SECRETS AND LIES
By Saddlesoap Opera
Part Five: The Cosmic Joke
Applejack frowned up at the gathering clouds as she trotted down the street. Judging from their dark colour and the occasional rumbles of thunder, the Pegasi had scheduled some storms, but she couldn’t recall hearing about any. She made a mental note to check the almanac when she returned to the farmhouse.
A flicker of movement from a side-street caught Applejack’s attention; she stopped and turned to peer into the alleyway.
The stallion was half-hidden under a pile of dogeared and water-damaged scrolls and pages, his brush-top blue mane tangled and his sunken eyes wide and watchful.
“Th-There’s too many of them!” he said in a fearful hiss. “They’re EVERYWHERE!”
Applejack cantered over and crouched in front of him.
“Ya found somethin’ out?” Applejack matched Thunderlane’s low volume, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper.
He shuddered. “I c-can’t take it anymore! It’s too much! They’re AFTER me, I know it!” He cringed, hiding his head under his front legs.
Applejack cleared away some of the pages. At a glance they made little sense, mostly consisting of names, times, and arrows marked with shorthoof symbols she didn’t recognize. She pressed her front hooves to Thunderlane’s shoulders and shook him.
“Who, dang it? Who’s after ya? Who’s gone bad?”
Thunderlane kept his head hidden and pointed a hoof skyward.
Applejack looked up, and met the gaze of an ice-blue-maned lilac Pegasus mare standing on a rooftop. The mare narrowed her eyes and scowled. Thunder rumbled.
Applejack froze in shock; all at once, the pieces fell into place to form a terrifying picture. She hadn’t been able to find the conspirators in the streets of Ponyville because they’d been above them the whole time!
She stooped down to whisper in Thunderlane’s ear. “You musta took an awful risk ta tell me this, friend,” she said. “Don’t ya worry none – when all this is over, I’ll see ya get a MEDAL instead o’ just a pie!”
As Applejack stood and trotted off, the oppressive grey skies loomed all the larger above her.
Up on the rooftop, a second similarly-coloured Pegasus mare alighted next to the first.
“Pathetic,” said the first, sighing in irritation.
“What a disgrace,” agreed the second.
“If he couldn’t handle weather-work, he, like, shouldn’t have taken the job.”
The second mare rolled her eyes. “I know, right? La-a-a-a-ame.”
Down in the alleyway, Thunderlane burrowed deeper under his pile of notes. “C-Clouds! Too many clouds!” he muttered. “They’re everywhere!”
• • • • • • •
Sweetie Belle took a sip of her juice-box.
Scootaloo munched on a carrot stick.
Apple Bloom sat between them behind the schoolhouse, watching her two best friends pointedly ignore each other. She sighed.
Across the field, Diamond Tiara took in the sight of the unhappy trio and chuckled.
“You didn’t have to get into ANOTHER fight with her, you know.” Silver Spoon was half-turned away, lying on her belly and hoofing through a magazine. She was speaking as much to a passing cloud as to her best friend.
“I didn’t WANT to,” said Diamond. “Sweetie Belle is the only one of those three with any class at all, and her sister made me this incredible dress, so I tried being nice. And see what it got me? If my fabulous fashion hadn’t distracted Miss Cheerilee, I could have gotten punished for getting cussed at!” She harrumphed. “I guess she isn’t like her sister after all. Serves me right for being nice to a blank-flank.”
Silver Spoon shifted uncomfortably. “W-Well, for a little while, I was nice to a blank-flank…”
Diamond turned to face her and scowled. “You said you’d never hold it over me that you got yours first! You PROMISED!” She put up her nose in a huff and turned to trot away.
Silver Spoon leaped to her hooves and gave chase. “Wait! I know I promised, I know! But I…” She sighed. “Never mind. I’m sorry.”
Meanwhile, Scootaloo turned up her nose and draped a front leg over Apple Bloom’s shoulders. “Apple Bloom, tell Sweetie Belle that we wanna find a different partner for the Triple Tiara relay race. Maybe she should go ask her new best friends over there.” Scootaloo nodded in Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon’s direction.
Apple Bloom frowned. “But–”
Sweetie Belle cut Apple Bloom off by pulling her out of Scootaloo’s grasp and into her own. “Apple Bloom, tell Scootaloo that WE don’t wanna be in the race with HER if she’s gonna be a jerk!”
Apple Bloom’s frown deepened. “Whoa, hay now–”
The little Earth Pony suddenly found herself pulled back and forth in a tug-o-war as her friends traded insults.
Both Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo pulled in opposite directions, and shouted: “COME ON, APPLE BLOOM!”
Apple Bloom’s hooves slipped from their grasps and all three foals tumbled to the ground.
“FINE!” said Sweetie Belle. “Maybe I’ll just finish my lunch over there!” She turned away as she got to her hooves, put on her saddlebags and then trotted off.
“See if I care!” replied Scootaloo. “I’M going THIS way!” She picked up her bags and trotted off in the opposite direction.
Apple Bloom, still flat on her back, sighed a dejected sigh. “Well, NOW what am I s’posed ta do?” she muttered.
At the far side of the field, Scootaloo’s moody wandering had brought her to the spot where Diamond and Silver had spoken. The breeze had blown the forgotten magazine closed. Scootaloo examined the cover:
Equestria’s Premiere Fashion and Modeling Magazine Since 954 A.C.
The little Pegasus’s gaze settled on the lean, statuesque, cream-coloured, gossamer-clad Pegasus mare below the magazine’s title; specifically, on the broad, fine-boned, lushly-feathered wings supporting her in midair. Every pinion was a work of aerodynamic art.
Scootaloo craned her neck to examine her own short, downy wings. At their full extension, they were shorter than a single one of the covermare’s pinions.
With a furtive glance around, Scootaloo picked up the magazine and slipped it into her saddlebag.
• • • • • • •
Cheerilee frowned. “Can’t I take the display piece? That one over there? I need to get back to the school before lunchtime ends, and I’ve just got to have that dress!”
Rarity frowned back. At last count, her racks held more than two hundred dresses, but lately it seemed like everypony just wanted her newest design. Well, not EVERYPONY, she thought sullenly.
“It’s not a display piece, it’s–” Rarity sighed in frustration. “For Celestia’s sake, how did you even know I came up with a new dress design?”
