Hell on Wheels

by SaddlesoapOpera

Chapter 1: Hell on Wheels


By Saddlesoap Opera

Apple Bloom groaned. The rubble shifted and the daylight lanced through the clouds of dust to sting her eyes. She crawled out from under the split wood and broken masks and shattered pottery and coughed raggedly.

“Wh-What happened…?” she croaked.

On the other side of the ruined room, a pale-green aura pulled apart another pile of wreckage to reveal Sweetie Belle. Her white hide was stained with dust and ashes.

“I don’t know.” Sweetie coughed as well. “Was it an explosion?”

“Maybe? Did somepony spill a potion or something?” Bloom spotted a patch of grey and white stripes amid the debris; she gasped and galloped over at once. Every step crunched underhoof. “Zecora! Zecora, are you awright?”

The Zebra dug herself out and shakily got to her hooves. “I am unhurt,” she said, “ but do tell -- are you foals all right as well?”

Both foals nodded. Sweetie Belle looked around the demolished tree-home.

“Wait… where’s Scootaloo?” She ran to and fro from pile to pile, digging with hooves and magic to search for their friend.

“Stop, child, you won’t find her there.” Zecora crane her neck upward. “Instead, look up into the air.”

Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom squinted up at the broken roof.

As the dust cleared, they could more easily make out the shape of the gaping hole smashed through the tree: a small body, and two enormous wings.

• • • • • •

Scootaloo laughed when she overshot the town for the fourth time.

Fields, homes, streets, rivers, woods, hills and valleys streaked past in a wild blur, and her eyes streamed with tears when she tried to focus straight ahead. She didn’t care — she’d been sobbing madly right from the start, anyway. She could barely hear over the roar of the chilling wind. She was half-blind and numb from the cold. Crackles of power stung her hide and tingled in her wings and made her front hooves tremble.

She inhaled the stinging wind and left laughter in her wake.

Scootaloo hooted and hollered into the open sky as she climbed even higher and then arced around and down again for a fifth pass of Ponyville. She flapped her throbbing wings in great, heaving sweeps, ripping the air with every stroke. Faster and faster, faster and faster. The crackles were visible now, crimson and sharp, dancing all over her body like lightning. She cried out in excitement as she felt the air thicken ahead of her, and —

• • • • • •

Rarity dived out of the tub and slid across the floor on a wave of suds and water as shattered glass rained down all around her. The breeze from the ravaged window wafted the pungent stink of two dozen mingled perfumes through the room.

She shakily got to her hooves on the wet, slippery, glass-strewn floor and then stared out of her broken window. A persistent ringing whine dulled her hearing. With the shock of the moment, she didn’t even notice the hair-thin cuts on her cheek and shoulder.

She stared at the debris-strewn floor, at the demolished collection, at the broken window, and at the growing chaos beyond. Her left eyelid twitched.

She inhaled to shriek, but a fit of sneezing and choking cut her off. She staggered out of the perfume-soaked bathroom for some fresh air.

• • • • • •

Rainbow Dash cringed and covered her head with her front legs.

“Ow! What the hay? Did you throw a BOTTLE at me?”

“PART of one, you ... you BEAST!” Rarity fumed. She glared up at the cloud-house with fire in her eyes. Her horn flared, and the bottom half of a phial of Eau de Prance barely missed Dash’s right ear.

“Okay, okay, stop!” Dash cautiously peered down over the edge of her home. “Could you at least tell me WHY you’re so steamed? Whoa, wait — are you bleeding?

Rarity trembled. Her face reddened. “How can you possibly claim ignorance? Do you know how much damage you’ve caused with your little stunt? Just because you saved my life with that trick before, it doesn’t give you the right to wreak havoc through all of Ponyville whenever you like!”

Rarity panted in fury. Slowly, the peak of her rage passed and she sagged in teary-eyed misery. “It took me YEARS to find some of those bottles…” Her bottom lip quivered as she magicked up a destroyed atomizer. “Oh, your poor thing… I never even squeezed your bulb…” She gave the tasseled thing a magical pinch. It wheezed like a death-rattle.

