• Published 26th Dec 2013
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The Irony of Applejack Aftermath: A Warm Hearth - Mister Friendly



A return to normal couldn't be too much to ask for... right?

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Part 2

Part
2

“Oh Twilight, please tell me you didn’t,” sighed a disparaging Spike.

The lavender unicorn didn’t meet the disapproving dragon’s gaze. She tried to appear busy with her overnight bag, but even she had to admit that she wasn’t pulling it off anymore. There were only so many ways she could fiddle with her toothbrush and not appear to be dithering about.

All around the two were the familiar trappings of Twilight’s old bedroom. Everything was exactly the way the unicorn remembered it, from the astronomically accurate star chart covering the whole domed ceiling, right down to Spike’s old – and now slightly to small – bed sitting exactly between Twilight’s four-poster bed and a crackling fireplace filled with magical flames that danced upon their logs without so much as charring the wood.

Surrounding Twilight, too, were the memories of her greatest fillyhood accomplishments – her first completely grammatically correct essay, complete with her third grade teacher's gold star stamp of approval, a set of golden levitation training balls arranged by size from pea-sized to volley ball, her first abacus, among many more – yet at the moment, it was one of her most recent mistakes that sat squarely at the forefront of her mind.

Spike stood only a little ways behind her, One of Rarity’s heftier valises forgotten only halfway across the room from the door to a pile of the rest of their friend’s belongings. That was as far as he’d gotten it before he’d finally gotten the reason for Twilight’s moping out of her.

Of course, now he was having trouble believing the words he’d just been told. “And you just… stared at her?” Spike asked, clinging to hope that he’d heard wrong.

Twilight’s flinch, however, dashed those hopes completely. It was, in fact, exactly as bad as it’d sounded. “I… couldn’t stop myself,” Twilight admitted, flopping against her four-poster bed. “I know it was rude, and the look AJ gave me… Oh, she must be so offended right now!”

Twilight sighed heavily, her ears flopping lifelessly against the sides of her head. “I’m doing everything the other girls are. So… why is this so hard for me, Spike? How come every time I look at… at Applejack’s real face, I see that stupid… stupid queen, too?”

Spike had no answer to give, even though he felt like he desperately needed to give one – if only to reassure his life-long friend. He twiddled his claws apprehensively, one fang nipping at his lip while trying to think up something to say.

“Twilight, everypony’s struggling to adjust, too,” he thought to point out, “just like you.”

“Not Rainbow,” Twilight grumbled, sounding almost envious. That choice of tone caught Spike off guard, silencing him.

Twilight picked herself up and waved a hoof in irritation at nothing in particular while continuing to not meet Spike’s gaze. “That’s another thing I don’t get! How can Rainbow Dash act like nothing’s changed? We even had more hints than she did, while she got thrown face-first into that whole mess without any forewarning at all! But she hardly even missed a step! Hay, she and Applejack seem even closer than before! How is that even possible?!”

“Well,” Spike muttered, struggling to think of something that wouldn't ignite the temperamental mare's ire any further. He trailed off for but a second, ringing his claws the whole time, until a thought struck him, “What about all of those paparazzi that swarmed Sweet Apple Acres? Rainbow didn’t like that at all, remember?”

It was reaching, and Spike knew it, as did Twilight herself, but there was admittedly little else he had to offer up.

When the news about Applejack’s true identity had broken, every reporter, journalist and freelancer in the country had made a beeline for the orchards. Suddenly, Sweet Apple Acres was getting a lot more attention than it’d wanted, and definitely not in a good way.

‘The story of the century’ the media had called it; not only were there changelings living in Equestria, there was a queen among them to boot, and they apparently came in peace. There wasn’t a reporter alive who didn’t want a piece of that, and each one of them fully intended to poke around every square inch of the expansive orchards in their quest for the truth, no matter how invasive they had to be. And with the Guard still recuperating and in general disarray, there was nothing to stop them from doing whatever they wanted.

Pity that they hadn’t counted on Rainbow. Even with a broken wing, she’d fended off the worst of the lot with such ferocity that some started throwing around speculation that she wasn’t who she said she was, either. Of course, theories about secret undercover bodyguards didn’t stay afloat for long in reputable news circuits, and after her indignant parents got into the mix, the matter was dropped in its entirety after a written apology from the press. In some ways, that’d been a spectacle in itself worth seeing.

Still, the sudden media attention that’d swarmed Applejack and her family did put the weather pony in a noticeably foul mood for several days. Hardly anypony seemed to care about her heroics in the battle for Ponyville, and not once was she asked by reporters how she’d gotten so many injuries compared to the rest of her friends.

That predictably rubbed her the wrong way, and she became quite insufferable for a few weeks; even Applejack threatened to kick her off the farm once or twice if she didn’t lighten up. Only once the paparazzi found other targets to sink their fangs into – like the multitudes of other changelings taking up residence in the rural town, much to their dismay – did Rainbow seem to stop sulking as much, and once her wing came out of its cast she got back to her old self in no time at all.

Of course, Rainbow’s behavior was hardly a direct result of Applejack’s true identity, a fact that Twilight was plenty aware of herself. In fact, thinking about her daredevil friend only made her more frustrated.

Twilight abruptly sat down, scowling to herself. “I don’t get it. How can she just brush off the fact that everything we knew about Applejack was… wrong? I know AJ’s still our friend, I know that, but…”

“But that’s what’s making it so confusing?” Spike finished for her.

Twilight sighed yet again, slouching. “Yeah…”

Both were silent for a long time. The only sound in the room was the crackle and pop of fire and the soft ticking of a grandfather clock in the corner.

Just to find something to do, Spike once more set about shifting Rarity’s valise across the room with much grunting and shoving. Even with it being disturbingly heavy for its petite size, he was bound and determined to get it to the place of honor in front of Pinkie’s strangely floating suitcase and Fluttershy’s butterfly-emblazoned pack.

“Maybe you’re just looking at this the wrong way,” Spike suggested, though his focus was mainly on throwing his shoulder against Rarity’s bag while simultaneously trying not to trip over it.

“I don’t think it’s that simple, Spike,” Twilight said heavily. “Every time I look at Applejack, I want her to keep being that Applejack. But…”

For a split second, a flash of amber crossed her mind – a flash that seemed to stare accusingly back at her, challenging her, first in a regal foyer, and then amid wreckage and ruin…

“Every time I see those eyes…” Twilight all-but whispered, “It’s like she disappears just a little bit more.”

There was more Twilight needed to say – to at least get off her chest, so that it no longer dragged her down like a ball and chain. But, in the end, she stopped herself from divulging. These were not things befitting a baby dragon.

Twilight was so absorbed with trying to wrestle herself into submission that she about jumped out of her skin when something collided with her front.

And it took her a little bit longer to realize that that same thing had ahold of her midriff.

Spike didn’t say anything. In fact, he didn’t even meet Twilight’s gaze. He just did what he did best as the lavender unicorn’s number one assistant; supported her in her hour of need.

Twilight welcomed his hug, putting a hoof around him and squeezing him tightly. It wasn’t until then that she realized just how badly she’d needed one.

“Thanks, Spike,” she muttered into his head crest after a brief silence.

“Anytime, Twilight,” he replied into her chest. A moment later, he broke away from the unicorn in order to finally make eye contact. “So, what are you going to do about it?” he asked.

Twilight blinked, before once again averting her eyes.

“Oh come on, Twilight,” Spike sighed, poking her chest meaningfully with a claw. “Applejack’s our friend. You said it yourself! And you always find a way to fix things whenever our friends are in trouble. Compared to Discord, this is nothing!”

“This is different, Spike,” Twilight hedged, but Spike wasn’t buying any bit of it.

“Yeah right,” Spike scoffed with a roll of his eyes. “The only thing that’s different is that there isn't a demigod getting in the way. Just you.”

A slight flicker of irritation crossed Twilight’s expression. “Do you think I don’t know that? I’m doing my best, I really am. See, look.”

On a whim, Twilight’s horn lit up. She turned her head in the direction of her overnight bag, just as the top unzipped itself and flipped open. And a moment later, something hovered out of it on a veil of purple magic before floating closer to the pair.

Unsurprisingly to Spike, it was a book. When one lived with a studious unicorn like Twilight for any length of time, one had to develop and expectation for literature to be nearby and readily available at a moment’s notice. It was very Pinkie Pie-esque sometimes, though he’d never dare say it to Twilight’s face.

