It was late afternoon in the Royal Academy in Canterlot. A young unicorn student named Pawise sat alone in his room, going over his extensive notes. His courses had turned out to be more difficult than he’d expected, and his teachers had been far more demanding. But it would all be worth it, if he could graduate and become a xenobiologist.
He had become something of a recluse these past few weeks, putting all his efforts into understanding the complicated formulas and intense memorization of facts his profession required. Rubbing his temples, he remembered the conversation he’d had with his parents the day he’d left their home in Fillydelphia to come here. There had been some conflict, for it did not help they had not readily approved of his career choice. He had tried to patiently explain the difference between a xenobiologist and a zoologist.
“I won’t just be studying animals, Dad, so I most likely will not be working in a zoo.”
His father huffed, “We Unicorns do not grub in the dirt with snakes and spiders like the earthers do, son. I just want better for you.”
Pawise sighed, “This is what I was born to do, Dad. You were with me when I got my Cutie Mark, and you saw how excited I was. Even though that was a while ago, my feelings haven’t changed.”
His father smiled sadly. “Yes, I know. Even so, sometimes I cannot help but wonder if the Marks are always accurate. He came forward unexpectedly gave his son a hug.
“Follow your dream, your mother and I will always be proud of you.”
His mother, ever the quiet mare, simply smiled up at her son and kissed his cheek. “Take care of yourself, and write whenever you can.”
“I will Mom. I love youse both.”
That had been four years ago. Now, all of his efforts were crowded down into this one space of time: all the studying, all the hard work, everything would be decided in the morning. He doubted he would sleep at all this evening.
He took a moment and stared out the window. The last rays of the setting Sun shone down upon the circular courtyard below his room. There, upon a green lawn studded with flowers and ancient oaks, he could see other students laughing and studying in groups. He felt a pang of envy as he watched them.
They must be third year and below students, he thought to himself. Everypony he knew that was facing tomorrow’s final exams wasn't in sight.
Even before he had become a student of xenobiology, he’d always been fascinated by the other races and lifeforms that made up Equestria. Unfortunately his professors gave less credit for enthusiasm than for knowing the subjects. So even though he did not lack for passion, his possible lack of precise information had caused his insomnia the past few nights.
The hour grew late as he yawned and closed his last book. Soon, Princess Luna would begin her nightly vigil through her subjects’ dreams. Some she would bring nightmares, others, inspiration. He fervently hoped she would grant him the latter, for he would need every bit of inspiration tomorrow when he faced his final trials.
The next morning Pawise awoke early, surprised he had actually slept. He got a quick breakfast, wolfed it down, and hurried to the examination hall. He wasn’t the first one to arrive. Several other students were there before him, but none were allowed to speak to each other. The stone-faced proctors guarding the doors saw to that. The examinees could only glance nervously at each other, while doing their best not to be seen trying to listen to the ordeal going on inside the room.
Suddenly the doors were opened, and a very pale-looking pony walked out. Pawise barely had time to register the hopeless look on the student’s face before he heard his own name called.
“Mister Pawise Pansophy!”
He took a deep breath and walked in. The heavy wooden doors closed behind him with a ‘boom’.
His four examiners were seated on a raised platform before him. The room was large and well lit by the sun streaming in the side windows, yet the warmth did not abate his nervousness. He took his place before them. The ticks from the large clock on the wall behind him sounded like thunderclaps in the silence as the examiners watched him without speaking for several moments.
Finally they began.
“What are the genus names for the dragon? Give us three examples.”
Pawise’s brain seemed to have locked down, and at first could not recall his own name, let alone the information he needed. But then he recalled how much he given up and how much he had yet to gain by succeeding.
He squared his shoulders and said, “Three names are the common draco volans, the draconis Occidentalisfound in western regions, and the draconis Orientalis in the far east.”
The four gave no indication if the answers were right or wrong. They only scribbled on their notepads and continued to ask him questions. This went on for over two hours, and when it was over Pawise felt he’d been squeezed dry.
At the end, Professor Stonespire simply looked down at him over his glasses and said, “That will be all, Mister Pansophy. You may go.”
Pawise thanked them for their time, and walked back out the way he’d come, pausing only to muster up a weak smile for the anxiously waiting students outside. As drained as he was, he felt very good about his chances.
