At the Riverside

by Pascoite

Chapter 1: At the Riverside

“So, a pony walks into a bar…”

Twilight Sparkle flopped forward onto the table, her eyes closed, and sandwiched her nose between her forelegs. “Rainbow Dash, do you really have to do this? That’s just not my kind of humor.”

She didn’t listen for an answer, if Dash had even heard her. She would probably roll her eyes or call Twilight uncool. It never changed. But as Twilight waited, the joke didn’t continue, nor did she hear the low chuckling that usually sounded while Dash let everypony anticipate the punchline. When she peeked, Dash was just staring at the wall.

All her other friends kept on with their individual conversations, the words jetting to and fro past Twilight’s ears. If even they’d all tuned Dash out…

“Refill, ma’am?”

Twilight blinked and peered up at the waitress. “Huh?” she said, her mouth gaping.

“Another drink?” The waitress leaned in front of her and reached for the empty glass.

“Uh… yeah.” Twilight stifled a yawn and flicked her hoof toward it.

“Screwdriver, right?”

“Uh-huh. But—” Twilight scrunched up her face “—a little weaker this time. That tasted around eight percent vodka. Could you shoot more for three or so?” Midway through the waitress’s nod: “Tell you what—just make it orange juice. No ice.”

Whatever waves of conversation had isolated Applejack with Pinkie Pie and Rarity with Fluttershy had died down, and they all tossed their ante of words into the table’s pot. “Feelin’ any better yet?” Applejack asked.

“Yeah. Not like it was a big deal or anything. Heh.” Rainbow shrugged, but she wobbled a little in her seat. “That’s gonna be a cool scar anyway,” she said, tracing a hoof over the line of stitches on her side.

“The point of stitches is that they don’t leave a scar,” Rarity said with a swirl of her wine glass.

“Really?” Rainbow scraped the edge of a hoof over one.

“Leave those alone!” Twilight said, letting out a sharp sigh, but Rainbow just shrugged again and slurped at her straw, the last traces of her drink rattling around in the bottom.

Dash pounded a hoof on the table and looked past Twilight. “Another moonshine!”

“Um…” the waitress said as she set down Twilight’s orange juice.

Twilight leaned over to her and whispered, “Yeah, bring her another water. We need to keep her hydrated.” She glanced up—“And stop picking at those!” Rainbow’s eyes shot wide open, then she folded her forelegs and scowled. “Ugh! I can’t believe I let you convince me to keep our usual get-together. You should be at home resting!”

“Naw,” Rainbow answered with a wave of her hoof. “I’m feeling good. Really good. Outmaneuvered Death again.”

“That there’s the pain meds talkin’.” Applejack jabbed her cider bottle toward her.

Rainbow shook her head so hard that she nearly fell out of her chair. Yeah, Twilight needed to get her home. Two rounds was plenty on a night they should have skipped in the first place.

“Nuh-uh!” Rainbow said when she’d gotten her balance back. “I don’t need any of that stuff. I can take it.”

“You still got what they pumped you up with at the hospital,” Applejack replied, an eyebrow raising.

Rainbow stuck out her tongue. “Nuh-uh!”

“Did so!”


“Did so!”

“Girls!” Twilight held up her forehooves. “For goodness’ sake, Rainbow Dash, you cracked a rib, got a nasty laceration, and knocked yourself silly!” The waitress swept in behind Dash and slid another glass in front of her. “Now drink your ‘moonshine,’ and then you’re going home!”

“Yeah, get that through your thick skull!” Applejack barked.

Rainbow growled back, “I’ll thick your skull!”

“What the hay does that even mean?”

“I… I dunno. Shut up.”

Enough of those two. If anything, she’d expected to hear—“Pinkie, why are you so quiet?”

Pinkie swirled her straw around in her daiquiri and gave a huge lopsided grin. “Well, when the cake’s done, you don’t put it back in the oven, silly!”

“Huh?” Twilight shook her head—Pinkie had her mouth open to start into some wild goose chase of an explanation. “Just give me the short version, please.”

She smiled a little too big. “I don’t need to tell jokes when Dashie’s already in stitches!”

