Aunt Wind couldn't really stick around for long after giving me the news.

I would've liked to have had her around, but apparently she needed to get back to Canterlot to help Dad. The Princess had put Dad in charge of the rescue mission to find Mom, probably because that was the best way to keep him from doing anything crazy on his own. That was most likely part of why Aunt Wind had to get back before too much longer—she needed to keep an eye on him and help him keep it together. Sure, Dad's not normally the kinda pony who will go running off without any plan, but this was Mom we were talking about.


I started shaking again. I've been doing that ever since I got the news. Blossom took note of it and wrapped her forelegs around me.

It still wasn't quite clear what had happened to them. Mom and Machwing Company had gone on border deployment on account of some kind of trouble that had been cropping up along there—Aunt Wind had to be a little fuzzy on the details since it was an ongoing military operation and I was more-or-less a civilian.

Which brought to mind a pretty important fact. "I shouldn't be here." If not for the fact that Blossom was still hugging me with everything she had, I probably would've gotten up and headed out the door right then and there. "Instead of sitting here being a lump on the couch I should be out there, helping them look." I'm pretty sure Dad wouldn't have the slightest objection to letting me go back on active duty for the duration.

Blossom gently ran a hoof over my mane, and hesitantly licked her lips before she answered me. "Cloud, there are already—" she fumbled uncertainly for a few moments before continuing on, "—however many ponies there are in a company out looking for her." She shot a look off to the side, her ears drooping slightly. "Your sister needs somepony from her family here for her, and you need somepony too. This isn't the time to go running off joining the Guard."

I knew she was right. The problem was that a big chunk of my brain didn't give a flying feather about things like logic and rationality right now. "I can't just sit here and do nothing while my mom is lost out there!"

"You're not doing nothing," Blossom gently reassured me. She tenderly ran a hoof over my cheek. "Alula's gonna need her big sister—you can be there for her."

"I can be there for her? That's just..." So the sum total of my contributions was being there to hug my little sister when she got the news? That's all I could do to help? No, not even that—Aunt Wind had already gone over to Derpy's to check up on 'Lula, so apparently I couldn't even be trusted with her. I let out a frustrated scream and kicked the couch with one of my hind legs. 'What am I supposed to do to help her, huh? Just go up to her and say, 'Hey 'Lula. Mom's gone. Maybe, we don't know for sure. So let's just sit here, not knowing, and hope that somepony else finds her for us!' Yeah, that's a real valuable contribution."

Blossom latched her forelegs around my barrel and pulled me into a hug. For a minute or so I just sat there, letting her hold me. Once I wasn't quite so agitated, she lovingly ran a hoof across my back. "Cloudy, I know you feel like you'll go crazy if you have to sit around waiting for news, but how is running off and leaving your sister alone going to help?"

I didn't have a good answer for that. Running off to the Guard and leaving my sister with nopony to be there for her... "Look, Derpy and Eepy are way better at the whole maternal comfort thing than I am. They could..." Just saying it out loud made me realize how wrong it sounded. I couldn't just pass 'Lula off to somepony else with the vague excuse that they'd probably do a better job than I would. She was my sister—she deserved better than that. "Dammit!" I kicked the couch again. It didn't really accomplish much, beyond letting me vent a little. "I—I feel like I'm gonna go nuts if I just have to sit here day after day after day, waiting for answers. I wanna go out there and do something!"

"I know." Blossom gave me a gentle, understanding little smile. "Well, kind of. I can't really relate to what you're going through, but if it were you that was missing, I'd wanna be out there too. I wish I knew what to tell you, I really do. I just—I don't know what I could possibly say that would make it hurt less."

I groaned and sank back into the couch. "Not like anything you could say would change the way things are. I wanna go out there, Blossom. I wanna find my mom. I wanna find whoever or whatever took her away from me, and I wanna destroy it. I wanna ... feathers, I want to do anything other than stay here, waiting for news."

Blossom shuffled around a bit so that her side was pressed up against me, letting her wrap a wing over my shoulders. "I don't blame you." She let out a slightly nervous little chuckle. "Hay, I'd be right with you if you went running off like that, you know?"

"Yeah, I do." I leaned over and nuzzled her cheek. "That would be a terrible idea, though. No offense, sweetie, but I saw your scuffle with Eepy. You're not very good at fighting."

Blossom crossed her forelegs and jutted out her lower lip in a pout that I probably would've found utterly adorable under most circumstances. "Oh come on, I held my own against her!" From the weak little laugh she let out Blossom was clearly aware that fighting Eepy to a draw wasn't much to brag about, and her tone remained light as she continued. "Besides, I could keep … well, whatever's attention while you hit it. 'Look at me, I'm a distraction!'"

For a brief moment, she got a smile out of me. It couldn't last though, not with Mom hanging over my head like that. I gently put my hooves on Blossom's shoulders. "I appreciate that, I really do, but there's no way I'd let you do that. What if you got hurt? I don't wanna lose two ponies I love at the same time..."

For a moment Blossom smiled at me, but then her smile slowly transformed itself into a frown as some of the unintended implications of my words sank in. Blossom's wing tightened around me, and she rested her head on my shoulder. "You're not gonna lose anypony, okay? They're gonna find her."

"I hope so. I—" The rest of what I was about to say disappeared into a choked sob, and my vision got wet and blurry with unshed tears. "I know we argued and got into a lotta fights and stuff, but she was still Mom, you know?"

Blossom leaned in and nuzzled me again, wiping away my tears. "Is.Still is, okay? If she's half the hardflank you are, I wouldn't write her off just yet."

"Yeah." I felt a tiny little surge of hope at that. Mom was the kinda pony who could eat iron ore and leave thunderforged steel in her droppings. "She'll probably come back to camp dragging the head of a dragon or something."

Blossom let out a weak little snort of laughter at that. "I don't think anypony in town has a mantel big enough for that. I guess you'd have to leave it at your family's compound." She paused in thought for a moment, then added, "I don't think Twilight Sparkle would take that too well though, what with Spike and all..."

Besides which, mounting remains as war trophies stopped being socially acceptable centuries ago. Equestria's a bit too peaceful and civilized for that kind of thing. I sighed and turned to Blossom, idly running a hoof up and down her chest as I thought. "I know you never really got to know Mom, except for that one time she came over and we were all snippy with each other. Mom was ... I guess we've got too much in common, in some ways." Despite the way the memory was a bit bittersweet now, I couldn't help laughing at it. "Dad used to always grumble that he had no idea where I got my hardheadedness from, because he knew for a fact that Mom kept all of hers."

Blossom laughed along with me. "You each have your own brand of stubbornness, I guess." She paused uncertainly for a few seconds, before adding. "She can't be too bad, though—I mean, Alula seems like a nice filly, and … well, you turned out pretty good."

I nodded. "Yeah. She might be stubborn and stiff as a board sometimes, but I could do a lot worse for a mom." One thing I've learned from Derpy:, being a parent is one hay of a tricky thing to pull off. I guess it's no surprise Mom didn't always get it right. "You wouldn't believe it, but she did all the normal kind of 'mom' stuff back when I was a little filly. Taught me stuff, nurtured me, all that. Granted, most moms don't teach you how to cripple a griffon in five wing strikes, but that's kinda how things go with the Kickers." I leaned back on the couch, staring up at my ceiling. "Mom might not have been born a Kicker, but from how well she fit in with the clan you never woulda guessed it. Does make for one or two fun memories whenever somepony starts whining about snooty Canterlot nobles with no practical skills—most ponies never would've believed Mom was noble-born. I guess not too many ladies prefer a combat drill to a night at the Gala."

Blossom shot a tentative little smirk at me. "She certainly doesn't sound like your stereotypical snobby noble." She put a hoof to her chin. "I gotta say, her daily schedule would make for an interesting read: wake up, breakfast, nurture, Guard stuff, mother-daughter sparring time, ice cream." She gave me a slight nudge with her shoulder. "Do you have memories that particularly that stand out?"

Hard not to call any Mom memories to mind, considering the circumstances. "Yeah, I can think of a few. First one that springs to mind was when I was in the hospital after the whole Flight Camp thing." Blossom gave a sympathetic wince at that. "I was in there for weeks, and Mom was there for every minute of it. Not being all super-huggy and lovey and stuff, that wasn't the way she worked. But she was there. All day, every day. She wouldn't even go out for food unless Dad was there to keep me company while she was gone. She brought an old army cot so she could sleep in the room with me. It was technically against hospital rules, but nopony had enough guts to tell her that." By the end of the tale I could feel my eyes watering again.

Blossom opened her mouth to say something, but after leaving it hanging open for a few seconds she silently closed it. Instead she just rubbed a hoof over my back and murmured something unintelligible to me.

I let out a little sniffle. "She wasn't a perfect mom, not by a long shot, but she was Mom. That was enough."

Blossom leaned forward and pressed her forehead against mine. "Is. She isyour mother. They'll find her, okay? And I'll be here for you until then."

"Yeah ... thanks." I gently moved in and met her lips. This was different from the tentative little kisses we'd shared up to this point: it was softer and gentler, but at the same time so much more certain. I suppose it was also less complicated—for once our whole relationship mess wasn't hanging over both our heads every time we so much as touched. We just kissed each other because we were in love, and she wanted to take away a little fraction of my pain.

