"I wish I knew why the Cutie Map likes sending us to big cities," Fluttershy said as she and Applejack stepped off the train at Canterlot station. "First Las Pegasus, and now this…"
"It is mighty odd," Applejack said, adjusting her hat and looking around at all the gentrified unicorns strolling around the platform. "Considerin' I'm a country mare to the core, and you ain't one for crowds."
"Hopefully we can find that friendship problem soon," Fluttershy said, "and then we can go back home. I left Twilight with instructions for feeding that sick moose, but I still can't help but worry about the poor thing."
Applejack sighed. "And I'm mighty concerned about my family fillin' in for me on the farm," she said, "but our duties with the Cutie Map take priority. I just wish it was easier to find the ponies who need our help—it ain't like there's a big sign pointin' 'em out for us."
"Hm…" Fluttershy tapped her chin. "Well," she said, "it seems to me like they're always the ones who find us. So maybe we should just try to enjoy Canterlot a little bit for now. It was awfully nice of Princess Celestia to let us stay in her palace while we're here."
As they made their way out of the station and down the busy streets, Applejack chuckled. "That palace is pretty as all get-out," she said, "but it always makes me miss my good sturdy farmhouse and the feel of dirt under my hooves. I s'pose it's an earth pony thing." She glanced down an intersection. "Hey—wanna try that restaurant that Pinkie Pie and Rarity helped out a while back? They keep ravin' about the food there, so we might as well go see what all the fuss is about."
"I guess I could give it a try," Fluttershy said. "Hopefully they have dishes that aren't too spicy."
They turned down the intersection, and as they passed a newsstand, Applejack froze and stuck out a hoof to stop Fluttershy. "Hold up," the earth pony whispered.
"Wh-what's wrong?" Fluttershy asked.
Applejack pointed to a white unicorn stallion with a wavy blond mane and tail, perusing the magazines at the stand. "Ain't that—it is!" she said. "Prince Blueblood!" She tugged on one of Fluttershy's wings with her teeth. "C'mon, let's get to the other side of the street before he sees—"
Blueblood shook his head at a magazine, levitated it back to the stand, and looked up, noticing the two ponies. "Fluttershy! Applejack!" he said, adjusting his coiffed mane. "What a delight to see you two in Canterlot!"
"Er—ah—yeah—" Applejack stammered while Fluttershy attempted to hide behind her. "We were just—we're on official business, so—"
"Well, don't let me keep you," Blueblood said. "Is Rarity here?"
Applejack narrowed her eyes. "No, she ain't," she said. "And after the way you treated her at the Grand Galloping Gala, she probably won't ever wanna talk to you again."
Blueblood's ears drooped. "That would explain why I haven't been getting replies for the letters I've sent her," he said.
"Is it just me," Fluttershy whispered, "or does Prince Blueblood seem less… full of himself than usual?"
Applejack nodded. "Are you playin' nice just to get on our good side?" she asked the stallion.
"I understand why you would think that," Blueblood said, "but no. After the Gala, Aunt Celestia gave me a stern talking-to. You do not want to get that alicorn upset with you, believe me." He laughed nervously. "But she was right. I've been a terrible excuse for a prince, so lately I've been really trying to be more of a gentlecolt."
"Hmph… I'll believe it when I see it," Applejack said. "And Rarity's totally over you."
Blueblood's gaze fell. "Can't say that I blame her," he said.
Fluttershy moved out from behind Applejack. "B-but don't give up on finding your special somepony!" the pegasus said. "If you're trying hard to change, you'll find the right mare!"
"Oh—do you really think so?" Blueblood asked.
"Absolutely," Fluttershy said.
The prince gave her half a smile. "Thanks," he said. "To be honest, I wasn't particularly fond of Rarity's swooning over me—I'm pretty sure she was just infatuated with me because I'm royalty."
"Yep," Applejack said, blunt as usual.
"I'd like a mare who's more down-to-earth," Blueblood said, "but… maybe still with an artsy side?" He glanced at the newsstand. "I hope she likes poetry as much as I do. I've been trying to find some good poets lately, but all of these publications are so serious and hard-hitting. Their writing lacks a certain idealistic beauty."
"That does sound depressing," Fluttershy said. "If we find a mare who likes poetry, we'll let you know!"
"Oh, splendid!" Blueblood said. "Now, I shan't keep you any longer. Good day!" He trotted off down the street.
"Why did you tell him that?" Applejack asked Fluttershy as they continued to where Rarity said the restaurant was located. "I wouldn't wish him on anypony!"