What was it again that Dash was going to say about a pony walking into a bar?

“So, dear,” Rarity said, “you were quite lucky you didn’t get hurt ten times worse. What were you even doing?”

“Tryin’ a triple-backflip, quadruple-somersault… somethin’. I dunno. I prob’ly wrote it down somewhere. Heh.” She nearly fell out of her chair again and caught herself on the armrest. “Heh heh. Right in front of Death, too.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Alright. Drink up, then let’s go.” But… Death again? Once, she might excuse as nothing more than an expression. The second hadn’t been nearly as abstract. “Um… did you… did you see her?”

But Dash didn’t hear. On her second try, Rainbow corralled her glass and took a long pull. “Tastes kinda weak, but I’m getting a good buzz anyway.”

“Pain meds,” Applejack said through her cough.

“Whatever.” Dash picked up her glass again and didn’t come up for air until it was half empty. “Heh heh. Pain means nothin’. He was even waiting for me this time, but I still cheated him. He’ll never get me.”

Twilight cocked her head. Maybe Dash had heard.

“Who?” Rarity said.

Rainbow puffed her chest out. “Death. I already told ya. Wasn’t anypony listening?”

Twilight cut off her gasp before anypony noticed. She should… Most ponies seemed afraid of Death, which didn’t help at all. “Maybe we could talk about something else—”

“Y-you’ve seen Death?” Fluttershy mumbled from between Rarity and Pinkie. She peered over an immense martini glass with all manner of plastic palm trees, paper umbrellas, and toothpicks with chunks of fruit protruding every which way. Rarity covered her eyes and shook her head. “What? I think it’s pretty, and my animals like all the little toys.”

Pinkie patted her hoof. “It’s okay. You’re being really festive, and I’m really proud of you.”

Still, Fluttershy sank down until her nose had disappeared below the table’s edge. “Oh. Well… um… what did you think of her?”

Dash stared at her reflection in the tabletop and blinked hard.



Pinkie tapped her on the shoulder. “Fluttershy was just asking about Death. You said you saw her. Really? I didn’t think that many ponies could…”

With a sharp breath out, Twilight said, “Girls, maybe you shouldn’t talk about somepony behind her back. You never know when you might say something they’d overhear, and—”

“Her? Pfff. Naw, him. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone through a practice session without him watching. He’s a big fan.”

“I… I guess it can be hard to tell,” Fluttershy said. “I just assumed it was a she.”

“The deep voice kinda gives it away.”

Fluttershy gasped. “He talks to you?”

“Sure. He cheers me on, tells me what awesome tricks I do. And he chases me sometimes.” Dash smirked and leaned forward, as if into the wind. “He can never quite catch me. Says he lets me win, but I don’t believe him for a minute. He’s real wiry, like skinny, but you just know he’s strong. Wears a black flight suit with awesome flame graphics on it, and he’s always got lightning sparkin’ in his eyes.”

“You sure that’s not just your childhood imaginary friend?” Applejack said, a twinkle in her eye. Like those two needed to start another argument. But… Death didn’t scare Dash? And Fluttershy, of all ponies, didn’t run off and hide?

Rainbow balled up a napkin and threw it at Applejack. “No. He’s cool. Actually, he’s the one who gave me the idea to try the Rainboom. I mean, the first time I did it was by accident, but I’d been practicing.”

“Why would he want you to get hurt?” Rarity asked. “Sounds rather boorish, and in my experience—”

“He doesn’t try to get me killed!” Dash said, clicking her tongue. “In fact, he said he’d do anything he could to keep that from happening. You know all those times I just barely avoided a head-on or pulled up right before plowing into the ground? That was usually him, givin’ me a little bump.”

And Twilight didn’t like the smirk on Applejack’s face. “Oh, so you admit to cheatin’?”

Rainbow’s smile was a perfect match. “Cheating Death, yeah.”

“Ooooooooh!” Pinkie said. “Sorry, Applejack. I gotta give that one to her. You walked into it.”

While Applejack rolled her eyes, Dash folded her hooves in her lap. “He’s… never scared me,” she said quietly. “I’ve always thought of him as a friend.”

