Author's note: Okay, I promise this is the absolute last time I will post my first MLP story on this account. (What can I say? This is a hard fandom to do justice to; so much of its charm depends on things going unspoken.) I am rather sorry about Apples and Gems and Daisy Stems, which I still love as a title, but which - I have concluded regretfully - just wasn't feasible as an anthology fic. (Maybe after the revolution I'll be able to publish a book of these and call it that.) Anyway, I hope you all enjoy what's here.
Disclaimer: It may be My Little Pony, but it's not mine, all the same.
"Such a feeling's coming over me…"
Rarity took a deep, zestful breath as she and her friends rounded the final bend on the path to the summit of Castle Mount. "Isn't this mountain air invigorating?" she inquired of nopony in particular. "I do believe I can feel my coat getting glossier by the minute."
"Suits me," said Rainbow Dash. "We'll want to look our best when Pony Time magazine comes calling, to take our picture for their next article about awesome ponies who've struggled their way to the top of the highest peak in Equestria." And she struck a midair pose that was probably intended to convey debonair jauntiness, though her ear-to-ear grin rather spoiled the effect.
Applejack cocked an unimpressed eye up at her. "You realize we're only a few hundred hands above Canterlot Castle, right?" she said. "There are sight-seers up here three times a week, Rainbow. And anyway, what struggling have you done? Your hooves have barely touched the ground through this whole climb."
Rainbow Dash waved a careless forelimb. "Mere details."
"I like details!" said Pinkie Pie brightly, as she hopped out onto a precariously out-hanging ledge. "That's the best part of coming up this high: you can see all the details everywhere!" She pointed at a specimen detail some thirty miles distant. "Look, Fluttershy, there's the cave by the waterfall where you and I first met!"
"That's nice," said Fluttershy, not removing her hooves from her eyes or stirring from the place she had held on Applejack's back for the last seventeen furlongs. (As they had passed along Tarpan Scarp, she had accidentally dislodged a fragment of quartz from the path; it had tumbled into the abyss and shattered, and the sight had abruptly turned all six of Fluttershy's limbs to jelly.)
Pinkie Pie looked vaguely disappointed; Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes; Rarity and Applejack showed no reaction at all. But Twilight, bringing up the rear with their oversized picnic basket in her magical grip, couldn't keep herself from grinning – not so much at Fluttershy's nerves, per se (though the idea of an acrophobic pegasus did have its amusing side), as at the sheer, surreal delight of finding herself in such a place, and part of such a company. Even now, a full week after the Summer Sun Celebration, her relentlessly realistic brain couldn't quite grasp that it was really happening – that she, Twilight Sparkle, the plain-Jane Braymin filly who missed solar eclipses because she was busy reading about them, was suddenly one of a sextet of real, true-blue, honest-to-Celestia friends. Not just acquaintances, or study partners, or ponies one saw regularly and had grown to vaguely like, but friends – actual, breathing ponies who combined mutual good-will and affection with entire fellow-feeling as to all things equine and divine. (Indeed, it seemed to Twilight that she'd never grasped what that formulation meant before Harmony's spark had come to her. Entire fellow-feeling wasn't something she'd have thought of Rarity and Applejack, for instance, having as to anything – but now, through her newly clarified vision, she could see that the self-conscious refinement of the one and the frank earthiness of the other were indeed expressions of a shared sense of… well, of something that she couldn't quite name yet, but that had something to do with the privilege and preciousness that came with simply being alive. Because they were such different ponies, of course those expressions often clashed with each other, but that didn't change the essential unity of what they both valued so deeply – and, thus, didn't keep them from being friends.)
Friends – it was crazy. She'd read about friendship, in old sagas and philosophic treatises; it was a special fortune beyond anything in Nature, something that lifted ponies out of their mortal bonds and allowed them to glimpse that life of ageless beauty that their forebears had so mysteriously lost. (Or, as Rarity had put it a few days before, while the two of them had been galloping frantically to reach the Canterlot post office before it closed, "When you're with your friends, there's no such thing as time.") To experience such a thing was a grace beyond any rational hope – and, therefore, to expect or demand it from one's life was plainly the ultimate in presumptuous arrogance. Twilight had understood that from her foalhood, and had arranged her life accordingly; when she needed affection (as every pony did, sometimes), she had instinctively turned to purely natural supports – her family, her foal-sitter, her teacher, her service dragon. Even a direct command from Princess Celestia hadn't been able to make her believe that she could claim anything more.