Right as the kiss was starting to make me feel just a little bit better, we were rudely interrupted by somepony frantically pounding on my front door. Blossom pulled back, and for a second she looked like Dinky when Derpy caught her with her hoof in the cookie jar. When the pounding on my door didn't stop, she bit back a frustrated grumble. "Want me to get that?"

I wasn't really in the mood for random visitors, but from how emphatically the pony on the other side of my door was knocking it was a pretty safe bet this wasn't some door-to-door salespony or Mayor Mare soliciting donations. "Yeah. Thanks, Blossom. Unless it's really important, or somepony like Rainbow or Eepy..."

"No visitors, got it." Blossom nodded, then gave me one last peck on the lips before trotting over to the door. When she opened up the top half of the door she gave a guilty little flinch that made me fairly sure who the other pony was, even before Blossom spoke her name. "Um, hey Derpy."

"Blossomforth." Derpy's voice was distinctly cool, but after a second or two she continued in a much more civil tone. "Is Cloud Kicker here? I just—her aunt came by to see Alula, and told me that ... I have to talk to Cloud Kicker."

Oh. I guess Aunt Wind gave Derpy the news. Makes sense, considering the fact that Derpy was keeping an eye on Alula. Blossom's ears went flat. "Oh. Yeah, she's here."

After a couple seconds of painful silence, Derpy spoke up again. "Um, could Icome in?"

Blossom blinked a couple times, then hastily opened the door for her. "Sure, sure."

I gave Derpy a weak wave from my seat on the couch as she trotted in. "I guess Aunt Wind just gave you the news about my mom, right?"

Derpy didn't bother with answering my question, she just cantered up to me and hugged me. "Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry..." She sat down next to me on the couch, and gently but insistently pulled my head down next to hers. "I asked your aunt to keep an eye on your sister for a few minutes while I came to check on you."

Some tiny little part of me wanted to still be mad at her for what had happened with Eepy. I couldn't really bring myself to muster much righteous fury about the whole thing, though. It was hard to care about much at all with the news about my mom kinda overwhelming all the other crazy stuff that had been going on in my head. All that really mattered for right now was that Derpy was here, and she was offering me comfort. Comfort I desperately needed. Compared to that, her saying some nasty stuff to Eepy in the heat of the moment, things she regretted the instant the words left her mouth, just didn't seem all that important. "Yeah, I know..."

Blossom settled back onto couch on my other side, and after a moment of hesitation wrapped her wing on top of Derpy's to put me in a double-sided wing-hug. Under any other circumstances, being sandwiched between a pair of beautiful mares would be a dream come true, but right now I was hardly in the mood to appreciate any of that.

After several seconds of silently letting the two ponies I loved comfort me, I spoke up. "How's 'Lula handling it?"

Derpy gave a guilty little cringe at the mention of my little sister, probably on account of the circumstances surrounding her becoming 'Lula's caretaker. She licked her lips, and very slowly responded. "She's doing really well." She gave a hesitant little smile, and added, "I wasn't sure if she couldn't have any sweets or not while she's still sick, but she and Dinky have been making plans to go to Sugarcube Corner later."

"I don't think some sweets would be a problem." I let out a heavy breath and rested my chin on one of her forelegs. "So I guess that means Aunt Wind didn't tell her about Mom?"

Derpy very slowly shook her head. "She just told her that she was in town for the afternoon. I don't think she wants me to say anything to her about your mother, so I've been trying to watch what I say." Derpy worried on her lower lip for a bit. "It's not easy to keep quiet. It's like when somepony tells you not to think of muffins—I can barely even look at Alula without thinking about the fact that her mother is missing."

"Yeah, I know what you mean." I thought it over for a bit, and slowly nodded in agreement with my absent aunt. "MIA could mean anything. I guess there's no point in telling 'Lula until we've got a better idea of what's going on. No need to get her all worried, just to have Mom come back in a couple days."

I left the other half of it unspoken. The unfortunate truth is that when it comes to a pony who's gone missing, if they don't get found within the first day or two, they usually won't be. Sure, you get those occasional miracle stories of ponies who have been missing for years before they turn up one day, but usually when a military pony disappears in the field without a trace it's because something bad happened to them. Maybe she'd been captured by the enemy, whoever that was. An officer like her would have valuable military intel. Not that Mom would tell them anything, but they'd probably spend days trying to get it out of her. Or maybe she'd just been snagged by some monster, and it dragged her body to its cave for a midnight snack. Or...

No. I can't just sit around here, coming up with all kinds of nightmare scenarios. I had to keep hoping that Mom would come back in one piece, or I would end up driving myself nuts.

Derpy fidgeted uncomfortably next to me, and tried to drag the conversation back to safer territory. "Um, Alula's been a bit more energetic since she came over, probably thanks to Dinky encouraging her. It feels wrong to crush her just when her mood's finally starting to pick up. I, uh, don't really know how Guard families handle this sort of thing, so if you think that not telling her anything for now is the right move, then that's what we'll do."

I gave a slow, very reluctant nod. "There's no point in telling her Mom's MIA until we're reasonably sure she's—" I choked on the words, and had to take a brief moment to compose myself before I could continue. "We won't tell 'Lula anything until we're pretty sure that Mom won't be coming back."

By unspoken mutual agreement, Blossom and Derpy both nuzzled opposite cheeks. I guess that was some tiny little silver lining to all of this. It had at least gotten Derpy and Blossom to call a truce to their ongoing cold war against each other. Thank Celestia for that, because I don't know what I would've done if the two of them started tearing into each other now, of all times.

"Hey," Blossom gently chided me, "don't talk like that, okay? Your mother's going to be fine. Trust me."

Derpy put one of her hooves on top of mine and shot me a nervous, hopeful little smile. "My brother's in her company. There's no way he's not doing everything he can to help look for her."

That might've meant just a bit more to me if Cirrus Doo was some sort of hypercompetent fieldpony tracker or something instead of a supply sergeant. I'm sure he was busting his flank allocating those supplies, but it's kinda hard to think of that as being an important part of finding Mom. Sure, the ponies looking for her needed food and equipment and all that, but ... ugh, I'm overthinking this. Derpy was trying to give me a little comfort, and instead of appreciating that I was getting all bogged down in the little details of how her brother could help. Still, I guess thinking about stuff like that kept me from getting all morose and depressed, at least for a little bit. Mentally working out all the finer points of a rescue operation beat sitting around and crying my eyes out.

Blossom gently pressed herself up against my side. "There's no way you're staying alone tonight. Just so you know."

A ghost of smile worked its way onto my face. "Not letting me sleep on the couch tonight?" I admit, having another warm body next to me sounded really good. Being stuck alone at night, with nothing to think about but what might have happened to my mom ... yeah, that wouldn't go well.

"You're not gonna be sleeping on your own," Blossom insisted.

"And certainly not on your couch either." Derpy hesitantly put a hoof on my cheek, turning my head to face her. "Sweetie, I want you to come back to my house for a while. Or at least let me bring Alula back here—you two should be together right now. But ... I think having more ponies around would be good for you."

"I could use some time with 'Lula." Sure, we might be keeping my little sis in the dark about what was going on, but I still wanted to see her. To be honest, I wanted to head over to Derpy's rather than bring 'Lula here—having Dinky around would probably be good for 'Lula, and if it was only me and my baby sis I'd probably just spend hours hugging her. There was just one problem with heading over to Derpy's: I didn't wanna leave Blossom behind.

I guess my feelings must've been showing on my face, because Derpy was looking between me and Blossom with a slight frown on her face. "You..." Her eyes shifted to me, and her ears went flat against her head. Derpy took a deep breath, then turned to Blossom. "Blossomforth, you're welcome to come too, if you want."

Blossom gave a couple surprised blinks and then shuffled her wings, clearly taken aback by Derpy's offer. "You're sure you're okay with that? I mean, we're..." Blossom waved a hoof vaguely in the air, struggling to come up with a diplomatic way to bring up the fact that they mildly loathed each other.

"Yeah, we are." Derpy sighed and scuffed a forehoof along the side of my couch. "But right now, Cloud Kicker needs everypony she can get. That includes her best friend."

Blossom smiled and gave a grateful nod Derpy's way. Unfortunately, the general mood of harmony didn't last for long. When Blossom spoke up again there was more than a hint of stubbornness in her voice, though she did at least seem to be making an effort to not sound too harsh. Then again, considering just what Blossom was saying, I don't think a nice tone would've helped much anyway. "I'm not leaving her. Um, once it's night."

I felt the wing Derpy had over my shoulder tighten around me possessively, and she adopted the same borderline belligerent tone. "Well I'm certainly not leaving my fillyfriend either."

Okay, were they seriously gonna do this? It was bad enough having to deal with the last time the two of them got into it, but for them to start up another argument now? I was so not in the mood to put up with anymore of their horseapples. I swear, if they start shouting I'm going to toss them both out on their plots and see about taking Lyra and Bon Bon up on that threesome offer. Maybe grab two or three other ponies on the way there. I love the both of them, but there are limits to how much I'll put up with, and they were getting damn close to pushing me too far.