Cheerilee chuckled awkwardly. “Uhh, well, you know how it is. Word gets around…”
“I’m sorry to let you down, but I’m not continuing that line. It’s really meant to be a one-off. Of course, I’d be happy to work with you to design something that suits you perfectly!”
Cheerilee stepped closer, her stare growing wild and desperate. “You’ve already DONE that! It’s right there! I’ve never SEEN such an incredible outfit!” She held Rarity by her shoulders and shook her. “You don’t understand… I’VE GOTTA HAVE IT!”
“Cheerilee!” shouted Rarity in dismay. “Get a hold of yourself!”
Cheerilee’s expression turned from mania, to shock, to shame; she let Rarity go, stepped back and fought to catch her breath.
“I’m s-sorry, Rarity. It’s such a wonderful dress... I couldn’t control myself!” She turned away and sighed. “With so much of my time dedicated to teaching, I almost never get the chance to spoil myself.” She turned back to face Rarity. “Don’t get me wrong,” she added hastily, “my students mean the world to me! But the last time I felt… pretty… it was because the Cutie Mark Crusaders POISONED me!”
Rarity gave a wry smile. “I remember. You left a very pretty hole in my wall!”
Cheerilee winced. Her blush was visible even through her burgundy hide. “I’m so sorry about that, Rarity. We Earth Ponies are usually a LOT more careful with our strength. Oh! That reminds me! I never asked – did what I gave you cover the damages?”
Rarity tittered behind a front hoof. “Of course! You were very generous.” Rarity paused. “… In fact, I think I should do something to make up the difference. Give you your change, as t’were.”
Cheerilee’s expression brightened. “You mean…?”
Rarity nodded and then ignited her horn.
Cheerilee’s eyes lit up, glittering like Rarity’s diamond Cutie Mark.
• • • • • • •
Carrot Top stood at a small table in Sugarcube Corner and adjusted the malachite-cameo-topped ribbon tying back her mane. The keepsake – a gift from dear old Great Aunt Chantenay – had always brought her luck, and she expected no less from it today.
Mister Cake stepped out of the kitchen holding a tray of cupcakes in his mouth. He set the batch down on the counter and smiled brightly when he saw her.
“Why, if it isn’t Golden Harvest! I haven’t seen you since Filthy Rich’s foal’s party – how have you been?”
“Aww, shucks,” she said, waving a front hoof to match the statement, “ya can just call me Carrot Top, ya know. Most folks do.”
Mister Cake mussed the top of Carrot Top’s mane affectionately. “I know, I know. Ah, it seems like only yesterday you were smaller than my twins are now.” He looked to the floor for a moment, and sighed at the memory. “How is your mother doing?”
Carrot Top ran a hoof over her mane to smooth it. “She’s well. Y’all have known each other fer a real long time, huh?”
Mister Cake nodded. “Almost our whole lives. She even helped me get my Cutie Mark.” He smiled a small, nostalgic smile, but then shook his head. “But that was a long time ago, of course – before I met Cup and your mother met your father.”
“Say – y’oughta come round some time an’ catch up. I bet she’d be real happy ta see ya!”
Mister Cake rubbed the back of his neck with a front hoof. “Th-That’s nice of you, but with the bakery and our babies I’m pretty busy these days.”
A moment as silent as a passing cloud went by before Mister Cake thought of something else to say:
“Ah! Speaking of the bakery, are you going to wait for your date to arrive before you order?”
Carrot Top’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Whut makes ya think I’m on a date?”
“Well, if you were here alone you would have ordered something by now.”
“Maybe I’m just waitin’ fer a friend!”
“If it was somepony you knew that well, you could order for them.”
“Okay, fine! MAYBE I’m waitin’ fer somepony, and MAYBE it’s a date.” Carrot Top huffed and frowned in mock annoyance. “Shewt! Are all you bakers this per-ceptive?”
Mister Cake chuckled. “No, just me. Well, me and–”
As if in answer, Pinkie Pie came tumbling down the second-floor stairs like a toppled statue, her legs locked and her ears covering her eyes.
She staggered to her hooves once her ears unfolded and her legs relaxed enough to let her bend her knees.
“Wooh,” she said, rubbing her bruised face below her black eye, “guess I musta overdone the exercise a little!”
Before Carrot Top and Mister Cake could respond, the bakery’s front door opened and Applejack trotted inside.
She tipped her hat. “Sorry I’m late, Carrot. But there’s been some really–” Applejack’s eyes widened as they passed over Pinkie Pie. “TARNATION! WHUT HAPPENED TA YER FACE?”
Pinkie Pie gently poked the tiny fresh bruise under her black eye. “Aww, what – this? It’s nothing! I’ll be fine!”
Applejack frowned, shook her head, and then turned to address the three Ponies before her. “Listen up, y’all,” she said in her best authoritative round-up voice. “I found out somethin’ mighty troublin’ just now, and we need ta spread the word about it. Awright?”
“Spread the word?” Pinkie’s bruises restricted her broad grin somewhat. “I LOVE spreading the word… especially when the word is chocolate frosting!” She licked her lips sloppily.
“It ain’t like that,” replied Applejack. “There’s some bad apples here in town. Some Pony-folks are workin’ for…” Applejack looked left and right, as if suspicious of eavesdroppers. “Discord.”
Pinkie Pie, Mister Cake and Carrot Top shared a stunned gasp.
“D-D-Discord?” said Mister Cake bravely. “Are you sure?”
Applejack nodded. “Twilight warned me about it, an’ now it’s been confirmed.”
“Shewt!” said Carrot Top. “THAT must be what Rainbow Dash meant when she said there’s worse than criminals here in Ponyville!”
“She did? Well that clinches it,” said Applejack gravely. “Dash skipped givin’ one o’ her biggest fans a flyin’ lesson the other day – she’d only miss a chance to fly if somehin’ BIG was goin’ on. She musta already known about this back then!”
“We gotta raise the alarm!” said Pinkie, thrusting her head behind the counter and pulling it back now wearing a dome-light-topped safety helmet. “Put up posters, open the party shelters… call the WONDERBOLTS!”
“NO!” said Applejack. “Not them! This here’s Earth Pony business.”
“But why?” asked Carrot Top. “If there’s trouble, shouldn’t we–”
Applejack shook her head. “We dunno if we can trust ‘em. We dunno if we can trust ANY of ‘em.”
