“But wouldn’t that be... lying?” Scootaloo asked, wide-eyed at the prospect of adult-sanctioned shenanigans.
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “What am I, the Element of—” she gulped, paused, then shook her head. “Listen, do you want your present or not? Who’s gonna get hurt, huh?”
Scootaloo’s gaze drifted out of the alley and toward the library. Her gaze lingered as she tossed possibilities around in her adorable head. “Twilight?”
Dash’s face twisted and scrunched. “Huh?”
“Y’know, like, the spell backfires and she gets stung by a swarm of angry bees.” Scootaloo’s eyes shirked as she scuffed a hoof at the ground. “Or whatever.”
With a grin and a chuckle, Dash waved a hoof through the air. “Yeah right, like Twilight would ever screw up a spell or be afraid of bees!”
“Heh... yeah. Right.”
“Come on, let’s go,” she said. She leaned down and laid a limb on the filly’s shoulder. “You remember your lines?”
Scootaloo chewed on her lip and hesitated for a moment.
“I think so,” she said, nodding her head.
“Good. On three.” Dash messed up her mane and turned to face the library. “One...”
Scootaloo’s legs tensed.
Dash pushed some of her feathers out of order. “Two...”
Scootaloo trembled and started to sweat.
The two ponies shot out of the alley and charged through the street, barreling toward Twilight’s in a clumsy, desperate gallop. Several bystanders had to dive out of the way and shouted rude things ill-fit for print. The commotion drew the attention of ponies from the next few blocks, but before anypony could figure out what had just happened, Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash had burst through the door of the library and bowled over a bookshelf as they came skidding to a stop.
Spike’s head peeked out from around the kitchen corner. He recoiled at the mess before noticing a tangle of limbs poking out of it and running over. “You two okay?” he asked, waddling quickly across the floor and picking up a few scattered books.
Orange and cyan hooves wriggled and a filly’s face popped up out of the pile. “No!” Scootaloo shouted. “We’re not! Where’s Twilight? We need—”
“You need to be more careful,” Twilight reprimanded. “What if there had been ponies perusing that shelf?”
Rising to her full, petite height and shaking herself free of debris, Scootaloo stepped up to Twilight’s face and prodded her in the chest with a hoof. “I need you to cast a spell!”
“...Okay, but I’m going to need more details than that.”
A clumsy flap of her wings popped Dash into the air briefly, but several more uneven flaps failed to keep her there and she crashed back down. “Did you see that?” she said, grinning wildly. “I flew!”
Scootaloo frowned in her direction. “That’s great, kid,” she droned before turning to address Twilight again. “Look, Twilight, the details aren’t important, okay? Let’s just say I was trying to do something awesome, but I messed it up.” She blinked and glanced back at Dash. “Big time.”
Twilight loosed a quick sigh to the side. “Great, but that isn’t quite what I meant. What kind of spell do you need?”
Reaching awkwardly up to Twilight’s shoulders and failing to properly shake her for emphasis, Scootaloo yelled, “I need my body back!”
“Aw, come on Rainbow Dash! Can’t I please just play around for like... one hour? Maybe two?” Dash begged.
Twilight squinted at Dash, blinked, squinted at Scootaloo, then blinked again. “What?”
“Sorry, but no,” Scootaloo said, shaking her head. “I’ve... uh...” she trailed off. Her eyes widened as she continued to mumble. “I’ve got lots of important, um, awesome stuff to do! And I can’t do it like this. Plus, you could seriously hurt yourself trying to fly something you can’t control.”
“Scootaloo, what in the wide world of Equestria are you talking about?” Twilight asked.
“I’m not Scootaloo! I’m Rainbow Dash!”
Twilight blinked. “What?”
Scootaloo in the body of Rainbow Dash, hereafter referred to as Scootaloo, and Rainbow Dash in the body of Scootaloo, hereafter referred to as Rainbow Dash, trotted slowly into the middle of a wide meadow. A gust of wind stirred the blades of grass and a pair of birds flitted from one tree to another. The sun beamed down happily on the promising day, totally oblivious to what would come.
Rainbow Dash held up a hoof and stopped, and Scootaloo obeyed. “Okay. You’ve got the whole day, but just before...” she stopped and stared off into the distance for a second. “Sorry, what’s your bedtime again?”
