High amid the grumbling clouds that showered Ponyville, Rainbow Dash stood on a tuffet of mist, eyeing the lower-hanging rainclouds. They were nicely spaced but not, she thought, well deployed. Too many were raining on buildings and pavement that didn't need watering.
Raising her head defiantly into the gale, she spread her wings wide and flexed them to test the wind, then leaped from her perch in a graceful arc. From the peak she let herself drop in a smooth curve, swooping under a particular bed-sized cloud, then up again to loop around and land atop it.
She waved to get the attention of Cloudchaser and Flitter, who were trimming the edges of a nearby cloudbank, and hoof-signed what she wanted done with the misplaced clouds. When they'd signaled agreement and set about the new task, Dash dug her hooves into the cloud she stood upon. With big steady power-sweeps of her wings, she began pushing it away from the town center, toward greener areas beyond the Library tree.
She glanced down as she passed over the Library. Twilight Sparkle was probably inside reading her precious books and drinking tea, while good old Rainbow Dash was out shoving clouds in the lightning and rain.
She grinned. Poor egghead unicorn just didn't know what she was missing.
A flash of cheerful color caught her eye against the the Library's dark brown bark. Frowning, she pushed the cloud to a suitable position, then glided back to the tree. As she dropped lower, her suspicion proved right: the color was that of three familiar fillies in bright yellow rain slickers, clustered at a window staring in.
Dash scowled and hovered up behind them.
"Hey! What's the big idea, spying on Twilight?"
The Cutie Mark Crusaders jumped and whirled around. Scootaloo gave a shush before fully realizing who the noisemaker was. Quickly, she put up an angelically innocent smile and said, "Oh hi, Rainbow Dash!"
"Oh hi, yourself! What are you three up to?" Rainbow demanded, hooves on hips.
"We, um, we're just..." Sweetie Belle said, but couldn't decide what they were just.
"When the rain got heavy, we got stuck under the tree." Apple Bloom gestured up to the leafy canopy.
"So go knock on the door! Twilight's not gonna leave you out in the rain."
"We were busy playing in the mud," said Sweetie Belle, as though it were the most obvious thing.
"Oh. Right. Of course." Dash mocked. "But still! You shouldn't be peeking through windows." she added sternly, like she never did it herself.
"Well, we wouldn't —" Apple Bloom began.
"We weren't planning on it, but we heard Pinkie Pie laughing in there, and we sort of looked in, a little, and..." continued Sweetie Belle.
"And... what?" Dash leaned forward and glanced at the window. "Are they doing some kind of cool magic in there?" she whispered, then added, "Which is not an excuse!"
"No, that's not it, they're... well, you just have to see this for yourself." Scootaloo concluded.
Dash bit her lip and fought her conscience for a moment, but inevitably her eyes crept toward the window, followed by a turn of her head, followed by a quick flap over to nudge the fillies aside and have a look for herself.
Blank-faced, she looked for a long while.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
Chapter Two: Genuine Rarity
"I'm very disappointed in all of you!"
Shining Armor, Captain of the Royal Guard, stood tall in judgement above Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. "That her own best friends would treat Lady Rarity so shamefully!"
"And you, Fluttershy!" added Princess Cadance, stepping up alongside him. "How could you just air-drop all those poor bunnies like that?"
"It's a good thing we came along when we did! Who knows what you might dump on her next!"
The three chastised ponies were silent and still, struck dumb by guilt or astonishment at the sudden appearance of the royal pair in Ponyville.
"Oh, um... I mean, can I play too?" asked Spike, rather more politely, hunching his head under the blank stares he was getting from Pinkie Pie and Twilight. In his hands were a pair of toy ponies, quite different in design from Pinkie's.
"Sure thing, Spike-a-ding!" Pinkie chirped. She leaned over to examine the figurines he held, ignoring the weird look he gave her about 'Spike-a-ding'. "Oh hey, Shining Armor and Cadance! I haven't done them yet!"
"Spike! Did you take those from the wedding cake?" Twilight asked, her tone more amused than sharp, by the slightest of margin.
