a hoof.

Prince Alabaster paled, realizing now that he’d truly stepped in it this time.

“That’s right. That’s why he’s here. Because of the kind of hurt he’s been through, he can’t talk. If you’d said that he hadn’t said a word, that idiot there might not have done what he did. You’re a big girl and have been to school. Tell me, did you ever cover Equestrian law at all?”

Wide-eyed, Glimmer nodded. “Yessir!”

“Do you know what ‘false accusations’ and ‘bearing false witness’ means?” Coltle asked, slowly grinning.

“Um… it means that they lied to you?” Glimmer asked, biting her lower lip.

“Yes it does. It means that Alabaster lied when he said that Lightning Storm did something. That’s ‘false accusations’. When his friends went along with him? That’s ‘bearing false witness’. That’s almost as bad as the other one,” Coltle said. “Chamomile? There’s a squad of Royal Guard down at the end of the hallway. Could you ask them to come in here for a moment?”

With an absolutely evil grin and an ‘I told you so’ spark in her eyes as she glared at a visibly pale Alabaster. “My pleasure, Doctor Coltle. I’ll be right back.”

“R... Royal Guards? What happens now?” Glimmer began to tremble, but Dr. Coltle gently nosed her ear.

“Well, that depends on you, sweetheart.” Coltle leaned in and whispered to her for a minute.

When the Royal Guards came in, the squad leader snapped a salute. “General Coltle! I was told you needed us, Sir?”

“I do indeed, Corporal. Little Glimmer here has something she would like to say.” Doctor Coltle stood up and gestured to Glimmer.

The Corporal smiled down to her, eyes warm. “Yes, Miss? How might I help you?”

Blushing, Glimmer fidgeted a bit, but looked up at the stallion as best she could. After glancing at Alabaster, who by this time had managed to grasp the severity of the situation and was sweating slightly, she began to speak.

“Prince Alabaster,” Glimmer said in a quiet, but steady voice. “You are under arrest for... for…” she scrunched her eyes a moment then blinked. “Oh yeah! You are under arrest for making false accusations. Your friends are under arrest for bearing false… um…” She looked at the Corporal who had arched an eyebrow and was now looking at the Prince. “Sir? What’s the word when somepony sees something?”

“I believe, Miss Glimmer, that the word you’re looking for is ‘witness’,” the Corporal supplied.

“That’s it! Thanks!” Glimmer beamed up at him again, then turned back to Alabaster’s group. “Your friends are under arrest for bearing false witness.”

“Those are heavy charges, Miss. Did anypony else see this?”

“I did, Corporal,” Doctor Coltle answered. “Prince Alabaster even confirmed to me that Lightning Storm verbally threatened him… and the colt can’t talk.”

“That seems pretty cut and dried then, General.” In a far less polite tone of voice, the Corporal rounded on Alabaster and his cronies. “You four are hereby placed under arrest for the previously mentioned charges. You will be brought to Juvenile Hall, and your parents and or relatives will be notified. Your names will be entered into the official record, and due to your royal lineage, the Princess will be notified. Come with us, now!”

Alabaster and his friends were marched out of the room straight away by the guards but Captain Cobalt remained. After they had been led into the hallway, Cobalt grinned. “Bearing false witness, Coltle? On something like this?”

“You know as well as I do that even if the charges were legitimate that knothead Blueblood would actually get them out of trouble. As it is, he’ll have to head to Juvenile Hall and sign them out after hearing what they did. They won’t be in trouble from US, but I bet Blueblood will have a word or two about it!”

Cobalt laughed softly and nodded. “Who knows? Might scare the brat straight. Anyway, I’d best be about it.” He exited, linking back up with his squad and leading the foals to Juvenile.

“Glimmer, I am very proud of you,” Chamomile said with a soft, gentle nuzzle to Glimmer’s ear. “That was a very good thing you did.”

Her stomach growling audibly, Glimmer squeaked and blushed. “Sorry, Miss Chamomile. I spilled my lunch again, I’m sorry. Storm gave me his, but he spilled it on my bed!”

The fries had long gone cold, and the burger was obviously somewhat worse for wear. Chamomile grinned and ruffled Glimmer’s mane. “Heh. I’ll get you some more lunch. For him, too.” She gestured over to Storm, who started to snore.

“That colt,” Chamomile shook her head with an amused grin. “Glimmer, did he have any lunch at all? Anything to eat or drink?”

Glimmer shook her head. “No, Ma’am. He gave it all to me, or tried to.”

Chamomile frowned to herself. That meant the foal has gone without food or water for almost a day. While it was good he was sleeping well, she was still going to have to put an IV in to prevent dehydration and give him a little bit of nutrition. If the foal didn’t eat dinner though, Coltle would be coming for the both of them.

Storm didn’t even wake up when Chamomile started the IV line.

Having seen him sleep through another story reading and a coloring activity, Glimmer began to wonder if Storm was going to wake up at all. She was supposed to be taking her before-dinner nap, but maybe this one time she wouldn’t get into trouble for it. She quietly slipped out of her bed and carefully walked over to Storm’s.

“Pssst… hey, Storm! Storm, are you awake?” Glimmer whispered, putting her muzzle right by his ear. “Hey, Storm? You’re shivering. Are you cold? Do you want another blanket?”

Glimmer didn’t understand why Storm would be cold, since the room was already rather cozy. Still, Storm had tried to give her his lunch and the least she could do is lend him a blanket! She dragged hers over and tugged it on top of him, but it didn’t seem to help.

“Maybe if I get him another blanket from Miss Chamomile he’ll be warm enough…” Glimmer whispered to herself as she walked over to the door and nosed it open, looking down the hallway in both directions. Thinking she saw her, she headed down the hall.

“Miss Chamomile? Miss Chamomile!” Glimmer called out.

“Glimmer! What are you doing out of bed, young lady?” a gravelly voice said with an odd hint of compassion.

“I was looking for Miss Chamomile, Sir. Something’s wrong with Lightning Storm. He won’t stop shivering even after I gave him my blanket. Can I have another one, please?”

“Of course, sweetheart. Let’s get you back to bed, okay?”

Doctor Coltle tucked Glimmer in, but then turned his attention to Storm. Deftly, he flipped the covers back and gaped at what he saw; the foal’s ribs were showing and that simply shouldn’t be. Even a pegasus didn’t have that fast a metabolism. Disbelieving what his eyes told him, Coltle rested his hoof over the femoral artery, which not only woke the foal up, but also revealed a pulse that was easily forty percent faster than it ought to be.

Coltle looked down at Storm apologetically. “Sorry, little guy. I’m no unicorn and have to do things the old-fashioned way. Old, but effective… like me.” He wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around Storm’s leg, taking a reading.

“Storm, what are you doing?” Coltle muttered. “Heart rate high, blood pressure high enough that I’m surprised you haven’t stroked out yet… and you’re hot to the touch, too. Let me get your temperature.”

When Coltle produced what was obviously a glass thermometer, he found himself looking down at one very unhappy foal. “What’s the problem now?” he sighed. Taking a step forward only resulted in Storm taking a hesitant and very cautious step backwards.

Storm, for his part, made his concern and position abundantly clear; he fixed Coltle with a glare that could have shredded plate steel, and sat down.

Realization came quickly to Doctor Coltle; a glance at the now seated foal and the fixed gaze at the thermometer left little room for misinterpretation.

With absolute mischief in his eyes, Dr. Coltle laughed and shook his head. “What the hay do you think we are, barbarians? Just don’t bite the damn thing.” He opened his mouth and gestured to under his tongue.

Storm, for his part, had the good grace to cough a bit and grin sheepishly. He opened his muzzle and took the thermometer under his tongue… but remained seated just the same.

“Mm. Temperature’s high too,” Coltle sighed. “Now how the hay am I supposed to convince you to let me draw blood?”

After a little bit of pantomiming that seemed more interpretive dance than anything else, Storm seemed to catch on to the idea of the blood draw. The vial was taken down to the laboratory while Dr. Coltle saw to getting dinner delivered a touch early.

Foals are almost always hungry, so there were no complaints. Trays piled high with pasta, bread, and side-salad were placed in front of each occupant of every bed including a somewhat stubborn Storm.

“I don’t understand,” Chamomile said, frustrated. “He’s clearly hungry. Starving, literally. He just won’t eat. I know hospital food isn’t that great, but it isn’t that bad! He’s got to be the pickiest eater in all of Equestria!”

“Could be, could be.” Addressing Storm again, Doctor Coltle pointed at the plates of dinner and then at Storm. “Eat it. Dinner.” He pantomimed eating it, and then back again at the food and at Storm.

Leaning forward, Storm sniffed at it. He snorted and stuck his tongue out and shook his head vigorously.

This did not sit well with either Chamomile or Doctor Coltle. At all. Coltle sat down by the end of Storm’s bed, and looked him directly in the eyes. “Now you look here, Storm. You are going to eat that tonight. There are two ways for me to get that food into you. The normal way like every other pony, and the way that will only be mildly less unpleasant for me than it will be for you.”

Storm simply glared at Doctor Coltle, with an unwavering gaze. The strange thing was that to Coltle, it didn’t seem like the gaze of an adolescent. There was something else in those eyes; a depth of experience and knowledge that belied his age. Well, Coltle could play that game too. He leveled his gaze and stared at Storm. It was quite obvious to Chamomile that neither of them intended to blink.

Fortunately, Glimmer giggled. “Doctor, you’re silly!” she proclaimed. “Didn’t you say he couldn’t understand?” Glimmer set her plate in front of Storm’s, and then flopped onto his bed, facing him. “Maybe he just wants company!”

Glimmer took a bite of her dinner, and then looked at Storm who was watching her now, instead of Doctor Coltle. She then swallowed the mouthful, watching Storm. When Storm didn’t start eating and her belly let out a loud rumble of complaint, she stared at him, her eyes widening and her lower lip trembling. When Storm still wouldn’t eat, she sniffled a bit and her eyes started brimming with tears.

With a sigh, Storm lifted his head and gently nosed Glimmer’s cheek, then turned to his own supper, albeit reluctantly, and began to eat it. Glimmer rewarded him for taking a bite with a smile warm enough to melt ice.

Under the watchful eyes of Glimmer (as well as Coltle and Chamomile), he took a tentative bite of the spaghetti-like thing. Every time he sought to stop, she stopped too and simply stared at him again until he started eating again. Eventually, the dinner had been finished, much to everypony’s surprise.

Glimmer beamed at Storm, and that smile almost made her non-verbal guilt trip worth it. Stomach gurgling in contentment, Glimmer yawned and curled up at Storm’s side. Within moments, she was sound asleep and snoring softly.

Captain Cobalt came in a few moments later, along with two other guards. Walking up to Coltle, he snapped a salute. “General?”

“What can I do for you, Captain?” Coltle said. “Is this about Alabaster and his friends from earlier?”

“No, sir. It’s about Princess Celestia. When she got the report from last night about that little guy,” Cobalt said, gesturing to Storm who was watching them curiously, “she not only cancelled all her other meetings for the rest of the night, but also called in the Grand Magus himself… and his wife. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her want to talk to anypony that much since Princess Luna came back from exile. She’s on her way up, now.”

Dr. Coltle snorted. “You mean to tell me that Princess Celestia wants to talk to that colt?” He chuckled and shook his head disbelievingly. “How? He doesn’t know enough words yet to complete a sentence, let alone carry on a conversation with the Princess.”

“All I know, General, is that three of the most powerful mages in all of Equestria are on their way up even as we speak, and that little guy is the one they’re very interested in meeting.”

(to be continued)

Dr. Coltle shook his head. “Captain, meeting Lightning Storm is certainly their prerogative, but my responsibility is to the patients within this room. It is my professional opinion that having the Princess interview the foal here would be disruptive to the medical treatment of the other children. Therefore, we’ll find somewhere else for them to meet.”

“Why not one of the medically equipped privacy suites, Doctor?” Chamomile asked. “They’re comparably equipped to a trauma unit, and there are only two entrances. Security would be good for the Princess and Magus.”

“Why, Chamomile!” Dr. Coltle said with a slow smirk. “I didn’t know you had it in you. Well done. Well done, indeed.”

“I’m certain I have no idea what you are talking about,” Chamomile replied primly.

Captain Cobalt looked at Chamomile then back at Dr. Coltle.  He folded one of his ears half down, arching an eyebrow, and stated simply, “I don’t get it.”

“Hospital politics, Captain,” Coltle said as his smirk evolved into a full grin. “Prince Blueblood is the primary patron of this hospital. One of his conditions of said patronage was that we construct three privacy suites: one in each portion of the hospital. There’s one in the Adult ward, one here in Pediatrics, and one in Neo-natal and they were not to be used except on his express permission. Chamomile here just yanked his tail but good. There’s no way Blueblood would dare refuse use of the room to Princess Celestia or the Grand Magus since the Magus outranks him fairly substantially.”

“Hmph,” was the only response Chamomile deigned to give as Cobalt looked at her with amusement.

“All right, then. I’ll go get them settled in the privacy suite,” Cobalt said with a chuckle. “I’ll see you two shortly.” The guard turned and headed out, moving as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the sleeping foals.

“Wake up, Glimmer… that’s my girl, wake up,” Coltle said softly, gently nosing at the sleepy filly’s ear.

With only a little bit of fussing, Glimmer was moved back into her own bed and tucked back in. She was asleep so quickly, it was doubtful she’d even remember having been moved in the first place.

Chamomile looked at Coltle with a mix of bemusement and affection. “I really don’t understand you, Doctor. On the one hoof, you’re crotchety and cantankerous. On the other, you’re downright sweet and protective.”

“Heh. It’s the adults, Chamomile,” Coltle answered as he finished tucking in Glimmer. “The adults should know better. Generally, they do know better but screw up anyway and wind up here. The foals don’t know better yet. They’re learning, and sometimes learning can hurt. Besides, Glimmer reminds me of my granddaughter,” he admitted in a moment of candor.

“You have a granddaughter?” Chamomile gasped with delight. “You’ve never mentioned her before!”

“Because I don’t have a granddaughter… anymore,” Coltle said, almost inaudibly. “It’s why I retired from the Guard and took a position here. I wasn’t there to help save my daughter or granddaughter after the accident, being off on deployment at the time. No… I wasn’t able to save my daughter or granddaughter. But I can save somepony else’s.” He cleared his throat and glanced over to Chamomile. “It’s also why I don’t suffer fools willingly. Too many don’t pay attention to the important things in life and because of that, they miss their grandchild’s last smile.”

Chamomile was silent for nearly a minute before she managed to whisper, “I’m sorry.” She walked over and gently rested a hoof on the old Stallion’s shoulder.

“Don’t be,” Coltle sighed sadly. “Besides, I should be apologizing to you.”

“For what?” Chamomile said in surprise. “You haven’t done anything, and you clearly needed to talk!”

“Oh, I’m not going to argue that,” Coltle said. “I did need to talk. No, I’m apologizing not for what I’ve done to you, but what I will be doing to you.”

“What… will that be?” Chamomile asked, with no small amount of concern.

“You, Chamomile, remind me of my daughter. She had your courage, your fearlessness, and your competence. I am going to be hard on you, girl, because I will see that you realize your potential. You can easily be one of the greatest doctors of your time, and you will not squander that opportunity under my watch.” Coltle nodded sharply. “Now, get Storm ready. I’ll meet you there.” He turned and walked slowly to the door.

“Doctor? Are you alright?” Chamomile asked, quiet worry in her voice. She never would have guessed that the seemingly invulnerable Doctor Coltle was so fragile, deep down.

“Fine, fine. Don’t worry about me, Chamomile.” Coltle smiled slightly. “I just need a minute in my office to regain my composure. I’ll meet you there soon.” Coltle stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him, leaving Chamomile to stare for several minutes at the door in surprised silence.

“Here we are, Princess,” Captain Cobalt said as he opened the door to the private room. He held the door as Princess Celestia entered, followed by the Grand Magus and his wife.

“Thank you, Captain. That will be all. Please wait outside, and let us know when the foal has arrived,” Celestia said with a smile.

“Of course, Your Majesty.” Cobalt quietly closed the door behind him.

The privacy room itself looked like a larger version of a trauma room. There was a large and comfortable looking treatment bed, with an entire bank of medical equipment right beside it. What set it apart was that the room had a well-appointed meeting area off to the side of the bed, with a large circular table and plenty of adult-sized seating around three sides of it.  Those seated at the table would then have an unobstructed view of the bed.

Princess Celestia took a moment to consider the two unicorns she had arrive with. She had known the Grand Magus, Lost Cause, for a bit longer than his wife. His mane, once a violent shade of orange, had faded to grey, but his coat was still the same dusty brown it had always been. Though they now were behind gold-rimmed glasses, his green eyes were as observant as the first day Celestia had met him. He had the air of a distracted scholar about him, and she occasionally found herself wondering if this was how Twilight Sparkle might turn out in a few decades.

The Magus’ wife, Daylight Shade, was a few years younger than her husband. Rumor had it—and Celestia had been able to verify it was true— that the blue-maned and white-coated unicorn mare had met her husband in the Library of Canterlot when she had been a Teacher’s Assistant. Lost Cause had actually managed to get lost in the stacks of books, and Daylight Shade had gone in to help him find his way back out again.

Despite the ignominious start, the two had hit it off brilliantly, and Celestia herself had performed the marriage ceremony some fifty years ago. She well remembered the day when she’d appointed Lost Cause to the post of Grand Magus, and the ceremony that had followed. Naturally, he had appointed his wife to the position of his assistant; it helped that they were as powerful as each other, albeit in different spheres of magic. Where the Magus had excelled in abjuration, transmutation, and conjuration, his wife had been blessed with the exceedingly rare gift of the magic of the mind. She was second to none with regards to illusions, emotions, memories and thoughts.

Celestia shook her head slightly to return her thoughts from the past to the present. “Thank you for coming, Lost Cause and Daylight Shade.”

“Quite welcome, Princess, quite welcome,” Daylight said with a grandmotherly smile. She might have been a fraction of Celestia’s age, but she was still old and rather treasured her carefully cultivated image of everypony’s grandmare. “Now, dear. Tell us how we can help.”

“I need your assurances that what I say does not leave this room,” Celestia stated flatly. When both the Grand Magus and his wife nodded, she continued. “It is believed by most ponies that when they die, either Luna or myself come to take their souls to the Summer-Lands. This is, in fact, the case.”

Lost Cause nodded his head. “Yes, Princess. I know.”

“… you know. How do you know?” Celestia said sternly, narrowing her eyes as she focused on her Grand Magus. “I have in fact made it a point not to spread that about.”

“Perhaps, Princess. Perhaps. But then, I am your Grand Magus. Part of my job is to know what happens around Canterlot, magically speaking at least.” He grinned, pushing his glasses up his muzzle. “Did you really think a spell such as you use to usher a soul to its rest would not leave a trace? Every time you take a soul, there’s the faintest little remnant attached to you or your sister. It’s how I’ve known when my former professors passed. You’d come back from delivering them to their rest, and I’d pick up the faint ripple as you crossed the border into Canterlot.”

 “I had no idea you kept such close tabs on me,” Celestia said, arching an eyebrow. “I do not know if I should be disturbed or not.”

“If I were you, I’d be more disturbed if he didn’t, Princess,” Daylight said with a smile. “After all, he’s supposed to look after all the magical goings on in Equestria. Putting up a screen around Canterlot is the least of what he should have done.”

“Princess, it’s also how I knew that what happened was not magical in nature,” Lost Cause said. “That beam, whatever it was, was anathema to magic. The shields literally warped and conformed to whatever it was. It was blunted slightly, but only slightly. Perhaps if our barrier had been raised, it might have done more. As it was, it seemed to merely take the edge off of it.”

“What then of Lightning Storm?” Celestia asked pointedly.

“Yes. Little Lightning Storm,” the Magus said, eyes closing for a moment before he met Celestia’s gaze steadily. “If there is magic that can restore the dead to life, then I do not know of it. If such magic existed, I’m not sure I’d want to know it. Such things are fraught with the potential for misuse and abuse. As old as I am, I do not consider myself wise enough to wield that power.”