Rainbow Dash took to the air and flapped down to stand in front of Rarity.

“Trick…? Rarity, I swear, I have NO idea what you’re talking about. I’ve been up here all day. What the heck is going on?” Her nose wrinkled. “And what is that smell?”

“Didn’t you hear it?” Rarity whimpered. “It was a sonic rainboom — right in the middle of town!”

Dash gasped. “Wh-What? No way! I didn’t hear a thing. I’ve been trying to study for a Wonderbolts refresher course, and I play music pretty loud — y’know, to help me concentrate. Can’t always have you girls setting up cram sheets on farm fields for me, right?”

Rarity looked up from cradling the broken bottle. Her grief gave way to fresh righteous anger.

“Yes, the Wonderbolts! Exactly! Ponyville has a flying menace on its hooves, and you need to stop it! If it really wasn’t you, then you’re the only one who can!” She lunged forward and pressed her hooves on Dash’s shoulders. “Stop it, before it kills again!” She immediately turned away again and went back to babying the ruined bottles still hovering around her.

Dash narrowed her eyes. “Don’t worry, Rarity. If somepony’s messing with the skies of Ponyville, then I’m on it. I’ll take care of this. I promise — Wonderbolt’s honour!” She sat stiffly upright and saluted.

• • • • • •

Scootaloo didn’t know where she was going, and she didn’t care. For that matter, it didn’t really make a difference. She was so fast, such an amazing flyer, that she could go anywhere in record time. Crystal Empire? Neighagara Falls? Las Pegasus? Why not all three — in a single day?

She cranked up the speed once again. She’d almost gotten used to the sparks and stings, now. Maybe that was just how Pegasi felt when they got going really fast. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, as long as she wasn’t stuck down there in the dirt.

As Scootaloo rocketed over a field, leaves tore off branches and stormed in a horizontal cyclone behind her. She soared above the surface of a pond. It rose up in a tidal wave and poured down into the next depression, leaving scattered fish flopping in the bare silt. She sharply angled upward, and the corkscrew of leaves and pebbles and pond-water behind her pulled up into a true twister and took off on its own.

She laughed again. She couldn’t stop laughing. Or crying. Her whole life had been a sad, boring dream, and she was finally awake. The howling wind seemed to call her name.


The little Pegasus raised an eyebrow. Wait, had she really heard that?


She struggled to look over her shoulder without letting up on her speed. Behind her, in her shrieking maelstrom of a wake, Rainbow Dash was flapping urgently to catch up with her. The best flyer in the whole world, straining as hard as she could.

Scootaloo laughed again. “Heya, Rainbow!” she called out over the roar of wind. “Last one to the Frozen North’s a rotten—”

She crashed into the rock face at full speed. For a moment, the world turned into a crushing embrace of grinding stone and sliding earth and tumbling quarray eels. And then she was out in the air again, whirling head over tail, bouncing on the dewy grass like a skipping stone and gouging craters into the soft soil with every impact. She took nearly half a mile to come to a stop.

• • • • • •

Rainbow Dash approached the final crater hesitantly, bracing herself for the horrific sight awaiting her. She’d seen the filmstrips at the Wonderbolts academy. The dire anti-drinking-on-the-wing messages. She’d never crashed at anything close to full speed, and even with Pegasus magic as strong as hers, she’d often needed hours in a hot bath to work out the aches. Sometimes even a hospital stay. A crash like this? Scootaloo… poor Scootaloo. The little foal had to be-

“WAHOO! Did you SEE that, Rainbow Dash? Did you SEE?”

Dash backflipped in shock and stumbled to right herself. Scootaloo had burst out of the pile of rocks and grass divots like a jack in the box. She was covered in grime, but there didn’t seem to be a single scratch on her — or on the glossy black-and-red metal choker latched around her neck.

“S-Scootaloo…! Buck me, you took the top off a MOUNTAIN! How are you okay?”

