"Bml mblph." Rainbow Dash curled up into a tighter ball, nestling her snout between her front hooves.
"How in tarnation did you even manage to fall asleep in a barrel?" A hoof shook the pegasus by the shoulder. "C'mon, wakey wakey."
"Spitfire, watch out," Dash mumbled, her tail flicking.
Applejack took a deep breath as she grabbed hold of the top of the barrel and leaned over the edge. "RAINBOW DASH!"
The cyan pony yelped and kicked her legs out, bursting the barrel open in all directions like a blooming flower. The wide metal ring formerly supporting the barrel's rim came to rest around her neck as she glared up at the unwelcome alarm clock. "What the hay, Applejack?!"
"Ah thought you were s'posed to clear the clouds this morning, on account of the royal visit?"
"Yeah. And I did." Rainbow Dash rubbed the sleep from one eye with the back of a hoof and gestured up at the clear, blue sky with the other.
"You missed a spot," Applejack sniped, pointing at the one cloud left over Ponyville. It was perfectly positioned to cast a shadow onto the Sweet Apple Acres cart set up on the edge of town square.
"No way," Dash said, getting to all four hooves and shaking the ring off her neck. "Where'd that one come from?"
"Ah don't rightly know, but..." Applejack let her words trail off.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm on it." Rainbow leapt into the air and shot almost straight up.
"Thank you!" came a parting shout from ground level.
"And I thought I had found the one place in Ponyville to take a nap in peace. Yeah right." The pegasus pulled up in front of the rogue cloud and turned her back to it, legs bending in preparation to kick the offending bundle of moisture apart.
Dash caught movement out of the corner of her eye and then grunted as the wind was knocked out of her. She tumbled end over end twice before her instincts righted her, and all the while giggling rang in her ears. As the stars cleared from Dash's eyes she saw a pink, smiling face nose to nose with her.
Pinkie Pie had thrown both forelegs around the flier's neck and was hanging from her, hundreds of feet above the ground. Dash's wings were flapping twice as fast to keep them both aloft. "Pinkie? But... What? How did you get up here?!"
The earth pony's smile flattened. "Oh no! I think you're supposed to say banzai, not bonanza! Can you put me back and then fly around again?" Pinkie pointed at the nearby cloud. "Just pretend you never saw me."
On closer inspection Dash realized the "cloud" was actually a wooden platform with a sky-blue balloon tied to each corner and huge wads of white cotton candy plastered all over the underside.
"Pinkie Pie, what are you doing? You coulda fell!"
"Nuh uh, silly, not with you around. I bet if I let go right now--"
"Don't let go!" Dash shouted, throwing her forelegs around Pinkie and squishing their noses together.
"See? Super duper ultra safe!"
Rainbow groaned and let all four of her legs hang limp in the air. "Whatever. I still don't get what you're doing up here. Why--"
Pinkie gasped and looked up at the Sun. "Oh no, look at the time! See you around, Dashums!" The pink mare released her grip and shot straight down.
"Wait!" the pegasus shouted, breaking into a dive. She just barely pulled up short when a bright pink blob filled her vision. Pinkie had deployed a parachute with a massive fwump and a giggly "Wheeee!"
The pegasus hovered in place and glanced between the balloon platform and the cheering mare circling down toward Ponyville. She rolled her eyes. "Pinkie Pie. Random. Why does this even surprise me anymore?"
"Morning errands, ran. Wholesome breakfast, eaten." Twilight Sparkle nodded to herself with each point as she walked through Ponyville. "Refreshing walk, trotted." She stepped up to the front door of her library home, then through it as it swung open. "Thank you, Pinkie Pie."
Twilight stopped just inside as the door closed behind her. "Okay, so next on the agenda is... studying! Princess Celestia said to treat this like any other day until she arrives, and that's precisely what I'm going to do. Pinkie, please fetch me the copy of Magical Mysteries of Alchemic Alterations."
"With pleasure!" Pinkie Pie answered, moving straight to one of the book cases.
"Thank you, Pinkie." Twilight stepped up to her large studying table, several open books already strewn across its surface. "You're always such a big help. That's why you're my number... one..." She paused, then whipped her head around to look over her shoulder. "Wait, Pinkie?"
The earth pony dropped the book from her mouth onto the table and grinned. "That's my name, don't wear it out!"
"What are you doing here?" Twilight asked, glancing down at the book. "And, uh, thanks."
