PART THREE – FUTURE PROGRESSIVE


"MOMMY!"

Bright Eyes' eyes snapped open, their gaze as straight and keen as a hunting hawk's. She looked in the direction the cry had come from.

Stomper was trotting back out into the rain from the interior of the Post Office. Dinky was hanging by her tail from his broad mouth. Her little hooves were galloping in the air in a vain attempt to get free.

"Y'hh wurr right, Ace'z," said Stomper around a mouthful of tail. "Thrr WZZ s'mpwny th'rr."

"Thought so." Aces smiled. "So what's all this, Dezi? You got a Unicorn foal? How'd that happen? Where's the father? Awww…did some Screwhead ruffle yer feathers and then take off?" Aces batted at Dinky with a front hoof, making the tiny Unicorn spin. She squealed in fear.

Bright Eyes tensed against her bindings, her every muscle straining. The layers of packing twine holding her down creaked and groaned, digging into her hide. "Don't…you…TOUCH HER!" The twine snapped and Bright Eyes surged back onto her hooves.

"Whoa – easy there, Dezi!" said Aces hastily, his expression silently begging Stomper to intervene.

Bright Eyes surged forward as fast as a lightning bolt and smashed both front hooves into the end of Stomper's nose. He dropped Dinky and staggered back, groaning.

Dinky Doo stared up in disbelief as her mother twirled and landed gracefully facing Aces.

"DINKY! GO INSIDE!" she barked. Thunder rumbled from the stormy sky. The young filly obeyed, galloping through the open back door.

Aces shifted into a fighting stance. "Guess ya changed yer mind about playin' along, huh Dezi?" he sneered.

"That's not my name," Bright Eyes snarled, and tackled the stallion.

The rhythm and flow of hoof-to-hoof combat that Bright Eyes had learned so well came back to her like an old friend; she quickly got the upper hoof over Aces' dirty but predictable fighting style.

She managed slide around behind the stallion, slip a front hoof under his wing, and lever it over his back. He teetered along with the motion, falling on his side. She pressed her hoof down on Aces' wings, pinning them both. She ground down with her hoof and Aces yelped in pain, digging at the muddy grass with his hooves.

Stomper had recovered and was drawing close, but Bright Eyes shot him a warning glare that emphasized the hold she had on his associate. Stomper stayed back.

She turned back to her helpless foe. "You like seeing wings get broken, Aces?" Bright Eyes hissed in his ear. "How'd you like a nice, close look?" She shifted again, putting her weight on the stallion's wing joint.

"*Nngh!* P-please, Dezi…I told ya – it was just business!"

"Business? You foal of a mule." Bright Eyes stomped on Aces' wings; the long, hollow bones creaked, but stayed unbroken. Aces cried out.

A Pony of action over thought, Stomper pounced at Bright Eyes while she was momentarily distracted. The two slid into a mud puddle, kicking and wrestling.

With the memory of fighting a full-grown Griffon still fresh in her mind, Bright Eyes found dealing with a Pony of Stomper's size almost restful. She flexed and shifted and slid, keeping him off balance, and unleashed darting jabs on every weak spot she could think of. His namesake kicks were slow as falling trees in comparison.

Bright Eyes slipped to the side and thrust a rear hoof against the base of Stomper's thick skull; the stallion pitched forward into the mud, down for the count. She stood in triumph for a brief moment – letting the rain cool her aching muscles and rinse the mud from her grey hide – before Aces plunged a letter opener into her left deltoid.

Bright Eyes screamed in pain and fell onto her knees.

"S'always gotta be the hard way witchoo, huh?" Aces panted, rain spitting off his lips. His bruised wings were half-raised. "Well, you think the water was bad? Just you wait, Buzzard. I'm gonna do things to ya there ain't names for…and I'm gonna make that little foal o'yours watch!" He ducked his head into the box he'd retrieved from inside during Bright Eyes' fight with Stomper and pulled out a second letter opener.

Bright Eyes scowled. "I was willing to kill for 'that little foal of mine' the instant I laid eyes on her," said Bright Eyes. "What do you think I'd do for her now?" She gripped the opener sticking in her shoulder and wrenched it free; the wooden handle between her teeth muffled her cry of pain. She stood, favouring her unhurt front leg, and assumed a combat stance.

The two Pegasi circled one another in a slowly widening spiral, each daring the other to make the first move. They stopped and locked eyes once they'd put a good ten paces between themselves. Both hoofed at the ground and spread their wings. As a flash of lightning brightened the rain-dimmed yard, they charged.

