Aaand chapter seven arrives. Larger than usual, so I hope that makes up for the delay. I rewrote this chapter several times before I got it like I wanted. I swear, I'm my own worst enemy sometimes. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this installment. I'm working on the next right now. The Star-Spangled Banner by Madison Rising.
Applejack wasn't mad at Naruto. No, not mad. She was just greatly annoyed by him and his attitude. She was the Spirit of Honesty and, as such, appreciated that quality more than anything or anyone. Naruto had never explicitly lied about his past, so she couldn't be mad at him about that. She was, however, hurt that he still had yet to confide parts of his past to her and her family.
He was practically another brother to her, Mac, and Applebloom in all but blood. He fit into her family so well that it was like he'd always been there. The other members of the Apple family that had come down for the reunion had thought he'd been a long lost relative. His easy going nature and his charm made him a natural fit.
But there was still so much she didn't know about him. Despite his affable personality and his general likeability (and his work ethic didn't hurt either) he was still a mystery. And Applejack hated mysteries. She was a pony who liked results, but secrets made her head and secrets were like oil and water. They didn't mix and it was one reason AJ had never been a good liar. Hell, she was a horrible liar.
It had been over a month since he returned and things had settled into routine once again. She had snickered quietly as he grilled the guards before they returned to Canterlot, their grim faces and sweaty brows only adding to the hilarity of the situation as Naruto did his little inspection. She just couldn't picture someone actually being afraid of the gentle giant sometimes. She supposed that came from watching him interact with the Cutie Mark Crusaders on a near daily basis. He was especially gentle around children.
Work had gone much smoother once they all fell back into their normal methods. Naruto and Mac would swap duties plowing and bucking, all the while sniping remarks at each other good naturedly when they were within earshot. The guards were good and got a lot accomplished, but they just weren't up to the task like the two workhorses that lived on the farm.
But the question of why he was the Hero of the Griffon Crisis still plagued her. It shouldn't. She knew that he was a hero of Equestria. He'd saved her friends from death. It bothered her that he wouldn't divulge the details. And Rainbow Dash was practically frothing at the mouth to know why. The pegasus simply couldn't imagine anyone not wanting their accolades shouted from the heavens.
Applejack sighed and watched as Mac and Naruto started to come in for lunch. Saturdays were half days for the Apple family and lunch was their work whistle. She had plans to skip lunch with the family and go into town to visit.
"...can't believe we're even discussing this! Rainbow Dash, you can't go around starting rumors like that!"
"It's not a rumor! I heard it from Gilda back in flight school! Tell me that it isn't possible! Go on! You can't, because it could totally be him!"
"But Dashie, he's not a mean pony like that. He's really nice. And he saved us. And the Princess believes in him. And..."
"That's all you have to go on is a story, Rainbow. I've checked the backlogs of the newspapers like you asked and I haven't found any reference to what you're saying. Just that he was very brave for what he did and that he was called the Hero of the Griffon Crisis because of it."
"Ummm...maybe...maybe you're wrong, Rainbow...if that's okay..."
"What in tarnation are you all arguing about?"
The five friends, who had turned into a whirlwind of conversation, turned to the doorway of the library where Applejack stood, a dumbfounded look on her face. Rainbow Dash seemed relieved to see her.
"AJ! Finally, a pony that I can reason with. Come here and let me tell you something I remembered from flight school."
Rarity made a disgusted sound and took a sip of her tea.
"Honestly, I don't see why a silly story like that has got you all hyped up, Rainbow Dash. It's a story that the griffons use to scare their children into being good. You said so yourself."
Dash bristled and whirled around to face Rarity.
"Well, yeah, duh! But that doesn't mean he isn't the basis for the story! Come on, Rare, even you have to admit that if the shoe fits wear it...and you're the biggest gossip in town. I would have thought something like this was right up your alley."
Rarity slammed her hoof onto the table, making them all jump. Her glare could have melted steel.
"It's a silly story! Even if it was true, it wouldn't change my opinion of him. He saved us all from a sure death and I, for one, am appreciative enough to stay out of his past if he doesn't want to talk about it."
Pinkie Pie uprighted her tea cup and hummed to herself.
"Maybe he's not telling because nopony has asked him? Has anyone asked him?"
Twilight perked up and turned to Rainbow Dash.
"Good question. Have you tried asking him yet? Politely?"
Rainbow seemed somewhat annoyed and affronted by the question.
"Well, yeah, I've thought of asking him. But don't you remember what he did to AJ when we kept hounding him about why he was called a hero? He timed shutting his door so it would hit her just on the end of her nose."
Applejack rubbed her nose tenderly at that memory. They had all been a bit too persistent in following Naruto back home and she'd paid the price for it, having literally been on his heels as he went inside. While more surprising than harmful, the door slamming had led to some colorful language on her part and a talking-to from Rarity on proper lady-like etiquette. It had not been her day that day.
"What exactly are we talking about and how does it concern my worker?"
Rainbow turned to Applejack, her eyes nearly pleading.
"Look, I just want you to listen to me before you call me crazy like the rest of them did, okay? Promise me that?"
Applejack nodded her head without a second thought.
"Okay, Rainbow. I'll listen. But this better be good."
The cyan mare took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Alright, just listen. Back when I was in flight school, I met Gilda. You remember her right? The Griffon? Yeah...anyway, we were up late one night and telling scary stories and she told us about the Griffon's Bane."
Applejack cocked an eyebrow and leaned back a bit, trying the name out on her tongue.
Rainbow Dash shrugged.
"I didn't make the name up. Anyway, she told us that the Griffon's Bane was an Earth pony, a colt to be exact. Orange coat, blue eyes, yellow mane. Stronger than a manticore. When little Griffons are bad, he sneaks into their rooms at night and steals their wings. Rips them right off at the base."
"And why would he do that?"
"Because he's jealous of their ability to fly. He steals the wings and tries to make them work for himself. But he's never found a pair that works for him yet so he keeps coming to take the bad kids' wings."
"And he's got an orange coat, blue eyes, and a yellow mane?"
"Yep. And when he steals the wings, she said his eyes turn golden and glow."
"You know Naruto's a full grown stallion and not a colt, right?"
"Well yeah, but that's not the important thing. The time the story started is what's important. She said that the story originated at least over a decade ago. We were in flight school around that time. Probably older than that, but it would put it right around the time Naruto was in the military."
Applejack shut one eye in thought and rolled the other around to look at her friends. The rest all looked skeptical, but Rainbow just looked like she wanted someone to believe her.
"I dunno, Rainbow. I mean, yeah, you described Naruto to a 'T', but it would be hard for him to steal wings from Griffons. They live in some high places and he can't walk on clouds so he couldn't go to any cloud cities."
Rainbow scoffed and waved her hoof dismissively.
"Yeah, yeah, I know that. The story about the Griffon's Bane isn't what's important here, AJ. It's the fact that they're so specific about the pony that does it. If he's the basis for a scary story, what did he do to become the basis? That's what I want to know. I want to know what happened."