"He doesn't seem like the same Blueblood that gave Rarity a hard time at the Gala," Fluttershy said. "If he's trying to change, I think he should be supported in that."
"You got way more patience than I do, sugarcube," Applejack said. "But just so you know, I ain't keepin' an eye out for any special somepony for him. We came here to solve a friendship problem, not play matchmaker."
"Well, you never know…" Fluttershy said as they stepped into the Tasty Treat. The warm aroma of a pungent blend of spices enveloped them, and they craned their necks as they looked around at the exotic furnishings.
"Welcome, welcome!" said an orange unicorn with a curly dark mane. "Please, take a seat! Can I get you started with a cold lassi?"
"I'm assumin' you're Saffron Masala," Applejack said as she took off her hat. "We're Applejack and Fluttershy, friends of Pinkie Pie and Rarity. They won't stop talkin' about your restaurant!"
Saffron laughed. "Good, good!" she said. "That means more business!"
"What's a lassi?" Fluttershy asked as they sat down at a table, sinking into the cushions placed around it.
"A drink made from fruit and yogurt," Saffron said. "Would you care to try it?"
"It's not spicy, is it?" Fluttershy asked.
Saffron tapped her chin with her hoof. "Now that would be an interesting combination…" she said. "But no, our lassi is very sweet!"
"Oh, good," Fluttershy said. "I think I'll give it a try."
"Me too," Applejack said. "Twilight Sparkle's always sayin' I need to 'expand my horizons'."
As Saffron gave them menus and then bustled into the kitchen, Fluttershy looked around at the other ponies in the restaurant. "I wonder if we'll find our friendship problem here," she said.
"Hopefully it ain't Saffron and her pa again," Applejack said.
"Ew, this daal is all wrong," a mare said from a nearby table. "The proportion of the spices is off, and it's already getting cold."
"Well, um," another mare said from the same table, "they are pretty busy today… and it's only two of them working here…"
"That's no excuse for sloppy business," the first mare said. "They should hire more chefs and waiters. I'm sorry, Sonnet, but you need a new favorite restaurant."
"Yikes," Fluttershy whispered to Applejack. "Somepony woke up on the wrong side of the hay this morning…" They glanced over to see who was complaining.
Two unicorns sat at a table with their lunch. One, dark red with a maroon mane and tail, wore a displeased scowl on her face as she magically pushed her food away from herself. The other unicorn, pastel pink with a mint-green tail and a mane to match that fell demurely over one of her periwinkle-colored eyes, stared down at her food in embarrassment as she absently tapped her plate with her spoon. A pair of saddlebags sat in the cushion beside her.
"I'm sorry, Deadline," said the unicorn who was most likely Sonnet. "I just wanted to take you someplace nice for lunch…"
"Well, next time let me pick," Deadline said. "Since the food's a wash, let's pop in to that bookstore before I go back to the office. I want to see if they have that new book about King Sombra's reign. Apparently it really goes in-depth about how he oppressed the Crystal Empire."
Sonnet cringed. "Oh…" she said, looking aside. "Sounds… scary."
Deadline observed her for a moment. "Oh, come on," the red unicorn said. "Don't be so sensitive. It's important to learn about the mistakes of the past so we don't repeat them. Did you know there have been reports from the Crystal Empire lately about prejudice toward non-Crystal Ponies? We could be seeing a new Sombra situation in the making!"
As she went on about Sombra and the Crystal Empire, and Sonnet continued to look uncomfortable while she tried to enjoy her food, Applejack turned back to Fluttershy. "Are you thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" the earth pony asked.
"Friendship problem?" Fluttershy asked.
"If that ain't a friendship problem," Applejack said, "then I'm a pig's cousin. C'mon, let's go—"
As she stood to leave, Fluttershy held out a hoof. "Wait," the pegasus said. "I don't think we should rush into this. We should keep observing them so we know how to help them. Besides, our lassi is here."
Sure enough, Saffron had arrived with two frothy pale drinks. "Thanks kindly," Applejack said, taking hers. "Excuse me, but, uh, do you know those two ponies over yonder?" she asked, pointing to Deadline and Sonnet.
Saffron looked over at the two. "Sonnet comes in often," she said, "but this is the first time I have seen that red unicorn. Oh dear—she does not look like she is enjoying our food."
"Well, I'm enjoying it immensely," Fluttershy said as she sipped her lassi. "This is amazing! The mango really pairs well with the yogurt."
