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The Lost Crusades

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And yea, did the Unicorn Sweetie Belle declare, “Saith I, haveth thee a problem with they of flanks moste blank?”

Whereupon She who was marked with Spoon of Argent did reply, “The error is, verily, she is moste mundane and lacking in talent.”

And Lo, did the Unicorn speak the sooth upon her, saying, “Nay! The omen of blankness writ on yon flank doth proclaim that she may yet be anything she doth desire to become.”

“Verily,” agreed her companion the Pegasus. “The outcomes are myriad, aye, and unforeseeable.”

“She could yet become an Alchemy, or a Painter, or a Scribe. Yea, she could someday rule over this land.”

“Further, she has not fallen to Vanity and Cruelty, as have the two of you.”

And Lo, the Spoon of Argent and the Diadem of Diamond were blown back by the force of the words. And the Young Apple did rejoice, and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo did rejoice with her.

And thus they were three.

***

“Oh no,” Lily whispered.

Carrot Top glanced up from her coffee. “Hm?”

“We need to hide! Now!”

The yellow mare sighed and set down the mug. “What is it this time, Lily?”

Her sister-in-law raised a hoof and pointed. “It’s… them.”

Carrot glanced over her shoulder and sighed again. The Cutie Mark Crusaders were walking down the high street. She glanced at her sister-in-law. “Lily, they aren’t that bad. They’re just a little… accident-prone.”

The florist went boneless and slid under the table. Carrot let out a deep sigh and took a sip of her drink. She had to admit, if only to herself, that the blonde mare did have something of a point. This time. The young trio had only been friends for a few days now, and in that time had managed to topple five outhouses, send four pegasi to the hospital, dig three massive holes, upset two beds of potatoes, and fill the mayor’s office with bees. Nopony was quite sure how, least of all the three fillies.

Despite these misgivings, Carrot knew that she had to at least try to prove her sister-in-law wrong. Aside from anything else, Lily simply had to learn that not everything in life was out to attack her. So she tugged the recalcitrant mare up from beneath the table. “Come on,” she said in her best no-nonsense voice, the one that always worked wonders on her dear Daisy. “Let’s go and see what they’re up to.”

“T-to what they are up,” Lily corrected.

“That doesn’t even sound a little bit right.”

“Y-you c-can’t end a sentence w-with ‘t-to.’”

“Yeah, yeah, a preposition isn’t something you can end a sentence with. Quit stalling, let’s go see what they’re doing.”

At Lily’s dubious expression, Carrot sighed. “If we know where they’re going, you’ll know where you shouldn’t hide.”

“O-oh! Why didn’t you say so?” The florist brightened and Carrot removed her hoof from the scruff of her neck.

Tossing a bag of bits on the table, the carrot farmer led the way over to the giggling group of fillies. “Well!” she said as the two groups converged. “You three certainly seem to be in a good mood this morning. What are you doing out and about so early on a Saturday?”

“Howdy, Miss Carrot Top!” Apple Bloom said, grinning broadly. “We’re off ta crusade fer cutie marks!”

“At the spa!” Sweetie added, grinning.

Scootaloo visibly flinched at that last remark and glanced around furtively. “Ix-nay on-yay elling-tay ere-whay e-way are-yay oing-gay! At-whay if-yay ainbow-Ray ash-Day inds-fay out-yay I-yay ied-tray o-tay et-gay a-yay utiemark-cay at-yay e-thay a-spay? Y-may ife-lay ill-way e-bay uined-ray!”

Sweetie blinked. “What was that about eBay? I didn’t know you wanted to buy anything.”

“Scoots, you feelin’ alright?” Bloom asked, concerned, reaching for the filly’s forehead.

Carrot chuckled. Well, it was hard to feel afraid of these three right now. Masterminds they weren’t. “Pig-asopolitan, Scootaloo? Maybe you three should try being codebreakers instead.”

The orange filly flushed, but the other two merely looked confused. “Never mind,” Carrot said. “What are you doing at the—”

“Don’t say it!”

“Ah-spay?” Carrot said, scarcely batting an eye.

“Well, I heard my sister say that their treatments take years off of ponies. That’s a good thing, right?”

The yellow mare cracked a grin. “So I’m told.”

Lily nodded quickly. She hadn’t said a word the entire time, merely staring at the three fillies in a way that implied that she thought they might at any given moment explode into demons from Tartarus or a stampede of rabbits. Carrot counted the fact that her sister-in-law was still conscious as a fairly massive win.

“So,” Sweetie continued, “we’re gonna see if they can teach us how to take years off a pony, and then we can use it on Apple Bloom’s granny to make her young again.”

“And mebbe on Diamond Tiara an’ Silver Spoon,” Bloom muttered. “Make ‘em too young fer cutie marks.”

“What was that?” Carrot asked.

“Nothin’, Miss Carrot!”

“Mhmm…” A mischievous sparkle danced in Carrot’s eye. “Well! I wish you girls good luck with that. Perhaps we should walk with you to the spa, I could certainly use a nice hoof-soak…”

The confused looks on the three little faces told Carrot all she needed to know. “She’s run away, hasn’t she.”

“...Yeah,” said Scootaloo, slightly awestruck. That flower mare had shifted into top speed faster even than anypony else she’d ever seen, Rainbow Dash included.

Carrot nodded once, philosophically. “Right. Well, I’d better go catch her before she does something phenomenally idiotic. See you fillies later.”