Pinkie Pie decided she'd been silent long enough.
"But Dashie, he's a hero. They don't call you a hero for nothing. He must have done something brave and good."
The others nodded and Rainbow's head sank a little bit.
"Well, the griffons don't think he's a hero. In fact, they're terrified of him. Didn't you read the article? The Griffon delegation was extremely nervous when they saw him. A fairytale shouldn't affect adults like that. Naruto did something to make an entire kingdom hate him."
"Um...well, Twilight said she did a bit of reading up on that. Maybe she could tell us...if that's okay with her..."
Twilight was already digging through the pile of old newspapers she had to find the article about the Griffon Crisis. It had a front page picture of Naruto as a colt, standing at attention in his armor. She read the article aloud to the rest.
Griffons Routed at Fort Yoke
Crisis Averted by Young Private
Not a month after our dear Princess Celestia had signed a non-agression treaty with the King of hte Griffons, guerilla warfare broke out on both sides by those opposing the pact. Ponies caught violating the terms of the treaty have been dealt with in a manner befitting traitors of the Equestrian Kingdom, but the Griffons have held an aloof stance on such things.
A band of over twenty Griffon guerillas snuck into Fort Yoke on the Northern border at night and took over the entire fort, killing the commanding officer and several soldiers on duty. The rest of the battallion escaped into the nearby woods to regroup, call for backup, and plan a counterattack.
The remaining soldiers, tired and outmanned, waited for either an opening or reinforcements to arrive to retake the fort. At some point in the night, the soldiers said that Private Naruto disappeared from the camp and by morning had cleared the Griffons out of the fort single-hoovedly. No details were released to the press of how exactly one pony, let alone a colt, managed to defeat all of the guerillas.
The captured Griffons were extradited to the Griffon kingdom and were awaiting trial as of press time.
Private Naruto is the youngest pony to ever join the Equestrian military in the history of the country. He was sponsored by Captain Starshine of the Celestial Guard and is a protege of the Captain. His records are sealed as he is underage and a ward of the state.
Nevertheless, Private Naruto is a hero for his service to Equestria. Perhaps one day this paper will get the real story of what happened inside the fort, but until then the Equestrian military has considered the matter closed.
Twilight looked up from the paper she had spread over the table to find all her friends looking over her shoulder. She wrinkled her nose and folded the paper back up. She hated it when ponies read over her shoulder. Rarity sighed.
"Well, that was less than informative."
"The Equestrian military does a good job of keeping sensitive information out of the public spotlight."
Rainbow grunted and pawed at the floor.
"It didn't say what happened in the fort. I bet it was something bad. Wish I knew what happened."
Applejack shrugged. She was curious too, but information was not fortchcoming at the moment.
"You know what they say, Rainbow. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. Now, whatsay we all go get something to eat? I'm starved."
Naruto chewed on an apple slowly as he and Mac relaxed on the porch, watching the Crusaders scurry about the orchard trying to get their Cutie Marks in tree related activities.
"You know, they'd probably find their marks if they focused on what they were actually good at instead of treating it as a group activity."
Mac rolled his grass stalk around in his mouth and sucked in a bit of air.
They sat in silence for a few moments more before Naruto tossed the apple core as hard as he could toward the tree the girls were trying to climb. It splatted against the trunk making them all shriek and look at him with wide eyes.
"Find a safer activity, girls. I don't want y'all getting hurt."
They nodded as one and whisked themselves into the barn, away from his throwing arm. Mac chuckled to himself.
"'Y'all' huh? You're sounding more and more like an Apple every day."
Naruto snorted and gave him a sidelong glance.
"It's only because I hang around you hicks every day. Perhaps I should begin speaking in a Canterlotian accent again?"
"Only if ya want to have my horseshoe imprinted on yer forehead."
"Ouch. Such a violent threat. You country ponies are so uncouth."
"And you city ponies have sticks shoved so far up yer asses that you fart sawdust."
The two glared at each other for a moment before breaking into laughter and settling into silence again.
"I'm gonna help Fluttershy out with some of her animals tomorrow morning. I'll catch up with my chores that evening. Work late if I have to."
Mac quirked an eyebrow and gave Naruto a blank stare. The orange pony knew that look.
"It doesn't mean anything, Macintosh, so don't give me that look. I promised I'd help her and I don't like to break a promise, especially for something so simple. Not like you can't function without me for a few hours."
"AJ's gonna be pissed that yer skipping out on work."
"She's pissed at me all the time nowadays anyway. She's mad because I won't tell her why they called me a hero."
Mac sat in contemplative silence for a moment before asking the obvious question.
"Why did they call you a hero, Naruto?"
Naruto sighed and his shoulders slumped slightly. The Crusaders were stampeding toward the porch and he didn't want to tell Mac anyway, so they were a good diversion.
"It's because I did something that I'm not proud of. I can't tell you with the girls in earshot. Maybe another time. Hey! You three wipe your hooves before going in the house! You weren't raised in a barn!"
"Actually I was!"
"You know exactly what I mean, Applebloom!"
Naruto liked walking through the woods early in the morning. It was peaceful, the dew made his steps much softer, and the air just seemed cleaner and fresher. The nocturnal animals were turning in and the rest were just waking up. Early morning was a busy time if you knew what to look and listen for.
Being a large pony, his steps weren't as quiet as most, but he had been trained on how to purposefully walk to be able to sneak around. Sometimes to keep his skills sharp, he would sneak up on unsuspecting animals, just to see how close he could get before they'd notice him. Quite often, he got close enough that he towered over them.
But espionage was never his strong suit anyway. He was a tank. Point out the target and he'll bulldoze through it.
Leaves wet with dew just barely crunched as he plodded along, not particularly in a hurry to get to Fluttershy's. He didn't know when she woke up and got started so he figured he'd just wander around a bit, get used to the woods around her house. If it weren't for Applejack pointing him in the right direction, he'd have never known where to go. Fluttershy hadn't even told him where she lived.
He looked upward through the branches as the first rays of Celestia's sun broke through the boughs, sending a cascade of light glittering throughout the small clearing he was in. A fish jumped in the creek he was near and a squirrel chattered in the tree above him. He rolled an eye up when the squirrel began its chirping bark at him and gave the tree a little thump with his back hoof.
It shut the little bugger up for all of three seconds before it threw a nut at him in retaliation. Naruto chuckled and continued on his way. He hoped that Fluttershy's animals weren't all so grumpy in the morning.
He was almost uncertain that he had found her house as he walked into a sun-bathed yard with animals of all shape and size milling about. If not for the windows and door, he'd have assumed it was just a hill. Such a novel little house. As one all of the animals turned to look at him and ignored him just as quickly. He quirked an eyebrow in confusion. Surely these creatures weren't that domesticated, were they?
He cantered over the small bridge built over the creek he had followed to get there, careful not to step too hard lest his weight break it. Fluttershy didn't weigh near as much as he did after all. He took a deep breath as he stood in front of the door, prepared himself mentally for whatever task she may have for him, and knocked gently on the door.