Grinning sheepishly and displaying a poor poker face, Scootaloo tried “Eleven?”
Dash obliviously nodded to herself. “Right. So just before eleven, we’re gonna go back to Twilight and tell her the truth. She’ll switch us back, and then you’ll remember today fondly for the rest of your life.”
“Will I ever! I still can't believe Twilight bought it!”
"Me neither. I thought she was onto us with that look on her face, but everything went off without a problem." Dash’s ears drooped and she offered a weak smile. “Again, I’m really sorry. I swear I had a great birthday present lined up for you, but—”
“But nothing! This is way better. And it’s fine,” Scootaloo said, reaching forward and mussing Dash’s mane, “kid. Even us grownups make mistakes.”
“Yeah yeah, just don’t get used to it!”
With an ear-to-ear grin, Scootaloo flapped her wings as hard as she could, soaring up into the air. “I don’t think I could if I tried!” she called back down as she gave another mighty flap and continued to rise. “This is the most awesomest thing ever!”
“Don’t go too high! You don’t have enough control to risk being as cool as I am.”
Scootaloo spread her wings to their full span and began gliding in a wide spiral. “Yeah, I know. I’ll be safe,” she said as she curved through one long, continuously tightening turn.
Dash turned and shuffled toward a thick oak, shouting over her shoulder, “I’ll be napping over by this tree, if you need me.” She nestled herself into a tiny ball of fluff at the base of the tree, between the trunk and a prominent root, and closed her eyes in the shade. She yawned and drifted off to a comfortable sleep as Scootaloo drifted through the sky in ecstatic bliss.
The conveyer belt slowly spun around and around beneath the single, flickering lamp, carrying an assortment of ostensibly edible objects. Dash sat motionless before the odd array. She cast her eyes around the chamber and found not a single feature besides the merry-go-round of food. Her stomach grumbled.
A piping hot pie crawled along the track and passed under her nose. Tendrils of steamy flavor wafted into her nostrils and she breathed deeply. It smelled heavenly, and so without thinking, she reached a hoof down to pick it up. She yelped in surprise at the burning surface of the tin; retracting her scalded limb with a grimace. Nursing her injury, she allowed the pie to wander away as she stared down at the belt.
A book slid into view: Daring Do and the Obvious Metaphors. She canted her head to one side. She hadn’t read this particular book, and it sounded good. But she was hungry, and a book could never satisfy her appetite. She frowned as it marched on past her, but quickly threw her gaze back to catch the next item.
Her mouth began to water in anticipation as the belt continued to turn and she discovered... a wonderbolt uniform? Dash snorted. This whole thing was confusing and stupid and a waste of time. Temptation tugged at her because come on—Wonderbolts!—but she reminded herself that it too, was not food, and she remained on her flank, watching the belt spin onward.
Suddenly, all was right with the world. Angels sang and fireworks exploded as a single, glorious apple danced into her field of vision. Her mouth watered. Her stomach filled with butterflies—a rather odd reaction to food when hungry—but she didn’t think to question it. Her leg trembled as she inched a hoof toward the delicious prize. She couldn’t afford to mess this up. Nothing could be as perfect. This was the apple of her eye, and no substitute would do.
She reached too far and knocked it over the edge. As it tumbled toward the floor, she leapt forward and screamed.
Rainbow Dash jolted upright with wide eyes and panting breath. Her heart beat like a bass drum with a double pedal. A bead of sweat rolled down her face.
A soft wind carrying the scent of grass brushed by, caressing her shivering body. “Apple,” she mumbled.
Scootaloo dropped out of the air, spinning like a drill, and plowed into the earth with all the grace of a sharp steel barrel filled with angry badgers. The dirt muffled her repeated assurances that she was okay until she pulled her soil-stained face into the light. “I’m okay,” she said again.
Dash trotted over and ran a hoof over Scootaloo’s wings, scrutinizing each feather and brushing away some of the grime. She turned around to find that dozens of fresh ditches had been dug. “Heh... I guess if you’re still game after earning a landscaping cutie mark—”
With microscopic pupils, Scootaloo’s neck spun around at lightning speed to reveal... Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark. One short, awkward silence later, she looked back at Dash and giggled. “Oh yeah.”
Tapping a hoof against her chin, Dash spent a few moments pondering before blurting, “How would that work anyway? Would it show up on me, or would you just totally miss out and not get your cutie mark at all?”