"Nuh-uh, honest!" protested Spike. "These are souvenirs — I bought 'em!" Something in his expression suggested to Twilight that it wasn't for lack of effort that he didn't have the original cake figures, but she saw no reason to pursue it further.
"Ooh look, he's got us too!" squealed Pinkie, peering into the small basket by Spike's side.
Spike nodded. "Yep! They had a whole 'Royal Wedding Party' set, bridlemaids and all. With a castle!"
Pinkie reached in and held up a Twilight Sparkle figurine, dressed in her wedding-party gown. She looked toward her own collection with a faint frown. "Huh. I guess they do make dolls of us."
Spike caught her expression and hastened to say, "Sure, but yours are way better. I mean, look how cheaply these are painted!"
Pinkie took a closer look at the Twilight figure, with its features uneven and tail stripes slapdash. She picked up her own hoofmade Twilight and held them side-by-side. Even from where Twilight — the real one — sat, she could see there was no comparison of quality. The souvenir figure was just an ornament, smaller than Pinkie's doll and simplistically detailed, with mere dots for eyes and a paper dress.
"Yeah, you're right. I win!" Pinkie concluded with a sunny grin. She hunkered down again on the floor near the toy Carousel Boutique, and advanced her Twilight doll toward Spike.
In imitation of Twilight's precise diction, she told Shining Armor, "You're not being fair, Big-Brother-who-I-should-have-invited-to-a-party-or-something-so-my-friends-could-meet-him-before-he-got-married!"
"Hey!" said Twilight. In retaliation, she picked up the Pinkie doll.
"After all, Rarity was trying to make over the world." Twilight Sparkle said reasonably.
"Even so," Shining Armor replied to his sister, "they should know better than to bury a bridlemaid in bunnies."
"But bunnies are FUN!" squealed Pinkie Pie, approaching the group and bouncing around in random directions.
Shining Armor and Twilight stared at Pinkie in silence, until her frantic bouncing slowed, then stopped, sheepishly. Armor turned again to Twilight. "Besides, didn't you realize that fair Rarity would never turn to evil?"
Twilight stammered, "Wait, you mean — ?"
Pinkie muttered "Oh no..." and pitched forward to bonk her forehead on the ground.
"Yes!" declared Cadance dramatically, "The real Rarity has been with us all along!"
From a nearby basket-shaped chamber stepped Rarity, resplendent in a casual reproduction of her bridlemaid's gown. "That's right, and I just can't believe you mistook that horrid creature for fabulous me!"
Pinkie bopped her head again and said, "Really?"
Twilight gasped and declared, "Then the Rarity under all those bunnies must be..."
All spoke in unison. "A changeling!"
"Except I think we should switch them, 'cause mine is obviously the real one." Pinkie said, reaching into the pile of cotton balls and extracting her Rarity. Spike nodded and hummed agreement, as though he'd already decided the same, and passed his souvenir Rarity over to be stuffed under the bunnies in replacement.
Shining Armor nodded grimly. "And of course, everypony knows you should never cover a changeling in bunnies —"
"— because bunnies are full of love!" groaned Twilight in despair.
"Seriously? Changelings? We're doing this?" commented Pinkie.
"We have to stop her before it's too late!" said Princess Cadance.
"It's already too late!" crowed the false Rarity, buzzing up out of the bunny pile. "With the love I've taken from these bunnies, I'll spread my glamour all across Equestria! Ponies everywhere will adore the fabulous Rarity! And I shall be the most powerful changeling that ever lived!"
"You'll never get away with it!" challenged Shining Armor.
"You're not even the Queen, impudent hiveling! My royal aunts will make short work of you." added Cadance with confidence.
"Where are the Princesses?" asked Pinkie.
All the ponies paused and looked up toward Canterlot Castle, high on the side of the bookshelf mountain. Celestia and Luna had fallen on their sides, knocked senseless by the collapse of their picture-book palace. The ponies looked back at each other.
"Oh... kay." said Twilight. "Up to us, then."