After several moments, he knocked again. Then a third time. He glanced up at the sun with a wince. Surely she didn't sleep this late? She just didn't seem the type. And that was a strange cloud that the Pegaus ponies had conjured up. He didn't remember a forecast of rain. He rapped on the door a bit harder and called out.
"Miss Fluttershy? It's Naruto. I've come to help you today."
He still recieved no answer. He was starting to worry now. Shy she may be, but Fluttershy just didn't have it in her to be rude that he had seen.
"Miss Fluttershy? I'm coming in."
He eased the door open slowly, the brass hinges creaking a bit as he pushed on the oaken slab. His eyes adjusted to the dimmer light of the interior of her home and he called out again.
White assaulted his vision as something small and light and white attached itself to his face and began to pound away at his forehead. Amusing, for Naruto at least, he didn't even budge and whatever was trying to beat him up wasn't enough of a threat to do anything other than give him a small migraine. With a quick flip of his head, he sent whatever had tried to start a fight with him skyward. It twirled in the air for a moment, legs pinwheeling over each other, before he snatched it out of its flight with his mouth.
He gave it a once over and blinked when he realized he had a small rabbit held by the nape of its neck. It struggled mightily to free itself from his jaws before slumping in defeat. Naruto's blue eyes went half-lidded. This must be the infamous Angel Bunny, Fluttershy's insufferable little pet that he had heard about from Applejack.
"If I let you down are you gonna be a good boy?"
All he got in return was an upturned nose and crossed forelegs.
"I could always pitch you out the window. Your owner doesn't seem to be here to stop me."
Angel struggled again, lashing out with his back legs in a losing effort to kick Naruto. He bristled when Naruto chuckled.
"You know, I think Fluttershy spoils you too much, little guy. You're lucky I'm not around to make sure you get disciplined."
He sat Angel down on the floor and as soon as his teeth relinquished their hold, the rabbit was thumping his hoof with its foot and pointing to the door.
"You want me to go outside?"
More thumps against his hoof and more insistent pointing.
"Okay, okay, I'm going. Fluttershy obviously isn't in now anyway. Guess she forgot I was coming."
Angel bolted past him and out the door, pointing vigourously at the sky. Naruto poked his head out of the door and looked up. That dark cloud he'd seen earlier wasn't looking much like a cloud now that he actually looked at it.
He stepped outside and turned to look over the roof of the cottage, toward a mountain range where the smoke was originating from. Angel thumped his hoof again and Naruto closed his eyes, already dreading the answer.
"Just nod if the answer is 'yes', Angel. Did she and the rest of the Elements go to investigate the smoke?"
Angel Bunny nodded his head quickly and Naruto sighed.
"How am I always late to these things? It's not even that late in the morning..."
He started to gallop off toward the mountain, but stopped and turned back to Angel.
"Um...thanks for telling me where they went, little guy. But you ever attack me again like you did earlier and I'll dump you in the creek next time. You need to learn some manners."
Angel watched the large orange pony dart off and hopped back into the house. He kind of hoped that that pony wouldn't make it back. Too bad he couldn't speak the pony language. He might have warned him about the dragon...
Probably not though. No one threatened him ever...
Naruto pounded away at the dirt on his way to the base of the mountain. He had no idea how far behind them he was this time. He'd spent a lot more time in the woods than he had thought, just wandering around enjoying himself. If the girls had started out ahead of him a couple of hours ago, then they might already be halfway up the mountain.
The vibrations his running put out gave the smaller creatures enough warning to get out of his path and he thought he had even seen a bear dive aside once. He was in no mood to be trifled with and when he caught up to the six mares he was going to read them the riot act.
How could they be so stupid as to leave without letting him know? He thought Applejack out of all of them was more level-headed than that! She should have known better. And Fluttershy knew he was coming. She could have waited for him.
He'd had to go through town on his way to the mountain and had run across Spike, who was headed to Fluttershy's house to watch her animals. The little dragon had told him that the smoke was coming from a dragon that was taking a nap and Celestia had written Twilight to inform her that they needed to convince the dragon to move on.
He'd stood gobsmacked for a few moments. Had Celestia gone mad? One didn't just ask a dragon to move! They didn't care about the welfare of other beings! They were dragons. He was sure there were dragons older than Celestia. Some had been around since Discord's rule. And they were the biggest creatures outside of an Ursa Major. One of the few creatures that could take on an Ursa Major.
Luckily for most creatures, they were incredibly lazy and prone to inactivity if left alone. It was wiser to move yourself than to try to move a dragon if one settled near you. After all, you can't move if you've been eaten.
Spike had nearly been knocked off his feet as Naruto rushed past in his mad dash to the mountain and now he stood at the base where the path ended. He could tell that they'd been there, there were hoofprints everywhere...and what looked like a skid from where somepony had been dragged away. Had one of them been hurt already? He decided to follow the drag mark for the moment, just to make sure.
A half hour later, he stood just a few hundred feet above where he'd started and he was mightily puzzled. The drag mark ended where he stood and there were tic-tac-toe games scratched everywhere in the dirt.
What in the name of Celestia were those mares doing?
Confusion not-withstanding, he opted to just follow the hoofprints back onto the path at a healthy pace. He had to catch up to them before something bad happened. The sun glinted into his eyes as he looked up, trying to see if perhaps they were above him. No such luck. Deciding to forego the path, he tried to scale the side of the mountain itself but it was too slick and he could find nothing to plant his hooves on. And with no momentum to build up a leap, he was stuck following the path.
It got narrower in some places and he had to be very careful, his bulk working against him. He simply couldn't squeeze by like the girls could and in one place he had to lean against the cliffside and shimmy sideways, his back pressed against the rock. He was making time though and he was already halfway up the mountain. That's when the shit hit the fan.
One of the girls had screamed 'Avalanche', the word echoing down the mountainside, and soon enough the rocks inevitably followed suit. Naruto pressed himself into a crevice to avoid being knocked off the path and waited it out. Rocks and boulders of all sides crashed down around him but he managed to stay safe He could only hope that the girls had not been hurt. After a few seconds of no falling rocks, he poked his head out to check things out. Finding nothing else wrong, he ran as fast as he could up the path.
He was more determined than ever to catch them. It was Nightmare Moon all over again.
Fluttershy was utterly ashamed of herself. She was such a coward and right now proved it more than ever. She'd been afraid to tell her friends of her crippling fear of dragons before they started and now, when they needed her gift with animals the most, she absolutely refused to help. A small tear fell unbidden from her eye as she cowered behind the small rock outcrop.
She could hear Rainbow's wings beating rhythmically overhead, the sound of Applejack, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie chatting amongst themselves. A billow of smoke came rushing past and Twilight emerged from the cave, coughing and hacking. Rainbow landed beside her, scowling.
"So much for persuading him!"
"Well, now what do we do?"
Applejack's question was essentially the only thing on everyone else's minds. They all sat in contemplation for a moment before Rarity fluffed her mane and tail and cantered into the cave.
