The light flared on, making Applejack recoil as she adjusted to the unexpected brightness. Her reflection walked over and sat down on the opposite side of the short table, leaning back in the chair.
Applejack flicked her ear in the uncomfortable silence. “Um, so what's that there tool you have?”
The reflection lifted the metal rod she'd been bossing Twilight around with before. “This? It's a rifle. Gun, firearm, whatever you want to call it.”
“What's it used for?”
“Killing griffons. And the occasional pony.”
Applejack stopped talking. After all, how could you respond to that?
After a few more minutes of silence, in which Applejack grew quite fidgety, her reflection finally spoke up.
“You seem like a nice enough pony, Applejack. You're a farmer, right?”
“Yes'm. Ah own an apple orchard.”
“As do I. And you use it to feed the town?”
“Well, at least we have that in common. You'd do anything to protect your family? Even give up your own life?”
Applejack responded without hesitation. “Of course.”
The pony took off her fedora and smiled tiredly. “Good.”
She placed the hat on the table, allowing her mane to fall around her neck as some of the weight on her mind was relieved. “Finally, I have someone to talk to. I'm Jackie. Simple as that. I'm the sole provider for the food here in Moon Pool. My land's the only arable land around. My family also takes care of the kids around here, so they're protected from attacks. Despite all the hatred between us and the griffons and the other cities, nobody stoops low enough to attack the children or the food sources. We at least respect the need for life to continue. Especially when there is so little food.”
“Ah heard whispers of there being a food shortage?”
“Food shortage doesn't begin to describe it. It's nothing short of a Famine.”
“Is that why you don't feed the prisoners?”
“It's a large part of it. We don't even have enough to feed ourselves.”
“Really? 'Cause ah mean, we were able to buy some drinks at the pub, so there must be some outside source of food.”
“Well, yes and no. It's unreliable and they charge quite a bit. Most can't afford the drinks you had, except on special occasions. Then there's Spectral Slash, who I swear is the pony that keeps the pub in business. When I say sole provider, I mean that I'm the only one that's dependable and fair.”
Applejack held up a hoof. “Now, ah don't want to come off as attackin' or nothin', but I've been doing some thinkin'. You're my reflection, and we already learned this fella of yours, Spectral Slash, is the Element of Betrayal. And Pinkamina is the Element of Despair. So, me being the Element of Honesty, you'd probably be Dishonesty, right?”
“So are you just leadin' me on? Makin' me think you're nice when it's really a big scam?”
“The Elements aren't as simple as you might think. Not that I'm insulting your intelligence. After all, you can study all you want, but if you don't know how to apply it, are you really smart at all? Allow me to give you a different perspective.
“We reflections have been watching your world for some time, with mixed feelings. More than anything, I was surprised.”
“Surprised? How so?”
“Well, for being the Element of Honesty, you do an awful lot of lying.”
Applejack stood up and banged a hoof on the table. “Hey! I only do what's necessary. Everypony knows I'm honest in my business dealings.”
“And that's about as far as it goes. Just a moment, I think I gathered some notes...” Jackie lifted a pad of paper which she set next to her hat. “Alright, so the most obvious time was when Pinkamina was attempting an aggressive takeover on Pinkie. You and your friends planned that surprise party, and you had the misfortune of taking the brunt of her mistrust. Now, I understand you were bound to secrecy, yet you still blatantly lied to a direct question.”
She held up a hoof as Applejack began justifying herself. “Let me finish. The thing is, it's not just you. Fluttershy, for being Kindness, has a tendency to lose it every now and then, doesn't she? I even heard Shuddercry admitting she was impressed with how she attacked -Pinkie and Rarity, correct?- after she got that assertiveness training. Then there's Pinkie Pie. Perhaps she's a special case due to being a mixed personality, but Pinkamina strongly says she has no control over Pinkie. Pinkie, though she usually makes it up to them in the end, often makes people more frustrated, annoyed, and sometimes even angrier than they would have been if she'd stayed out of it all together. That Donkey that moved to Ponyville, for example. For being the Element of Laughter, she caused an awful lot of hassle. Then that experience with the cake for the contest on the train...Really? Could any sort of laughter come from wild accusations about criminal activities? And she seemed awfully willing to attack her friends in the matter too.”
She shook her mane again as she finished. “I'm not saying you or your friends are terrible people. Far from it, you're actually quite wonderful. But it seems to me that your Elements, rather than being a rule of what you are and do, are what you need to learn to uphold. You have the tendency for Honesty, and it's pretty obvious when you're lying. And though you don't prefer it, you still don't have any real qualms about lying, or rather, avoiding the truth. How was cherry picking, by the way?”
Applejack swallowed. “Well, uh, I guess you got me there. But I had my reasons, didn't I? Sure, I might tell the occasional white lie or dance around subjects, but don't everybody?”
“Nobody does anything, good or bad, without their reasons. The evil are completely justified from their point of view. That's why court systems try to get to know the crime, not the person. Because if they got to know the person fully, understanding every bit of their history and trials, they'd go free every time.