They streaked past one another in a heartbeat, skidding to a halt on the muddy ground.

Aces turned first, wheeling around to face his quarry. His right side was streaked with crimson from the long slash along his throat, the flow too fast for the rain to wash away. He tried to speak, but no sounds escaped his lips. He collapsed.

Bright Eyes' right cheek was marked with a thin cut weeping red down her jaw. She dropped the bloody tool in the mud and limped back toward the Post Office.

"Dinky!" she called out as she stepped inside. "Where are you?" After a moment the young filly slipped out from under a pile of unsorted letters.

"M-mommy…" the foal whimpered. Her lavender cheeks were streaked with tears.

Bright Eyes sighed in relief. "Oh, thank Celestia." She pulled the foal into a hug and then sat her down in front of her. She kept her front hooves on the Unicorn's shoulders. "Dinky…why are you home? Why aren't you with your friends at Berry Punch's?"

Dinky sniffled. "Miss P-Punch's roof started leaking, so she brought us all home."

Bright Eyes sighed. "All right…I want you to listen to me very carefully, Dinky. Okay?"

"Y-you're hurt," said Dinky, her voice shaking.

Bright Eyes gently jerked Dinky with her hooves. "Please, Dinky. Listen to me."

Dinky swallowed and nodded, her face twisted with anxiety.

"Good. Now…I want you to go up to your room, and shut the windows and door tight. And I want you to hide under your bed and not make a sound. And if anypony but me or Colgate tries to get you out from under there…I want you to zap them as hard as you can. In the head."

Dinky's teary eyes widened. "B-but Miss Cheerilee says it's bad to zap Ponies…really bad! She says–"

"I DON'T CARE!" Bright Eyes shouted, louder than she'd planned to. Dinky cringed. Bright Eyes held her close again, tighter than she meant to. "…I'm sorry. I know zapping Ponies is wrong, but there are some very bad Ponies around here right now, and they want to hurt us. I'm going to make them go away, but until I do you need to be brave, okay? Can you do that for me?" She put Dinky back down.

Dinky was shaking all over now, but she silently nodded.

"Okay. Now, get upstairs. I'll be back as soon as I can."

The little Unicorn trotted up the stairs and sealed up her room. She pulled her favourite blanket off of her bed and took it with her as she scrambled underneath it. She wrapped the stained, frayed fabric around herself and huddled in the dark, listening to the thunder and the rain.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Bright Eyes stalked out into the back yard and approached the mud puddle where Stomper was only just beginning to stir. She retrieved some of the twine she'd broken and bound all four of his hooves together. The job done, she shook him with a hoof.

"Huh…?" He blearily opened his mud-caked eyes.

Bright Eyes loomed over him. "Stomper…I want you to flap back to The Claw, and give him a message for me. Tell him it's time to end this. Tell him that either he comes to the fields south of Ponyville and faces me himself, tonight, or I keep taking down mooks like you and the late mister Aces over there until he runs out. It's his call."

"He'll kill ya, ya know," Stomper said, but his tone was far from certain. His gaze kept veering past Bright Eyes and settling on Aces' body.

"Go. Now."

Stomper struggled his way into the air and clumsily took off for Cloudsdale, his hooves still tied beneath him.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Bright Eyes trod down the street with as heavy a gait as her wounded leg would allow, her sharp eyes full of purpose and her rain-soaked mane hanging straight and heavy down the side of her face.

She came up to Berry Punch's house and pounded a hoof on the front door.

The magenta Earth Pony opened the door, and then gaped in shock at the sight of the bloodied Pegasus before her.

"Hello, Berry." Bright Eyes locked eyes with Berry Punch; the weight of her golden gaze seemed to push the Earth Pony back. Bright Eyes followed her inside.

The house was modest but well-kept, apart from the scattered pots and pans collecting drips falling from the ceiling.

"You put my foal in harm's way just now, Berry. I know you didn't mean to, but you owe me anyway." Bright Eyes' tone was low and level – rigidly controlled – with none of Ditzy Doo's lilt or foalish mispronunciation. The sound made Berry Punch shudder.

"R-really…?" Berry Punch chuckled nervously. "I'm s-sorry, Ditzy Doo. How can I make it up to you?"

"I need a splash of your special reserve on these cuts and a swig of it in my belly. And some first aid. Now."

Berry Punch only hesitated for an instant before cantering off to fetch gauze, adhesive bandages and a clay jug marked XXXX.