“And yet something has not only brought that foal back to life, but has put a different soul in that body,” Celestia said with a gusty sigh. “There is a viable presence inside.”

“Princess, forgive me. This is not my area of expertise, but is it not possible that it’s an echo? A remnant of the soul that was there before?” Daylight Shade asked curiously.

“If only that were the case,” Celestia said with a slight smile. “But no, unfortunately. Such things have happened in the past when a soul feels it has business that must be completed before it moves on. Invariably, it has the full and complete memories of the pony it had been, before. Lightning Storm was far too young to have that degree of binding to a cause.”

“Then I am at a loss, Princess,” Lost Cause admitted frankly. “If it is not magic, then I do not know what it is.”

Celestia withdrew two vials filled with a silvery substance. “Tell me, Magus… what do you make of this?”

Lost Cause levitated one of the vials over to him, where he examined it closely. Turning the thing upside down, he made a non-committal noise. “Well, it’s not quicksilver. There’s nothing magical about it.” His expression sharpened a bit. “In fact, it isn’t precisely anti-magical, but it is at least passively resisting me.”

“Open the vial,” Celestia suggested. “Watch carefully.”

“Alright,” Lost Cause agreed. He magically popped the stopper and blinked as the silvery substance began to evaporate. Thin tendrils of mist wafted from the vial and faded away almost as soon as they cleared the neck. “My word!” he exclaimed. His horn flared, and he paid very close attention to the mist. “It’s purely elemental in nature! Iron, magnesium, phosphorous, carbon… not a single combination.” He turned his glance to Celestia. “Some of that is impossible, I’ll have you know. I might be a mage but I am up on my chemistry. Some of these elements cannot exist in this configuration. Oxygen, for example, is always paired at least with itself. What precisely was in this vial, Princess?”

“Three vials of blood were drawn from Lightning Storm today, for analysis. They were normal in appearance… at first. By the time they arrived at the lab, all three looked precisely as that one did.” Celestia sighed. “It is not natural. If it is not natural, and it is not magical, then it must be something else. It is that something else that concerns me. There is indeed an option other than magic.”

“And that is…?” Lost Cause asked, leaning forward with a gleam in his eyes.

Unable to resist, Celestia grinned a bit. “Goodness. Something you do not know, already? Then let me share an unwritten bit of Equestrian history.” Her eyes growing unfocused, Celestia seemed to stare off into the distance. “Have you ever wondered how we got to where we are today? The strange and eclectic mix of magic and very limited science that we have?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, Princess,” Daylight said. “Everything works as it should.”

“It was not always that way, you know,” Celestia said. A pained expression crossed her muzzle. “Three thousand years ago, you would turn on your oven, and something other than magic would make it heat.” Closing her eyes, she continued her story. “Three thousand years ago, when my parents were still present, Equestria stood at a crossroads. Choose one path, and Equestria would follow the path of magic. Had we chosen the other, we would have followed the path of something called ‘technology’.”

“What do you-?” Daylight started to ask before being interrupted by a raised hoof from Celestia.

“This is difficult for me to speak of. Please…  no interruptions.” Celestia inhaled deeply, then let it out in a long and calming sigh. “So. As I was saying, three thousand years ago, Equestria had a choice between technology and magic. King Helios and Queen Nebulae, my parents, consulted with the best and the brightest minds of the era about which direction to go.

“The scientists and the mages came together to discuss possibilities, probabilities, and ramifications. They lasted well over a month, so fine was their focus and thorough their analysis. It was decided that technology would mostly be abandoned, if it could not be adapted to magic. Ovens, for instance; that was easy. Magic heats them. But what of other things? What of non-magical ways to fly? Or non-magical ways to move a wagon or cart?”

“You… can do that?” Lost Cause asked, incredulously. “How would that even work? That doesn’t make sense!”

That, Magus, is precisely what I wish the ponies to believe.” Nodding firmly, Celestia drove home her point. “Back then, though, that capability was very close. It was decided that technology was too dangerous, and far too resource intensive. While even non-pegasus ponies could be made to fly, it took a lot of effort and material goods to make it happen. King Helios decreed that technology was to be abandoned, for the most part. The scientific community disbanded, and the scientists were heavily compensated and assisted in finding new lines of work.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Daylight said with a sigh. “Let me guess: not everypony went along with the edict?”

“You would be correct in that,” Celestia said, nodding. “For a decade, technology was slowly forgotten by most. There might be the occasional advance, but it was along approved lines… incandescent lighting, for instance. Better furnaces and warming techniques.” She gestured to the array of monitors and medical sensors. “Medical advances too; but instead of being technologically based, it was magic. That sort of thing goes on, to this day. There were two scientists, however… to be fair, they never agreed to the ban nor were they present to hear the decree. They teleported themselves out before the edict could be announced.

“Ten years after the edict, they were discovered. They had continued their research, and had made some form of breakthrough. Precisely what they had discovered, I do not know, since the King and Queen didn’t tell me. However, I do know that the scientists in question were given a choice; agree to the edict, or be banished from Equestria.”

“They chose banishment, didn’t they?” Lost Cause asked quietly, a haunted look in his eyes. “The scientists refused, and forced Helios to banish them. That couldn’t have been easy on your father or mother.”

“The decision caused them great emotional pain. Then one day, my mother locked her private study and departed with my father. Luna was still young, but I was old enough, they said, to take their place while they were away. Mother had done some research into the nature of the discovery the scientists had made before their banishment and realized that, if allowed to proceed unchecked, the technology could be used to return to Equestria despite the order of exile. They left to go deal with the situation; I suspect they hoped to bring the scientists back home. However, they never returned.”

“Dear, our Goddess and Princess you may be, but you do have emotions like the rest of us,” Daylight Shade said, softly. She rose, walking over to Princess Celestia and offering her a warm grandmotherly hug. “Right now, you’re fairly radiating fear that this is related.”

Goddess or not, Celestia was not above a hug when it was offered. “I am. The beam that blew the arcane crystals powering our shields was not magically based. It was not magic that returned Lightning Storm to life and placed a different soul inside. It was not magic that made the foal’s blood turn to silver and evaporate into its component elements. If it was not magic, then I believe it was technology… and technology far more advanced than what had those two scientists banished.”

 Daylight released the hug after a long minute and then fixed Celestia with a look. “Princess, if it is technology that brought him to us, what happens next?”

“Then I will give him the same choice my parents gave the scientists. He will either abandon all technological and scientific research, or be banished from Equestria,” Celestia said plainly.

Princess! He’s just a foal!” Daylight gasped in horror. “How could you?”

“Patience, my love. Patience.” Lost Cause smiled gently to his wife. “Do not be so quick to judge. Consider a moment; the body might be that of a foal, but there is no way to tell at the moment if the mind matches the body. If one looks at it a certain way, it is at least possible that the mind inhabiting the body of the foal might just be one of the scientists in question. If that were the case-”

Sighing, Daylight nodded. “Then the scientist would be in violation of the banishment and would have to be re-banished.” Her head shot up and she looked at Celestia, folding her ears back in sympathy. “If that was so, they might have some knowledge about your parents…”

“And how to bring them home,” Celestia agreed. “That is a slim possibility; it is far more likely that this is a random occurrence. But… I would be lying if I said I did not hold out some hope.” In a quiet voice, reminiscent of the younger mare she had been when her parents had departed, she whispered, “It has been so long.”

Daylight Shade gave Princess Celestia another hug, whether or not she wanted it. Fortunately, the Princess did want it, and Daylight did her best to comfort her sovereign. “Let’s not worry too much about that just yet, Princess. Lightning Storm will be here soon, I suspect, and then we can start to get to the bottom of this. Just… try to keep an open mind?”

“I promise, Daylight. I promise,” Celestia said with a more normal smile. “I banished Luna myself and have no wish to banish any pony ever again, if I can help it. I must keep the option open, however. There are circumstances that do warrant it.”

A few moments later, there was a polite knock on the door. Cobalt poked his nose in and said, “Princess? Lightning Storm is here. Shall I show him in?”

“Yes, thank you, Captain.” Celestia turned to the Magus and his wife and whispered softly, “So it begins.”

Lightning Storm walked into the room, albeit on very unsteady hooves. Doctor Coltle was right by his side to provide assistance should balance require it; having that shoulder to lean on prevented him from falling over at least once.

“Alright, let’s get you in bed,” Coltle said. Pediatric beds were arranged so that it was very easy for even an Earth pony to tuck a foal in; they had to be, since not all doctors were unicorns. He made sure that Storm was comfortable and propped up so that he could look over to the Princess and Magus before stepping over to the meeting area.

“Thank you, Doctor… that will be all for now,” Celestia said politely.

Lost Cause leaned over to Daylight Shade and whispered so only she could hear, “This ought to be interesting.”

“Princess, if I leave, Lightning Storm is coming with me,” Coltle stated, turning to look calmly into the eyes of his sovereign.

“Oh?” Celestia perked her ears up in curiosity. This was one of the reasons she treasured the Magus and his wife, as well as Doctor Coltle. They treated her with respect and deferred to her judgment if she made a proclamation, but she was as any other pony in every other situation. The feeling was refreshing. Most of the time.

“I know for a fact that you have not actually obtained a medical degree in the last thirty seconds. If you had, my signature would have adorned the diploma,” Coltle said firmly.

Lost Cause covered his muzzle with a hoof, and tried very hard to stifle the laughter that threatened to boil forth. It wasn’t easy; when Coltle got on a roll, he didn’t do things by half measures.

“Moreover!” Coltle said, raising a hoof to actually cut Princess Celestia off. Celestia sat back down, a slow grin spreading across her muzzle as the old doctor continued. “Moreover, Princess, with all due respect to Lady Daylight Shade, she married Lost Cause! Surely that would call her judgment into question, since he has the rather unpleasant habit of setting ponies on fire.”

Nearly doubled over with laughter, Lost Cause was barely able to levitate his glasses off and set them on the table. Tears streamed down his face, and he managed to gasp, “Once! I set you on fire once! Fifty years ago!”

“You set my flank on fire!” Coltle growled, eyes glinting with amusement. “You set my flank on fire as I was running to my graduation ceremony! I left a flaming trail from the barracks clear to the parade ground, a full mile long!”

Lost Cause was laughing so hard his were hurting. Even Princess Celestia was laughing, though not quite as hard as the Magus.

“Now, now,” Daylight said with a gentle and knowing smile. “The spell Lost used didn’t actually burn you. I also don’t recall any complaints when Jasmine applied a soothing ointment to said flank, my dear. It is your own fault for asking Lost to help you catch her attention.” Eyes glittering, she winked. “It did work, after all.”

“Oh, it worked alright. All eyes in Canterlot were glued to my flaming posterior!” Coltle said plaintively.

Celestia raised a hoof, which did little to mitigate the laughter, but did at least let her get a word in, edgewise. “All right, Doctor. You can stay and look after your patient. I think we have confused him enough as it is.” Celestia gestured to the foal, which happened to be watching them most warily.

“Perhaps we’ve kept him waiting long enough,” Daylight said as she smiled gently at the foal. “His emotions are fairly good, though he’s terribly confused and growing a trifle more scared with each passing moment.”

“Indeed,” Celestia agreed as she closed her eyes a moment and channeled magic through her horn. A wave of warmth projected forward and enveloped Lightning Storm for a moment, before gradually fading away. “There. Lightning Storm, can you understand me?”

Storm looked at the strange creature with the mane and tail that seemed to perpetually move for a moment before nodding slightly and answering. “I can, but I don’t know how good a sign it is that I can suddenly understand gibberish,” he said. “Makes me wonder if my mind hasn’t let go.”

Chuckling politely, Celestia shook her head. “It has not, though you cannot prove a negative. Would you like something to drink before we start talking?”

“He’d like a nutrient shake, Princess,” Doctor Coltle said.

“Ah… I was going to ask for a glass of water, actually,” Storm said as he turned to look at Doctor Coltle.

“And you’re going to get the shake anyway. You’re fur and bones, boy.” Coltle looked over and nodded at the door. When Chamomile poked her nose in, the shake was requested. With a nod, she disappeared back out the door.

“Now that that is settled, introductions are in order. I am Princess Celestia, ruler of the land of Equestria. You already know Doctor Coltle, your attending physician. Allow me to introduce my Grand Magus Lost Cause and his wife, Daylight Shade.”

Storm nodded to each of them in turn. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I wish that I had a name to give you in return, but I don’t remember very much at all. I seem to be called Lightning Storm, so that will do, I think. So, how is it that I can understand you, again?”

Lost Cause looked over to Storm, then to Celestia and his wife. “Storm, you seem to have little idea what magic is, and what it can do. With that in mind, it would be disingenuous of me not to explain a bit. My magic allows me to move things about, to summon things, and the like.” He punctuated his example by gently floating the newly delivered supplement shake over and placing it carefully between Storm’s fore-hooves.

Please tell me you can teach me to do that!”  Storm asked, awestruck.

“I’m afraid not, dear.” Daylight shook her head softly. “You’re not a unicorn like my husband and I. Magic is controlled through a unicorn’s horn. It’s not all bad, though.” She smiled and shrugged. “Give me a minute to explain how my magic works, and then I’ll tell you about your own.”

“Wait, I thought you said I didn’t have magic.” Storm tilted his head to the side in curiosity, one ear flopping down while the other cocked halfway in the silliest look of confusion.

“I’ll explain in a minute, I promise!” Daylight chuckled. When Storm settled back down, she continued. “Now, my magic is different than my husband’s. I can do many of the same things, but not as well. My specialty is the magic of the mind and is mainly emotional based. Don’t worry, I can’t read thoughts.”

“Well, that’s good,” Storm said as he chuckled. “Sometimes you might not want to read my thoughts. Now, you said something about my own magic? I thought you’d said that I didn’t have any.”

“Not like mine, no. You, dear, have wings. You can fly… which is something that I confess I do envy, from time to time,” Daylight said a bit wistfully. “I’ve always wanted to see the sunset from atop a cloud.”

“Fly? You’re kidding, right?” Storm looked over his shoulder and extended a wing to examine it. “There’s no way. There’s just no way. The physics don’t support it! These wings are far too short to generate anywhere near enough lift. It just…” Storm looked up to see Celestia, Daylight, and Lost grinning at him widely.  “It’s just magic, isn’t it?”

“Mmhmm. You’re lighter than you look too, but yes. That’s what a pegasus’s magic allows for,” Daylight said. “When you’re ready, you’ll be taught how to fly by one of the Royal Guards, I suspect. As it is, you’ll need to get acclimated to walking and build up your muscles before you’ll be ready to try flight.”

“You will get there, Lightning Storm,” Celestia assured him with a smile and a nod. “Let us now talk about what you were. What do you remember from last night?”

“Not much, Princess. I’m sorry. I remember waking up on the table, and that it raining. I knew I needed to find something that… I think I had dropped it? I’m not sure why it was important, but I do know I had to find it. It took a little bit, but I found it in the debris. Then I found a sheet to cover myself with, and tried to stay dry and warm. That’s when Chamomile came in and gave me a heated blanket.” Storm looked at the carrying pouch that Chamomile had given him.

Daylight looked over to Celestia and nodded slightly; the foal was telling the truth. He truly didn’t remember anything about how he got here.

“I do get the sense that your memories are there. Perhaps we can help you get them back,” Celestia said, rubbing her chin with a hoof.

“Ah, I think I have something to say about that,” Coltle said firmly. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do anything until he’s regained some strength, and I’m not kidding around this time. This foal’s metabolism is through the roof as it is. Take a look at him: he’s skinny as a stick! I’ll assume you have already seen the results of the blood I drew?”

“I’m going to agree with him,” Daylight said, looking at Storm with concern and no small amount of pity in her eyes. “I don’t think we should force this just yet. I say let the body heal, and the mind shall follow at its own pace.”

“You all seem to be debating my fate, just now,” Storm interrupted.  “I don’t suppose it’d be too much an imposition to ask exactly what you’re intending to do with me, if not get my memories back?” He smiled a bit wanly. “Seeing as how I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping tonight.”

“Do not worry, little Storm,” Celestia said with a warm smile. “You are still in need of medical care, after all. I also want you close at hoof so that I might keep a personal eye on you until we get your situation sorted out. I will, if it is agreeable to your doctor, give you a home at the Royal Canterlot Orphanage for the time being. It is attached directly to the castle itself, so I can be nearby. We will arrange for a tutor to assist you until you are ready to join a proper classroom. How does that sound?”

“Princess, that sounds wonderful. Thank you so very much,” Storm answered, with a relieved smile. “As silly as this might sound, thank you. I hope I can prove myself useful somehow.”

“It is not silly at all, Storm, but rather the sign of a good heart.” Celestia turned to Doctor Coltle. “Doctor? If you would kindly take Lightning Storm to his room and get him ready to go, assuming he is up to the trip? I think I would prefer to get him settled in where things are a little less… eventful.”

“Understood, Princess. He’s still my patient though,” Coltle said, somewhat possessively. “He’s up for the trip, if it’s by chariot. He’s not quite able to walk that far just yet, and I’d rather he not expend the energy to try.”

“That will be fine, Doctor. Get him ready to go. I would like to have him at the orphanage tonight.”

“Let’s go, Storm.” Doctor Coltle stood by the foal’s side as he struggled up to his hooves. “Take your time, and don’t worry about it. Balance and strength will come with practice.”

Silence fell as Doctor Coltle and Storm exited the room and the door closed beind them.

Celestia sighed gustily. “That did not go very well at all, did it?”

“No, Princess, it did not,” Daylight confirmed, rubbing the base of her horn and shaking her head.

Looking between Princess Celestia and his wife, Lost Cause rolled his eyes in mild irritation. “Why don’t you two take pity on the only mind-blind pony in the room and tell me why that went so very badly? From my perspective, it went quite well. His health is improving, and he’s willing to work with us. Neither of you challenged him, so it’s safe to say that he was telling the truth. So how, precisely, was this bad?”

“I will go speak with my guards while you answer that, Daylight.” With a nod and a smile to Lost Cause, Celestia turned and exited the room.

Daylight took a moment to lean against her husband and gently nosed at his neck before answering. “The foal is in trouble, dear. Something happened to him that was so terrible, it caused him to willingly forget absolutely everything in his life up to yesterday. That sort of memory block is incredibly fragile, at least at first. If that little colt sees or hears the wrong thing, then that memory block will fail and whatever happened to him will come crashing back down atop him.”

“Ah. And with Doctor Coltle being right about his physical state, the boy might not be able to handle the physical stresses of that revelation, to say nothing of the emotional.” Lost Cause rested his head atop his wife’s. “Why the orphanage, then? Can’t he receive better care here?”

“Mm. Not really. Physically, all that’s wrong is that he is underfed. That can be corrected anywhere, honestly. No, what he needs is a greater degree of peace and quiet. Ponies don’t come and go from the orphanage Princess Celestia is taking him. It’s a place for those that need a little more watching than others, where they can get a bit more direct attention,” Daylight said softly.

“I see. So, he’s being put there to limit what he’s exposed to in the hopes that he can be restored to sufficient physical health before working on the other?” Lost Cause felt, rather than saw, his wife nod as her head rested on his shoulder. “In that case, I wish the boy luck.”

“He most certainly will need it, dear. If he can endure what happens when the memory block comes down, he’ll be all right. But that won’t be the only challenge he’ll face.” Daylight shrugged slightly; she had hope that would turn out for the best, but she was not certain it would.

“Indeed. I noticed that little spot of melodrama there. An experienced intellect grafted onto a brain that is still developing…  being torn every which way, and subjected to the emotional stresses of the young? Talk about a recipe for disaster!” He kissed his wife, then chuckled. “Still, he is under the watchful eye of the Princesses now. It won’t be easy, but he does at least have a chance.”

“I just wish we could have been a bit emotionally warmer with him,” Daylight said with a disappointed sigh. “It just feels wrong to have been so cold and clinical with him! And I so wish we could have discussed the blood vials. I’m not certain what that was, but I’m curious to find out.”