"No trouble, Twi! No prob, Bob! No fuss, Gus! No inconvenience..." Pinkie tapped her chin, brow furrowed. "Hmmm. That's a toughie."
"Pinkie?" Twilight waved a hoof in front of her friend's face. "I came home and you were waiting inside, because...?"
"Oh yeah! Well, I had a few questions that needed answering, and when I think of answers to questions I think of Twilight Sparkle!"
"Oh. Well... I was going to study until it was time to meet at Sugarcube Corner, but I can make room in my schedule for a friend!" Twilight sat down on a pillow, facing Pinkie across the table. "What do you want to know about?"
The pink pony dropped a small spiral notepad onto the tabletop, then licked a hoof and used it to flip the cover open. "Number one! When a bunch of pegasus ponies are flying around, are they a herd or a flock?" Pinkie fluttered her front hooves up and down in the air for emphasis.
Twilight smiled. "That's a good question, Pinkie, but since they're pegasus ponies, not birds, they're always a herd, even when they're flying together."
Pinkie's hooves dropped and she pouted. "Awwww, but flocks sound so much... fluffier!" After a little shrug the pink pony already had a smile back on her face. "Ohhhhh well. Number two! What are Princess Celestia's favorite colors?"
"Ummm..." Twilight looked up at the ceiling, her eyes flicking side to side as she tried to recall the interiors of some of Celestia's personal rooms. "Gold and really dark blue, I think."
"Ooooooooh." Pinkie scribbled a note with a small wooden pencil. "Number three!" She set a glass bottle of a fizzy brown liquid on the table and pointed at it. "How do you spell sarsaparilla?"
Twilight suddenly sat up straighter on her pillow. "Sarsaparilla." She closed her eyes and recited slowly, one letter at a time, "S-A-R-S-A-P-A-R-I-L-L-A. Sarsaparilla."
When she opened her eyes Pinkie was staring at her. The unicorn chuckled weakly and blushed. "Um. Three time Canterlot Spelling Bee Champion?"
Pinkie gasped. "Wow, Twilight! Is there a prize for that? Like, a ribbon or a trophy or some bits?"
"Even better than money, Pinkie!" Twilight clapped her hooves together at the memory. "Credit at the Canterlot University book store!"
Pinkie was staring again. "Uh. Yeah, neat!" Pinkie peeked quickly down at her notepad. "Number four! Does Princess Celestia like cake?"
"Yes. At least, I think she does. Who doesn't?" Twilight watched her friend scribble in the notepad again. She was just starting to relax from her professional speller's posture when she sat up straight again with a jolt. "Wait, is this about her visit tonight? The princess left strict orders that she doesn't want any, and I quote, 'pomp and circumstance.'" Twilight used her front hooves to mime quotation marks in the air.
Pinkie saluted. "10-4, reading you loud and clear! Not even a little pomp, and absolutely no circumstance!"
Twilight raised one eyebrow. "Are you sure?"
"Uh huh!" Pinkie replied, bobbing her head.
"Good!" Twilight visibly relaxed and smiled, then made a shooing gesture with a hoof. "Okay, go ahead."
"Number five! What's the square root of negative one?"
Pinkie tilted her head to the side. "You? You aren't a number!"
"No, i. The letter i."
Pinkie giggled. "You're funny, Twilight. Even I know that a number and another number don't make a letter!"
Twilight smiled and shook her head softly. "No, Pinkie, it's mathematical notation for the imaginary unit. The square root of negative one is i, and any number times i is an imaginary number."
Pinkie Pie's eyes widened and she stared straight through Twilight. "Imaginary numbers..." she murmured.
"I can lend you my copy of Countless Numerical Quandaries if you'd like."
Pinkie blinked rapidly and shook her head, eyes refocusing. "Um, maybe later. All right, number six!"
Twilight held up a hoof. "How many more questions do you have?"
"Ummm..." Pinkie flipped through the notepad. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven..."
The purple unicorn glanced down at Magical Mysteries of Alchemic Alterations and then back up at her friend. "Maybe you could ask me just one more for now, and then we could get together over lunch tomorrow?" She tried not to let her smile seem too pleading.
"Alllllll righty! I'll just skip right to the most importantest question!" Pinkie flipped two more pages of her notepad and read from it. "On a scale of one to ten, how good is Princess Celestia's reaction time when she's caught off guard?"
"I... Wait, what?!" Twilight leaned forward, trying to catch a look at the list. "Is that a real question?"
"Sure is!" Pinkie replied with a big smile, one elbow resting across the notepad.