“Why not?” asked Mister Cake.
“Because…” Applejack narrowed her eyes. “The ones workin’ fer Discord are all Pegasi.”
While Mister Cake and Carrot Top stood in shocked silence, Pinkie Pie turned away and stooped to speak to her pet baby alligator.
“Wow, Gummy!” she whispered. “This is pretty intense! But don’t worry… if anything REALLY scary was gonna happen, my Pinkie Sense would warn us!”
Pinkie smiled warmly, adjusting her stance to compensate for the shivers in her spine, the shudders in her tail, and the pinching in her knee.
Gummy’s only response was to blink one eye at a time.
• • • • • • •
“Can you say Spike, Peewee? C’mon, try it: Spi-i-i-i-ike.”
The tiny Phoenix stared up at the baby Dragon towering over the nest and replied with a small whistle.
“Close enough!” Spike mussed his little friend’s brilliant head-plumage and giggled. At the sound of the front door opening, Spike leaned over the edge of the library’s middle balcony and lowered his shades.
Twilight Sparkle stepped outside.
She sighed. “I just need some fresh air, Dash! You–” She tripped over a small paper bundle on the doorstep and stumbled forward. She sighed in irritation. “–You don’t have to come along.”
Rainbow Dash followed her outside, pausing for a moment to examine the careful hoofwriting on the package. “Are you sure? Cause if there’s anything – anything – you need…”
“YES, Dash. I’m sure. Why don’t you and Spike make sure we aren’t missing any books after all the shelf mishaps lately?”
Dash frowned, but then nodded. “…Okay.”
As Twilight trotted off, Spike hopped down into the library’s foliage and slid his way down to land next to Rainbow Dash.
“Don’t feel bad, Rainbow Dash,” said Spike cheerily. “We’ll get done in no time!” He tilted his head to peer past Dash. “What’s that?”
“It’s ginger for Tank. I guess Fluttershy musta flown by.” Dash looked up at the grey sky; thinking about flight made her wings itch and her heart ache.
Spike pensively stroked his chin with a claw. “You know, if Twilight’s on a walk, nothing’s stopping you from stretching your wings a little. You’re getting kinda stir-crazy being cooped up in here – last night you were flapping in your sleep!”
Dash fidgeted nervously. “Wh-What? I wasn’t – I mean, I probably was, but Twilight’s counting on me to…” Dash’s eyes strayed skyward again; the clouds thundered invitingly. She bit her lip. “…Maybe just a quick wing around the block?”
Spike grinned. “Sure! I’ll cover things here. Fly around a bit. Oh! Or you could even give Peewee a flying lesson!”
Dash’s eyes widened.
The memory of purple eyes wide with hero-worship and tiny orange hooves hugging her leg drained Dash of her enthusiasm.
Spike peered at Dash over the top edge of his shades. “Are you okay?”
Dash shook her head. “Y-Yeah. I was… remembering something. Y’know what? I don’t think it’s a good time to fly. It looks like they’re planning a storm, and I don’t wanna cramp anypony’s style up there. Let’s just go get on those books.”
She turned and trotted back inside the library without another word.
• • • • • • •
Carrot Top’s expression soured. “ – She’s a real nice Pony! She loves her foal more’n anythin’, and she always tries her best ta make her rounds on time!”
Applejack frowned back. “Yeah, but how well do ya really know her? Where’d she come from? Who’s her foal’s daddy? An’ why’s she act so… well, derpy, all the time?”
The two of them leaned back for a moment as Mister Cake reached his head down between them to pick the now-empty tray off of their table and trot away to take it into Sugarcube Corner’s kitchen.
“Hay now!” Said Carrot Top sternly as she leaned forward once more. “Ya can’t go thinkin’ somepony’s EVIL just ‘cause they’re a mite bit different!” She looked away. “After all, I seem ta recall that a certain somepony had a lotta trouble controllin’ what she was sayin’ not so long ago.”
Applejack blushed. “Th-This ain’t like that!”
Carrot Top met her gaze. “How so?”
Applejack sighed. “It’s ‘cause o’ Twilight. I ran into her the other day, an’ she was actin’ like Ditzy was dangerous. She had her cornered with her horn, and…” Applejack shifted uncomfortably. “…she was tellin’ her ta bring the other Ditzy back.”
Confusion creased Carrot Top’s righteous expression. “What other Ditzy? What’s that even mean?”
“I ain’t sure. But it’s gotta have somethin’ ta do with this Discord business!”
Carrot Top shrank back, her brows knitting anxiously.
“…What? What is it?” asked Applejack.
“W-Well, back when that ornery Griffon came ta town, and Pinkie Pie held her that party, I started feelin’ pretty awkward when the argument started getting fierce. So I stepped outside fer a bit.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow. “And…?”
Carrot Top inhaled and released the breath in a slow sigh. “And Ditzy was there – outside on the street. When th’ Griffon came out they had words, and Ditzy, she… she knocked her block off!”
Applejack stared. “Ditzy scrapped with Gilda the Griffon?”
Carrot Top shook her head. “Naw… she HUMILIATED her! I ain’t never SEEN a Pony move that fast in a fight. She beat that critter so bad that she couldn’t even FLY! An’ the look in Ditzy’s eyes…” Carrot Top shuddered. “I never told this t’anypony before. I tried ta ask her about it later on, but she didn’t even know what I was talking about.”
A sudden thought made Applejack straighten in shock. “But that party was before Discord even broke loose! There’ve been bad Pegasi in Ponyville fer that long? Shewt, I gotta tell Twilight!” Applejack turned toward the door.
Carrot Top stood and stomped her front hooves down in the tabletop. “No! This ain’t right! Ditzy’s never been anythin’ but good, as long as I’ve known her!” Her eyes shone. “She can’t be on Discord’s side… she can’t be!”
Applejack’s stern expression softened. She trotted around the table and pulled Carrot Top into a hug.
“I’m sorry, Carrot Top. I really am. I know better’n most – sometimes the truth can be a real bitter thing. But please… we need ta tell Twilight.”
Carrot Top pulled back to face Applejack, and then silently nodded.
• • • • • • •
Meanwhile, Twilight trotted down Stirrup Street, lost in meandering, insomnia-frayed thought.