Thankfully, Blossom seemed to realize just how out of hoof things were getting. Instead of yelling at Derpy, she went conspicuously quiet for a bit, and then very softly asked, "So ... how do we sort this out so we can both be there for Cloudy?"

Derpy put her ears back flat on her head, and I saw a flash of guilt cross over her face. "Yes, of course." Derpy's cheeks flushed bright red, and she nervously rubbed her hooves together. "Um … I think my bed's large enough for three ponies." Okay, that was unexpected.

Blossom's head snapped back and she a hint of surprised blush popped up on her cheeks. "Oh. Okay. Um ... yeah, I guess that would work, we'd both still be with her that way. With her together. Not 'together' together, but..." Blossom awkwardly cleared her throat, and hastily asked, "Cloudy's staying between us, right?"

Well, if Blossom was worried about the details of the sleeping arrangements, then that meant she was okay with the whole bed-sharing thing. I have to admit, having both of them there would be nice—like Derpy said, I needed all the comfort I could get. If not for how awkward it would make things, I'd be halfway tempted to see about dragging Rainbow and Eepy in as well. I actually felt a tiny little bit of a smile on my face, and managed to crack a weak joke. "So ... does this mean I'm getting a cheer-up threesome?"

Derpy let out an amused snort and slowly shook her head while tightening her grip around me. "Oh Cloud Kicker, don't ever change."

Blossom let out a giggle, but after a few seconds she went awkwardly silent. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, letting out uncertain little sounds that vaguely resembled speech as she struggled to figure out how to put whatever she wanted to say into words. "Um, actually..." Blossom blushed bright red in a way I hadn't seen in a long while and shot an uncertain look at Derpy. "Maybe, well—if it would really make you feel better..."

My fillyfriend stared back at Blossom, her cheeks slowly turning pink. After a couple seconds of dull shock, she shook her head to clear out the mental cobwebs and regain the capacity for rational thought. "I think Rule Three says no, right now."

"Yeah." Sometimes I really wish I didn't have all those rules. "I'm not gonna guilt you two into giving me a sympathy threesome 'cause of what's going on with my mom." For once, I wished I was a slightly less ethical pony. A sexy threesome would do a lot to take my mind off things. Probably not good for our relationship though, and to be honest I don't think Blossom or Derpy could go through with it without getting cold hooves. "Thanks, though. Both of you."

Derpy shot a look at Blossom, then shifted her gaze away, a ghost of a blush still on her face. "You're welcome, Cloud Kicker." I felt her lips against my cheek. "I love you."

A few seconds later I felt a kiss on my other cheek, though this one was a bit more tentative. "Um ... yes. Me too." Blossom shot a slightly apologetic look Derpy's way.

One of Derpy's ears twitched and she had her mouth halfway open to say something, but at the last second she caught herself and remained silent.

"Thank you, both of you." I know it wasn't exactly easy for them, but Blossom and Derpy were trying really hard to at least keep some kind of truce going for my sake. I appreciated the heck out of that. "I love you both." I gave each of them a quick kiss on the lips. Derpy raised an eyebrow at me kissing Blossom, but thankfully spared me any comment on the matter. "So ... I guess we oughta get going? I'd kinda like to see 'Lula."

Derpy nodded, and a hesitant little smile appeared on her face. "Your poor aunt can only take so much of her and Dinky together. You know how fillies can get when they start winding each other up."

Oh yeah, I could still clearly recall just how bad things got when Dinky, 'Lula, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders were all egging each other on during that one sleepover. Thankfully, by now the memory was distant enough that I could laugh at it instead of cringe. "Don't underestimate Aunt Wind. She does have plenty of mothering experience from raising Storm and Star, not to mention the whole head-shrinker thing. She'll probably have them both wrapped around her hoof by the time we get there."

I got up and headed for the door, with Blossom and Derpy half a step behind me. When we got to the front door Blossom and Derpy both froze for a brief moment, trying to decide who would follow me out first, until Blossom took the lead after shooting a slightly guilty look Derpy's way.

Derpy let out an inaudible sigh as she met Blossom's gaze and gave her a conceding nod, but she did go up to a trot for a little bit to catch up with us and pull alongside me. Blossom did the same on my other side, but thankfully after that their jockeying for position ended. The truce between the two of them was shaky, but it was still holding for now.

The three of us walked to Derpy's in silence. I wasn't really in the mood for small talk, and neither of them seemed to be able to think of much to say beyond the usual sorts of platitudes you offer a pony whose mother has disappeared without a trace. Thankfully it was getting towards early evening, so most ponies were headed home for the day instead of being out and about. The last thing I needed was some cheerful casual acquaintance stopping me for some small talk.

As soon as we got to Derpy's home I barged through the front door without even knocking first. A bit rude, but since Derpy was with me I think it was forgivable. Dinky and 'Lula were both sitting with Aunt Wind, playing a game of Lunar. I didn't waste any time with saying hello to everypony—I just trotted up to Alula, snatched her up, and hugged her as hard as I could.

'Lula seemed to be bit more energetic than she'd been back at Eepy's, if the way she started excitedly chattering away at me was anything to judge by. "Hi Cloudy! Aunt Wind's here, and we're playing Lunar! I got Clan Kicker, of course, and Dinky's playin' Clan Doo, and Aunt Wind got the Canterlot Royal Guard. Dinky and I teamin' up, and we're actually winning! And after the game we're gonna go to Sugarcube Corner and..." 'Lula finally seemed to pick up on the fact that I was desperately hanging onto her as hard as I could, instead of just giving her a normal sort of hug. "Cloudy?"

Dinky looked like she was seriously considering jumping in and making this a three-way hug, but Derpy stepped up and gently grabbed a chunk of her daughter's mane, holding her back. I gave her a quick little appreciative nod—as much as I love Dinky's adorable hugs most of the time, right now I really wanted a moment with my sister.

After my death-grip on 'Lula finally loosened up just a tiny bit, Aunt Wind stepped up. She gave me and 'Lula both a quick nuzzle and put a hoof on my shoulder. "I wish I could stay longer, but I'm afraid duty calls. I'll be back when I can, and don't hesitate to get in touch with me if anything comes up, okay?"

I nodded and gave her a quick nuzzle back before returning my attention to 'Lula. "Yeah, will do. Tell Dad we're thinking of him, and..." For a second I almost said something about signing back up for the Guard, until I remembered the talk I'd had with Blossom about the issue. After a moment, I decided to say something a bit more open-ended. "Just tell him that if there's anything I can do to help him, I'll be there."

Aunt Wind's eyes widened slightly, then she gave me a nod. "I'll tell him. I think he'd be glad to hear that." Aunt Wind gave me and my sister one last nuzzle, and stopped halfway out the door to shoot one last look at us before reluctantly taking wing and heading back to Canterlot.

'Lula seemed to have picked up on the fact that something had the adults in the room worried, even if we were all trying to keep it under wraps. She squirmed around in my hooves so she could get a good look at my face. "Cloudy? Is somethin' wrong?"

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and forced my face to go stoically blank. I had a lot of practice at the whole straight face thing from Guard training, but I'll admit it's one of the skills I haven't used in ages. "No, little soldier. Nothing's ... everything's gonna be fine, alright?"

I spared a glance for the others. Blossom was standing off the side, apparently unsure of what she should be doing in a situation like this. I guess the whole family relations thing would be unfamiliar territory for an orphan. Derpy was still keeping a hold on Dinky, who was beginning to rebelliously attempt to wriggle her way loose so she could join in on the hugging.

Derpy gently but firmly put a hoof on her daughter's shoulder, and whispered a few words to Dinky that seemed to calm the filly down for the moment. Now that she wasn't occupied with wrangling her daughter, Derpy spoke up. "I, um, can get some dinner ready for us if—"

"I'm a step ahead of you, Mom." Sparkler's voice rang out from the kitchen. A couple seconds later she walked out and took a look around, frowning slightly. "Did Miss Wind already bug out?"

"Yeah," I confirmed. "She couldn't stay for very long. That's Guard life for you—always on call."

Derpy's older daughter gave a look, then nodded and offered a sympathetic smile. I guess she didn't really count as one of the fillies we needed to keep in the dark, what with her being pretty close to adulthood. A second later she spotted Blossom, still uncertainty standing off to the side. "Oh … um, hey. Guess we might not have leftovers after all."

"Yeah, guess so." Blossom shuffled around on her hooves, clearly still feeling a bit like an unwelcome guest—which I suppose she kind of was, really. Derpy might be tolerating her for my sake, but Blossom wasn't under any illusions about Derpy actually wanting her there. A second later Blossom's eyes widened slightly as she spotted a way out of her awkward position. "Say, um, do you need any help with the cooking?"

"I'll get it," Derpy quickly cut in. "I wouldn't be much of a host if I made my guests help out with the cooking." Oh, I really hope Derpy wasn't gonna try to be some sort of super-hostess in an effort to show up Blossom. Well, I suppose there were much worse ways for them to handle their whole mutual hostility thing. Derpy trotted off to the kitchen, Dinky still in tow, though she stopped along the way to give Sparkler a quick little wing-hug. "Thanks, sweetie. I didn't mean to leave in the middle of—"

Sparkler cut her off with an upraised hoof. "It's fine, Mom." She stepped aside to let Derpy and Dinky into the kitchen, and after a moment's hesitation walked into the living room. She shot a look at me and 'Lula, but thankfully decided to give us a little privacy for the moment. For lack of other options, she trotted over to Blossomforth. "So... hey, I guess."