Twilight sat back with a huff. "What kind of question is that?" Her eyes widened. "What are you planning for tonight?"
Pinkie gasped and looked straight up at the ceiling. "Oh no, look at the time! See you around, Twilight!"
The door slammed shut behind Pinkie. Twilight checked, but the notepad was gone, too. The unicorn immediately began to pace, head shaking.
"Oh no. No no no. She wouldn't. She... she couldn't!" The unicorn gulped and stopped dead in her tracks. "Is she going to prank Princess Celestia?!"
The white unicorn looked over her shoulder and stopped to allow her galloping friend to catch up, near the center of Ponyville's bustling town square. "Good morning, Twilight Sparkle! Or, should I say, early afternoon?"
Twilight skidded to a stop and looked up at the Sun. "Oh no, already?!"
"Goodness, whatever is the matter?" Rarity asked, eyeing the loose strands of Twilight's mane sticking out at various angles.
Rarity stared at her panting friend for a long moment, then smiled. "Come now, Twilight, even Pinkie Pie has the common sense not to..." She paused for another, shorter moment. Then her smile dropped. "Oh dear."
"Have you seen her this morning?" Twilight asked, peering around the crowded square with quick darts of her head and eyes. She spotted plenty of pink, but none of it belonged to the party pony. "Do you have any idea what she's up to?"
"Now that you mention it, it did seem peculiar that she would want to borrow a dress form." Rarity put a hoof to her chin. "And, it was the largest one I had, almost as tall as Princess Celestia."
Twilight gulped. "Could it be for... target practice?"
Rarity's eyes widened. "What do you think she's going to do?"
"I don't know. I don't know!" Twilight began to pace, oblivious to the glances of Ponyvillians giving the pair a wide berth. "I spent all morning trying to decide what to do. I can't tell the Royal Guard because they might arrest her. I don't want to tell Princess Celestia because she'll be disappointed that I have friends foalish enough to even think about pranking royalty."
"Hey guys," Rainbow Dash said, swooping in to hover just off the ground. "Who's pranking who?"
Rarity answered, "Twilight suspects that Pinkie Pie may be planning to prank the princess this evening."
"Woah, really?" A wide grin sprouted on Dash's face. "I gotta get in on this. Where is she?"
"YOU'RE NOT GOING TO PRANK THE PRINCESS EITHER!" Twilight shouted, Dash's mane and tail billowing from the force of the outburst. Then the purple unicorn bent forward and began to hyperventilate. Rarity rubbed Twilight's back while giving sheepish grins at the passing ponies who had stopped to stare.
Dash dropped to the ground and rubbed the back of her head with a hoof. "Woah, okay, I won't prank the princess. Sheesh."
As the small crowd started to disperse Rarity said, "Twilight, you know Princess Celestia better than any of us. We're here for you, dear. What should we do?"
Twilight suddenly stood at attention and gave a firm nod, staring off into the distance. "We have to foil Pinkie Pie's fiendish plan before it is too late. To Sugarcube Corner!" She immediately broke into a gallop.
As Rarity rushed to catch up Dash flew in close to her and asked, "Fiendish plan?"
The fashionista just gave a slight shrug and kept running.
"What do you see?!" Twilight tried to both shout and whisper at the same time; it didn't quite work.
Rainbow Dash swooped down from Sugarcube Corner's highest window. "Uh, you probably should see this for yourself. I could give you a lift if you--"
Twilight's horn lit up and she disappeared in a flash, teleporting to the balcony. She mashed her nose up against the glass and stared down into Pinkie Pie's room.
At first all she saw was Rarity's dress form, an off-white facsimile of a large earth pony supported by a metal pole on a circular base. It stood alone in the middle of the room, seemingly unmolested. Then there was movement: Twilight held her breath as Pinkie approached the dress form, saying something that wasn't loud enough to make it through the glass.
Pinkie stopped and waved to the dress form, then walked closer, stopped, bowed, then stood and spoke more. Twilight let the air rush out of her lungs, a tiny smile finally curling the edges of her snout. She mumbled, "Maybe she's just practicing her royal etiquette?" to Rainbow Dash, who had taken up position beside her.
Dash frowned. "I'm not so sure..."
Pinkie started moving again, smiling at the dress form and walking past it. Then suddenly she squealed and lunged, throwing all four legs around the faux pony and shaking it hard, setting it wobbling on its wide circular base.
Twilight's mouth fell open.
"I'm guessing that's not good manners for greeting a princess," Dash said, voice flat.
