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An Exercise in Frustration

by Nadir

It’d been a simple task really. Make a lead balloon float like a normal, hydrogen and plastic one. Twilight couldn’t exactly understand why she’d been given this task in particular, but Celestia handed it down much like any other test, calm and kind. She had, however, added on that it was rather urgent, and that Twilight needed to do it as soon as possible.

It seemed simple, and that’s what made it so hard. Any good science loving pony started with measurements, and Twilight had them in spades. The precise weight of the balloon, the length and width, even the pseudo circumference at the top. She calculated the exact force needed to lift it and that force ended up being… quite a lot, really. More than any gas or propulsion could possibly give in a way that wouldn’t instantly burn out or have fuel for more than a moment’s time.

That’d been Twilight’s first guess - mount a miniature rocket to it that put out just enough lift for the balloon to ‘float’. That didn’t work, mostly because the amount of precision required for such a thing seemed impossible to measure on her own, much less the skill needed to magically combine the two items as well as having fuel to keep iit floating. No, she’d already crossed that idea off as a non-starter.

As had her next few ideas. Finding a gas to lift this wouldn’t work, reducing gravity in the area around them could theoretically be possible but required so much energy or magic that even a unicorn of her power could likely only hold it for a few seconds. Somehow managing to get it into the lower atmosphere where it would float due to the lack of gravity technically seemed correct, but not the actual answer to the question, especially since that didn’t really seem to be ‘floating’.

Every time Twilight felt she was on the threshold of having a working idea, something pulled it away from her. That ‘something’ usually ended up being reality, which had been a real pain in the ass for this project all things considered.

And now here she sat, staring at the stubborn thing on the floor in the midst of her library's basement. Her eyes bored into it, her gaze so intense that she might just bore a hole into it. No hole appeared, mostly because she hadn’t developed laser vision quite yet - perhaps after this lead balloon debacle.

There had to be an answer. Celestia wouldn’t waste her time with something like this unless it had valuable scientific or friendship lessons attached to it! Friendship lessons didn’t seem like the choice, so it had to be science, right?

Unfortunately, she’d find her studies interrupted. Not for the day, but for a little while with that little thing called ‘friendship’.

Fluttershy wanted Twilight to come see her new garden, something that she’d been excitedly chattering about for weeks. Well, it was really more of a hurried whisper, but for Fluttershy? Might as well have been the same thing. No matter the conundrum, Twilight knew she couldn’t let down a friend like that, besides, it’d be nice to get out and see a friend for a while instead of the same four walls for hours on end.

One last look at the balloon and out Twilight went into the world. She’d give her mane a quick brush to make sure that it didn’t scream ‘mad scientist’ too badly, but other than that, she needed no preparation.

The path to Fluttershy’s seemed quiet today, not something that Twilight could possibly complain about. She did, of course, smile and give little waves or nods of her head towards ponies that she did see, but by and large, there seemed to be few out despite it being a rather lovely afternoon. Or perhaps that’s exactly why she didn’t see them - she imagined that many ponies found themselves in similar spots to her and had already arrived where they intended to spend their day.

Regardless, Twilight could see Fluttershy’s cottage in the distance now, which meant the garden should be- ah, there was the path, a small, dirt thing that led to the east of the cottage. She’d make her way down it, just a short while before finally catching her first glimpse of what Fluttershy spent so long on in the last few weeks.

In a clearing in the woods, planters and wooden enclosures occupied most of the floor. Plants of all types filled up the different containers, some on trellis like things, others growing squat and close to the ground on their own. Distantly, Twilight heard a faint stream running, the place where Fluttershy generally fetched her water from. Twilight already spotted a few plants budding, a tomato plant there, a small blueberry bush here, even some tulips over on the side.

Something about the setup seemed immensely peaceful and beautiful both. Nature dominated in the best of ways, and just enough space had been left on the furthest side, under some shady trees, for a picnic to enjoy the bountiful fruits of Fluttershy’s labor.

Under the trees, a checkered blanket and her friend waited on Twilight. Fluttershy seemed to be lost in conversation with a squirrel, chattering on about something or another. Once upon a time, Twilight asked Fluttershy what she and the animals talked about, but had never really gotten a satisfactory answer beyond vague things.

A wave left her and Twilight called out. “Hey Fluttershy!” A trot through the garden brought her ever closer, as a smile and a soft ‘hello’ greeted her in kind. She plopped herself down on the blanket, getting herself nice and cozy in the shade. “This looks amazing, Fluttershy! It really seems like you’ve put a lot of work into it. Why, I bet you’ll have all sorts of plants growing before the winter,” Twilight complimented.