"What this situation calls for is some pony charm. Sit tight, ladies, I shall return shortly."
Fluttershy sighed and hunkered down again. Why couldn't they understand that dragons simply were not to be trifled with? You didn't persuade dragons, you didn't charm dragons...had they never read folklore before? Surely Twilight had, prodigous in the use of books as she was. Dragons were incredibly selfish and only looked out for themselves.
Not a few moments later a shriek emanated from the cave and Rarity rushed out, flustered beyond belief. After patting herself down and finding no injuries, a sour look crossed her face and she slumped down on top of a small boulder.
"I was this close to getting that diamond..."
"You mean 'getting rid of the dragon'?"
Rarity looked up at Twilight's glaring eyes before averting her own gaze.
A loud bleating noise broke the tension and Fluttershy poked her head back around her rock, only to sigh. Pinkie Pie was dressed up as a present, holding a whistle in her mouth, and had on swimming flippers for some reason. She merely shook her head and settled back down again. The only thing her friends were going to accomplish was making the dragon mad.
"Darling, you look ridiculous!"
"Exactly! Sharing a laugh is a surefire way of getting someone on your side!"
Pinkie wandered into the cave, calling out 'Hi' as she disappeared further in. The only sound after that was the sound of popping ballons, a rumble, and a low growl. Pinkie emerged without her costume and with only two flippers.
"Guess he's not a fan of laughter..."
Rainbow Dash flapped her wings and hovered above them.
"That's it! We've tried persuasion, charm...whatever it is Pinkie Pie does! It's time to stop wasting time! I'm going in!"
The others all called out for her to stop, but Fluttershy's gaze was fixated on the orange cannonball that had rocketed past her and was currently falling from the sky. They hadn't heard his declaration, his shout having mixed with that of Rainbow's nearly perfectly.
Naruto had had enough. He was tired of winding his way around the mountain and decided that the plateau he was on gave him enough of a running start to make the leap to the final ledge where the dragon's cave was sure to be. He could barely hear the sound of the girls arguing, but he knew where they were finally and since they didn't seem to be in a panic, nothing had gone wrong yet.
He bunched his muscles and stepped back to the very edge of the small precipice he was on before running and jumping like a spring had been coiled beneath him. He soared into the air and shot past the edge, angling himself so he'd land just outside of the mouth of the cave. He reached the apex of his jump and began his descent, readying himself for touchdown.
The girls all screamed when he hit the ground and leapt back away from him. Naruto shook the dirt from his mane and turned around to yell at them about their recklessness when an earthshattering roar spilled from the cave and Rainbow Dash came rolling toward him like a bowling ball. She crashed into his forelegs and lay there, looking up at him with her big magenta eyes. Naruto was about to lay into her as well when he noticed the light glint off of some huge eyes in the cave.
He knocked Rainbow to the side quickly, her small frame easily sent flying, just as the drgaon's arm slammed down onto the ground outside the cavern. It's head followed suit and it glared down at Naruto. The orange pony squared his shoulders and bared his teeth, his ears laid flat against his skull.
"You better think twice before coming out of that cave, bub. I'm not in the mood to play today."
The dragon's eyes narrowed and it huffed, smoke billowing from its nostrils. Its gaze was calculating and there was a cold intelligence behind those slitted golden orbs. It blinked once and leaned forward, dragging a bit of itself outside. It's voice was booming and seemed to carry forever.
"You think to challenge me, little one? The rainbow colored one has already kicked me and I am in a foul mood. I thought I had made myself clear to the first three that I did not wish to be disturbed."
"You're in Equestria, dragon, and therefore you are in the territory of Princess Celestia. She has decreed that you are to move and find a place elsewhere to sleep."
"Your princess holds no sway over where I sleep, pony."
Naruto ground his teeth, his blue eyed glare intensifying.
"Do not disrespect the Princess!"
The dragon regarded him with disdain before its eyes went half-lidded and it nodded to itself, almost approvingly.
"You. Little orange pony. You are the one known as the Griffon's Bane, aren't you?"
Naruto scowled at the dragon and its mouth curled into the tiniest of grins.
"Yes, I thought so. Your silence says everything, as does your body language. Let me tell you something, little pony. Dragons are one of the longest lived creatures on our shared planet. My species are not great in number and we dislike being around each other as a rule, migration notwithstanding. But those of us that live long enough learn to listen to the prattling of the smaller things."
The dragon pulled itself all the way out of the hole and stood to its full height, cracking its back and neck before leaning back down to regard Naruto closer.
"And what I learned from the griffons is that a certain pony is their worst nightmare. Not that stupid fairy tale they started about you, oh no no no. The truth is always much more fascinating, isn't it, Griffon's Bane?"
Naruto just kept glowering at the dragon while its grin kept getting larger and larger. He had almost had enough when he heard Rainbow Dash pipe up.
"I've heard that name. So, you are the Griffon's Bane. Why do they call you that?"
Naruto turned and frowned at her while keeping one eye on the dragon and keeping himself between the girls and their current predicament.
"Can't this wait, Rainbow? We're kind of busy here."
"Busy? Oh, I think we've got some time. They call him the Griffon's Bane because he ripped the wings off of those griffons all those years ago. Quite a feat for so young a pony. Honestly, I'm impressed. Such cruelty is almost unheard of in ponies. You would have made a fine dragon."
Naruto winced when the girls all gasped. He might not have any friends or a job after this. He looked back to the dragon and his face went blank. He was in full on Lieutenant mode now.
"Naruto, is it true?"
"Not now, Applejack. Be quiet."
"Now you listen here! I..."
He rounded on her, his eyes seeming to glow.
"I said be quiet!"
The girls all fell silent, shocked that he would speak to them in such a way. He was always so polite and gentle that it was literally a shock to see him act the way he was. Assured that they would be still for now, he locked eyes with the dragon once more.
"You have an...aura about you, little one. You're not an ordinary pony. It's making my fins stand on end. It's like facing another dragon...I don't like it."
Naruto just stood there silent for a moment before he finally spoke.
"Tell me, wyrm, what did Rainbow Dash do to you to get you off your gem bed?"
The dragon leaned down closer to Naruto, his nostrils blowing smoke all around the earth pony, and growled.
"Do not call me 'wyrm', little pony, or it could mean the death of you. I despise that term. And the rainbow one kicked me in my nose."
Before anyone could stop him, Naruto had spun around and bucked the dragon's nose as hard as he could, lifting the creature's head up to normal height and making it roar in anguish. The girls screamed and ran for shelter when the dragon's foot nearly stomped them all flat. Naruto reared up and slammed his hooves onto the index claw, snapping it in two.
The dragon roared again and flopped down onto its stomach, squashing Naruto beneath it. It laid there for a moment, grinding its stomach into the ground, before smirking smugly. A pony versus a dragon? Ridiculous. Now he had some others to eat for a nice snack, starting with that rainbow one. Before he could move however, he felt something bite into his belly. With a flap of his wings he rose into the sky to reveal Naruto hanging off of him by his teeth, like a bulldog, his coat filthy from being squashed flat. The pony let go of the scales and spat on the ground.