"What should we do?" asked Shining Armor.
"Oh, maybe something like... casting your shield spell that worked just fine last time?" suggested Pinkie.
Twilight shook her head gravely. "As a scholar of advanced magic, I have to advise that it would be far too boring if that worked again. We'll have to find another way."
"Drat! She's right." said Armor.
"What? That's just — there's all kinds of boring magic, trust me! What does that even —"
"Piiinkie..." Armor nudged the pink pony.
Pinkie sighed and started bouncing again. "I like balloons!"
"Balloons are great!" squealed Twilight, then cleared her throat and said seriously, "But we need a better plan."
A bell rang from the kitchen and Spike jumped up, exclaiming, "Oh! Sandwiches!"
"Sandwiches? That's a weird plan." said Pinkie.
"It's not a plan, it's lunch," Spike said with a roll of his eyes. He hurried to the kitchen to prevent anything from burning. In his absence, Pinkie shrugged and moved over closer to the toy Carousel Boutique.
"Okay, you work on a plan for the good side, I'm gonna be the villain for now..." she said, picking up the smaller, lower-quality Rarity doll.
While the heroic ponies pondered their options, the faux Rarity retreated to her evil lair, deep in the dungeons of the Carousel Boutique. Chuckling, she drew forth from a large pink casket an assortment of ominous brushes, ribbons and makeup, laying them out with sinister tidiness.
"So, they've found me out! Too bad it won't help them!" she gloated. "When I steal all the love of Ponyville, no power in Equestria will be greater than mine! And you will be my first magnificent minions!"
She turned upon her captives, three unicorns — blue, green, and white — randomly abducted from the town square. They shuddered in apprehension at the light of crazed aestheticism in her eyes.
"Never fear, darlings. Rarity is going to make you all... beautiful!"
She began to laugh, a sinister rising cackle of evil triumphant, as she advanced on the first of her victims with a huge tube of lipstick.
Twilight stared at Pinkie's back as she loomed over her villainous scheme. Spike, returning from the kitchen with a little wheeled cart bearing baked open-face cheese sandwiches and bowls of soup, froze in place and matched Twilight's look of concern.
Gradually Pinkie became aware of their hesitation and turned to look at them. "What?"
"You... do spooky evil pretty well, Pinkie." said Spike, dubiously.
"Thanks! I practice." Pinkie said cheerfully. She held her gaze on Spike with eyes wide and manic, smile just a little too broad, and stayed that way until he broke the silence.
"Eat your sandwich, Pinkie," he said, thrusting a plate at her.
After taking a break to dine on something less satisfying than bunny-love but probably healthier, the false Rarity emerged from her Boutique onto the streets of Ponyville. Marching by her side were the three unicorn mares, who had been made over not only on the outside, with makeup and gigantic barrettes, but in spirit as well. Overpowered by the changeling's sinister sense of style, they followed her as dazed and loyal servants.
The citizens of Ponyville were sprawled in random piles around the town square, minding their own business. At first only a few took notice when the faux Rarity stood up atop a giant book and reared onto her hindlegs to address them in grandiose display.
"My dear little ponies!" she declaimed. "Rejoice! For today is the day that the great and fashionable Rarity has come to enliven your dull little lives with the power of beauty and fashion! Come forth and experience the Rarity difference!"
Curious about the spectacle, an orange-maned volunteer stepped from the crowd. The changeling and her minions surrounded the earth pony and bustled about her, snapping a lovely pink skirt around her waist and daubing her face with brilliant color.
"Behold!" said the beauty queen, displaying her work to the crowd.
"Rarity is woooooonderful..." crooned the newly-styled pony in a hypnotic stupor.
More ponies came forth eagerly, not seeing the danger. Laughing, the false Rarity and her lackeys spread out through the crowd, beautifying everypony they could get their hooves on, enslaving them with manestylings and fancy clothes. Each convert in turn began working the sinister influence on others, starting an ominous chant that grew ever louder as their numbers swelled.
"Rarity... Rarity... Rarity... RARITY! RARITY! RAR-I-TY! RAR-I-TY!"