"Yeah." Blossom seemed grateful to finally have somepony to interact with instead of just standing awkwardly off to the side. She extended a hoof to Sparkler. "Blossomforth."

"Heard a lot about you," Sparkler announced neutrally. That could be taken a couple different ways—I sure hope Sparkler was mostly talking about Blossom's status as my PFF, rather than something like Derpy grumbling about her being a homewrecker. Thankfully it didn't seem to be the latter of the two, since she shook Blossom's hoof a moment later. "Sparkler. I'm Dinky's big sister."

The two of them started exchanging a little small talk, and I kinda stopped paying attention to them and went back to hugging 'Lula. By now my baby sister was starting to get a little tired of hug time, and before long she started fidgeting and squirming. Fillies generally aren't fans of staying in any one place for too long, even when they're kinda sick and lacking in energy. After holding onto her for a couple seconds longer, I very reluctantly let her go. 'Lula trotted off towards the kitchen, presumably to hunt down Dinky.

Sparkler excused herself from her chat with Blossom, and trotted up to me. "Um .. hey." She hesitated for just a moment before hugging me. "I'm sorry about your mom, okay?"

I hugged her back "You know?"

"Nopony outright told me what's going on, but I overheard enough to put it together." She gave me a little squeeze. "Hope you find her."

I just nodded and gave her a tiny little nuzzle. I thought I should probably say something, but what could I say that wouldn't be kinda obvious and pointless? Of course I wanted my mom to come back home in one piece.

Sparkler gave me one last squeeze before letting go. She shot a look over her shoulder at the kitchen, where we could hear Dinky and 'Lula chattering away at each other. Then she turned back to me, a tentative little smile on her face. "So are you and your sister sticking around for a bit? I think Mom would like that, and I know Dinky would." Sparkler scuffed a hoof on the floor before adding. "I wouldn't mind either, even if it means I'm gonna have my hooves full keeping an eye on another filly."

"Yeah, I think we're gonna stick around for a while." I sighed and trotted over to Derpy's worn-down but comfortable couch. "I don't really wanna be alone right now, y'know?"

Sparkler nodded and gave me an understanding smile. "Yeah, I can't blame you." Sparkler frowned in thought for a bit, until her eyes passed over the Lunar board. "Say, how about we start up a new game? That way I could get the fillies out of Mom's mane, and we'd have something to do while we wait for dinner."

"Yeah, sounds good." The game would certainly make for a nice distraction from everything else. Plus it would give Blossom something to do other than stand off to the side feeling like she didn't belong. I managed to force a tiny little smile. "We might have a hard time settling who gets to play Clan Kicker and Clan Doo, though. I suppose we'd better let the fillies have them, or they'll get pouty on us."

After everything else I had to deal with today, the prospect of listening to a couple fillies argue about who got which pieces in a board game made for a nice change of pace. The whole Mom thing was still hanging over my head, but at least for a few hours it wasn't pressing down on me quite so heavily.

Despite the fact that going to bed as the veggies in a Blossom-Derpy sandwich would normally have been a fantasy scenario for me, I didn't sleep very well. There certainly wasn't anything wrong with the bed—Derpy's bed is surprisingly soft and comfortable considering how sturdy it is. The rest of it was great too—there'd been a little awkward shifting around by the other two to make sure they could both maximize their own contact with me while not touching each other, but in the end I had Derpy snuggled up against my chest while Blossom molded herself to my back.

No, the physical side of things was great. Just about perfect, really. I could definitely get used to sleeping like this. The problem was, not even being with a pair of beautiful mares who I loved to bits was enough to keep me from thinking about Mom. Sure, they both wanted to be there for me, but it's not like I could shake them awake in the wee hours of the morning just to tell them that I was feeling down again. Don't get me wrong, the company was great for comfort and keeping me from brooding too much, but no amount of pleasant diversions would be enough to keep Mom off my mind. Hay, if I'd talked them into a threesome I probably wouldn't have even gotten past the afterglow before it all came crashing down again. I couldn't use banging or anything else to hide from the fact that my mom was MIA.

I still managed to get a few fitful bits of sleep in between all the worrying, so the night wasn't a total loss. I'm not sure how much time I spent sleeping versus how long I was in bed just brooding, but eventually the sun came up and I was tired of staying in bed.

Extracting myself from the two mares wrapped around me without waking either of them up took a bit of doing, but I've got a lot of experience at delicately slipping out of bed. I slipped into the bathroom and carefully shut the door behind me, then hopped into Derpy's shower. The hot water felt good on my coat, and washing up gave me something else to focus on other than Mom. Maybe that was the trick to it—I just needed to find things to keep me busy and moving. As long as I was doing stuff, I didn't think about Mom. It was when I didn't have anything to keep my mind occupied that I started brooding.

Thankfully I'd shifted some bathroom stuff to Derpy's place before things had gotten a bit weird with us, so I didn't have to use an unfamiliar brand of shampoo or grab Derpy's poor, heavily battered manebrush. Those little things matter, and before the troubles had started up I'd been spending a lot of time at Derpy's.

I Eventually ran out of things to do to pretty myself up in the bathroom, unless I wanted to make like Rarity and escalate to all-out primping. I've got no objection to making myself look good, but I don't see much reason to go overboard on it. Plus, growing up as a Guard brat meant my general opinions on personal beauty tended to be a bit on the spartan side. After all, the Guard has rules against slathering yourself with a bunch of cosmetic goop that might end up causing problems in the field.

Still, taking a couple minutes to make myself look better did help my mood a bit. Everypony likes to look nice, and the simple morning ritual felt comfortable. At least until brushing out my mane reminded me of the way Mom used to do that for me back when I was a filly.

I almost broke down sobbing right then and there, just from that one memory. In a horrible way, Mom being MIA was worse than her just being dead. If Mom was dead, I could at least get to work on dealing with it. I could curl up somewhere, cry my eyes out, and move on. When your family's in the Guard, you spend most of your life knowing that something like this could happen any day. Hay, I've lost a few distant aunts, uncles, and cousins before their time. I'd handled those well enough, but there's a world of difference between losing a family member who you pretty much only know from the occasional get-together and losing your mother.

Instead, I was stuck not knowing. I knew the odds weren't good—by the time a soldier's officially listed as MIA and the family gets notified, the Guard's exhausted all the obvious places to look. Sure, there are examples of ponies surviving behind enemy lines or out in the wilderness for weeks, months, or even years after they drop off the radar. Hay, there was that one story about that Lunar soldier who went missing, only to turn back up again three decades after the rebellion was over. However, the reason those stories get passed around is that it's pretty darn rare for a pony to show up again after they drop off the radar for several days. Especially with a pony like Mom, who wouldn't have deserted or just run off to go partying for a couple weeks.

And ... so much for distracting myself. Dammit.

I finished toweling off and trotted back into Derpy's bedroom. There, I finally found a sight that put a smile on my face.

Derpy and Blossom had been in full-on snuggle mode when I slipped out of bed. Once I was gone, the two sleeping ponies had presumably done a bit of tossing and turning, until they instinctively sought out the nearest source of body heat to cuddle up with. Seeing the two mares I loved spooning had to rank up there as one of the more beautiful sights I've ever seen. It's too bad that once they woke up the moment would be ruined.

Still, I was gonna enjoy this while it lasted. I stepped up to the side of the bed and gently tugged the blanket back over the two of them. Once I was done tucking them in, I kissed each of them on the forehead, and told them I loved them.

Blossom let out a contented little noise, and slightly tightened her hold on Derpy, while Derpy shifted a bit in Blossom's forelegs and sleepily murmured, "I love you too, darling." The cutest thing about it was that she'd slipped back into that old high-class Canterlot accent she used to have. Seven years of living in Ponyville had mostly taken the Canterlot out of Derpy's voice, but every once in a while, usually when she was less than fully awake or in the immediate post-bang afterglow, her old accent would creep back in.

Normally the Canterlot aristocratic accent sounds kinda snooty and stuck-up, but on Derpy it just kind of worked. Like she wasn't talking that way to show off how refined and cultured she was, it just happened to be the way she talked.

With Derpy being so cute I had to kiss her again, and then I naturally had to kiss Blossom as well to keep things balanced. Blossom sleepily squeezed Derpy and nuzzled one of her ears, while Derpy mumbled something about me smelling funny. Obviously she must be smelling Blossom, since I'd just gotten out of the shower.

Much as I wanted to keep watching the two of them for a bit, and possibly even wake them up just to see how they reacted to finding themselves in each others' hooves, I needed to get going. After all, I had a duty to the weather team, and even if my mom was MIA, clouds still needed to get pushed. Besides, what else was I gonna do? Sit around and mope all day?

I trotted over the kitchen to dig a couple muffins out of Derpy's icebox before heading into work, but to my surprise I wasn't the only one awake.