“Me too,” Fluttershy said, “except… she didn’t look like that at all.”

A… a friend? Plus Fluttershy wasn’t afraid of her, and Rarity immediately contradicted any notion of her as harmful… Twilight glanced around the bar. Death sometimes appeared when the topic of conversation turned to her, but a child would look out of place in here. Not that anypony else would likely sense her. Still, nopony else had called her a filly.

“When have you ever been in danger of dyin’, sugarcube?” Applejack tilted her hat back and scratched her head.

Fluttershy hunched her shoulders up and peered at the heavy iron light fixtures overhead. “Eep.”

“Boy, is she the wrong pony to ask that,” Dash said with a snort. “She always thinks she’s about to die.”

“Yes, but… well, not me,” Fluttershy replied. “She comes around when one of my little critters passes on.”

Rainbow squinted at her. “Say what now? She?

With a nod, Fluttershy finally raised her head back above the table. “Yes. I think so, at least. She acts so much like a mother that she must be. She’s very big, very wooly, so you can’t see her face, like… well, a lot like one of the yaks. She never says a word, but she lets the little ones climb in her fur, all cozy and warm. Then she carries them off.”

“But if she hasn’t come for you, why would you see her?” Rarity said before draining the last sip of wine from her glass.

“I think she appreciates what I do. Just like I appreciate what she does.” Fluttershy hugged her forelegs to her chest and sighed. “None of the animals are ever frightened of her. I help them up on her if they have trouble, then she lets me scratch behind her ears. Sometimes she’ll accept a carrot or an apple.”

“That don’t sound much like a yak,” Applejack said with a glance at Pinkie, who shook her head vigorously. Not one Twilight had ever met, either. Still… she’d never lost anyone dear, never gotten into any close calls herself. Maybe that changed things.

“No, she has horns,” Fluttershy said, “but short, twisty ones. And tusks. But she’s so gentle, much more than you’d think by looking at her. Once, she even stayed to warm up by the fire on a cold day, and I got to snuggle with her. She’s very soft, and her fur smells like cedar, and I just loved sitting with her. I think—” she blushed “—I even fell asleep for a little while.”

When nopony spoke for a few seconds, Pinkie tossed back the last of her daiquiri. “Wow,” she said. “That’s different.”

“I just worry that she gets lonely. But I consider her a good friend,” Fluttershy replied.

Twilight slumped her shoulders and stared before scanning the crowd again. She’d always tried to steer talk away from Death to… to protect her? It sounded funny, even a little presumptive, to think about it that way now. And from her own friends, too. Most ponies, maybe, but not these girls.

Applejack scratched her head again. “Well, I only seen him once, but he didn’t look anything like that.”

Twilight’s gaze shot over to her. Applejack had never been willing to say that to anypony else.

“The night Ma and Pa passed, I thought I heard something out in the yard, so I leaned out the window.” Her hoof shook, but only a little. Twilight would have reached for it, but Applejack would want to do this alone. “He was a big stallion, and just as neighborly as you could ever want. Teddy bear type, real strong, but the only way he’d ever hurt you is by huggin’ you too hard. First thing he did was promise them that all us young ’uns would be taken care of.”

For once, Dash didn’t have a smart comeback. Not that the painkillers would give her the best shot at one. Twilight flashed her a warm smile and a faint nod.

But she’d never taken Applejack’s story at face value before. A stallion, though, so it must have been a dream… except that still wouldn’t have made a difference.

“He… he told them they were joinin’ the biggest family of all. Didn’t matter whether they were Apples or Oranges or Pies or whatever. All ponies are family. All of ’em.” Applejack reached up as if to take her hat off, but settled for rubbing her nose.

“Said everypony was eager to meet ’em again, and they had a big feast ready. Thing is, he didn’t need to say it that loud for them to hear. He knew I was there. And… everythin’ was okay. I dunno why, but I never felt so peaceful-like before. Not since, either. For one night, it was okay.”

And Rarity did reach for her hoof. Applejack let her take it. “Darling, you’ve never told us that before. I didn’t know.”