Princess Cadance watched the bizarre spectacle unfolding and gasped. "She's driving the whole town fashion-mad!"
"I didn't know she could do that!" Pinkie said, aghast.
The real Rarity gave a haughty "Humph!" and leaped forward to stride toward the swarming thralls.
"Well, I for one have had quite enough of this uncivilized behavior! That cheaply-painted horsie can't steal my spotlight and get away with it!"
She reared up before the chanting crowd and declared, "Stop, all of you! For it is I, the true fair and beautiful Rarity, who have come to save you from that tacky impostor!"
"Pay her no heed!" shouted the changeling. "She's just jealous because she hasn't got a pretty dress like mine! And she's huge!"
Rarity drew a sharp shocked breath at the low blow, and lowered her head in determination. "Oh, now it is ON."
She gave a mighty leap toward the duplicate, who met her in midair. For a long while it seemed that it could be anypony's victory, the two opponents bopping against each other with all their might, but then the impostor resorted to a dastardly cheat. Raising a gigantic powder-puff, she slammed the real Rarity down into the crowd of her lackeys, who swarmed over the unicorn in a chaotic heap.
When the ponypile cleared away again, Rarity stood remade, her face painted in vivid pink lipstick and magenta eyeshadow, rainbow-striped legwarmers bunched above all four hooves, a bright yellow scrunchie binding her tail. For a moment there was silence, Rarity's friends waiting for her to explode in fury at the application of such outmoded style.
But to their horror, Rarity instead went to the changeling's side, mesmerized, chanting her own name in praise of her foul doppelganger.
The changeling laughed heartlessly. "Silly ponies, you see now that I am unstoppable! None of you will escape my wrath for daring to defy me! This inferior Rarity will spend her days locked away in a fat camp! Applejack will go from bucking apples to bucking fabulous! And I'll see to it personally that Rainbow Dash always dresses in style! A-HAHAHAHAHA!"
"This is terrible!" Cadance wailed. "If even Rarity herself can fall for... herself... what chance do the rest of us have?"
Together all the ponies turned toward the only one with the genius to save the day: Pinkie Pie.
Twilight furrowed her brow in thought. She was mildly miffed that her earlier practical suggestion had been dismissed as boring, but she could see Pinkie's (for lack of a better word) logic; this was one of those 'fun' things, not a case for practicality. She needed to come up with something more exciting...
Something Pinkie had said just now caught her attention and set a little tingle of an idea ringing in her mind. She frowned deeper, pursuing that thought, and was hit suddenly with a flash of inspiration so bright it brought a literal light to her horn.
"Aha! I've got it!" she exclaimed, loud and abrupt enough to make Pinkie and Spike jump.
"What'cha got?" Pinkie asked.
"You'll see!" Twilight grinned brilliantly and picked up the Pinkie doll again.
"Everypony relax! I've got a plan!" Pinkie announced joyfully.
"A Pinkie Pie plan?" Shining Armor asked critically.
"Uh...yes! It's a super-duper Pinkie plan, I promise! It makes no sense and it's not boring! That changeling doesn't know we've got a Secret Weapon even better than bunnies!"
"Terrific! What is it?"
"It's a secret, silly-billy! You just need to clear out all those other ponies and get her out in the open, and Auntie Pinkie will take care of the rest."
"I'm like twenty years older than you," Shining Armor grumbled. He approached the closer end of the pony crowd, the ones not yet conquered by the army of beautician thralls, and adopted a confident, no-nonsense attitude of authority.
"All of you need to take cover!" he declared. "Don't panic, just head inside and stay there, please."
A light brown stallion stepped out of the crowd and asked calmly, "Who?"
"All of you! Can't you see there's a dangerous changeling on the loose?" Armor politely began clearing the area by pushing piles of confused civilians aside with his shoulder. For the most part they seemed okay with this, but the earth pony had another question.
Armor paused to stare at him. "That fake Rarity! She's bedazzling everypony in sight with her fabulosity!"