Scootaloo laughed a sharp, brittle laugh. A shudder passed through her accompanied by a wave of crimson crackles. Her eyes shone with the same blood-red power.

“Isn’t it AWESOME? I went sooooo far, omigosh! Dash, I feel so. Totally. AMAZING! OH! Did you see my RAINBOOM? No? C’mon, let’s fly! I can do another one, easy! Let’s fly! Now! Right now!”

She giggled, hopped forward out of the rubble, and then spread her wings. Dash drew back and half turned away. Her nose wrinkled.

“Wh-What in Celestia’s name did you DO to yourself, Scootaloo?”

Scootaloo’s wings were massive, larger than Rainbow Dash’s by a wide margin. They were scarcely smaller than Princess Celestia’s impressive span, but still anchored to that tiny foal body. When Scootaloo folded them they made her look like a hanging bat.

“I finally got better wings, Dash! DUH! Aren’t they great? They’re so great! Is it always like this? Flying? Omigosh, I hope I feel this way FOREVER!”

She buzzed her wings in delight, but now her giant pinions cut the air like battleaxes. The gusts made Dash squint and skid backward.

Dash forced a chuckle. “Y-Yeah, they’re, uh, they’re really something. Look, Scoots, the reason I tracked you down is that there have been some ... complaints.”

Scootaloo stiffened slightly. She craned her neck to preen her big, beautiful wings. “They’re jealous.”

Dash frowned. “No, it’s not like that. They’re unhappy you—”

Scootaloo looked up. Her eyes shone with power again. “Unhappy I what? Started flying like a champ? Showed them all up? Went faster than anypony else ever did? HAH! I bet they are!”

Dash stomped a hoof. “NO! Would you just listen for a second? You can’t blow off a rainboom at ground level, Scootaloo! It’s dangerous! You did a lot of damage! Everypony’s really upset!”

The faceted ruby on the front of Scootaloo’s choker glowed hot, and so did her eyes.

“Oh, I get it. This isn’t even about them, is it, Dashie? YOU’RE the one who’s mad, because there’s a new filly in town who’s gonna bust every record you’ve got! Read it and weep, old-timer!” She wiggled her bolt-and-wing Cutie Mark in Dash’s direction. More crimson crackles played across her hide.

Dash tensed. She bit off her words one by one. “That’s. Not. It. You need to come with me and see Twilight. I recognize that thing you’re wearing, and it’s bad news. Don’t you remember what happened to Trixie when she had it?”

Scootaloo scowled. The ruby pulsed brightly. “Uh-huh. Twilight couldn’t stand somepony being better than her, so she fought dirty to take her down.”

“What?” Dash stared Scootaloo down. “That’s not what happened!”

Scootaloo raised her head and moved forward until her nose touched Dash’s.

“Yeah. It is. But I’m not falling for some stupid trick. I’m not taking it off. I’ve been waiting for this my whole stupid life. I’m finally a real Pegasus. A GREAT one.” She gave Dash a little nudge. “I’m better than you, even. And you can’t take it.

Dash lunged to tackle Scootaloo, but she smashed into the rubble pile instead. She spit out a mouthful of pebbles and looked up at the hovering foal.

“Ha ha! Nice try! Gonna have to do better than that to catch me, Rainbow Crash!

In the blink of an eye, Scootaloo was a dot on the horizon. Clouds streaked away from her trajectory in a whirling spiral. Half of them coiled into whirlwinds.

Dash leaped to her hooves, trotted for three strides, and then took off after her.

• • • • • •

Twilight Sparkle magicked up the teapot and filled the three cups on the tray Spike held up for her. He brought the tea over to the guests seated around the map-table in her castle’s grand hall.

She sat down at her chair and took a slow deep breath, letting it out across her own cup of tea. She shook out her wings, settled in her chair, and then met Zecora’s eyes.

“Zecora,” she said softly, “I thought you were going to destroy the Alicorn Amulet.”

The Zebra sipped her tea. “I did not keep the thing for fun. The task’s easier said than done.”