Pinkie dropped back to the floor and zipped out of view. Twilight shoved the side of her face against the window but couldn't keep the pink pony in sight. A few seconds later Pinkie came back, smiling and bouncing past the dress form as if she didn't even notice it was there. The second attack came without warning, a feral yowl heard even through the window as Pinkie tackled the dress form from behind. She knocked it to the ground and rolled back and forth, keeping a death grip.
"I..." Twilight's mouth hung open. "I..."
Dash's head tilted a few degrees to the side. "Is she biting it?"
"More like gnawing," Twilight said in a near-whisper, eyes going out of focus and balance wobbling.
"What's going on up there?" Rarity hissed. Twilight shook her head hard, squared her jaw, and teleported back to the ground.
"I'll tell you what's going on. We're going to bring Pinkie Pie's diabolical scheme to a halt!" Twilight stomped a hoof to punctuate each sentence, Rainbow landing beside the two unicorns. "The line is drawn right here, right now! She will not prevail!"
"Diabolical scheme?" Rainbow Dash asked Rarity. The unicorn just shrugged again.
"Yes, diabolical scheme!" Twilight answered in her stead, making firm eye contact with each of her friends in turn. "She may have been planning..." Twilight waved a hoof around in the air. "... whatever-it-is-she's-planning for who-knows-how-long, but we have the element of surprise! She'll never see us c--"
"Hi girls!" Pinkie Pie chirped.
"Gah!" Twilight squealed, her tail pointing straight out, the two other ponies hopping back from the pink pony's head that had just poked out of the first floor window of Sugarcube Corner.
"Whatcha up to?" Pinkie asked, all smiles.
"Spying on you," Rainbow Dash answered without hesitation. Twilight shot her a look. "What?"
Twilight sighed and turned back to Pinkie, pointing a hoof at her. "We're here to stop your nefarious plot, Pinkie Pie! We know you're up to something, and we're not going to let you get away with it!"
Pinkie blinked, then tittered, then laughed hard and leaned on the windowsill for support. It wasn't enough and she soon tumbled out onto the ground, giggling helplessly on her back.
"Nefarious plot?" Dash asked Rarity.
"Now, Twilight," Rarity said, her voice lighter, "perhaps you're taking this a little too seriously. This is Pinkie Pie, after all." She gestured at the pink mare with a hoof, who grinned and waved. "I don't think she has it in her to plot or scheme anything more dangerous than a bucket of water in a door frame."
"She was biting your dress form," Twilight replied, face and voice flat.
"More like gnawing," Pinkie chimed in, smiling.
Rarity's smile disappeared. "What?"
"So what's your plan, Pinkie?" Twilight demanded, pushing her face in close to the earth pony's. "What are you going to do to Princess Celestia? Because there's no way I--"
"Twilight, Twilight, Twilight," Pinkie interrupted, patting the unicorn on the head. "Don't be such a silly little pony! I know the princess is suuuper important to you. Only a mean, nasty, grumpy pony would try to hurt a friend's friend!"
"But, Pinkie," Twilight said, "you asked me about Princess Celestia's reaction speed!"
Rarity added, "And apparently you were gnawing on my dress form."
"And what were you doing up in the clouds this morning, anyway?" Rainbow asked.
"She was up in the clouds?" Rarity and Twilight asked in unison, then looked at Pinkie.
Pinkie grasped Twilight's cheeks with two hooves and locked eyes with her, face lacking any hint of a smile. "Twilight Sparkle," she said, voice firm, "I promise that I would never, ever, ever-ever-ever do anything that would make Princess Celestia stop being your teacher and friend."
"But..." Twilight said, eyes flicking back and forth to focus on each of Pinkie's own bright blue orbs.
"Cross my heart and hope to fly," Pinkie began, letting Twilight go so she could make an X on her chest with a hoof and then raise it to her face, "stick a cupcake in my eye!"
The studious unicorn dropped to her hindquarters and looked back at her other two friends.
"She takes her Pinkie Promises very seriously, dear," Rarity said.
Dash snorted. "Understatement of the century."
Rarity smiled and placed a hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "I think everything will be just fine."
"Yeah. Too bad, though." Rainbow Dash grinned, hovering just above the ground. "It would have been awesome to see the look on Princess Celestia's face." Twilight and Rarity both glared, and Dash held two hooves up in front of her. "I said I wouldn't!"
"I'd love to chat," Pinkie said, "but so much time, so little frosting!" She paused and tilted her head. "Wait, strike that, reverse it. See ya!" She hopped back through the window.