Scootaloo’s heart crawled up out of her throat, hoisted a ten ton weight over itself with a thin rope next to a flaming candle, then froze itself in liquid nitrogen, threatening to shatter under the force of sadness looming overhead.
“WHO WANTS ICE CREAM?!” Dash bellowed, struggling to wrap a leg over the huge little foal’s shoulder and utterly failing to fake a smile.
“See? I told you Twilight would know, and I told you you wouldn’t actually miss getting your cutie mark,” Rainbow Dash said, standing on top of the table and patting Scootaloo on the head. “Plus you did a great job not bursting into tears and blowing our cover early, so you’ve still got the rest of the day to do... whatever!” she shouted, standing upright and throwing her forehooves wide to gesture at the whole world.
Mr. and Mrs. Cake ignored the spectacle with flying colors, having practiced ignoring Pinkie every day for the last several years. Pinkie stood in the kitchen in the back, blowing furiously on a hot pie she’d just taken out of the oven.
Dash sat down and smiled. “Come on, finish your ice cream and then let’s go do something fun!”
Rubbing her eyes and sniffling, Scootaloo picked up her melting treat and licked eagerly at it. “Okay. But I’m not sure what else I can try. What do you even do, besides fly?”
“Huh... y’know, I’m not sure—”
Suddenly, the door swung open to the sound of a jingling bell and a very faint, subconscious choir of angels. Beams of radiant light shone through from the outside, and Applejack stepped into Sugarcube Corner, bathed in a glorious golden hue. Rainbow Dash’s stomach grumbled.
“There you are, Rainbow!” she cried, cantering over to the corner table and beaming. “I’ve been lookin’ all over Ponyville tryin’ ta find ya.”
Scootaloo—still in the body of Rainbow Dash—ignored her and kept licking her ice cream. Dash jabbed a hoof into her ribs and coughed. “Oh. Um, hi Applejack.”
“Got a minute? I reckon I need to tell ya somethin’ important, ‘fore I chicken out,” she said, illuminating her freckles with a light blush.
Suppressing a frown at the word, “chicken,” Scootaloo’s eyes darted nervously between Applejack and Rainbow Dash. Her ice cream melted a little more. “Uhhh... I know it’s probably really important, but can it wait?”
“I s’pose it can,” Applejack replied, furrowing her brow a fraction, “but I’d appreciate it an awful lot if ya didn’t keep me waiting too long.”
Thinking on her hooves, Rainbow Dash quickly put on her best puppy dog eyes and stuck out her lower lip, letting it quiver slightly. “Aw, but we were having so much fun today!”
Applejack’s gaze slunk downard and she sighed. She stared into Scootaloo’s eyes for a moment before smiling again. “How about tonight, after the little one here goes to bed?”
“Eleven,” Scootaloo said flatly.
Recoiling as if struck, Applejack’s jaw flapped uselessly for the next several seconds. “Eleven? Really?”
“Where did you get that idea?” Dash asked. “My bedtime is eight,” she chirped.
“Well that sounds much more reasonable. Yer parents sound much more reasonable than little miss Free Spirit’s over here,” she teased. “If she thinks foals your age should be staying up ‘till eleven I can hardly guess what other hooey she was brought up with.”
“That sure does sound unreasonable!” Dash said.
Applejack remained silent, shuffling from hoof to hoof and repeatedly establishing, then breaking, eye contact with Scootaloo. She looked out the window and mumbled, “Well, thangs to do on th’ farm and all,” before turning around and stepping toward the door. “I’ll meet ya over by the lake at eight sharp, alright?” she asked, pausing at the exit.
“Sure thing,” Scootaloo answered.
Her ice cream continued to melt as the sound of hoofsteps faded into the distance.
“Eight?!” she yelled. “My bedtime is nine! Thirty!”
Dash smirked at her. “Eleven?”
Liquid chocolate dripped onto the table in silence.
Scootaloo stood up. “Okay, fine. So we need to go back to Twilight at what, like seven thirty? Do you want to just meet me there then?”
“What? No way!” Dash cried. “I have to stick with you to make sure you don’t get hurt or do something really stupid. Why do you think I’ve been following you this whole time?”
“Ten bits if you look the other way and let me take your body for a spin until five.”