“I know, dear, and I agree,” Lost Cause said as he shook his head slightly. “In retrospect, I do know why the Princess was rather standoffish. If the foal turns out to be one of the scientists, then having a closer emotional attachment would make what needs to be done all the harder. As to the blood, there’s really no reason to discuss that right now. We don’t know what it is. The Princess doesn’t know what it is. Storm certainly isn’t in any condition to tell us, if he even knows! So, we’ll simply have to wait.”

Lightning Storm hobbled along slowly down the hallway. It wasn’t easy, but he was at least getting a bit better at walking and balance; his confidence was bolstered by the fact that Doctor Coltle was never far from his side. Such proximity also made it easier to ask a question. “Doctor Coltle?”

“Mmh? What, Storm?” He looked down at the small foal beside him.

“I’m being taken to the orphanage, right?”

“That’s right. Why?”

“I don’t exactly own anything. I’m not leaving anything behind in the room… so why are we heading back?” Storm asked, looking up at the older stallion.

“Not leaving anything behind?” Doctor Coltle asked, raising an eyebrow. “Little Glimmer would beg to differ. You might have spilled your dinner all over her bed when you were standing up to Alabaster on her behalf, but the gesture did not go unnoticed. That bit of kindness earned you a friend, Lightning Storm. A friend that would probably very much like you to say goodbye to her before you go.”

Dr. Coltle opened the door to the pediatric ward, and gestured for Storm to step in. With a nod and a smile, Storm walked in unsteadily to be greeted by Glimmer. She’d evidently crawled out of her own bed and back into his when the nurses weren’t looking, so that she could watch for his return.

“Storm! You’re back!” Glimmer climbed out of the covers and wrapped the colt in a tight hug.

Grinning, Storm hugged her back. “Yeah, I’m back. S’good to see you, too.”

Glimmer’s silver eyes got almost impossibly wide and the joy in them was obvious as a room-warming smile spread across her muzzle. “You can talk!”

“I can! The Princess healed me a little bit, so I can talk now. But I’m not healed all the way. That’s why I have to go with the Princess to the Castle. If I do, she can heal me the rest of the way and I’ll be able to walk right, and fly,” Storm said, smiling back.

“You’re gonna leave?” Glimmer’s eyes grew wider and tears formed in them as she folded her ears back. Her lower lip began to tremble as she mumbled, “But… But I don’t want you to! You’re my friend!”

Before the filly could break into tears, Storm gently hugged her and rested his head atop hers. “Hey, now! You want me to get better, right? If I get better, then I can fly to visit you sometime! And if you’re a really brave girl, do well in school, and your parents say it’s okay, maybe you can come visit me in the castle!”

Tears were completely forgotten as Glimmer leaned back, eyes even larger and wider than before. “Really? You mean it? I can come visit you in the castle, with Princess Celestia and Princess Luna?”

“You most certainly can, my little pony. If you promise to eat your alfalfa and listen to your parents,” Princess Celestia answered, having heard the tail end of the conversation.

Glimmer was practically vibrating with joy. The Princess had spoken to her! “I’ll be good! I promise!” She bit her lower lip and looked at the floor before fixing the Princess with a pleading expression. “Do I have to eat the alfalfa, though? I ha… er, I really don’t like it!”

Celestia covered her mouth a moment with a hoof to stifle a laugh. “My sister does not like alfalfa either, so I suppose I cannot hold it against you. Study a little harder in school, and I will overlook the alfalfa. Deal?”

“Yes, Princess!” Glimmer nodded so hard in agreement that Storm almost expected to hear her brain rattle. “You’ll see!”

“Good girl,” Storm said, laughing. “Now, let’s get you to bed.”

With surprising deftness, Storm folded the covers back as Glimmer crawled back into her bed. He tucked her in, and added a gentle nuzzle to her cheek.

“You sleep well. Write me, okay?” Storm asked, with a gentle smile.

Giggling, Glimmer nodded. “Okay, I will. I promise!” With an adoring smile, she asked, “Can you read me a bedtime story?”

Storm felt mildly dizzy. Something about what Glimmer had said and how she said it... he had heard those words, those precise words delivered the same way somewhere else.  His muzzle opened of its own accord and words came tumbling out. “Oh, I can do better than that. How about a lullaby?”

Really?” Glimmer gasped, eyes wide and happy. “You’ll sing me a lullaby?”

Out of the corners of his eyes, Storm saw a strange flash, and for the smallest fraction of a second, the room looked different. There was a window where a wall should be, and the view overlooked the blackness of space and the star-scape beyond. Everything was shaped and colored differently, too. But only for a moment, before everything re-established itself. His words, however, continued unabated. “Oh, indeed. It’s one I haven’t sung to you before. I don’t think you’d have heard this one! It’s very, very old.”

The other foals in the room were starting to take an interest as well. They perked up, and looked over in Storm’s direction; lullabies were quite popular, even if they felt themselves too old for them. Or just chose to act like they were.

Hushabye, now it’s time to close your little eyes. I apologize if I forgot to say goodnight!” The world started to disintegrate around him, but the words would not stop. It started slowly at first; little pieces of the wall seemed to fall away to reveal plate steel bulkheads that had been painted a soft, pastel pink with little blue and green flowers. It was an obnoxious color scheme, but one that he knew made its occupant happy. That was all that mattered. She must be made and kept happy. No matter the cost.

It’s dreamy time and we can find a brand new Paradise, where everyone is nice and we can fly.” The room was gone in a flash. The pink paint with flowers surrounded him, save for the viewport that overlooked Neptune below. The giant blue sphere was the highlight of the view, and the room’s occupant adored staring at it for hours on end. Something deep in his mind fought against this, railed against this. He had failed her. He had failed them all. This was wrong. This was past.

Music, peaceful and serene in perfect counterpoint to the turmoil that was rapidly eroding his mind continued to flow from him. “We’ll be star-struck and sun-blind, cocksure and tongue-tied. As we fly by the choir won’t you please be mine? Hushabye, never mind the bad things in your life. Here’s your lullaby, honey-pie. Goodnight…”

Storm’s head jerked backwards as if he’d been shot in the forehead. In the bed before him was not Glimmer, but a small bipedal little girl with flame red hair, green eyes, and freckles. The little girl looked up at him and smiled brightly. “Goodbye, Daddy.”

“Nnnggh… my head! What happened?” Groaning, Storm sat up, rubbing the back of his head with a hoof.

A voice that was half rumbling purr and half whistling sigh replied in a strange, yet feminine voice. “Huh. You woke up. Doctor Coltle and Princess Celestia said you might, but I was hoping you’d sleep through the night.” Two golden and glowing eyes opened, fixing on him with a decidedly predatory stare.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” Storm said, still wincing from the growing pounding in his head.

“Eh. Don’t worry about it, colt. Sounds like you had it rough. So, let me answer your questions before you ask the rest of them. First, you passed out after singing a lullaby to a filly in the hospital. Keeled right over onto the floor, which really scared the hay out of her, Doctor Coltle, and Princess Celestia. Second, you’re in the Royal Orphanage of Canterlot. Third, Doctor Coltle left you a glass of apple juice next to the bed. If you drink it, then you will lose your headache, and the both of us can fall back asleep until late morning, sometime. Fourth, my name is Agate.”

“But I don’t-“ Storm tried to protest, but was interrupted.

“Look. Colt. I know you’ve had a bad few days. But I’m tired, and I wake up really cranky. I do not feel like talking right now, and that headache of yours is only gonna get worse.  So be a good foal and drink the nice cold apple juice… or so help me, I will pour it down your throat. The rest of your answers will come in the morning, at breakfast.”

Storm slowly reached for the glass, watched by those unblinking yellow eyes. He drank it quickly, and as he did, the expression in those eyes softened.

“Feel dizzy,” Storm complained, dropping the glass.

The glass never hit the floor; the eyes surged forward, and something caught it before it could shatter. “I know. I know.”

Something warm curled around Storm, and gently pulled him back onto the bed. “Just relax, little guy. I’m watching out for you. You’ll be safe, I promise. Just sleep it off, and you’ll feel better in the morning.”

“Okay...” Storm whispered sleepily, head being guided onto a warm and furred chest. Closing his eyes, he could hear the steady thudding of a beating heart, and the gentle susurrations of breathing.  He slipped into dreamless sleep a moment later.

“There you go. Sleep well, kid. We’ll meet more appropriately in the morning.”

Consciousness came slowly, and it brought along a friend. Oh, my aching head! What did we do last night? At least Environmental finally turned up the heat, and the down comforters are certainly welcome.

Huh? Environmental? Down comforter? What’s that? What the hay…? Something wasn’t adding up, and the nagging need to make it make sense was forcing him to wake up faster than he wanted to.

As he woke up, thoughts began assembling themselves in a bit more order. Um. I don’t know what a station is, but I was on one. Didn’t something blow up? Yeah, something blew up and it really hurt. I woke up in a hospital, and it was really wet and cold. Everything is kinda fuzzy after that, but at least I’m warm now.

Then the bed moved. Storm’s eyes snapped open and he began to tremble with fear. Swallowing hard, he slowly lifted his head and turned… only to discover that there was this thing with a beak and some really wicked looking talons in bed with him.

The results were predictable.

“Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!” Storm screamed as he tried to flail his way out of bed.

“Awwwwk!” screamed a very startled Agate. She flinched, and in so doing pushed Storm right up and out of the bed onto the floor, where he landed with a thump.

Still screaming, Storm scrabbled to his hooves and ran for the nearest door he found, slamming it shut behind him. The door had a bar, and he slid it into place, then curled up on the floor in fear.

After a few seconds, Agate clutched at her chest to still her racing heart. “Aw, haystacks. It’s going to be one of those days, isn’t it?”

Agate had just rolled over onto her belly when the bedroom door was flung open and a very flustered older pegasus mare with russet mane and light blue coat burst in with a harried expression. “Are you okay? Is Storm okay? Where is he? What happened?”

“In order,” Agate said after taking a deep breath, “I’m fine. Storm’s fine. He’s locked himself in the bathroom and won’t come out. As for what happened, he woke me up out of a sound sleep by screaming and scaring the living hay out of me.”

From behind the door, Storm yelled back, “I scared you? You’re the walking death machine! You were gonna eat me!”

Agate sighed, rolling her eyes as she stared at the ceiling. “Celestia preserve us,” she mumbled. With growing irritation, Agate glared at the door. “Kid, you don’t even have enough meat on you to be worth eating. Now will you please unlock that stupid door and come out?”

“Nuh-uh! You’re scary!”

Before Agate could say anything, the older mare raised a hoof for silence. Once Agate nodded and settled back down on the bed, she continued. “Dear? I know you got startled, but Agate won’t eat you. I promise. It’s really uncomfortable in there. Wouldn’t you like to come out and lay down?”

“Yeah, but…” Storm whimpered. “But I can’t. They’ll get me.”

Agate and Sunny Skies shared a worried glance. “Who will get you, dear? There’s nopony here but Agate and I.”

“The… the memories. They’ll get me if I come out.” Storm started sniffling, and couldn’t help a sob or two escape.

“Storm, I promise you, nothing will get you. I promise. If you will trust me, we’ll even go over to Pony Joe’s for doughnuts!” Sunny Skies assured. “We’ll talk a little here, and then wash up before we go.”

“You promise…?” Storm asked quietly, uncertainty clear in his voice.

“I promise, Storm. Doughnuts just as soon as we can get them!”

Cautiously, Storm unbolted the door and peeked out from behind it. Fortunately, the first thing he saw was Sunny Skies smiling down at him. Agate, for her part, realized that scaring the colt perhaps would be counter-productive, and had settled back into the bed with her head resting on top of her hands. She’d even fluffed her feathers a bit, to make her look less imposing.

Sunny Skies extended a soft wing and gently drew Storm to her side. “There, now. Let’s lay down over here and we can all talk.” Once she’d lay down and gotten Storm to curl up underneath her wing so that his head could peek out, she gently nuzzled his ear. “Now, isn’t that better?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Storm agreed quietly. Casting a wary glance over at Agate, he settled down.

“Now, why don’t you tell me what you were talking about? What memories are going to get you?” Sunny Skies asked in her most soothing voice.

Storm shivered and looked up at Sunny pleadingly. “Do I hafta?”

“Well, if you do tell me, maybe I can help! If you’re afraid of something, it’s always best to tell somepony. Then we can find ways to fix it and make it all better.” Sunny cast a glance to Agate who grinned wryly.

“She’s right, kid.” Agate shook her head and sighed gustily. “I was afraid when I first came here. If Miss Skies helped me, I’m sure she can help you, too.”

You were afraid?” Storm asked, amazed. His ears perked up and his eyes went wide. “Of what? You’re big! You’ve got real sharp claws! I bet nothing could mess with you!”

Agate blinked and smiled slowly as she preened a bit. “Well, not now, anyway. But back then? I was almost as little as you are. When I came here, I was even more afraid than you! But Miss Skies helped me through it and she’ll help you too, if you let her. So, if she asks you something, tell her. She really does need to know.”

Swallowing hard, Storm nodded. He shivered as he took a deep breath, but Sunny Skies pulled him a little closer for warmth and reassurance. “I remembered some things. But I don’t understand them and it’s scary.”

“Well Agate and I won’t let them get you, will we?” Sunny nodded firmly as she glanced again at Agate.

Beak gaping in a wide grin, the gryphoness brandished her talons.  “I’d like to see them try.”

This elicited a giggle from the young colt, who then nodded. “I guess it’s okay.” His smile faded though, as he began his tale. “I remember some things now, but I don’t understand them. I mean…” He fluffed his wings a bit, in frustration.

“It’s okay, dear. Just tell us what you remember, alright?” Sunny Skies squeezed Storm, and tried to be encouraging. “Sometimes things happen that we don’t understand. That’s when it’s most important to ask somepony else.”

“I was on a station, but I don’t know what that is. I remember seeing a bunch of strange looking things, but I knew them.” Storm began to tremble a bit, lower lip quivering. “I… Two of them disappeared, and there was a lot of screaming. S… something blew up and it really hurt. I woke up cold and wet, but…” Storm started to cry, tears running down his muzzle.  “Something really bad happened, Miss Skies. But I didn’t do it! I swear I didn’t do it!”

“Shh, shhh. We know you didn’t, Storm. It’s okay. Nopony blames you for what happened.” Sunny Skies nuzzled the foal’s neck, but he was pretty disconsolate at this point.

“It hurt, it hurt real bad. I… I don’t remember where I was. I don’t know where I am! I don’t remember anything before yesterday and I don’t understand any of it! I’m scared, Miss Skies!”

As Storm dissolved into tears and sobs, Sunny Skies nuzzled away the tears until the poor foal had cried himself out. “Storm? Would it be okay if you and Agate stayed here while I went to get the doughnuts I promised?”

“You swear not to eat me?” Storm asked, a little hint of a smile on his muzzle.

“Oh, I could eat you. But if I did, Miss Skies wouldn’t let me have a doughnut, and I really want one! In fact, she’d probably not let me have one if something else ate you too, so I guess I’d better make sure nothing eats you at all.” Agate lifted her wing and offered Storm a new place to hide should he choose to.

He chose to.  After nuzzling under Sunny Sky’s chin and with a gentle nudge of encouragement from the mare, Storm climbed back into bed and curled up under the proffered wing.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can, you two. Agate, take care of Storm and call for the guard if there’s any problems.”

“Of course, Miss Skies. Fly safe.” Agate gently preened at Storm’s mane a bit as Sunny Skies smiled and left the room.

“Miss Agate?” Storm asked quietly.

“Just call me Agate. What’s up?”

“I’m sorry I scared you, Agate. I didn’t mean to, honest.” Storm rested his head on Agate’s hands as apology.

“Eh, don’t worry about it. I was asleep, and that’s about the only time anypony can surprise me.” Agate grinned, bobbing her head. “I must admit, you did get me good. You want to talk about it some more?”

“Not really. I feel bad when I think about it. Something really bad happened, and a lot of people got hurt. Worse than me, and I got hurt bad.” Storm looked up at Agate. “Are they okay?”

“People? What’s a people? Do you mean ponies?” the gryphoness asked, tilting her head to the side.

Storm shook his head. “No… not ponies. They looked funny. No hooves. They had manes, though. Not as long as mine.  They had those,” Storm said slowly as he gestured to Agate’s hand. “But not pointy.”

“But they weren’t ponies? They were… people?” Agate asked, trying to wrap her head around the idea. What creature could it be?

“Yeah. Are they okay?” Storm looked up with pleading eyes. “They were screaming real loud. And they looked scared.”

“I… don’t know, Storm. I don’t think there any non-ponies in Canterlot right now. There might be a few Zebra Ambassadors, a young dragon if Princess Celestia’s student is in town, and me. Maybe Miss Skies would know, or we could ask her to check with Princess Celestia.” Agate squeezed him with her wing, sighing. “Sorry, kid. That’s the best answer I have.”

“Oh. Okay.” Storm fidgeted a moment, and then made a soft peeping noise. “Could… you tell me where we are?”

“Well, we’re in Canterlot. That’s the capital city of Equestria. It’s ruled by two Princesses, though there’s a bunch of nobility that do something. Not sure what they do, though.”

“How did you come here?” Storm asked, curiously.

With a sigh that whistled through her nares, Agate explained. “I know it hasn’t escaped your notice that I’ve only got one wing. Gryphons? Not exactly too tolerant of cripples like me. When I got sick and lost it, I was abandoned by my family and my clan. The Ambassador that Princess Celestia had sent to us had found me two days after I’d been tied up and left to die from exposure as a gryphlet. She brought me back here to Canterlot, and Princess Celestia herself asked the Matron of the orphanage to take me in and raise me. Been here ever since, and that was ten years ago.”

During Agate’s recitation of how she’d come to Canterlot, Storm’s eyes had been both growing wider and his ears flattening to his skull. “That’s so sad,” he mumbled before reaching up and wrapping his forelegs around Agate’s neck in a tight hug.

Agate tensed at the sudden contact, then slowly smiled and returned the hug. “But you know what? I’m here, and Miss Skies and the Princess both look out for me. I’m doing alright, and you will be, too… Just you wait, kid.”

Sunny Skies flew back from Pony Joe’s Doughnut Shoppe with her saddlebags loaded with goodies for Agate and Storm.  She was carrying more than she’d intended; when Pony Joe found out that she was the Matron of the Orphanage and that the doughnuts had been intended for the foals, he’d driven an absolutely brutal bargain.

Pony Joe had demanded that she accept a dozen assorted doughnuts for the meager price of a single bit. When she’d protested that she’d had the bits aplenty to spend, he’d insisted she also take an insulated container of his finest hot cocoa. He’d also forestalled further protest by threatening to add another dozen doughnuts each time she complained. She’d finally simply surrendered gracefully and thanked him for his generosity.  She would find a way to repay that, somehow. Perhaps a good word to the Princess during their next meeting…

She had just landed and stepped through the front door when she heard, “Why you little…!” in Agate’s dull growl she used when really perturbed about something.

However, before she could panic she heard Storm’s gleeful reply. “Hah! King me!”

“King you?” Agate asked. “I think you mean ‘Prince’ you.”

“Prince me? I thought we were playing checkers,” Storm said, confused. “In checkers, you get kinged if you get your piece to the last row.”

“Nope. We’re playing checkers alright, but if I get to your last row, you ‘Princess’ me. If you get to my row like you just did, I ‘Prince’ you.”

Sunny Skies snuck forward and opened the bedroom door to see Agate and Storm both sitting by a checkers table. Storm was looking at the pieces curiously, then looked back to Agate.

“What about chess? Chess has a king, queen, rook, bishop, knight, and pawns.”

“Sorta. There’s a queen, her advisor, castle, nobles, mayors, and ponies.” Agate grinned. “After you’re done beating me in checkers, maybe I can beat you in chess.”

“Dunno, Agate… it’s all math.” Storm studied the checkers board and pondered his next move.

“I’m back! Pony Joe was kind enough to give us a dozen doughnuts and hot cocoa to go with it!” Sunny Skies said with a smile. “Agate? Would you go get the cups in the kitchen?”

“Sure, Ma’am. No problem, especially since you just saved me from having my feathers plucked by this checkers tyrant!” Agate grinned and ruffled Storm’s mane as he giggled. “I mean it, Miss Skies. He plays a mean game.”