This was, however, a book wrapped in a red ribbon tied in a bow. A tag hung off of it, tied by a length of twine around the base of the bow:

To: Applejack

From: Twilight Sparkle

But it wasn’t until the thickly bound book floated close enough that Spike made out the title, and he couldn’t help but wince.

101 Spells For Colts And Fillies?” he read, then crooked an eyebrow at Twilight.

“What?” she huffed defensively. “She could use it! I mean, last time we practiced, she managed to lift a ball two whole inches only using her horn!”

It didn't take her long, however, for her expression to screw up. “be… fore crushing it to powder. I didn’t even know steel could do that. But still, it was progress, no matter what Applejack said!”

Spike paled at that. “S-steel?”

Twilight carefully returned the present back to its place while Spike recovered, all the while frowning to herself.

“Honestly, with how little control she has over all of that magic, it’s a wonder she managed to keep it a secret this long without anypony getting suspicious,” she noted. “She had to have magic spurts growing up. Maybe I should ask her next time we sit down to talk…”

Twilight lapsed into thoughtful silence after that. She didn’t even seem to notice the uncomfortable look Spike was giving her.

“I don’t know, Twilight,” her said uncertainly. “Maybe you’re focusing a little too hard on the new Applejack. Maybe if you paid more attention to the old Applejack, things will get better.”

Yet again, Twilight sighed. This time she set Spike aside, stood up and pointed herself towards the door. “Yeah… And that’s the problem…”

Just as she magically pried open the double bedroom doors, she paused and directed a weak smile over her shoulder towards Spike. “Thanks for trying, Spike. I’ll think of something. I just… need some more time.”

~~***~~

The hallways leading away from Twilight’s tower bedroom were, as always, very quiet. Hardly anypony but patrolling guards and the occasional butler or maid was permitted to venture this far into the royal suites, which spared it from the commotion ringing through the rest of the castle grounds.

It was part of the reason why Twilight liked this part of the castle so much. The quiet privacy that permeated the halls, the lack of anypony else moving about the corridors; these were the perfect conditions for Twilight to ponder her thoughts away without the fear of interruptions. And right then, that was precisely what she needed the most.

With only the sound of her own hooves thumping on soft carpet, and the cold late afternoon sun lighting her way, Twilight started to think, and think hard about only one thing in particular; Applejack.

The unfortunate thing was that the problem she had with Applejack was not something she could easily rationalize, quantify, then set about solving. She’d tried so many times in the past, but nothing seemed to work. Every time she thought she’d thoroughly convinced herself that Applejack was still Applejack, all it took was the sight of those strange amber eyes to bring it all crashing down again. This day had been no exception, and would likely not be the last one, either.

She walked the long corridors in silence, lost in thought. Some part of her knew where she was going, but she was too distracted to realize it fully. There was still the bigger issue to tackle, but for the sheer scope of it, it’d take a very long corridor indeed for her to figure it out properly.

But she was also aware that she was running out of time, and running out of it fast. The anxiety tugging in her chest told her how close she was to missing an important deadline, and it was fraying the nerves she needed to come up with a solution.

Twilight didn’t like it, but she forced herself to shift her thoughts towards more pressing matters. Such as, what to say to Applejack once they met face to face again. That, at least, could smooth out this rough patch, and that was precisely what she had to do first and foremost. The rest would just have to wait.

Oh, I hope she’s not too upset with me… But how should I apologize…?

Something tickled at the back of her mind, something that didn’t have much of a foothold in her train of thought beyond an almost subconscious recognition and dismissal.

But what if it happens again? Am I going to have to prepare myself every single time I see her like that?

There it was again, tugging at the back of her head, trying to find some sort of purchase to get her attention. Twilight merely shrugged it off, however.

No, I can’t let myself think about that right now. I need to make up with Applejack first, then…

That was when something physically prodded the side of her head.

Twilight leapt two feet straight up in the air with a shriek, her little private thought bubble exploding non-too gently.

With her introversion shattered spectacularly, she suddenly became very aware of her surroundings; namely, a companion she’d failed to notice. The white stallion keeping pace with her jumped almost as much as she did, in fact.

But even as Twilight whipped around to confront this intruder, a voice rose to cut her off before she could do anything at all.

“Geez, Twiley; you haven’t changed at all.”

Whatever Twilight had been on the verge of saying instantly melted away into an astonished gasp.

“Shiny!”

How could she have overlooked Shining Armor’s presence until that very moment? He could’ve been walking alongside her for whole minutes and she hadn’t picked up on a thing.

That didn’t change the fact that he was right there beside her; tall and proud as ever, clad in his purple and gold captain armor, and flashing his little sister a bemused smile.

“Ohmygosh, I didn’t see you there!” Twilight cried, still too taken aback to even process anything besides adrenaline and shock.

“I kind of noticed,” her brother replied ruefully. “What, were you planning on walking all the way to the Great Hall without noticing me? If you’re not careful, you’re going to hurt my feelings, little sis.”

Twilight’s response to that was to suddenly jump at the unsuspecting Guard Captain in a move that very nearly bowled him over entirely. Had it been anypony else, Shining might’ve concluded that he was under attack; his sister’s hug was just so energetic.

“I’m so sorry!” Twilight apologized loudly, all the while beating herself up internally for completely ignoring her one and only big brother.

“Easy, Twilight,” Shining chuckled, trying to pry the lavender unicorn off of his front with little success. “It’s fine. It’s not like I don’t know how you get sometimes.”

“Sorry,” Twilight said one more time in a sheepish tone, finally letting go of her brother and taking a few embarrassed steps back.

Shining Armor was still smiling, though. He shook his head, chuckling, all the while giving his little sister a look. “The last time you were this zoned out, you were burying yourself in that Mare In The Moon story,” he mused. He eyed Twilight out of the corner of his eye, scrutinizing her. “Is something bothering you?”

He was surprised when Twilight abruptly wilted. Whatever had been bothering her suddenly seemed to come rushing back in full force, now that the shock had passed.

“Oh… well, sorry,” she said yet again while composing herself. “I’ve just got a few things on my mind.”

“More than usual, I’m guessing,” Shining put in, only now he was redoubling his scrutiny of his little sister.

A weak smile flickered across her lips. “Yes. More than usual,” she said in a brave attempt at humor, and then continued walking. Her brother effortlessly matched her stride, however; he wouldn’t be letting her go that easily.

“Anything I can help with?” Shining asked, all business now. There was an upset little sister to look after; nothing could be more serious.

This time, Twilight couldn’t stop her grin, even if it was rather wry. “No offense, Shining, but I don’t think you’d be able to do much. It’s… a personal problem, that’s all.”

Her brother frowned, clearly of a different opinion, but as he opened his mouth to say something, a new voice cut across him from Twilight’s other side.

“Well then, maybe I could help.”

Twilight froze in her tracks again, astonishment pulling another gasp from her. She quickly whipped around, and found the source of that voice standing at a T junction between corridors intersecting their path.

Twilight would’ve recognized her anywhere. Her pink coat, her long and curly three-toned mane, the slender horn and beautiful wings; these were all things Twilight would never allow herself to forget for a second time.

“Cadance!” she cheered, and without a second thought, bounded away towards her old foalsitter.

Shining Armor laughed to himself and rolled his eyes privately while he took his time catching up, all the while watching his little sister and wife go through their ritualized greeting like a couple of giggling schoolyard fillies.

You underestimate me sometimes, Twiley.

~~***~~

All three ponies made their way through the castle, down steadily busier and busier corridors and hallways filled with ponies.

Twilight hardly even noticed them, however. In fact, only Shining seemed to be taking stock of his surroundings, as every now and then he’d break away from the conversation to salute to guards stationed here and there along their path, occasionally shooting off an “At ease” when the need arose before snapping back to the talkative set of mares walking with him.

Cadance and Twilight were busily chatting away about anything and everything, sparing a laugh or two whenever the fancy struck them. After a while, it even seemed like the lavender unicorn was the one doing all of the giggling, something Shining noticed.

“I’m so glad we could visit a bit, Twilight,” Cadance said at last with a big smile. “And there isn’t a state of emergency for a change!”

“We’ve still got time left,” Twilight giggled.

Cadance laughed in response, covering her mouth with a hoof. “For heaven’s sake, Twilight; could we please go one day without awakening some sort of ancient evil to terrorize the countryside? There are only so many disasters a country can take in a year!”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Twilight laughed back.