Fluttershy’s dainty smile answered her first, as well as a bow of her head, half hiding away her face behind her mane as Fluttershy nearly always did. “Oh, um, thank you Twilight. It’s been a lot of work but I think it’s worth it. Thank you so much for coming out here. I always wanted to share it with a friend from the very start,” she assured, the smile trembling ever so slightly. “Would you like a daisy sandwich?” she asked, nodding towards the picnic basket.

Twilight nodded her head and out came the food, daisy sandwiches with a side of strawberries and a pitcher of lemonade that had hidden behind the basket. Fluttershy fixed each of them a plate while Twilight talked on. “Are all these things from your garden?” she asked, looking out back towards the boxes. She could definitely see a strawberry runner, though daisies she couldn’t make out. That didn’t mean they didn’t exist, just that she couldn’t see them from here.

“Oh, I meant to tell you girls, sorry that I haven’t been around much lately,” Twilight went on, looking back towards Fluttershy, “I’ve just had a project to work on that’s been a lot more time consuming than I thought and I didn’t want to let Celestia down,” she explained. Though, at the same time, Twilight felt oddly guilty about it, looking away and delicately rubbing at the back of her mane as she spoke.

Of course, Fluttershy didn’t seem anywhere near as bothered, shaking her head ever so delicately with the pink, soft mane moving along with it. “Oh no, Twilight, don’t feel that way at all! The girls and I all understand that your work with Celestia is ever so important. We’d hardly want to get in the way of your studies,” she said, voice melodic and soft both.

Still, Twilight felt something prickling at the back of her head, and even the first bite of the best daisy sandwich she ever had couldn’t stop it from poking at her. “Oh, I know, really.” She’d stare down at her plate, not quite about to meet Fluttershy’s eyes in a strange twist of fate. “It’s just, I miss hanging out with your girls, I think. You are all so important and special, and this project just seems like the exact opposite of that. It’s mundane and… and boring, if I’m honest!” Twilight admitted, scrunching her face up in confusion. A few more bites of the food would help, right? Maybe, maybe not but she’d try regardless.

A yellow hoof reached out and Fluttershy met Twilight’s eyes fully for the first time, her own full of sympathy. “Your friends are still here for you regardless,” she assured. “Um, Twilight? If it’s okay, the rest of us have been wondering what exactly you have been working on. It’s just, not usually our business, but since you’ve been gone so long it’s been making us, um, more and more curious,” she explained. Though, even as she asked her question she looked away, a faint blush on her cheeks as her hooves came back.

Well, Twilight didn’t see the harm in answering, even as she picked at the strawberries. “Well, Celestia wanted to make me let a lead balloon float. As in, a balloon made out of lead, a really, really heavy thing instead of a real balloon. I’ve done all the mass calculations and theoretical work already, and it seems like no matter how much lift I can- Well, I’ll spare you the boring technical details.” Twilight interrupted herself with a toothy smile, hardly wanting to make the conversation all about her.

Even if Fluttershy seemed to be perfectly fine with it, like she always did. Element of Kindness, after all. “I can’t um, really understand the point of that,” Fluttershy admitted. “It doesn’t really make any sense. Gosh, what do you really get out of doing it? What does the Princess get from it?” Fluttershy asked, the shy mare only now starting to pick at her food.

Twilight frowned, feeling like she should have an answer for that and simply not having one. She looked away, towards the trees and the babbling brook beyond. “I-” another interruption as she did her best to think. “I don’t know. I didn’t really think much about that, the Princess told me to do it so I figured there’d be something important about it,” she admitted, looking back at Fluttershy slowly. “It doesn’t advance any scientific fields at all, and it certainly makes no sense as a friendship lesson. My best guess was something philosophical, but Celestia and I don’t really do that kind of thing.”

A huff left her as she looked down at her sandwich like it’d personally offended her. “I should really ask, shouldn’t I?” she asked, half to her sandwich, half to Fluttershy.

Unfortunately, the sandwich didn’t answer her question, fortunately, Fluttershy did. Another hoof pat touched against Twilight before Fluttershy answered, the kind smile on her face reminding Twilight of when she talked to Spike. “I think you should. It might help with your, um, project. You know, tell you what you’re supposed to do. Besides, the girls and I would really like you back more, so the sooner it’s done, the better.” Fluttershy finished quite firmly, unexpected as could be.

Twilight’s smile faltered, but only for a second. “I’ll ask,” she agreed. The look Fluttershy had started to give her, that stern one, relented, and her hoof came back, back to poking idly at her sandwich while the two talked. “And make sure that I come outside more. I really do miss you five too,” she admitted. “It’s been hard, it really has. Being alone so much. Spike helps, but it’s not the same as having a full group to spend time with.” A hint of sadness struck Twilight’s voice, only now realizing exactly how depressed this had made her. Over time and slowly, but sad nonetheless. “I’ll come out more. For sure.”