And yet here she was, ascending Castle Mount as a friend among friends, carrying the basket that Pinkie had filled with herbs and dainties for them to share at the top as a mark of that friendship. The whole thing seemed like a dream; she half expected to wake up any moment in her old study quarters, with Spike frying hash browns in the kitchen nook beyond. Things like this just didn't happen in real life, did they?
But, even as she thought that, her incorrigibly logical mind spotted the fallacy. If this were a dream, it meant that everything she was experiencing was coming out of her own head – and how could that be? How could a dusty little bluestocking's head like hers invent something like Pinkie, or Fluttershy? For that matter, how could she be dreaming such a vision of friendship, without any experience of the thing to draw from? Pure sophistry, that was what that was.
No, crazy as it seemed, this was real. All of it, even the silliest bits; on the tree-lined avenue near the foot of the Mount, when Rainbow Dash had created a mini-cyclone behind a withered gingko to blow its leaves down onto the rest of them, and they had screamed and laughed and pranced wildly around under the barrage – even that had been real. Twilight shook her head and sighed, wondering why she, of all ponies, should ever have wound up so blessed.
At the sound of her sigh, Applejack craned her neck and shot her a concerned glance. "You all right back there, sugar-cube?" she said. "We can go slower, if you need." (Ever since Applejack had found out how many books Twilight had read, she had had a tendency to treat her as some kind of strange, frail, cave-dwelling creature, unaccustomed to sunlight and fresh air. It would have been annoying, if she hadn't been so sweet about it.)
Twilight smiled. "I'm fine, Applejack," she said. "Just fine."
When the six of them reached the summit, Rarity and Twilight cleared a space in the snow with their horns, and the other four (Fluttershy's legs and wings having regained their potency once the Scarp was out of sight) spread the tablecloth and laid out the food. The spread was as lavish and succulent as Pinkie's party talent could make it, and her friends praised it with according enthusiasm; once the picnic began, however, at least one of them found herself barely tasting any of it. There was just too much else in the setting and the company to engage a pony's attention – and Twilight had always been a less sensual pony than most, anyway.
Which wasn't to say that some part of her didn't attend. Indeed, for years afterward, the taste of red-clover pudding or Sweet Apple Acres cobbler would always recall to her the nip of mountain air, piercing sunlight in a cloudless blue sky, and the gay chatter of six young mares about anything and everything that might happen to seem worth saying to their friends. "Of course, it's going to take some time this time to get myself in shape…" "A bit of white lace, a few embroidered promises – just give it a kiss for luck, and it's on its way…" "No, I think anypony can master basic calculus. In your mind, you have capacities, you know…" It was all so trivial, yet so precious – and how that could be was just one more of those mysteries that Twilight was starting to learn to expect from her new state of life.
So the time flew by, as such time does, and before Twilight knew it she was putting the dishes back in the basket with a feeling of happy yet vaguely regretful satiety. It wasn't that she objected to having other things to do with her life besides sit on a mountaintop chatting with her friends; rather, having had that little taste of friendship's timelessness, she found herself wishing that it wasn't necessary to do that first, and the other things afterward. Before and after struck her as alien, intrusive concepts at that moment; she had a confused vision of herself as properly a creature of unbridled spirit, her mane brushing the newborn stars as she walked among the ruins of cities yet to be.
With such thoughts afloat in her head, she wandered over to the observation rail on the southern edge of the peak, and gazed out across the luxuriant panorama of her native land. Of course, one couldn't see all of Equestria even from the top of Castle Mount; most of the southernmost cities, Puerto Caballo and Las Jacas and the rest, appeared as mere remote flyspecks at the best. But enough of it was visible to make for a splendid sight: the vast expanse of her beloved teacher's domains, the hills and valleys that her forefather Sleipnir had stamped out under his eight hooves, the winds and waters of which the stewardship was bred into her very flesh. Through eyes renewed by the grace of friendship, she beheld it all with the wonder of a newborn foal, and her heart ached within her for excess of joy.
Unable to bear much more, she averted her eyes to one side, and saw to her surprise that Pinkie had come up next to her without her noticing. The little earth pony seemed uninterested in the global vista that had so enraptured Twilight; instead, she was scrutinizing the lower peaks of the Mount itself, her muzzle screwed up in pert intensity as her eyes panned back and forth over the grounds of Canterlot Castle.
"Looking for something?" said Twilight.
"Mm-hmm," said Pinkie. "The Curtal Well."