“Everypony’s pretty much doing fine,” she mused to herself. “Five out of six is enough, isn’t it? The book only mentioned five. Maybe the Princesses never figured out the sixth at all. And Discord stayed locked away for THOUSANDS of years. Maybe they don’t need me. Maybe we CAN do this. Even if I’m–”
She turned to face a charred, blackened Pony skeleton wearing a singed propeller beanie.
Twilight yelped and staggered back, stumbling into a passing Earth Pony stallion; by the time she regained her balance, the skeleton was nowhere to be found.
“S-Sorry. Excuse me,” Twilight muttered.
“Now you’re falling asleep standing up?” she chided herself. “You can’t lose control like this. No slacking until it’s over. Not until you’re absolutely sure he won’t get out. Wake up, Twilight!”
Twilight shook her head, took a few slow, deep breaths, and then trotted on.
Pinkie Pie trotted around a corner, hopping and humming as was her wont. When she met Twilight’s gaze, she inflated like a balloon.
Twilight scowled. “I said, WAKE UP!”
She dunked her head in a nearby public trough, shuddering from the shock of the cold water.
When she lifted her head, all Twilight could see through the sopping strands of her mane was a wall of pink. Pinkie was really there. All of her.
“Hi, Twilight!” said Pinkie, waving a dangling hoof. “Wassup?”
Twilight wiped water out of her eyes with a foreleg. “E-Everything’s fine Pinkie. H-How are you?”
Pinkie snapped back to her normal size in the blink of an eye, only for her right legs to fold up into a sitting position. She tipped over.
“OOF! Fine here, too! Just out spreadin’ the word!” Pinkie smiled up at Twilight; her ears flapped.
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What word?”
Pinkie got to her hooves. “About the evil Pegasus-es-izzes-ss-SBBL-BBL-BBL!” Pinkie’s tongue blew a raspberry, apparently without her consent.
Twilight stared. “The WHAT?”
“Habba-blaah blubba-ba-ba buh-blah!” Pinkie’s tongue continued rebelling.
Twilight said nothing.
Pinkie cleared her throat. “S’cuse me! Applejack said there’re Pegasus-es working for Discord, so I’m warning Ponies to watch out!” Her tail quivered and then spun like a propeller.
“It’s Pegasi,” Twilight corrected reflexively.
“Them who?” applejack asked as she and her next-farm neighbour trotted up.
Pinkie pointed a hoof skyward. “The pegasuseses!”
“So, ya already heard, huh Twilight?” said Applejack.
Twilight turned around to face Applejack.
“Not really,” said Twilight. “What’s all this about evil Pegasi?”
“It’s just like you and Dash figured,” replied Applejack. “There’s Pegasi in Ponyville workin’ fer Discord, and there have been for a long while – before he first got out, even!”
Twilight tilted her head in confusion. “Like Dash and I… w-what?” The twisting thread of the conversation was rapidly taxing her already-overtaxed mind.
Carrot Top stepped forward. “Hay, now – you pay attention! You said there’s more’n one Ditzy Doo, right? W-Well I need ya ta promise me ya won’t hurt the good one. All right?”
“Ditzy?” said Pinkie. “The mailmare?” She winced as her knee pinched for no reason.
“I didn’t mean… that isn’t what I…” Twilight sat and pressed a front hoof to her forehead. “It’s not Ditzy. She’s strange, but she isn’t working for Discord.”
Carrot Top sighed in relief.
Applejack frowned. “So WHO, then? You told me ta keep my eyes open fer trouble here in town, an’ I did. An’ everythin’ points ta Pegasi.”
Twilight jerked in surprise. “Wait. You really found something? Something else?”
Applejack scoffed. “O’course! Didn’t ya think I would?”
“No – I mean, yes!” Twilight rubbed the back of her neck with a front hoof. “Sorry. I’m a little tired.”
Pinkie Pie’s mane jerked upward into a Bride-of-Pferdenstein beehive and then flopped back down. She ignored it. “Okay, so now we just figure out who’s a Pegasus AND a meanie-pants here in Ponyville!” She giggled and leaned over to whisper an aside to Carrot Top: “I love detective work! I have a hat and everything!”
Carrot Top shook her head. “That won’t work! There must be DOZENS o’ Pegasi in town! T’ain’t like ya can just ask somepony which ones of ‘em are snakes and which ones ain’t!”
Applejack and Twilight shared a sidelong glance.
“Actually,” said Twilight, “We can.”
Applejack nodded. “Fluttershy.”
“Fluttershy,” said Twilight.
“Fluttershy!” agreed Pinkie. “Wait… why Fluttershy?” She shivered so severely she seemed to vibrate.
“Fluttershy had a… difficult… foalhood, and more than her fair share of bullying,” said Twilight. “I’ll ask her who was the meanest, and the ones who live in Ponyville will be our prime suspects.”
“Ohhhhh,” said Pinkie. “Gotcha.”
“Good. I’ll let you all know what I find out.” Twilight turned and trotted away, her gait and path slightly uneven.
Carrot Top watched Twilight go. “Hmm. She looked run-down. She oughta get more sleep.”
Pinkie Pie nodded sagely and then tap-danced in place, not giving the slightest sign that this was unusual.
• • • • • • •
On a typical day, Miss Cheerilee would never have allowed Scootaloo to peruse a magazine in the middle of class.
However, on a typical day, Miss Cheerilee would not be wearing such a fascinating new dress.
While the bulk of the class crowded around Miss Cheerilee – and left Scootaloo with a poor view of her, anyway – the little Pegasus did some research.
“A Pegasus mare’s wings should be smoothly feathered,” she read to herself, “with no flyaway down, for ideal air… aerodynamic appeal.” Scootaloo looked down at her own fuzzy, stubby wings. She frowned.
At the front of the class, Diamond Tiara was standing next to Miss Cheerilee. “You know, you have ME to thank for this fashion sensation. I gave Rarity the idea to take the line public! I guess I was just born to turn heads!” The little Earth Pony posed proudly, while the crowding students ooohed and ahhed.
Scootaloo rolled her eyes and then kept reading. “A Pegasus mare’s mane and tail should be worn long and loose, free to flow with breezes, with no product or dye.” Scootaloo’s brows knitted as she looked up at her short, spiky, dark-streaked forelock.
Miss Cheerilee mimicked Diamond’s pose before responding to a student’s comment. “Good question, Archer! I may be a teacher, but I still like to dress up now and then. I guess I just felt like today was the day!” Her lashes batted over her glittering eyes.