Rarity gave Twilight's shoulder a pat. "Are you going to be all right, dear? You still look a bit frazzled."
"Yeah," Twilight said, getting back to her hooves. "I guess spending all morning pacing back and forth wore me out."
Dash pointed at Twilight. "Sounds like you need a dose of the patented Rainbow Dash Cure-All: a nap!"
"For once we are in total agreement, Rainbow," Rarity said with a nod.
Twilight yawned into the back of a hoof. "No arguments here," she mumbled, walking away. "Thanks for the help, girls."
"Hey, what're friends for?" Dash replied, the pegasus and fashion unicorn watching their friend step away before looking at each other. "Pinkie was really going to town on your dress thing."
"I hope she at least wipes the drool off before she returns it," Rarity said, rolling her eyes. "That pony can be so very random sometimes."
Rainbow shook her head. "Preaching to the choir, sister."
"Ribbons and bows, check. Streamers and balloons, check. Lovely cake, check. Everything's perfect!" Twilight turned in place, making one last appraisal of Sugarcube Corner's banquet hall. "Just enough to let the princess know we're glad she's visiting, but no pomp and circumstance."
"So, the party... looks like a party?" Rainbow Dash asked dryly.
"Exactly!" Twilight answered, smiling.
Applejack put a hoof on Pinkie Pie's shoulder. "Well, with this one's keen sense of party preparations..."
"And some of my most fabulous ribbon..." Rarity added.
Fluttershy smiled and gestured toward the window sill, at four birds, each in a different color. "And maybe a little light music?"
"Yes, everything's perfect!" Twilight repeated, then turned to look at the door as the drone of a bugle filled the air. "And not a moment too soon! Places everypony!"
All six scrambled into formation facing the door and Twilight glanced down the line. All of them were standing in the exact same stance, hooves lined up to the millimeter, and even Fluttershy had the same composed, smiling face her other friends carried. Twilight wiggled with a giddy thrill: everything was just so perfect!
A deep, masculine voice called out, "Announcing her Royal Majesty, Princess Celestia!" The door swung open and the Mistress of the Day herself stepped through.
And then with a soft creak a massive bucket load of strawberry frosting fell from the ceiling, straight onto Princess Celestia.
Pinkie Pie fell onto her back and laughed uproariously, legs kicking at the air, and after Rainbow Dash had enough time to see that almost every hair on Celestia's hide was coated she joined the party pony in helpless laughter. The princess stood stock still, eyes wide, one front hoof raised. A particularly large clump of frosting hung from the tip of her nose, and another from her horn. Her mane and tail hung limp, thick with frosting despite their usual ethereal appearance.
Rarity, Applejack, and Fluttershy just stared with dropped jaws, but Twilight dropped into a deep bow, touching her horn all the way to the ground. "Oh, Princess, I'm so sorry! I didn't know! I would never have--"
Princess Celestia burst into gales of laughter, clapping her front two hooves alternately against the floor. Twilight raised her head, joining her friends in staring. "P-Princess?"
"Bravo!" Celestia called out. "A most daring prank. It has been ages since anypony had the audacity to pull a fast one on me, and I must admit I missed it."
"Really?" Twilight asked, still not daring to believe it. She glanced at Pinkie and Dash, who were still suffering shared fits of giggles in a pile on the floor.
"Truly!" Celestia said before smirking down at the giggly pair. "Though perhaps these two should watch themselves, for my retribution could come at any time."
"We're ready for you, princess!" Rainbow Dash answered, Pinkie nodding repeatedly in agreement.
"Good! Now, I believe I should go use the washroom before we begin our festivities. Please excuse me."
"Of course, Your Majesty," Twilight said, giving a deep nod of her head in an informal bow as the princess walked out of the room.
"See?" Pinkie said, stepping over to hug Twilight. "I told you I'd never do anything that would make Princess Celestia hate you!"
Twilight returned the hug. "You're right, Pinkie, you didn't upset her at all. Princess Celestia seems to love pranks!"
"Uh. Twilight?" Applejack said in a wavery voice, nudging the unicorn's shoulder.
"Yeah?" Twilight asked without looking away from Pinkie.
"You really should turn around," Rainbow Dash said with a squeak.
"Why?" Twilight asked, then blinked as Pinkie's mouth fell open. Finally the purple unicorn turned around, then gasped.
Princess Celestia was bright pink.