Twilight arched an impressed eyebrow; she hadn't pegged Pinkie Pie for this kind of historical wonkery. "You mean the one that Nobly Courteous dived into in full armor to save Canterlot from a plague of burrowing spinks?" she said. "It's over there. See that little gleam of blue, just beyond the royal gardens?"
Pinkie followed her friend's pointing hoof, and her eyes widened as she caught sight of the remote cistern. "Ooo-ooh," she said. "They made it hard, didn't they?"
"Huh?" said Twilight.
But Pinkie had turned her attention to the ground; brushing away the snow from the spot where she stood, she found a small stone and lifted it in her right forehoof. As Twilight watched, bewildered, she pivoted that leg outward, wound back on her other three, and flung the stone with all her might towards the Curtal Well. It whistled through the air, glittering in the sunlight, and landed with a crunch in the gardens, inspiring a brief but noisy flutter from several of the garden birds.
"Missed!" said Pinkie brightly.
Twilight looked from her to the stone's landing place and back again several times before managing, "Pinkie, what… what was that for?"
"For a wish, of course," said Pinkie. "If you stand at the top of Castle Mount, and throw a rock into the Curtal Well on your first try, you get a wish granted. Everypony knows that, right?"
The blank look on her friend's face made the falsity of this generalization evident. "Oh, wow," she said. "Twilight, you need to get out more, you know that?"
As Twilight acknowledged that she did, Rainbow Dash flew up beside them, and squinted down at the sparkling speck of blue. "So that's where old Courteous took the plunge, huh?" she said. "Funny, it doesn't look as deep as I expected."
"Maybe it got filled up because so many ponies threw rocks into it," said Twilight. (A little more tartly than she'd intended, maybe. She was trying to be pleased that her Ponyville friends had taught her something new about her native city, but it was taking some real pride-swallowing for her to get there.)
Rainbow Dash just chuckled. "Could be," she said. "Anyway – who wants to see this little pony give it a shot?"
"Go for it, Rainbow!" said Pinkie.
"Sure, we'll all pull for you," said Applejack, coming up behind the three of them with Rarity and Fluttershy in her train. "Just remember, it only counts if you're standing on the summit, not hovering above it."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," said Rainbow. Alighting nonchalantly on a snowdrift, she dug out a stone of her own, and then wound back and flung it just as Pinkie had. Only, where Pinkie's stone had fallen short of the Well and landed in the gardens, Rainbow's easily cleared gardens and Well alike; indeed, she put so much force into it that it missed the Mount entirely, plummeting out of sight in a broad arc to land (presumably, from its trajectory) somewhere in the surrounding tracts of farmland by which Canterlot was fed.
There was a moment's awkward silence, broken by a stifled snort from Applejack. "Nice one, Rainbow," she said. "Greased your elbow a little too hard this morning, huh?"
Rainbow Dash flushed. "Okay, Miss Smarty-Hooves," she said, "let's see you try, then!"
"Reckon I will," said Applejack easily. "Mercy knows, the old farm could use a wish or two. Toss me one of them flints, Pinkie Pie."
Applejack's throw proved the nearest yet, but it still missed the Well by a good seven yards. Still, that was substantially better than either of the next two; Rarity, having spent nearly five minutes finding a stone of just the right shape and color, let fly with a wild throw that narrowly missed the tallest of the castle spires below, while Fluttershy, halfway through her own windup, seemed to be suddenly seized with the fear of braining an innocent bird, and ended up not so much pitching her stone as tossing it gently into a snowbank twelve hands away. (Rainbow Dash, at this, facesoled so violently that she bruised her forehead.)
"Great job, Fluttershy, great job!" said Pinkie. "Okay, Twilight, it's your turn now."
Twilight started. "Oh… no, that's okay, Pinkie," she said. "I've barely used my hooves dexterously since I was a foal; I wouldn't even know how to let go properly anymore."
"Oh, that's no problem," said Pinkie. "Just practice a little before you make your throw, and you'll get it back all right. It's like playing the saxophone upside-down on a bungee cord: you never really forget how, once you've learned."
"You ought to try, Twilight," Rarity urged.
"Sure, why not?" said Rainbow Dash. "You can't do worse than Fluttershy did." She paused, and then added candidly, "Or than I did, really."
"That's right," said Applejack. "Nopony minds if you succeed or fail at something like this. So long as you've tried, that's the main thing."
"You'll do fine, Twilight," said Fluttershy. "Just be careful."
Thus impelled, Twilight uncertainly took a stone from Pinkie Pie's outstretched hoof and clenched it in the hollow of her own. The whole idea still made her feel terribly clumsy and awkward – there was something about brute physical force that, even in foalhood, her magic-gifted soul had never felt comfortable with – but she knew enough about friendship now to see the importance of not letting her private hang-ups make a spoilsport out of her.