Applejack nodded and smiled. “Don’t know if I count him a friend or not. Hard to say, when I’ve only met him once, or… I guess not at all. But it meant a lot that he did that for them, and that he’ll do the same for me someday.”

“Thank you for sharing that,” Rarity said. She reached for her glass, finding it empty, and shoved it away again.

Twilight kept watching until Applejack finally looked up. “Thank you,” she mouthed, but Applejack only averted her eyes again, fidgeting with a cocktail napkin.

“I only met him once myself,” Rarity said, “though it certainly felt longer than that.”

With a glance at Dash, who seemed to manage sitting up alright still, Twilight smiled at Rarity. She’d heard this tale before, too, but Rarity hadn’t kept it secret like Applejack. They’d probably all heard it before. Rarity pursed her lips as if to let it go unspoken. But with everything else the girls had said tonight, it deserved a voice. “Go on,” Twilight said.

“That day,” Rarity continued, “at the Best Young Fliers event—my wings burned up in the sun, and, of course, I fell. But I suddenly found myself walking down a tree-lined boulevard, hoof in hoof with the most exquisite stallion. Perfectly groomed, wearing the finest suit, and escorting me toward a gleaming white palace at the road’s end. He had the most infectious smile, and I had no choice but to mirror it.”

Another one Twilight had always attributed to a dream or a hallucination.

The memory must have stirred something in Rarity—she had on a curious little grin, and she twirled a tress of mane with her hoof. “Such a gentlestallion! He afforded me every respect, a ‘madam’ here and a ‘milady’ there. He didn’t inquire my name, instead waiting until I had provided it voluntarily. I needn’t ask his first—I already knew it. We strolled in the sun, but no matter how far we walked, the palace never drew nearer.”

Rarity no longer met Applejack’s gaze, and peered at the burgundy dregs in the bottom of her glass. “I asked him why. ‘My good lady Rarity,’ he said in reply, ‘we simply have not finished preparing a place for you yet. Fear not, for the delay will not seem so troublesome. I promise you that. I am afraid that it is simply not the proper time. And when that time does come, it would be my honor to lead you.’ He executed the most gracious bow, and before I could respond, I found myself back in Cloudsdale.” She shook her head and pursed her lips. “Wondering if it all had been the product of a terror-stricken mind.”

Twilight sat up straighter—Rarity hadn’t volunteered that last part before. “What made you decide it had really happened?” Twilight said. No doubt it had, not after everypony else’s admissions.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Rarity said, flicking a hoof and stifling a sniffle. “Because it seemed to last for hours? How could I have experienced all that in a fraction of a second? Or maybe because of its vividness. In any case, I know I have a friend who will make the journey with me.”

“Thank you, too,” Twilight said, but Rarity waved it off—the same way she did when giving any of her thoughtful gifts.

Dash had slumped to the side, like she might fall asleep at any moment, so… better wrap things up, then. Twilight still had some of her orange juice left, though, and… that gave her an idea. She flagged the waitress down. “Do you have prune juice?”


“Shh!” Twilight whispered. “Can you bring me a half glass?”

“No problem,” she said and was gone.

Twilight sat there, tapping a hoof against her chair until she noticed Applejack staring at her.

“Havin’ issues, sugarcube?” she said with more than a hint of smile.

Applejack had better still be in the mood to let things between her and Dash drop right now. “Common side effect of the pain medication.” She angled her head toward Rainbow. “It can stop you up. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to be proactive.” And, thank goodness, Applejack’s smile faded.

“Good idea,” Applejack replied.

After a minute of silence, all eyes had turned to Pinkie. “What?” she said.

“Well, ain’t you got a story, too?” Applejack asked.

“No, not me,” Pinkie answered.

Rainbow’s eyelids had started drooping lower and lower anyway, so time to—

“Except for the week I spent with her and Granny Pie.”

“Make this quick,” Twilight whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

With a nod, Pinkie said, “Not much to tell anyway, She was an old mare who came to visit my Granny Pie every day near the end, and she’d just sit there in a chair next to the bed, cackling over all the jokes and stories Granny told. All day long, laugh laugh laugh, and into the night, too. Until the last day of the week, the old mare finally said something.” Pinkie leaned forward, a glint in her eye. And Fluttershy ducked below the table again. Long seconds passed, and still Pinkie grinned.