Agate padded off to the kitchen, while Sunny Skies set the doughnuts and cocoa on a convenient table. Storm was right at her side, sticking his nose close to the doughnut box and snuffling at it.

Playfully swatting Storm with a wing, Sunny laughed. “Hey, now! Wait for Agate! After all, she kept her promise and didn’t eat you… or did she?”

With that, Sunny rounded on storm and pounced; wings mantled and a silly smile on her muzzle. She tickled the colt, who gleefully kicked and squeaked and laughed as he writhed on the ground.

“A.. Agate! Help! Please!” Storm managed to gasp in between giggles. His wings fanned a bit as he struggled to get away from Sunny.

“Alright. I can help!” Agate said with a decidedly mischievous grin and a wink to Sunny. “Miss Skies, if you please.”

“But of course, Agate.” Sunny turned to start preparing the treats.

“Noooooo!” hollered Storm amidst another spate of giggles and laughing. “You said you’d help me!”

“Nuh-uh! I said I’d help. I didn’t say if I’d help you!”

“Alright, alright. That’s enough, Agate,” Sunny laughed. “Besides, the snacks are ready!” With efficiency borne of long practice, she placed plates and snacks on the table, then poured steaming cocoa into each mug. “Use both hooves, Storm. Don’t want you to spill it.”

Storm nodded, and enthusiastically, if cautiously, picked up the mug of cocoa. He sipped it, and sighed contentedly. “That’s good.”

“Try the doughnut. Pony Joe makes the best in all of Canterlot. Maybe even Equestria!” Agate stated, gesturing with the doughnut in her hand.

Storm nodded, eagerly reaching out to pick one out of the box. As he did so, he blinked and got a strange expression on his muzzle. Staring at the doughnut, Storm passed it from his right hoof, to his left, and then back to the right. “I don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what, dear?” Sunny watched Storm curiously, wondering what he was on about. “I’m not sure I understand.”

Storm shook the hoof that was holding the doughnut a bit, but not hard enough to make a mess. “It isn’t sticky, so it’s not stuck to my hoof. So… why can I pick it up?” He looked over to Agate. “I mean, I know why you can. You have thumbs. But I don’t, so why can I?”

Agate shrugged. “I always thought it was magic, myself. It’s something that ponies can just do, I guess.”

“Yeah, but how?” Storm’s curiosity demanded satisfaction; he simply had to try picking everything up. The mug and doughnut were easy; the plate the doughnut was on, equally so. He discovered that he could grab onto the end of the table and tug on it but that it was too big and heavy for him to move. “I mean… I can see picking something up with two hooves. Push the hooves together and squish something in the middle. But how can we pick a doughnut up and hold it with just one?” He flailed his hooves around a bit, but the doughnut got too close to Agate; she promptly snapped it out of his hoof and downed it in a gulp.

“Hey! That was mine!” Storm complained.

“Yeah, it was. Wave another one that close to my beak and I’ll eat it too.”

“Hmph! Meanie.” Storm stuck his tongue out at Agate. He made it a point to take another doughnut and finish his cocoa. “Huh…” Storm got up from the table and walked over to the wall.

“Storm? What are you doing, dear?” Sunny asked.

“Well, I had an idea. Since I can pick things up without thumbs, I ought to be able to walk up walls, too. I mean, there’s no real difference between a table and a wall, right?”

Agate rubbed the back of her head and glanced over at Sunny. “This isn’t going to end well, is it?”

“Storm, no!” Sunny Skies yelled as she galloped across the room. Storm had reared up on his hind legs and had planted his front hooves on the wall.

“What? Why not?”  Storm looked ready to argue the point as he pouted.

“Because the cocoa is getting cold. You don’t want cold cocoa, do you?” Sunny smiled worriedly, hoping he’d take the bait.

“It’s pretty gross, Storm. You might want to drink it now and climb the wall later. It isn’t like it’s going anywhere.” Agate offered her opinion. “Of course, you could let me have it all. I’d not complain.”

“Hey, no fair! I want some too!” Storm promptly forgot about trying to climb the walls and noisily attacked another round of snacks instead.

“Thank you,” Sunny whispered to Agate as she sidled over to the gryphoness.

“Don’t thank me, Miss Skies,” Agate replied in just as soft a murmur. “You’re the one that told me that colts that age are only interested in food and fun, and in that order. They’ll only willingly sleep when they pass out. He’s nearly done… I’d better distract him before he tries climbing the walls again.

“Hey, Storm? What did you mean when you said that checkers and chess are all just math? I thought it was strategy.” Agate walked over and peered down at the checkers board.

“Hee!” Storm giggled as he walked over to the checkers board. “Strategy is making the math do what you want! Miss Skies? Do we have another board?”

“I think so. Let me get it.” As Sunny opened a cabinet and withdrew another checkers board, she asked, “Why do you need it?”

Storm snickered. “So I can show Agate what I was gonna do to her in two moves.” He took the board out and set it up. “Okay. Agate? This is how it works. When I move this piece up, then it affects these squares. See? You don’t want your piece in any of these places. It’s worth one. Now, the real fun starts when you try and hide what you’re doing. I want you over here, see? So, I make that area look a little weaker and give it a lower value by moving these here…”

Huh, Agate thought. I see what he means. Low value to him, high value to me. He’s literally been dragging me around the board! Aloud, Agate asked, “Okay. I see you’ve been dragging me all over the board by my tail, but what do you mean about what happens in two moves?”

“This is so cool! Okay! Agate, I didn’t want you to see what I was really up to, so I had to distract you, right? That’s what the king piece is. Er, the prince, I mean. Now, what move were you going to make next?” Storm’s wings were practically vibrating with enthusiasm and that grin nearly split his face in half.

“I was going to move here,” Agate said. Then she blinked, and her beak gaped open. “Sweet Celestia. I move there and…”

Giggling, Storm nodded. “Yup. My very next move, I take half your pieces off the board.”

“I never even saw that coming!” Agate grumped, shaking her head in amazement.

“It’s all math, Agate. Math and keeping track of the numbers while making them do what you want.” He sat down, a smug grin on his muzzle. “Want a rematch?”

“Please. But would you teach me what I’m doing wrong so I’d play better?”

Storm beamed with delight. “I’d be happy to! Let’s set the board up and play!”

The next several games all went the same way; Storm easily beat Agate every time, but Storm was quite good at pointing out where he’d managed to sneak something past her or when she’d made a mistake. He’d also helped suggest ways to undo the mistake and put it back on track.

After the fourth such game, Storm sat back with a satisfied nod. “I can’t show you how to win, Agate. Well, I am. But I can’t help you win against me since I already know what we’re doing.” He couldn’t stifle a yawn, and he scrubbed his hoof over his eyes. “But you’re playing a lot better, Agate. Just need practice. Wanna play again?”

“Now, Storm! I saw that yawn, young colt.” Sunny Skies smiled warmly. “I think we should get you a bath and then put you down for a nap.”

“Aww! I don’t wanna!” Storm pouted, stomping a fore-hoof on the floor.

“None of that, now! If you agree to take a bath and nap, you can have one more doughnut.” Sunny winked. “Two, if you’re really good. Run along to the bathroom; I’ll be there in a minute. I just need to talk to Agate.”

“Okay!” Storm nodded and smiled as he turned. He looked over his shoulder a moment and seeing that Sunny had turned her back to him to face Agate, reached up to grab a doughnut. He froze as he saw Agate watching him, but grinned when she winked. Doughnut stuffed into his muzzle, he happily walked to the facilities.

“What do you think, Agate?” Sunny asked quietly.

“Ma’am, I’m not even as old as the Princess’ student. Don’t know what my opinion is worth…” Agate mumbled.

“Agate, I’m sorry for putting it like this. But you’ve been here longer than any of the others. You’ve seen foals come through and you’ve helped me immeasurably with them. I very much value your opinion.” Sunny smiled slightly, and hugged Agate to her with a wing. “I’ll need your help with him, just as I have with the others. You’re important to me, and to the proper running of this orphanage, dear.”

The gryphoness allowed herself to enjoy the embrace a moment, and closed her eyes as she rested her head on Sunny’s shoulder. With a soft sigh, Agate lifted her head and glanced over to the bathroom where Storm was waiting. “He’s going to be a hoof-full, Ma’am. Storm isn’t like any of the others. He’s young, yes… but he’s also old, too.”

“Mmm? What do you mean, dear?” Sunny asked as she gently nuzzled at Agate’s ear.

“That tickles!” Agate mock-complained.

“Just because you’re twelve, does not mean you’re too old for gentle affections, dear. Now, what did you mean?”

“His actions and the way he talks… that’s all foal-like. The words he uses and the concepts behind them? His reasoning ability? That’s old. The thing with the checkers board? That’s what they’re trying to teach my grade. That kind of critical thinking and mathematics. But Storm’s already got that down cold.”

“And his impulse control,” Sunny said with a breathy sigh. “It leaves a lot to be desired.”

“Yeah, but that’s what’s going to make him interesting… a danger to himself and everypony around him, perhaps. But interesting.” Agate chuckled.

“How so, dear?” Sunny Skies cast a glance over to the bathroom; Storm seemed to be getting antsy, if the sounds of movement were any indication.

“He already knows how everything works. He’s wrong, but he already knows. Things are going to get really interesting when something doesn’t behave the way he knows it should. Like picking things up with his hooves. It’s like he has absolutely no concept of magic whatsoever. Magic allows ponies to pick things up; you and I take that for granted. Storm doesn’t. When he saw that he could, he started applying it to everything in order to figure out what it could and couldn’t do.”

Sunny nodded slowly, understanding. “Just as we take it for granted that ponies can’t walk up walls. Storm doesn’t know that, and from his perspective, he ought to be able to.” When Agate nodded, Sunny continued. “He really has no idea how anything works, does he?”

“Not really,” Agate agreed. “He’ll have to discover that as he goes. School doesn’t start up again for a few months and he can’t go out and about yet anyway, Miss Skies. He needs to be fed up a bit and maybe a tutor can come in to help him pick up the basics of Equestrian society.”

“I find myself suddenly glad we’re in Canterlot and not Cloudsdale. If he has no concept of magic, how would he react to being able to stand on clouds? How will he react to that?” Sunny shivered at the thought.

“I dunno, Miss Skies,” Agate said with a grin. She sat on her hindquarters and rubbed her hands together. “But it’s going to be a blast finding out!”

Ow! Why is the hot water where the cold is supposed to be!” Storm complained… loudly.

“That’s assuming of course that he makes it that long,” Agate added as Sunny galloped to the bathroom to save Storm from himself.

“The Proctor will see you now, Lightning Storm.”

Storm nodded, head hanging low. This wasn’t how he’d anticipated his first day of school going… not by a long-shot. “Thank you, Ma’am.”

Taking pity on the poor youngster, Open Book smiled gently. “She doesn’t bite, Storm. It won’t be so bad as you imagine it. Just answer her questions honestly and things will turn out alright.”

Fortunately, Storm was able to smile a bit at that. Everypony really did like the elderly unicorn mare with mauve coat and pewter mane and eyes. She was warm and compassionate; if anypony needed an ear while at school, then she was the one they’d seek out.

Swallowing, Storm opened the door to the Proctor’s office and stepped in with trepidation. There were many rumors as to what the room behind the solid oaken door was like. Some had it that the office was so austere, that being banished to the moon would be a vacation in Manehattan by comparison. Other rumors had it that it was a terrifying place filled with the empty shells of ponies who’d failed their exams or had been overly disobedient. Storm was rather fearing the latter, under the circumstances.

In reality, the office was remarkably pleasant. A soft but mildly worn carpet lined the room and prevented hoofsteps from echoing off the walls that were lined with bookcases. The lighting was as soft as the carpet in its own way and lent the oaken walls a warm and inviting glow. Here and there were small tables and cushions, with each table having a book on it that had been surrounded by a small pool of brighter light to make reading easier. All in all, it was very relaxing and Storm found himself at ease as he walked towards the far side of the room where an unoccupied desk awaited.

“Have a seat at the desk. I’ll be right there,” called a soft voice from behind a shelf of books.

Storm did as he was bid and sat on a cushion appropriately sized and placed for a foal of his size. The desk was neatly kept but for a single ominous sign; his student file was open and there was a big well of red ink sitting beside it.

“I had wished to meet you, Lightning Storm. Though I confess, not under these circumstances.”

Storm turned his head from the desk and his eyes bulged as he saw the dark blue hued Alicorn with multi-colored mane shifting in even this breezeless room. A quick glance confirmed it; there was no mistaking the crescent moon cutie mark. His mane and tail frizzed and his feathers puffed up as he struggled to squeak out a coherent reply. “P… Princess Luna! I… I’m sorry. You didn’t sound like a Princess!”

Luna arched an eyebrow and grinned slowly. Dost I sound like a Princess to thee now, subject?

“Hee! Yeah, now you sound like they said you would, your majesty!” Storm couldn’t help but giggle and smile up at the Princess. She made the silliest faces when she did that!

“Well, Fluttershy from Ponyville has been working with me to tone down The Royal Voice. She says it puts ponies on their guard and makes them uncomfortable. That aside, I find you interesting, Lightning Storm. Every other pony seated where you are now has thrown him or herself to the floor and bowed. You did not.”

“But... Princess, you’d told me to sit down. Why would you tell me to sit down if you wanted me to bow? I’m… not in trouble, am I?” Storm asked, rather uncertainly.

“Yes, Storm. You are… but not for failing to bow. If anything, I found that quite refreshing.” Luna sat down at her desk, and glanced at the file as Storm tried to hide in his own seat. “I have already spoken to your teacher, as well as Alabaster, Diamond Tiara, Silver Spoon, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle. It seems you’ve caused quite a stir. How precisely did you nearly cause a fight in the middle of your classroom while the visitors from Ponyville were in attendance?” She lifted her eyes and arched an eyebrow.

Storm preened his feathers back into place for a moment as he gathered his thoughts. The princess, seemingly approving of feather maintenance, remained silent and waited patiently.

“Here’s what happened, Princess,” Storm began. “We’d just sat down to class when…”

Blank flank!”

Storm perked his ear and looked up from his textbook. Whatever was going had to be more interesting than this basic mathematics.

“Hey, blank flank! I’m talking to you!” Storm glanced over and saw Alabaster harassing one of the fillies from Ponyville.

“See? I told you. She’s totally clueless!”

“I didn’t think it even possible to be that dull, Diamond Tiara. I mean, Storm being a retard and all is bad enough. But this Apple Bloom of yours? Totally useless,” Alabaster whispered.

“Cain’t y’all just shut up for one consarned minute? Ah’m tryin’ to listen to th’ teacher!” Apple Bloom complained.

Unfortunately, she was a touch too loud and the professor heard. “Miss… Apple Bloom is it? I do not know how things are done in your Ponyville, but here in Canterlot, I assure you that here we are polite when we are guests. Kindly do not disrupt class again.”

While Alabaster and Diamond Tiara snickered, Apple Bloom sighed. “Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir.”

“Very well. Now then. Long division. Who wants to give it a try on this problem?” the professor continued.  Storm felt that the professor was as old and boring as the subject material being taught. Whereas most ponies seemed to be brightly colored with dispositions to match, this one had a dusty brown mane with an almost dusty brown coat. Even his voice was old and dusty… flat… boring.

“Nice going, blank flank,” giggled one of the other fillies.

“Shut up, Silver Spoon,” growled another one of the Ponyville fillies. This one was a pegasus with a short mane and an equally short temper.

Before things could get too far out of hoof, Storm reached out and nudged that pegasus with his hoof. The filly rounded on him. “What’s your problem?”

“Don’t have one. But don’t worry about him, I’ll take care of it.” Storm grinned slowly. “I have an idea. Name’s Storm.”

“Scootaloo.” Scootaloo glanced over at Storm. “You really have a plan?”

“Yup. See, the trick with that type is knowing how to handle them… and how to set them up. Here, watch and learn.” Storm winked and then raised his hoof, waiting patiently.

“Lightning Storm. You have a question?” the dull brown stallion asked.

“Well, Alabaster did, Sir. He asked but you must have missed it. It was… what was it? Something about a retard and a blank flank?” He turned to Scootaloo who was staring at him in utter disbelief. “Wasn’t that what he said?”

“Ah reckon it was,” Apple Bloom said with a sharp nod and a mischievous grin. “Definitely somethin’ about a retard and a blank flank. Maybe he was askin’ what they were?”

“I see.” The professor turned and glanced over to Alabaster. “Is this true, Prince Alabaster?”

“Ah… well… you see, Si-“ Alabaster stammered.

“A simple yes or no will do, Prince Alabaster. Did you or did you not use those words?”

After glaring daggers at Storm, Alabaster replied through gritted teeth, “Yes, Sir.”

“Speak clearly, Prince Alabaster. I did not hear you.” The professor, it seemed never raised his voice. At all.

“Yes, Sir. I did use those words, Sir.” Alabaster said grumpily.

“Very well. I had intended to introduce you all to long division, but thanks to Prince Alabaster’s ill-chosen words, we must instead have the annual cutie mark talk, now. Considering the Prince brought this issue to our attention, perhaps he would be willing to start the discussion? Prince Alabaster, if you please.”

As the Prince walked up to the front of the class, Sweetie Belle leaned over and whispered to Storm. “That wasn’t very nice…”

Storm simply allowed a smug smile to spread across his muzzle. “No. No, it wasn’t, was it?”

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom had to struggle very hard not to burst out laughing, but somehow they managed as Prince Alabaster began a detailed discourse on cutie marks and how one got them.

It was actually rather interesting, especially to an outsider like Storm. While he still had a bit of trouble accepting things like ‘magic’ on faith, there had been sufficient examples of it provided during his recuperation that he couldn’t help but believe in its existence. He still couldn’t accept it at face value, not without poking at it a bit much like one would scratch at an itch that kept coming back.

Unfortunately, the explanation gradually wound down and Alabaster was allowed to take his seat. The professor, however, was not done just yet.

“Lightning Storm. Prince Alabaster has kindly given us a description of cutie marks and how they’re obtained. Perhaps you might shed some light on what his cutie mark means, as well as that of Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara.”

“Oh, this is not going to end well,” Storm murmured to his new friends. He rose and walked to the front of the class, wings rustling a bit with agitation.

“Yes, Lightning Storm,” Alabaster said in a saccharine voice. “I’m so very interested in what you think.”

“I think two things, Prince Alabaster,” Storm murmured softly. “First, that cutie marks are subjective. Your mark might mean one thing to you, but something else entirely to me. In fact, I guarantee it. Second, you really don’t want to know my opinion. Seriously.”

“That may be, Lightning Storm,” the professor interjected. “That very well may be. However, I do want to know. You will tell us now.”

“O-kay. But please remember that you asked for it.” Storm inhaled deeply, then sighed. Glancing over, he discovered Alabaster smirking at him. “You might think your cutie mark of a block of granite, alabaster, or whatever it is might mean you’re strong or noble. What it really means is that you’re even dumber than a sack of hammers.”

Diamond Tiara looked more than slightly nervous as Storm turned his eyes to her. The room was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop as they waited on his words. “You, Diamond Tiara. Yes, you’re pretty and there’s no denying it. Your cutie mark is perfect for you, since you serve the same purpose. Like a tiara, you’re useless as well as decorative.” He felt a strong pang of regret at the look of hurt in her eyes, but she’d been so cruel. Maybe a dose of her own medicine would help.

“And you, Silver Spoon. Your cutie mark is also appropriate. When you were harassing Apple Bloom, you couldn’t even come up with your own insults. You just said the same thing that Diamond Tiara and Alabaster did. No, you’re incapable of anything unless it’s spoon fed to you.”

They’d been wrong after all. The professor could raise his voice, but he normally chose not to. He chose to, now. “Enough! Lightning Storm, go to the Proctor’s office now. I hope you’re proud of yourself, hurting their feelings like that.”

As he turned for the door, Storm spoke just loudly enough to be heard in the otherwise silent room. “No. No, actually I’m not, Sir. But maybe they know what it’s like to be bullied now. Maybe now they won’t be quite so eager to hurt someon- somepony.”

“From there, it was just waiting outside your office while you spoke to everypony else.” Storm sighed quietly.