"Ugh, you taste horrible. No wonder ponies are vegetarians."
"On the other hand, ponies taste delicious! No wonder dragons are carnivores!"
The dragon slammed its claws down on the ground againNaruto avoided them by leaping onto and running up its arm. When he reached shoulder height, he leapt and delivered a flying kick right to the dragon's mouth, knocking one of its fangs right out. He landed on the ground and lowered himself to move quickly.
"Let's see you eat one when I knock all your teeth out!"
Before he could even move, the dragon's tail whipped around and slammed into him hard, sending him smashing against the stone that Fluttershy was still hiding behind. The large boulder cracked and splintered on impact, revealing the yellow mare, who screamed. The dragon continued to grind Naruto into the stone, compacting him with the hard tail as the soft stomach could not.
"Are those ribs I feel cracking, little pony, or is that the stone behind you? Your spine maybe? I'll grow that claw and that tooth back. Can you grow back a spine?"
Naruto ground his teeth. One or two of his ribs were surely cracked. He could feel the bruise forming already. He managed to slip his forelegs out of the bind they were in and grabbed the dragon's tail between them.
"I bet the vertebrae in your tail aren't as solid as you wish they were!"
With a violent wrench, he twisted the spaded tail and the sound of bones popping and creaking could be heard. A high pitched scream tore throughout the valley surrounding the mountain as the dragon's tail went limp.
"My tail! You broke my tail!"
Naruto coughed up a little blood and took a couple of shallow breaths. Yep, definitely some ribs cracked at least. Maybe broken.
"If you would have just left when asked, none of this would have happened!"
"I go where I please! And when I'm done with you, they're next!"
The dragon snatched Naruto up with his good hand and brought him up to face level, the two glaring at each other with much hatred.
"How dare you. HOW DARE YOU!"
Shocked, both the dragon and Naruto turned to look at a now furious and fast approaching Fluttershy, her wings beating harshly against the sky. She landed on the dragon's snout, forcing it to cross its eyes to see her.
"Listen here, mister! Just because you're big, doesn't mean you get to be a bully! You might breathe smoke and snort fire and be strong, but you do not, I repeat, YOU DO NOT HURT MY FRIENDS! You got that?"
The dragon and Naruto sat stunned for a moment before the big golden eyes swung to the pony held in their grip.
"...but the rainbow one kicked me...and the orange one...my tail..."
"And I am very sorry about that. But you're bigger than her and you should know better. And he..."
"Hush. You're not making things better."
Naruto chocked back what he was going to say when she turned her gaze on him. It wasn't like the last time. She was genuinely mad at him and her ire was focused without doubt this time. Her eyes glinted with anger and disappointment before she turned back to the dragon, her patented stare in full force.
"Now, listen. You know better than to sleep where your breathing can harm other creatures. You said it yourself that you're old enough. Now what do you have to say for yourself?"
Feeling very small under the much tinier pony's glare, the dragon stuttered.
"Don't you 'but I' me, mister. I asked, WHAT do you have to say for yourself?"
The dragon's lips quivered for a moment and, just for that moment, Naruto thought it was going to cry. It sniffled and tears formed and he had to resist the urge to punch the overgrown lizard to preserve its dignity. Fluttershy patted it on the nose and began to descend.
"Now, now, don't cry. You're not a bad dragon, you just made a bad decision. Now, put down the pony and go pack your things. You need to find another place to sleep."
The dragon looked down at Naruto and, with a wicked grin, decided to get one last dig in. It just let go and let him plummet toward the ground. Naruto hit hard, aggravating his ribs further, and grunted as the dragon lumbered back inside the cave. He took a couple of deep breaths and regained his bearings just in time to realize he was surrounded. Rarity took a step forward, looking very meek and unsure.
"Are you...are you alright?"
Naruto winced and stood up slowly.
"Not really. I might have a couple of cracked and bruised ribs. Nothing major though. I'll be fine in a few days. I've always healed abnormally fast. Do any of you have any tape for my ribs?"
He sighed when he saw the headshakes all around. Rarity shook her head as well, but then cocked it to the side.
"I have a scarf or two. Would that suffice?"
"It'll have to do until we get back to Ponyville. Just make sure to tie it tight so that I don't mess them up further."
The others watched as Rarity tied the scarves around his ribs gently, his wincing and hissing the only sound made. Finally, Rainbow could take it no more.
"So you really did it. You ripped the wings off of those griffons that attacked the fort. Why would you do something so horrible?"
Naruto sighed and sat down on his haunches, his head hanging low.
"Can't this wait until we get home?"
Applejack lifted her hoof and slammed it down.
"No, it can't. You've been avoiding the subject for weeks. Now we know that you are and we know why, but not the how. Spill it, Naruto. We ain't going anywhere til ya do."
Naruto sighed and looked away, out towards the town, where the black smoke still permeated the air.
"Fine. Might as well since that dragon decided to let the cat out of the bag. Yes, I tore off the wings of a griffon. One griffon, not all of them. I'm not proud of it. I cried after I did it. I was angry when I did it. Anger makes you do stupid things. Youth makes you do stupid things."
He bit his lip and winced when Rarity pulled on the end of the scarf, tugging just a little too hard for his taste.
"Rainbow, do you remember when I said that I fell asleep on duty one time and some bandits got past me?"
Rainbow nodded solemnly and spoke.
"They weren't bandits. They were griffons."
Naruto nodded. There was no need to state it as a question. She already knew.
"Yeah. They snuck into the fort on my watch and killed several of my comrades and my commanding officer. He had two little foals at home. He was a good stallion, strong and firm, but kind. He reminded me of Captain Starshine, just younger. He would always talk about his kids during downtime, how he missed them, how he couldn't wait for his tour to be over so he could go back home and see them. Those griffons ruined his chance of seeing them again. They destroyed that stallion's life. They took those kids' father away from them. Stole a husband from a wife."
The girls all looked away from him, seeing how painful it was for him to admit it.
"I hated them. We had to fall back, a small band of us, to the forest and wait for reinforcements. We sent our swiftest runner out, the one who hadn't been killed. I kept berating myself for letting them past, but the Sergeant kept telling me that they would have gotten through anyway, don't beat myself up about it. But it was my watch! My responsibility!"
They all jumped when he yelled and he looked back down at the dirt, tracing it with his hoof.
"It was my fault good stallions died. It was my fault that those kids had no father. It was my fault that his wife was now a widow. He was a good stallion. It should have been me. I was the one who fell asleep. Why did he have to die because of my mistake? I couldn't handle the guilt. I snuck off during the night. They probably thought I had deserted."
He paused again and heaved a huge sigh.
