Twilight stood stock still as she watched Applejack run away in tears, unable to even comprehend what had just happened—much less react to it. Even after Applejack had disappeared into the night, she still stared off in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres, wondering how things could have changed so much so quickly.
Hesitating in the face of Applejack's emotional retreat, Fluttershy tentatively walked over to Twilight's side. "Um, hello, Twilight," she almost whispered, afraid to break Twilight out of whatever shock now enveloped her.
Twilight shook her head, trying to piece together the past few moments even as the present rushed to overtake her. Turning to Fluttershy with a blank look still on her face, she asked, "What did she say to you?"
"Oh," Fluttershy squeaked, blushing as she hid behind her mane. "She, um… That might be private—"
Twilight's fierce stare shut Fluttershy up instantly. "Applejack's been acting weird all day," she snapped. "I can't help her if I don't know what's wrong, so just tell me!" Seeing the terror writ in Fluttershy's eyes, Twilight winced and added, "Please."
With a deep sigh, Fluttershy lowered her head and mumbled, "I might know what's wrong."
"Please, just tell me what it is," Twilight begged, a high-pitched whine creeping into her voice. "This has been driving me crazy!"
"Okay," Fluttershy replied, straightening herself and taking a deep breath in the last moments before everything would change. She exhaled slowly, both savoring and dreading the moments simultaneously. No turning back… No way out…
It was time.
"I'm in love with you, Twilight." The words came easier than Fluttershy expected, all things considered. In a matter of moments, it was over. Everything was said, everything out in the open with just six simple words. Fluttershy's blush deepened, and she searched in vain for more hair with which to hide her terrified face. The veil of secrecy, with all its protective force, was gone, and Twilight had Fluttershy at her mercy. She could do anything…
And yet she didn't. Yet again, she was motionless, stunned. Her pupils didn't widen, nor did they narrow to pin-pricks. She seemed stuck in time, unable to respond to the reality that suddenly confronted her. She had to speak, though, had to acknowledge this brave new world. "Huh?" she managed, and her voice left her, unable or unwilling to return.
"I'm sorry," Fluttershy almost squealed, panic rising in her voice and her expression. "You were already so worried, and this is all so confusing. I…" She trailed off, knowing that another apology would be useless. Turning away slowly, she finished, "I hope we can still be friends."
Twilight's mouth moved, but no sound emerged from it at first. Memories of all the times she had helped Fluttershy care for her animal friends rushed back to her. The way Fluttershy's face lit up whenever she saw Twilight trotting up the road to her cottage, the excessive thanks, the dinner she invited Twilight to—
That dinner. Something clicked into place in Twilight's mind, and it all suddenly made sense. Fluttershy's horror at the thought of Twilight moving on, her nervous behavior—how did Twilight not see the signs? She rubbed her temples and groaned, overwhelmed by terrible knowledge that refused to go away.
"Um, I can leave, Twilight," Fluttershy offered weakly. "I mean, if you want me to. I—You might want time to think about things, or—"
"How long?" Twilight's gaze bore straight into Fluttershy, refusing to go away or dim its white-hot intensity. "How long have you felt this way?"
Stumbling back a few steps, Fluttershy sputtered for a moment before answering. "I don't know. I just started realizing that I really looked forward to when you came over, and you were always so nice, and smart, and…" She trailed off, but Twilight's insistent gaze offered no escape. As her blushed deepened, she added, "And beautiful."
Immediately, a blush emerged on Twilight's face to put Fluttershy's to shame. "Um, thanks, uh," she stuttered, unsure of how to react. "I, um, you're pretty yourself?" Her heartbeat quickened, and she found herself short of breath as the irrevocable reality of her situation closed in on her.
"So, um, what do you think?" Fluttershy asked. "Or—I mean, do you—um, not to put you on the spot…" She shut her mouth before she could mangle her question any further.
"I… I don't know," Twilight managed, understanding perfectly what Fluttershy meant to ask. "This is just all so sudden, and I've never even…" She shut her eyes and collected herself for a moment. Opening them again, she asked, "Why me?"
Fluttershy blinked, tilting her head back a bit and putting a hoof to her chin. When nothing came to mind, she shrugged and answered, "I'm not sure if anypony could ever answer a question like that. Either way, you're one of my best friends, Twilight, and I'd do anything for you." She looked Twilight straight in the eyes. "You know that, right?"
With a nod, Twilight replied, "Of course. And you know I care for you, too. I just… I don't know quite how much, if that makes sense."
A smile finally found its way onto Fluttershy's face as she nodded. "I understand, Twilight. You can think about things if you want. I'm just glad you know now." She moved to leave, but Twilight stopped her with an upraised hoof.
"Wait!" Twilight cried. "But what did Applejack say? And what does all this have to do with her?"