She trotted off. Apple Bloom let out a profound sigh of relief. “Wow. Ah was sure she’d heard my idea at th’ end there.”

Sweetie Belle tilted her head, frowning. “Do you think we could? Turn Diamond and Silver into babies, I mean.”

“Heck, yeah!” Scootaloo said, grinning broadly. “Those jerks ruined my Rainbow Dash scrapbook! They just shoved me down and it fell in the mud. And they laughed about it! They called me obsessed! They called me mad. They called me a chicken! Well, who’s mad now? Who’s mad now? AHAHAHAHA!!!” She threw her forelegs into the air.. Somewhere off in the distance, a grey pegasus botched a cloud landing, creating a rumble of thunder and burst of lightning.

Sweetie coughed. “So… is that a yes?”

Scootaloo dropped back down onto four hooves, her smile growing considerably less dangerous. “Eh, worth a shot. What’s the worst that could happen?”

***

Of all the most damning sentences that have ever been created, “What’s the worst that could happen?” is second only to “I’m sure she won’t mind.” Even in a nonfictional universe where narrative causality is slim-to-none at the best of times, it is a terrible idea to speak such a sentence aloud. The Probability Police enforce the Murphy Act of ‘41 with the sort of stern severity that makes suspension bridge cables look like boiled shoelaces.

In a universe where the laws of physics are casual suggestions and Causality has not so much taken a backseat to Coincidence as it has been roughly shoved into the boot of Coincidence’s sporty silver automobile, what Scootaloo said was almost akin to juggling three chainsaws, and then asking your assistant to throw you two more. Almost. Chainsaw juggling, at least, had a fairly predictable ending.

***

Sweetie looked at Apple Bloom. Bloom looked at Sweetie Belle. They smiled innocent smiles. “Heh, yeah, I guess you’re right,” Sweetie agreed.

“You know I am,” Scootaloo said. “Come on, let’s get going. The laws of time aren’t going to break themselves.”

In a fairly out-of-the-way section of the royal gardens, visited only by the princesses and overzealous field-trip planners, a stone statue of some bizarre chimeric beast seemed to grin slightly as the Crusaders made their way toward the Ponyville Day Spa.

***

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a very different group of ponies were making their way towards the same destination as the three fillies. Three adults and one colt, all four of them pegasi. Two male, two female, three of them eager to reach their destination, one decidedly not. “Couldn’t I have just stayed home?” Rumble groaned, dragging his silver-grey hooves through the dirt.

“Nah,” said Cloudchaser, smirking. “We like to watch you suffer. Your whining is music to my ears. Please, don’t stop.”

Flitter nudged her twin sister sharply in the barrel. “Chase, quit it. Rumble, you can’t stay in your room all the time. It’s not healthy. You need to get outside every once in awhile, try to make some friends.”

The colt glowered at the two lilac mares. “And I’m going to do that at the spa?”

“You might,” said the fourth member of the group. “Practically everypony in town visits the spa every now and again.” Thunderlane smiled at his little brother. “Maybe you’ll meet a cute colt…”

Rumble’s glower only intensified. The charcoal stallion flinched back. “Ooor maybe you’ll make a friend like Flitter suggested!”

“Hmph.” Rumble glared down the street once more. The dust was settling in his coat, he was sure of it. Well. His brother and his brother’s marefriend and his brother’s marefriend’s sister might be able to lead him to bubbly fragrant water, but they couldn’t make him soak in it. “Why do I even need friends? I’ve got you guys.”

“Please. With friends like me, you don’t need enemies,” Cloudchaser said, rolling her eyes. “Case in point.”

She picked him up and started to noogie him, sending his dark mane splaying in all directions. “Ow! Cloudchaser, stop it! Cut it out!”

Flitter frowned. “Sis, quit. I mean it! How would you like it if I noogied you, huh?” She stood up on her back legs and began to do just that.

Thunderlane blinked. Very slowly and casually, he trotted over to a nearby newsstand, picked up a magazine, and shoved his face in it.

“Say uncle!” Cloudchaser shouted into Rumble’s ear.

“Say cousin!” Flitter insisted, rubbing her sister’s scalp harder.

“Uncle!” Rumble shouted, trying to pull free of the elder pegasus’s embrace. “Lemme go!”

“Cousin,” Cloudchaser sighed, releasing the colt, who tumbled to the dirt. Flitter gave her sister’s head one last firm rub, and then set back down on the ground.

The papermare tapped Thunderlane on the wing. “You gonna buy that?” she demanded, holding out a hoof.

“No, I just read it for the recipes,” the stallion replied, setting his less-than-cunning disguise back on the rack.

“Alright, then! You owe me a slice of cake!” the seller shouted at his retreating backside.

The stallion caught up to the motley trio that comprised the rest of his group. Flitter was grinning. Rumble was sulking. Cloudchaser was smirking. It was her ground state of being. She could be gasping out her dying words, and ponies would still wonder if she was being sarcastic.

In fairness, Thunderlane thought that her last words almost certainly would be something along the lines of “Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m fine,” or possibly, “Haven’t you heard? Arrow wounds are all the rage these days.”

Occasionally, he felt bad about thinking about his marefriend’s sister in that way, but it really wasn’t as though it was unjustified.

“Hey, dork, come on. This spa trip’s on you, remember?”

Thunderlane snorted. “Yeah, remind me why we agreed to that?”

“Because I’m such a nice pony that I let you two dingbat stallions stay in my house, and you’re just smart enough to pay tribute to my glory.”