It was around that time that it finally dawned on Twilight that something had happened. Somehow, the hallways of Canterlot didn’t seem as dark, or as cold. The chatter of ponies wasn’t invasive or abrasive, and actually seemed quite homely. The weight on her heart was all-but gone; evaporated like it was nothing at all, not really.

Here she was, trying to keep from digging herself into a deeper hole, and then these two ponies show up, and everything changed. The problem wasn’t gone, but she at least no longer felt like she was on the verge of being crushed by it. And that, as it turned out, made all the difference in the world.

“So,” Cadance started, looking the lavender unicorn over. “Do you feel like talking about what’s on your mind now, Twilight?”

Twilight opened her mouth, then paused. A beat later, she opened it again, a smile on her lips.

“You know what? I’m alright. I’ll figure something out; I know I will.”

Cadance barely seemed to miss a step, if her warm smile proved anything. “I’m glad to hear that. Well, if you need any help with Applejack, just let us know.”

“Alright, I will!” Twilight said happily without a second thought. “Sorry, but I have to go now; rehearsals will be starting soon!”

And without waiting for another word, she turned and galloped away, a noticeable bounce in her step.

She left behind her a rather nonplussed Shining Armor, who was scratching his head, and a giggling Cadance, who merely waved goodbye to the retreating unicorn’s back.

“So,” Shining spoke up, turning questioningly towards his wife. “How did you know it was about Applejack?”

Cadance merely gave him a knowing look. “Like brother like sister, I suppose,” she said teasingly. “What else could it be these days?”

Shining frowned, but said nothing. After all, he had no way to argue with that. None whatsoever.

Cadance giggled to herself before turning to look back in Twilight’s direction, just as she rounded a corner. But as she continued to stare after her, some of the warmth seemed to dwindle from her smile. “I’d hoped Celestia was just being a worrywart sending us to check up on her. Poor Twilight… I hope she finds her answer soon, before things get any more complicated than they already are.”

~~***~~

The Great Hall of Canterlot Castle. Like the center of a compass rose, it sat at the very epicenter of the majestic home of the royal pony sisters, with everything else radiating out and away in every possible direction. All roads in the castle eventually found themselves reaching the Great Hall, one way or another.

The hall itself was absolutely gigantic in every way; a true testament to the genius of the castle’s architects. From weddings to galas, there wasn’t a single event in Equestria that would ever want for space in the colossal hall. Even the most claustrophobic of pegasi would feel reassured by the soaring arched roof that seemed almost impossibly high from the ground.

The great arched windows on either side of the hall opened up upon the snow-blanketed landscape all around, far and wide; from the glinting rooftops of the city of Canterlot, all the way out to the distant mountains; if one had keen enough eyes, nothing was out of sight for anypony wanting to look.

Soft, merry music danced through the air of the hall, despite there not being a single musician manning their instruments. There was only a lone conductor standing off to one side, occasionally flicking a golden conducting baton. And every time he did so, the music would immediately change from one song to the next like some kind of tape recorder.

But nopony was really paying attention to the ethereal melodies drifting from an only partially assembled orchestra pit. They had their hooves full with considerably more important tasks.

Great wreaths big enough for the royal sisters to jump through were being strung high up on the columns lining the hall. Boughs of holly and gigantic red ribbons as big around as ponies looped through the air from pillar to pillar, and there were entire teams of unicorns and pegasi working in unison to make sure everything stayed where it was supposed to.

Aisle upon aisle of cushioned seating covered the immense marbled floor, and they were all aimed at the huge shape of a grand old stage.

How it’d managed to get into the Great Hall was a mystery to everypony. One day the hall had been vacant as always. The next, the antique stage stood right where it always did – not a centimeter out of place whatsoever.

Its unblemished wooden frame looked freshly stained and clear-coaked. The rich and billowing curtains were pristine, the network of lines and blocks they were attached to were rigged to perfection, the myriad costumes were impeccably cleaned and pressed, and the set pieces were all assembled and freshly repainted – with nopony the wiser as to who was responsible. Even the guards merely shrugged when asked.

But, there was something... missing to it all. This is what first hit Twilight the moment she jogged into the busy hall mid-construction.

For the longest time, she couldn’t quite place it, but it refused to leave her alone despite her determination to stay focused on other things. Whatever it was, it kept tugging at Twilight’s ear, causing her to listen when she wasn’t entirely sure why.

She could hear hammering, voices calling out to each other or else murmuring amongst themselves in a more private fashion; all of which was perfectly normal. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was just… missing.

But she had much more important things to concern herself with, and the distraction was only momentary.

It didn’t take her long to spot the first of her friends, however; that chased away the nagging suspicion completely, especially when one of their voices rang out across the hall.

“There you are!” Rarity cried out in exasperation. She’d been standing all the way by the stage platform with Fluttershy, chatting to fill the time. That’d all come to a screeching halt the moment the purple unicorn came running into the fashionista’s field of vision.

However, they were the only two in eyesight. Pinkie not being in plain view was nothing new; Twilight was fully expecting her to pop out at any moment and from any direction, and likely from the most improbable of locations. But Rainbow was also nowhere to be found, which the purple unicorn could overlook somewhat. It was the absence of Applejack that caught Twilight’s attention the most.

A quick look around the expansive hall didn’t turn up hide nor hair of the apple farmer – neither her orange coat nor less familiar charcoal chitin. That was odd… and rather unsettling.

Nopony seemed to notice her gawking around, however; least of all a rather disgruntled pearly white fashionista.

“Do you know what time it nearly is?” Rarity shot, her patience clearly at its limit. She was cantering down the lane between the rows of seating, not content to wait for the librarian to come to her.

“I’m sorry!” Twilight cried out, panting from the run. “Did I miss anything?”

“No, thank goodness,” Rarity huffed. She was frowning, but there was a different reason for her close scrutiny of her friend. She was searching her friend over a lot more intently than her shortened temper might’ve predicted. “Honestly, at least Applejack has a good excuse. You, on the other hoof…”

The moment she said the name, Twilight’s ears twitched, and her head snapped around. “Wait, then where’s Applejack?” she asked, slightly panicky. “She’s not here?”

How could she not be present at all? The idea felt so outlandish so as to be unthinkable. And she’d painstakingly been scripting out the perfect apology in her head, too…

Then, a darker thought loomed in the back of Twilight’s mind, and quickly spread to take full hold of her faculties. Had Applejack run away because of what’d happened between them? Was she so hurt by Twilight’s actions that she didn’t want to see the unicorn at all anymore? Was Applejack perhaps, at that very moment, boarding a train back of Ponyville – or maybe somewhere even farther? Had she just chased one of her best friends right out of Equestria because of some stupid slip on her part?!

“She had some business to take care of with Roseluck before rehearsals. She should turn up any time now.”

Oh.

Twilight let out a breath, internally trying to calm herself down. Keep it together, Twilight… just keep it together…

Meanwhile, Rarity was looking her friend over carefully, and she didn’t try to conceal her concern. “Darling, are you alright? You seem a little… frazzled.”

Twilight jolted as if electrocuted, and then immediately forced a smile. “N-no, I’m fine, really! I just really need to talk to Applejack, that’s all.”

“I… see,” Rarity responded hesitantly. She wanted to dig deeper; to find out what exactly had caused them to lose so much time between both the unicorn and the changeling.

But at the same time, she knew a personal problem when she saw one. The best she could do was keep a close eye on the pair from afar, and be ready for action should the need arise. It pained her to do so, but there were just some places a pony had no business sticking her nose thoughtlessly.

Twilight’s voice abruptly cut across the fashionista’s train of thought, causing her to jump when her friend spoke. “I am sorry for taking so long – really. I hope the director isn’t too mad with us.”

Unbeknownst to the purple unicorn, however, Rarity caught Fluttershy’s eye briefly, but her only contribution was to give a helpless shrug to the fashionista.

“About that, darling,” Rarity said, and for some reason she felt the need to drop her voice carefully. “There’s something you need to know, before…”

“Well, it’s about time.”

Twilight looked up and away – not quite catching Rarity’s wince in time – straight towards a particularly severe looking pony standing on the stage.

It didn’t take long for Twilight to figure out who she was. Her brilliant vermillion coat was a complete give away.

For that matter, her entire body was comprised of nothing by various shades of red; her vermillion coat, her brick red mane – even her piercing eyes were ruby.

This, Twilight could tell, was Verily Vermillion, the new director of the Hearth’s Warming Pageant.