The liquor stung fiercely on Bright Eyes' wounds and went down her throat like flaming ice. She stood as still as a statue while Berry Punch bandaged her, letting the drink spread warmth through her body and feeling the knots in her muscles ease just slightly.

With her ministrations complete, Berry Punch backed away from the grey Pegasus, her movements betraying more than a little fear.

"Wh…what happened to you?" asked Berry Punch softly.

"Mailmare business," answered Bright Eyes. "Nothing that concerns you…but I wouldn't open my door to any unfamiliar Pegasi for a while, if I were you. Thanks for the help." She trotted to the door and left without another word.

Berry Punch stood for a long, silent moment in the empty living room, and then shakily poured herself a belt of the liquor. She gulped it down in one shuddering swallow before trotting up the stairs to check on her foal.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Colgate magicked open her door and immediately leaped forward to hug the Pony before her.

"Ditzy! Thank Celestia! After you ran off I thought…I worried you'd…oh! You're hurt!"

Bright Eyes pushed her friend back, breaking the hug. "It's nothing. Now…I don't have much time. I need you to promise me that if anything happens to me you'll take care of Dinky. She's back at the Post Office."

Worry creased Colgate's features. "Ditzy…what–"

Bright Eyes pressed her front hooves to Colgate's shoulders and stared her down. "Promise me, Colgate."

Colgate sniffled back tears. "I promise."

Bright Eyes softly sighed. "…Thank you. I tried to run from my past. Hide it from everypony – even myself. But that ends tonight. I know who I am, Colgate. If I see you again, I'll tell you all about me. But for now, if I don't make it, just tell Dinky that I…" Bright Eyes paused, pushing the words through the lump forming in her throat. "…tell her that I died fighting to keep her safe."

Colgate choked back a sob. "Ditzy, please…if you're in trouble, I can help. The Doctor can help. We could–"

"NO!" Again, the word came out louder than Bright Eyes expected. "No. I already owe you and The Doctor a debt I can never repay. And nopony else is going to pay the price for my actions. Never again. I have to do this alone. I have to."

Colgate's Serious Stare reflected in the Pegasus' golden eyes. The Unicorn slowly nodded.

"Thank you, Colgate," Bright Eyes whispered, "for everything." And then she took off into the stormy sky.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

The Apple family's massive son paced worriedly around the kitchen in Sweet Apple Acres' farmhouse, his broad hooves clopping out a steady cadence on the wooden floor. His sister was long overdue to return from helping the town prepare for the storm.

When a knock sounded at the kitchen door he crossed the room in a heartbeat.

"AJ…?" He pushed open the door, but found an entirely different blonde Pony standing out in the rain.

It was the town's addled mailmare – Ditzy? Derpy? – but she looked different. Very different.

Her frazzled mane was now rain-slicked and straight, and her googly golden eyes were now keen and focused. Her grey hide was marked with several fresh bandages. All in all, the effect was profoundly flattering – she looked as tough as a rodeo Pony and as dangerous as a bird of prey. Momentarily forgetting himself, he simply stared at her in silence.

"I want you to nail me," she said.

The ever-present stem between the red Earth Pony's lips dropped to the floor.

"Wh…wha…"

"You do farrier work on the side, right? Well I need to get shod – fast."

The Earth Pony cleared his throat. "…Oh. Right. O'course. I think I got a nice thin brass set that would suit a Pegasus like yerself just fi–"

The Pegasus held up a front hoof. "No. I want steel. The thickest, toughest steel shoes you've got – like the ones you wear at harvest time."

The Earth Pony raised an eyebrow. "What's a nice filly like yerself need apple-buckin' shoes for?"

The mailmare frowned. "You've got a reputation for being a Pony of few words. Surely you'll understand if I want to keep my reasons to myself?"

The Earth Pony shrugged and trotted past the Pegasus and out into the rain. "Fair enough. Follow me."

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

The studded steel shoes made Bright Eyes' hooves feel enormous; they hung down like ballast sacks as she flew across the plains south of Ponyville, and sank into the mud as she landed in an open meadow.

Her golden eyes darted back and forth, scanning the stormy skies for any sign of her foe. Minutes passed by with agonizing slowness, but finally she picked out the dark shadow of the Griffon's massive form on the grey backdrop of the cloud-cover.

Bright Eyes focused on her breathing, willing herself to stay calm and ready. Thunder rumbled from the sky as the Griffon drew closer. Her innate weather-sense picked up the charge in the air. Perfect, she thought.