“I pay my share of the rent.”

“Yeah, well, your name isn’t on the deed to the house. Come on. Every second we waste out here is another second I’m not getting a hooficure.” She turned tail and trotted down the road, muzzle in the air.

Thunderlane facehoofed and rubbed his forehead. Flitter sighed and leaned over to whisper in his ear those words she knew would bring him joy. “I’m gonna shove her into the mud bath,” she breathed before placing a light peck on his cheek.

The stallion smiled faintly and turned to kiss his marefriend on the nose. “Come on. She’s not the only one who wants to get made over today,” he said with a grin.

“Mm, I’m thinking blush, definitely, and a little mascara… hoof polish?”

“Maybe in gold,” Thunderlane said, thoughtfully. “Or violet.”

“Violet doesn’t go with your coat, Lane. Mahogany, maybe.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Thunderlane agreed. “C’mon, Rumble, move your butt. If I have to carry you, I’m gonna throw you in the steam room ‘til you look like a raisin.”

“Ugh,” the silvery colt muttered, rising to his hooves. “Fine. You guys can get prettied up, I’ll just wait in the waiting room for two hundred years.”

“Nopony’s stopping you from getting ‘prettied up,’” Flitter smiled. “You could come in with—”

“Pass,” Rumble said, sans emotion, trotting ahead of the cheerful couple. Thunderlane and Flitter, snickering, followed after him.

***

The bell above the door chimed pleasantly as three fillies walked into the spa. “Good morning!” the pink pony at the desk said in a pleasant accent, glancing up from her paperwork. “My name iz Aloe. May I help you?”

“Howdy, Miz Allo-wee,” Apple Bloom said with a big grin. “Ah’m Apple Bloom. These are mah friends, Scootaloo an’ Sweetie Belle. We’re the Cutie Mark Crusaders!”

Aloe grinned broadly. “Ah, yes, Miz Sweetie Belle. Your sister speaks of you often.”

“She does?” Sweetie gasped.

“And you, Miz Bloom, Meester Macintosh has also mentioned you.”

“Wow, really?” Bloom asked.

“Vell. Vhen he does talk, yes, you are a frequent subject. Zho, you are here for a spa day, yes?”

“Well, not ‘xactly,” Bloom admitted. “We’re tryin’ ta get our cutie marks as spa ponies, ya see.”

“Ah. And you vere vonderink eef you could vork here today, yes?”

“Um, yeah, I guess we could do that… or something…” Scootaloo muttered, staring down at her hooves.

Aloe tapper a hoof to her chin. “Erm. Vell, zere are vun or two ponies out sick today,” she said thoughtfully. “Yes. Yes, I see no reason vhy it should not be. Very vell. Come vith me, and I vill put you zree in uniforms for ze day.”

“CUTIE MARK CRUSADER SPA PONIES, YAY!”

Aloe blinked at their enthusiasm. Well, the enthusiasm of two of the three, anyway. The pegasus merely glanced around the room as though she were certain that she was being watched. “Yeah,” Scootaloo said weakly. “Yay.”

***

Apple Bloom poked at her mane with a hoof. “Are ya sure Ah cain’t wear mah bow?” she asked the pink mare.

Aloe nodded firmly. “Zis iz ze dress code, important for maintaining ze cleanliness of ze spa facility.”

“Well… alright.” She poked at her mane again. It was stiff with hair gel, and felt weird to touch. Sweetie Belle had needed an even thicker coat to plaster down her curls. Scootaloo had barely needed any, and the pegasus wasn’t sure if she felt relieved or worried about that.

“So,” Sweetie Belle said. “What do we do first, Miss Aloe?”

“Nnh.” The blue-maned mare looked them over, for the first time considering that it was possible that three blank-flanked fillies might possibly not be able to live up to the expectations of the Day Spa. Brief visions raced through her mind of overflowing baths, spilled shampoo, and spines contorted under the less-than-tender ministrations of untrained hooves.

On the other hoof, she had promised them a job for the day. “Miz Bloom and Miz Scutaloo, I vill haff you sort out ze incoming mane products. Miz Belle, you vill come viz me ent help viz ze laundry room.”

“Alright,” Apple Bloom said readily. “Where d’ya want us?”

“Zere is a large closet marked ‘Supplies,’” Aloe said, gesturing down the hall. “Zere is a large box inzide. I vant you to sort out ze shampoos, ze conditioners, ze dyes, ent zo forth. Can you do zat for me?”

“Huh!” Apple Bloom chuckled. “Well, now, Ah reckon we kin about pull that off, right, Scoots?”

“Uh?” Scootaloo blinked and stopped playing with a gel-encrusted lock of mane. “Oh, yeah. Sure.”

“Eggcellent!” The pink mare smiled broadly. “I vill leave you to it. Sveetie Belle, if you would follow me please?”

“Okay!” The little unicorn set off trotting quickly after the larger mare, quickly waving to her friends over her shoulder.

“Apple Bloom?”

“Yeah, Scootaloo?”

“I really don’t wanna have a cutie mark for working at a spa.”

“Well, ya say that now,” Apple Bloom said with a grin. “But Ah betcha y’all’re gonna change yer tune if ya actually get one.”

“Mmff.” The orange pegasus flattened her ears against her head.

Bloom paused. “R’member, we’re gonna be workin’ with dyes…”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well, if we found us a thingy a rainbow mane dye that broke on its way over here…” Bloom began.