Twilight frowned. “And you fillies — you’re all right?”

Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom nodded.

“We didn’t plan this, Princess,” Sweetie said sheepishly. “Honest!”

“We didn’t even know what happened!” agreed Bloom.

Twilight nodded back. “You’re not here to be punished. And I don’t want to punish Scootaloo, either. We just need to get that thing back under lock and key. It’s way too dangerous to be out in Equestria, no matter who has it. Trixie…” Twilight gathered herself before continuing. “... Trixie isn’t a bad Pony. But the Amulet took everything bad inside her and made it worse, while giving her enough power to act on those feelings. If we don’t get it back, it will do the same thing to Scootaloo.”

Zecora sighed. “It will be hard to make her see eye to eye when she is flying so high up in the sky.”

Twilight sipped her tea. “We got it away from Trixie. We can get it away from a filly half her age.”

The two remaining Cutie Mark Crusaders shared an uneasy glance.

“Well, okay, Princess,” said Apple Bloom. “How are we gonna do that, exactly?”

“Yeah,” agreed Sweetie Belle. “How can we stop her when we can’t even SEE her? I missed her breaking the roof and leaving ‘cause I was busy blinking at the time…”

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Twilight set down her teacup.

“Simple. We set a trap.”

• • • • • •

Pennants fluttered in the frigid breeze, tugging at the ribbons tying them to the cloud arches and platforms dotting the otherwise clear sky. Pegasi flitted about putting finishing touches on the decorations, and Twilight and the two remaining Cutie Mark Crusaders watched the proceedings from the basket of a nearby hot-air balloon.

“This seems kinda…” Apple Bloom trailed off with a frown.

“Obvious…?” Sweetie suggested.

Twilight furrowed her brow. “I know, girls. But Scootaloo isn’t thinking very clearly right now. Remember, Trixie is a showmare, with a Cutie Mark for stage illusions. If anypony alive should have been able to spot the tricks we set up to beat her, it was her. But she didn’t.”

“I guess,” Apple Bloom said. “We ain’t gonna hurt her though, right?”

“That’s the whole reason we’re doing this,” Twilight replied. “We need to get the Alicorn Amulet away from Scootaloo before she hurts herself.” Twilight dropped her voice. “...Or somepony else.” She looked out at the busy preparations and shouted over the wind:

“Two minutes, everypony! If she’s still following the prevailing air currents, it won’t take her long to get here!”

The Pegasi redoubled their efforts. A pair of stallions hoisted up a hastily painted banner naming the obstacle course: ELITE FLYER TOURNAMENT QUALIFIER. Several competitors wearing snug racing costumes and flight goggles took their places at the starting line.

Twilight hunkered down in the basket and gestured for the fillies on either side of her to do the same.

Less than a minute later, a distant rumble of of thunder built to an echoing boom, and Scootaloo streaked into view. She stopped in less than a hundred yards, and the backwash of wind sent the other competitors tumbling and flapping to right themselves.

“A race?” Scootaloo asked. “Count me in! I’ll show all of you who’s awesome and who’s nothing!”

Only a few seconds after that, Rainbow Dash surged to a halt right next to her and sent the competitors whirling all over again.

Sweetie Belle peeked at Dash from the balloon. “Should we tell her what’s up?” she whispered.

“No,” Twilight answered. “We don’t want to alert Scootaloo. Once she sees what happens, Dash will be a big help.” Twilight hazarded a glance at the two powerful Pegasi approaching the more typical racers. “Besides, maybe she can talk some sense into her and save us the trouble.”

Meanwhile, Dash panted for breath as she flapped over to face Scootaloo once more. “That’s not fair! You’ve got the Alicorn Amulet!”

Scootaloo looked down between the clouds. A mile below, her pinpoint shadow wallowed in the dirt. She met Dash’s gaze again and narrowed her eyes. “Yeah? And how’s this any more fair than some Ponies being born bigger? Or faster? Or with good wings? Why is my advantage wrong, when everypony else’s isn’t? Huh? WHY?”