"It doesn't seem to wash out," the princess said through gritted teeth, her eyes thinned to slits and her horn glowing. A brush dripping with red soapy water hung in the air next to her.
"P-P-Princess! Please, let me try!" Twilight's horn shone as she cast a spell on her teacher. There was a purple and pink flash that blinded everypony for just an instant. Twelve eyes blinked rapidly to clear their vision.
Princess Celestia was pinker. Her eyes glowed with pure gold light. The brush vibrated, then exploded, splattering the walls and ceiling with red sugar water and soap. The birds on the windowsill chose that moment to fly away, nearly knocking each other out of the air in their hurry.
"Why won't it wash out?" Princess Celestia asked, her voice booming with enough arcane strength and depth that the very bones of the six little ponies hummed.
Rainbow Dash gulped and wiped the back of a hoof across her forehead. "Is it getting hot in here, or is it just--"
And then Sugarcube Corner was on fire.
"YAAAH!" Twilight squealed, tumbling from her bed in a jumbled heap of sheets. She sat up quickly, looking around the room with the covers still wrapped around the lower half of her body.
"Oh thank goodness, it was just a dream," Twilight said, leaning against the side of her bed, eyes closed. "Pinkie promised she wouldn't do anything to harm my relationship with the princess, after all." She paused, then opened her eyes. "But... what she really meant is that she'd never do anything to harm my relationship with the princess on purpose. What if she has something planned and it all goes wrong? What if... What if..."
The unicorn glanced out her bedroom window at the Sun and suddenly stood up, her sheets falling to the floor. "I have to find Pinkie, and fast!"
Twilight galloped through the streets of Ponyville, veering around clusters of conversing ponies without slowing down. Sugarcube Corner came into sight and Twilight put on an extra burst of speed, but then she caught a glimpse of a poofy pink tail disappearing around the corner of a building.
"Pinkie Pie!" Twilight called out, changing direction. As she came around the corner there were a few Ponyvillians out and about but no party ponies in sight. "Pinkie?"
A giggle-snort rang out from around another corner and Twilight rushed forward. "That has to be her!" Turning that corner, Twilight saw some pink fluff, standing still on the other side of a small sunflower garden. "Ah-ha!" the unicorn crowed as she burst through the sunflowers, only to find a cotton candy stand, one particularly massive pink bundle standing out from the rest of the offerings.
"May I help you?" the bright blue mare running the stand asked with an inviting smile.
"Hi Pinkie Pie!" came a cheerful mare's voice from some distance away, turning Twilight's head.
"Howdy!" Pinkie replied, hopping toward a street corner.
"Not this time," Twilight said to the vendor apologetically, turning away. She cried out a, "Not this time!" at Pinkie and teleported, appearing close enough to clamp her teeth down on the tip of Pinkie's tail.
The pink pony paused in midair for a moment before dropping to her hooves, looking over her shoulder with a chipper smile. "Hi, Twi! What's shakin'?"
Twilight spat the fluffy tail out. "I'm so glad I caught up with you! It's about tonight. You have to promise me you won't--"
"Gummy, attack!" Pinkie shouted, looking at the air over Twilight's head and pointing at the purple mare.
"What?!" Twilight yelped, backpedaling and looking up. There was nothing there. When she looked back down Pinkie was gone. The unicorn's teeth clenched before she tilted her head back and shouted, "PINKIE PIE!" to the sky. Nearby ponies stopped mid-conversation to stare.
"See you later, Twilight!" Pinkie yelled from somewhere nearby.
"Get back here! I need to talk to you!" Twilight looked around, then up again. Her horn glowed and she disappeared, teleporting to the roof of the nearest building. From there she could see the streets for quite a distance away, her eyes scanning, then focusing on the bouncing bundle of energy. "There you are!"
Twilight teleported again, right in front of Pinkie, the earth pony's last bounce landing her close enough that the two ponies' noses squished together.
"Now," the purple unicorn said, eyes narrowed, "one way or another you are going to make a Pinkie Promise to me about tonight. We can do this the easy way, or--"
Pinkie leapt backward and looked above Twilight's head, pointing forward. "Gummy, attack!"
The purple mare snorted. "Do you really think that's going to work a second ti--"
Twilight stopped mid-word as a leathery weight landed on her, small green legs clamping around her head and blocking her sight. She froze, then as she heard a soft gurgling noise from above she squealed and tossed her head. Gummy went flying through the open window of a nearby home, leading to another squeal and the small alligator whizzing back out the window to land safely on the ground nearby.