Dinky and 'Lula looked at me like ... well, like a couple fillies who'd just been caught with their hooves in the cookie jar. Apparently the two of them had gotten up early and worked out some kind of scheme to raid said cookie jar—and judging by the crumbs on the floor, they'd been at it for a while when I caught them. It was a struggle not to smile at the sight of them trying so very hard to look innocent despite the fact that I'd caught them red-hooved and surrounded by the evidence of their crime. "So ... what're you two doing?"

"Nothin'," Dinky answered evasively. "Wanna cookie, Cloud Kicker?" She pulled her hoof out of the cookie jar and offered me one.

"I would love a cookie, thank you, Dinky." I let myself be distracted by the baked good for long enough that the girls started hoping they'd actually gotten away with it before dropping the other horseshoe. "So, how many cookies have you two eaten? Am I getting the last one left in the jar?"

"No," Alula shifted her eyes back and forth, presumably checking for other witnesses to their little cookie heist. "There's still another cookie left."

"A single cookie?" If not for the fact it would've crushed the cookie in the process, I would've facehoofed. "I remember there being more than a dozen cookies in that jar when I went to bed last night."

The two fillies took a second to ponder the matter, and apparently decided that they were busted. "Dinky ate way more cookies than I did!" 'Lula announced, levelling an accusing hoof at the filly in question.

"Nuh-uh!" Dinky shot right back. "I hadta give a cookie to Cloud Kicker, so you got one more than me!"

"Did not!" 'Lula crossed her forelegs over her chest. "You had, like two more cookies than I did, even though you couldn't get to the cookie jar without my help! I saw you sneak-eatin' them when you thought I wasn't looking!"

"That was only one cookie!" Dinky offered in her own defense. A second later she blushed and hastily amended, "I mean, I didn't sneak-eat any cookies when you weren't lookin'."

Ah, fillies. "You know, both of you were technically sneak-eating cookies on the rest of us." I tried to look down at the two of them with appropriate adult authority figure disapproval, but it was hard to pull off when the two of them were being so cute. "So ... I don't think there's any way the two of you aren't going to get in trouble for this." The two fillies immediately hit me with synchronized wide-eyed pleading looks, as if to ask how I could possibly punish two utterly adorable and completely innocent fillies for such a minor transgression. After all, it was only a dozen or so cookies, and surely I wasn't a completely heartless monster.

Thankfully, Guard training has some useful secondary applications when it comes to dealing with fillies trying to adorable their way out of trouble. Discipline is a useful thing that way. "Alright, Alula, since you just finished stuffing your face with cookies, I'd say you've had about a week's worth of desserts just now." 'Lula flinched and grumbled, but knew better than to argue the matter any further. My parents weren't exactly the kind of ponies you could argue with when they decided to lay down the law, at least not when you were 'Lula's age. While I try to be a little more easygoing than they were, when it came time to lay down the pseudo-parental big sister authority, I tended to take my cues from them.

Dinky looked up and me nervously. "Are you gonna take away my desserts too?" She broke out the sad, pleading puppy dog eyes again.

Thankfully, I wasn't the one who had to lay down the law with her. "That's up to your mother." Just mentioning the word mother sent a stab of pain through my chest, but I did my best to ignore it and press on. If I got all weepy and emotional now it would lead to lots of awkward questions from the girls.

Dinky stared up at me in horror, oblivious to my internal struggles. "Y-you're gonna tell on me to Mommy?" From the look on Dinky's face, you would think I was threatening to steal her comfort blanket, Favorite, away from her.

"Kinda have to tell her, kid." I swear, if I didn't do something about those sad puppy eyes of Dinky's she was gonna find a way to make me crack. I turned a bit to the side, so that I at least wasn't getting hit by them full force. "After all, when Derpy wakes up and checks the cookie jar she's going to notice that it's empty."

"There's still one cookie left, so it's not really empty..." Dinky shot me a hopeful little smile, but I wasn't buying it. I swear, she can be so sweet and innocent most of the time that it's easy to forget she's still a precocious little filly. I got a nice little reminder of that when a particularly sneaky little grin popped up onto her face. "Oh, I know! We could put the last cookie next to Sparky's bed, and get some crumbs and stuff and put 'em around her. Then Mommy will think Sparky ate the cookies instead of us!"

'Lula eagerly nodded along. "Great plan! That way Sparkler gets in trouble and we won't!" 'Lula shot a look my way, and her enthusiasm suffered a sudden catastrophic failure. "Um ... except that Cloudy kinda already caught us." 'Lula frowned and rubbed a hoof under her chin. "But she got a cookie from us, so doesn't that mean she's a 'complice now? So she's gonna get in trouble for being a cookie-thief too, unless she helps us blame Sparkler." 'Lula shot an impish grin up at me, seeming quite satisfied with her chain of reasoning.

Were—were they trying to blackmail me? That's a new one, I've never had fillies try to run an extortion scheme on me before. I guess there's a first time for everything. Still, if they wanted to play dirty... "You know, 'Lula, you seem like you're bouncing right back from being sick."

"Yup!" My little sister announced. "I was feelin' all tired and icky and stuff for a while, but now I'm doing lots better!"

I grinned and moved in for the kill. "So, ready to go back to school today?"

'Lula froze for a couple seconds, then let out several obviously faked coughs. "I still dun feel completely un-sick an' stuff," she announced, managing to sound significantly more miserable than she'd been earlier.

"Of course." I gave a sagely nod. "You're at that stage of illness where you're well enough to go out to play, eat lots of sweets, and wake up in the wee hours of the morning to steal cookies, but not quite well enough to go back to school."

"Yeah." Alula agreed with the guilelessness of youth. Well, I suppose I could at least take this as a positive sign that 'Lula was bouncing back from whatever she'd been sick with. She'd been sick enough when she first came home that I was a bit worried. I guess it was just like Mom said though—when it comes to fillies they can be sick as a dog one day, bouncing and brimming with energy the next.

I was about to let 'Lula know that the only pony she was fooling was herself when we were rudely interrupted by a shout from Derpy's bedroom. "Argh! Derpy!"

"Waaugh!" Derpy screamed right back. "You're not Cloud Kicker! I thought you were Cloud Kicker!"

"I kind of figured that out from the way you were rubbing my flank!" Blossom screeched indignantly.

"Says the pony who was nibbling on my ear thirty seconds ago!" Okay, maybe I should cover up the fillies' ears before the two of them got much further. That, or beat a very hasty retreat. It certainly looked like the tentative truce between the two of them was starting to get just a little shaky. Probably a good thing I didn't talk them into a threesome; if just a little spooning and cuddling had them this worked up, all-out banging probably would've touched off the apocalypse.

"So girls, who wants to go to school?" I didn't even give the two fillies a chance to answer before I dragged them out of the house. It's probably a sign of how much the two of them didn't want to be there listening to Blossom and Derpy argue that 'Lula forgot that she was supposedly too sick to go to school.

After dropping the two of them off with Cheerilee, who was quite happy to finally have 'Lula back in her classroom, I headed over to work. It seemed a little strange to just go to work like everything was normal the day after finding out about my mom, but I needed the routine of it. The mom thing didn't bug me quite so much when I had something to keep me busy—it was when I didn't have anything to do with my time but sit around and think that it really got to me. Last night's general lack of sleep made that pretty clear. As long as I could stay up, stay occupied, and just keep moving, I think I would be okay.

The next couple hours passed in a numb blur of passing out assignments to my subordinates, allocating resources to different squads in my team, and pushing clouds whenever I didn't have any of the leader-stuff to take care of. I preferred the managing to the actual doing—managing took up more brainpower, while most of the actual weather work was simple enough that it left my brain free for thinking. Right now, thinking was a bad thing, because there was only one topic I could think about.

Thankfully, the ponies under my command were giving me plenty to manage. I guess Rainbow taking things easy on them ever since Tornado Day was starting to have an effect, because I'd never seen my team acting so sloppy before. Clouds were being improperly placed, teamwork was practically nonexistent, and the general rate at which things were getting done (or rather, not getting done) was appalling. They couldn't even do the simplest things right.

"Dammit, Silverspeed! That's not how you bust up a cloud!" I shot over to the mare in question, who actually flinched back as I approached. "What the hay is wrong with you? Have you forgotten how to do something as simple as kick a feathering cloud?" Silverspeed had her mouth half open to say something in her defense, but I bulled right over her. "No! No excuses." I pointed to a particularly large clump of clouds. "We're gonna go through every single one of those clouds, for as long as it takes for you to get it right!"

Silverspeed hesitantly flew over to the first cloud and bucked it with the worst technique I've ever seen in my life, and that's counting the times Derpy and Eepy had been pulled in for weather work. "Wrong! Try again!" After a dozen more tries, she wasn't showing any improvement, and I was starting to get fed up with her. "What is your major malfunction, Silverspeed? Why can't you manage the simplest task a weather pony can do? I bet your daughter could do a better job of bucking clouds, and she can't even fly yet! Are we gonna have to spend all day hammering the basics into your head?"