A tear streaked her cheek. The nearby clouds darkened.

“Because it’s NOT yours!” Dash snapped back. “And on top of that, it’s dangerous. You’re spilling Pegasus magic everywhere you go, and it’s turning the weather wild. If you don’t cut it out, these fronts will hit the storms from Everfree, and then it could get too big to break up!”

Scootaloo drew back a little. Her eyes flicked down again to that tiny black spot, nailed forever to the ground. She gritted her teeth.

“...No! You’re not gonna trick me! You’re a top weather Pony and there’s no storm you can’t bust!” She turned to face the referee hovering near the banner. “Well? Start this stupid thing, already!”

The stallion fumbled with his whistle and raised a hoof. “Uh, right. Racers… on your marks…”

Dash scowled. She, Scootaloo, and the others got into position.

Twilight ignited her horn. Thick clouds around the area muted the glow that seized the half a dozen broad, weighted nets buried inside them.

“Get set…” The stallion held the whistle between his lips.

Scootaloo flapped her crackling, outsized wings in anticipation. Thunder rumbled in the clouds holding the nets.

Twilight peered over the edge of the basket and caught the starter’s eye. She readied herself and offered a nod.

The starter nodded back and then blew a shrill blast on the whistle.

The other racers seemed trapped in tree-sap as Scootaloo exploded into flight. Dash followed hot on her tail, and by the time the others were just raising their wings for the first push, the two of them were ten body-lengths ahead.

Right on time, Twilight’s magic flashed and the surrounding clouds burst as a glowing net spread wide and threw itself in Scootaloo’s path.

She struck it head-on and the thing wrapped around her like an octopus seizing prey. She cried out in shock and fury, but her wings thrust out of the net and she kept flapping.

“Hay!” she growled. “Play fair, you jerks!”

The weighted net slowed her down enough for Dash to stay on her tail, but the other racers were coloured dots on the horizon behind them. Scootaloo rounded the first corner of the huge circuit, and the moment she did so another net seized her.

She snarled in fury. Red energy seethed on her hide and blazed in her eyes. The nearby storm-clouds started spilling their rain.

“Scootaloo!” Dash roared over the wind and thunder. “You’ve gotta stop!”

“NO WAY!” she screamed. “I’m gonna win! You can’t stop me!”

Twilight was out of the balloon now, hovering high above the race circuit and watching Dash and Scootaloo streak through the cloud-arches marking the path. Her horn flashed as she hurled another net over Scootaloo. And then another. And another.

The heavy load finally entrapped Scootaloo’s wings and folded her up, and soon she was howling in frustration as her flightpath started to dip downward.

Twilight dropped lower and called to Dash: “Rainbow! Catch her before she falls!”

Dash nodded and then dipped into a dive, but the little foal had other plans.

Scootaloo screamed and struggled, and the crimson magic crackled and sparked. Her flailing wings burned and sliced the thick web of rope like red-hot blades. In less than a hundred yards she was soaring upward like a skyrocket. Weights and scraps of burning rope rained down in her smoke-trailing wake.

Dash grunted in frustration and poured on the speed at the bottom of her dive, hoping to catch up before Scootaloo could get her bearings. Debris pelted Dash and smoke stung her eyes, but she pressed on. She got within two body lengths before Scootaloo gave an enraged shout and a magic-soaked pump of her wings and took off at maximum speed. A blood-red and black rainboom shattered the air.

Dash tumbled in the backblast and slammed down onto a nearby storm cloud, stunned. In the distance, Scootaloo left a path of black thunderheads and scouring cyclones behind her. Her mad shrieks carried even over the howling wind.

Twilight flapped over to Dash and helped her up. “Should we call in the Wonderbolts?” she asked.

Dash shook her head to clear it. “No use,” she said. “I’m the fastest flyer they’ve got. If I can’t catch her, neither can they.”

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle popped up at the rim of the balloon’s basket as it drifted closer.

“You mean it’s hopeless?” said Sweetie.

