Fluttershy was trotting. She did not seem to know where she was heading nor even if she was conscious of her surroundings, as the yellow Pegasus pony was trotting through a dark void blanketed by a thick smoke. Her face appeared calm and serene, almost completely void of any emotion. It was if this was not Fluttershy at all, but a robot specifically designed to move like her in a synchronised motion of her limbs and trot at only level of medium speed.
All of a sudden, a feeling of dread spread across Fluttershy's face. It could not be explained, but every instinct was telling her to trot onwards at a brisker pace, as if there was something nearby she should do best to get away from. She tried her best to stay calm, but the anxiety was starting to eat at her from inside.
She froze on the spot. Hearing that sound shatter the silence made her blood turned to ice. Long seconds dragged on as she stood there, straining her ears to hear it again. She heard nothing. Her head slowly turning left and right, she started to move again.
There it was again. Panic seizing her, she broke into a full gallop, faster and harder than she could recall in her lifetime. It took moments before her legs began to ache, and she breathed in strained gasps. But her body would not allow her to stop, for her blinding fear had become a mental whip that cracked at her flank, making her legs run whether Fluttershy wanted them to or not. They just carried on galloping, nearly tripping over each other, taking her as far away from whatever the danger was as possible.
Yet as she ran, Fluttershy did not stop to think about the obvious. She had no idea what she was running or where it was or even where she was going. Was it behind her? Or was it in front of her? Or all around her?
Finally, her protesting muscles overrode her terror, forcing her to stop. However, her forelegs caught on each other and she tripped and collapsed on the cold, wet ground.
Laying on the ground, half her face covered in mud, Fluttershy tried to gain a sense of what was going on. Her chest was heaving, her heart pounding like a hammer with the blood racing through her veins and her lungs by now felt positively raw. Her burned-out legs struggled but managed to stand themselves up, and she would have thought about running again, that is until the sound made itself heard again.
"Fluttershy…my sweet," it was a voice; a tender, soft voice calling out to her like a chiming bell. It was so comforting, yet at the same time able to strike terror into the young Pegasus' heart.
"N-no, NO!" Her hooves flew over her ears and she cried at whatever it was that was beckoning her, "Go away! Leave me alone!" She forced her legs to run again, though this time at a fraction of her previous speed.
The voice followed her still.
"And where are you running, dear Fluttershy? You can't run from me!"
Lifting her head, she looked forward, trying to search for some end to the darkness. She…
She saw it. She screamed and halted, her hooves screeching against the ground.
It was Fluttershy. Herself. She was staring right at her exact image, who was staring right back at her. But something was different about this Fluttershy. Half her body was silhouetted, as if she was standing in an unseen light; her complexion was a lot paler to the original's; the pupils in her eyes were dilated and her face…she looked angry, something a pony would consider unheard of for Fluttershy. She looked angry at her.
"I told you," her voice sounded nothing like Fluttershy's. Fluttershy's voice was soft and gentle like a dove cooing in a garden on a lazy Sunday afternoon. This voice was low, dark, threatening, sounding almost like her throat was caked with phlegm and she was straining to speak through it. "You can't run."
"Stay away from me! I want no part of you!"
"You don't have a say in the matter."
There was a low, metallic 'creeeaaak'. Fluttershy looked to her left and threw herself back when she saw it. A giant set of scales appeared. They were tipping to one side…in favour of the one the second Fluttershy stood beneath.
Fluttershy pressed her hooves against the sides of her head. "No!"
"Yes," the second Fluttershy said, now stepping towards her. "You've been living on borrowed time, my sweet. But now it's time."
"Stop it! I said stop it!" Fluttershy was screaming now, tears cascading down her cheeks and her hooves pressed so hard against her skull that any harder it would crack open.
The second Fluttershy broke into a gallop, charging at the first with fire in her eyes and foam in her razor sharp teeth, screaming in the most monstrous voice that Fluttershy could only fathom from the darkest corners of her mind, "I WANT OUT!"
And then she woke up.
Fluttershy regained control of her senses and looked around. She was sitting up on a bed, a blanket pulled up to her chest. It was her bed. Seconds past until she finally realised she was laying in her bed in the bedroom of her quaint little cottage right by the Everfree forest.
She looked around. Her friend, Twilight Sparkle was standing there, right by her bedside, a deeply concerned expression on her face. Past her, the shy Pegasus spotted her bedroom to be occupied by the rest of her group of close friends – Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, all of them.
"Twilight? Appleja-oh my…it's only you. I…" the yellow Pegasus put both hooves to her face as she proceeded to pant heavily. She noticed something else; bullets of sweat were rolling down her shaking, clammy face and a ring of dried saliva had formed around her white lips, reaching down to her chin. "Wh-what's going on?"
"We came to check on ya, sugarcube," Applejack assured her in her sweet, soothing, southern accent. "If ya don't mind me sayin', ya don't look like you've slept too well."