So she made a few experimental holds and releases, practiced extending her foreleg until she was satisfied that she wouldn't knock herself over, and generally readied herself for the queer challenge as best she could on such short notice. "Okay, I guess I'm ready," she said after a few minutes. "Just pray that I don't end up breaking one of Princess Celestia's memorial windows, because if I do I'm going to jump off this mountain and kill myself."
"Don't count on it," said Rainbow Dash. "Have you forgotten who you're with? No way any friend of mine falls to her death while I'm around."
Twilight couldn't argue with that, so she didn't try; instead, she turned herself in the direction of the Well, drew back her leg until her elbow joint hurt, and then unclenched her hoof and hurled the stone as hard as she could. Then, almost immediately, she dropped her head and squeezed her eyes shut – partly so that she wouldn't be tempted to put magical English on her missile, but mainly because she didn't want to see the disaster that she felt irrationally certain she was about to cause.
When, therefore, she heard her five friends erupt into wild, exuberant cheers, it came as rather more of a shock than if she had heard them speaking ancient Draconine. "What?" she gasped, looking up in bewilderment. "What is it?"
"You made it, Twilight!" said Fluttershy.
"You bet your sweet cutie mark you did," said Applejack. "Little thing just went and plopped into the Well, smooth as apple butter. I don't think it even hit the rim."
"Craziest freak luck I ever saw!" Rainbow Dash enthused. "You are awesome, Twilight!"
"Make a wish, make a wish, make a wish!" said Pinkie Pie, the pebbles rattling beneath her hooves as she bounced ecstatically in place.
For a moment, Twilight was too gobsmacked to speak. Made it? Seriously? First she had friends, and then she had made this? Clearly, somepony up there really did like her.
All right, then. So now she got to make a wish. Which was complete superstition, of course, but there was nothing wrong with tossing something off anyway; it was all part of the game, after all. So she opened her mouth to wish for some outlandish good fortune – the rediscovery of the Bucephalus Tomes, maybe.
But then she thought of all the old folk-tales she'd read, about ponies who wished carelessly on rings or comets or minotaurs' paws, and her glibness died on her lips. Not that she exactly believed in those old stories (though, really, after meeting the Mare in the Moon, what right had she to be skeptical?), but Princess Celestia had once told her that even imaginary stories taught lessons – that, when one saw a motif repeated in a hundred tales, one could be sure that there was some nugget of timeless wisdom in it. Twilight could almost hear her now, whispering in the wind as it blew up from the castle: Never wish lightly, Twilight; find the good that you most long for at this moment, and wish for that and that only. A heart's desire is nothing to be flippant about.
Twilight felt a touch of panic at the unexpected gravity of her task, and briefly considered wishing that she had never earned the wish. But then she looked again at the five ponies who stood eagerly awaiting her desideratum; a light suddenly dawned in her mind, and she realized what the one wish was that encompassed and secured all her others. She wondered why she hadn't seen it immediately; it was so very obvious, after all.
"I wish," she said, "that none of the six of us will ever lose what brought us here today. I wish that we'll wake up tomorrow morning, and all the mornings that we wake up after that, with the same place in each other's hearts that we have right now. I wish…" Her voice started to crack a bit, and she had to swallow before finishing, "…that, whatever happens, we'll never stop being friends."
Fluttershy beamed; Applejack grinned; Rarity sighed, and Pinkie Pie squealed. Even Rainbow Dash, who clearly felt obliged to disdain such wanton soppiness, couldn't manage to keep herself from glowing with satisfaction. "Well, I don't know why you think you need a Curtal Well for that," she said, "but, hey, whatever floats your cumulus."
"That's very generous of you, Rainbow," said Twilight with a smile.
"No problem," said Rainbow. "So: we're going down by the east face, right? Past the ancient Hodenese demon statues and the Haunted Cave of Podargus?"
"Yep, that's what we agreed on," said Applejack with a sigh. "Upsy-daisy, Fluttershy."
As Twilight went to go fetch the picnic basket, she paused a moment to steal one last glance toward the castle; as if in reply, another gust of wind blew up from it, and again she fancied that she could hear her teacher's whisper in it. Yes, Twilight, it said. You did very well. I believe you will truly thrive in this new path your life is leading you down. Go now, and do us proud who love you.
And Twilight Sparkle turned eastward with buoyant heart, and trotted happily down the Mount behind her friends.