Before she could finish, Scootaloo was already throwing open the door to the supply closet. Apple Bloom smirked, following her friend in. Maybe being a spa pony wasn’t exactly top of her list for potential cutie marks, but she’d be able to shut Diamond Tiara up with it but good.

***

Rumble slouched into the spa. It wasn’t exactly a matter of posture; he wasn’t standing exactly ramrod-straight, but neither was he notably slumped. It was far more a matter of attitude. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to talk to anypony. He certainly didn’t want a hooficure or massage. Waves of sulkiness sloughed off him like a mudslide of gloom.

Thunderlane gently bopped him in the side of the head. “Hey. You going to come and get made over, or are you going to sit out here and sulk for the next hour and a half?”

Instead of responding, the grey colt fixed his brother with a Look and flew over to sit in a nearby chair. The charcoal stallion’s smile faded, but he waved at his brother before trotting up to the desk beside Flitter and Cloudchaser. There was nopony on the other side. Flitter leaned over the counter, as though expecting a pony to be hiding beneath the desk. It wouldn’t have been the least appropriate response to being confronted with her sister.

Cloudchaser herself rapped on the counter. “Hey! Service!” she called waspishly.

Moments later, a breathless spa employee had arrived at the counter. “Good morning—” he said haltingly. “Sorry— I don’t know where Miss Aloe can have gone. Have you a reservation?”

Thunderlane shook his head. “Is anypony available for three hooficures?”

The pale purple stallion glanced down at an open book in front of him. “Yes— I think so,” he said. “Please— if you would— follow me?”

Rumble, scowling, watched the trio trot back into the spa. Then he picked up a hoofball magazine and flipped it open.

This meant that he didn’t notice the large cart of towels being pushed slowly down the hall by a pale green aura, followed closely by one of his classmates. Of course, even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have much cared. So there was that.

***

Sweetie Belle, meanwhile, was not having a good time. The cart full of dirty, wet towels was not at all as light as expected, and seemed to fight her every step of the way. She puffed and sweated her way down the hall, jaw clenched. The metal cart squeaked down the tiled hall, loaded high with filthy cloth as the cart wound down to the laundry room. Miss Aloe had shown her the basics of how to run a washing machine, and then sent the unicorn on her merry way. But the cart was so heavy, so hard to move, that Sweetie could scarcely even believe that it had wheels.

Up ahead came the sound of familiar voices, ringing down the hall. “Scootaloo, ya gotta sort all this stuff, not just put it in a great big pile.”

“No, I unpack, you sort them!”

“But I’m already unpackin’ ‘em!”

“So stop.”

“No! Come on, Scoots, it ain’t that hard…”

“Ugh. Fine.”

Sweetie peered in past the door. “Hi, girls.”

Bloom glanced away from the mountainous pile of supplies. “Oh, howdy there, Sweetie. How’s laundry comin’?”

“Not great. How’s sortin’ stuff?”

“Also not great,” Scootaloo said. “Some ponies just don’t know how to deal with irrigation.”

“Ah do so! We gotta do it all the time on th’ farm.”

“I think she meant ‘delegation,’” Sweetie corrected.

Scootaloo rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the large pile of bottles and boxes in the center of the room. “So, what’s the matter with yer job?” Bloom asked, poking her nose out into the hallway.

“The cart is so heavy! It feels like I’m trying to drag along all of Rarity’s suitcases at once.”

“Hm,” said Bloom. She glanced the cart up and down. She tapped gently at its side. She nudged it with a forehoof. “Ah think Ah see yer problem.”

“Really? What is it?”

The yellow filly kicked at a metal toggle, and it flew back with a pop. “Ya had th’ brakes on.”

“Oh.” Sweetie blushed. “Oops. Thanks, Apple Bloom.”

“No problem,” Bloom said, leaning back against the cart. A moment later, she toppled over backwards as the trolley began to roll down the hall. “Maybe problem,” she muttered.

“Yes problem!” Sweetie shrieked. “Follow that cart!”

She took off down the hall, Bloom in hot pursuit.

Scootaloo glanced backwards. She was alone at last, free to search for that bottle of rainbow dye. She gazed up eagerly at the pile of cosmetics. Then, she bit back a groan when she realized that in order to find anything in that pile, she’d have to sort all of it. “Life, you are a heartless mistress,” the filly grumbled as she took the first bottles off the stack.

***

Rumble shifted awkwardly in his seat. The hoofball magazine sat, half-crumpled, in his lap as he gnawed at his lower lip. He needed to find a bathroom. Now. The colt glanced around the room, but there were no doors helpfully labeled with a toilet.

On the one hoof, if he left, Thunderlane might find out that he’d gone out of the waiting area, and he and Flitter would panic. Worse still, they’d know he hadn’t been sitting there, completely bored, for the last hour, and that wasn’t something Rumble was prepared to face.

On the other hoof, he also really didn’t want them all to come out to see him squirming in place like a toddler. And he really needed to go.

Fine. He’d risk it. He’d run into the spa and try not to get any beautifying stuff on him, find a bathroom that didn’t smell of lilac or lavender or whatever they used to hypnotize ponies into getting a makeover, and then run back out again. He shoved the magazine roughly back onto the table and made a beeline for the door. The stallion at the desk frowned. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked curtly.

Rumble glanced up. “Uh, no.”

The stallion just pointed back to the row of chairs on the wall.

There were a number of reasonable response to this. Topping the list would be explaining the need for a bathroom, receiving an apology, and then continuing on. Following that would probably just be going outside and finding a hedge. What Rumble did next was not on the list.