"I said everypony! She's out to get everypony!"
"The — the changeling! I just TOLD you!"
"Wait a minute..." growled Spike.
Owloysius blinked his large, luminous eyes at the dragon. At some point, the owl had flown down in curiosity to perch on the miniature town hall, and plucked up the brown doll in hopes it might be some type of mouse.
"Who?" he repeated, causing Spike to give a strangled noise of frustration and a shoo-shoo flap of his arms. Owloysius, dignity thus affronted, snapped up a grey pegasus doll as well, and bore the two mouse-colored ponies back to his perch on the library's upper deck.
"It's no use." Shining Armor sighed. "Half the ponies are mind-controlled, the other half just won't listen to reason."
"Um, excuse me, I think I have an idea," said Fluttershy in a reedy, lilting singsong, afflicted with a curious lisp.
Spike gave a sudden puff of laughter, quickly silencing himself. Pinkie gave him a suspicious look.
"What's so funny?" she demanded.
"I'm sorry, Pinkie," Spike said sincerely, though his voice was laced with incipient giggles. "It's just... no, really I'm sorry, but your Fluttershy voice is... it's just terrible!"
Pinkie gave a scornful cluck of her tongue and glared at the dragon, who couldn't restrain the giggling any longer.
"Spike, that's so wrong." Twilight said primly, turning her face away and covering her mouth with her hoof.
Pinkie glanced off to the side to give you a long-suffering, see-what-I-put-up-with look, then turned her nose up and sniffed at Spike and Twilight. "Well! I'm sure it's not a competition." she said with stately disdain.
"We're sorry, Pinkie. Truly. You can go on, we won't laugh." said Twilight.
"Yeah, honest, I really didn't mean to make fun of you." Spike agreed earnestly.
Pinkie rolled her eyes. "Oh all right. Maybe I was being a little too squinky."
She cleared her throat, said 'Lalalala" a few times, and gave the other two a warning look before starting. "But did you even hear Twilight's Fluttershy? Seriously." she muttered.
"Anyway! I know how to round up the other ponies." said Fluttershy, sounding much more plausibly like herself.
"The same way I gather up all my dear bunnies." said Fluttershy. "With my floating basket and a giant net."
"Makes perfect sense." said Shining Armor.
Fluttershy flew off somewhere momentarily and returned with her basket and a huge blue string-net bag.
"Well, why didn't you list those among our assets in the first place?" grumbled Pinkie Pie. "Okay! You get the ponies out of the way, and I'll go prepare our Secret Weapon!"
Pinkie Pie commandeered Rainbow Dash to help, and the two of them went off to discuss Pinkie's mysterious plan. Grim and determined, the others set out to take back the streets: Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle hovering above in the basket, with the net dangling below like a fishing trawl; Applejack, Shining Armor and Princess Cadance marching forth on the ground toward the chanting swarm.
And so was joined the fourth or fifth mightiest battle in Equestrian history. The heroes on the ground ran forth and smacked into the changeling's army, who piled up and washed toward them in a living wave. Buried momentarily in the sheer mass of pony, Shining Armor burst up from beneath his attackers, sending them flying in all directions. Warier, Applejack skirted the edge of the oncoming attackers and kicked one after another with expert aim into the waiting net. Cadance, never given to violence, took the no less effective approach of hugging four or five ponies at once until they were subdued with love, then tossing them unceremoniously into the net.
Rarity emerged from the pile and confronted Applejack face-to-face, determined with zombie implacability to defend her new mistress. Applejack gave a hearty, menacing laugh.
"Oh now, this I've been waitin' on for a loooong time." she said, whirling about to bring good old Bucky McGillicuddy and Kicks McGee to bear. Rarity had time only to squeal in alarm before she was bucked high into the air, to fall neatly into the net along with all the rest.
Despite the overwhelming numbers, the mind-controlled drones were no match in the long run for the clever and resourceful starring characters. The net bulged with helpless, struggling ponies, and Fluttershy drew the string neck closed, hovering away to stash the captives where they could do no further harm.