"I walked right up to the front gate and pushed it open. Stupidest way to get in right? I could hear them carousing on the other side about their victory. They had a couple of sentries in the watch towers, but no one was watching the main gate. There was a trick to lift the latch from the outside if you ever found yourself locked out, but it took four normal ponies to accomplish. I was strong enough to do it by myself. I snuck in and got behind the sentry in the east watchtower."
They were all listening intently now.
"I slammed my hooves into his temple and knocked him out cold, then I hogtied him and wrapped his beak with tape so he couldn't call for help. He was the easy one. They got more difficult from there. One by one, I took them all out. The last five were in a group and I beat them mercilessly. I nearly killed them. I wasn't holding back. I was seeing red. I lined them all up in the courtyard in a row and I went and got the bodies of my comrades and lined them up one by one, including my Captain. I made damn sure that they saw his face."
He began to breathe a little heavily as he remembered one of the most horrific scenes in his life.
"I said to them 'Look! Look at what you've done! He had a family. He had two kids! A wife! And you killed him because you didn't like a treaty? A stupid treaty! I'm going to show you what happens when you mess with the Equestrian military, when you mess with people I care about! You think we ponies are soft as feathers, don't you? I'll fix that problem. We'll see what happens when you don't have feathers period!"
Fluttershy gasped and put her hooves over her mouth. Naruto refused to look at her.
"I pulled the feathers off the leader one feather at a time and each time I did I made sure that they knew why. Then I went down the line and pulled the feathers off each of their wings. I wasn't going to kill them. I couldn't do that. That's what they had done. Instead, I was taking something from them, something they held dear. I took flight from them. By the time I got to the last feather, I was sobbing and shaking and bloody. But I still had one thing left to do. I ripped the leader's wings right off his back. He screamed. I felt terrified. What had I done? I wasn't any better than them."
He choked a little bit and closed his eyes.
"I went outside in the morning after I'd buried our fallen comrades and told the rest of my platoon that I'd settled the matter. Not long after that, the reinforcements showed up and we retook the fort officially. They called me a hero for what I had done, but I felt awful. I started to feel a little better when they told me that the griffons deserved it...until Captain Starshine arrived."
He let out a hollow chuckle that made Pinkie Pie cringe.
"When he heard and saw what I'd done, he beat me all across that fort, cursing at me the whole way. He told me that what I'd done was not what I'd been taught, that ponies didn't take revenge that way! And after he finished turning me black and blue and left me a sobbing mess, he sat down and pulled me into an embrace. I was so young, barely out of my foal years, and here I had done this horrible, terrible thing."
Rarity bit her lip to stem her tears and looked at Twilight and Applejack, who looked utterly lost.
"He told me not to buy into the hero business. Heroes always show up late after all the bad stuff has gone down and all they do is clean up. Soldiers are there to make sure the bad stuff never happens. Ponies view us as barbaric at times, and my little stunt wouldn't help, but soldiers do dirty things so civilians don't have to. Soldiers put their lives and honor on the line so civilians don't have to. Soldiers die so civilians don't have to."
He looked up and stared right into Applejack's eyes, his blue irises burning with conviction.
"He told me I was a good soldier. I'd done alone what would have taken a seige to do. I had done my duty, but heroes don't factor into the equation. Everything I'd ever trained for, studied for, had led to that moment and I performed like a soldier of Equestria. He was proud of me as a soldier, but sad that I was so young and had done such a shameful thing. I stole my own innocence."
He chuckled again and cut his eyes to Rainbow Dash.
"And you know what? His disappointment hurt me more than his blows ever did. I was so ashamed of myself. Why had I done that? It wasn't like I'd gone and killed them. No, I'd taken the time to take something from them. Something precious. Just like they'd taken something precious from my commander's family. I took their leader's wings and made them fear me. And that's when Starshine revealed what it was that was bothering me. I wanted them to feel pain."
His smoldering glare was lost on them as he stared into the dirt.
"I wanted them to feel the pain of loss. For some reason, that struck a resonance in me, like deja vu. It was like I'd heard it before, from someone else, in another lifetime maybe. I made them feel the pain of losing something dear. I wanted them to understand that pain. And once I understood what I had done, I was repulsed with myself. That wasn't me. It wasn't what I'd been taught. But I couldn't help a small part of me that felt vindicated in what I'd done."
He sighed one last time and looked up, catching the gaze of all of them.
"It was not a proud moment for me. It was revenge for my commander, delivered by me. The griffon attacks ceased after we released the prisoners back to the griffon kingdom and they started the fairy tale of the Griffon's Bane. I became something of a recognized figure amongst the military and a symbol of fear for griffons. And I will not apologize for that."
His lips set into a hard grimace, he caught the eyes of all the mares.
"I did what I did and I'm not proud of it. I beat myself up over it. I was beaten for it. I was called a hero. I was called a villain. I did a horrible, horrible thing, but good things came out of it for my country. I personally ensured that the commander's family was given every bit they deserved. I never met them personally, but I always made sure that they never wanted for anything. I've done my best to make amends."
Twilight's mind was racing. She knew she had lived a sheltered life in the castle. Was this what her brother dealt with? The fighting, the blood, the feeling of...of...helplessness? Of pride?
"But...but the griffons..."
"Inadvertantly, I saved their lives by what I did. Had we retaken that fort with reinforcements they would have all been slaughtered. By doing a cruel thing, I spared their lives. It doesn't make what I did any less horrible, but they lived to see another day."
"Is that what you tell yourself so you can sleep at night? You took that griffon's wings! You took flight from him! You took flight from all of them! Do you know how long it takes to grow feathers back?"
Naruto swung around to face Rainbow Dash, glaring blue meeting glaring magenta. Before either one could speak another word, the ground shook and the dragon emerged again.
"I'm old, rainbow pony, and dragons do not share the same notion of honor that you do. To us, sparing the life of an enemy is shameful. You ponies always held life as more sacred above all. Did he not leave them alive?"
"Then I fail to see your issue with what he has done."
"He stole their gift of flight!"
"And they stole life from his comrades. I consider that a fair trade. Now get out of my way."
They all watched as he beat his wings and rose into the air slowly, before soaring off in an undulating fashion. Rainbow watched him go and returned her glare to Naruto, who glared back just as fiercely.
"Now, can we get off this goddamn moutain? My ribs are killing me and it's getting dark."
Naruto separated from the girls when they got back to town, giving Rarity her scarves back and heading off to the doctor's to get properly bandaged up. Once he was all fixed up and had listened to Nurse Redheart badger him about his irresponsibility with his body, he headed home. At least, he hoped it was still his home. He might not have a home or a job now.
His pace was slowed and by the time he arrived back at the house it was past dark. He didn't want to have to explain what had happened that day anyway. He just wanted to sleep. His door creaked open and he laid down gingerly on the bed. He sighed and closed his eyes. This might be his last night in this bed.
His eyes couldn't have possibly been closed for long before he heard his doorhinges creak once more and it took everything he had not to sigh. Soft hoofsteps came just within his bed and a muffled thump signified that whoever was in there with him had sat down. He cracked one eye open and looked at the silhouette, a hat framed against the bright moon.