He soon found his way to the circular courtyard for some much needed time in the sun. It seemed as if he had been studying forever in his room, but now, for better or for worse, he was done.
He found a nice spot under a tree and stretched out on the soft grass. Freedom! As he lay there basking in the sunlight and taking occasional nibbles from the grass, a shadow fell over him. He shaded his eyes and looked up to see his friend Pettlerose standing there. She was another unicorn like himself, with a curly magenta mane and glasses.
She smiled down at him and asked, “Enjoying yourself?”
“YES!” he exclaimed. “Nothing to do now but wait for the results.”
She seated herself next to him and sighed. “I wish I had your confidence. I think they deliberately made us wait just to rattle us. And it may have worked on me.”
Pawise sat up and looked at her. “Do you really think you did that poorly?”
She absently rubbed a hoof in a circle on the grass and said, “I don’t know. I’m the first one in my family to get accepted here. My Mom, my Dad, my little sister, they’re all counting on me to graduate with honors.” She sighed again. “It’s a lot of pressure.” She indicated her Cutie Mark, a white scroll with a yellow quill pen across it. “This tells me I’m supposed to be some sort of scholar, so I have to succeed!”
Pawise looked at his own Cutie Mark, three blue paw prints against his own golden brown coat. “At least yours indicates that your purpose involves studying. You should have seen the look on my Dad’s face the day I got this!”
“Was he angry?”
“No, just very surprised. Shocked might be a better term. He always wanted me to follow him in finance. I’m glad I didn’t, because I would have hated it.” Then he added, “Cheer up, Pettlerose. Just being accepted here is an honor in itself, or so my Dad says. And you made it the entire four years, so you’ll more than likely graduate!”
She smiled wryly at him. "Always the literal one, aren’t you?” She stood and stretched, then said, “Why don’t we all meet at the Apple Bottom Bar after we get our results? That should be by tomorrow, right?”
“That’s right, no later than tomorrow. Whom should we invite?”
“I’m thinking Sunbeam and Pigeonhooves, of course. Let’s keep it small, because I don’t want anypony else with us if the worst happens.”
“You worry too much! We’ll all make it, and the first round is on me!”
The next day, Pawise and his friends were celebrating at the bar. They had all passed. It had been touch and go for a moment when he’d feared Mrs. Ironwing, his Mythology professor, had failed him. She and he had not liked each other, and the two of them had gotten into some rather spirited debates in class more than once. In the end, she had been tough but fair, actually giving him some of his highest final grades.
Now Pawise and his friends were finally able to let their manes down. The rustic bar was filled end to end with celebrants, and the polished wooden tables groaned under the weight of countless tankards of cider beer. Other graduates were crowded into the place, whooping and hollering and having the time of their lives. A DJ was playing countless records with a thumping bass, as some danced and shouted. The noise was almost deafening.
Pawise ended up buying the first round, and the second and third! He felt such an enormous weight off his shoulders, he was almost giddy. His friends shared his enthusiasm.
Pettlerose, for all her concern, had scored the highest among them, and had actually been asked to give one of the commencement speeches at the graduation ceremony a week from now. Her cheeks were red, not only from the drink but from the pleasant image of the look on her family’s faces once she broke the news.
Along with the announcements they had all passed, they had each been given their assignment scrolls, which would tell them where they would be working for their post-graduate endeavors. The scrolls had lay almost forgotten on the table, but now they opened them one by one and compared their fortunes.
“You’re lucky, Sunbeam!” declared Pettlerose. “How’d you get assigned to Saddle Arabia? You must be related to Celestia herself!”
Sunbeam, ever living up to her name, smiled brightly and replied, “No luck involved, just good grades and a love of those horses! Especially the stallions!” Here she blushed. “Did I just say that last part out loud?”
The others laughed good naturedly.
“Oh sure, but we all knew that!” answered Pawise.
If anypony showed the slightest discomfort, it was Pigeonhooves, who in spite of his laughter could not help giving Sunbeam a wistful look over his mug. After a long pull at his drink to cover his embarrassment, he said “It’s your turn, Pawise. Open your scroll and don’t keep us in suspense.”
“Well, mine isn’t as glamorous as Saddle Arabia,” said Pawise after a quick scan. “I’ve been assigned to the Everfree Forest to study the unique wildlife. I’ve always wanted to go there, I’ve heard so much about it!”