Twilight glanced around quickly, but Pinkie was long gone. Gummy gurgled up at the unicorn.
"You stay out of this!" she yelled, teleporting to a rooftop again.
She scanned the streets, chest heaving with her panting breaths, but then she froze. "Ohhhhh no." Her eyes were drawn to a large shadow passing over Ponyville, and a quick glance toward the sky confirmed her fears.
"The princess... she's here!"
"They're almost ready in the kitchen," Spike said, stepping into the decorated banquet hall of Sugarcube Corner. The little dragon took a look around the room. "She's still not here?"
"No," Fluttershy answered, glancing between her friends. "I hope she's all right."
"It is quite unusual for Twilight to be fashionably late," Rarity remarked.
Applejack shook her head. "I'm sure she'll be along any minute now."
Twilight appeared in the middle of the room with a small purple explosion of magic, earning a squeak from Fluttershy and smiles from the rest of the room.
"Twilight! Jeez, what took you?" Spike stepped closer, hands held out wide to gesture at the room. "I know it's my day off, but I still took some time to make sure that Princess Celestia's welcome party was all set." He whipped out a scroll from behind his back and unfurled it.
"Ribbons and bows, check," he started, and Twilight said it along with him, mind turning back to earlier in the day. "Streamers and balloons, check." Twilight's eyes tracked across the room, taking in each detail as it was listed off. There were even four differently colored birds on the windowsill, ready to burst into song at Fluttershy's signal.
"Oh no! It's just like in my nightm--"
The soft rapping of a hoof on the door turned all the heads in the room. A golden magical glow surrounded the door and it swung open inward.
Princess Celestia stopped halfway through the door, eyes wide and one leg bent at the knee. Everyone stared at Twilight, who was also frozen in place. There was nothing above the door, let alone a bucket primed to drop on the royal guest. The only noise in the room was the fluttering of four songbirds fleeing out the open window.
Twilight tilted her ears back and cringed, blushing. "Uh, P-Princess... um... just wait! Just you wait! You're going to have a great time! Ha! Haha." She plastered an awkward smile across her face.
Princess Celestia smiled and stepped into the room, the door closing behind her with a tiny nudge of magic. "Why thank you, Twilight Sparkle."
As each of the ponies made their way to greet the princess and give a small bow Applejack sidled closer to Twilight. She whispered, "You okay there, missy?"
Twilight let out a huge sigh. "I think so. Maybe everything will turn out okay after all."
The kitchen door swung open, a massive gold and midnight blue cake on a trolley gliding into the room. From behind it Mr. Cake announced, "Welcome, Princess Celestia!"
"Oh my, what is this?" the princess asked, smiling wide.
"The Cake family and Pinkie Pie want to extend our greetings to you and express our honor at your visit." Mr. Cake pushed the cake to the middle of the room. It was nearly as tall as the princess herself, a five tier monstrosity covered with regal filigrees made out of frosting and lit by a single large gold candle on the top.
"Well, it was the Cake family ingredients and know-how," Mr. Cake admitted with a smile, admiring the towering confection, "but it was all Pinkie's hard work. She insisted on making it from the ground up all on her own!"
Twilight's eyes widened and she flashed back to Pinkie's morning visit. "She asked me for Princess Celestia's favorite colors, gold and dark blue," she mumbled. "And, does she like cake? Who doesn't like cake..."
"What's that, sugar cube?" Applejack asked.
"And then she asked me about... her reaction speed!" Twilight looked up as the princess stepped right up to the cake, still smiling. The purple unicorn raised a hoof, her horn lighting up with magic, her mouth opening. She was too late.
Twilight watched as if in slow motion as the cake burst apart, a pink blur leaping out and straight at Princess Celestia. Twilight's heart stopped and her voice caught in her throat as Pinkie threw her limbs around the princess and squeezed tight...
In a hug.
"Happy Birthday, Princess Celestia!" Pinkie Pie sing-songed.
The princess raised a hoof to wrap it around Pinkie and hug her back, smiling. "Thank you, my little pony," she said. Celestia seemed to ignore the frosting dripping from the pink earth pony clinging to her.
"It's her birthday?" Twilight whispered to her friends. They all looked at each other, Rainbow Dash shrugging.
"When I found out it was your birthday I thought and thought and thought... what do you get a princess for a gift?" Pinkie didn't release her hug as she kept talking. "I mean, you're a princess, duh! You can get anything you want in all of Equestria! Not that you would take anything away from anypony, but you know what I mean."