Deeply inhaling and exhaling and keeping her hooves stamped against her temples, Fluttershy whistled in relief, "I…I-I had a bad dream and…ugh, uggghhh!" That raw feeling of ache and pain that had been haunting her over the last few days returned, swamping her entire being with it. "The pain…it's back. Uggghhh, I don't think it's got better at all!" She lowered herself back against her bed, closing her heavy eyelids. The pain was concentrating in her stomach and head, the latter experiencing what could best be described as a sharp pulse beating against the inside of her skull. No matter what way she laid down, it was still there, only fainter than when sitting up.
Rainbow Dash was occupied with the short, dwindling lit candle on top of a set of drawers – the only source of light in the room. The electric lights in the room were switched off to avoid agitating her friend's already fragile state. When it neared its very last, Rainbow Dash took it in her hooves, commenting, having listened to Fluttershy to whole time, "Well, then at least we know sleep isn't working. I'm gonna go get a new candle."
As she made her way out the door, letting the artificial hallway lit spill into the bedroom in the process, she was met by yet another figure. She whispered something into his ear and as she left, he entered the room.
He left the door open ajar for some light and cautiously approached Fluttershy's bedside, quietly apologizing for knocking into the other ponies.
When he reached the bedside, he spoke to her in a firm, thickly accented voice, "Signorina Fluttershy, can you hear me?"
Fluttershy opened a tired eye to see a goblin dressed in a ragged black suit standing before her bedside, hunched over in his people's common fashion and carrying a black suitcase in one grasping green hand. She recognised him immediately as a doctor – the same one whom Twilight had called in and had been checking in on her the last few days.
She made a meek groan and nodded, and he opened up his suitcase and took out his instruments. As he occupied himself with taking her temperature, her pulse and so forth, Fluttershy took a moment to recall the events of the last week. It started off with a mild grogginess that she tried to shake off, but it quickly developed into something of an overbearing illness, leaving the poorly Pegasus bedridden. Nopony could tell what it was that was making her sick, hence why Twilight contacted a good doctor from Gobelvania her family knew well who, by pure chance, was in Equestria for the next few months. If there was anyone who could figure out the problem, it was him.
When the doctor was finishing up, Rainbow Dash walked back into the room with a new candle, closing the door behind her and setting the new candle on the set of drawers like before. She clapped her hooves and asked plainly, "Alright, so you figured out what's wrong with my friend yet, doc?"
Taking the thermometer out of Fluttershy's mouth, the doctor examined it briefly before looking back the other ponies in the room and nudging his head in the direction of the door. They understood the signal filled out of the room, leaving the doctor and Fluttershy the ones left.
"Relax, Signorina Fluttershy," he told her and repacked his things and headed out the bedroom door himself. "Your symptoms are improving, which is a good sign."
"I still feel bad, though," she reminded him gently, closing her baggy eyelids to prepare for further sleep.
"Yes…" he closed the door slowly behind him, at last letting Fluttershy be, with a faint flickering candle light to give her security. "That does concern me, but rest now."
Outside in the hallway, the doctor pointed his crooked green digit towards the living room and they all silently made their way there. It was time for the nightly 'report' on their friend's condition. It had become some odd tradition of theirs that week, an excuse for them to sit down and drink tea.
Immediately, Rarity went into the kitchen to put the kettle on; Pinkie Pie practically leaped onto Fluttershy's sofa, sending pillows flying; Rainbow Dash hovered around the room disinterestedly, carelessly going through Fluttershy's belongings like they were her own and Twilight, Applejack and the doctor sat down quietly to discuss the matter at hand.
"So, Dr Hoxhoretti…can you tell us what's wrong with Fluttershy?" Twilight, who was sitting right across from the short goblin, asked him worriedly. "We're all very worried for her and we just want to know if she's gonna be okay." After a week of seeing one she cared about in such a horrible state, the unicorn could not be blamed for expressing her distress.
The doctor leaned back in his seat and ran his thumb against his thin black moustache and told her, "I'm afraid I cannot diagnose the cause of her illness."
"What're ya talkin' about?" Applejack eyed the goblin she was sitting next to sceptically. "Isn't it your job to know?" She had taken a dislike towards the doctor from the day he arrived in Ponyville. She had nothing against him personally or his people, but something surrounding him – perhaps it was the air of superiority that came with his profession - made the Earth pony feel like she had a bad case of heartburn.
"It is not as simple as you think, Signorina Applejack," he replied curtly, slowly blinking his wide lizard-like eyes in minor irritation. "What I mean by that is that I'm not entirely sure she is actually physically ill."
As Dr Hoxhoretti was telling the ponies this, Rarity re-entered the living room, levitating a tray of cups of tea overhead with the use of her horn. Unfortunately, due to Pinkie Pie's bad habit of overreacting, this was not the best time to do so. The Earth party pony jumped up from the sofa, nearly making Rarity lose control and drop the tray.
Not paying regard to this, Pinkie Pie hoped around like a child on a sugar rush and gasped, or rather exclaimed, "You mean she's faking it? I knew it! Why I'm gonna go give a piece of my mind!"
Before she could take two steps from the sofa, Twilight instructed her firmly, "Sit down, Pinkie. That's not what he's talking about…right?"