At the back, Scootaloo read on. “To maintain a suitably elegant suh… silhouette in flight, a Pegasus mare should be fit but not overly muscled, and weigh less than nine stone.” Scootaloo raised an eyebrow. “Okay, but how heavy is a stone?”
Apple Bloom leaned over from the next desk over. “Stones? They’re MIGHTY heavy! Big Macintosh pulls ‘em outta the fields now and then, and they’re almost as big as HE is!”
Scootaloo shook her head. “That can’t be right. I can’t weigh myself with those! But what else could stone mean?”
“Weighin’ yerself with stones?” Apple Bloom pondered for a moment, and then inspiration struck. “Wait, I know! We need ta get outside. You go on ahead – I’ll be out in a sec.”
Scootaloo pointed at Miss Cheerilee. “But, what about the cla–”
Miss Cheerilee giggled bashfully. “Autographs? But you all see me every day! Oh, all right. Maybe just one or two.”
Scootaloo frowned. “…Yeah, okay. I’ll meet you in the yard.”
Minutes later, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo stood in front of the old seesaw in the schoolyard.
“Okay – Scootaloo, you sit on that end,” said Apple Bloom.
Scootaloo trotted over and perched on the lower side of the seesaw.
Apple Bloom placed a small bucket on the upper side.
Sweetie Belle trotted up, a purple velvet sack dangling from her jaws.
“Hay there – did ya manage ta borrow gems from Rarity?” asked Apple Bloom.
Sweetie set down the sack. “Yeah – she was pretty distracted, so she didn’t mind, but I still don’t see–“ She scowled. “HAY! What’s she doing here?”
“Yeah!” said Scootaloo.
Apple Bloom stomped a front hoof. “Now cut that out! We’re all best friends, an’ even if you two’re havin’ a row, yer both still friends with ME. An’ I’m here ta help Scootaloo. So if you wanna be a friend ta ME, Sweetie, ya’ll lend me a hoof.”
Sweetie Belle sighed. “Fine.”
Scootaloo turned to Apple Bloom. “So how’s this even work?”
“Well, it doesn’t make no sense at all to weigh a Pegasus with great big stones, so I thought, what else could stone mean? Then I remembered GEM-stones! So I had Sweetie Belle get some from her sister, and now we just toss gems in the bucket until the seesaw evens out.”
“Ohhh!” said Scootaloo. “That makes sense! Go for it!”
“Okay…” Sweetie Belle opened the sack and picked out an emerald between her front hooves. She reared up, threw it into the bucket, and said:
Apple Bloom did likewise with a sapphire. “Two.”
Sweetie added a ruby. “Three.”
Scootaloo’s eager smile faded when Sweetie Belle counted seven.
It was replaced by a dismayed frown when Apple Bloom counted twelve.
By the twenty-first gem, Scootaloo’s wings and ears were drooping, and her pupils were pinpricks.
When the seesaw finally leveled out, Scootaloo’s voice was barely above a whisper:
Sweetie Belle wiggled a front hoof. “Ehhh, more like Thirty-eight-and-a-half. I think that last one had a bite taken out of it. So why did we do all this, anywa–” Sweetie Belle trailed off.
Scootaloo was crying.
Sweetie Belle sagged guiltily. “I… I’m sorry, Scootaloo. I don’t even like Diamond Tiara! She got that dress all by herself! Honest!”
Scootaloo shook her head. “Th-That’s n-not it!” she whimpered.
Apple Bloom trotted closer. “Then why’re ya cryin’?”
Scootaloo looked up to face her friends. “Why? Because now I have PROOF! Because I’m so ugly and stumpy and FAT that I’m NEVER gonna fly! THAT’S why!”
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle slowed to a trot on the path leading up to Fluttershy’s cottage.
The serenity of the place – the singing birds in well-kept wooden birdhouses, the gentle babbling of the narrow brook, the scent of the herb garden on the warm breeze – salved the pain of the past week’s horrors.
Twilight’s eyelids drooped as she lost the nervous energy her tension had given her.
She stumbled, shocking herself back to alertness. She shook her head, sat, and then slapped her cheeks with her front hooves.
“Wake up, Twilight!” she told herself once more. “You can do this. This is probably a wild goose chase anyway. Just find out what you need to know, and you’ll be one step closer to some rest!”
Twilight trotted up to the front door and raised a hoof to knock. Before she could, however, Fluttershy’s soft voice reached Twilight’s ears through the door:
“No, I can’t. I had to run an errand earlier, and now I’m behind. He’ll be so upset if I don’t replace it soon!”
Fluttershy chuckled softly, and answered a series of chirps and whistles. “Oh, he’s not that bad. You just need to get to know him. Once he comes back, I’m sure you’ll be friends in no time!”
Twilight shrugged, and then knocked.
After a moment, Fluttershy opened the door. “Oh! Hello, Twilight. I wasn’t expecting you. What a nice surprise!”
“It’s nice to see you too,” said Twilight as cheerfully as the fatigued scratch in her voice would allow. “I’m just stopping by to ask you a question or two – I won’t be long.”
Fluttershy turned and headed back inside. “Um, all right, Twilight. Can I get you some tea?”
Twilight trotted into the living room and flopped down on a green divan. “Sure. That would be lovely.”
While Fluttershy went to the kitchen to fetch the teapot, Twilight’s gaze wandered around the living room. She surveyed the modest bookshelf, the omnipresent animal beds and birdhouses, the stone fireplace… and a basket of sewing notions on the floor next to the divan. The corner of a piece of brown cloth hung out of the basket.
A subtle, formless, creeping dread slithered up Twilight’s spine.
She forced a low chuckle. “Th-that’s ridiculous, Twilight,” she told herself. “You’re being ridiculous.”
Twilight turned away from the basket and squinted at the titles of the herbals and animal husbandry books on the shelf, but in moments her eyes crept back to the scrap of cloth.
Helpless to stop herself, she reached out a front hoof and lifted the basket’s lid.
At the bottom of the basket, a loose brass button on a bed of brown corduroy and shredded rags stared back at her.
The world lurched.
Twilight scrambled to her hooves and dodged rolling bric-a-brac as the floor tilted. She backed away from the basket as the cottage walls stretched to towering heights above her.