Applejack sighed and looked out the window.
"I don't hate ya, Naruto. I want you to know that. None of us do. We all talked about it while you were at the doctor's. We were just all shocked that ya actually did what ya did back then. What ya did was brutal and merciless. But I got to thinking about it and if that would have been Mac or Granny or, Celestia forbid, Applebloom...I'm not sure that I wouldn't have ripped their wings off myself. I just can't say what I personally would have done...and neither can the rest of the girls."
She looked up to find the moon glinting off his blue eyes, the only thing shining in the room besides that gem around his neck, but he didn't speak. She sighed. He probably felt he'd said enough that day.
"It weren't right of us to judge ya like that. And it weren't right of us to badger you like we did all this time. You said you weren't proud of what ya did and that should have been enough for us all. I got to thinking about it and you were just a few years older than Applebloom when ya did that. It must have been so hard for ya...growing up like ya did...doing some of the things you did...I don't even want to know what all you did now..."
Her lips quivered a bit when he still didn't answer. She hated silence, especially when she was admitting fault.
"Look, I ain't no good at apologies...so...I'm sorry. I know there's some things that you want to keep in the past and I won't bother you about that anymore. Lord knows that you don't bug me about my past. And it didn't help none our prides none to be told to leave you alone by a dragon that you'd just fought on account of us. I just want you to know that you'll always have a home here and...well, I'm sorry."
She looked up into his eyes hopefully.
"You really suck at apologizing,"
He smiled when her cheeks puffed out and she growled.
"Especially when there was nothing to apologize for to begin with."
And just like that the anger was gone, replaced by confusion.
"Applejack, I made my peace with what I did a long time ago. I had to look at myself in the mirror for a long time after that and try not to feel dirty and like a monster. I've worked past it and forgave myself for it. Captain Starshine told me that the first step to moving on is to forgive yourself. I just want to keep it in the past. I'm still a bit upset with you all, but I'll get over it soon. I just don't want to talk about it anymore."
Applejack rubbed her left foreleg across her right nervously.
"Yeah, about that...I kind of promised Rarity that you'd come by for tea tomorrow, since you can't work with your ribs cracked. She...wants to talk to you."
Naruto didn't even bother to mask his sigh as he sat up in bed, the covers pooling around him.
"Applejack, I'll be fine in a couple of days. I heal really fast. I can do other things."
"Cracked ribs don't heal that fast, Naruto."
"Mine do. I've always healed fast. Do you know how many times I've sprained my ankle in the field, waited fifteen minutes, and then gone back to plowing or bucking?"
Her jaw dropped slightly.
"I thought y'all was taking a break them times!"
"I don't do breaks. When you see me stop, its because I'm taking time to heal up."
"That's insane! Nopony heals that quickly!"
Naruto shrugged and winced when his ribs ached.
"I do. I can feel them knitting up right now. I told you, AJ, I don't know where I came from. I'm not normal though. And I think the Princess knows more than she lets on but won't tell me."
"Well, your freakish healing ability aside...which I thought was a trick my eyes played on me back at the ancient castle...you still have to go to Rarity's tomorrow. I told Mac that I'd accompany you there so you don't try to make a run for it. No offense, but you don't seem the tea type."
"Pffft...Rarity is a delight to be around and I happen to like tea. I hope she has herbal green tea. Very soothing."
"Ugh...very bitter. Give me coffee any day."
"And you say the tea is bitter? You're strange, Applejack."
"Says the pony that decided to tackle a dragon. You're touched in the head."
They smiled at each other, the moonlight reflecting just enough of their faces to let the other know that they were grinning.
"Hey...Naruto...why didn't you ever tell us about the Griffon Crisis?"
"I told you before, Applejack. It's not one of my best moments. There's other things that I haven't told you either. Just let it be."
She stood for a moment in contemplation before nodding solemnly.
"Well, I'll say 'goodnight', Naruto. You better get some rest for putting up with hoity-toity Rarity tomorrow."
"Goodnight, AJ. Try not to kick any apples at dragons in your dreams."
"Consarn it! I admitted it was stupid, okay? No need to rub it in!"
Applejack expected many things in her life when she woke up. She expected to grumble about having to get up. She hated mornings. She expected to gasp when the cold water hit her face. She expected Mac or Granny or sometimes even Naruto to have coffee ready by the time she got downstairs. She expected to have to drag Applebloom out of bed.
She even expected to walk outside on the porch some mornings to see Naruto doing that 'meditating' thing he did. She'd asked Twilight about it before and her studious friend had informed her that it helped ponies center themselves and look inwardly for a sense of calm. Some used it for soul-searching. She'd even said some martial artist ponies used it to focus themselves for a fight. Applejack had always figured that was the case for Naruto.
She poured herself a cup of hot coffee, mildly wondered where everyone was, and put the mug on a dish before walking outside to watch the sun rise on the porch. She backed out the door slowly, being careful not to spill her coffee, and bumped into the mountain of flesh known as her brother. The cup jiggled on the saucer for a moment, but she regained control and growled as she sat it down.
"Dadgummit, Big Mac. You nearly made me...spill...my..."
Her voice died in her throat when she saw what was going on out in the yard. Big Mac sat transfixed, little Applebloom sitting in front of him and Granny in her rocker, watching the scene unfold before them. Applejack had seen Naruto meditate before, but now he was doing something she'd never seen.
He was glowing.
His bandages had been cast aside and he sat in his familiar meditation stance, his eyes closed and hooves clasped in concentration. His breathing looked steady, so Applejack knew he was in a trance. That wasn't what worried her. It was the wisps of golden magic that curled around him like flames, dancing in the light of the morning sun.
AJ gasped and was about to call out to Naruto when a large red hoof pressed against her mouth and Big Mac shook his head.
"Don't. You'll ruin his concentration."
Her eyes betrayed her unspoken question and Macintosh slowly removed his hoof.
"Just be quiet and watch. He's healing."
She cut her eyes back across the yard, watching with great fascination as the yellow wisps grew in number and began to snake across his body.
"How is he healing? Earth ponies can't use magic, Mac!"
Macintosh shrugged helplessly.
"I don't know, sis. He tried to explain it to me one time, but all I came away with is that it's something only he can do. Now watch."
She watched with bated breath, her coffee forgotten, as the yellow flames grew in intensity before washing over him completely and disappearing in a flourish, as if they'd been extinguished from the inside out by a great wind. Naruto's eyes opened and, just for a moment, she could have sworn they glowed like a unicorn's in the presence of too much magic.
Naruto let out a contented sigh and reared up on his back legs quickly, pawing at the air with his forelegs and stretching out his newly healed muscles and ribs as he whinnied. He came back down, stretching his body this way and that before realizing he had an audience. His ears flattened sheepishly against his head.
"Oh...did you all just see that?"
"Young'un puts on quite a light show."
"Yep, we saw quite a bit."
"Mister Naruto, why were you glowing?"
Naruto rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly and looked away.