The colt made a rude gesture with his wing, slammed the door open, and ran down the hall. “Try to stop me, you greasy-maned jerk!”

There was a moment’s silence, and then the jerk tried doing exactly that, slamming open the door and running down the hall after the pegasus.

***

Sweetie shoved the cart into the laundry room at last, Apple Bloom at her side. Both fillies were out of breath from the exertion, and Sweetie flopped to the ground. She glanced up. “Mark?” she panted.

“Uh-uh,” Bloom replied. “Me?”

“No,” Sweetie sighed. “Still, we’d better keep going, or Miss Aloe will get upset.

“Yeah, sure. How’d’ya operate one a’ these doohickeys, anyhow?”

Sweetie pulled herself back to her hooves. “You put the towels in the hatch at the top with, um, two packets of laundry… gel… stuff. The ones that look delicious, but are actually soap.”

“Delicious?”

“Well, kinda.”

“Never heard such talk in mah life,” said Bloom, tossing in a pair of pods, followed by a clump of dirty towels. “How many pods did ya say it was?” she asked, leaning over to grab another bunch of towels.

“Two,” said Sweetie, levitating one in as she climbed up on top of the washing machine. “Or was it three?”

Bloom tossed in another load of towels. “Better do three if ya ain’t sure. Ain’t like they’re gonna get too clean.” She tossed in another pod, then a layer of towels.

Sweetie glanced in. “Good point,” she agreed, levitating in two more. Then, she frowned. Hadn’t she put in one already? She stuffed another wad of towels over the top, followed by another pod.

Bloom stuffed in the last of the towels. “There, that oughta do it,” she said, satisfied.

“Wait!” Sweetie said. “I just remembered, Miss Aloe said the pods were meant to go on top of the towels!”

The yellow filly frowned. “Hm. Well, shoot. Ah guess we’ll just hafta put three more on top.”

“That seems kind of wasteful.”

“Look at it this way, Ah bet these towels ain’t never been as clean as they’re about ta be!”

“That’s true,” Sweetie agreed, putting three more pods in. They rolled down the mountain of towels into the shadows as the little unicorn leapt back to the ground.

Apple Bloom glanced away from the controls long enough to snatch out three pods and chuck them into the machine, slamming the lid after. “Now what?”

“Oh, right. Um, warm cycle for thirty minutes, then hit start.”

Bloom turned a few knobs, then nodded and pressed a big green button. There was a sloshing, gurgling noise as the machine started up. “Woo-hoo! We did it!” she cheered.

“Yay! Mark check!”

Both fillies turned to peer anxiously at their flanks. “Aw…” Bloom sighed. “Well, Ah can't say Ah much wanted a cutie mark in doin’ laundry anyhow.”

“Me neither,” Sweetie sighed. “Rarity makes me do too many chores as it is.”

“Oh, well. Let's go help Scoots sort all them bottles out, an’ then we’ll go do somethin’ else.”

“Okay,” Sweetie agreed, swinging open the door. The duo trotted down the hall, oblivious to the foam that had begun to seep through the lid of the washing machine.

***

Rumble’s first thought was, holy mother of rut, he’s actually chasing me.

His second thought was, Tartarus, he’s pretty fast for somepony who sits at a desk all day.

The colt could outrun him for a bit, but Celestia knew how long that would last. He had to hide somewhere, lose the tail. Preferably somewhere with a toilet. He rounded a corner. An open door! He zipped inside and pressed himself against the wall. Hoofbeats pounded down the hall and soon faded away. The pegasus let out a sigh of relief. “Hey.”

And there came the tension again. For the first time, Rumble actually registered his surroundings. He was in a closet — the irony wasn't lost on him — a fairly big one. Much of the floor, however, was taken up by bottles and bottles of mane and coat care products. And staring at him from atop a mountain of the stuff was an orange pegasus with a dark pink mane. “Rumble, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Hi,” he struggled to remember her name, “Sooty.”

She blinked. “Scootaloo.”

“Right, sure.” He crossed his legs, trying desperately to look casual. “Uh, what are you doing here?”

“Crusading,” Scootaloo said with slight distaste. “Sort of. I don't want a sissy spa mark or anything, but it was Sweetie’s turn to choose.”

“Hah,” Rumble said, shifting. “I'm not here by choice either. My brother wanted to get his hooves done, and Flitter and Cloudchaser wanted facials. So I had to come along.”

“Stinks,” Scootaloo observed. “Why was that guy chasing you?”

“I — uh —” he gave up. There was a time and a place for dignity, and this was neither. “Where's the bathroom?”

Scootaloo rolled her eyes and set down the bottle she was holding. “Follow me.”

Rumble let out another sigh of relief and hastily scampered after the other pegasus.

***

Thunderlane blinked a couple times to look at himself in the mirror. Faint blue-white eyeshadow and rich, dark mascara ringed the reflection’s eyes. He grinned. “Lotus. You are an artist.”

The blue mare grinned slightly. “Vell, I do my best. Ent it helps to have such a good kinvas.”

“You’re making me blush,” the stallion said, rising from his chair. His hooves had been painted to match the shade of the eye shadow, which was meant to match his mane. Flitter clapped, smiling brightly. “Yes, fine, you’re pretty, let's go,” Cloudchaser said, rolling her eyes.

“Careful, sis. You almost sounded like Rumble there,” Flitter said, nudging Cloudchaser in the wing.