Luna was quiet for a long moment. “Yes. I should say you’re in trouble, Lightning Storm. While I approve of you standing up to the bullies, you went completely past reasonable bounds. I would suspend you immediately for a full month right this instant had you not been defending others… and if you had not also been repentant of what you’d done. As it is, you’re suspended for a full week. Head back to your classroom and collect your things. Afterwards, Open Book will walk you home.”

Storm rose from his seat, and this time he did bow to the Princess. He held the bow until she nodded slightly for him to rise. “I’m sorry, Princess.” He shuffled quietly towards the door.

“Storm, understand something. You are not being punished for having defended those fillies. That was a good thing. But you must always know when to hold back. Sometimes, hitting them that hard is not the right thing to do.”

Sniffling, Storm nodded his head meekly before turning to the door. “Yes, Princess.”

After he had gone, Luna looked to the side.  “Are you still there, Celly?”

Celestia let her curtain of magic drop before walking forward and embracing her sister. “I am indeed, Lulu. You handled that very well. Tell me what you think.”

Luna grinned sheepishly. “I like the foal. He wasn’t afraid of me, and he saw me as a Princess, yes… but also as a pony. And did you notice, Celly? When he was dealing with the bullies, his speech and behavior became a lot more adult than one would suspect. When he was feeling at ease with me, he was very foal-like. He was… open. Carefree. Concerned he was in trouble, but what colt wouldn’t be?”

“I noticed, Luna. I also noticed that the actions he took were not out of anger, which is a very good sign. He also owned up to them without reluctance or prevarication.” Celestia thought about it for a moment. “I think we need to keep him in Canterlot for the time being, but I do believe in time he’ll be alright. He’s still a bit unstable but he is at least making progress.”

“I agree, Sis. Though I strongly suspect that we have not yet seen the last of what is in store for us.” Luna grinned a bit. “Remember Sunny Skies’ initial report? The one that included Agate’s comment? I think the gryphoness was correct.”

Celestia laughed softly. “Agate was quite accurate when she said that it will be entertaining to find out what happens next.”


Fortunately, school was over for the day and the hallways were empty as Storm walked with Open Book to his classroom. At least he didn’t have to face the additional humiliation of facing his erstwhile classmates. Still, something was bothering him. He looked up at the gentle muzzle of Open Book and asked quietly, “Miss Book?”

“You weren’t, dear.” At Storm’s expression of surprise, she grinned. “Lightning Storm, I’ve been doing this for far longer than you’ve been alive. This is not the first time I’ve had to escort a colt or filly back to their classroom after having been suspended. It’s always the first thing that comes to mind. ‘Why was I the only one?’”

Storm coughed softly and looked a bit sheepish.  “So… I wasn’t?”

“You weren’t. Now, I’m trusting you not to spread it around, Storm. I’m probably not supposed to tell you this but I’ll make an exception for you.” Open Book waited until she received Storm’s nod of agreement, then continued. “Three of the fillies from Ponyville received notes to their teacher, Miss Cheerilee.” Open Book grinned a bit. “I’ll tell you the story of how she got suspended when she was your age, sometime. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon got notes of reprimand for their misbehavior. Prince Alabaster was suspended for a month for failing to set a good example as well as his misbehavior.”

“I don’t feel so bad about it, then. I mean, it was kinda irritating when I thought I was being singled out. But now that I know that I wasn’t...”

The remainder of the walk to the classroom was done in silence, primarily because they were almost there. Upon arrival, they discovered that the professor was waiting for them… as was Alabaster. The professor was the first to speak.

 “Lightning Storm. I owe you an apology.” The professor gestured to Alabaster as he shook his head. “I was unaware to the degree he had been harassing those fillies and yourself, or the extent he had been using unfortunate pejoratives. I cannot alter your punishments, but rest assured, there will be no permanent mark in your record. However, I cannot in good conscience let you fall behind in class, nor can I let you remain at home for five days with nothing to do. Therefore, I’m sending you home with five days worth of math assignments. Do all the problems in chapters one through five.” He turned to glare at Alabaster. “Give him the book now.”

Sullenly, Alabaster handed over the text. “Here. I had to check one out from the library, since you didn’t have one of your own.” With a deceptive smirk, he added, “Good luck with the problems. Hope they’re not too hard for you.”

“That will be quite enough!” said both Open Book and Professor Roads at the same time. With a bit of a smile to each other, Open Book picked up the conversation from there.

“Prince Alabaster, any more from you and I assure you that I will have no compunction against taking you back before the Proctor.” She narrowed her eyes and then nodded sharply. “Leave now.”

Alabaster did. When the colt was out of sight, Open Book turned to Professor Roads with a slight smile. “I would like to speak with you when I return from walking Storm home. Tea, perhaps?”

“I…” the professor swallowed, and then smiled slowly as if he’d nearly forgotten how. “I would like that very much, Miss Book.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you then.” With a smile and a wink, she led Storm from the school and back towards the orphanage.

“What an amazing mare,” Roads murmured to himself, though he blushed when his thoughts were interrupted by a cough.

“Sorry to bother you, Sir. But the librarian sent me over to see if I could catch either Storm or Alabaster before they left,” said a young unicorn mare. “The Proctor is out, as is Open Book.”

“Unfortunately, Lilac, neither is here. Open Book just left to walk Lightning Storm home. Alabaster was dismissed a few moments before. Is there something I might do to help?”

“Well, Sir… I don’t quite know how to say it, but there’s been a bit of a mix-up in the library. It seems that the text that Prince Alabaster had checked out had its jacket swapped with a collegiate level mathematics book.”

His expression darkening, Roads sighed. “Did Prince Alabaster check out two books, by any chance? One collegiate and the other more grade appropriate?”

“Yes, Sir. We’re hoping we could get an explanation,” Lilac said. “The librarian doesn’t take kindly to such things.”

“Neither do I, Lilac. Neither do I. It seems that Prince Alabaster is a bit of a prankster as well. I do not have access to Lightning Storm’s file and so cannot find out where he lives. We will have to wait until Miss Book returns. Then we shall swap the two books and all will be well.”

“Until tomorrow, Sir. The librarian will want an accounting as to what happened. I’d think that Prince Alabaster will have earned himself another trip to the Proctor’s office at the very least.” Lilac looked a bit surprised, one ear folding down whilst the other remained upright. “I wonder how he thought he could get away with it.”

“He’s young and stupid, Lilac. We were all like that, at his age. Though fortunately with a lot less of an air of superiority.”

“I’m very disappointed in you, Lightning Storm,” Sunny Skies said, disapproval spread across her muzzle. “You didn’t even make it through a full day of school without getting into trouble.”

“I’m sorry, Matron. But please-” Storm tried to explain before being cut off.

“No, Storm. No buts. I understand that you were only trying to help. The fact remains that the Princesses have done a great deal for you and I find it a bit inappropriate for you to repay that kindness by getting suspended your very first day.” Sunny Skies sighed, and rubbed the bridge of her nose.  “Now, you have your homework assignment. You’re going to stay in your room until the assignment is done with the only exceptions being meals and the facilities. You’re lucky that your suspension was lessened to a week. Had it been any longer, and you’d have missed your first flight lesson.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Storm said quietly, staring at the ground. “I’m sorry, Ma’am.” He turned and went into his room, quietly closing the door behind him.

Agate, who had been watching silently nearby, shook her head when his door closed. “I think you were a bit too hard on him, Matron.”

“Excuse me?” Sunny Skies asked, surprised. She hadn’t been expecting that. “That seems a bit presumptuous, dear.”

“Well, you can’t have it both ways.” Agate grinned widely. “I’m either helping you with Storm and the others as they come through, or I’m not. Part of helping you is giving my opinion when I think it’s warranted. Right now, my opinion is that you were way hard on him. Alabaster deserved what Storm dished out and more.”

“That might be, Agate. But it was not Storm’s place to do it,” Sunny Skies rationalized. “The professor should have done it.”

“Mmmhm. But the professor didn’t.  Look, all I’m saying is that I think you were too hard on him. That’s all. Make it up to him later with a day trip to the fountains. I mean, c'mon, he's been cooped up in here for two months recovering from... well whatever he was recovering from. He's still a little colt, and needs to get out there under Celestia's sun!" Agate shrugged and chuckled. “As if that wasn’t enough, he had the misfortune to run into somepony like Alabaster. It could’ve been worse, you know. Could’ve gotten into a fight with him.”

Laughing, Sunny Skies surrendered. “Alright, Agate. Alright. You’ve earned a bit of leniency for him. We’ll review things in the morning. Deal?”

“Deal.” Agate nodded, then arched her back as she stretched in a decidedly feline manner. “Besides, he’s been given a week’s worth of work. Keeping him in his room for a week is just plain mean.”

Well, the sooner I get started the sooner I get out. Maybe it won’t be that bad. It’s just math, Storm thought as he set the text out on the table. Opening the book, he found himself staring at the first few pages. That… that is not long division. This looks familiar. What…?

Something was very strange about this and Storm found himself idly chewing on the quill as he pondered. Well, there’s really only one way to find out if I know this or not. Storm flipped to the end of the first chapter, and looked at the problems listed.  Here goes nothing.

Storm found his mind beginning to blur a little bit, and he thought briefly about going to tell the Matron about it. After his first collapse, they made him promise that if it ever happened again, he’d let them know. Seeing as how he’d just been sent to his room, he didn’t really think they’d believe him. Besides… the math was making sense. It didn’t really matter if he couldn’t see his hoof anymore, but a pink fleshy thing that looked a little bit like Agate’s hand without the scales and claws.

This is so strange. It’s making more sense, now. This is a third order non-linear partial differential equation I’m working on. Been a long time since I’ve done these by hand. Er, hoof. The last time this sort of thing happened, I collapsed. But this time, it just feels like an old friend is coming back and we’re sharing memories. I… I don’t want to stop. I want it all back. I need this. The problem solved, Storm put his quill down and rubbed at his eyes with his hooves.

I need this, Storm thought to himself. He needed this, and he would have it. Soft noises that only he could hear kept him company; memories of another time, a happy time, when he had done such things as this before.

It was several hours later when a soft knock on the door broke Storm free from his mathematical reverie. “Huh…what? Oh… Come in? Oogh. My head hurts.”

“Storm? Open Book and Professor Roads are here. It seems Alabaster played a bit of a prank on you, dear. I’d never have sent you to your room if I’d known,” Sunny Skies said, apologetically. “They’re here to give you the book you’re supposed to have.”

For his part, Storm set his quill down and walked across the floor to give Sunny Skies a warm hug. “Aw! But I like this book. Can’t I keep it?”

Pleased but confused, Sunny Skies returned the hug. “You like this book?” She quirked an eyebrow curiously before leading Storm out into the common area of the orphanage.

“Hee!” Storm nodded. “Yeah, I really like it. I’m remembering a whole lot more, now. I’ve got almost all my math back!” He turned to look over at Open Book and Professor Roads. “Can I please keep the book? It just started getting good in chapter five! It just got into time-scale calculus!”

Silence settled across the room. First to recover was Professor Roads who coughed. “You… know what that is, Storm? Are you certain?”

“Yeah, it’s neat! It unifies the theory of difference equations with differential equations. I think chapter six deals with fractional calculus!” Storm was practically bouncing in place. “Please?”

“How…” Open Book stuttered. “How can… how can he know these things?”

“He can’t. It’s impossible. He’s just a foal!” Roads said, shaking his head vehemently.

Agate opened her beak to say something but was promptly shut down by a warning glare from Sunny Skies.

Storm for his part simply stuck out his tongue and blew a rude sounding raspberry. “Okay, I’ll prove it. Pick any problem out of that book, and if I solve it, I get to keep it.”

“Sounds reasonable to me!” Agate said before anypony else could say a word. “I’ll go get the book!” She came back, meeting the disapproving glances of her elders. “What? Give the colt a chance. He’ll either get it or he won’t. What’s the worst that can happen, anyway? He gets a math problem wrong?”

“She’s got a point,” Open Book said with a slight smile. “Alright.” She flipped through the pages a bit, and pointed out the problem to Storm. “Here’s the problem for you, Storm. Take as much time as you need, okay?”

“Hah! This one’ll be easy. Fractional conservation of mass!” Storm busily started scrawling equations and solutions on the parchment provided and had the problem worked out in a reasonable amount of time.

For a second time that evening, a profound silence blanketed the room. Open Book handed the math text to Roads, who flipped to the back of the book to check the answer. He shook his head. “Amazing. He gets to keep the book.” He looked over at Open Book, then glanced at Sunny Skies. “He’s got the right answer. He shouldn’t be able to touch this sort of mathematics for another fifteen years or so, but…” His voice slowly petered out.

“We’re going to have to tell the Proctor about this,” Open Book said quietly. “She’ll want to talk to you, Storm.”

Storm’s feathers puffed up, and he swallowed. “I… I didn’t do anything wrong! Professor Roads, tell them! You assigned me five chapters of math homework and I did it!” He began to tremble in fear and worry.

There was no shortage of comfort for the foal. “Shh. No, dear. You did nothing wrong. In fact, you did something very right!” Sunny Skies and Open Book both had lay down at Storm’s side, pressing to the foal warmly. “You’re not in any trouble at all. In fact, I think the Princesses are going to want to see just how good at math you are!”

“Hey, kid,” Agate added with a grin. “Look at it this way. You just proved you don’t need fifteen years of math schooling. That’s something to celebrate, not punish.”

“Promise?” Storm asked, offering  a weak smile. If Agate said it was okay, then he knew it was.

The three adults and Agate all answered simultaneously. “Promise!”

Sunny Skies looked at the wall clock and smiled. “Well, it’s just about dinner time. Could I interest any pony in supper?”

Me!” Storm said enthusiastically. “I’m hungry!”

Everypony burst into laughter, almost downing out Storm’s plaintive, “What?”

No matter how many times a pony visited the Royal Palace in Canterlot, it never ceased to amaze. It was especially powerful the first time one stepped into the main audience chamber and looked upon the halls where history itself tended to unfold. The architecture was physically impossible but for the efforts of the unicorn artisans that perpetually maintained the structure with special magic that had been perfected over hundreds of years. The structure was utterly spotless, with perfectly manicured gardens interspersed with magnificent statues from craftsponies long departed.

It was all quite overwhelming for one young pegasus foal who found himself alternately trying to hide under either Agate’s or Sunny Skies’ wings when he wasn’t investigating this or that whilst the Royal Guard were leading them towards a comfortably small meeting room. Fortunately, the guards were both patient and tolerant; they were family ponies and well understood how it was with a colt that age.

Soon, they were ushered into a space that more resembled a living room with fireplace than a meeting chamber. The guardsponies stepped in and took positions on either side of the door while Agate and Sunny Skies tries to get Storm settled. They managed to get him out of the ‘I’m going to hide under your wing’ phase and into the ‘Just make sure I can see you’ phase just in time to bow as the doors opened and the Princesses both entered.

“Rise, my ponies, rise, please.” Celestia smiled as she gestured. “Make yourselves comfortable.” Once everypony had risen and taken their seats, Celestia looked over to Lightning Storm. “You are looking quite a bit better than the last time I saw you, Storm. How do you feel?”

“F.. Fine, your Majesty. How are you?” Storm looked over at Sunny Skies who didn’t happen to notice. Agate did, however, and lifted her wing so that he could hide underneath it a bit. Storm took her up on the offer, scooting under the proffered wing and peeking out from relative safety.

Luna laughed softly as she settled onto her cushion. “Storm, you’re not in any additional trouble at all. I promise. We’re only here to talk to you about what you did tonight.”

Storm’s ears perked up and he nodded a bit. “Okay…”

Celestia smiled gently. “You are not going to come out, are you.”

“Nuh-uh,” Storm agreed as he shook his head.

“Well, that’s fine, dear. I was wondering if you could look at something for me. I have a math problem I would like you to look at. Would you do that for me?” Celestia couldn’t help but have her heart melt a bit; the foals were so adorable when they looked up at her like that.

This got Storm’s attention. Though he still hid under Agate’s wing, he sat up a bit and peeked out more visibly. “Okay!”

“I want you to look this over and tell me what you think, okay?” Luna slid the parchment over, and Storm reached out with a hoof to unfold it and look it over.

“Um…” Storm said, scrunching his muzzle. “Where’s the rest of it?” He looked up, confused. “It’s missing a lot in the middle here. There’s not enough for me to figure out what it’s supposed to be.”

“Very good,” Celestia said, nodding softly. “That was exactly the case. It was not meant to be solvable, but to tell if you knew what you were looking at. Ready for the real challenge?”

“Uh-huh!” Storm took the next scroll, and looked at it, then giggled. “Hee. I know what this is! May I have a quill?”

“I don’t know,” Luna said, tapping her chin with a mischievous grin. “Are you going to come out from under Agate’s wing?”

“Thbbbt!” Storm stuck his tongue out, but crawled from under Agate’s wing to sit at her side, instead. With much laughing, Luna offered Storm a quill and he set to work. “It’s a Doppler shift equation.”

“A… what?” Luna asked, looking at Celestia quizzically.

“Doppler shift! You know! Like if you were yelling really loud while flying. Your voice would sound higher as you flew toward us, but sound lower as you were flying away. You can use it for light, sound, just about anything that makes a noise or emits anything while in motion.” Storm rubbed his temple a bit.

“Are you alright, Storm?” Sunny Skies asked, watching him with a concerned expression.

Storm smiled and nodded. “I’m fine! Head just gets a bit hurty when I think really hard like that. It’s already gone, promise.”

“What do you think, Celestia?” Luna asked. “His math is good. Very good.”

“I agree, Luna.” Celestia turned to Storm. “I have a favor to ask of you. Would you be willing to take a look at something for me?”

“Of course, Princess! I’d be happy to. What is it?” Storm’s ears perked up; it was rare for the Princess to ask anything of anypony!

“A very long time ago, my mother left. Before she departed, she locked the door to her study with some form of puzzle and also enchanted it so that neither my sister nor I could open the door. Would you like to see if you can figure it out?”

Hope surged within Celestia and Luna both as Storm nodded. “Of course! I’m good at puzzles!”

“Right this way, then. I’ll take you to Mother’s study,” Celestia said in a subdued tone.

The study was right down the hallway from the room they’d been in and yet clearly stood apart from every other structure in the castle. Whereas most doors were finely carved wood, this one was a plain door that was covered in odd symbols and numbers. The hinges were finely polished brass, and the frame itself seemed to glow with an inner light.

Storm rubbed the side of his head as he looked it over. “Ooh. This is complicated…” His eyes narrowed, and he gestured with his hoof as his muzzle mouthed out things silently.

“Do you need anything, Storm?” Luna asked softly. “Anything at all?”

“Mmm. Jasmine, I’m going to need a really big table, a whole lot of paper, and all the pens you can get your hands on.” Storm rubbed his chin. “This is going to suck, but I’m pretty sure I can do it.”

“Jasmine? Who’s Jasmine? Storm, are you alright?” Celestia asked, growing concerned.

“Mmh?” Storm turned and smiled. “I’m fine, Princess. Never better, I promise!”

The guards looked at each other uncertainly, and then over to Celestia. “Princess?”

“If you would, please,” Celestia whispered. “See about getting a workbench and the other things he asked for. I will remain and see if I can figure out what’s going on.”

“Now, if that… then…” Storm mumbled to himself.  “Woah. Woah.”

“Storm? What’s wrong?” Celestia said, stepping forward to glance at the door.

“Princess? Why would Jennifer be messing around with two kinds of time dilation? This one is dilation due to a gravitational source. This one here? This one is due to relative velocities.”

“Jennifer?” Celestia glanced over at Luna, who shrugged. “Who is Jennifer?”

Storm didn’t answer but lost himself once more in the math instead. The world was still a little off from earlier, so he slipped into the ‘unreality’ of it without even noticing. He smiled as he caught sight of Agate. “Dee? Could you check on my daughter for me? I was supposed to tuck her into bed, but got wrapped up in work.”

“Um… sure. Of course. Be happy to,” Agate said, worriedly. “I’ll do that right now!” Agate quietly walked over to the Princesses before asking, “What is going on?”