It was precisely at that moment that her brain finished processing the anomaly that’d been teasing her. All throughout the hall, from one end to the other, there wasn’t a single laugh to be heard. There were voices from the decorating crews milling about the place, oh yes, but they comprised nothing but pragmatic orders and communication. There was no cheerful banter, no joking – just business, business and more business, a complete far cry from what it’d been like last year.

That was the moment when Twilight started to get a bad feeling indeed.

Verily stepped gracefully down a set of stairs, and even though she turned in the direction of where she was going, her razor-like gaze stayed planted firmly upon the lavender newcomer, studying her with laser-like intensity.

If anypony had to describe Verily in a word, it would likely be ‘severe’. Everything about her was razor sharp, from the tight bun her sleek mane was done up in right down to the jutting angle to the curves of her body; even her jaw seemed to be made of nothing but sharp angles, and her mouth was as thin and straight as a paper cut. If her pupils turned out to be cat’s eye slits, nopony would’ve been surprised in the least.

Her black-frame glasses were sharp and angular, her horn was sharp as a javelin, her modestly cut business coat was sharp – even her cutie mark comprised a set of rather deadly-looking pens with disconcerting tips dripping with ink. At least, everypony hoped it was ink.

“Miss Twilight Sparkle, I presume,” she said, and even her words were pointed. “You’re very nearly late.”

Twilight could just make out an accent in the businessmare’s voice, but she couldn’t quite place it. Was it Canterlotian? Manehattan? She couldn’t quite tell – it was too subtle, but sophisticated nonetheless.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Twilight said as politely as possible while inclining her head respectfully.

Verily didn’t seem to react in the slightest to her voice. She continued striding towards the group, scrutinizing the mare so closely that Twilight had to fight back the urge to squirm.

“I see. Well then, I am Verily Vermillion – your director for this pageant,” she said tersely. “Now that we’ve gotten introductions out of the way, you are the one who will be playing Clover the Clever, if I am not mistaken.”

It didn’t sound like a question – not to Twilight, but the look Verily gave her clearly demanded a response.

“Yes, I am,” Twilight responded.

Again, Verily didn’t act like she’d heard a single syllable leave Twilight’s mouth. “Good of you to finally join us, then. The stand-ins were beginning to get hopeful,” she said, and not once did her expression even flicker from its hard façade.

At first, Twilight thought that it was a joke, and even tried an attempt at nervous laughter – until she saw the subtle shake of the head Rarity was hastily giving her. Verily was dead serious, it seemed.

“Unfortunately,” Verily went on, her tone completely unchanged, “it appears that we are still one important pony down.”

That was the only moment Twilight saw Verily’s expression shift. For a split second, Verily’s muzzle wrinkled, making her appear somehow more sour than before. But as quickly as it happened, it disappeared again, causing Twilight to question whether she’d even seen it or not.

At the same time, Rarity no longer seemed comfortable standing in place for as much as she started fidgeting. Fluttershy had pulled a vanishing act altogether, leaving only the two to face the new director by themselves.

“W-well,” Twilight started, and immediately felt the weight of Verily’s gaze flick back to her, “maybe we could rehearse in the meantime? Applejack’s part isn’t until the second act, after all.”

She finished with what she prayed was a winning smile, though Verily’s reaction – or general lack thereof – was a poor medium to judge its success by.

The director scrutinized Twilight even harder than before, her eyes narrowing, until, quite abruptly –

“Very well then,” Verily replied. “I will give you all five minutes to prepare. There are scripts in the back, should you desire them.”

Twilight’s internal sigh was cut short when Verily’s voice snapped out again. “But if Miss Applejack still hasn’t deemed it necessary to be present for her own part, I will have one of my own actresses take her place. I am in the business of putting on quality performances, Miss Sparkle; not waiting to do so.”

Twilight steeled herself under the intimidating mare’s gaze, and even managed to meet it squarely. “Don’t worry. She’ll be here.”

Verily held the unicorn’s gaze momentarily without comment. Then, swiftly, she turned around and headed back towards the stage in a single sweeping move. “You’d best be correct, Miss Sparkle. We have only three hours to ready ourselves for the biggest show in all of Equestria,” she called back without turning around. “Let us make it one to remember, shall we?”

Only once she was out of sight did Twilight remember to breathe.

“She’s been like that ever since we got here,” Rarity said, all the while making sure Verily was out of earshot. “One would think she’d at least attempt to be polite to the princess’ personal student, but I guess even that was a bit much to hope for.

“I’m sure she’s… just under a lot of stress right now!” Twilight said with forced brightness. “This is probably the biggest show in her career, not to mention one of the most important plays in the whole country. I can’t imagine what kind of pressure she’s under right now.”

Twilight turned to watch the new director go, until she vanished backstage once more. “Well… I suppose she could be worse.”

The lavender unicorn would never see how much Rarity winced in response to her words.

“Darling… perhaps you should follow me,” the fashionista said, and her uncomfortable tone was evident enough to draw Twilight’s attention once again. “There is something I need to show you. Preferably, before Applejack returns.”

Twilight gave Rarity a confused look, trying to dissect the fashionista’s somber expression. Whatever was causing it, it was giving the lavender unicorn an even worse feeling.

“Um… alright. Lead the way,” she said nervously.

Rarity nodded, then turned to head off – towards the stage itself.

~~***~~

Twilight couldn’t help but marvel when she stepped back stage, and for one simple fact; not a single thing about it had changed. Every box of props, every rack of costumes, even the flickering light bulb halfway up the farthest left vanity mirror hanging on one of the walls; it was all exactly as she remembered it.

It was as if she’d stepped back in time, back to the year before, when she and the rest of her friends first giddily trotted into the cluttered preparation area with their hearts in their throats. It was like a dreamy memory… one that was shattered by the presence of Rarity leading the way in front of her.

“Uh… Where are we going?” Twilight asked, confused when the fashionista passed right by all of the likely suspects. Rarity didn’t so much as glance at the racks of costumes cluttered together on one end of the room. She paid no attention to the boxes of props, either, or the stocks of cosmetics by the vanity mirrors.

In fact, the corner that held fairly near all of Rarity’s attention was, strangely enough, very barren indeed. There was only a purple dividing curtain there, and nothing else of note.

“It’s over here, Twilight,” Rarity said anyway, and she even pointed towards that same peculiar corner of the room.

“And… what does an empty corner have to do with anything?” Twilight asked, completely at a loss.

Finally, Rarity paused, slowing down in order to give Twilight a meaningful look. “It… doesn’t really. But I’d rather have this conversation away from…” she darted her gaze around rapidly, as if expecting to catch eavesdroppers at every turn, “… prying eyes. Especially Verily, herself.”

Rarity turned back around and kept going, leaving Twilight only more confused than ever before.

“I’ve been trying to figure out why Miss Vermillion’s name sounded so familiar,” Rarity started to explain. For some reason, she spoke with a mild note of vexation. “Even in Ponyville, I would like to think I have a healthy understanding about the who’s who in high society. So why the name of the Canterlot pageant’s new director didn’t immediately jump out at me made me curious.”

Abruptly, Rarity pulled up to a stop – right in the corner she’d been headed towards.

It didn’t take Twilight long to figure out why, either. The spot was dimly lit compared to the rest of the area, and not in an immediate line of sight with any of the entrances. A shelf loaded with what looked to be rubber weaponry provided a small degree of privacy, while Twilight’s and Rarity’s bodies themselves provided still further cover between what they were doing and prying eyes.

This was what started to make Twilight nervous, as her mind started piecing together the strange levels of secrecy the fashionista was taking. Rarity was not, by virtue, a secretive pony to begin with. Something seriously wrong must’ve happened for her to resort to such measures, and it was beginning to put Twilight ill at ease.

She never got a chance to speak up, however – Rarity beat her to it quite handily.

“So, while the rest of us waited for you,” Rarity whispered almost conspiratorially with an ever more baffled Twilight, “I asked around a little about our star director, and eventually came across this very nice stallion working in rigging. The ring on his horn was such a shame… anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes! He seemed to know an awful lot about Miss Vermillion.”

“And?” Twilight asked. Without even meaning to, she whispered back in kind, leaning in a little closer towards Rarity. Now she couldn’t help but be interested, even if the look Rarity was giving her made her wish she wasn’t. “What did he tell you?”