"Foals!" the changeling shouted in defiance, with the barest hint of unease. "Surely you don't think I need those idiots to handle the likes of you!" She flew up in front of the heroes, hovering just out their reach.
"Pinkie! She's out in the open!" Armor called.
"What?" the changeling looked around, realizing that she was indeed alone in a wide-open space. She whipped back and forth in suspicion. "What's going on now?"
"Perfect!" said Pinkie. She turned to Dash and bowed a salute. "It's all up to you now, Best Young Flier."
Dash nodded smartly, lowered her flight goggles, and rocketed into the air.
To the momentary consternation of her beleaguered comrades, the pegasus first flew directly away from the battlefield. But it soon became clear that she was going to curve around in a high, wide arc. With only a quick joggle in her smooth parabola, to avoid the snapping beak of a startled giant owl, Rainbow Dash came zooming back down toward Ponyville, accelerating in a bullet line toward the false Rarity.
"Hah, I've dealt with you before!" the changeling scoffed. She braced herself in Dash's path, ready to fend her off, but the rainbow bomb was not aiming directly for her. Instead, Dash circled around her opponent, flying in tighter and tighter loops, easily evading the changeling's efforts to strike her down.
"Caught me by surprise last time, cheaty-cheaty-changeling!" she crowed. "But let's face it — I'm Rainbow Dash, and nopony beats me in a fair fight!"
"Then hold still and fight me, you feathery foal!" shouted the changeling, exasperated, trying to follow the ever-speedier circling of her enemy.
Rainbow Dash snorted disdainfully. Faster and faster she whirled, creating a shimmering violet cone around the faux Rarity, who found herself caught up by the winds in the center of the vortex.
"You can't keep this up forever, pesky pegasus!" taunted the impostor, voice faltering. Rainbow Dash only laughed, glowing brighter as she accelerated, a bright cyan streak flashing through the magenta swirl of her localized tornado.
"I don't have to do it forever —" she said, teeth tight with effort as she pushed herself ever faster.
"... just long enough..."
The wind of her spiraling passage washed across Ponyville, stirring the leaves of the Library and picking up stray papers. The light around Rainbow Dash's hurtling form grew ever brighter, became a filmy cone of white against which she strained yet harder.
"... to do..."
The changeling Rarity cried out in terror as the zooming pegasus was swathed in light too intense to look upon.
A bright flash and a concussive burst of wind shook the shelves of the Library, knocking Pinkie Pie and Spike onto their tails with nearly identical gape-jawed expressions of shock. A shimmering ring of brilliant spectral colors burst from the center of the explosion, flowering across the room in a gorgeous chromatic display. The Rarity doll was hurled by the blast into the distant reaches of the Forests and Wildlife shelf.
Twilight sat back and let the magic of her horn fade, flushed with triumph and effort. Pinkie and Spike stared at her, awestruck, as the rainbow ring dissipated and the Rainbow Dash doll hit the floor, then as one they broke into startled whoops and applause.
"A sonic rainboom! She did it! She did it! Wait, I mean — you did it, Twilight!" Pinkie hopped from hoof to hoof in excitement. "How'd you do it?"
"Oh, just a simple color illusion, actually. And some fancy high-speed levitation." Twilight said. "The doll is magically related to Rainbow Dash because it represents her, so that made it easier to imitate something she can do."
"That is so cool!" Pinkie gushed. She shot forward and squeezed Twilight in a hug hard enough to make her squeak.
"It was pretty awesome, Twilight." said Spike, suave as though expecting nothing less.
"Thanks — guys —" Twilight managed to say. Pinkie relented and let her go.
"Ooh ooh ooh, what're you gonna do next?" she asked, clapping her hooves in anticipation.
Twilight raised her eyebrows and looked around at the dolls. Despite her intention not to think about work while playing Pinkie's game, she had been considering some other spells she could use to enhance the make-believe — strictly for practice, of course, certainly not to show off.
But as she paused for thought, her ears perked up in the momentary silence, alerted to a sound that chilled her bones. Pinkie and Spike looked up as well, the three of them turning to look toward the window near the Library's front door.