Somehow, the sound of a record-scratch reverberated throughout the building. Mr. Cake dropped a batch of cookies on the floor and stared at Scootaloo with worry in his eyes.
“What? What did I say?” Scootaloo asked.
Rainbow Dash shrugged. “I have no idea.”
Dash tapped a hoof impatiently. “You’re late.”
“Two and a half hours late.”
A duck waddled up behind Scootaloo and quacked. “I know.”
Rainbow Dash stared at Scootaloo with a mixture of confusion and anger. “Okay. Just two questions.”
“What’s the hose for, and why is that duck following you?”
Turning around and shooing away her fowl follower, Scootaloo let out a nervous laugh. “Heheh... Not gonna ask what’s in the hose?”
Eyeballing the green liquid oozing out of one end of the coil, Dash flatly declared, “No. No I’m not.”
“Right,” Scootaloo said, dropping the hose on the ground and kicking it into a nearby bush. “So listen, if anyone asks, you weren’t anywhere near Fluttershy’s cottage and you have no idea how that hole got there.”
“What hole?” Dash asked, tilting her head.
“That’s the spirit!” Scootaloo exclaimed. “Now come on, it’s time to get swapped back so I can deny everything!”
Dash finished scratching at her ear and looked back at Scootaloo. “What was that?”
“Okay, so I guess it’s time to face the music and confess. Twilight’s gonna be mad at us, and it’s important for you to realize that even after she forgives us, that doesn’t mean what we did was okay. Lying is wrong, and we only did it because we had to,” Dash lectured. “If there was any other way to get Twilight to do what we wanted instead of blabbing about being responsible with magic, we would’ve gone for it, but there wasn’t. So we had no choice. Understand, kid?”
Scootaloo nodded. “Uh-huh. Only lie if there’s no other way to get what you want.”
“Close enough,” Dash replied, pushing open the door to the library. “Hello? Twilight?”
They were met with silence. A cobweb floated down from the ceiling and a tumbleweed blew across the floor. Somewhere, two books had been swapped, and nopony knew. Scootaloo checked in the kitchen while Rainbow Dash went upstairs. Neither Twilight nor Spike were around. As minutes passed, Dash grew more frantic and began searching increasingly unlikely locations. Underneath Twilight’s bed. In the washing machine. Behind a lamp that wasn’t big enough to hide behind. But she turned up nothing.
At seven fifty, she gave up with a sigh. “Okay, Scoots, I need your help here. ‘I’ have to go talk to Applejack about something. Something important. But right now, you’re me. So I need you to go talk to Applejack.”
“I can do that, no problem!”
Dash held up a hoof. “Hang on. That’s not all. Since it’s important, I kinda need to hear about it. And she might need to hear back from me. So I’m gonna follow you and hide in some bushes. I’ll be listening, and if she asks you any questions, you just get your ear as close to the bush as you can and I’ll try to whisper the answer to you, okay?”
“Rainbow Dash, I don’t mean to question your awesome authority, but this sounds like a recipe for disaster. Me and the other Crusaders have done a lot of stuff that didn’t end well, and I’m kinda starting to get a sense for it.”
“You got a better idea?”
Scootaloo sat down and looked up at the ceiling. Her face scrunched and her eyes lost focus as she got lost in thought. “We could... tell Applejack the truth?”
“How about we make that plan B, huh?”
The lake sparkled in the light of the setting sun. Applejack stood at the water’s edge, staring wistfully into the distance when she heard hoofsteps approaching.
“Hey, Applejack,” Scootaloo said.
“Howdy, sugarcube,” AJ replied.
The two ponies stood in silence, the gentle breeze tousling their manes. Rainbow Dash squatted in a bush she’d managed to dart into unnoticed, straining her ears to hear the details of ‘her’ encounter some twenty feet away. Applejack’s trademark hat was nowhere to be seen, and her hair was set loose to flow freely. It shimmered as it cascaded down her shoulders, dancing in the wind. Rainbow Dash’s stomach grumbled, but nopony else seemed to notice.
Dash gave the foliage around her a light shake, prompting Scootaloo to step closer. Whistling as casually as possible, Scootaloo obliged.
Applejack trotted next to her. “You feelin’ okay?”
Dash felt the proverbial lightbulb and leaned her muzzle to the edge of the shrub and whispered into the twilight air.