The fashionista, however, floundered for a second. She seemed to be warring with herself to find the right words for the job, and it wasn’t coming easily. “It… wasn’t so much what he told me,” Rarity hedged, “as much as it was what he showed me instead.”

Without giving any further explanation, Rarity’s horn started to glow.

To Twilight’s surprise, the curtains right next to her started to rustle and part, revealing the dark wooden divider behind it – along with a long, slender tube of some sort.

This was what Rarity grasped in her telekinetic grip, and carefully pulled it out from its hiding spot.

But instead of receiving answers, Twilight only got still more questions. For the thing Rarity was taking such pains to conceal… was a rolled up poster bound at both ends by rubber bands.

Yet, Rarity was continuing to watch Twilight carefully, as if half expecting the unicorn to start screaming. It was like she was handling some living, vicious thing she hoped wouldn’t scare Twilight too badly.

Twilight’s reaction was, however, distinctly less dramatic.

“It’s… just a poster,” the lavender unicorn observed. She was starting to get a very sneaking suspicion that somepony was trying to pull a fast one on her, and the fact that both Pinkie and Rainbow were still nowhere to be seen only added to her suspicions.

But if that was the case, Rarity seemed determined to see it through to the end. “Not just any poster,” she whispered somberly.

Without waiting any longer, the fashionista suddenly began rolling the bands off of the ends of the poster at the same time, then letting them fall unceremoniously out of her magical grip once they’d relinquished their hold.

Then, with a flourish, Rarity unrolled the poster for Twilight to see.

The first thing the lavender unicorn saw was the big, toothy grin of a sneering changeling’s profile, its holey hooves wrapped improbably around a burning caricature of a city – one with a familiar castle at its heart.

At the bottom were a pair of ponies – a snow white stallion in badly mauled Royal Guard armor, and what looked to be a scuffed up clerk mare of some sort, standing alone before the gates of the Canterlot throne room against a sea of sneering, obsidian shapes.

And splashed over the chilling image was a large title, ballooned out in black and green letters that read, “The Fly on the Wall.”

Twilight cringed at the mere sight of the poster. She knew it well enough, actually; most ponies she knew did, considering the advertisements had flooded Ponyville a while back.

The premise was simple enough, but that was what made it so harsh. A changeling sleeper agent infiltrates Canterlot as a butler, and through eavesdropping on the right ponies, stages a coup aimed at assassinating Princess Celestia and overthrowing Equestria entirely, which is only barely thwarted by the lone hero who’d been on the agent’s trail the whole time – despite nopony believing him.

Naturally, it was a hit in the big cities, as were the half-dozen other anti-changeling stage performances and screenplays that swarmed the entertainment scene. There still were some out there, but none quite achieved the fame and notoriety of The Fly on the Wall.

Of course, why Rarity felt the need to remind Twilight about that only added to a mounting pile of questions the lavender unicorn was accumulating.

“Rarity, I already know about this,” Twilight pointed out. “I’m pretty sure we spent, like, two days taking down these posters before they could upset anyone back home. Rarity… what is this about?”

Rarity blinked, as if Twilight’s response had taken her by surprise. “Darling… Look beneath the title.”

Twilight frowned, but complied nonetheless.

Beneath the large, sweeping title, there was a catch phrase that read simply, “Watch What You Say…”.

But beneath that, written in relatively tiny font over a painted tongue of emerald flame, was something else – something Twilight never would’ve bothered to read in passing. It was only because of Rarity that she’d even spotted the short line at all, and now that she was paying attention, it ground the unicorn’s thoughts to a screeching halt.

“A screenplay written and directed by V.V..”

By V.V. …

Twilight took one look at the line, and immediately turned very, very pale indeed.

“Oh… oh…”

...

"...Oh ponyfeathers."

~~***~~

Applejack gazed out across the Great Hall as she stepped over the threshold. Her eyes swept from one end to the other, surveying it all in a single swift sweep.

There should’ve been a smile on her face, an eager bounce to her step. Just seeing the stage caused her pulse to rise in anticipation.

But instead, she wore a focused look on her features while everything else was kept in check.

After completing her attentive scan of the room, she glanced to her side – towards a khaki earth pony who met her glance carefully.

“That everythin’?” Applejack asked levelly.

“More or less,” Roseluck responded. “Just remember; if you need anything at all, I’ll be with everyone in the changeling section.”

For a moment, Applejack’s eyes flicked over the hall again – particularly, towards a corded off swath in the rows of seats. For many reasons, that didn’t sit right with her, especially the large signs marking it – with words and imagery – for what it was.

But, she wasn’t about to complain. The fact that changelings were even being allowed into the castle already was perhaps more than most of them could’ve ever hoped for. A little discrimination – intentional or otherwise – was just a blow she’d have to roll with.

“Alright,” Applejack said after a pause. She inhaled, taking the time to steel her nerves for what was to come. “Ah’ll be sure ta keep that in mind. But could ya do me a small favor?”

Roseluck paused, actually taken aback by the unexpected request. “Certainly. What can I do for you?”

Applejack smiled in response. “Be sure ta enjoy the pageant, would ya? And take a little time off, fer Pete’s sake. Business can wait ‘till tomorrow.”

Despite herself, Roseluck gave the changeling queen a somewhat wry smile. “Is that an order?”

Applejack chuckled once, looking a little sheepish. “Darn straight it is. If anypony deserves a rest once in a while, it’s you, sugarcube,” she said.

Roseluck’s smile turned into something kinder after that. She wanted to say a number of things in response – to point out that a drone didn’t simply set down their duty to their queen, or to mention that she’d volunteered for this position, even if she was nearly two decades out of practice.

But, at the same time, she didn’t quite feel like spoiling the moment.

“Alright, Applejack,” she said, “I’ll see what I can do. Oh, and I almost forgot.”

The apple farmer was just preparing to bat down anything else Rose had to run by her, when she noticed a hoof extending towards her.

“For good luck,” was the only explanation Rose gave.

In her hoof was what appeared to be a small hairclip shaped like three tiny white berries linked by a trio of round, smooth leaves.

“Happy Hearth’s Warming, Applejack,” Roseluck added pleasantly.

Applejack blinked down at the thing being offered to her, and a full two seconds later, it finally occurred to what she was looking at.

“Aw shucks,” Applejack chortled, now truly embarrassed. “Ya didn’t have ta go and do that…”

Still, she didn’t stop Rose from reaching up and sticking the clip right next to Applejack’s left ear. Of course, now she could feel it every time her ear moved.

“There,” Roseluck said, satisfied, surveying her handiwork. “That will do nicely.”

Applejack was too self-conscious to meet Rose’s eye, and her own slight chuckle seemed to make the apple farmer turn even redder than before.

“Rose… ya know that’s mistletoe, right?” Applejack asked.

Roseluck chuckled, fidgeting uncomfortably. “It dawned on me after I’d already bought it,” she admitted. “I may have read a few too many flower arrangement books before-hoof. It’s a habit of mine, I admit. Finding something festive and meaningful can be a bit… challenging.”

Roseluck followed up by unexpectedly flashing a playful smirk that caught Applejack off guard. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a few kisses from your admirers, are you?” she teased.

Applejack’s response was to turn so red and her eyes so wide that it took every ounce of self-restraint Roseluck had to keep herself from laughing out loud.

“Relax, Applejack; you’re going to do fine,” Roseluck said kindly. “Just do what you do best and be yourself.”

“Ah… Ah’ll give it a shot,” Applejack responded. She finally managed to meet Roseluck’s gaze, even if her responding smile was kind of lopsided and her cheeks still burned. “Thanks, Rose.”

“Any time, Applejack,” Rose said with a small laugh. “Now, you’d better get going, before –”

“There you are!”

Neither pony ever saw the pegasus coming. Applejack felt the rush of air hit her, heard the whooshing sound of flapping wings and the clatter of hooves beside her, but she never quite got her head around fast enough to catch the one responsible in motion.

What she saw instead, however, was the sight of a cyan pegasus standing practically shoulder to shoulder with her. The proximity caused Applejack to automatically jolt to one side, alarmed. “Landsakes, Rainbow. Would it kill ya ta give me a little warnin’ ‘fore ya go and do that?”

It didn’t take long after she said that, however, for Applejack to pick up on something… wrong with the pegasus.

The near zero personal space was one thing. The alertness in Rainbows sweeping gaze was another, as was the focused scowl on her face, and the fact that she wasn’t even looking at Applejack.

“Hey, I gave you plenty,” Rainbow argued.