“Yeah, talking of, we’d better go get him,” Thunderlane said. “How long have we been here? An hour? Hour and a half?”

“Around that, yeah,” Cloudchaser agreed. “The runt must’ve read every magazine in the waiting room.”

“Maybe he’s been forced to actually talk with somepony,” Flitter joked.

Thunderlane frowned. “I wouldn’t mind it if he did,” he said meditatively. “But I’m not going to push him into anything. I hope you two won’t, either.”

He reached for the door handle. “He’ll come out of his shell in time, but you both know why he’s not staying at my parents’ place anymore.”

There was a brief silence as the stallion pushed open the door. It was promptly shattered as he was immediately buried beneath a mountain of suds. Flitter screamed slightly, beating her wings as she fell backwards in shock. Cloudchaser merely froze, incapable of recognizing what it was she was seeing. To her startled eyes, it looked as though the other pegasus had been eaten by a ghost.

Lotus’ perfect brow furrowed. Her mouth curled into a scowl. She knew who was to blame for this. She knew the only pony who could be to blame for this. “ALOE!” she screamed. “VHAT ze RUT did you do to ze VASHING MACHINES?”

***

Scootaloo sat outside the spa bathroom, unutterably bored. She banged a hoof on the door. “You almost done in there?”

“Go away!” Rumble shouted. “I’ve got a nervous bladder!”

The filly rolled her eyes, but stopped midway through when she caught sight of a pair of familiar figures trotting towards her. “Oh, hi, girls.”

“Howdy, Scoots. Waitin’ in line?”

“Nah. Standing guard. Rumble’s in there, and he’s acting really cagey about why he was being chased through the spa, so I want to get the whole story.”

“Oh.” Sweetie thought about this, then promptly moved on to another,, far more important matter. “So didja get your cutie mark?”

“Nah,” Scootaloo said, flicking her tail to show her flank. “You?”

“Nope,” Bloom replied, taking a seat next to the pegasus.

“No,” Sweetie sighed, slumping against the opposite wall.

“This sucks,” Scootaloo said. “I didn’t even find any rainbow dye.”

“Didja finish lookin’ through all them bottles?” Bloom asked, impressed.

“No, Rumble interrupted.”

“Excuse me, I’m sure!” the colt shouted.

“Shut up and pee,” Scootaloo shouted back.

Rumble muttered something, but kept it to himself. Apple Bloom sighed. “Well, once we’ve finished sortin’ all them bottles, Ah guess we’d best move on ta summat else. Ideas?”

“Treasure hunting!” Scootaloo said

“Butterfly catching!”

“Kite-flying!”

“Ooh, ooh, what if we went to the moon?”

There was contemplative silence. The idea had merit. Nopony had been to the moon except Luna, and she was a princess. More importantly, she was Nightmare Moon. The sheer badass effrontery of the notion stunned the trio into silence. “We couldn’t,” said Bloom. “Could we?”

Scootaloo was staring up at the ceiling, thoughtful. “We’d just have to fly really high, wouldn’t we? Higher than anypony else ever has! Aw, yeah, that’d be so cool…”

“Space has no air,” Rumble called out.

“I know that!” Sweetie said. “But we could take up some air-bubble charms and breathe that!”

“Yeah, but how will you fly without air?”

“Uh, space doesn’t have gravity, either,” Bloom pointed out.

There was a sigh, then a flush, followed by the sound of running water. Rumble shoved open the bathroom door. “Okay, no,” he said. “Literally nopony in history has ever gotten to the moon except for one princess who got sent there for time-out.”

“Hey, that’s an idea!” Sweetie said brightly. “We could just get into so much trouble that Princess Celestia will have to send us to the moon!”

Apple Bloom went a funny color. “Uh, Ah dunno ‘bout that, Sweetie…”

“How would we do it?” Scootaloo asked eagerly.

“Hm,” said Sweetie rubbing her chin. “We could be… Cutie Mark Crusader Nightmares!”

“Some might argue that you already are,” Rumble huffed. “Your little club’s only been around for a week, and you’ve already taken out a bridge, knocked down three trees, released a plague of bees, and taken more than one dessert at a fancy party.”

Scootaloo stared at the colt oddly. “Uh… how did you know all of that? Have you been watching us?”

“Wha — NO!” Rumble replied, flushing. “Why would I do that?”

“I’m told we’re very interesting,” Sweetie Belle said, striking a pose that was probably meant to be dramatic, hoof covering her eyes, head and body thrown back like she was sitting on a chaise longue, but ended up making her look like a dying fish.

“I heard it from Thunderlane and the twins,” Rumble said stubbornly.

Apple Bloom leaned over and peered at him. “Ya know, you ain’t got a cutie mark yet, neither.”

Sweetie Belle dropped her hoof. “Wait. A colt in the Crusaders? Is that allowed? Can we do that?”

Scootaloo shrugged. “Why not?”

“All in favor of lettin’ in colts?”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

Rumble rubbed his forehead with a hoof. “Ai-yi-yi,” he muttered.

Bloom looked at the silver colt. “Well? How ‘bout it, Rumble? Ya interested?”

“Oh, so I do get a say in this,” he said drily. “Well, I say—”

He paused suddenly, eyes wide. “I say, there’s a mountain of bubbles coming right for us!” he said.

“Oh, come on,” Scootaloo said, rolling her eyes. “If you don’t wanna join, just say so.”

“Uh, Scootaloo?” Sweetie said, looking past the pegasus filly.