“His mind slipped into itself,” Celestia said with a sigh. “I… did not anticipate this happening. There should have been warning signs before it happened. We never should have tried this!”

“Um. There probably were, Princess… it’s not your fault.” Agate sighed and shook her head as she was stared at. “Probably earlier tonight. He’d just been sent to his room with a cartload of homework. Homework that should have been too advanced for him.”

“Did he say anything to you?” Luna asked, watching Storm as he stared at the door. “Anything at all?”

“No, and he wouldn’t have. He just got sent to his room. Would you have believed him if he’d come out and said that he’d gotten a headache, or things started to go weird? I wouldn’t have. I’d have thought he was trying to get out of doing the work.” Sunny Skies interjected. “He probably thought the same thing and just toughed it out. The question is, what do we do now? Do we leave him like that or do we try and snap him out of it?”

Luna considered. By now, the guards had brought the table, paper, and quills and Storm was busily writing away. She ignited her horn, and watched him for a few minutes, then shook her head. “We can’t interrupt him right now. He’s almost in a kind of dream state, but it isn’t normal. It’s too risky, unless something goes wrong. Something else goes wrong, I mean.”

There was nothing to do but wait. Over the next three hours, Storm didn’t even budge from the table and he went through easily a dozen quills, several stacks of paper, and three large glasses of apple juice. Finally, Storm stopped and simply sat immobile after flipping the last page face-down.

“Storm…?” Sunny Skies asked, worried. “Are you alright?”

“M…Miss Skies? I… I don’t… I don’t feel good. My head hurts real bad. Could somepony help me up? I need to get to the door, but I can’t seem to make my feet work.”

“Oh, no!” cried Celestia as Storm lifted his head. His eyes were all but fogged over with a silver sheen, and small lines of that same silver material were slowly dripping from his nose and ears. “Guard! Get the doctor, now!

It was rare that Celestia used The Royal Voice and when she did, it got results. One of the guards tore off down the hallway at break-neck speed while the other interposed himself between the Princesses and Storm.

“Please?” Storm asked, weakly. “I can’t get to the door on my own. I need to, to finish.”

“No, Storm. You rest, now. The doctor is on his way,” Celestia managed in a deceptively calm voice. In reality, she was just this side of a panic.

“In…” Storm swallowed, wiping a bit of the silver fluid from his muzzle with a hoof. “In a few minutes, the problem is gonna change. Then I’ll hafta do it all over again. Next time, I might not be able to. It was real hard.”

“Just tell me, Storm. I will solve it for you, dear. You really do need to rest.” Celestia smiled gently, and nosed at Storm’s cheek. The foal was burning up.

Storm thought about that for a moment, then turned his foggy, silver-eyed gaze to Celestia.


Neither Princess was very happy and what made it worse was that there was nothing they could do about it. Storm had passed out immediately after refusing to share the answer to the riddle, and that left the question of ‘why not?’ unanswered for the time being.

Then Doctor Coltle had come and bundled Storm up to carry him to the hospital, but not before delivering the most politely worded condemnation either Princess had ever heard in their thousands of years of life. The upbraiding stung particularly because it mirrored their private fears, that they had put their own desire ahead of Storm’s welfare.

It hadn’t seemed that way at the time, of course. They’d certainly never intended Storm to be hurt. But as the Princesses watched Coltle, Agate, and Sunny Skies head to the hospital with Storm, they could at least acknowledge that it could be viewed that they had rushed the foal into this situation before he was ready for it.

This then led to the current discussion between the two sisters, and it was one that they both agreed should happen in their private chambers. Celestia dispatched a letter requesting the presence of her pupil, Twilight Sparkle, and then poured herself a glass of wine.

“Share your thoughts with me, Luna?” Celestia asked as she sipped the chilled wine. “I have cancelled Court today, so we have all the time needed.”

Luna nodded, and glanced over her shoulder at Celestia as her eyes flashed with restrained anger. In a deceptively calm and rational voice, Luna asked, “I wish to talk to you about lies, Celly. Lies, and betrayal of trust.”

That statement brought Celestia up short. Shocked, she raised an eyebrow and set the flute of wine down, lest she drop it. “That is an unexpected topic, Luna. Is everything alright?”

“No.” Luna gritted her teeth, then struggled to relax. “I am… upset with them. Thanks to their lie about the foal’s condition, Lightning Storm nearly died. Thanks to them, we nearly lost the one pony in over three thousand years that might possibly open that door and finally answer the question that’s been gnawing at us for so long.”

“Lulu… they did not lie. They did not say anything about him. Do you not think you are overreacting?” Celestia asked cautiously.

“I wish I could agree with you, Celly. I truly do. However, a lie of omission is still a lie. They did not inform us of Lightning Storm’s status. Because of that, we pushed the foal into a situation he was clearly not ready for.” Luna hung her head, closing her eyes tightly. “Because of them, we nearly killed a foal, Celly. The ultimate betrayal of trust.”

Celestia moved forward, and draped a wing over Luna, pulling her close as she gently nuzzled her mane. “No, dear sister. It is not that, not at all. Mistakes were made, absolutely. But now we know what to watch for and can prevent it from happening again.” Grinning slightly, she whispered into Luna’s ear, “Also consider how Agate and Sunny Skies feel. Surely they feel like they failed both Storm and us. They are punishing themselves, and do not need any more. Let it go, Luna. We have other things to speak of.”

Though it took a moment, Luna finally did unclench her teeth and nodded as she sighed. “I will try. Because you ask it, and because I want very much for you to be right, I will try.” Her eyes narrowed a bit as she looked at the door. “I will watch more closely, however, and not rely quite as much on what I am told.”

“I as well,” Celestia agreed. “We must be careful not to grow to distrust them, but we also must always temper what we are told with what we see for ourselves. On to other matters. I would like your opinion on giving Lightning Storm a stipend for living expenses. After today, I should think that it would be good to keep him nearby.”

“I agree, and we can take care of that from our personal coffers as opposed to the taxes or levies.” Luna smiled weakly from under her sister’s wing. “After all, we do want him nearby for selfish reasons such as bringing our parents home.” Luna shook her head as Celestia started to speak and interrupted her. “I’m not saying we don’t have viable public reasons to keep him near. His instability is almost reason enough, and when coupled with his frightening grasp of mathematics and the physical sciences it becomes a virtual necessity for public safety.”

Laughing, Celestia nodded again. “And it isn’t as if we ever use the bits in our private coffers anyhow. The ponies make sure we never want for anything. Very well. We can take care of Storm’s expenses ourselves, much like I tend to Twilight’s in Ponyville. What do you think of us taking a more active role in tutoring and raising Storm? It would give us more of an opportunity to observe him directly and get a sense of his personality.”

Luna began to pace around the room after slipping out from underneath Celestia’s wing. Chewing her lower lip thoughtfully, Luna shook her head. “That is tempting. Sorely tempting. It’s also why we shouldn’t do it. I’m sorry, Celly… but I think that’s a bad idea, after all. In fact, I think we should send him out of Canterlot for a while. Perhaps to Cloudsdale, as there is a flight school class starting up soon.”

“Luna, did we not just make the case for keeping him close? Now you’re wanting to send him away?” Celestia asked curiously as she watched her sister pace. “Why?”

“Temptation, Celly.” Luna sighed, lowering her head a bit. “It’s safe to say that we have everypony’s best interests at heart. But Storm might be the sole exception to that, and we might not even realize we’re doing it.” She paced a few more moments before turning to look her sister in the eyes. “Consider. We have already rushed him to solve the riddle of the door. I am, I admit, sorely tempted to move Storm’s hospital bed to the hallway outside Mother’s study and keep him right there until he opens it. We’re so close, Celly! So close it hurts. Add in the fact that this, Storm bringing our parents home… it’s the first thing we’ve actually wanted that another could provide?” She chewed her lower lip again before snorting in resignation. “I do not think we can trust ourselves not to influence him subtly into opening the door before he’s fully healed and ready.” She shrugged, managing only a half-smile. “He’s going to need to go to flight school anyway. Moving him to Cloudsdale gets him into the class sooner and moves him from under our eyes.”

Celestia pondered that for a moment, then nodded slowly. “Away from where we might find excuses to go see him, and to ask him how he is feeling constantly. This would urge him without directly asking him to finish.”

“Exactly. At flight camp, he’ll be out under the sun and getting physical exercise. We can let the flight doctors know about Storm and his uniqueness so they can keep eyes on him and let us know if anything happens,” Luna reasoned.

“This makes sense. I do have some ideas as to what happened, as well. Let me sound them off of you, and if you agree, we can pass it on to the medical staff.” When Luna nodded, Celestia continued. “Let us review what we know. We know that Lightning Storm died. We know that something tore a hole between worlds, and something on the other side of that hole brought Storm back to life and placed a different mind and soul inside.”

“Right, but that does not explain why he’s collapsed twice, or why he bleeds silver. Silver, I might add, that evaporates into nothing soon after being shed.”

“Doesn’t it? I wonder.” Now it was Celestia’s turn to pace while she shared her thoughts. “A soul is either present or not; there is no in-between. The mind can move about, to an extent. Both times Storm collapsed, he was drawing very heavily on what he knew from the other world.”

Luna blinked, then nodded. “First a lullaby to his daughter and then very high order mathematics, possibly related to his profession. Do you think his mind was attempting to return from whence it came?”

“It does make sense, does it not?” Celestia asked, taking another sip from the wine glass. “Since his mind and soul are not fully adapted to his body, nor are they firmly grounded here in Equestria yet, it might just be possible for the mind to literally start tearing itself free from the body and take the soul with it.”

“If that’s the case, then sending him off to flight school just became a necessity. It’s one of the single most defining times in a pegasus’ life! If that doesn’t ground him in Equestria, then it ought to certainly start the process,” reasoned Luna.

“Integrating him with other pegasi would certainly help build a sense of community,” Celestia murmured.

“But that doesn’t explain him bleeding silver. Unless…” Luna blinked. “What if the silver is at least partly responsible for him being alive in the first place?”

“Precisely.” Celestia set her glass back down and stretched a bit, arching her back and wings. “It explains a bit. If his mind was tearing away, then the silver material might be repairing the damage.”

“I daresay that pretty much settles that.” Luna helped herself to a bit of the wine too, nibbling on a celery stalk for a moment while she considered. “Alright, I’m satisfied with that theory if you are.  But what now?”

“I think we have done all we can for the moment. We will have to make arrangements for Storm to be taken to Cloudsdale, and start an account for him in the Royal Treasury. Aside from that, I do not think there is much to do.” Celestia grinned slowly. “Aside from one little thing. Pinkie Pie.”

“That…” Luna laughed as the tension of the previous discussion evaporated suddenly. “That would not leave two stones touching each other in all of Canterlot, Celly! If Pinkie Pie plans our parents’ coming home party, there is simply no way the castle will survive intact. I approve.”

A short time later, there was a knock on the door and one of the Guards opened the door a bit and peeked in. “Princess Celestia? Princess Luna? Miss Twilight Sparkle is here to see you.”

“Excellent! Please show her in.” Celestia smiled warmly, and glanced over at Luna. “I do hope you do not mind. I use her as a sounding board for many things, and I value her opinion.”

Luna grinned and mock-sniffed in derision. “Fine, I see how it is, Sis! Value her opinion more than mine. That’s alright!”

Twilight Sparkle walked over to the royal sisters as they were embracing and laughing. She sighed a bit in relief, and smiled herself before bowing. “Princesses. I was a bit worried when I received your letter. You said you had information on that beam of light a few months ago, and I feared the worst. But if you’re laughing, surely the news couldn’t be that bad.”

“No, my dear student. It is not bad at all.” Celestia smiled, tears welling in her eyes. “In fact, many things are starting to go very right.  I do not wish to ruin the story or get too far ahead of myself, either.” She inhaled deeply, then let it out in a slow breath. “Alright. To start from the beginning, there is indeed news about the beam of light.”

Luna nodded. “Indeed, Twilight. What happened was that something that was most definitely not magic tore a hole between another world and our own.” Luna managed a more genuine smile. “Now here is where things start to get interesting. Something came across that tunnel and brought a recently deceased foal back to life with a foreign mind and spirit.”

Twilight’s eyes went wide and she gasped. “But that’s impossible! Magic can’t bring the dead back!”

Celestia nodded in agreement. “Technically, it… re-animated the body. Bringing the dead back to life implies the same mind and soul; that is not the case here. The entity residing inside the foal’s body is definitely not the original. Also, it wasn’t magic that did it.”

“But… I don’t understand. Dead? As in… dead dead?” Twilight still looked shocked, but her mind was whirling with the possibilities.

“He had ceased to be,” Celestia confirmed with a little nod.

“I… I don’t understand…” Twilight looked between Luna and Celestia in confusion. She started to ask something else, but was interrupted by Luna.

“He kicked the bucket, popped the twig, bit the du-” Luna ticked off the euphemisms before being interrupted.

“Luna… I think she understands.” Celestia grinned and shook her head.

“Sorry,” Luna said as she stifled a grin. “Anyhow, the foal is alive now. He’s got a terrifyingly strong grasp of mathematics… Remember the locked door?”

“The one to your mother’s study?” When Luna nodded, Twilight continued. “I do. I spent hours trying to figure out what it was.” She grinned sheepishly. “I so wanted to solve that for you but I just never could understand it. I still look at it now and then to give it another try.”

“The foal solved it in three hours.”  Luna grinned widely. “He solved it, Twilight!”

Twilight’s eyes grew wide and a brilliant smile split her muzzle. “But… that’s wonderful!” She began to pace instinctively as she went into full-on planning mode. “They’re not here, so obviously you have them in seclusion. Good idea, that. Now, I’ll make it my top priority to complete a dual course of study in ancient history so I can relate to your parents as well as a crash-course in cultural adaptation. I think if I work at it, I can have enough functional knowledge of their time-”

“Twilight!” Celestia laughed.

“… to hold at least two or three reasonably interesting conversations with them inside of a day or two. That’s not even counting things that come up while talking with them! Now, once I have an idea as to how they’re doing, I can come up with-”

Twilight!” Luna yelled, rolling her eyes.

“… a plan to start re-integrating them into pony society. That’s going to be the hard part, because it’s not just them we need to prepare. But I think with a few additions to the educational curriculum, we can have everypony ready in-” Twilight didn’t even break step as she continued with her planning.

“Canterlot voice?” Luna asked Celestia as she shook her head. “I don’t know anything else will actually stop her.”

“Canterlot voice. It is the only way to be sure,” Celestia agreed.

The Princesses stood far enough apart along Twilight’s path so that the young mare would have to pass between them. When she did, they let her have it. “Twilight!

“..a few ye-Ahhhhhhh!” Twilight’s hooves slid out from under her and she found herself flat on the floor with a  pair of grinning Princesses staring down at her. “Er… heh. I was overdoing it, wasn’t I?”

“Just a bit,” Celestia agreed with an amused smile. She levitated her pupil up and set her back on her hooves. “We were trying to tell you that the door has not yet been opened. He has solved the problem, but collapsed before he could actually open the door.”

“We have also decided to send Lightning Storm to Cloudsdale for flight school once he is out of the hospital. This should help start the process of integrating him with Equestria, and ground his mind and spirit here.” Luna sighed, looking down. “This is both for his benefit, and ours. We fear we would be tempted to urge him to open the door before he is actually ready to do so. Also, Celestia and I have determined that he collapsed due to the strain on his mind when he drew upon knowledge from whence he came. Because he’s not grounded here, yet… his mind tried to go back.”

Twilight nodded a bit, rubbing her chin. “That would cause a great deal of problems. Astral projection always requires a firm grounding lest the mind simply dissipate. Yes, that’s a brilliant idea, Princess!”

Luna arched an eyebrow and could not resist teasing Twilight a bit. “We are glad you approve,” she murmured.

Blushing, Twilight chuckled and rubbed the back of her head with a hoof. “Aheh. Sorry, Princess Luna. But there’s another benefit to this. I know you both have waited so long for your parents to return, but this gives me a lot more time to do research and plan an appropriate course of action.”

Sharing a glance, Celestia and Luna both voiced the same question simultaneously. “Plan? What is there to plan?”

“Princess, you can’t just throw your parents back into society!” Twilight said, shocked. “From what you’ve told me, the only thing even keeping Lightning Storm sane is the fact that he does not completely remember where he came from. So, he has nothing to compare Equestria to. Yes, that’s changing slowly as his mind heals. But it’s happening slowly.”

“I do not understand, Twilight.” Luna tilted her head to the side, which made part of her mane slide over an eye. She brushed it to the side. “Our parents are coming home.”

“Princess Luna, I’m sorry for putting it quite like this, but…” Twilight sighed, and dared to rest a hoof on Luna’s shoulder. “You of all ponies already know why it’s a bad idea. When you were freed from Nightmare Moon, yes… I know. There was no time to prepare you. There was no other option but to toss you into society as a whole. Even so, you secluded yourself for a full year and studied to bring yourself more up to speed.” Twilight winced in sympathy, for bringing up Nightmare Moon always hurt Luna’s feelings.

Luna closed her eyes and nodded. “What you say is true, Twilight. However, I do not understand why the plan is needed, nor why alterations to the educational system must be enacted.”

“Oh, Princess…” Twilight whispered softly. “Since it is going to be some time before Storm is ready to open the door… and I still say that’s good for him, too… we can work on sparing your parents the abrupt changes that you experienced. We can come up with an orderly course of study for them, combining history, politics, economics that will smooth the massive gaps in their knowledge. Rather than do as you had to do, we can structure things and lead them down the most efficient path to get them ready to be in society much more quickly this way.”

Celestia nodded, gently enfolding Luna in a wing. “I wish I had that option for you, dear Luna. I feel Twilight is right. Perhaps you might work with her and formulate such a plan based on your experiences.”

“It really would be best, Princess Luna. Especially when you consider that with the sole exceptions of their daughters, everypony they ever knew passed away long ago. They are going to need you two very badly in the coming years. They are going to need a great deal of your time, and as much of it as you might possibly spare. You two are all they will have to hold on to.”

“And the educational system? What of that?” Luna asked quietly. The joy she felt in her parent’s impending return was being rapidly mitigated by the real problems Twilight was pointing out.

“There’s a very real difference between your parents and yourself, Princess Luna.” Twilight glanced worriedly over to Celestia, but then continued. “You, the ponies knew of. Be it through legends and family stories or in the case of books like the Elements of Harmony, there were at least crumbs of knowledge that linked you to society. They knew there had been another Princess. They knew something had happened to them. You were at least known to them. Not well, but they knew your name. Outside of this room, there may… may… be three or four ponies in all of Equestria that even knew there had been a King or Queen.”

“Twilight, what precisely are you saying?” Celestia asked as a feeling of uncertainty built within her.

“I’m sorry, Princess Celestia.” Twilight sighed and looked up at her beloved mentor with true sorrow in her eyes. “Your parents have been forgotten. Ponies will be absolutely delighted to find out that their beloved Princesses have had their parents returned to them, don’t doubt that for an instant. But along with that knowledge will come some very tough questions for them. Not the least of which will be, ‘What now?’”

Twilight began to pace while gesturing with her hoof. “They will be afraid, and be wondering if you plan to abdicate the throne. They don’t know your parents, but they do know you. Their loyalty is to you and not to them. How could they possibly relate to your parents after an absence of thirty five hundred years? At least with Princess Luna there were some marginal cultural similarities. But thirty five hundred years ago? There’s almost nothing. That’s why we don’t dare pull your parents home without a careful plan to not only educate them but also Equestria. To do anything else would be simply cruel to both.”

After a long minute, Celestia smiled weakly with tears in her eyes. “Twilight Sparkle. When did you become so wise?”

“I’m so sorry, Princess. I didn’t mean to hurt either of you, I promise!” Twilight tucked her head in under Celestia’s, and hugged her. “But as to wisdom, I was taught by one of the best. How could it not rub off on me?”

A few tears were shed, but in the close company of three friends, hurts were eased and comfort provided. The three mares had just managed to dry the last of their tears when a soft knocking came on the door. This time, the guard did not poke his head into the room.