“Three words ain’t plenty,” Applejack pointed out.

“Uh huh.”

Rainbow turned, and seemed fully intent on giving Applejack a piece of her mind… when she noticed something on the left side of the apple farmer’s face.

“…Why’s there mistletoe in your mane?”

Applejack only barely kept herself from sputtering. “Th-that ain’t important. What in the world’s got ya worked up now?”

Immediately, Rainbow averted her gaze. She may have even looked nonchalant – if, of course, Applejack hadn’t know her even half as well as she did. “Oh, no reason.”

Applejack frowned, before glancing towards Roseluck, who gave her a wary look in response. “Now what’s goin’ on?”

~~***~~

“Twilight? Breathe, darling; breathe.”

Rarity’s command came a little too late; Twilight was already hyperventilating.

“No, no… no no nonono,” Twilight panicked, her eye twitching. “No, no, this can’t be happening. This can’t be happening!”

Her eyes stayed fixed on the poster – on the title, “The Fly on the Wall”, particularly – and the name of the creator just beneath it.

“V.V.? Verily Vermillion is that V.V.?!” she burst out, unable to contain herself.

“So then, you know who she is?” Rarity ventured, trying at a friendly smile. It didn’t quite work.

“Know her? Of course I know her!” Twilight all-but shouted, which caused Rarity to look around worriedly. Luckily, nopony else was around to pay them any mind. “She’s only the writer for the most popular anti-changeling screenplay in Equestria! How could anypony not know her?!”

“Twilight, darling, could you please keep your voice down?” Rarity begged, but the lavender unicorn was too far gone to hear.

“This is terrible!” Twilight cried, beginning to pace. “How could somepony like her be put in charge of the pageant if –”

And then it hit her – a realization that dawned on her in the worst possible way. “Oh my gosh – Applejack! What if – what if she finds out, and she gets upset or – ohmigosh, what if Verily kicks her out of the pageant because she’s a changeling?! If that happens, the rest of the changelings will be offended for sure!”

Without warning, she suddenly whirled around and latched onto poor, defenseless Rarity and fixed her with a wide-eyed stare. “Rarity, do you know what this means!?”

“N-no, darling,” Rarity squeaked, “W-what?”

“It means,” Twilight cried, somehow managing to sound both terrified out of her mind and thoroughly exasperated at the same time, “that if Verily Vermillion kicks Applejack out of the play, all of Equestria is doomed!”

In response, Rarity merely blinked, dumbfounded. “Are… are you sure about that?”

“Positive,” Twilight said in absolute confidence in the soundness of her logic.

She abruptly dropped Rarity to the floor before whirling around, thinking fast. “Okay… okay! We can still make this work!” she declared after a moment, delighted with her own brilliance. Perhaps, too delighted. “All we need to do is convince Verily Vermillion that Applejack is not a changeling at all and we’ll be fine! That way, she won’t get kicked out for being a changeling – which she won’t be – the changelings won’t rise up in anger at having their queen dishonored, and Equestria will avoid all-out war that will kill us all! All we need to do is find the real owner of Applejack’s pony form in the next two minutes and bring her here to stand in for Applejack for the entirety of the pageant! It’s foolproof!”

By this point, Rarity had managed to pick herself up off the floor, dust herself off while Twilight ranted, and then carefully approach her friend.

“Twilight, darling, please take a deep breath,” Rarity instructed, while at the same time placing a hoof on her friend’s shoulder.

The frazzled unicorn whipped around, indignant at the fashionista’s lack of urgency in this critical matter. “How can you –”

“Ap-pap-pap,” Rarity shushed patiently, placing a hoof firmly over Twilight’s mouth. “Deep breaths, darling; you’re having an episode. And what do we do when you are having an episode?”

Twilight looked at Rarity like a pony being pulled back from the brink. “We… we take a deep breath,” she mumbled weakly around the fashionista’s hoof.

“Exactly, darling,” Rarity replied with her best, winningest smile, which managed to drag a numb grin from the other unicorn. “Now… breathe in… and out. There you go.”

Twilight did as instructed, taking deep and long breaths as slowly as she could manage. And the more she did it, the more the fever petered out in her veins. Without knowing it, she found herself seated in a heap on the floor, feeling much more exhausted than she should’ve.

“Feeling better?” Rarity asked, proffering a smile.

“Yes… thank you, Rarity,” Twilight breathed. She closed her eyes for a moment, then picked herself up off the floor. “But that doesn’t change anything,” she added, biting her lip. She may be in better control of herself, if only just, but the problem remained unfazed regardless of what mental state she was in.

She briefly looked up, allowing her gaze to wander about the mostly deserted area. “How could somepony like Verily be put in charge of this pageant if she hates changelings, when everypony knows there will be one in the cast?” she asked quietly, sounding almost stricken.

“I don’t know, darling,” Rarity admitted somberly, glancing to the floor. “But I am beginning to suspect that it wasn’t Celestia who made that particular call.”

The lump in Twilight’s throat only seemed to get worse upon hearing that. “What are we going to do?” she asked quietly. “If Verily and Applejack don’t get along… The changelings from her mother’s hive might be a little upset, but what about all of those foreign changelings who haven’t been in the country long? If they take offense…”

Twilight shivered. She’d met some of the drones from the south – the ones that’d only started to acclimate to the way of things in Equestria. There weren’t many of them yet, but every week saw more and more of them passing their tests and being set loose onto an anxious Equestria. The rest were kept somewhere else, separate from Ponyville, just in case.

The ones Twilight had personally encountered had made her feel… uneasy, however. It was the way they’d looked at her, she thought; curious, but evaluating, as if they were visually trying to dissect her to her core…

Those were true changelings as everypony knew them; fiercely loyal to their queen and nopony else. So, if someone slighted said queen…

“Well,” Rarity mumbled hesitantly, shifting uncomfortably, “I don’t think there is much to do in the first place. Nopony would be brazen enough to mix up the cast right underneath the princess’s nose, not when she personally selected it. Miss Vermillion would have to have a very good reason indeed to ignore Princess Celestia’s decision, and as much as Verily seems to love her career, I doubt she would throw it away just to spite one changeling.”

Twilight had to admit that Rarity had a point. The panicky part of her brain didn’t want to admit to it, but a few more breathing exercises quieted the misgivings somewhat.

Celestia had chosen them, Applejack included. It would take a very good reason indeed to overturn that without consequence. But could that really keep Verily completely in check?

“I… I suppose you’re right. But, that still leaves –”

“Applejack!”

Twilight jumped up with a startled yelp at the sound of Pinkie’s voice right behind her. Her heart felt like it was about to leap out of her just from the shock alone!

Together, she and Rarity whipped around in a flash, and though Twilight couldn’t speak for her pearly white friend, she was on the verge of laying into Pinkie Pie the moment she saw her.

Pity, then, that she spotted Applejack first.

The apple farmer had just pushed aside the curtains – her hoof was even still holding them back – followed closely by a noticeably on edge Rainbow, who trotted into the backstage area alongside her. But of course, the first thing Twilight noticed was the apple farmer’s orange, fluffy coat and blonde mane.

Applejack had been watching Rainbow with a frown when Pinkie had piped up, which of course caused Applejack to look up towards her surroundings.

And right away, she spotted Twilight. It was as if she knew exactly where to find her, and had wasted no time in doing so.

She didn’t know why, but Twilight found herself suddenly tensing, her breath catching in her lungs. She could only stare at Applejack, and brace.

Applejack blinked, processing what she was seeing… and then she smiled. It wasn’t forced, or fake or… anything. It was just Applejack smiling, like nothing at all was wrong.

“Howdy, Twi’,” she called over. “What’re ya and Rarity doin’ over there?”

Alarm bells went off in Twilight’s head. The poster was still lying out in the open, protected from view only by the two unicorns’ bodies and nothing else. If Applejack moved any closer at all…

She didn’t waste any time, however.

With a flash of Twilight’s horn, the poster abruptly ceased to exist, vanishing with a pop before it could cause any damage.

At the same time, halfway across the castle, a very confused Shining Armor was dealing with a rather peculiar case of finding a large sheet of paper suddenly being stuck to his horn, much to the astonishment of the regiment of guards he’d been briefing.

“N-nothing!” Twilight cried, spinning around along with Rarity to face the apple farmer. “Nothing at all!”

Applejack paused, however. Her smile flickered, her gaze lingering. Twilight braced again, biting her lip.