“Well?” Applejack said.

“Oh, you wanted to know what she said?” Pinkie asked.

“Yes!” everypony else said together. Except Dash, whose eyes had drifted shut.

Pinkie shrugged, and everypony groaned. Except Dash. “I don’t know. But Granny started laughing, harder than I’d ever heard her before. Then they got up and left together. I shouted after them, and I asked her what she’d said to my Granny. She said she’d told the funniest joke in the universe, and when my time came around, I’d get to hear it, too, from a friend! Think about it! I might literally. Die. Laughing.” She flung her forelegs wide and somehow turned a pirouette in her chair. “How cool is that?

A quiet chuckle, and Twilight mouthed a thank-you to Pinkie. Then the waitress had come back with their bills and set the prune juice on the table. Twilight pushed it in front of Rainbow.

“Wha? Huh?” Rainbow Dash jerked upright in her seat to see everypony looking down at their tabs. “Oh, uh… three moonshines, right? Lemme see…” she said as she dug into her saddlebag.

“It’s alright, Dash. I have you covered. But drink this.” Twilight poked the glass.

“What is it?”

“It’s uh… some kind of shot. Just drink it.”

With a shrug, Rainbow tossed it back, and when she saw everypony standing to leave, she staggered to her hooves. But only a few paces into following Twilight to the door, she stopped. “Hold on. Gotta pee.”

So they all stood in the doorway, awkwardly making room for other patrons entering and leaving. “You girls go on,” Twilight finally said. “I should stay with her. Don’t worry—I’ll make sure she gets home okay.”

They all said their good-byes, and oddly enough for a bar, when Twilight got to the bathroom, only Dash was in there. “Say,” Rainbow said as she emerged from the stall, “you never told a story.”

“Oh, you heard those?”

Rainbow nodded. “Yeah. So how ’bout it? You ever see Death?”


Dash blinked both eyes, but not at the same time. Would she even remember if Twilight said anything?

“Not like you girls. Nothing that ever directly involved me. Just like a chance meeting in the street.”

And now Dash rocked a bit on her hooves, but she made a show of opening her eyes as wide as she could. Twilight didn’t give her enough credit sometimes. “Uh-huh,” Dash said.

“Anytime I’ve talked about Death with anypony, they seemed scared of her. I don’t know if that bothers her or not, but I didn’t want to risk it, so I stopped bringing her up. I’ve never seen a group like the girls, who all consider her as a friend, though.” Twilight bit her lip. “I think she’d like to know that.”

He,” Dash said through her yawn.

“Um… yeah.” Just an empty bathroom. There’d be no missing a filly in here. “I ought to tell her next time I see her.”

But Rainbow Dash scrunched up her nose, and her voice slurred. “What were we talking about again?”

Definitely time to get her home.

The cool night breeze tousled Twilight’s mane as she stood on the balcony outside her bedroom, looking over the dark Everfree Forest with only a slight wash of light from Ponyville behind her. A thin crescent moon shone down tonight, leaving a subdued glitter to reflect off her castle’s crystalline walls. Even in the silence, she could sense a presence beside her.

“Hello,” Twilight said.

The filly nodded and stood on her hind legs to see over the balustrade. “I found your discussion interesting tonight.”

“I hoped you might pick up on that. I kept an eye out for you. Whenever the conversation turns that way…”

The filly nodded again. “More like a vague impression. I know when ponies talk about me, but I do not hear the actual words.”

They’d spoken many times before, usually at erratic intervals. Much more so since Twilight became a princess, though. “Rarity and Applejack had told me their experiences already, but I think Applejack hadn’t taken it as quite so real until tonight. She’d only shared it with me. I’m proud of her for trusting her friends like that. But I never took it as real until now, either. They don’t see you as I do, so I dismissed them as dreams.”

“They are both correct and incorrect.”