“I mean, we aren’t gonna force you or anything. It just seemed like a nice idea,” Scootaloo continued, getting deeper into her rant. “You always look so lonely!”

“Scootaloo…” Apple Bloom said, warningly.

“Wait, are you saying you’re just doing this out of pity?” Rumble asked, eyes flashing.

“Rumble!” Bloom said, even more warningly.

“Scootaloo! Behind you!” Sweetie yelled.

“Alright, what?” the orange filly snapped, glancing behind her. Then she did a double take. A wall of soap suds was bearing down on them all. “Oh. That.”

“Into the bathroom,” Rumble said, kicking open the door. He and the trio of fillies hurried in. The foam tried to follow them, but Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle shoved it closed behind them, and Scootaloo slid the lock into place.

“Okay,” said Scootaloo calmly. “I’m gonna regret asking, but what in Tartarus was that?”

Sweetie glanced guiltily at Apple Bloom. “I… might have put in too many detergent pods.”

Bloom’s eyes turned to orange pinpricks. “Wait. Ah thought Ah was puttin’ in them pods.”

Scootaloo let out a noise of faint pain and slumped against the sink. Rumble flared his nostrils and took in a long breath. “Okay. Fine. Now what?”

Sweetie considered. “I spy with my little eye…”

“No,” Scootaloo said flatly.

Bloom glanced from one foal to the next, calculating. “How’re y’all at swimmin’?”

“I don’t think so,” Sweetie said nervously.

Rumble stared at the toilet, brow furrowed. “Hm,” he said.

Bloom looked at him askance, then followed his gaze. “Oh. Ohhh…”

***

The suds were rising rapidly now, leaving Thunderlane, Cloudchaser, Flitter, and Lotus standing atop a counter. The stallion was sopping and covered in froth, his carefully applied makeup replaced with a bubbly beard, stained black with run mascara. “Well,” he said, gazing into the rising bubbles. “If this is it, Flitter, I want you to know that I love you, and that I’d kiss you right now, except then you’d get soap in your mouth.”

The seafoam-maned mare nodded and quietly pulled her coltfriend in for a hug. “Lotus,” Thunderlane continued, “your spa is fantastic, and you’re a great masseuse and makeup artist.”

“Think you,” the blue-maned mare said, smiling tautly.

“And Cloudchaser, I drank the last of the orange juice this morning.”

“You son of a bitch.”

“I already knew you met my mother,” Thunderlane said drily, seconds before Cloudchaser shoved him into the rising tide of bubbles.

“Cloudy! How could you?” Flitter gasped, tears welling in her eyes.

“Ugh, chill out. He can stand up in that and it won’t even cover his cutie mark. Look, here he comes now.”

Indeed, up came the stallion, coughing and spitting out bubbles. He scowled at the white-maned mare, who grinned back tauntingly. He trudged his way back to the counter, pausing once or twice to shake some foam out of his ears. “I swear, I’m gonna find the mud bath under all this stuff and drop you in it,” he groused, heaving himself back up on the counter.

“Yeah, sure. S’not like I’ll be dirty for long in all this.” She waited until he was standing again, then quickly shoved him into the drink once more.

“Cloudchaser!” Flitter said, frowning.

Splash! Went Flitter, into the suds. She came up a few moments later, spluttering with impotent shock and fury as Cloudchaser laughed.

Splash! Went Cloudchaser. The other two pegasi looked up. Lotus looked very smug as the pegasus resurfaced, growling. “Oh, you’re for it now.”

Lotus regarded her thoughtfully, then sprang into the wash herself, splattering the others with laundry soap suds. Thunderlane broke down into laughter, while Flitter had already succumbed to the giggles. Cloudchaser glowered at them all and opened her mouth to say something when Lotus popped up once again, brow wrinkled in confusion. “Ze bubbles are flowing away,” she said.

The laughter broke down. “Maybe somepony opened the front door?” Flitter suggested.

“In that case, let’s go with the flow and blow this pop stand,” Cloudchaser said, setting off towards the hallway.

Lotus sighed. “Zis is not goink to be an easy clean-up,” she said.

Thunderlane shrugged. “Well, it’ll take awhile to dry, but I’ll bet you anything the spa’s going to be cleaner than it was on opening day by the time the bubbles are gone.”

The current was growing stronger now, tugging at the party’s hooves and propelling them forwards. Ahead, they could see other patrons heading in the same direction. Lotus frowned. “Zis is not ze way to ze door.”

A soft roaring noise echoed from up ahead. Flitter tried to stop, but her hooves had no purchase on the wet tile and no good way to fight back against the strong current. Behind her, the others were having similar problems, Thunderlane struggling and splashing about to keep from tipping and falling flat on his face. “Then where are we heading?” he asked.

Lotus looked befuddled. “Ze washroom!”

The soapy water was forming a whirlpool, now, spinning faster and faster. Thunderlane shoved through the chaotic throng of ponies around the door. Then he saw them. Two foals standing atop the toilet cistern, one in the sink, one clutching onto the hoofdryer for dear life. He recognized them, naturally. Three Cutie Mark Crusaders, at the epicenter of a disaster, was becoming a regular sight in Ponyville. The fourth figure, though, shocked him.

Rumble, with other foals his age. Rumble, smiling. Rumble, laughing for the first time in over a month. Laughing since the last time he’d seen his parents. A big, goofy grin crossed the stallion’s face as he watched his brother break out of his shell.