The music stopped as the DJ scratched the record off. The bar grew quiet. All eyes were on Pawise as he looked around and said, “Did I say something wrong?”
It was Pettlerose who finally broke the silence. “Ponyville. You’re going to Ponyville.”
Pawise looked around. Everypony was staring at him. “What’s wrong with Ponyville?” he asked.
Sunbeam answered, “It’s a backwater earth pony town. Unicorns are not in charge there.”
Pawise held up a hoof. “Hang on. Isn’t there a Princess living there? And didn’t she start out as a unicorn?”
Pettlerose answered, “Yes, but she doesn’t behave like any of the other princesses. From what I hear, she doesn’t even have a castle!”
Pawise’s brow furrowed. “What’s wrong with that? Maybe she just doesn’t want to draw attention to herself.”
Pigeonhooves finally entered the conversation. “Can you imagine what things would be like if PrincessCelestia didn’t have a castle? Or even Princess Cadence? This Ponyville princess is upsetting the status quo.”
Pawise felt his temper rising. “Maybe the “status quo” NEEDS to be upset!” He shook his head. “Youse all sound like my Dad.”
Pawise’s Fillydelphian accent became more pronounced whenever he was excited or angry, and normally delighted his friends, but nopony was in the mood for laughter. As he spoke these words, a pang of anxiety shot through him. His parents would be here in a few days, and if ponies he thought were his friends felt this way, he could only imagine his Dad’s reaction.
The music resumed as he got up and stormed out, taking his scroll with him.
Days later, after the ceremony, he broke the news to his parents in his room.
“PONYVILLE?!” his father exploded. What did you do to get assigned there?"
Pawise winced at his Dad’s outburst, but was determined not to be dissuaded. It was as he’d expected, and he blamed himself for not knowing the social implications that were hoof in hoof with that section of the country.
“I didn’t do anything, Dad. It’s a great opportunity to learn about exotic fauna. I won’t be there to socialize or do anything other than my studies.”
“For how long?” his father asked.
“I don’t know, it could be months or years. It depends on what I discover. Besides, there are plenty of unicorns in Ponyville, I just found out.”
"Yes,” his father growled, “plenty of outcasts consorting with earthers and flightless pegasi and Celestia knows what else besides.”
Pawise sighed. He dearly loved his Dad, but he hated this part of him. He could point out that there was a princess making her home there that had been sent by Celestia herself, but it probably wouldn't make any difference to him.
His mother Willow spoke up. “Now Lore, it couldn’t be as bad as all that. Why else would the Academy send him there?”
“‘Why else’ indeed…?”
As he started to make a retort of his own, his mother smoothly interceded. “Come on, Son. Let’s you and I go talk in private.”
The anguish he felt in being rejected not only by his friends but also by his Father was almost too much for him, but he bit his lip and followed his mother. As they made their way out into the hallway, the place was abuzz with happy graduates packing off their own belongings as they prepared to leave. At that moment, Pawise wished he could be anypony but himself.
Once he and his mother got away from the crowds, he felt slightly better. She had always a calming influence on him and his Dad, a trait he was deeply grateful for now. Indeed, she had this affect on just about everypony she met, as her Cutie Mark was a dove symbol of peace.
Finding a relatively quiet spot away from others, she asked him, “Are you going to be alright?”
Pawise took a moment before answering her. He knew his Dad loved him, but he also knew this career path had displeased him. Regardless, he wouldn’t let his Dad’s attitude change him.
“I’m just fine, Mom. But what’s wrong with Ponyville? Why is Dad and almost every other unicorn I know so upset about my going there? And what did he mean about ‘outcasts’?”
“It’s hard to explain, son. Ponyville is not like any other place in Equestria, where the three races mingle so freely. Your father is a bit old fashioned, I’m afraid.”
“But what about outcasts? I suppose he’s referring to the other unicorns there, but what’s wrong with them?”
“Son, you’ve always had your head in a book. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, but you’ve remained somewhat of an innocent when it comes to pony relations. We unicorns haven’t always been on the best of terms with the others, and there are some who still feel we should be the ones that have the final say in everything that happens. Just as the pegasi and the earth ponies keep mostly to themselves, so do we unicorns. Ponyville is the only town that was started by the earth ponies, but freely associate with all others. And I think that’s wonderful!”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Mom. I was about to ask how you feel about my going there.”