But after a pause, Applejack huffed. Was… was that a laugh?

“Well… alright, of y’all say so,” she said.

She didn’t notice how each of her friends let out a subtle sigh of relief, Rainbow included.

“Sorry Ah’m late,” Applejack went on, at the same time walking towards the group. “Rose was bein’ a worrywart again. Did Ah miss anything?”

Twilight relaxed a little. The crisis had been averted – at least, for the time being.

“No, not yet,” Twilight said. “We were just about to start rehearsals, actu—”

“Well, well,” stated a voice off to Twilight’s left, “if it isn’t Miss Applejack at last.”

Every hair on the back of Twilight’s neck stood on end. Her entire body locked up on the spot. The only exception was her neck, which stiffly and inexorably turned her head towards the owner of that voice.

And there stood Verily Vermillion, and her gaze was fixed directly onto Applejack herself.

Twilight didn’t remember the director’s gaze being nearly that hard, or her ingrained scowl quite that deep-set. It was precisely the intensity of Verily’s gaze that was starting to bring back Twilight’s hyperventilation.

Applejack turned to look towards the red mare, and their eyes met. For a split second, something passed over Applejack’s expression, something Twilight missed before it was gone again.

“Do you realize what time it is, young lady?” Verily asked, her voice so low and slow it was borderline patronizing. But it also simmered with something that frayed at Twilight’s nerves even more.

“Ah do,” Applejack said, sounding truly apologetic. “And Ah am mighty sorry if Ah held y’all up. But Ah’m here now, and Ah’m ready ta be put ta work.”

Verily’s expression flickered, the corner of her mouth twitching. “I hope you are. We have some work to do, Miss Applejack.”

The severe mare then unexpectedly switched targets, her gaze suddenly darting towards Twilight, then Rarity. “Rehearsals are about to begin,” she announced loudly. “It’s time to get down to business.”

Her announcement completed, Verily immediately turned on the spot and strode away without waiting for anything further.

“Welp, guess we better get to it,” Applejack said, then turned towards her friends. She didn’t quite catch how they all suddenly straightened up, or how their smiles suddenly brightened. If she did, she didn’t take much notice.

Twilight’s expression was worst of all, but fortunately Applejack didn’t glance in her direction.

“Y’all comin’ or what?” she asked, grinning, nodding in the direction of the stage.

“U-um,” Twilight stammered, thinking fast, “why don’t you go on ahead? We’ll be just a moment.”

She ignored the sudden attention the rest of her friends was giving her, instead watching Applejack and praying internally.

The apple farmer paused, but then mercifully she shrugged. “Alright. Don’t be long; Verily don’t look like a real patient sorta pony.”

“O-of course,” Rarity chuckle mechanically. “We’ll be right behind you.”

All five mares waited in silence after that, watching as Applejack turned and walked away. It wasn’t until she’d vanished from sight completely that all five of them converged in a repressed state of panic.

“What’re we gonna do?” Rainbow asked, wide-eyed.

“If Applejack finds out,” Fluttershy breathed, panicky, “she’ll get so mad…,”

Twilight was silent, thinking as fast as her brain could go. But nopony missed the disconcerting spasm her eye was starting to develop.

“T-then we won’t tell her.”

Rarity and Rainbow both stopped in place and looked at Twilight like she’d just spouted off in Griffish. “Er… What?” “Beg pardon, darling?”

Twilight looked up then. Her mind was made up. Her options weren’t abundant to begin with, but what choice did she have.

“If we tell Applejack, she’ll just get upset,” she said quickly. “And after how happy she was on the way here… No, all we have to do is make sure nothing bad happens to her, and she’ll keep being happy!”

"Um, I don't know...," Fluttershy mumbled, looking very uncomfortable.

Rainbow, on the other hand, looked downright stressed. "Twilight, are you suggesting we cover this up by lying to her?"

Twilight fidgeted, her gaze dropping. “We're not lying... just... omitting a few things... Besides, do you want to tell her that our director hates her for no good reasion? How do you think that’d make her feel?”

Rainbow winced, but didn’t meet Twilight’s eye. “I guess…”

“It’s for Applejack’s own good,” Twilight said with absolute certainty. “As long as she has us looking out for her, nothing will go wrong!”

~~***~~

Rainbow growled unhappily, her scowl there to stay. Had she been playing any other role besides Commander Hurricane, it might’ve been a problem. As it turned out, her surliness went over so well with an oblivious Verily that Rainbow was left alone pretty much throughout the entirety of her rehearsal. As far as the director was concerned, she had the commander down pat, and was ready for the performance.

But Rainbow was too riled up to even care. All she noticed was every time Verily called Applejack’s name.

They were going over Applejack’s and Pinkie Pie’s first scene for the umpteenth time, it felt like. Verily kept feeling the need to interrupt and rag on the pair at every turn, exasperating the process. And maybe it was Rainbow’s imagination – though it certainly wasn’t – but it seemed like Verily always had something bad to say about Applejack’s performance!

And it was over stupid little things, too! Like she wasn’t ‘on her mark’, whatever that was supposed to mean, or she didn’t use the exact right word or some stupid nonsense. It was biased nitpicking and everypony with half a brain cell would know it!

Rainbow wanted to jump up and say something – or, even better, kick this stuck up mare right in the –

“Rainbow, are you going to be okay?”

Dash jumped a little, startled out of her thoughts.

She turned to find a lavender unicorn sitting right next to her, staring at her with open concern. Had she always been there? Rainbow wasn’t entirely sure; she’d been far more preoccupied with watching the stage for Applejack’s turn under Verily’s close scrutiny. And so far, it was turning out exactly like Rainbow had imagined.

“Sure; after we get a new director,” Rainbow grumbled sourly. “This one sucks. That’s, like, the millionth time she’s chewed AJ out for being ‘too quick’. The hay does that even mean?”

She felt the look Twilight gave her, but she didn’t meet it. “I only counted three, Rainbow…”

Dash flicked her tail dismissively. “Same thing.”

Twilight gave a quiet sigh, and the look on her face said that she agreed wholeheartedly with what Rainbow was trying to say. But her words didn’t quite match up.

“I know, Rainbow. But there’s really nothing we can do about it.”

‘Nothing we can do’. Everypony kept telling Rainbow that, no matter how vehemently she disagreed. But, for the moment, Twilight was – as usual – right, if only a little. Until Rainbow came up with a plan of action, there really was nothing she could do. So, for the time being, Rainbow could only look on while Applejack and Pinkie Pie had the stage.

Try as she might, however, it looked like Verily was having quite the time trying to corral the pink pony, who seemed to be doing her level best to be as Pinkie Pie as possible. That was worth watching, at least.

If Rainbow stopped and paid attention, however, she might’ve noticed the way Pinkie kept glancing between Verily and Applejack anxiously, and her developing habit of doing all of her lines directly between the two, much to Verily’s mounting frustration and Applejack’s bemusement.

In the meantime, Rainbow sat perched on an unopened crate like a grumpy buzzard, refusing to meet anypony’s eye. The lights flooding the stage couldn’t quite reach all of the little nooks and crannies off to the sides, creating plenty of places for a cranky pegasus to sit and sulk in private.

Rarity and Fluttershy were a short ways off, their eyes flicking between Verily and Applejack – and occasionally Rainbow for some reason.

Twilight sat on the ground beside the cyan pegasus, but she was staring into her hooves and not up at the action. They sat in silence for a time, listening only to their own thoughts and the performing ponies working through their lines. But the silence didn’t last forever.

“Twilight, can I ask you a question?” Rainbow asked suddenly.

Twilight looked up, taken off guard. Here she was, thinking she’d have to endure more grumblings from the pegasus for a good while longer. But a distraction was a distraction, and she welcomed it.

“Of course,” she said. “What is it?”

“What happened between you and Applejack?”

Immediately Twilight’s enthusiasm – what little there’d been – wilted. “Oh… that.”

Rainbow didn’t say anything further, but the focused look Twilight found herself subjected to informed her that she wouldn’t be getting off the hook.

So, with a sigh, she opened her mouth, and let the words tumble on out. It seemed to take forever, like each word was a small eternity in itself. And yet, it all came out in just a single, big breath.

It felt good actually voicing it; scary, but good. Of all the ponies in the world, Rainbow’s reaction was the one that worried Twilight the most. When it came to wronging Applejack, the pegasus had only a select few – often predictable – responses, and most of them involved decking somepony in one way or another.