Two things happened in rapid succession. First, Silverspeed started faking tears in an effort to get me to go easy on her. Naturally, I wasn't falling for it, but some of the other ponies on my team were a bit more gullible. This led to problem number two—Raindrops flying over and getting in my face. "Okay, that does it!" She glared at me defiantly and poked me in the chest with one of her hooves. "You've been riding us hard all day for no good reason, and I'm sick of putting up with it! You need to back off!"

I swatted her hoof away and glared right back. "Do you think I'm gonna put up with this kind of insubordination, Dropsy?" I crossed my forelegs over my chest, and gave a couple flaps of my wings to rise a bit higher than her. "Fine. You can join her in basic cloudbusting exercises then." After a moment's thought, I raised my voice so everypony could hear me. "In fact, I think all of you need to work on the basics! So we're gonna run drills, and keep running them until every single one of you has them down perfect. Got that?"

Most of the ponies in my squad looked to Raindrops, who was apparently setting herself up as the leader of this budding little mutiny. Dropsy glowered at me for a while, and then growled. "Feather this, I'm going home. I'll come back to work when you stop acting like a crazy bitch and start acting like Cloud Kicker again."

Before I could really start reading her the riot act, I spotted Rainbow Dash double-timing it over towards us. Kinda hard not to notice the small crowd of ponies yelling at each other. Rainbow placed herself between me and mutineers, and immediately took charge. "Okay, what the hay is going on here?"

Raindrops spoke up before I could get my side in. "Cloud Kicker's been working us to the bone all day, and yelling at us whenever something isn't completely perfect." She gave an angry shake of her head and shot a glare at me around Rainbow. "No, even when we get stuff right, she still finds an excuse to yell at us. I'm not getting paid enough to put up with that kind of horseapples! She made Silverspeed cry!"

If I'd rolled my eyes any harder, they probably would've popped right out of their sockets. "Oh come on, she's obviously faking it to get sympathy."

Rainbow shot a look back at Silverspeed, then frowned at me. "You sure about that? 'Cause she looks pretty upset to me."

I turned to the faker as well, to prove my point. It's not like I would have to try very hard to find something that proved it was all just a big act. I mean, just look at the way she had those blatantly faked tears trickling down her cheeks while Medley comforted her, or the way her shoulders were bobbing up and down, or...

Oh. Oh horseapples. I don't think that was an act. Not unless Silverspeed was one hay of a talented actress.

Rainbow had obviously reached the same conclusion. She sighed, and turned back to Raindrops. "Can you keep an eye on things for a bit? I think Cloud Kicker and I need to have a talk."

Once she was sure the weather wouldn't go to Tartarus in her absence, Rainbow hooked a foreleg behind my back and dragged me off to a relatively private chunk of sky. She wasn't quite laying down the law on me and hitting me with the full boss disapproval thing, but from how tense her shoulders were and the way she was flapping her wings harder than she needed to I could tell she wasn't happy with me.

Once we had a nice, isolated cloud to settle down on, she got straight to business. "Okay, what's going on with you? Something's got you all pissed off, and I wanna know what." That was a bit more insight than I'd expected from Rainbow—she's usually not the most socially subtle of ponies. I guess my surprise must've shown on my face, because Rainbow followed with, "When you're being grouchy enough that even Raindrops says that you're going overboard, that's a pretty clear sign that something's going on. Now spill."

For a moment I was tempted to be stubborn about it, but there was really no point in denying it. I was out of sorts, and anypony with half a brain could see it. Besides, I'd been planning to tell Rainbow sooner or later anyway. After all, we'd been PFFs for a long time, and compared to some of the stuff we'd gone through this wasn't the worst thing that had ever happened to me. Hay, if something had happened to one of her moms I would wanna know about it, so I could be there to offer her my support.

So I spilled the beans. There was no point in beating around the bush, not with Rainbow. "My mom's MIA. I found out yesterday."

"Oh." Rainbow sat down on the cloud next to me, and uncertainly reached out to put a hoof on my shoulder. "That's ... wow. That sucks."

"Yeah." The same part of me that thought yelling at Silverspeed until she started crying was a good idea wanted to tear into Rainbow for that comment. I feathering lost my mom, and the sum total of her thoughts on the matter and only effort to offer me some kind of comfort is 'wow, that sucks.' Yeah, great job being a supportive friend in my time of need, Rainbow.

Going after her like that wouldn't be fair, though. Let's face it: I've known Rainbow Dash for most of my life. If I'd been looking for a pony who could be sensitive to my needs and offer loving kindness and emotional support, Rainbow wasn't the best choice. Besides, she was trying really hard, if the horrendously awkward effort at a hug she was giving me was anything to judge by.

"Um..." Rainbow gave me a few tentative little nuzzles in between the fumbling attempts to say something comforting. "Look, if there's anything I can do to, y'know, well—look, you don't have to come into work until the thing with your mom gets worked out, okay?"

I appreciated the offer, but I really needed work to keep my mind occupied. Or at least, that had been what I thought up until I spent my time on the job being the worst boss ever. I owed some apologies and explanations to all the ponies on my team, especially Silverspeed. On the other hoof... "Okay, I know I wasn't exactly doing a very good job, but even if I've got stuff going on in my personal life I've still got a duty to the weather team, so..."

Rainbow groaned and facehoofed. "Cloud Kicker, please don't get started on the whole doodie thing. Just take the time off, alright?"

It said something about my current situation that Rainbow Dash was serving as the voice of reason. She was right, though. Trying to just keep calm and soldier on wasn't going to work for me—the way I'd treated the ponies under my command made that abundantly clear. Sure, I had a commitment to the weather team and all that, but I could hardly fulfill that duty in my current state of mind. So I guess that meant now I had an obligation to get myself squared away before coming back to work. That wasn't likely until things with the whole Mom situation were sorted out.

Well, there was one thing I needed to take care of first. "Alright, let me apologize to everypony, and then I'll head out." I didn't wanna leave everypony feeling hurt and resentful for however long I was going to be off the job. Sure, giving everypony a couple days to cool off was probably a good idea, but putting an apology out there first was still important. I just wouldn't feel right until I'd made some effort to settle the matter.

Rainbow frowned and thought it over, then nodded. "Yeah, okay. I gotta go take care of something real quick while you do that." As soon as she said that Rainbow zoomed off, leaving me to face the music all by myself.

I took my time flying back to the rest of the weather squad—you can't exactly blame me for not being terribly enthusiastic about going up to a bunch of ponies who were justifiably upset with me. Once I was back in sight of the team pretty much everypony stopped what they were doing to stare at me. A couple of them, like Raindrops, were glaring at me. Others, like Silverspeed, looked nervous, almost scared of me. Seeing fear on the faces of other ponies hurt a lot more than anger.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and prepared myself. "Look, I'm sorry everypony. I've been just about the worst boss ever today." I hesitantly extended a hoof to Silverspeed. "Especially with you. I was completely out of line being that hard on you when you were doing perfectly good weather work."

Raindrops continued glaring at me for a few seconds longer, then very slowly nodded and stopped looking like she wanted to put a hoof through my face. I guess she'd decided that I was being honest with my apology. "Okay. So what was the deal? Why have you been in bitch mode all day? You were acting like a drill sergeant from one of those bad Guard stories."

I had my mouth halfway open with an explanation when I froze. What was I supposed to say to them? 'Oh, my mother's MIA, so I'm allowed to treat you like horseapples.' Yeah, I'm not gonna use my mom as an excuse for my behavior. Sure, the whole Mom thing is why I was acting all crazy, but I was still the one acting like that, and it was my choice to come into work today. Trying to shrug off my personal responsibility there was not the right way to handle things. My head drooped and I felt my ears go flat on my head as I miserably announced, "I have no excuse for my behavior."

Silverspeed frowned at me, "That doesn't make any sense. You don't normally act this way, Cloud Kicker. What's going on?"

I froze, trying to think of a way to explain that didn't sound like I was just using the situation with my mother as an excuse for my bad behavior. Before I could come up with a way to say it, Rainbow Dash returned and resolved the situation with her usual level of diplomacy and tact. "She just found out her mom's missing in action. That's why she was acting weird."

That set off a round of muttering amongst all the weather ponies. I probably should've been annoyed at Rainbow for showing all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, but her announcement had at least succeeded in answering the question and improving the mood of all the other ponies. Now I was getting sympathetic looks instead of angry glares. To my vague discomfort, Silverspeed actually flew up and hugged me. I guess that's good since it probably meant she'd forgiven me, but I still felt a bit uncomfortable. Probably because I still hadn't forgiven myself.

Shortly after Silverspeed detached herself from me, a yellow-and-pink blur slammed into my side and latched on. "OhCloudKickerI'mSoSorryIfThere'sAnythingICanDoToHelp..."

Oh. So Rainbow ran off to go get Eepy? Well, I can't blame her for that—when you need somepony to be gentle and comforting, it's hard to beat Eepy. I started hugging her back by pure instinct and rested my head against her shoulder. After holding onto me for a bit, Eepy seemed to get over her initial burst of near frantic comforting and toned things down a little. "Cloud Kicker? Would you mind if I took you home?"

"Yeah, home sounds good." Some part of me felt just a little self-conscious about holding Eepy like this so soon after we'd put an end to things, but most of me didn't care. I needed somepony to hold me, and Eepy was here. "I'm staying with Derpy for now. Wanna be close to 'Lula and all that."