A serpentine shadow streaked downward from the vanishing point that was now the ceiling, its mismatched talons reaching out to seize her. A deep, mocking laugh echoed off the looming walls.
Twilight Sparkle squeezed her eyes tightly shut and screamed into her front hooves.
“Twilight…?” Fluttershy called out from the kitchen.
Twilight opened her eyes.
She was sitting with her back to the front door in the pristine and unchanged living room. All was as it should be.
But the edge of the brown corduroy was still visible on the lip of the basket.
“N-No…” Twilight whispered pleadingly. “Not her…”
“Izzit ree-eally so hard to beee-lieve?”
The imagined voice coming from the sewing basket was slurred and indistinct; unfinished. In her mind’s eye, Twilight saw pieces of rag stuffing crawling into the half-sewn corduroy carcass like so many flatworms.
Twilight shook her head in denial. “It can’t be! I helped her! I SAVED her! I saved ALL of them!”
“I have bee-eeen corr-rrupting Poniesss sss-ssince before yoo-our great-grandparentsss were borr-rrn,” she heard the basket reply. “Yoouu are jussst a grad sssstudent, Misss Sssparkle. I am a GOD. You never even had a chan-sssss!”
Twilight magicked open the door and fell out onto the front walk. She scrambled to her hooves and galloped away.
Fluttershy flitted into the living room.
“Twilight? Are you all right?”
The room was empty; the Pegasus frowned.
“There is something really wrong going on in Ponyville lately,” she said to a cardinal standing on a nearby perch. “Everypony’s acting strangely, and I don’t think it’s just Applejack’s rumour-mongering doing it.”
She trotted over to the divan and opened the sewing basket.
“Once I get finished sewing Angel’s new cushion, I’m going to get the girls together and get to the bottom of it!” She caught herself. “…If they don’t mind.”
• • • • • • •
Rarity paced in front of Twilight’s gift in her boutique, frowning.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” she said to herself. “It was just for her! Why did I dilute my art, not once but twice?” She sighed. “Maybe it was flawed from the start. So a foal and a school-mare liked it. So what? If it doesn’t please the one I made it for, what’s the point of it?”
She magicked the dress off of the ponnequin.
“I should just toss it in the trash and go back to the drawing board!”
She trotted over to the entrance, followed by the hovering dress. She magicked open the door.
Her jaw dropped.
“There it is!”
“Oh, honey, you were right… it’s BREATHTAKING!”
“Mummy! I want one!”
“My goodness! Never mind YOU… we’re getting one for ME!”
The gathered throng of school-foals and parents filled the entire yard in front of Carousel Boutique, their eyes glittering with desire. All of them were squirming and pressing to get a clearer view of the dark blue masterpiece hanging in midair next to its stunned creator.
“Wh-What are you…” Words failed Rarity. The crowd spoke on regardless:
“That dress! That incredible, amazing dress!”
“It must be mine!”
“Oh PLEASE tell me it comes in yellow!”
“Do you make a version as a suit-jacket?”
Rarity backed away as the crowd drew closer. “P-Please! I’m not…”
“I’ll pay anything!”
“I’ll give you my puppy!”
“Ha! I’ll pay FIVE puppies!”
“DAA-AAA-ADDY! I WANNIT!”
Rarity bit her lip. Sweat shone on her forehead. “I… I’m not s-selling any…” The crowd united in stomping their hooves and chanting:
“Ra-ri-ty! Ra-ri-ty! RA-RI-TY! RA-RI-TY!”
Rarity fixed her stance, held her head high, and pointed a hoof at the front walk before her.
“…I’m not selling any copies of this dress until you all form an orderly line!”
The assembled Ponies erupted in an ecstatic cheer.
• • • • • • •
Carrot Top smiled warmly as she and Applejack paused at a crossroads to let a caravan of overloaded wagons pass by. “Shucks, AJ… ya don’t hafta keep apologizin’. T’ain’t yer fault so many strange things have been happenin’ lately.”
Applejack hung her head. “I know, I know. But I still feel ya got a raw deal these past coupla dates. I wanted ta show ya a good time.”
“Ya have! Ya showed me that ya care about yer friends, an’ about Ponyville… an’ about me.” Her eyes shone. “I’m happy as a foal on Nightmare Night that Ditzy ain’t bad, but when we worried she was, I’m glad I had ya lookin’ out fer me.” A blush coloured the bridge of her nose. “A filly could get used ta havin’ ya around.”
In the distance, swallowed by the creaking and clopping of the wagon train, a thin voice said: “Applejack.”
Applejack blushed back. “Yeah…?” she stepped closer.
The drowned-out voice spoke again, and louder: “Applejack!”
“Yeah.” Carrot Top closed her eyes and leaned closer still, her lips slightly parted.
Applejack gulped softly and moved to meet Carrot halfway.
The last wagon passed by, revealing a greyish-purple Unicorn, wide-eyed and shivering, standing as knock-kneed as an idle marionette.
Applejack jerked back in shock. “T-Twilight?”
Carrot Top opened her eyes. “Huh?”
Twilight stared straight ahead, not making eye contact. “A-A-Applejack… can we talk?”
Applejack winced; Twilight’s voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a well. “Uh, I’m a mite bit tied up right now, Twi. What’s this abo–”
“You need to come with me. N-Now.” Twilight’s tone was as haunted and hollow as it had been that day in the park, when she’d warned Applejack about–
Oh, sweet Celestia!
Applejack’s ears drooped. Her pupils shrank. Her back knees trembled.
She silently nodded.
“Hay!” Carrot Top moved to interpose herself, but then she met Twilight’s gaze.
Twilight Sparkle. Carrot Top knew about her. Everypony knew about her. She was the mare whose magic could unleash swarms of town-eating bugs and turn a rag-doll into a raison-d’être and lull a raging Ursa into sleep and Celestia knows what-all else. And now she was so ravaged by fear that she looked fit to fall apart at the seams.
The realization froze Carrot in mid-step.
Her wide eyes watched her maybe-very-special-somepony fall into step behind Twilight Sparkle and trot away. She stayed where she was, stock-still with her pulse throbbing in her ears, until a heavy raindrop splashed down on her cheek and snapped her out of it.
• • • • • • •
Scootaloo sighed a dejected sigh as she watched clouds she’d never help tame start spilling rain she’d never help plan.