“Good. I definitely, um, look forward to it.” Fluttershy nodded quite enthusiastically for her, which was a few light nods and nothing more. “I’m um, sorry it’s been hitting so hard Twilight. Perhaps we can talk about something else besides um, the balloon. Oh! Can I show you my petunias? they’re really coming in strong now!”

The conversation melted away, back to talks about Fluttershy’s garden and what their other friends had been up to. It let Twilight stop thinking about the stupid balloon and the whole project, mind busy with more pleasant affairs. For a while, she smiled and felt happy, invigorated for the first time in weeks. For a while, things felt right.

At least for a few hours. Several hours later, she found herself back home, back in her basement once again, staring down the familiar balloon that she’d learned to hate so much. In the back of her mind, Fluttershy’s words from the garden echoed in her mind - why was she doing this?

With a light grumble, Twilight stood at her desk with all her notes stacked on top of each other. Another huff and she’d pull off a light piece of paper, quill joining it as she wrote words with a frustration that hadn’t often graced the paper she sent to the Princess.

Dear Princess Celestia


Why did you give me this stupid balloon? Why did you give me this stupid project? The more I work on it, the more I hate it, and the more I work, the less of my friends I get to see. That seems kind of counter intuitive to what my studies are supposed to be, doesn’t it?

After all, you were the one who sent me to Ponyville to make friends, you were the one who told me to get close with other ponies. So why are you giving me a project that rips all that away?

I hate this project. It’s stupid and doesn’t make any sense, nopony benefits from it at all and I’m starting to suffer for it over here. If being your student means working on this then-

Twilight paused while writing her letter. She’d never been this harsh or strongly worded in a letter before, but then again, she’d never been pushed quite this far. With a self assured nod, she kept going.

Then I don’t want to be your student anymore. I want to spend time with my friends and care about them and not some stupid balloon.

Yours dearly,
Twilight Sparkle

Foolish? Perhaps. Overreacting? Maybe. But her friends meant everything to her now, and the longer and longer she worked on this, the further and further distant they felt. And it wasn’t their fault! It was all hers.

With a frown, her horn lit up, folding the thing up in a scroll. A flash of magic - a spell replicated from dragonfire, though one that took a lot of effort - sent the thing off to Celestia, who’d receive it near instantly.

Which, naturally, flared Twilight’s mind up with worry. She’d told the Princess off, told her that she wouldn’t be her student anymore except under certain conditions! What if the Princess did disown her and they never spoke again, what if-

Her worry cut itself off, because a scroll popped into being in front of her, golden light announcing it’s arrival and nothing more. A full blown Twilight brand panic attack had started to flare, having it cut off before it could even become a thing was probably best for everypony.

Still, trembling magic unfurled the scroll, and for a few moments, she couldn’t look at it. The vague sense of sickness welling up inside her told her it would be the worst, that they’d never speak again and this would be the end of their relationship. The more sensible part, however, eventually let her stare it over,

Dear My Faithful Student

Thank you for writing, Twilight. I know it wasn’t easy for you to say those things, and I imagine it hasn’t been easy for you the last few weeks either.

I thought about stopping the project several times over the last few weeks, but my sister assured me that you’d pull through, and you did.

You see, this wasn’t about the balloon. No, this was about boundaries and learning to say no. You’re a wonderful, bright, vibrant mare, Twilight, and I deeply worry that it will let ponies take advantage of you, or waste your time - such as having you work with a lead balloon for weeks - or even sour your relationship with your friends because you couldn’t say no.

I knew that just telling you this wouldn’t help, and that you, as a scientific mare, would understand it must better through demonstration. And thus, the lead balloon was born.

You showed with your last letter that you’re willing to set boundaries and say no even to your teacher, which means you’ll be able to say it to anypony. Remember, boundaries are important, and show respect for yourself and your friends as well.

I’m sorry that it had to go this far and I’m glad that you’ve been able to reach the end of it. Consider the project officially over. I’ll be around tomorrow to take the balloon back.

And to spend a day with my faithful student, if she’ll allow it.

Her Royal Highness,
Princess Celestia

Twilight read the letter once. Then twice. Then three or four times before it finally processed in her head. A test. It’d been a test or a lesson about setting boundaries and saying no. All of that and it simply ended?

In a way, she understood it. She would have never said no to Celestia before, or even to Applejack or Rarity, or any of her friends. But her work over the last few weeks hadn’t been healthy for anypony and-

And she’d needed the boundary. To say no.

With a sense of relief, Twilight lifted her quill for one more letter.

Dear Princess Celestia.

I look forward to seeing you tomorrow and to spend time with you once more.

Please never give me another test that isolates me from my friends ever again.

Your Faithful Student,
Twilight Sparkle.

Boundary set.