“I dunno, I guess that depends on what you wanted to talk about,” Scootaloo parroted.
Applejack’s shoulders slumped. “You ain’t gonna make this easy, are ya?” she asked, turning to look out over the lake again. “Gosh, how do I even go about sayin’ this...” she muttered across the water before craning her neck to make eye contact again. “Have ya ever felt a particularly empty feeling? Way down deep inside of ya?”
Scootaloo inched her head down a fraction, placing her ear closer to Dash’s mouth before repeating, “You’re freakin’ me out, AJ. What are you trying to say?”
Turning back around completely and placing herself directly in front of Scootaloo, Applejack pressed a hoof to her chest. “You’re one to talk. You been actin’ plenty strange yourself.”
After another unnatural silence, Scootaloo opened her mouth. “You’re the one who asked me out here.”
The twinkling points of dying light reflecting off the lake highlighted Applejack’s face, freckles freshly lit by another blush. “Heh... you got a way with words sometimes, even if ya don’t know it,” she said, running a hoof through her hair. “There’re so many wonderful thangs in this world, so much joy and love to be found, ya know? But there’s a special kind of emptiness, where you might not be sure what it is you want, and everytime ya find something you think’ll do the trick... well, it just doesn’t.”
Something shifted in Dash’s head, and she felt herself nodding along, peering through dull green leaves and into Applejack’s sparkling emerald eyes.
“Listen to me, goin’ on all theoretical. It’s not the Apple way to solve a problem, but I jes can’t bring myself to be direct about it.”
The bush jiggled again, but Scootaloo didn’t take notice Dash’s whispers.
Applejack put a hoof on Scootaloo’s shoulder and leaned in closer. “Rainbow, I think I know what I want. Trouble is, I’m afraid.” A thin film of mist formed at the bottom of her eyes. “I know it don’t make no sense, but I’m terrified that... that if I—”
“If you reach out for it, you’ll knock it away,” Dash squeaked to herself, feeling her eyes growing moist. “I’m so, so sorry,” she whispered before picking up a pebble and chucking it at the back of Scootaloo’s head.
Her body tensed at the signal, and Scootaloo spurted, “Igottagobye,” before launching herself into across the horizon. Dash quickly scuttled after her, carefully leaping from cover to cover so as not to be seen.
Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash galloped down the path toward the library, away from the lake. The last rays of sunlight vanished beneath the horizon, and the first star winked into view above as Dash’s—and Applejack’s—tears glistened in the dim end of twilight.
“So why are we running?” Scootaloo panted.
“We have to find Twilight right now!”
“But you didn’t let Applejack finish talking! Isn’t it kinda rude to—”
“YES, but I didn’t have a choice, okay? There’s... there’s something I need to do. And I mean I need to do it. And right now Applejack is... oh Celestia, it’s all my fault!” Dash came skidding to a stop and buried her face in her hooves. She broke down then and there, transforming into a sobbing mess that Scootaloo couldn’t understand.
Scootaloo patted her idol on the back, trying her best to comfort her, but having no idea where to begin. “What’s wrong? What can I do to help?”
Dash interrupted and answered with a muffled wail that masked the sound of approaching hoofsteps.
“Rainbow Dash? Scootaloo?”
Whirling around to face the other pony, Scootaloo found herself looking at Twilight carrying a muddy shovel alone down the road at night.
Twilight grinned sheepishly and threw the shovel into the brush on the side of the road. She smiled softly and stepped forward, her horn glowing. In a flash of light, Scootaloo found herself on the ground, sitting in a puddle of tears.
Dash blinked at Twilight. “How did you know?”
“I’m not stupid, Dash,” she responded, rolling her eyes. “I knew all along. I may not know why you did it or why you’re so upset now, but I can tell when one of my friends is in need.” She looked down at Scootaloo. “And I think you had probably better get home before your parents start to worry about you.”
Twilight blinked in surprise at the sudden sensation of a crushing hug. “Thank you,” Dash whimpered before rocketing away.
“I... I don’t understand,” Scootaloo mumbled. “Why were Applejack and Rainbow Dash acting so weird?”
“It’s... complicated. Maybe some day, when you’re older, you should ask somepony about the birds and the bee—er, the birds and the other birds, I suppose.”
Scootaloo stared at her. “The what?”
Twilight giggled. “Nothing. Forget about it.”