“Princess? We have just received a messenger from the hospital. Lightning Storm is starting to wake up. You had asked that you be informed.”

“Thank you, dear. If you would ready a chariot for my sister and I as well as Twilight, I would be grateful. We need a few moments to prepare and we shall be along shortly,” Celestia said in her warmest of voices.

The guard blinked at the informal address, but slowly smiled. It was always nice to be acknowledged in such fashion. “Of course, Princess. I shall tend to it immediately and have it ready in ten minutes. We shall, of course, await your pleasure.”

The flight to the hospital was fortunately both short and uneventful; the three mares had had quite enough surprises for one day. They were brought up to the private wing, where Doctor Coltle was waiting for them.

“Princesses, if I might have a word with you?” Doctor Coltle asked in his trademark grumble.

“Of course, Doctor. But before you justifiably rant at us again, let us at least outline our plans for Storm’s immediate future,” Celestia asked. When Coltle nodded, she filled him in on their thoughts about sending him to flight school as well as their theories as to why he might collapse after some kind of emotional shock or mental effort and wind up bleeding silver.

Coltle pondered that for a few moments then nodded begrudgingly. “Alright. That makes a fair deal of sense. I’ll draw up a medical dossier and have it ready to go within the week. However, it has absolutely nothing to do with what I wanted to talk to you about.” Coltle gestured with a hoof towards the door to Storm’s room, upon which a clipboard hung. “That is his medical chart as of this moment. It bears remarkable resemblance to the one I made upon his last checkup. In fact, I would go so far to say as it is identical in all the salient details.”

“As I recall, Doctor, his last checkup saw him with a clean bill of health. Would this not be a good thing?” Celestia asked.

“Ordinarily, it would,” Coltle agreed. “However, there are some inconsistencies.”

“Wait. Didn’t you just say that it was identical?” Twilight asked.

Coltle simply turned his gaze to Twilight and stared at her.

Blushing, Twilight mumbled, “Sorry for interrupting.”

“To answer the question, the checkup is a good thing, yes. This one being identical, however, is not. Heart rate varies. His doesn’t. It’s rock-steady. Blood pressure varies. His doesn’t. It is precisely what it was, before. But that is not what is truly concerning to me. It’s his weight.”

“What’s wrong with his weight?” Luna asked as she levitated the chart over. “It’s well within the normal range for foals. In fact, he hasn’t gained an ounce.”

That got Twilight’s attention. “Wait, not an ounce? He’s what, between seven and nine years old? Isn’t he due for his first growth spurt soon?”

“He is indeed, Miss Sparkle,” Coltle confirmed. “And what does that tell you?”

“It means he’s not growing. He should be putting on weight in preparation for that growth cycle. If he’s not, then that means he’s not going to get it.”

“Have you considered a career in medicine, Miss Sparkle? Because you’re right. He’s not growing at all, that I can tell.” Coltle acknowledged Twilight’s thoughts with an appreciative nod. “We’ve even tried getting a look at the growth regions on his bones, but something’s blocking us. X-rays are useless. In that medical dossier I’ll prepare for the flight instructors at Cloudsdale, I’m going to include a request that his weight be checked daily and that he be put on vitamin supplements. I’ll know more in a few weeks. Once he gets exercise, he’ll either start to put on weight like it was going out of style, or he’s going to start to streamline. If he gains weight, he’ll be fine. If he does not, then we will have to take a much closer look.”

“Understood, Doctor. Thank you for informing us,” Celestia said, kindly. “Is it alright to go see Storm now?”

“It is. Agate and Sunny Skies are in there now. Storm’s taking his own sweet time waking up, that’s for certain. I will be nearby if you need me.” Coltle set the papers back on the chart hanger, and then stepped to the side as a guard opened the door for and closed it behind the Princesses.

“C’mon, Storm. Wake up now,” Agate said softly, teasing at Storm’s nose with her wingfeathers.

For his part, Storm simply made a sleepy noise and tried to bat the offending feather away.

“Heh. Come on, kid. The Princesses are here to see you. Don’t want to keep them waiting, do you?”

Agate tried tickling Storm’s nose again, but the foal managed to wrap a foreleg around her wing and roll over onto his side, pinning it.  With a soft ‘Aumf’ noise, Storm started chewing on Agate’s wing-tip in his sleep.

“Awwwwww!” Twilight whispered, a sentiment echoed by the Princesses as well. “Isn’t that just adorable?”

Tugging gently on her wing to free it, Agate chuckled. “Yeah, the kid has his moments, doesn’t he? C’mon, Storm… time to wake up.”

“Sis!” Storm complained from around a muzzle full of feathers. “S’mine! Lemme…”

Agate froze, and her cheeks flushed softly. “Sis…?”

Celestia smiled and gently disentangled Agate’s wing from Storm’s embrace. “I think, Agate, that little Storm has adopted you as his big sister. Not a bad choice, I think.”

“Yeah, I.. ah.. I mean…” Agate fell silent as Sunny Skies gently enfolded her in a hug and shared a knowing look with her.

“Come, Storm. Wake up, now.” Celestia gently wrapped the foal in her magic and rolled him onto his belly.

“Mmh..?” Storm’s eyes opened blearily and he blinked a few times. “Princess Celestia?”

“How do you feel, Storm?” Celestia asked kindly.

Glancing over to Agate and Sunny Skies, he snorted softly. “Not hungry, thanks. A little sleepy. But okay otherwise, I think.”

“Are you sure?” Sunny Skies asked with a mischievous grin to Agate. “Agate could go get something for you, if you wished.”

Cheeks flushed crimson, Agate opened her beak to issue some reply when Princess Celestia diplomatically interrupted.

“I’d like to introduce you to my dear student, Twilight Sparkle. Would it be okay if we talked to you a little while?” Celestia stepped forward, gesturing with a wing to Twilight.

“Mmhmm,” Storm replied before yawning widely, tongue curling. He lifted up in his bed a bit, flared his wings, and gave himself a good shake before settling back down.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Storm!” Twilight said softly. “The Princesses told me you solved the door?”

Storm winced, and rubbed the back of his head. “Ow! I don’t even wanna think about that, right now. That sucked!” He blinked and blushed. “Er, sorry, Miss Sparkle. Didn’t mean to be rude.”

Twilight giggled, covering her mouth with a hoof. “That’s okay. The phrase is… oddly appropriate.”

“I know it made your head hurt, and I will not ask you about the answer directly. But I would like to know why you would not let me know what the answer was, if that is okay?” Celestia asked.

Storm stopped rubbing his head. “Because I can’t.”

“Why not?” Luna asked curiously. “Students have been answering math problems from professors for aeons.”

“Not this kind of math. If I told you, then the answer would change.” Storm shrugged. “And I really don’t want to try and solve that again. That hurt.”

“Well, there is some magical precedents for that,” Twilight thought aloud as she rubbed her chin. “I mean, there’s a few potions that require steps done in absolute darkness.  A few summoning spells require the caster to be alone and keep their eyes closed. If they open their eyes at any point in time, the spell is guaranteed to fail.” Turning her gaze to Storm, she tilted her head to the side and asked, “Is it like that?”

“Kinda. Um… hm. Oh!  I’ve got an idea. Okay, see if this makes sense. Let’s say I’ve got a box. In that box is a book. The box is closed, and no light can get in or out so there’s no peeking. Is the book open or closed?” Storm stretched again, then curled up as he looked at the mares that were looking intently at him.

“We won’t know for sure until we open the box,” Twilight said. “We can’t see it, so we can’t tell.”

“Right. So, in a way, it can be argued that the book is open, closed, or even both at the same time. We won’t know the difference until we look,” Storm agreed.

“But a book can’t be open and closed at the same time,” Twilight said. “It’s impossible.”

“Well, yeah. But it’s only an analogy. There are some things that can be on and off at the same time. Positive and negative. Spin left and right. This is where things can get weird. Sometimes just looking at it can make it change!” Storm giggled. “It’s kinda neat when you think about it. It’d be like me putting a closed book in the box and when you open the box, the book is open too.”

“So, the door’s riddle was the same way?” Luna asked.

“Yeah. I think that’s why it wasn’t solved for so long. Ponies think that math is an absolute. Zero or one. Yes or no. The problem wasn’t really solvable unless you could allow for ‘maybe’.” Storm stuck his tongue out and made a sour face. “It’s also a great way to get the mother of all headaches if you’re not ready for it.”

“I am sorry about that, Storm.” Celestia lowered her head a bit. “I did not intend for you to be hurt.”

“No, it’s okay, Princess! Really!” Storm smiled. “I’m just glad it’s done and don’t really want to do it again if I don’t have to.”

“But you do know the answer?” Celestia asked hopefully.

“Nope.” Storm shook his head emphatically. “I solved the math, but remember… I won’t know until I open the box. Or in this case, the door.”

“But... What about your papers?” Luna asked, almost plaintively. “We looked them over, and they were blank.”

“Oh! That’d mean I did the math right. I think the door erased the parchment so that the answer couldn’t change. But I still don’t know what it is. Remember, the book could be open, closed, or both. I won’t know which until I actually open the door.”

“I’m confused,” Twilight complained.

“Don’t worry,” Storm giggled. “You get used to it after a while.”

“Twilight, Storm will explain it to you later. For now, I think we need to fill him in on the upcoming plans and then let him get some rest,” Celestia said firmly. “Now, then. Storm? My sister and I have reason to believe that part of the reason you have collapsed twice now is that you do not have sufficient connection to Equestria.”

“School clearly wasn’t going to work, considering what happened your first day,” Luna interjected. “Moreover, with your grasp of mathematics and science, you’d probably wind up arguing with the professors more often than not.”

“So we have decided that we will sponsor you to the Cloudsdale flight school. The next class begins in two weeks, and it lasts a month. What do you think?” Celestia asked with a grin.

“Woah! Really?” Storm was fairly bouncing in his bed, now… wings fanning in excitement. His enthusiasm faded a moment, and he looked over to Agate and Sunny Skies. “But… what about Miss Skies and Agate? Can’t they go, too?”

“They can certainly come visit you, if they want! But for the first two weeks, it is generally preferred that the young fliers have no visitors. After that time, they’ll come visit if they can. How would that be?”

Storm kept looking at Agate and Sunny Skies. “Could I? Please? Miss Skies? Agate? You won’t mind?”

Agate blinked slowly, but smiled. “Heh. You’ve got wings. You’ve got to know how to fly. Besides, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here when you get back!”

Smiling, Sunny Skies nodded. “Indeed. We’ll be here when you’ve finished, dear. Go, and have fun. You can show us what you’ve learned when you’ve graduated. For now, though… I’m taking Agate back home and putting her to bed. She has school tomorrow. You, I think, will be resting here a few days.”

Agate grumbled, but hugged Storm goodnight and went along after preening Storm’s mane into an absolute mess. Twilight also made her farewells, and promised to visit in the morning, which Storm wholeheartedly agreed to.

After they were gone, Luna tilted her head to the side. “One thing I meant to ask. Why do you bleed silver, anyway? My sister and I think it has something to do with you healing, but we’re not sure.”

Storm had been looking away at the time, so only Princess Celestia saw the momentary look of horror that crossed Storm’s muzzle. “I… I’m not sure.”

“Mm. Well, I’ll head back to the castle as well. Coming, sister?” Luna asked as she turned to the door.

“I will be along in a bit, Luna,” Celestia replied. “I thought I might keep Storm company a little while longer.” She glanced back at Storm, then gave Luna a look that clearly said ‘I will explain later.’

Taking the cue, Luna arched an eyebrow in curiosity, but nodded. “Alright. I’ll be waiting in the Castle.” She smiled and nodded to Storm. “Rest well, Storm. We’ll talk again soon.”

When the door closed, Celestia looked down at the now quiet foal. “I thought you might want to talk a bit more,” she began. “When Luna mentioned what she did, I happened to see the look on your face. I know you do not want to talk about it, so I will ask you this instead. Does it pose any danger?”

Storm was silent for a long moment, then lifted his head. Quietly, he whispered, “Does it disappear?”

“After a few moments, yes.” Celestia was using her most soothing and persuading voice as she tried to ease the colt. He was all but radiating worry.

“I do not really remember much about it. Just a few things, and some feelings.” Storm thought about it a moment more, then nodded. “It’s safe, if it disappears.”

“If it is safe, then why do you fear it?” Celestia asked gently, laying down at Storm’s side to provide a warm presence and hopefully a measure of comfort.

“Princess, I…” Storm closed his eyes and sighed. “I know that it was untested. I know that it was kept around for the very worst of emergencies. I feel that I had been afraid of it and what it might mean.”

“What might it mean, Storm? Please tell me. I really do need to know. I cannot keep you and others safe, unless I do.”

At that, Storm laughed bitterly. “Princess, you might not have to worry about me, at all.”

“What do you mean, my little pony?” With a gentle touch, Celestia stroked Storm’s wing with her own. For however ‘old’ he was, he was still certainly a foal in many respects and not the least of which was the desperate need for reassurance.

“Princess Luna was right,” Storm whispered. “The silver stuff does mean I’ll heal. But I know that it doesn’t like changes. At all.”

“How so?”

“What would happen if you took a small statue and set it out of the way on a shelf under a glass dome? What happens to the statue?”

“Nothing, for nothing would act upon it. If it is up on a shelf, then it would remain undisturbed by hooves young or old. Under a glass dome, it would be protected from wind blowing it over or something into it. Barring some unforeseen disaster that damaged either the dome or shelf, it would remain there intact.” Celestia blinked, starting to get an idea of what was bothering the young one.

Storm nodded quietly, looking up at her with soft, sad eyes. “Exactly, Princess. One of the things we were afraid of was just that. The silver stuff might be that glass dome and shelf. That’d make me the statue.”

“Do you know that for certain?” Celestia gently nuzzled his ear which flicked about, softly.

“I don’t know, Princess. I… I don’t know,” Storm sniffled. “But if it is true, then I won’t ever grow old… and I won’t ever grow up, either.”

“How can we tell for sure, Storm? What can we do?”

“I don’t know, Princess. That’s what scares me. I just don’t know. We wait, I guess. Wait and hope something happens.” Storm rested his head on Celestia’s side, trying very hard to suppress a new round of tears.

“Wait for what to happen?” She preened his feathers a bit, reassuringly.

Storm looked up at her and with the most frighteningly haunted expression Celestia had ever seen on one that young, spoke but one word.


“Storm, there is something you are not considering.” Celestia smiled gently as she blotted away the colt’s tears with a soft cloth. “You fear that you are ageless, but you have not asked two very important questions.  Let us assume you are ageless for a moment. You fear what it means, correct?”

Sniffling, Storm nodded. “Yes, Ma’am. I don’t want to be alone. It’s scary!”

Before Storm’s tears could renew themselves, Princess Celestia gently tapped the colt’s forehead with a wing. “Neither my sister nor myself are going anywhere. We’d still be here for you.” Her expression saddened for a moment, but was banished almot as quickly as it had formed. “They do not know it yet, but there are others, too. You would not lack for company or friendship. Even so, there is an even more important question to consider.”

“What’s that, Princess?” Storm’s ears perked up; from his point of view, being alone was the worst thing possible. He almost didn’t want to know what might be worse!

“Even if you are ageless, the vast majority of the ponies around you are not. This is your one chance to get to know them. I will not lie to you… yes, it does hurt saying goodbye to so many friends through the years. The alternative of not knowing them at all as they pass through our lives seems quite a bit worse, to me. Every life I get to know enriches me. Every pony has something to teach me and through that, I can make ponies’ lives even better.” Celestia chuckled softly, and looked out the window with a wistful smile.

Storm caught the smile and asked softly, “You still miss them, don’t you?”

“Yes. Of course I do, and I always will. But I still would not have missed it for anything.” After thinking about it for a moment, Celestia added, “The ponies I have met through the ages have made me what I am. They have taught me what I know.”

“I guess… I guess there’s a lot for me to think about.” Storm fluffed his wings, and preened at a feather momentarily. “I didn’t really even think of that.”

“I promised you two things to think about, Storm.” Celestia grinned, her eyes warm and open. “We spoke of what it might mean if you are ageless. What would it mean if you are not?”

Storm’s eyes widened a bit as his ears splayed in surprise. “I’d be doing the same thing, wouldn’t I? I’d be missing my one chance to get to know the ponies around me!”

Celestia nodded, smiling even more warmly as she winked. “What does that tell you? Think about it a moment before you answer.”

Storm did, running through both scenarios in his head before he looked up at the Princess sheepishly. “The answer’s the same. Live. Enjoy the now. Either it’s my only chance to be happy and share what I have to offer, or it’s my one chance to get to know those that won’t be here as long as I might be.”

“Well done, Storm.” Celestia nodded and smiled as she placed the now unneeded cloth on a nightstand. “Now then. You need some rest and I need to return to the Castle to get some work done. We’ll talk again soon.”

“I don’t think I can sleep, after all of that,” Storm disagreed. “I mean… that’s a lot to think on!”

“Oh yes you can. Princess’ orders.”

“But I’m not ti-” Storm never got to finish the complaint as Celestia’s horn glowed. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

“Yes, actually… you are.” Celestia chuckled as she tucked the colt under the covers. “Rest, Storm. All is well, little one.”

Storm couldn’t help but smile as he stood up, scattering the pillows and blankets a bit. The Princess was right, he decided. No matter what, I need to live. And I’m gonna start right now!

With the sense of dedication that only the young possess, Storm clambered out of bed and trotted over to the blinds that evidently had been drawn shut after Princess Celestia had left. He bit the drawstring and tugged firmly, opening the blinds to reveal a display that made his jaw drop open.

Unfortunately, the blinds hadn’t been locked into place and fell back down with enough force to pop them right out of the bracket. They clattered to the floor loudly with a few of the slats snapping entirely and some of the supporting structure splintering into pieces.

Cowering a bit, Storm folded his ears back and mantled his wings as he glanced at the door. When nopony came to investigate the commotion, he breathed a sigh of relief. I’ll apologize for it later. It was an accident, they won’t be too mad at me!  With that settled, Storm turned his gaze back to the awe-inspiring view.

The entire wall was a window of extremely thick glass that did absolutely nothing to minimize the brilliant spray of stars on the other side. A sense of peace and familiarity settled over him and a growing sense of belonging began to push aside all his worries..

Storm frowned a moment; something didn’t seem quite right. Then it came to him; the stars were close to but not quite where they ought to be. He pictured the star scape in his mind, and the view before him began to change. “That star doesn’t go there… it’s got to go next to Orion’s belt. Spiral arm of the galaxy is supposed to bend the left, not the right.  Lesser Magellanic is completely out of place and is the wrong color!” Then he burst into a small fit of giggles. “The sun isn’t supposed to be green and blue swirls! It’s yellow!”

It took some time, but the stars were eventually where Storm thought they ought to be. There were still two things missing, but he couldn’t quite figure it out. All he could recall is that one was supposed to be weirdly shaped and shiny like metal and the other supposed to be huge and blue.

Though Storm could have sat and watched the stars until dawn, his attention was drawn away from the window by a soft knock on the door. “Come in?” he called out, swiveling an ear in the door’s direction. When the knock was repeated, he got up and nosed the door open. “Sorry! You must not have heard me…?”

The hallway was completely empty. “Huh… wonder what that was?” Storm sat in the doorway a moment before he saw a flash of movement and heard a bright giggle as a green skinned and red maned pegasus foal disappeared down the far end of the hallway, calling out over his shoulder, “Can’t catch me!”

“Oh, so that’s how it’s gonna be, huh!?” Storm grinned and took off after the other pony, hooves scrabbling on the floor with a soft metallic clank. “I happen to be good at hide and seek, as well as chase! I’m gonna get you!

The chase was a long and merry one; every time Storm thought he’d almost caught his playmate, they’d scrabble around a corner he hadn’t even known was there. Hooves really weren’t meant for this kind of flooring, but the sudden losing of one’s balance and skidding down the hallway a bit more than made up for the lack of traction. There was much laughter and delight on both sides of the chase, which wound its way throughout the hospital.

Storm put on a last burst of speed as his playmate disappeared around the corner, launching himself into the air as he rounded the bend. “Aaaaaand gotcha!” he declared triumphantly.