Giovanni flew down in a wide spiral, alighting perhaps twenty paces from Bright Eyes. She got her first look at him in six years; time had not been kind.

His hide was marked with even more scars than she remembered, and he was missing the occasional flight feather. His sunken eyes burned with barely-contained fury. Most prominent, however, was his beak.

The shattered upper surface was now held together with metal staples, and a shaped piece of dull steel took the place of the portion that couldn't be saved. Combined with the scars on his body, it lent the Griffon a patchwork appearance, like some nightmarish rag-doll.

"Long time, no see," said Bright Eyes. "You look good."

Giovanni narrowed his eyes. "Dezi." He shifted slightly, widening his stance. The seams in his beak whistled as he spoke, lending his voice an incongruous lisp. "My nie'shh told me you were dead. And then she told me you were shh'till alive. She wa'shh right the fir'shht time."

Bright Eyes smiled. "Before we do this, there's something you should know."

"Oh…?" Giovanni began slowly stalking toward the Pegasus.

"My name isn't Desiderata. It's Bright Eyes…and I'm CIA."

Giovanni paused. His eyes widened. "You…"

"That's right. You let a Royal agent into your Flock. And if you hadn't been such a sick, twisted monster, I might have done things by the book and let your bloodsucking lawyers get you off."

The Griffon growled. Bright Eyes stood her ground, and goaded him further.

"…But instead, things got a lot more personal. You had an innocent family murdered on a whim…and I broke your bucking face." She put every ounce of sneering mockery she could muster into that last jab, hoping to push the Griffon into doing something rash. It worked.

Giovanni's deafening roar echoed even over the white noise of the rainstorm. As he sprinted toward Bright Eyes, his talons flexing and his tail lashing, a bolt of lightning streaked down in the distance and split the tallest tree in Ponyville.

Bright Eyes parried his downward slash with the edges of her shoes and then hopped backward. Giovanni pressed after her, snarling with each swing of his hooked talons and each snap of his mutilated beak. She responded to every strike with a steel-shod kick.

His blows were wild and brutal, lacking the feral precision Bright Eyes remembered. But he was still just as large as he was the last time they'd fought, and shod or not, she'd spent six years letting her skills go to seed. Bright Eyes knew she couldn't hold out long against his assault. Please, Celestia… she silently begged. Just let me make it long enough… She hazarded a glance skyward.

The overcast sky showed no sign of lessening its downpour, but more importantly, a charge was building in the clouds overhead. Bright Eyes could feel it in her bones. It's coming…just…about…

NOW!

She dropped, slid and rolled, and then spread her wings. With one flap she leaped into the air and flipped on top of the Griffon. Her hind legs rested on his plated beak and the crested crown of his head. She reared, stretching out her metal-clad hooves to the stormy sky with a mighty shout. The sky reached and shouted back.

Bright Eyes' world turned white as the lightning struck. She vaguely felt the impact with the ground, and sensed the painful heat in her hooves, the rattling pace of her pulse, the cold mud soaking her wings and the fierce ringing in her ears, but those concerns seemed so far away.

Bit by bit the white before her eyes faded to black, and she knew no more.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Colgate galloped into Ponyville's southern fields, her horn gleaming with a divination spell. Dinky Doo sat on her back, gripping the older Pony's streaked mane between her jaws and huddling tight against the chill of the rain.

You might have wanted to handle things alone, Ditzy, Colgate thought to herself as she squinted against the rain, but there's something you need to learn about my kind: we have a serious tendency to meddle when our friends are in danger.

The pair soon came to the meadow where the lightning had struck; a grisly sight awaited them.

The body of a massive Griffon lay near the centre of the field, speckled with faintly glowing embers. Here and there along the mass, faint wisps of smoke curled up between the raindrops.

Not far from the grim remains, a grey Pegasus lay on her back in the mud, silent and still.

"Oh, no…" Colgate whispered.

"MOMMY!" Dinky leaped off of Colgate's back and galloped over. She pressed her front hooves to her mother's chest and shook her. "Mommy! Wake up!" She nuzzled against the Pegasus' cheek. "Please, wake up! You gotta wake up!"

Colgate trotted up behind the little Unicorn. "Dinky…" Colgate reached out a front hoof.

"NO!" shouted the foal. "She's gonna be okay!" Her voice cracked. "She s-said she'd come b-back! She said she'd make the bad P-Ponies go awa-ay!" Dinky stomped her tiny hooves on her mother's ribcage. "You w-wake up, Mommy! You wake up right now!" The foal's nub of a horn glittered, releasing spark-sized motes of magic. For a brief instant, the faint image of a caduceus inside a bubble flickered into being on Dinky's flank, and then vanished.