“I’d never heard Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, or Pinkie Pie tell theirs before. I agree—an interesting discussion.” Twilight finally turned to the filly—at least she assumed such, but sure enough, she looked the same as Twilight had remembered: black with a gray mane and no cutie mark.

“What do you think about them?”

Twilight held a hoof to her lips. “Do you know how they see you?”

“Yes. Images are stronger than words for me. I know how I appear to them.”

“That makes it sound like you don’t control it,” Twilight said. She’d considered the possibility before, but then why—?

“I do not. Ponies see what they wish to see when it involves crossing that particular river to the far side. Applejack wants family. Rainbow Dash wants a friendly rival. Rarity craves decorum, Fluttershy kindness to her animals, and Pinkie Pie humor.”

For a second time, Twilight gazed at the filly. “I finally figured that out. Then what do I want that makes you appear like this?”

“You seek the truth. There is a kernel of truth to all of them, but you wish to see it in full.”

“Truth?” Twilight nearly laughed. “How is this truth?” she said, pointing a hoof at her.

“You know better than to make assumptions based on appearances,” the filly said, at last turning to look at Twilight directly with her icy-toned eyes.

A valid point. Not that it helped Twilight understand. “You’re not a filly, though. I know that. Why would I see you as one?”

“There are many aspects to a filly beyond age and size. Perhaps this is closer to how I perceive myself. I do not know—you are the one who wished to see the truth. It is up to you to interpret it.”

A spark shot through Twilight’s mind, and she gaped at her visitor. “Innocence,” she said simply. The filly shrugged, but she couldn’t hide her trace of a smile. “Even before you returned—I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is the only part of you that was truly free then. Free from corruption, free from confinement—free to wander Equestria while the rest of you watched from the moon.”

“Perhaps you have found your truth.”

“One of them, anyway.” Twilight smiled back. “I’ll work on the rest later. One other thing I know about you is that nothing is ever quite that simple.” That drew a chuckle from Death. Twilight couldn’t remember her laughing before. “You must have heard them all say how they consider you a friend.”

The filly actually grinned. Apparently, this would be a night of many firsts. But with a sigh, she stepped back from the balustrade. “Alas, I must take my leave.”

“More business?”

“Yes, but not of the final kind. Not tonight.”

With a heavy sigh, Twilight hung a foreleg over Death’s withers. “A moment, please. You said you heard them. Did you really listen?

The filly opened her mouth to answer, but the light dulled in her eyes.

“This is important,” Twilight said. “I don’t know you that well. I mean, I know Princess Luna, and I know her dream-warden self. And while I’ve enjoyed our conversations, I’ve never gotten the sense that you’d let me in, or even if you could.”

Death’s eyes darted to meet Twilight’s gaze, but still she didn’t speak.

“Did everypony’s fear of you contribute to Nightmare Moon? Or did it not bother you? Maybe Princess Luna is unaware of your feelings, or maybe you’re not really so separate.” Death once again opened her mouth, but Twilight held up a hoof. “Don’t tell me. Not now. If it’s important to you, then sometime later, but for now…”

Death smiled again. Not the little jovial one she’d allowed herself moments ago, but a real smile.

“Just listen,” Twilight said. “Every one of the girls sees you as a friend. You don’t frighten them. They take comfort in you. Before, I’d always avoided the subject, since I never knew how you would feel about it, and with most ponies, those discussions run the same way. But I wasn’t fair to you, and I don’t even know how this affects Princess Luna.”

The filly returned her gaze to the shadowed woods, but her eyes glistened, and the stars overhead burned a little brighter.

“You said you only got impressions of their attitudes toward you.” Twilight even dared to give the filly a hug. “But hear the words: You have friends. Good ones. I’m sorry I never made sure to tell you before, at least on my own behalf. You’re always welcome among us.”

If she hadn’t been touching Death, Twilight wouldn’t have felt the minuscule tremor. But even in that case, she wouldn’t have missed the filly squeezing her eyes shut and wiping something from her cheeks. So Twilight nodded and glanced up at the moon, but when she looked back, the filly had gone. Still… she would hear.

“Good night, friend,” Twilight said, then turned to walk inside.

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