"Couldn't agree more!" Applejack said, taking big sips of her drink.
"Oh, wonderful!" Saffron said. "Have you decided on your order?"
"What would you recommend?" Applejack asked.
"Well, our curry is always a winner," Saffron said. She looked over at Fluttershy and smiled. "But it is quite spicy, so for you, perhaps some aloo gobi—potatoes and cauliflower?"
"Oh, that does sound good," Fluttershy said. "I'll have that, thanks."
"And I'd like to try that curry!" Applejack said. "A little heat can't scare me off!"
As Saffron left for the kitchen again, the two turned their attention back to their potential friendship problem. Sonnet was now meekly nibbling on what appeared to be a dessert dish, while Deadline looked bored.
"Oh—I wrote another poem for the magazine!" Sonnet said, levitating a notepad out of her saddlebags. "Do—you want to hear it?"
"Sure," Deadline said, not seeming particularly enthusiastic.
Sonnet's face lit up as she flipped through the pages. "I had a lot of fun with it," she said. "It's about a hippogriff and a griffon who are friends—"
"Oh, I like where this is going," Deadline said. "Do they struggle tragically to break away from their respective societies' preconceptions of the other species?"
"Um… no," Sonnet said, scanning her poem. "They do have a picnic together, though!"
Deadline threw up her hooves. "Ugh… that's way too sentimental," she said. "I'm sorry, Sonnet, but I can't put that in the Silver Horn. I'd be laughed out of the business."
"I understand…" Sonnet said, putting her notebook away. "Sorry…"
"You have to start getting darker and edgier, Sonnet!" Deadline said. "Ponies need to read things with meaning! They have to connect with the pathos of struggle and pain! Your writing just isn't very realistic."
"I'm not so sure I like Deadline's version of reality," Fluttershy whispered to Applejack.
"Okay," Deadline said, "I'm assigning you a new project. The Silver Horn hasn't had a piece about dragons for a while, so I want you to write me an epic dragon tale. Make sure there's lots of fighting and drama—and I don't want any happy endings this time! Dragons are rude and mean-spirited, so portray them accurately! Oh, and it should be long enough to run for at least twelve weeks, got it? You need to start cutting your teeth on longer works."
Sonnet sank down in her seat. "Um… that sounds a little out of my league," she said. "I'd rather not…"
Deadline rolled her eyes. "You creative ponies are such flakes," she said. "You're all so irresponsible and emotionally immature. That's why you need ponies like me to keep you in line."
Applejack stood up. "I'm sorry," she said to Fluttershy, "but I can't take any more of this. Hey!" she said, clopping over to the unicorns' table. "Stop bullyin' her!"
Sonnet looked confused, while Deadline scowled. "Stop sticking your muzzle in other ponies' business!" the red unicorn said. "How rude!"
"Ain't nothin' compared to the slop you're spoutin' to this poor unicorn!" Applejack said.
"I did not come here to be yelled at by a country yokel I can barely understand!" Deadline said. She stood up and dropped a few bits on the table to pay for her lunch. "Sonnet, I'll see you later. I'm heading back to the office."
Sonnet looked utterly embarrassed and bewildered as Applejack sat down next to her. "You okay, sugarcube?" the earth pony asked.
"I, uh…" Sonnet said as she watched Deadline leave. "I think you really upset her…"
"Good," Applejack said. "Somepony needed to call her out."
"Is she your friend?" Fluttershy asked Sonnet as the pegasus sat down at the table with them.
Sonnet smiled. "Oh, yes!" she said. "Tight Deadline is my best friend!"
"No offense," Fluttershy said, "but she doesn't seem very… nice."
"She's really nice!" Sonnet said. "She lets me hang out with her, and she critiques my writing, and…" She paused. "And she… um… yeah!"
"Neither of those things strike me as particularly nice," Applejack said. "Does she comfort you when you're upset? Make you laugh when you're feelin' blue?"
"Does she go out of her way to help you?" Fluttershy asked. "Would she put you above most other ponies?"
Sonnet looked at the two for a moment, then slowly her gaze sank to her dessert. "Well… no…" she said. "But… I couldn't ask her to do all those things for me, it's too selfish…"
"The thing about friendship," Applejack said, "is that you never have to ask the other pony to do those things for you. They do 'em automatically 'cause they care about you."
Two plates of food levitated down to the table in front of Fluttershy and Applejack. "Switched tables?" Saffron asked as the food's hearty aroma filled the area.