The smile died almost as soon as it took hold of Fluttershy's expression. "I don't know," she admitted, her voice little more than a whisper. "She told me to take good care of you, but… What happened today?"
Twilight's world seemed to collapse around her with every passing moment, and the entire universe swirled around in her mind, keeping her from focusing on any one thing even as she knew that she had to do just that. "I just don't get it!" she almost screamed, unable to hold back the tears that suddenly spilled forth. "This is all so confusing, and sudden, and—"
Stepping forward, Fluttershy wrapped her forelegs around Twilight, patting the unicorn's back as she sobbed into Fluttershy's shoulder. "There, there," she cooed, searching for better words and finding none. "There, there. There, there…"
After a minute that stretched on for what felt like hours, Twilight pulled away, sniffling and wiping the tears from her eyes. Putting a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder, she smiled and said, "Thanks, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy returned the smile as she began to step away. "You're welcome, Twilight." As she turned to walk away, she added, "Let me know when you've figured things out."
"Yeah," Twilight murmured, her smile fading as she slouched her shoulders. Whispering so only she could hear, she added, "Don't hold your breath."
Once Fluttershy disappeared into the all-encompassing darkness, Twilight started to trudge back to her home. Glancing back to where her two best friends had each fled so recently before, she sighed and focused on putting one hoof in front of the other. From what she could tell, Spike had to have put himself to bed before she returned with Applejack, so she was sure she'd get an earful from him in the morning, but she really didn't care. There were far more important matters to focus on.
The only problem was that they seemed so impossible to solve.
Her tears only made Applejack's return to Sweet Apple Acres that much colder as the wind froze her damp cheeks with each new gust. There was nothing else she could do though, and so she galloped onward, hoping to reach home before everything caught up with her—the shame, the regret, the pain…
That last emotion surprised Applejack the most. She was just an interloper in this whole affair—she shouldn't have gotten involved. She could have avoided all of this so easily. It was all because of those secrets she'd kept—all for Fluttershy's sake, true, but she knew they could never last! Now, it was all over.
At least Fluttershy would find some happiness.
As she approached her house, Applejack hesitated as he saw Big Macintosh's imposing form standing in the doorway. As she slowed to a near halt on the long dirt road leading home, Big Mac made his way towards her, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"I guess I don't need to ask how it went," he remarked wryly as he wiped another tear from Applejack's cheek. "Want to talk, sis?"
Applejack shook her head and buried her face in her brother's broad shoulders. "Twilight's got Fluttershy," she sobbed. "That'll just have to be enough for me."
Big Mac's frown became an outright scowl as he gripped Applejack's shoulder and lowered his head to gaze directly into her eyes. "What'd I tell you?" he asked, fighting to keep the reprimand out of his voice.
"Fluttershy was there first," Applejack insisted, ignoring the flash of anger that streaked through her brother's expression. "I couldn't—"
"Nope," he growled, silencing her with the force of his denial. "We went over this, AJ. Making yourself miserable isn't going to solve your problems, and it ain't helping your friends either."
Applejack swallowed another sob as it threatened to escape her throat. "It's so easy to talk like that, big brother, but what about Fluttershy?"
"What about Twilight?" Big Mac shot back. "Who says she wouldn't rather be with you? Who says she wants to be with either of y'all?" His glare made Applejack shrink, and she tried to look away but he refused to let her.
"I just—I don't want to hurt anypony," Applejack protested weakly, slumping in defeat.
"Well you're hurting yourself an awful lot," Big Mac pointed out. "You're the element of honesty, AJ. Stop lying to yourself."
"Hey! I ain't lying!" She bristled at the accusation and tried to stare her older brother down. "It's just that sometimes the right thing to do is also the hardest."
Big Mac shook his head and sighed. "That don't mean that the hardest thing is always right. Twilight's a big girl, AJ. Let her make the decision."
Snorting as a scowl overtook her face, Applejack drew away from her brother. "I'm done with this conversation," she growled, moving for the front door. "I'll see you in the morning, brother."
"Applejack!" Big Mac stamped a hoof, but her sister ignored him, still walking into their home. "You can't just ignore this!" He couldn't remember the last time he'd raised his voice like this, but he knew that if any time warranted it, it was now. "Don't let this end like it did with Rainbow Dash."
Applejack halted in the middle of the door frame, her body rigid. Silence hung in the air for long, agonizing seconds before Big Mac stepped forward. He approached his little sister, ready to comfort her, but when she turned to face him, he saw that he had made a big mistake by mentioning Rainbow Dash. She cocked her hoof, mere moments away from throwing a punch, but she settled for pounding the ground, gritting her teeth as she suppressed a bitter curse.
"Don't you ever bring that up," she hissed at Big Mac, leaning in as close as she could to his face. "Ever! Do you hear me?"