"Oh." Eepy hesitated for just a moment before nodding and gently starting to guide me to Derpy's. "Alright. I hope she won't mind if I stay for a while. I just ... I want to help."

"Yeah." Eepy stiffened just a tiny bit when I nuzzled her, but after an awkward moment she returned it. It was gonna take us a bit to get used to being platonic friends, but we were both willing to work on it. "Thanks Eepy. You didn't have to go to all this trouble for me."

"Yes I did." I was a little surprised at how confident she sounded when she said that. Eepy can surprise you with how strong she is sometimes. A second later she smiled back at me, all gentleness and warmth. "Besides, it was no trouble at all."

While Blossom and Derpy were doing everything they could to help, not to mention Rainbow and Eepy coming by a couple times a day to check on me, after two more days of waiting around for news I was starting to go just a little stir crazy. Not knowing what the hay had happened to my mother and whether or not she would come back home was just killing me. Now that going to work wasn't an option I didn't have much to do with all my time except think about Mom, and every time somepony tried to offer me a little comfort it just drove things in a little deeper. Mom was out there, probably in big trouble, and all I could do was sit on Derpy's couch and worry.

I finally cracked on the third day after Aunt Wind gave me the news. I flew over to Mom's place and went looking for her little secret storage cloud. Sure, I could probably get in trouble for digging through Mom's personal files, but I felt like I was gonna go nuts if I didn't do something. I just wanted a look at her op order so I would at least know what the hay had happened to her beyond her disappearing while checking out some kind of problem on the border. Obviously her orders wouldn't tell me everything, but at least I would know what problem and which border. Just knowing something more would help.

I certainly hadn't planned on grabbing my armor from the attic as soon as I was done checking through Mom's papers. It just kinda happened. After I'd looked through everything and knew what was going on, I had to go after her.

Armoring and arming up took longer than it should have, but in my defense I hadn't put on my armor for years. It felt odd at first, but before long I was getting used to having that familiar weight resting on my back. It actually wasn't as bad as I remember armor being from West Hoof, though you could probably attribute that to this suit being custom-made for me and enchanted with a lot of nice little goodies.

Speaking of which, a couple quick adjustments turned off the uniform enchantment and shifted my armor from Guard gold to Kicker red. I didn't wanna run around looking like a member of the Guard when I wasn't really one. This was private family business.

Now I just had to figure out how the hay I was supposed to get out of town without somepony spotting me and making a big deal out of it. Since the weather team knew my mom was MIA, it was a safe bet that rumors were spreading to the rest of the town. If somepony saw me wearing armor and picking up supplies for a journey, it wouldn't exactly be hard to connect the dots. If word got back to Rainbow, Derpy, Blossom, or anypony else before I was out of town, I could expect things to get complicated fast.

Thankfully Derpy was still at work, the girls were still at school, and Blossom wasn't sticking around Derpy's house by herself now that she'd finally regrown all her feathers and could fly again, so raiding Derpy's fridge for supplies was easy enough. I left behind some bits to cover the bill and a quick note to explain my absence.

I almost made it out of town without getting caught. I'm not sure if somepony else spotted me and let her know, or if Rainbow Dash saw me herself while she was doing weather work, but I was on the outskirts of Ponyville when she caught up to me. Sadly, outrunning Rainbow Dash just wasn't an option, especially not with a couple days' worth of food and my armor weighing me down.

I pulled up and waited for her to save myself the indignity of being tackled to the ground by her. She pulled in front of me and smacked a hoof against my armored chest, probably hurting her hoof more than me in the process. "Where the hay do you think you're going?"

I offered her the only explanation I could. "It's my mother, Rainbow. I have to—"

"Yeah, yeah." She cut me off with an annoyed wave of her hoof. "Look, just wait here for a bit, okay? I'll be back in five minutes, tops. And don't even think about running while I'm gone, 'cause we both know I would eventually catch you, and when I did, you would soregret it."

With that said, Rainbow shot back towards Ponyville, leaving me hanging there in mid-air. Despite her boasting, I probably could've shaken Rainbow Dash if I really wanted to. Sure, I could never outrun her, but tracking somepony through the air is pretty close to impossible. Not to mention that unless she'd changed a lot from the way she did things back in Flight Camp, Rainbow wasn't the type to run a methodical search pattern. All in all, odds were pretty good I could find a way to get away from her, unless Rainbow got really lucky with her random searching.

The only problem was what would happen when I came back to Ponyville. Rainbow would not be happy with me, and since she was probably flying off to get everypony else I was gonna catch trouble from all of them too. I didn't wanna burn all my bridges.

Sure enough, when Rainbow came back Derpy and Eepy were both following along. I was a little surprised that Blossom wasn't with them, but maybe Rainbow hadn't been able to find her fast enough. What surprised me was that they weren't the only ones—four other ponies were following along behind them on the ground. Looks like Rainbow had got her little world-saving crew together for this one.

The pegasi all landed out of courtesy to the wingless members of the group, and I got right to business. "Look, there's no way you're gonna convince me not to go after her, so you can just save your breath."

"We're not trying to stop you, idiot," Rainbow grumbled at me. "We're coming with you."

Oh. Well, that could complicate things. I was a little surprised there were so many ponies ready to go off a dangerous mission into the unknown at the drop of a hat, but I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised, After all, Rainbow's little cadre of friends had gone head-to-head with Nightmare Moon, Discord, dragons, and a bunch of other stuff. Running off on an adventure at a moment's notice wasn't exactly unusual for them. Still, I was a little surprised that Rainbow could mobilize them all just to help me out.

There was just one problem with the whole situation: while all of them being ready to go out on a potentially hazardous mission just to help me was undeniably touching, the whole issue with my mother was something I needed to take care of myself. I didn't want anypony else coming along, and certainly not an entire squad of ponies, even if they had a whole bunch of really useful skills. This was private family business.

I'll admit that I was still a little gobsmacked by the fact that Rainbow had gotten the whole "Fighting evil gods and saving Equestria" crew ready to help me. The fact that I was still a bit shocked probably explains why the first thing I could think of to say to dissuade any of them was to turn to Applejack and say, "But ... you don't even like me."

"It's your ma," the farmer answered as if that explained everything. Considering what had happened to her own parents, maybe it did. Sure, we'd butted heads from time to time, mostly because she was a little old-fashioned when it came to banging and just a touch overprotective when it came to her brother and mares who wanted to bang him, but some things are more important than those little personality conflicts. It says a lot about Applejack that she'd come running to help a pony in need, even when it was a pony she didn't always get along with. I mentally moved her up several places on my bangability list for that.

Still, I needed to find some way to keep this army of ponies from tagging along with me. Thankfully, there was one obvious issue to bring up for most of them. "Look, I really appreciate the offer, but we've got a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time, and there's quite a bit of terrain in the way." I spread my wings a bit for emphasis. "Gonna be just about impossible to keep up if you can't fly."

None of Rainbow's groundbound friends looked very happy with that answer. but they couldn't really argue with it either. Being able to move in three dimensions does kind of give pegasi a huge advantage in the mobility department. Twilight Sparkle decided she needed to get her two bits in. "I know you can fly over things the rest of us would have to walk around or through, but I know spells we could use to deal with that."

"I'm sure you do." High-level unicorn magic was about the only thing that can come close to competing with the mobility of pegasus flight, and Twilight definitely had that. There was just one complication: "You've got a lot of magical talent. I've just got one question—how many of those spells can you cast a day? Especially after you've been walking for most of it. No offense, but you're not exactly used to that kind of all-day physical effort. You really think you can handle all the walking, and teleporting your friends past mountains, swamps, and mud puddles?"

"There are going to be mud puddles?" Rarity gave a dramatic little shudder. "Well, thank goodness I thought to pack some of my new boots. I'm sure they'll look amazing, even with a little mud on them. Besides, one must endure the little indignities when there's a pony's life at stake."

"Oh, and there might be more than just mud, too!" Pinkie enthusiastically chimed in. "Cause we might be walking through a forest at some point, and the other day when I was looking for Dashie I found her all cuddled up on a cloud and snoring, but then after I started talking to her she was a bit grouchy so I asked her if I woke her up. Instead of just telling me, she said, 'Do bears leave their droppings in the woods?' Well, that's not actually what she said, but the real words would upset Fluttershy. Anyway, I'm pretty sure she was napping when I found her, so I guess that means that if we go into the forest we'll find bear poop!" Pinkie cocked her head to the side, staring at Rarity. "Why's your eye twitching like that? Oooh, are you getting a Rarity Sense like my Pinkie Sense? What does an eye twitch mean?"

"Reckon it means ya oughta stop talkin', Pinkie." Applejack announced with a good-natured chuckle. Everypony had a brief laugh at the fashionista's expense, before the farmpony turned back to me and her smile faded away. "Can't say I much care for it, but I'm afraid you're right. Twilight's got some powerful magic, but she can't take care of everythin' for us. Closest she could manage is that spell to give a pony wings, and even then just casting it once left her plum tuckered out. Not to mention, them wings weren't all that strong."

"Thank you so much for bringing that up again, Applejack darling." Rarity grumbled under her breath.