“There’s gotta be SOMETHIN’ we can do!” pleaded Bloom.

Twilight frowned in apology. “I’m sorry, girls,” she said. “The nets didn't work, casting magic directly on Scootaloo could be dangerous while she's already overloaded with power, and if nopony can chase her down, then all we can do is try and cope with the damage from these storms.”

Dash glanced at the fillies in the balloon. Her eyes brightened. “Wait! There just might be somepony …”

• • • • • •

Scootaloo bellowed into the wind. Tears stung her eyes and streaked back into her mane as she sliced the skies over and over.

“They’re jealous!” she roared. “Everypony’s against me! I’m the best and they can’t handle it!”

She pumped her wings harder. Far below, rain pounded a cornfield until the stalks mashed down into the soupy mud.

“I’m the b-best…” she repeated. It came out hoarse and shaky that time. She paused so high up in the sky that frost sparkled on her feathers and her breath came in shallow, foggy gasps. She looked down, and despite the vast distance her empowered eyes could still pick out the tiniest hint of her shadow. That mocking reminder of the greedy, grasping ground.

“Stop it!” she shouted. “I beat you! I won! I can fly! I can!” Magic pulsed through every line of her pinions. A small hurricane formed around the shadow.

Scootaloo fought to catch her breath in the thin atmosphere. As she panted, her eyes caught a sign of movement near the newborn storm. A pale grey, winged shape, climbing fast and gaining speed. The shadow would not be beaten so easily. It was coming for her. Coming to drag her back down into the mud.

“No…!” Scootaloo turned and spread her wings. “Leave me alone!” She took off with a sky-splitting blast. Hail rattled on rooftops for miles around. The speed made her eyes sting and her mane and tail ache from the pulling drag.

But the shadow followed.

Scootaloo leveled off at a slightly lower height and pumped her huge wings urgently. Darkness and thunder and lightning spread through nearby clouds like ink in water.

But the shadow followed.

Scootaloo whimpered in panic with every desperate breath. Her little lungs burned in her chest and her shoulders were numb from cold and exertion. The Amulet’s magic was bottomless, but her endurance wasn’t. She felt herself starting to slow down. If she kept pushing, the magic would tear her apart.

She wasn’t good enough.

The filly dropped like a meteor, wreathed in streams of black storms and crimson flame, and crashed through four layers of cloud before rolling to a landing on the fifth.

The shadow alighted as soft as a whisper. An eyeless, looming silhouette, backlit by the sinking sun, bearing down on her in judgment.

“No!” Scootaloo cocooned herself in her wings. “Go away! P-Please!” She sniffled back tears.

The shadow offered no reply.

Scootaloo trembled. The storm clouds rumbled. “Why pick on me? What did I do? Do you even know what it’s like, w-watching everypony around you do what you can’t?”

The grey shape reached up and tugged a patterned scarf off her head, revealing a pair of wide, golden, and off-kilter eyes.

“Actually, yes. I do.”

Scootaloo peeked out from between her wings and got a better look at her pursuer. “Whah…? Wait, aren’t you Dink’s mom?”

The blonde mare nodded. “That’s me. Folks call me Derpy.” She smiled.

Scootaloo slowly emerged and sat upright. “How did you keep up with me?”

Derpy shrugged. “I’ve always been a pretty fast flyer. I used to compete when I was little, and I always got first place. Every time.”

Scootaloo looked into those skewed eyes. “But then…?”

Derpy nodded again. “Mm-hm. I couldn’t judge turns and dips right, and it messed up my times. I crashed a lot, too. But nopony ever beat me on a straightaway. Following you, I just covered my eyes and felt for your trail.” She turned and looked at the devastated, chaotic skies behind them. “It was pretty easy.”

For the first time since she’d taken the Amulet, Scootaloo focused behind instead of ahead. She softly gasped.

Whirlwinds swarmed across the hills and plains while rain pooled in the low places and lightning lashed the high. Here and there the coloured dots of Pegasi valiantly struggled with the supercharged weather, but the clouds resisted their kicks and the winds wrestled with their wings.