"I'm sorry, AJ, I didn't—"
"Oh you knew exactly what you were saying," she shot back, her words laced with venom. "That's why you said it. But don't you dare bring that mare's name up again!" She stormed into the house, warning Big Mac, "Don't you try to saying nothing more, brother. I'm way past playing nice today."
Applejack barely remembered to avoid slamming the door in Big Mac's face as the two siblings entered their home in silence. Her glare still attempted to bore into Big Mac's serene expression, but he refused to give his sister the satisfaction of cowing him. As she stomped her way upstairs, he called, "G'night," and sauntered over to the living room. Tonight was not the time to be anywhere near his sister, and the couch looked awfully comfortable at the moment.
He'd always found it easy to sleep anywhere, and it would only be one night. As he flopped onto the couch, he sighed deeply.
Him and his big mouth.
Rainbow Dash had meant it when she said she had stuff to do. It was late, and she had to sleep sometime! As she fled the scene of Twilight, Fluttershy, and Applejack's inevitable confrontation, though, she knew she had to go back. No matter what happened, she wanted to see it first-hoof. That way it'd be easier to deal with later.
Perching on a nearby rooftop, Rainbow made sure that she was reasonably well-hidden so she could watch the three ponies unnoticed. From her secret vantage point, she could see it all. She gritted her teeth as she was helpless to intervene, unable to stop the heartache taking place before her very eyes.
First came Applejack's tearful goodbye, and as the earth pony galloped toward home, it took all of Rainbow's willpower to not rush ahead and comfort her. Sure, Rainbow had made mistakes before. She hadn't always done right by Applejack, but at least here, maybe…
She shook her head, tearing her gaze away from Applejack's fleeing form and focusing on Twilight and Fluttershy. They were too far away for Rainbow to hear clearly—if only Fluttershy would speak up!—but their body language said it all. Fluttershy's increasingly skittish movements made Rainbow hold her breath: she knew the pegasus was finally going to confess. And of course, Twilight's shocked stillness didn't surprise Rainbow one bit—that was the sort of reaction she would have had, after all.
What Rainbow Dash didn't expect—not for a second—was the crying. Twilight's crying, to be more specific. Before Rainbow realized what happened, the unicorn was sobbing into Fluttershy's shoulder. Fluttershy—Fluttershy!—was supporting her own crush after confessing her feelings. Blinking more than a few times, Rainbow squinted as if that would help her understand. When it didn't—no surprise—she groaned and shifted uncomfortably on her perch.
Just watching things was useless. Rainbow needed to act! Not right away, of course—that would only make things worse and make everypony feel like she'd been spying on them—but soon. It wouldn't be easy to solve whatever problems were going on, but Rainbow had to act. It was her responsibility as a friend.
Turning away from Twilight and Fluttershy, Rainbow flew away from the library, making sure to stay low and close to Ponyville's many buildings so her friends wouldn't see her. She had to get back to her cloud home. She had to think.
She rolled her eyes as she reached that conclusion. Rainbow was good at a lot of things—no, awesome at a lot of things—but thinking was not one of them. There's hardly a need to think while breaking the sound barrier and creating a sonic rainboom, after all. Still, Rainbow knew that this time, she would have to actually plan things. Even though she couldn't suppress a groan at the thought of that, she tried to suppress her reluctance.
She had to, for her friends.
The most obvious question—and hopefully the easiest to answer—was who she would talk to first. As soon as she thought of the question, Rainbow knew that Fluttershy was not the answer. At the worst, she would spend most of the day cooped up in her cottage. No risk of doing anything stupid; no risk of messing things up with Twilight. She would be safe for a while—of that much, Rainbow was sure.
Twilight was a bit more of a wildcard to Rainbow Dash. Sure, she was methodical and thoughtful and cautious, but she could be… completely crazy… sometimes. She could become totally paranoid about the silliest things, and love definitely fit in that category as far as Rainbow was concerned. Still, it seemed like Fluttershy had been able to calm her down a bit when she started to cry, so Rainbow figured she wasn't going to melt down right away. She might have been a ticking time bomb, but Rainbow hoped that she'd have a long countdown.
Applejack was a completely different story. Rainbow had seen the way she'd run away. It all looked familiar, and for the worst reasons. Rainbow knew Applejack better than possibly anypony else in Ponyville, and if she was right about how the earth pony was feeling, there were some serious problems on the horizon.
Just as Rainbow wrapped up her thoughts, she arrived at her cloud home, touching down on her fluffy doorstep and opening the door. It was settled: she would go visit Applejack first thing in the morning—before she started working on the farm and before she got started bucking apples. Rainbow wanted to be as far away as possible when Applejack got into a kicking mood—for a whole host of reasons.
She didn't quite know what she would say when she found Applejack, but Rainbow was good at improvising. She'd be fine. Besides, her bed beckoned to her, and she just couldn't tell her old friend no. Night-time was for sleeping, and as soon as she got the opportunity, Rainbow Dash slept.