The rest of the groundpounders reluctantly agreed with Applejack's reasoning. That still left me with Eepy and Derpy to deal with. Of the two, Derpy was the easier one to deal with. "Derpy, sweetie, you've got kids. This could get dangerous, and I'm not gonna risk taking Dinky and Sparkler's mommy away from them." I kissed her on the cheek and shot her a tentative little smile. "Besides, somepony has to keep an eye on 'Lula while I'm gone."

I felt a bit bad about using Derpy's girls on her like that, but it was the simple truth of the situation. Derpy had daughters, and that meant she couldn't just go running off into danger with me. One of the things I've learned about being in a romantic relationship with a mother—as much as Derpy cares for me, her daughters would always come first.

That still left Eepy to dissuade from tagging along with me. This one might be a bit tricky to handle, simply because Eepy was so sensitive that I could really hurt her feelings if I said the wrong thing. There was a tricky balance to being firm enough to make sure she didn't try to tag along, but not so firm that I ended up hurting her feelings or something. After all, when Eepy's feelings get hurt she starts crying, and when Eepy starts crying I end up feeling like a complete and total mule for making her cry.

I tried to keep my voice as soft and gentle as possible. "Eepy, I'm gonna be setting a pretty fast pace here. No offense, but it would be pretty hard for you to keep up with me. Not to mention that we're going into a situation that's probably gonna be really, really dangerous, and you're not exactly much of a fighter."

That also led into the other big reason I didn't want Derpy or Eepy in particular tagging along. Odds were there would be combat once I got to where Mom was, and I wasn't planning on fighting with one wing tied to my side. Neither of them would handle that well, and I don't know if they would ever be able to look at me the same way after they saw me take a life. It took Derpy a long time to make things right with me after the Flight Camp fight, and Eepy was Eepy. Neither of them would be comfortable seeing that side of me.

Hay, I wasn't sure how I felt about seeing that side of myself. Sure, I'd been trained for war and been in plenty of little scuffles over the years, but now I was getting into the real thing. That was a pretty big deal. There's a huge difference between beating down some bullies and actually killing somepony.

Eepy stared at me for several seconds. Not The Stare, just a normal sort of inquiring little stare, as if she was trying to work out what was going on in my head. After looking at me for long enough to make me just a bit paranoid that she might somehow be reading my mind or something, she gave a small nod. "Okay. I'll stay here."

Well, one less thing to worry about. I turned to the only pony I hadn't gotten around to dissuading from coming along with me. Rainbow stubbornly crossed her forelegs over her chest and gave me a challenging glare, practically daring me to tell her she couldn't come along. Instead of doing that, I grinned and offered her a friendly pat on the back. "You packed up and ready to go, Rainbow?"

Rainbow's jaw dropped and she babbled out a few stunned half-syllables before she finally managed to get her mental hooves under herself again. "Bu-wha? You're not gonna try to talk me out of coming along?"

I shot her a faintly amused grin. "Is there any logical, rational argument I could make that could possibly convince you not to tag along?"

"'Course not," Rainbow answered, giving a very unladylike snort.

"So, there you have it." I gave a helpless little shrug. "No point in fighting a battle I can't win." Besides, if there was one pony I could probably trust to have my back in a fight, it would be Rainbow. I'd still be happier if I was doing this all on my own, but if I didn't have a choice in the matter, then she was perfect for the job. "One condition—we're going after my mom, so that means this is my show. I give orders, you follow them. Got it?"

Rainbow chewed that over for a couple seconds, and finally accepted with an annoyed wave of her hoof. "Fine, you're in charge. I'll be a good little soldier and do what you say, as long as you aren't telling me to do something really stupid or pointless."

That was probably the best I was likely to get out of Rainbow. By her nature, Rainbow Dash was not that great at the whole discipline thing. She never would've made it very far in the Guard, unless she signed on with a formation like the Long Patrol where orders tended to be very vague and open-ended. "Alright. Ready to get flying? Well, first we need to say our goodbyes, but—"

The rest of what I was about to say died in my mouth when a pink missile shot up from the ground and wrapped itself around Rainbow Dash. "Be extra super-duper careful, Dashie!" Pinkie screeched while doing her best to crush Rainbow's ribs. "Don't cross the road without looking both ways, don't eat cupcakes unless they're properly cooked, always eat your broccoli, even if it is icky-tasting, but all the stuff that's good for you kinda tastes weird, at least when you're a kid, but when you get older it tastes just fine, I never did understand that, but..." Rainbow's ears started twitching and she began struggling to free herself from Pinkie's death-grip hug and non-stop verbal onslaught. While Pinkie didn't let Rainbow escape her grasp, she did at least start moving her stream of babble towards a conclusion. "Don't take any candy from strange ponies, unless they seem nice and it looks really super-duper yummy. Oh, and don't let anything happen to your eye, 'cause the surgery's not until next week!"

Derpy tried to glomp me just like Pinkie had done with Rainbow, but it didn't work so well for her. Full plate armor tends to make hugging a bit problematic, especially when you're trying to be forceful about it. Hopefully she wouldn't bruise. She didn't bombard me with advice like Pinkie did—instead she just kept hanging onto me. At first I hugged her back without complaint, but when she was still firmly wrapped around me after several minutes had gone by, I felt like something needed to be done. "Look, Derpy, I know you don't wanna leave me, but you're gonna have to let go. I kinda need to go find my mom and stuff."

Derpy slowly met my eyes, her cheeks pink with embarrassment. "It's not that. It's, um ... my hoof got caught in your armor."

Rainbow facehoofed. "Derpy..."

We'd gotten a bit of a late start, so we only managed a couple hours of flight time before we needed to make camp for the evening. I hadn't planned on having any tagalongs, and from what I could tell Rainbow's preparation for the trip had consisted of shoving random items into her saddlebags. Still, the two of us had enough basic wilderness knowledge to make a passable camp, even if we were roughing it a bit.

Right about the time we'd finished setting everything up, a third pony flew into the campsite. Blossom's mane was a mess, and she needed a couple minutes of lying down and gasping for breath before she could actually explain what the hay was going on. "I came after you as soon as I heard! It's a good thing you two made a campfire, or I never would've found you!"

Note to self: no more campfires when trying to stay under the radar.

I leaned over and put a hoof on Blossom's shoulder. "Look—Blossom, you just got over the feather flu, and this could get really dangerous. I think it would be better if—"

Blossom gently placed a hoof over my lips. "No. I'm sure you've got all kinds of perfectly sensible reasons why I shouldn't come along. Most of them are probably right. But I don't care. Unless you tie me up or break one of my wings or something, I'm coming with you. That's just how it is."

For a brief moment, I was tempted to do just that. Well not literally, but if I stopped by my mother's command and asked them to keep Blossom in 'this civilian will get herself killed out of romantic stubbornness' custody, they'd go along with it. The only problem is, that would mean letting the Guard know I was in the area. That could cause all kinds of complications I would rather avoid.

The other option would be to just outrun her. Blossom wasn't as strong a flier as me or Rainbow, especially not when she had just bounced back from being sick. The problem was, in her current mood I don't think Blossom would just give up and go home. If she tried following us anyway, she could easily get lost or wander into something hazardous. Since a pretty big part of why I didn't want Blossom tagging along in the first place was to keep her safe, a solution that just shifted her peril out of my immediate line of sight didn't really work.

I hate to say it, but there weren't many options when you had a pony who was that stubbornly determined to tag along. If we'd been back in Ponyville I might've been able to do something, but that wasn't an option now. Turning back, hoofing Blossom over to somepony who could make sure she wouldn't follow us, and getting back on the road would eat up most of another day.

Blossom had me dead to rights. "Fine. But stay close to us, follow orders, and at the first sign of trouble find somewhere safe to hide and stay there until the fighting is over."

Blossom nodded eagerly. "Yeah, okay." Blossom settled down a bit more comfortably next to the campfire and pulled some food out of her saddlebags. "So," she asked in between bites of apple, "what's the plan? We hooking up with the Guard for a bit to find your mom?"

Rainbow's eyes brightened a bit at that. "Oh yeah, we do need a plan-type-thingy. I hope we can get some sweet armor and awesome weapons and stuff."

I thought about it for a moment, and decided I might as well spill the beans. If they were coming with me they would find out eventually, and telling them now in camp was better than it all coming out in the heat of the moment. "We're not working with the Guard. In fact, I'm hoping we can avoid them entirely."

"Huh?" Blossom shot a confused frown at me. "That doesn't make any sense. The Guard could do a lot to help you rescue your mother, and you've got plenty of family who would be happy to help you. Plus, like Rainbow said, they could give us a lot of things we don't have right now. So why are we avoiding them?"

I sighed, and took a deep breath, preparing to drop the bombshell. "Because we're not going on a rescue mission to save my mom." I pulled the papers I'd retrieved from my mother's hidden storage area out of my saddlebag. I hadn't wanted to believe it myself, and to be honest it didn't make sense to me, but the evidence was all there in black and white. "My mother, Nimbus Gust, has betrayed the Princesses, clan Kicker, and all of Equestria. We're not going out there to rescue her." I licked my lips, and struggled to keep any hint of uncertainty out of my voice. "I'm going to kill her."