“I… I didn’t mean to do all this…” Scootaloo said. “I just wanted to fly. Just f-fly, that’s all…” She wiped her eyes, reddened with emotion now instead of magic. “I’m gonna be in so much trouble…”

“You can’t keep using that thing,” Derpy said in a gentle yet firm tone. A mother’s tone. “It’s really dangerous for you, and it’s really dangerous for everypony else.”

“But I need it!” Scootaloo shouted. “It’s not fair! Can’t I fly? Can’t I just have this? I can help fight the storms, I can fix this! Please, don’t take it away!” She pressed her hooves to the burning-hot red jewel and hugged herself with her empowered wings. “Please… please, don’t. I’m happy, I’m finally happy…”

“Huh,” said Derpy airily. “That’s weird.”

Scootaloo hazarded a peek out. “What is?”

“Well, you don’t look happy, is all,” Derpy replied. “You look scared. And upset. And angry. And it seems like you’ve been that way for a while. The way you flew away from me, it was like the Headless Horse was on your tail!”

Scootaloo’s wings and ears drooped. “I can’t stop,” she whispered. “This is all I’ve got. I’m useless without it. I’m nothing.”

Derpy moved a little closer to her. “Is that what it’s been telling you?”

Scootaloo nodded silently.

Derpy raised up her front hooves, but she leaned close and reached past the foal instead of reaching for the Amulet. Slowly, gently, she pulled Scootaloo into a hug.

“Don’t ever let anypony or anything tell you you’re nothing,” Derpy said. “You matter. You aren’t useless, whether or not you can fly. You matter now, and you’d matter with shaky eyes, and you’d matter if your mane fell out and you turned swamp green.” She drew back, and strained to lock both eyes on Scootaloo’s. “You matter.”

Scootaloo shivered. The seething red glow in her pinions faded. “N-Nopony’s ever said that to me before. Not like that.” She reached up and touched the edges of the Alicorn outline decorating the front of the Amulet with her hooves. The gem glowed menacingly. “Miss Derpy…” Scootaloo whimpered, “I’m scared.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m here. We’ll do it together, all right?” She put her hooves on Scootaloo’s.

Scootaloo nodded. She touched the clasp holding the band closed. “Can we… can we still talk, sometimes? About… you know…”

Derpy’s eyes shone. “Of course. Anytime you want.”

Scootaloo swallowed hard. “Okay. Here goes.”

“Deep breath,” Derpy said. “One… two…”

• • • • • •

Without the constant overflow of magic, the storms were slowly yielding to the efforts of dozens of Pegasi. The rain was down to a gentle drizzle now.

Derpy Hooves sat on a low cloud and watched the silent play unfolding at ground level in Ponyville. Scootaloo, now once more tiny-winged, openly wept as she urgently explained herself to Twilight and Zecora and a stern-looking Pegasus mare. She pointed up at Derpy during her speech. Derpy smiled at the group.

The Princess of Friendship smiled back, and calmed the mare’s anger with some wise words. Zecora chimed in as well. Derpy could see the rhyming cadence of her words without needing to hear them. The mare sighed wearily and then finally cracked a tender smile. She crouched down and offered a hug, and Scootaloo leaped into her embrace. She laughed. She cried. So did the mare.

While Derpy watched them, her left eye slowly veered out of alignment and peered down at the open Amulet sitting on the cloud in front of her. The gem gleamed, red as summer dusk. Red as finishing-line ribbons and VIP carpets. Red as a champion’s velvet cape.

Derpy frowned. She licked her lips. “Anything I want…?” she whispered.

The red gem pulsed like a beating heart. It hummed with promise.

Derpy slowly smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve already got everything.” She picked up the short, foal-length scarf she’d worn over her eyes, dark and printed with yellow duckies, and carefully wrapped up the Amulet until no trace of its glow could be seen.

She heaved a deep sigh, and then hefted the bundle and flapped down to join the others.


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