She smiled at him and said, “For my sake I’m glad you are expanding your horizons, but for your sake I’m worried you may be judged by association. Please don’t concern yourself with mine or your father’s opinions. He’s a gruff old unicorn but he loves his son.”
Pawise grimaced. “He has a funny way of showing it sometimes, Mom.”
Willow looked sadly at him. “Your Father has had to fight his way to where he is now all his life. I think it’s made him a bit callous, for he feels every situation is either win or lose. Please try to remember that, Son. He can’t help it.”
Pawise was silent, going back in his mind to all the disagreements between he and his Dad. He tried to put them in the perspective his mother had asked, but it was difficult. Their relationship always seemed better just so long as Pawise did what his father wished. As he had gotten older, that had become harder and harder to do.
Willow watched her son as he sat and thought silently. Pawise noticed her look and recognized it. Sure enough, she smiled and said, “You do recall my saying how very much alike your Father and you are? You two are the most stubborn, single-minded, and exasperating, yet dearest ponies I know.”
Pawise smiled back, and said, “Yes, you’ve said that before. He and I may look alike, but I’m not growing a beard and mustache!”
“Oh I don’t know,” she said, “I think you’d look very distinguished with a beard.”
The picture of himself with a grey beard and mustache at his age lightened his mood considerably. “All I would need then would be a monocle!”
She punched him. “You know your Father doesn’t wear a monocle!”
Pawise laughed and said, “I know, I know! But he could use one!”
Willow smiled at the thought, and then asked, “Are you ready to go back?”
Pawise sighed and said, “Sure Mom. We may as well get this over.” With that they got up and went back to his room.
Willow entered first and gave her husband a kiss. Lorewise smiled at her, and then addressed them both. “You two have been talking about me, haven’t you?”
Willow laughed and said, “Why, were your ears burning?”
“Not as such.” He then addressed his son. “I have been thinking since you two left, and I realize whatever has happened is not entirely your fault.”
Pawise waited for more from him, but after a moment realized that was as close as his Dad would come to an apology. He sighed and asked, “So you’re cool with me going to Ponyville?”
His Father scowled and said, “I most certainly am not “cool” with you going there! You should have been sent to someplace like the forests in Ponygonia or somewhere else exotic. Ponyville is so close the Academy could send one of their own research teams, if they’re so intent on learning about the Everfree. You deserve better.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Dad, but I think I can make something good come of this assignment. Close or not, the Everfree has never been completely explored. Maybe I can discover animals or fantastic plant life nopony else has seen.”
Lorewise grew angry and said, “Didn’t I just say ‘you deserve better’? You march right up to the assignments pony office and DEMAND they give you a better posting!”
Pawise raised his voice as well and said, “I’m not going to do that Dad! Even if I did, what makes you think they’d listen to me? I’m just a grad student, not part of the Royal Council!”
His Father retorted, “Don’t you see this is a battle of wills? You HAVE to fight for what you want, nopony gives it to you!”
“Lore, please…” his wife began, but he cut her off.
“We’re leaving! If he hasn’t learned by now the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows he never will!” With that he stalked out the door.
Willow watched him go, and then turned to her son. “Remember what I said earlier, and don’t hold this against him, Son. Promise me.”
Pawise clenched his teeth in frustration. “I can’t promise anything about him right now, Mom. I’m sorry.”
She nodded and said, “Yes, I know. But I had to ask. I’ll talk to him, and we’ll all get through this. You do your best out there.” She hugged him tightly, kissed his cheek and then left.
After she had gone Pawise paced his room for the better part of an hour. He really did not need all this grief, first from his friends, and now from his Father. Then his resolve hardened: he would go to the Everfree Forest and surprise them all!
Early the next day, Pawise went to the train station alone. All around him, ponies were rushing here and there, shuffling their bags, checking tickets and giving a final kiss to their loved ones. Like most buildings in Canterlot, the train station was brightly painted and looked almost new, with the Princesses’ Sunburst and Sickle Moon insignias featured prominently throughout.
Just as he was about to board, he heard his name called. He looked around, and to his surprise there were his three friends, hurrying to catch up to him before he left.