The Pegasus coughed.

Dinky stared down in wide-eyed shock as her mother stirred beneath her. It wasn't until she felt a weak-limbed hug close around her that she reacted.

"…M-Mommy…?" Dinky whispered through her tears, as though speaking too loudly might wake her from this dream-come-true.

The Pegasus pulled back slightly, and opened her eyes. They stared glassily at the air on either side of the little Unicorn's head. "I wub you, Muffin!" she slurred, and leaned back in to hug Dinky.

Dinky giggled joyfully. "I love you too, Mommy!"

Colgate took a gentle step forward. "Ditzy…?"

"Hi, Colgate!" Ditzy released her foal and shakily stood up. She swayed, and flapped her wings to correct her off-kilter balance.

"Ditzy…" Colgate repeated. "Are you…are you all right?"

Ditzy nodded enthusiastically. The motion made her stumble somewhat. "Yup! Lever getter!"

Colgate frowned. "…Beg pardon?"

Ditzy smiled broadly. "Lever getter! I wheel shine!" She trotted in place for a moment, her steel shoes adding heft to each step. "Ooo…rut my proves keel levy!"

The blue Unicorn sagged. "Ditzy…you told me you remembered who you were. Do you?"

Ditzy pondered the question for a moment before answering. "…Yup! My same is Ditzy Doo! 'Mm a mailmare! I de-quiver the whale!"

"Yay!" said Dinky, hugging her mother's front leg.

Colgate sighed. "Oh well…"

The blue Unicorn lagged behind as the trio slowly trotted down the road back to Ponyville, not wanting her mourning over what might have been to intrude on the mother and foal's happiness.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Gilda the Griffon perched on the clouds above the meadow, peering down at her Uncle's remains and the Ponies' discovery of the clumsy, confused Pegasus.

Next to her, a lean purple Pegasus stallion with a crossed leg and baseball bat marking his flank drew close.

"The Claw didn't have no cubs," he said hesitantly, "and yer father's back in Mythos. And Aces was The Claw's right-hoof Pony. If any…anyone's gonna get revenge, it's…it oughta be-"

Gilda cut him off. "This is over."

"Huh?"

The Griffon wrapped a scaly talon around the stallion's throat and jerked him close, his forehead resting against her own. "You got a hearing problem, dweeb? This is over. There ain't gonna be any revenge. That Pegasus is spending the rest of her life a few feathers short of a wing and my Uncle is dead. This trash is done with. Ponyville's off limits from now on. It's got nothin' we want. You got that?"

The Pegasus nodded as much as Gilda's grip would allow. She released him.

"Nothin' we want…" she repeated softly, and turned her gaze to a classically-designed cloud-house floating on the Ponyville side of the outskirts of Cloudsdale. She sighed.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

EPILOGUE


"There we are – absolutely fabulous!" the elegant white Unicorn beamed.

Dinky Doo giggled, prancing to and fro in front of one of Carousel Boutique's many mirrors and admiring her fancy new party dress.

The Unicorn turned to Ditzy. "Now…If there's nothing else you require, shall we settle up?"

Ditzy Doo nodded, removed her saddlebags and rummaged around in them with her hooves. Her golden eyes veered wider as she concentrated. At length, she produced a paper bag, and set in on a counter.

"Sweep the range!" she said warmly, putting the bags back on and escorting Dinky out of the shop.

"Umm..thank you! Come again!" the Unicorn called after them.

Ditzy and Dinky trotted through the streets of Ponyville until they came to a long, mansion-like house. They headed around the side of the building, and approached the doors to a storm cellar. Ditzy opened them, Dinky trotted down into the dark, and Ditzy followed.

At the bottom of the stairs they trotted into an unfurnished cellar, empty save for one feature:

An odd, narrow blue shed.

The shed's door opened, and a dark-maned brown Earth Pony stepped out. He was wearing a tuxedo, and a fine dress cut for a full-grown Pegasus was slung over his back.

"Ah, there you are," he said. "Are you two ready for your visit to the first-ever Grand Galloping Gala?"

Ditzy's splayed eyes slowly shifted, focusing as sharply as a hunting hawk's. She smiled, and said:

"Allons-y."

NEXT APPENDIX:
(the great and powerful) TRIXIE: TREASURE