The rain had gradually fallen from a steady roar to a soft whispering sprinkle. In the relative quiet, they could make out all too clearly the high-pitched sounds outside: filly voices, several of them, raised in laughter; with them, an older and deeper voice, husky but with a distinctive squeak on the end of each guffaw.
"Oh, horsefeathers —" Twilight growled, jumping up to cross the room and fling the door open.
Just as she suspected, rolling about in amusement near the entrance were three fillies she recognized, despite the mud, as Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. Rainbow Dash hovered above the trio, holding her belly and barely managing to stay in the air. When the door opened, she zoomed over and grabbed Twilight's shoulder in enthusiastic admiration.
"Twilight! That was the most awesome thing EVER! Well, next to a real Rainbow Dash Rainboom, of course!"
The fillies gathered around to add a chorus of "Yeah! Cool! Do it again!"
After a moment, Twilight's stony expression and the reality of the situation sank in. The four of them fell silent and found intense focuses of interest in the ground, the sky, their own hooves; anything but Twilight's eyes.
"Oh... uh... yeah... so hi there..." mumbled Dash, looking around in hope of a sudden massive distraction.
"Rainbow Dash! Girls! Were you spying on us?" Twilight snapped.
"No!" said Dash and Scootaloo in unison, with perfect virtue.
"Yeah..." said Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom in the same instant, with downcast guilty eyes.
Each pair shot the other a dirty look. Twilight tutted and heaved a weary sigh.
"Well, you'd better come inside." she said. Looking at the mud that covered more of the fillies than their slickers did, she added, "Hey Spike, would you mind getting some —"
"Way ahead of ya," said Spike, appearing near the door with an armload of towels, which he proceeded to lay out in a path to the washroom. With varying degrees of ability to meet Twilight's gaze, the Crusaders trudged through the door, while she tapped her hoof and took notes from every schoolteacher she'd ever known to give them a glare with just the right blend of disapproval and tolerance.
Up the stairs they headed, making a hot-lava game of the journey, waiting for Spike to take the last towel in the line and move it to the front so they wouldn't step directly on the floor. Dash, soaking wet but unmuddied, accepted a single large towel from Twilight and dried herself with an abashed but not terribly guilty expression.
"Well?" Twilight demanded.
"Aw gee, I'm sorry Twilight. I didn't think you'd find out!" Dash said, then gave a little grimace. "Wait, that's not what I meant. I mean, we were just — I was gonna — no, okay, no excuses. It was wrong, and I'm the grown-up who should've known better."
"Yes, you should have! I hope you don't make a habit of this?"
"Nah, you know me — I don't usually sneak around, I just barge right in."
"True. Whether the window is open or not, in fact."
"Heh! Yeah..." Dash hurried on to keep the topic of broken windows past from coming up. "Anyway, this time I just didn't want to interrupt you and Pinkie and Spike — it was so darn cute how you were all playing dollies!"
She did her best not to sound like she was poking fun, but the ridicule was kind of right out there where Twilight could hardly miss it.
"We weren't 'playing dollies'! It was — it was magical research!" Twilight said, with sudden defensive inspiration.
"It was?" asked Pinkie, earning a swift shut-up glare from the unicorn.
"Yes, that's right, research." Twilight said firmly. "I was... giving a demonstration! Of a practical application of Ad Astra's Second Principle of Similarity, in conjunction with basic photogenesis and levitation, as shown with the aid of common household toys!"
She gave a convincing smile, rather pleased with her swift technical summary. Rainbow Dash raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"Oh really? Pinkie, do you even know any of those words?"
"I know 'conjunction'!" Pinkie said brightly. "And 'toys'."
"Well, if she already knew it all, there wouldn't be any point in showing her, right?" Twilight asked, feeling the story crumble beneath her.
"Uh-huh. So what kind of magic laws did the part with all the ponies fighting and shoving each other into bags demonstrate?"
"How long have you been watching?" Twilight groaned.