"Somethin' like that," Applejack said as she dug into her curry. "Whoo-ee!" she said, scrunching up her muzzle. "That's mighty hot! Leaves a nice burn on the tongue!"
"Oh, and this isn't spicy at all!" Fluttershy said as she nibbled on her aloo gobi. "It's delicious! Thank you, Saffron!"
"You're welcome!" Saffron said. "I'm glad you are enjoying our food! I am sorry it did not appeal to that other unicorn."
"She… she's always like that," Sonnet said quietly. "I'm sorry. But your barfi is delicious as usual."
Applejack eyed Sonnet's dessert. "I'm not sure I'd wanna eat somethin' named 'barfi'," the earth pony said.
Saffron laughed. "The name may sound strange to you," she said, "but it is just a sweet made from condensed milk and cashews!"
"That does sound good," Fluttershy said. "May we get an order of that?"
"Certainly!" Saffron said, trotting away to the kitchen.
Sonnet looked back up at the two ponies from Ponyville. "Are you saying… Deadline's a bad friend?" she asked.
"Well…" Fluttershy said.
"Yes," Applejack said, swallowing another mouthful of curry. "I think you two have a friendship problem."
Sonnet put a hoof to her mouth. "I never thought about that before…" she said. "I was just so happy to have a friend for once… it didn't occur to me that there could be such a thing as a bad friend."
"Maybe we can help you fix things," Fluttershy said. "Let's start at the beginning. How did you two meet?"
"We were both in the same writing class in school," Sonnet said. "Deadline was struggling with a project, and I helped her. She invited me to her writing club, and I've been tagging along with her ever since."
"Do you enjoy the writing club?" Fluttershy asked.
Sonnet took too long to answer. She absently dragged her hoof across the table. "Well… I know it's making me a better writer," she said. "So I keep going. But…"
"But?" Applejack prompted.
"No… I don't enjoy it," Sonnet admitted. "The other writers' work is depressing and scary, and all they do is argue and nitpick at each other's writing. I always come away feeling upset, discouraged, and… worse about myself."
"Then I'd say it ain't makin' you a better writer," Applejack said. "I may not be very creative myself, but I know when somethin's not workin' right. Our friend Rarity is real artsy-like, and she's always does her best work when she's confident and true to her artistic vision."
"Do you have any other friends, Sonnet?" Fluttershy asked.
Sonnet shook her head. "I've… always had a hard time finding friends," she said. "Other ponies tell me I'm too sensitive and I need to toughen up."
"I'm much the same way," Fluttershy said, "but my friends don't give me a hard time about it. They look out for me and help me keep myself safe from the things that upset me."
"You ain't 'too sensitive'," Applejack said. "You're nice. And Canterlot needs more ponies who are nice. You ain't the one who needs to change—they are."
"I guess I hadn't thought about it like that…" Sonnet said.
"I s'pose it's not somethin' that would occur to you if you've never heard of the idea," Applejack said.
Sonnet thought for a moment, then nodded. "I… I need to go tell Deadline that I won't do her 'assignment'," she said firmly. "And that she needs to start being a nicer friend to me."
"Atta girl!" Fluttershy said.
Sonnet bit her lip. "But what if she gets mad at me?" the unicorn asked. "What if she doesn't want to be friends anymore?"
Applejack sighed. "Then find yerself a new friend," she said. "Somepony who's willin' to treat you way better."
"I'm scared there isn't anypony else who will want to be my friend," Sonnet said.
"In my opinion," Applejack said, "not havin' any friends at all is better than havin' bad friends who really mess you up. You gotta be honest with yerself and with Deadline—if this friendship ain't workin' out, no sense pretendin' like everything's okay."
Fluttershy nodded. "I know you care about Deadline," she said, "but you have to care about yourself, too. Be kind to yourself."
"I… I'll try," Sonnet said.
"Delicious barfi, just for you!" Sonnet said, levitating onto the table a large platter of crumbly white squares.
Applejack grinned. "But first," she said, "let's enjoy dessert!"
"Feel free to have some," Fluttershy said to Sonnet. "It's on us."
The unicorn's face lit up and she levitated a piece of barfi toward herself. "Oh… thank you," she said.
Applejack took a tentative bite of the exotic treat. "Land sakes, this is good!" she said. "Fluttershy, we might need to make this our go-to place to eat whenever we're in Canterlot!"
"I think so, too!" Fluttershy said before taking another bite of her piece.
Sonnet smiled at them. "I hope someday I have friends as kind as you," she said.
"Let's get you on the right road to that," Applejack said.