"Of course not, Signorina Sparkle," Hoxhoretti took off his spectacles that looked relatively small for his eyes and wiped them with a silk handkerchief he took from the inside breast pocket of his black suit. "What I'm suggesting is that, basically…it could all just be in Signorina Fluttershy's head. That the symptoms she is experiencing are a result of her own mind."
"What, you mean like stress?" Rarity offered as she set the tray down on the coffee table. They all took a cup and drank, hoping the tea would ease their nerves.
"Perhaps…or maybe even a case of psychosomatic illness," when it was apparent that nopony, save maybe for the exception of Twilight understood what this meant, he continued with tedium, "Which is basically when a pony experiences physical ailments due to emotional factors. Sort of like when you read about illnesses in newspapers and magazines and a natural result is that you think you have it."
Twilight did not seem convinced by this theory. "I'm not sure, doc. I mean, yeah, Fluttershy's, well, shy, but I've never known her to be anything like a hypochondriac."
"Well, you ponies do know her better than I do," he conceded before taking a nice long drought of his tea. "And let's not forget, my speciality is physical health, not the mental," he set his cup down and got to the point, "But the more important thing here is that there are no signs of your friend's health being in any serious danger. What I'd suggest is that she stays in bed for another week or so under your care. There's no reason, as far I can see, why she wouldn't be getting better soon."
"That's a relief," Rainbow Dash yawned, floating down and nestling herself between Twilight and Pinkie. "Now we can finally get back to our lives." Like her friends, she too was concerned for Fluttershy's wellbeing, but she did not enjoy putting her fast lifestyle on hold.
Hoxhoretti took out and checked a gold pocket watch and took one last long drink from his tea, and informed them, "And I've got to be getting back to my schedule, as well. I must be heading back to the hotel now, for I have to catch the train to Trotscow tomorrow morning for the conference. Thus, I'm afraid I won't be able to check on your friend anymore. But again, do not worry; I'm certain she'll be fine."
It actually was getting quite late, more so than the ponies had realised. Twilight got up and stretched her legs and yawned, "You're right, doctor. I think we should all get back to our homes and beds now."
"Hold on there, Twilight, somepony's gotta take the shift watching Fluttershy tonight," Applejack reminded her and scanned over her friends. "So whose turn is it?"
The other ponies' eyes fell on Rarity, whom was busy drinking her own tea. When she noticed them, she went straight into weaselling herself out of it. "Oh, well, you know that normally I'd be happy to, girls, but...uh…" She darted her vision left and right and fibbed quickly, "I have to wash my mane."
"Aww, really? That's a darn shame," Pinkie Pie frowned, obviously buying it.
"Rarity, first of all, it's nearly eleven, and second, we all agreed to take turns," Twilight said to Rarity sternly. "It's just one night."
The real reason Rarity did not want to stay was a lot more ridiculous. It was because the accommodations Fluttershy's cottage provided were not entirely up to her lofty standards. She would rather be snuggled up in her four-poster bed, wrapped up in her silky blankets and her nightgown than the tiny, rough bed in Fluttershy's spare room. But it did not look like she was going to get out of this, so she conceded.
When the other ponies and the doctor left, Rarity decided to settle down right away. She checked on Fluttershy one last time, turned off all the lights and tucked herself into bed. The sooner she could sleep this night away the better.
Unfortunately, for the picky unicorn, she found herself completely unable to sleep in the guest bed. Even for Rarity, she did try to get used to it, but only ended up staring blankly up at the ceilings for hours, until finally she literally sat up and said,
"No, it's not happening."
The only way she could get anywhere near drowsy was by having another drink and maybe a read from Fluttershy's book shelf. She did both in fact, and after nearly an hour of reading the works from the acclaimed Edgar Allen Pony, Rarity felt fatigue overcoming her. Perhaps now she could rest, even in that blasted bed.
However, Rarity would not receive any sleep at all that night, and it was not thanks to the bed. When she turned the lights off for the second time and was crossing Fluttershy's bedroom to make her way up the stairs to the guestroom, she stopped. She heard a sound.
Rarity could not make the sound out at first, but she soon recognised it as the sound of two ponies in conversation. Impossible, for the only ponies in the cottage were her and Fluttershy, and the latter was fast asleep. Yet, it sounded just like two ponies talking. One voice sounded hushed and docile, the other louder and harsh, the exact opposites of each other.
It took only seconds for her track down the location of the sound; Fluttershy's bedroom. The door was open ajar. Slowly, Rarity crept up to it and raised her hoof, as if she was going to push the door open. But something kept her hoof in midair, not moving an inch forward. There was something about this that was telling her not to go any further, so instead she pressed up against the wall and peered her head forward, putting her ear to the crack so she could hear what was going on.
She would later really wish she had not done this. What Rarity that night heard and saw happening in Fluttershy's room would shake the unicorn to her very core and keep her awake many a night. She only wished she had the courage to tell her friends about it earlier. Whether it was true or just Rarity's guilty conscience, she could not help but think it would have made quite a difference.