"Well —" Dash rubbed the back of her head. "I guess since just before Spike came in with the food." She glanced toward the platter of sandwiches, with a hungry little lick of her lips, but looking back to Twilight's expression she decided not to press her luck.
Twilight gave another exasperated tut. "All right, fine, we were playing dollies. It was Pinkie's idea!"
"That much I guessed."
The Crusaders came back downstairs, fresh-scrubbed and adorably fluffy. They lined up before Twilight with gazes of industrial-strength remorse.
Sweetie Belle spoke for the group. "We're sorry for peeking on you, Miss Twilight."
"Well, it wasn't very nice, but your apology is accepted." Twilight said in a motherly tone. "Anyway, you may as well wait here until the rain lets up."
"Should be wrapped up right around sunset." Rainbow Dash said, glancing at the wall clock. "Two more hours or so."
"Oh, do you need to get back to work?" Twilight asked.
"Nah, my team can handle things for now. I'll head out when it's time to clear the sky."
"All right then... is anypony hungry?" That got a chorus of enthusiastic approval. "Spike, are there enough sandwiches for everypony?"
"I can make more, they're easy." Spike answered, unconcerned. "There's plenty of soup to start with."
"Excellent! You're the best, Spike." Dash fluttered over to give the dragon hoof-noogies, which he tolerated with affable poise.
"Okay, just one more thing." Twilight speared Dash and the fillies with a serious eye. "Can I ask you please not to go telling everypony in town about... all this?" She gestured across the toy town.
"Aww, is oo embawwassed?" Pinkie asked, smooshing Twilight's cheeks and earning a glare of pure venom from the unicorn.
"No! Well, I mean, yes. A little. I just don't want something so... silly to be the talk of Ponyville all month!"
"We've learned our lesson about spreading gossip, Miss Twilight," Sweetie Belle said, without much certainty.
"Yeah, we won't tell..." Scootaloo tried to add, but dropped off to a mumble in mid-sentence.
"You promise?" Twilight asked, not remotely convinced.
"We promise," chorused the Crusaders and Dash, trying really hard to make it sound true.
Twilight looked across the open, innocent faces of the three big-eyed fillies, and scruffy, guileless Rainbow Dash; they looked back with every intention of sincerity. For a moment, it was possible to believe that none of them would deliberately spread an embarrassing secret.
"But yeah, you might as well paint it on a banner," said Apple Bloom finally, echoing everypony's thoughts. The others nodded and murmured immediate agreement.
"We are pretty much gonna tell everypony, sooner or later." said Scootaloo.
"We can promise not to mean to!" Sweetie Belle offered optimistically.
"Just sayin', I kinda have to tell Applejack. And Rarity. And those guys in Cloudsdale that I hate..." Rainbow Dash contributed.
Twilight rolled her eyes and said loudly, "Well all right, you're forcing my hoof. If I can't stop you from blabbing, I'll just have to take... other measures."
"Wh-what kind of... other measures?" Dash asked, wary of the ominous pause. Not for the first time, she wondered just how far up the crazy tree Twilight Sparkle could really climb.
"Pinkie! Spike!" Twilight barked instead of answering.
Quick as if practiced, Pinkie slammed the front door, leaning against it in a cool gangster slouch. She gave the captive guests a dangerous look over the sunglasses she suddenly wore, and put curious menace into the act of chewing a toothpick. Spike stepped up alongside Twilight, holding the net bag full of toy ponies.
Twilight gave her best villainous grin, not quite as creepy as Pinkie's, but effective nonetheless.
"If the story is going to get around, I just have to make sure you four don't get the last laugh. No, this little anecdote will be just as embarrassing for everypony!"
"Except for the ones who don't ca-are!" Pinkie singsonged, blissfully free of dignity.
Twilight advanced in challenge on Rainbow Dash and the Crusaders. who cringed beneath the eerie cheer in her eyes. Spike held the bag open toward them, solemn as one offering duelists their choice of weapon.
"Pick your ponies, girls." said Twilight. "We're having the most adorable tea party ever!"
To Be Continued... Finally!