“What are youse guys doing here?” he asked with irritation.
Pettlerose was the first to speak. “We just wanted to say we’re sorry for the way we treated you the other day, and we wish you well.”
Pawise softened at this and said, “Thanks. You have no idea how much I needed to hear that.”
“And we needed to say it. You are one of us no matter where you go. Take care of yourself, and write sometimes,” she said.
Pawise smiled at that, and asked, “Even if the return address is…Ponyville?!”
Sunbeam grinned and replied, “We decided we don’t care where you are or what you’re doing. We like you, “Fillydelphia Boy!”"
Pigeonhooves punched him playfully on the shoulder and said, “You just let them know you’re from the Royal Academy. I only wish I could see the look on those Earth pony faces when they first hear your accent.”
Pawise laughed and said, “It’s not that bad, is it?”
Pettlerose giggled. “We’ve heard worse!”
Pawise was just coming up with a fitting rejoinder when the conductor yelled, “All aboard!” so instead he hugged them all, levitated his bags and said, “See youse later!”
This time they all broke into good natured laughter and waved goodbye.
As the train clipped along, Pawise carefully went over his notes. He had been assigned a room at the Ponyville Inn for an indefinite period of time, so he had read everything he could about the small community. There wasn’t much to read about the town itself.
What did spark his interest, however, were the very brief descriptions of the actions of six mares there. If half of what he had read was true, then these six had saved Equestria more than once. He wondered to himself if their actions were common knowledge. He suspected not, for even somepony as studious, and he had to admit, out of touch as he had heard only about Princess Sparkle, and that only by name and other brief facts.
Supposedly she had been born a unicorn like himself, but had somehow ascended into an Alicorn, and was now royalty just like Princess Cadence. He wondered if she actually had a palace there, despite what he'd heard. If so, then Ponyville couldn’t be as rustic as he’d been told. Maybe he would get the chance to meet her, but he wasn’t planning on it, if even she allowed visitors to her palace.
Right now, his main concerns were getting all of his belongings moved to his new room, and meeting his contact, a zebra named Zecora. She apparently lived right in the heart of the Everfree Forest, which made her the ideal guide. He knew almost nothing about zebras, but if they weren’t all that different from ponies then the Forest couldn’t be as dangerous as he’d read. He’d tactfully left out the fact his associate would be a zebra from his conversation with his Dad; he could only imagine his reaction, and preferred to keep it that way.
Once the train came to a stop and the conductor yelled “Ponyville Station!” he levitated his belongings and looked for Zecora. She was hard to miss. She was taller than he’d imagined, with large gold earrings and bangles on one of her forelegs. She looked very exotic, and it took all his will not to do a double take when she spoke.
“Welcome, friend, to Ponyville. I trust the trip did not make you ill?”
Did…did she just rhyme? “Umm…no, I’m fine, I just want to get settled.”
She nodded. “Very soon it will be raining. Follow me, a cab is waiting.”
There! She did it again! This was going to take some getting used to.
As they travelled to the Inn, Zecora told him about all the points of interest along their way, somehow making each statement a rhyme.
After a few minutes of this, Pawise finally asked, “No offense, but do you always talk like that?”
She smiled at him, and said, “I assure you, young Pawise, my mode of speak is no disguise. Your pony talk is my devotion, but sometimes it can lack emotion.”
“Ah, I see! So you “spice up” our “pony talk” with your own inflections! That’s certainly different!”
“Indeed it is, my unicorn friend. But now our trip has reached its end.”
As they descended from the taxi, Pawise looked up to see the pegasi moving rainclouds into place. If those clouds were any indication, it was going to be a downpour. He felt strangely comforted by the sight, for it meant that the weather was under control here just as in any decent town. Ponyville was smaller than he was used to, but so far did not seem all that different.
And that was when he froze into place, struck motionless as if he’d been hit by lighting. For there, running across the street to get into a shop out of the oncoming storm, was the most beautiful mare he had ever seen.
She seemed to cast a glow all her own as he stood transfixed, and he could only stammer, “Who. Who is SHE?”
Zecora turned to follow his gaze and replied, “That one is sweet as apple pie. She is the one named Fluttershy.”
“Fluttershy” he repeated to himself.
The rain came crashing down, but he didn’t notice. He had fallen completely, deeply and irrevocably in love.