"I do, yes," the princess replied with a light chuckle to her voice.
"So I thought more and more when WHAMMO, it hit me!" Pinkie wiggled for effect. "What do you get somepony that has everything? Something they can't buy! Something that doesn't mean anything unless you really, really mean it when you give it: a hug!"
Pinkie squeezed tighter for a moment and Celestia returned it, nodding. "It is a wonderful gift, Pinkie Pie. Thank you."
"You're welcome!" Pinkie let go finally, landing on the debris of her shattered cake, and looked around. Everyone in the room was still staring. "What are you all just standing around for? It's a party!"
As Pinkie bounced across the room to turn on a record player Twilight approached her teacher. "Princess?"
"Why didn't you say it's your birthday today? I would have done so much more for you than... than... this!" Twilight gestured around herself at the lightly decorated room, some of which was speckled with bits and pieces of cake.
"That's precisely why I didn't tell you, my dear student," Celestia answered.
"Huh?" Twilight asked with a blink.
"For hundreds of years my birthdays were quite the event. Important ponies came from all across Equestria. The food and drink was beyond compare and the festivities lasted for 24 straight hours." Princess Celestia leaned down and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial level. "It was simply dreadful."
"Oh," was all Twilight could think to say.
"I had no time to spend with the ponies who really mattered to me. It was all spectacle and no substance." The princess stood tall again. "So now I spend my birthdays with the ponies I care about, even if they don't know why I'm there to visit. And, every so often, somepony finds out my secret and surprises me with a heartfelt birthday gift, and it truly means something." The princess smiled wide. "You are lucky to have such a special friend, Twilight Sparkle. I hope you realize that."
Twilight looked over to watch Pinkie Pie pull Fluttershy into dancing with her other friends. Soon all of them were smiling and laughing as they danced to the beat of the music. "I'm starting to figure that out." Twilight turned back to her teacher and giggled. "I think I need to write you a letter about trusting friends to make the right decisions, even when it's about something very important to you."
Princess Celestia nodded. "I look forward to reading it, but take your time, dear. It is a party after all!"
Twilight waved to Princess Celestia's departing silhouette in the sky. As the princess winked out of sight with a flash of magic her student slumped against the door frame and heaved a deep sigh of relief. "Phew."
"What a shindig!" Applejack exclaimed, patting Pinkie on the back. "Good work, sugar cube."
"Aww, thanks, but it wouldn't have been half as good without all of you here! Or even a quarter as good! A fifth?" Pinkie's brow crinkled and raised up one hoof, as if to somehow count off numbers on it. "There were eight of us here, but one was a guest of honor, sooo..."
Applejack patted Pinkie again and chuckled. "We were all here, and that's what matters."
"Pinkie," Twilight started as she stepped closer, "was that what all this was about today? A surprise hug?"
"Uh huh!" Pinkie said, nodding with a grin.
Rainbow Dash zipped in close. "So you tackled me out of the sky..."
"I needed to practice on a moving target, just in case!" Pinkie replied, picking up some discarded paper plates from a table and tossing them into a trash bin.
Rarity piped in. "So you were using my dress form as target practice! But whatever were you thinking when you were biting it?"
"It was more like gnawing," Pinkie corrected. At Rarity's flat stare Pinkie chuckled weakly and said, "I guess I got a little carried away..." She pushed some more trash into the trash can.
Twilight asked, some exasperation leaking into her voice, "But if that's all you were up to then why did you run away from me when I tried to talk to you?"
"Pinkie Sense! Itchy knee, floppy tail, jittery nerves." Pinkie acted out each as she listed them: scratching her knee, waving her tail, and hugging herself with a shiver. "It means that somepony is trying to put a stop to my devious machinations!"
"Devious machinations?" Fluttershy asked.
"Dodgy subterfuge?" Pinkie tried.
"Subter-what-now?" Applejack asked.
"My secret plans!" Pinkie rubbed her front hooves together and added a sinister tone to her voice. "Operation Get-lestia successfully completed." She turned to Twilight, her voice going back to normal. "And I had to be super-sure you didn't make me Pinkie Promise to not surprise the princess. She told me that it was the best birthday gift she'd gotten in centuries!" Pinkie started pushing the full trash can toward the kitchen door.
"That reminds me, Pinkie," Twilight said, "how in Equestria did you know that it was Princess Celestia's birthday?"
Pinkie giggled and rolled her eyes, looking over her shoulder as she stepped into the kitchen. "Jeez, Twilight, seriously? Read a book!"