“Now, on the flip side, Applejack, you have a talent for getting people to be Honest with you. Twilight was blunt with you when she let you know you needed help harvesting your orchard. Your younger sister trusts you completely, and spills all her troubles to you.
“The same idea holds true for the other Elements. Rarity, being Generosity, is still business savvy. It's not like she goes broke because she gives everything away. Perhaps even more so because people are generous to her. Your dragon friend, Spike, was willing to give his prize ruby when she asked for it, and for another, perhaps more trivial example, Rarity used her charm to beguile that colt out of his asparagus.
“Twilight? She's the Element of Magic, and there's no doubt she's good at it. But she still needs to learn its borders. Her Want It Need It Spell is a prime example. Her fail-proof spell when the Lord of Chaos arrived? She needed to learn that there is no such thing as fail-proof. Beyond that, she's still learning the true extent of Magic's synonym. Friendship. I could go on, but I'll leave you something to think about.”
“Well, ah guess ah see what you're sayin',” said Applejack, lowering her head as she took this in. “Does this apply to you reflections too?”
“Oh, of course. Spreading Despair only causes it to come back to yourself. The same with Betrayal, Brutality, Avarice, and Destruction. Deceit? Debatable. But there you go. Perhaps I'm deceiving myself. The master lier lies best to herself.”
She stepped around the table to Applejack, donning her Fedora on the way. “Come with me. Big Mike should be coming back soon from market.”
“Big Mike?” Applejack laughed. “Ah bet ah can guess whose reflection that is.”
Jackie chuckled. “Yeah, I'll bet you can. He lent you the cloak you're wearing earlier.”
“Ah knew he looked familiar!”
They walked out of the barn, if you could call it that. It was more like the solitary confinement buildings at the prisoner camp. Low to the ground and imposing. “You produce the apples here,” Applejack began. “And everybody needs what you have, even more so than where I come from. So why the weapon? Why the secure buildings, if the other towns don't attack?”
Jackie frowned as they continued walking. “That's where my Element of Deceit comes in. Everybody in town knows, or thinks they know, that I'm just as cruel as the Sergeant herself. It's only because I have to be. Some ponies get pretty desperate to fill their bellies. Sometimes we have to put them out of their misery, as an example to any others who might be foolish enough to mess with the order we have set up.
“After all,” she sighed, “If a single being threatens the system, no matter how innocent or good their intent, they must be taken down. Because the complacency of the masses is more desired than the well being of the masses. That's the greatest Deceit of all. The idea that anything is ever as it first seems, and that anything ever is perfect.
“After all, those in control are only pony.”
Pinkamina Diane stood alone, a flickering street lamp her only company. It was growing late, after all, and most had returned to their homes. Nobody had noticed her, as usual. She was a misfit, even before she had merged with Pinkie. She was confused, lost, and hurt. She pawed at the ground, pushing the snow aside to reveal the frozen earth. Even now, the master plan was in motion. Someday she'd have the peace she desired.
But there was no joy at the thought. No excitement. She knew this plan would fail. The other reflections were blind. Only she knew the truth. She had no control over Pinkie. And the moment she gained it, if she ever did, she would no longer be Pinkamina. She'd be a defiled creature. Neither light nor dark, tainted by the cruelty of the Forgotten and tortured at the memory of the happiness that once was.
Pinkamina shut her eyes, concentrating. The air around her shimmered like the road underneath her might on a summer's day, so far distant now in the darkness of winter. After a momentary flash, she was gone.
Pinkie opened her eyes. She stood outside Sugar Cube corner, the light inside alluring and welcoming. She bounced inside, wondering where her friends were, throwing up the snow as she went. She was quickly distracted, however, by the warm smell of freshly baked cupcakes which greeted her entrance. One sat on the counter, a small tradition of sacrifice the Cakes had started to appease their babysitter's appetite. She bounded over, taking a deep breath of the fragrant baked good. She picked it up, readying herself to take a monstrous bite.
Pinkamina opened her eyes. She stood alone, the street light greeting her return, flickering out for the last time now that it no longer had to worry about the lost friend. Pinkamina looked down at her hoof, which held a small pink confection. So startling bright against the snow, against this world of shadow. She held it, lost for a moment in just the sheer color. It seemed a shame to consume it.
She took a tentative bite. Nothing.
She couldn't taste it. Just as Pinkie was not made to understand her troubles, she was not made to understand the true pleasures of reality. They could only understand through each other.
She trembled. Whether with anger or sorrow, not even she knew. She had to get out of here. This world. This fight. Somehow, she had to escape. But unlike so many others, she actually had a way to.
Pinkie blinked in confusion. She had been trying to take a bite of her cupcake, yes, but she didn't remember taking this one. With a shrug, she popped the cupcake in anyway.
She grinned as she took in the flavor. The Cakes had done it again. She savored every morsel, rather than pigging out as she usually did. Chills ran up her spine from the sweetness, and she giggled at the sensation.
It was a Pinkie Sense she had only felt a couple of times before. The sensation of bliss.