When Apple Bloom trotted over and slid the Cutie Mark Crusaders Clubhouse window closed, she leaned forward and pressed her forehead against the glass.
“There’s GOTTA be something we can do!” said Sweetie Belle from the other side of the room.
“Uh-uh,” muttered Scootaloo. “It’s hopeless. I’M hopeless. I’m a big fat PILE of hopeless!”
Apple Bloom’s eyes brightened. “Hay! Ya look fine ta me, but if yer worried about bein’… heavy… can’t ya just get some exercise? Big Macintosh always puts on a little weight in the winter, but it’s gone a week after Winter Wrapup ‘cause o’ all the hard work he does!”
Scootaloo raised her head. “Exercise?”
Sweetie Belle nodded in agreement. “Sure! Or you could go on a diet! Rarity lost a LOT of weight a few months ago, and when I asked about it, she said she was on a diet!”
Scootaloo turned to face her friends. “Okay. I’ll do it!”
Confusion creased Apple Bloom’s features. “Uh, do what? Work out, or go on a diet?”
Scootaloo smiled resolutely. “Both.”
Sweetie Belle frowned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Totally! I get it now…” Scootaloo held her head high. “To fly like a bird, one must EAT like a bird.”
“Is that a quote or somethin’?” asked Apple Bloom. “Who said that?”
Scootaloo’s eyes darted to and fro. “I, er, I dunno. I read it somewhere, I think.” Her mouth scrunched up.
Apple Bloom’s brows knitted. She scratched the side of her head with a hoof. “Yeah, I dunno if that’s really–”
Scootaloo hopped forward to stare down Apple Bloom. “Hay! I thought you said you wanted to help!”
Apple Bloom backed away. “I do! Sheesh!”
Scootaloo turned toward the Clubhouse’s front door. “Well, good then! C’mon – I’ve got some fat to burn! I gotta lose like thirty stones!”
She galloped out the front door, followed soon after by her two friends; they moved slowly as they shared a worried look.
• • • • • • •
Fluttershy flapped along a few inches off the ground, talking herself up as she made her way into town.
“It’s just a chat. Talking is o-okay when there aren’t too many Ponies doing it. I just tell them what I think, and we will deal with it. N-No problem.”
She gulped, but then lowered her eyebrows.
“Come on, Fluttershy!” she chided herself. “You know how to be assertive without being mean! You can DO this!”
Thunder rumbled, and it began to rain.
“M-Maybe I should go back and get Angel,” she muttered. She turned, then paused, then jerked back toward town and made a four-hoof landing.
“NO!” She looked down at her reflection in a slowly-growing puddle.
“S-Stop being such a doormat! There’s something wrong with your friends, and you’re going to take care of it just like they take care of you. You got that?”
She shrank back from herself. “Yes, ma’am,” she said meekly. She headed into town on hoof.
• • • • • • •
Applejack staggered back from Twilight as if struck.
“No. No, it… it ain’t her. She’d never work for him! Never! I tied her down! I WATCHED you fix her! Yer lyin’… yer LYIN’!” Applejack’s stomp left a crack in the library's floor. “She’d never do it! She must be sick again!”
“No way,” said Rainbow Dash. “She’s better now! Twilight helped her! I SAW it!”
"Twilight?" Spike called out from upstairs. "Is everything okay?"
"It's fine, Spike!" Twilight shouted back. "Stay upstairs like I said!"
She turned to face her friends.
“No. It’s her. I wish it wasn’t. But either it’s her, or it’s her and she’s sick again.”
Twilight looked down at the floor. The blast crater was just a short ways below and behind her, on the other side of the cracked floor. She shuddered.
“I thought I could fix her. I thought I could treat her. I was so sure it worked. But it wasn’t enough. I guess I just pushed all that… that darkness… down where it could do the most damage. I… I f-failed.” She swallowed through the lump in her throat. “And now either she’s betrayed us all to Discord, or she’s so sick she doesn’t even realize what she’s doing to me–” Twilight caught herself. “To us.”
“What are we gonna do?” asked Rainbow Dash softly.
Applejack’s lost, wide-eyed expression silently repeated the question.
Twilight was silent for a long moment before answering:
“What I should have done in the first place.”
Twilight magicked up a blank scroll and a quill.
• • • • • • •
Mud clung to Fluttershy’s hooves as she trotted down the path to Carousel Boutique. She rounded a corner and the building came into view.
Or at least the upper half did.
The bottom of the boutique was mostly obscured by the huge crowd braving the worsening rain for the chance to purchase a Rarity original.
“R-Rarity?” Fluttershy called out from the back of the line. “Are you there? I wanted to talk to you!”
No answer came over the din of the rain and the murmurs of the crowd.
“Rarity?” Fluttershy repeated. She took to the air, but then a green Earth Pony stallion snagged her tail in his teeth.
“H’yy!” he said. “Nw’w cuh-ing nn l’nn!”
“Yeah!” agreed a yellow Unicorn mare. “What nerve! Just LIKE a Pegasus!”
“O-Oh, but I’m not trying to…” Fluttershy stared down at the sea of angry eyes staring back at her. “Um… maybe I should come back later.”
She veered away from the boutique once the stallion released her.
A short flight later, Fluttershy came to Sugarcube Corner.
A flicker of movement in the upper story window drew her attention; she flapped over to the pane.
“Pinkie?” Are you home?”
The window burst open, sending Fluttershy darting backward. Pinkie leaned out on the sill.
She was wearing a tied-on fake pig snout and the Cake twins were sitting on her back, giggling playfully.
“Hey Fluttershy… OINK-OINK-OINK!” Pinkie sang, bobbing her head to the rhythm. “What’s goin’ on? …OINK-OINK-OINK!”
“W-well,” replied Fluttershy, still somewhat shaken, “I wanted to get the girls together to talk about something.”
“Oh, okay… OINK-OINK-OINK! Do you think it can wait? … OINK-OINK-OINK! ‘Cause I’m watchin’ the foals… OINK-OINK-OINK! And they’re starting to like… OINK-OINK-OINK! This funny song… OINK–”
“That’s all right, then,” said Fluttershy, holding out a hoof to silence Pinkie. “I guess I’ll catch up with you later.”
Fluttershy flapped down to ground level and trotted on, only to find herself diving out of the way as a speeding wagon-pulling scooter nearly crashed into her.