"Well, I thought you all had seen me meditate before, but I guess you've never seen me concentrate my magic that way. I have the ability to focus my magic inside me to do things like enhance my strength and accelerate my healing past its already insane levels."
Applebloom cocked her head to the side, thoroughly confused.
"But...Miss Cheerilee said that only unicorns can use magic like that. And they need their horn to make it work."
"And that's normally true. But I'm a bit different than most Earth ponies, little one. Nopony knows where I came from or who my parents were. I just showed up in Canterlot one day. Princess Celestia and a few of her court unicorns confirmed that I have a huge amount of magic, but since I have no focal point, like a horn, I can't really use it."
"Then how were ya able to use it then?"
He smiled and patted her on the head lightly.
"I trained with some of the mystics in the castle and they taught me to look inward for the magic. It's a shame I can't use more of what I have. I've even gone inside my own mind and seen the magic."
She looked up at him with a slack jaw and wonderous eyes.
"You can see inside yourself? Wouldn't that hurt your eyes?"
Her face grew a bit hot when he laughed and she heard her siblings chuckle as well.
"Not like that, Applebloom. I mean that I can see a...um...how should I put this? I can see a...vision? Yes, something like that. I can see myself inside my mind. Did that make sense?"
She shook her head quickly and he sighed.
"I'll try to think of a way to explain it better, little one. In the meantime, just know that I can do it, okay?"
"Okay, Mister Naruto!"
Now that that was out of the way, he turned to the three elders on the porch. Applejack had an eyebrow quirked, waiting for a more detailed explanation. Granny Smith seemed amused at the whole thing. Macintosh...just looked bored. But Naruto knew that behind that facade the big red pony's mind was whirring, processing the information. He smiled at them and nudged Applebloom toward the house with his nose.
"Let's go inside for some coffee and I'll answer what questions I can. You look absolutely ready to burst, Applejack."
"So...lemmee get this straight. You can use magic to heal yerself."
"You use it to enhance your strength, but you do that subconc...sub...without you knowing. And only in times of danger."
"You think that with enough training you can use all your magic one day. At any time you need."
"But you're afraid to try because you hear a voice telling you that you're 'not ready' just yet."
"So, why didn't you do that after you fought Nightmare Moon to heal yerself faster? Were ya just being lazy and didn't want ta work?"
"Can you say anything other than 'mhm'?"
"...I hate you sometimes."
Naruto chuckled at the glaring, Stetson wearing pony and sipped at his coffee again, savoring the hot bitterness.
"I know you do, AJ. In a nutshell, that's pretty much it. Just imagine how strong I could be if I could channel all that magic into my strength."
Macintosh swallowed the rest of his coffee and smacked his lips.
"That's a frightening thought. Yer already strong enough."
Granny snorted and shook her head.
"Ain't no such thing as too much strength, boy. Why, in my day, we used to could crush boulders without all this fancy, schmancy magic..."
The three younger adults tuned her out with fond smiles as she launched into a story of how she and the siblings' grandfather once flattened a whole mountain with just their tails. Applejack leaned her head on a hoof and looked out the window.
"Everytime I think we have you figured out, Naruto, you just give us more questions that we need answers to. I always knew that strength of yours couldn't be natural."
"Actually, I don't use the magic when I'm working normally. We all have a small amount of magic in us, Applejack, even you and Macintosh. How do you think Cutie Marks just appear? Magic. Earth ponies have magic in them, it's just used differently than unicorns. Same with pegasi. They use the magic to fly and move the clouds."
Macintosh hummed and Applejack swung her head back around to look at him.
"I ain't never heard it put like that. Who told you that?"
"I read it in a book. I'm not a unicorn, but I've studied the teachings of Starswirl the Bearded extensively."
"Starswirl the Bearded. He was a magician for the Royal Court back before Princess Luna got all crazy. He was a pioneer in many spells that unicorns still use today and he was a great theorist and practioner of the more esoteric arts."
Mac and Applejack blinked and stared at him blandly.
"I didn't get any of that. Mac?"
"You should talk to Twilight sometime, Naruto. She could probably gab to ya all night long about that kind of stuff. Or maybe Rarity. I'd bank on Twilight Sparkle though."
Naruto smiled and nodded as he moseyed to the door.
"I'll keep that in mind. Now, since I'm all healed up ahead of schedule, I guess I'll just get my buckets and..."
"Uh uh. No sir."
Naruto winced and froze with his mouth on the door handle. He glanced back over his shoulder at a now miffed Applejack.
"You still got the day off and I promised Rarity you'd be by for tea today. You're going. No arguments."
The rust-orange stallion snorted and glared at the snickering Macintosh, whose eyes practically twinkled with mirth.
"But Applejack, I can work the morning at least."
"No. I'm the Element of Honesty, I said you'd be coming, and you ain't gonna make a liar out of me. Now git!"
He scrambled out the door just as she sent an apple flying at him, but not before plucking it out of the air with his teeth and winking. Applejack growled and sat back down, nursing her coffee. Macintosh took a bite of his own apple and smiled.
"Never a dull moment with him around, huh sis?"
AJ grinned and tipped her hat downward over her eyes.
Naruto set his mouth into a forced smile as he knocked on the door to the Carousel Boutique. He was going to have to step up his game around these fillies sooner or later. Being thrust into awkward social situations was not his idea of a good time and, while he enjoyed interacting with Applejack's friends, he would rather be working. If he was working, he couldn't get in trouble.
The door glowed for a moment and opened to reveal Rarity practically beaming at him.
"Naruto, darling! Come in, come in! It's so good to see you and...where are your bandages?"
He stepped inside cautiously, as if the decor would come alive and get him, which set Rarity to giggling, forgetting her question for the moment.
"I declare, you're worse than Applejack was at first. She was terrified of my shop, always thinking that I was going to shove her into this dress or that."
"You do have a somewhat...quirky reputation, Miss Rarity."
"Just 'Rarity'. No 'Miss'. I insist."
Naruto was going to argue, but he knew where it would end up eventually. They'd argue, she'd plead, she'd win. She was a pro at getting her way.
Rarity clapped her hooves together with glee and let out a merry laugh.
"Excellent! Now, come, come. Into the kitchen! I have tea ready and then we're going to the spa to meet Fluttershy!"
Naruto blinked swiftly, confused.
"Oh, Applejack said that I had you for the whole day and this is the day that I normally meet Fluttershy for our weekly spa treatment. Sooo...I thought I'd bring you along and treat you to a good time. Trust me, you'll feel right as rain after this."
"I'm not one much for pampering, Rarity."
She rounded on him, her bottom lip set into a pout.
"Do I really have to do this? You're going, one way or the other."
Naruto sighed and nodded, relenting.
His eyes narrowed at her smirk and she batted her eyelashes at him in victory.
"Good boy. Now, we've got some time before we have to meet Fluttershy, so follow me. Tea and cookies!"
Aaaand...done. For the moment. I shall have more soon hopefully. If not, I'll just make the chapter bigger again. Hope you enjoyed it! Let me know what you think!