Then, he registered exactly what was going on. The whirlpool was centered over the commode. The suds were getting flushed away! He turned and pushed off the wall, half-trotting and half-paddling back to the others. “Lotus, do you think you could pull the plugs on all the baths?”

She looked perplexed for the space of a moment, then realized what must be happening. She nodded once, then waved to a pair of spa employees to follow her. As the blue mare trotted off, Thunderlane grinned dopily at the twins. “He’s smiling,” he whispered. “Celestia’s sun, he’s smiling.”

Flitter’s eyes went round and wobbly. Cloudchaser blinked a couple of times, then turned away, muttering something about getting soap in her eyes. Thunderlane just continued to beam, overjoyed despite his running mascara. “He’s got friends,” he whispered.

***

The water sunk down gradually, and soon, even the Crusaders could reach the floor without holding their breath. Rumble hopped down first, still grinning vaguely at nothing. Scootaloo half-fluttered, half-plummeted to the ground, landing gingerly on the slippery tile. “That was awesome,” she enthused.

“...Sure,” Sweetie said, wringing out her tail. Apple Bloom shook her head violently, spraying water across the room. It made little difference; the walls were dripping as it was.

One by one, they filed out the door. Rumble slipped a bit on the sopping tile, but righted himself. Scootaloo held on to Sweetie for support as the four made their way to the waiting room. “So, what’d’ya say?” Bloom asked brightly, looking at Rumble. “Wanna be a Crusader?”

The grey colt’s smile slipped as he thought about it. They seemed nice, and they didn’t seem averse to a bit of roughhousing. But he couldn’t be sure. He barely knew them! He needed a sign, some way to decide…

“Hey, bro!”

Rumble’s head jerked up. Thunderlane was grinning at him. Instantly suspicious, Rumble raised a hoof in greeting. “Hey. What’s up?”

“Not us!” Cloudchaser sniped, standing up a potted plant.

Thunderlane’s smile drooped. “Uh, yeah. We’re kind of too waterlogged to fly home right now, so we’re going to help dry off the spa again. Come and help!” He glanced behind Rumble and lowered his voice a tad. “Unless, of course, you’d rather go play with your new friends.”

Rumble glanced back. The three fillies beamed sweetly at him. He was being shamelessly manipulated, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to care. A sign he wanted, a sign he got. “Sorry, bro. Gotta go get initiated into the Crusade.”

“““ALL RIGHT!””” three voices shouted as one. Thunderlane smiled, and Rumble, ever-so-slightly, smiled back.

Then his face fell as he felt a hoof wrap around his barrel. He shook it off quickly and spun about in surprise to look at Apple Bloom’s earnest, grinning face. “C’mon! We gotta getcha ready fer yer initiation.”

“Wait, you actually have an initiation?”

“Well, no, but we all thought it was a great idea! C’mon!”

“I’ve already started writing the pledge!” Scootaloo shouted.

“I’ll get some tree sap to anoint him!” Sweetie called gleefully, already halfway out the door.

As he was dragged out of the spa by his tail, Rumble began to question exactly what he’d gotten into… and also, where all that water had drained to.

***

Carrot trotted up to Lily’s side as the florist stared out over the Ponyville reservoir. “Hey,” she said. One of Lily’s hinds twitched, kicking up a cloud of dust. She immediately paled.

“Oh, crumpets! S-sorry, Carrot, I didn’t mean—”

“Lily, it’s fine,” Carrot Top replied, placating. “It’s just a little dust, less than a fraction of what I get covered in every day during growing season — and harvest time. I'll take a shower later.” She stood next to the dusky-rose mare and gazed out at the still waters kept back for Ponyville and other, farther-off towns. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry,” the farmer stated.

Lily blinked. The way she tilted her head was reminiscent of some species of small dog, like a terrier. “What do you mean?”

“I spooked you, earlier,” Carrot said, simply. “It was mean of me, it wasn’t very nice for you, and I’m sorry I did it.”

Lily stared. “Oh.” She sat quietly for a long moment.

Carrot stared at her. “So… do you forgive me, or…”

“When was this?” Lily asked, her forehead wrinkling.

Carrot blinked like she’d been hit in the face with a frying pan. “Earlier. After lunch. I suggested we could walk with the Crusaders—”

“Don’t speak that name!” Lily squeaked. “It summons their wrath!”

“...Sure. I suggested we could go with them to the spa, and when I looked ‘round, you were gone.”

“Oh,” said Lily again. “I didn’t catch that part of the conversation. A bug landed on my nose, so I had to run away screaming.”

The farmer regarded the florist with lidded eyes. She’s your wife’s sister, Carrot. She’s family. You don’t push family into a lake, no matter how much they deserve it. “Carrot? Are you alright?”

“Just look at the Celestia-damn lake, why don’t you,” the yellow mare grumbled, glaring out at the still waters. Then, she squinted. “Huh, look, bubbles.”

“Really?” Lily said, peering out. “Where?”

“There, in the middle. See that froth?” Carrot squinted. “Huh. Is it me, or is it…” She looked up. Lily was already a good fifteen meters up the path. “Horseapples.”

She may have said more, but was cut off by the massive geyser that erupted in the middle of the reservoir.

***

And yea, where once were three, there now were four of the noble Crusade, questing ever onwards for glory and self-knowledge. These four, joined as siblings, friends, confidantes, allies, bosom buddies, pals, compadres, chummiest of chums, homeponies, amigoes, and fellow Cutie Mark Crusaders, were fated to share in many a brave and grand adventure— but not without some others.