Scootaloo skidded to a stop in front of Sugarcube Corner’s front steps, struggling to catch her breath.
“Can we stop yet?” asked Sweetie Belle from the wagon. “We’re getting pretty wet.”
“An’ cold!” added Apple Bloom, next to her. She sneezed.
“M-Maybe…” panted Scootaloo. “I m-mean, th-that’s s-six laps a-around town…”
Pinkie Pie leaned over the windowsill to wave at the trio of fillies.
“Heya girls… OINK-OINK-OINK!”
Scootaloo’s lower lip started quivering, but she stopped it with a grim scowl. “…Hold on.”
Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom squealed in fear as the scooter and its wagon trailer took off like a cannonball.
Fluttershy shook the mud from her wings and tilted her head in confusion as she watched the foals shrink into the distance.
• • • • • • •
By the time Fluttershy reached the library, the rain was heavy enough to leave her navigating as much by memory as by sight.
She reached the front door and knocked.
“Twilight?” she called out. “Are you there?”
Rainbow Dash opened the door, and jerked back in surprise when she did so.
“F-Fluttershy!” she said. “You’re here!” Dash backed away into the library.
“That’s… that’s fine, Dash,” said Twilight from the back of the room.
Applejack nodded. “Maybe it’s better this way, even.”
Fluttershy trotted inside, tapped the door closed with a rear leg, and then tilted her head in confusion. “I don’t understand. What’s better?”
“Fluttershy…” Twilight took a slow, deep breath. “I’m glad you came here. There’s something we need to talk about.”
“Oh, I think so too!” agreed Fluttershy. She shook her head to shift her soaked mane. “Honestly, I’m really worried. Something bad is happening in town, and I’m not sure what it is.”
Twilight looked away; she sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
“So you see it too?” Fluttershy sagged in relief. “Thank goodness!”
Twilight looked up and met Fluttershy’s gaze. “No. You don’t understand. But I want to help you. Like I should have originally.”
Fluttershy frowned. “Wh-What do you mean? What’s–”
There was a firm knock at the door. Fluttershy yelped and turned around.
“That will be them now,” said Twilight. “Rainbow?”
Rainbow Dash hovered over and opened the door.
A pair of stallions – one Earth Pony, one Unicorn – trotted inside.
“Good evening, Miss Sparkle,” said the clay-coloured, silver brush-maned Earth Pony.
“Have you located the patient you mentioned?” added the custard-yellow, brown-maned Unicorn.
Twilight took a long, silent look at Fluttershy, and then pointed a hoof at her.
“Yes, we have. She’s right here.”
Fluttershy looked over her shoulder at Twilight, then at the stallions and their Cutie Marks, then at Applejack and Rainbow Dash.
Fluttershy started trembling. “Twilight…?”
“Now, try to stay calm, miss,” said the Unicorn, sitting and holding out his front hooves in a calming gesture. “We have reason to believe you may be experiencing some psychological distress, and we’d like you to come to the hospital for an… assessment.”
Fluttershy’s pupils shrank. “To the h-hospital? Psychological…” Her trembling worsened. Her voice dropped to a squeaking whisper. “No… oh, please, no!”
“I’m so sorry,” said Twilight softly. “This is all my fault. I should have gotten you real help sooner. But sometimes the kind thing to do can be the hardest thing to do...”
The stallions took a cautious step further into the room.
Fluttershy backed away from them. “Applejack!” An edge of panic tinged her voice. “This isn’t right. Tell them this isn’t right! I’m okay… I feel fine! Tell them I feel fine!”
Applejack’s eyes tightened and she ground her teeth, but she said nothing.
Fluttershy let out an anxious whimper.
“Please, miss,” said the Unicorn in a soothing tone. “You’re becoming agitated. Just take a moment to calm down.”
Fluttershy’s expression darkened. “N-No! Stop talking to me like that! I am NOT crazy!”
She flapped her wings and flitted over to Rainbow Dash. Her knees trembled as she landed, and she flopped down into a crouch.
“Rainbow Dash, PLEASE!” she begged. Tears shone in her eyes. “Help me! I’m sorry! Whatever I did, I’m sorry! Oh Celestia, don’t let them take me!”
Rainbow Dash’s lip quivered. She looked away.
“No one’s trying to hurt you,” said the Unicorn.
“We’re here to help,” said the Earth Pony.
Fluttershy backed into a bookshelf and stumbled amid a hail of books. “I am n-not going with you! N-NEVER! I can’t!” With each word, her voice rose in volume and pitch. “You… YOU CAN’T MAKE ME GO!”
• • • • • • •
Carrot Top shivered under her leaf-green poncho.
“AJ,” she recited to herself as she trotted through the rain, “I feel pretty sure that yer gettin’ ta likin’ me, an’ with all the scary stuff happenin’ lately, I don’t wancha ta think that the feelin’ ain’t mutual. Cause it is – a whole bunch.”
The library loomed up ahead.
“...An’ so I wancha ta know that if there’s anythin’ I can do ta help, all ya gotta do is–”
The library’s front door burst off its hinges.
A shrieking yellow Pegasus with a rope tied around her waist surged out into the rain, followed soon after by a line of Ponies gripping the rope.
“HELP! SOMEPONY HELP!” screamed the Pegasus. “LET ME GO!”
Carrot Top stared in horrified shock. “Whut…?”
Her ears shifted at the sound of Applejack’s voice.
“Hold on! We gotta reel ‘er in!”
Carrot Top squinted into the rain. “AJ?”
“PULL!” shouted Rainbow Dash.
“DO-ON'T LE-ET THE-EM GET ME-EE!” cried Fluttershy, her voice jerking with each tug on the rope.
“Hold her steady!” shouted Twilight Sparkle. “We’ll have to sedate her!” Carrot Top saw the reddish glow of Twilight’s horn shine in the deepening dark.
“NOOOO–” A red flash glittered on the raindrops, and Fluttershy was silenced in mid-scream. She dropped down onto the muddy street like a discarded rag-doll.
The group of Ponies crowded around her.
Carrot Top felt dizzy; numb. She staggered. Her stomach lurched. “A-Applejack?” she whimpered.
Applejack looked up from untying her lasso and stared into eyes the same shade of leaf-green as her own, teary and reddened and full of crestfallen horror.
“Oh, sweet Celestia…”
TO BE CONTINUED