His playmate was nowhere to be seen. Thus deprived of his target, Storm landed awkwardly, his hooves skidded out from under him, and he landed heavily on his belly. “Ooof! Hey, where’d you go? That’s cheating!”  

From around a corner, Storm saw a trembling hoof pointing at a door behind him. With a sinking feeling developing in his stomach, Storm turned to glance over his shoulder at the door he’d slid into. “Aw, haybales…” he whispered.

The door was imposing both in appearance and inscription. It was extremely tall, easily the entire height of the corridor and seemed to be made of a painfully flimsy pane of glass. The inscription was quite direct and to the point: “Do Not Break Under Any Circumstances. Danger!”

Of course, Storm’s hind hoof was touching the pane and there was a crack forming from the point of impact. He watched it for a moment, seeing the crack ease up the pane with an audible crackling sound before turning back to his still partially hidden playmate. “Run! I did this. You shouldn’t get in trouble for it! Go! I won’t tell them you were here, and I’ll take all the blame!”

His mostly unseen friend departed in a clattering of hooves that rapidly faded away down the hall. Nodding in satisfaction, Storm turned back to the glass that had formed an intricate spider-web of cracks along the surface. It was beautiful, because there was a greenish blue light on the other side of the pane that seemed to shine through the cracks. It lent it an otherworld beauty, one with an irresistible appeal.

Storm reached out with a forehoof and gently touched it. Whereupon, of course, it promptly shattered in a cascade of sparkling glass shards. He cowered, mantling his wings over his head and curling up to protect himself from the falling glass. After the plinking sounds of the falling shards faded, he poked his head out from under his wings. The glass shards were nowhere to be seen, but in it’s place was a pony he knew.

“Princess Celestia! I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to break the glass!” Storm looked up apologetically, wings and tail drooping. “I’m sorry, I really am! I’ll do anything to make it up to you!”

Impassively, Celestia looked down at him. “You admit what you have done here? That you have broken Natural Law?”

“Y…yes, Princess. I am sorry. It is my responsibility. I did it,” Storm admitted softly. His gaze fell to the floor. “I didn’t mean to.”

“You knew what you were doing. You knew this might happen. Yet you let your ego triumph anyway. This was the result, because you were convinced that it could not possibly be wrong. What makes you so special?” Celestia inquired, almost as an aside.

“P.. Princess?” Storm asked, surprised and more than slightly hurt. Her questions rang true, but they were entirely unexpected.

“But… the math was right! The numbers were exactly what they should be! This shouldn’t have happened!” Storm was nearly frantic as he rose, walking up to the Princess. “You have to believe me!”

“Whether or not I believe you is irrelevant.” Coldly, Celestia looked down at Storm with a disapproving look. “Consider that your numbers could not possibly have been accurate. If they had been, then this wouldn’t have happened. Yet it did, and here we are. Perhaps it is that you forgot something.”

“I… I don’t know what it might have been,” Storm admitted quietly. “You’re right, I must have done something wrong. But I don’t know what.”

“Regardless, I shall now take you to where you belong. Come.” Celestia led the way, hooves not making a sound as they touched the floor.

Following in silence, Storm’s thoughts grew more morose. He still wasn’t sure what had happened, but he knew that Celestia was right. It was his fault and it didn’t matter if he remembered or not. All the damage done? His fault. All the pain? His fault. Nopony else’s. His.

He looked up from the floor and turned his head to Celestia so that he might apologize once again. As he did so, he noticed the corridors were dingy grey and that the lights were fading slowly. “Princess? Why’re the lights dim?”

“The dead do not need light,” Celestia replied softly. “It is very dark where you left them. Very cold.” Indeed, wisps of mist were puffing from her nose and muzzle as heat condensed into vapor.

“But… I’m not dead. I’m still alive!” Storm protested. He stopped following and glanced back over his shoulder. Off in the distance, there was a single light that seemed to beckon to him.

“You should be. What makes you so special that you should survive? No. I will take you to them, and you will join them.”

“Join whom? There’s nopony here but us!” Storm looked around, but then he saw them. Now there were dozens of pairs of eyes staring back, all equally dull and lifeless but watching attentively just the same.  

That’s when he heard the whispers.


‘Why did you leave us?’

‘Oh, God, no… the containment is failing!’

‘Please, by the love of all that is holy! I don’t want to die! Not like this…’

‘Daddy? Where are you, Daddy? I... what’s that hissing noise?’

‘Field stability is weakening… we’re going to get trapped between dimensions! We’re-‘

‘You’ve killed us, you arrogant ass!’

As he listened to the sounds of the voices, he also heard something else. It was an odd sound; a soft metallic pop followed by an almost gentle clinking sound as if a rivet had burst from a seam and bounced across the floor.

“It’s ending, isn’t it?” Storm asked quietly.

“It has already ended, and is beginning again,” came Celestia’s somewhat cryptic reply.

Somehow it still made sense, and Storm was able to follow the logical progression of sounds. The hiss slowly grew in volume and was joined by a low metallic groan as hull fiber-coil alloy was stretched much like saltwater taffy. More popping sounds as the damage expanded followed by more clinking sounds and even greater hissing as the atmosphere was sucked out.

“N.. no. No, I can’t…” Storm gasped as he turned to run away. Maybe if he could make it to that distant light… Then he felt something grab him around the scruff of his neck and pick him up from the ground.

“No. You shall join them. You shall not flee! Not again!” Celestia growled to her captive as she turned the foal to face her.

Storm flinched, since Celestia now looked like a shadow of herself. She was pale, gaunt... quite skeletal. Her eyes glowed a malevolent sickly green as she dangled him before her.

“You will join them. Now.” With that simple statement, Celestia flicked her hoof and threw Storm to the waiting gaggle of hoar-frost covered ponies that eagerly anticipated their prey.

Their hooves were so cold they burned. He could feel the lethargy seep into him, robbing him of both will and volition. It would be so easy to join them. All he had to do was close his eyes, and it would be done. He almost succumbed to that, until he heard a dull rush and felt something impact his chest. Mustering what seemed to be a herculean effort, Storm managed to pry open his eyes and glance down.

It was his heart shaped medallion. This is why he could not give up. This is what he had to fight for. Somehow he managed to raise a hoof and touch it, holding it to his chest. The cold hooves fell away, hissing in fury at being denied their prey. They kept trying, but the amulet somehow kept them at bay.

Then the hospital imploded around him. The screams were unholy and threatened to kill in their own right as pony after pony were ripped from the hospital and flung out into the void around him. He couldn’t move; the amulet held him fast. All he could do is watch the ponies be torn away and watch them die in the worst manner imaginable. They died in the Void.

Storm couldn’t move. He couldn’t even scream though he tried. Oh, how he tried… If only he could cry out. If only he could let them know that he was sorry… but he couldn’t. He could only watch as they died.

“Storm! Storm! Wake up! Storm, come on… wake up! You’re having a nightmare!”

His eyes flew open, but they couldn’t quite focus yet. “Run! Please run! Please… I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” Storm wailed, tears pouring down his muzzle.

“Shh. Shh, it’s okay. It’s over, now. The nightmare is over. Just hold me, Storm. That’s it… good colt.”

“M… Miss Chamomile?” Storm whimpered as he was wrapped up in warm hooves and pulled close. He threw his own hooves around her and held on for dear life.

“That’s right, Storm. Just relax. You’re okay. Shh.” Chamomile gently soothed the trembling colt in her arms. She gently nuzzled his ears. “That’s it. It was just a nightmare.”

“But… but it was real. I was there. I know it!” Storm insisted, burying his muzzle into her mane. Slowly, the terror began to recede.

“No, dear. You were right here in bed, I promise. I was here the whole time. Just take a few deep breaths and relax. That’s it… there you go.” Chamomile gently rocked Storm as he calmed. “You forgot something when last you were here, but I kept it safe for you. Do you remember what it is?” Chamomile asked gently.

“My charm. The three part heart charm.” Storm swallowed. “I dreamed about that, too. Can… Can I have it? Please?”

“You already do, dear. It’s right there on the nightstand. It was cleaned up and hung on a new silver chain, just for you. We’ll put it on in the morning when you’re ready to go home. Is that okay?”

Storm nodded as he sniffled. “Thanks, Miss Chamomile… for everything.” Storm sighed, finally letting go of most of the horror and tension he’d kept since waking up.

“My pleasure, dear. Now, it’s still the middle of the night. I’d really prefer you get a bit more sleep. Would you be willing to try, if I stayed with you until you drifted?”

Tensing up a bit again, Storm nodded. He trusted Chamomile completely; if she said that it would be okay, then it would be. But… a thought came into his head. “Miss Chamomile? Can… Can Agate come sleep with me? Please?”

“It’s too late to call her over, Storm. She’s already sleeping. Why don’t we try this? I’ll stay with you until you fall asleep. If you can’t in a half hour, then we’ll see about getting Agate here for you. Does that sound okay?” Chamomile smiled reassuringly as she curled around Storm’s form and gently draped a wing over him.

“Okay. I’ll try, but I don’t think I can sleep,” Storm said as he only barely stifled a yawn.

“Just close your eyes and try, dear.” Chamomile was having a hard time refraining from chuckling; Storm was being rather adorable. “I’ll be right here.”

Storm was out in five minutes flat and slept the rest of the night through without incident.

This time, waking up was a much lazier affair and Storm took his time about it. He yawned softly and stretched, perking his ears as he heard voices whispering in his room. It sounded like Doctor Coltle talking to Chamomile.

“Doctor, I was thinking,” Chamomile said quietly as she tried not to disturb the foal she thought was sleeping.

“A bold claim and a laudable enterprise. From you, I’ll believe it. From all the other residents… not so much. What’s on your mind?” Dr. Coltle ‘whispered’.

Hee! Even his whisper sounds like gravel. I wonder why? Storm thought as he listened in.

“I still think it a good idea to send Storm to Flight School, but I’m wondering if it is really wise to have him go alone. We can’t send Agate, for obvious reasons.”

“Mm. Indeed. It’d probably hurt her greatly to be amongst fliers when she can’t. I do see your point. I believe I have just the pony for the job,” Coltle said. “But enough conversation. We have a little eavesdropper, don’t we, Mr. Storm?”

“Nope! I’m sleepin!” Storm proclaimed as he exaggerated snoring as loudly as he could.

“Ah. More’s the pity. If you had been awake, we might have taken you over to Pony Joe’s for a doughnut for breakfast. Since you’re sleeping, you’ll have to have breakfast. I believe it is mush, today.”

“Ewww! No, I’m awake!” Storm said as he crawled out of bed and trotted over to Dr. Coltle. “Mush is icky!”

“Nope. I’m sorry! You’re asleep. You said so! Go on and sleep over there, and we’ll bring you the coldest, clumpiest mush we can find,”Coltle said mock-sternly.

“But I don’t want mush! Please? Can’t I have a doughnut? Please?” Storm pleaded, giving Dr. Coltle his very best ‘Eyes of Cute’ look. Wide eyes, splayed ears, and a pleading look seemed to come naturally to every foal, regardless of origin.

Chamomile hid a laugh behind her hooves; Coltle had so many layers to him. “Doctor, please! Maybe the doughnut might help wake him up?”

“Hm! I hadn’t considered that.” Coltle rubbed his chin. “Alright. If you think it will wake him up. But how do we get him there, if he’s sleeping?” Coltle tapped his hoof to the ground. “I’ve got it. He’ll clearly need a pony ride. You’re the unicorn, my dear Chamomile. If you’d do the honors of picking him up, I’ll carry him myself.”

“Are you sure?” Chamomile asked. “I could carry him…” She wasn’t entirely sure it would be good for him to carry a weight like that.

“Nurse! I’m old… but I’m not that old! Besides, it’s been far too long since I’ve given a pony ride. Now then, let’s be about it… or it’ll be mush for you, too!” Coltle grumbled, with mirth in his eyes.

With that, a giggling Storm was place on the irascible Dr. Coltle’s shoulders. “Hold on tight, now. You’re sleeping, and we can’t have you falling off!”

Coltle carried a happy and giggling Storm through the hallways and to the front doors of Canterlot Hospital. As the trio passed others, conversations stopped and eyes followed them until they were out of sight. Expressions generally shifted to shock and disbelief, for the sight didn’t fit their paradigm; Coltle was irascible. He hated everything and everypony! How could he possibly be carrying a happy foal on his back? Was the perpetually grumpy Coltle actually smiling? Was that odd sound coming from his muzzle laughter?

As the main doors closed behind the three, nurses and doctors went back to their duties. They all were wondering if there wasn’t a wind of change blowing through the corridors of their workplace. They certainly hoped so; seeing Coltle smile and laugh was something they’d hoped to see for some time.

Pony Joe’s doughnut shop was a simple, yet magical place.  Tables were arrayed in a sensible pattern that maximized available room while leaving plenty of space for private and whispered conversations. Brightly lit and equally brightly colored, one’s eyes were drawn from point to point in such a way as to belie the relatively small floor plan. It seemed quite a bit larger than it really was.

“Doctor! Doctor Coltle!” called Pony Joe as he looked up from the fryer he’d just lifted a fresh batch of donuts from. “Come on in and sit down! What brings you this way?” Joe’s smile was as wide as it was genuine; when he greeted a pony, they felt like they’d just come home after a long absence.

“Seems I’ve got a sleeping foal on my back and only two of your doughnuts will wake him up,” Coltle said, gesturing to the foal on his back.

Storm stuck his tongue out and shuddered. “He was gonna make me eat mush!” he complained, which elicited laughs from Joe as well as Chamomile.

“Well, we can’t have that, now can we? Not when I’ve got a fresh batch of chocolate glazed doughnuts with crushed peanuts and sprinkles that need eating! Have a seat.”

Having been shown to a seat and having not two but three doughnuts placed in front of him, Storm happily began to chow down on the first while the adults clustered at the other end of the countertop to talk amongst themselves.

Storm was just about to demolish the second, when he heard a sniffling coming from two tables over.  He saw a yellow coated pegasus mare that had a red and orange mane crying quietly into her cocoa. Storm chewed his lower lip for a moment, and then bit the edge of the plate his doughnuts were on. Picking it up, he carried it over to the table the mare was crying at.

The mare startled a bit when the plate touched the table. “Mmh? Oh.. oh!” She hastily wiped away her tears and smiled as best she could for the colt. “Hey, kid. Come to get the captain of the Wonderbolt’s signature?”

Blinking, Storm tilted his head to the side. “What’s a Wonderbolt?”

“What’s a Wonderbolt? Kid, where have you been living? I’m Spitfire, the Captain of the Wonderbolts… the premier flying group in all of Equestria. If you’re not here for my signature, why are you…?” Spitfire asked in surprise. Internally she winced at her lack of tact; she’d not intended to snap at the poor kid, but she’d just been dumped by a friend and surprised at somepony not knowing of her!

For his part, Storm looked down at the table. “I live at the orphanage, and I came over because you looked sad. I was sad too, but Doctor Coltle and Nurse Chamomile gave me a doughnut and then I wasn’t sad anymore. I thought that since you don’t have one… if I gave you one of mine, maybe you’d not be so sad anymore.” Storm nosed the plate over and looked up at the mare who had tears in her eyes but a quiet, soft smile on her muzzle. “It’s yours, if you want it, Miss Spitfire. Maybe it’ll make you feel better.”

“Heh. Too late, kiddo. You’ve already made me feel better, and I don’t want to take your treats away from you. You don’t get them often enough as it is.” Spitfire made a move to nose the plate back to the foal, but was interrupted.

“I have two and you don’t have any. Let’s both have one!” Storm picked up one doughnut and started munching on it

“Sorry, Kid. I don’t eat doughnuts with anypony I don’t know the name of. So, you’ve got to tell me who you are, hm?” Spitfire looked at the colt with an easy smile. “Don’t want to waste it, do you?”

“Hee… no, that’d be bad. I’m Lightning Storm! I’m going to flight school next week!” Storm said proudly, wings jutting out as if he were ready to go right this instant.

“Going to be a great flier, huh?” Spitfire said with a grin. “Well, if you work really hard, I’ll fly alongside you when you graduate. Deal?”

Giggling, Storm nodded and wiped a smear of chocolate off his muzzle with a hoof. “Deal!”

The two ponies shook on it, then touched their doughnuts together in parody of a toast before messily devouring them.

“Miss Spitfire? Why were so sad?” Storm asked quietly.

Sighing, Spitfire finished the last of her doughnut, brushing an errant peanut from her muzzle. “A friend was very mean to me, so I had to tell him I didn’t want to see him again.”

“Oh,” Storm murmured softly. He thought about that for a moment, then looked up. “I could be your friend, if you wanted. I don’t have much to share, but if I ever have a doughnut again, I’ll save you half if you wanted?”

“That…” Spitfire swallowed and chuckled. “He was a different kind of friend, Storm. But I’d be happy to be friends with you. You’re leaving for camp soon?”

“Uh-huh!” Storm preened a feather and grinned. “I’m really looking forward to it. I was told it’s a lot of fun!”

“It’s a lot of work too, but yeah… it’s also a blast. I think you’ll do okay, kid. In fact… I tell you what. I’ve got two surprises for you. The first I’ll tell you about right now and the second you’ll find out about soon. Now, you don’t know what a Wonderbolt is… not really. Since I’m the captain and since you helped me out when I needed it… you get a free lifetime pass to every Wonderbolt show. Any time, any where, you get to bring a guest with you and watch from the VIP skybox. How about that?”

“Woah, cool! Thanks, Miss Spitfire!” Storm wrapped his hooves around the mare’s neck and hugged her tightly.

Spitfire nosed Storm’s ears, and chuckled as she relaxed and was eased. Sometimes the most innocent of things is what’s truly needed, she thought.  Audibly, she replied, “You’re more than welcome. Kid, you had two doughnuts to your name and you offered me one to help me not be sad anymore.  That’s heart. The Wonderbolts? We’re all about heart. So, yeah. You did good. I’ll see you in two weeks.”

With that, Spitfire left feeling a lot better than she did when she came in.

“Well, what do you say we head back?” Coltle said. “I think you’re short a doughnut, but you look awake enough to me. What do you think, Chamomile?”

“I think Storm is doing just fine,” Chamomile said softly. “In fact, I’d say he’s coming along quite well. But it’s my turn to carry him back.”

“Back home?” Storm asked hopefully.

“I’d really prefer you stay a few more days at the hospital where I can keep an eye on you,” Coltle said as he thought it through. “You were in a bad way when you came in. Granted, you’re doing fine now, but I’ll admit you had me worried.”

“But I really miss Miss Skies and Agate,” Storm said plaintively.

“Tell you what,” Coltle said after a minute. “Stay one more day with us. If you’re still doing good, I’ll let you go home to Agate and Miss Skies, but we will come and check on you a few times a day. Deal?”

Storm nodded enthusiastically as he lay atop Chamomile’s back. “Deal!” He extended his hoof, and Coltle chuckled as he shook it.

“Alright, then. Back to your hospital room,” Coltle said.

After a few minutes walking, Storm looked over to Coltle again. “Sir? Could… if it wouldn’t be too much trouble…” He went quiet, fidgeting atop Chamomile a little bit as he ruffled his wings a little.

“Mmh? What’s on your mind, son?” Coltle asked.

“Could Agate stay with me? I didn’t have nightmares when she was there.” Storm looked down at the road as it passed by, feeling a trifle self-conscious.

“We can certainly ask her, but I don’t think that would be a problem,” Coltle said. “Chamomile? How do you feel about it?”

Chamomile was, to be perfectly honest, rather surprised that Coltle would be considering it to begin with. “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”

“Alright then, it’s settled. We’ll ask Agate to stay with you until you’re discharged.” Coltle made a grim but funny face and stared at Storm. “Any other requests?”

Storm giggled at the silliness of the face being made at him, but nodded. “Yes, Sir. Just one.”

Coltle made the silly face even sillier. “And what might that be?”

Storm slipped off of Chamomile’s back and trotted over to Coltle before sitting back on his haunches, reaching up with his forelegs. “Just a hug, Sir. Please?”

Only Chamomile saw the tears of gratitude in Coltle’s eyes as Storm’s request was willingly granted.