Rainbow stayed quiet, however, listening intently without looking up, her expression unreadable. Even after Twilight lapsed into silence – finishing with an anticlimactic “and the rest… you know,” – Rainbow maintained her silence and stoicism. Until…

“Hey Twi’?” she said.

“Yes?”

Smack!

Twilight yelped, very nearly falling right off her stool. The sting of Rainbow’s hoof on her shoulder only lasted a few moments, but they were a stunned few moments.

“That’s for being an idiot,” Rainbow shot, her disapproving gaze now fully turned towards the recovering unicorn.

Twilight stared wide-eyed at Rainbow, one hoof absently rubbing her sore shoulder.

After a moment, Rainbow settled back down, and returned to staring sullenly at the rehearsing pair. She even bristled when Verily snapped at Applejack for being off her mark again.

“I don’t get why you’re still hung up on this, Twilight,” Rainbow said with a huff.

That sparked a little indignation in the unicorn, who sat up straight to face her friend. “And I don’t get how you’re not,” she pointed out. “Doesn’t the fact that AJ’s never been a real pony bother you?”

“Nope,” Rainbow said, and her tone of complete indifference actually stunned Twilight.

How?” Twilight couldn’t help but ask.

Rainbow turned back to look at her again, only now she was frowning dubiously. “I don’t know. It just never did. I never really had to think too much about it.”

Twilight stared at Rainbow with no small amount of disbelief. The things she was saying just did not compute in the lavender unicorn’s brain.

But there was a small voice in the back of Twilight’s head; one that tried to provide some kind of answer. Could it be… loyalty? Was that all it was?

But the larger part of her brain refused to accept it. No, there had to be something else, something more complex; something she herself could possibly emulate and solve this entire problem before it got any worse. There had to be some sort of secret to Rainbow’s success beyond incomprehensible stubbornness.

Rainbow scratched her nose, averting her gaze from the increasingly uncomfortable look Twilight was giving her. “Look, egghead, I don’t know what to tell you. Applejack will always be Applejack, and that means she will always be our friend. Sooner or later, you’ll figure that out, too. I just wish you’d hurry it up and get with the program, already. I don’t know if you noticed, but right now she’s going to need us more than ever.”

Twilight gave Rainbow a brief look, then sighed. She allowed her gaze to drift back towards the stage; towards an intently focused Applejack who was taking her place for another take.

“Wouldn't it have been easier to use the door, Chancellor?” she was asking aloud, sounding dubious while pointing off towards an imaginary doorway. Despite the lack of the chimney prop, Pinkie was still balanced improbably upside down by nothing more than her bouncy mane alone. Not even Verily could quite hide how impressed she was.

“You’re right, Rainbow,” Twilight mumbled. “At least, I hope you are. I just… don’t want anything bad to happen to Applejack again, that’s all.”

Rainbow nodded in perfect understanding. “As long as she’s got us, Twilight, nothing ever will.”

Twilight couldn’t help but smile at her friend. Whether it was loyalty, or simply sheer stubbornness, there was no denying the strength of Rainbow’s drive. When she spoke like she did just then, it was very, very hard to be anything but convinced.

“Yeah,” Twilight said, still smiling as she turned back towards the stage.

But there, she couldn’t help but do a double-take.

Almost everything was as she remembered it being before she’d glanced away; Pinkie and Applejack were still going through their first scene together, with Pinkie declaring her impending brilliance and Applejack’s subsequent disbelief.

Across the way, some of the extras were watching as well – some Twilight recognized from last year, some not so much – all curiously watching the rehearsal while a few murmured secretively amongst themselves.

That was as Twilight remembered it being, and nearly everything else was… except for the stallion standing next to Verily.

Twilight couldn’t figure out where he’d come from. She couldn’t have looked away for more than a moment or two, and suddenly he was there. Something reflective around the base of his horn even glinted in the lights of the Great Hall, which was how her attention had been drawn to him in the first place.

But now that she was looking, she couldn’t take her eyes off of him, for at that very moment, he was whispering privately straight into Verily’s ear.

And for the first time since Twilight had first laid eyes on her, she was smiling.

The cold chill that ran down Twilight’s spine would probably be one of the worst she’d ever experience. But she had no time to bring it to anypony’s attention, because in the next instant, Verily dismissed the stallion with a jerk of her head, and abruptly stood up. Immediately, her smile disappeared, and even though her expression arranged itself into her usual scowl, it seemed to be several dozen times more intimidating.

“Alright, ladies,” she barked, and immediately both Pinkie Pie and Applejack faltered, caught off guard. “That will do for now. Everypony take five minutes, then we’ll move on to the second act.”

Something jolted inside Twilight’s chest, something she didn’t like at all.

“That’s odd,” she heard Rarity mutter in confusion. “Did I miss a few lines, or did that seem to be cut rather short?”

On her other side, Rainbow weighed in as well, only she had a note of suspicion in her voice. “Yeah… Pinkie didn’t even get to finish that last line. What the hay’s going on?”

Out on the stage, Pinkie and Applejack looked at each other, perplexed.

“Huh. I remember that part being a teeny bit longer than that,” Pinkie noted, sounding flummoxed. “I also don’t remember it ending with me saying ‘I’m about to be bri—’, either.”

She leveled a frown over one shoulder, just as Verily swiftly rose to her hooves, and without saying a word further or even glancing towards those around her, swiftly strode away.

“I don’t need a twitch-a-twitch to know something’s going down around here,” Pinkie said distrustfully, her eyes narrowing as she dropped her voice. “And if I don’t need a twitch-a-twitch to know that, something is definitely up, as well as going down, too!”

Applejack looked her friend over with a raised eyebrow, and then turned to glance towards Verily, worry flashing across her features. “Glad Ah ain’t the only one thinkin’ that,” she admitted, frowning.

She was just turning around to find her friends when somepony spoke up loud enough for the six friends to hear; somepony they’d never heard before.

“Miss Applejack, may I have a moment?” said a gruff voice.

The apple farmer halted, then turned back around, her confusion mounting. Before her, just over the edge of the stage’s platform, stood a stallion with a silver ring around his horn.

He was a slim fellow; lean and taut, like a piece of weathered leather. Despite his horn, it was obvious that he didn’t use his magic for everything in his life.

He didn’t seem threatening, but the small smile on his face didn’t quite reach his eyes. In fact, if Applejack thought about it, his smile seemed oddly… guarded.

“Uh… sure, Ah guess,” Applejack grunted.

As she stepped closer, she didn’t notice five pairs of eyes zero in on her like lasers. Pinkie kept glancing between Applejack and the other two sets of her friends still standing by the curtains, looking anxiously to Twilight, Rainbow, Rarity and Fluttershy for some kind of signal.

But it never came. The other four were too unsure of the situation themselves, but Twilight had her suspicions. Horrible, nasty suspicions.

All of this took place behind Applejack’s back, so she was oblivious to the mounting distress in the rest of her friends. Instead, she approached the edge of the stage, an eyebrow raised as she regarded Verily’s assistant.

“Is there somethin’ Ah can help ya with?” she asked curiously, looking down towards the stallion.

The stallion nodded in return. And even though he spoke softly with only one pony intended to hear, his voice seemed to drift to five other sets of ears on the wings of their worst fears.

“Miss Vermillion has asked to have a word with you in private,” he said plainly. His only other input was to raise one hoof and point straight in the same direction that Verily had vanished.

All five mares froze in place, doing everything they could to stifle their dread. In each of their minds, there was only one possible reason for why Verily would ever want to speak to the young changeling.

They were only distracted from their building unease when Applejack spoke up.

“Really? Well, alright,” she said, sounding mildly nonplussed. Then, she quickly turned her head around to catch Pinkie’s gaze, who had to scramble to compose herself. “Y’all sit tight,” she said. “Ah’ll go see what this is all about.”

Immediately Pinkie’s eyes shot open wide in shock. “What?! No-no-no, you can’t –”

But Applejack merely rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Pinkie, Ah am a grown mare. Ah can handle talkin’ ta somepony.”

“But, but—”

Applejack didn’t wait around for more excuses. She abruptly turned on the spot, and before Pinkie could think to say anything else, she’d hopped down to the marble floor below.

The moment she started moving, Twilight took notice, and it didn’t take long for real panic to set in. “Is she serious?” she gagged.

“She is,” Rainbow breathed, too stunned to move.

Twilight could only look on in shock. There was Applejack – oblivious, uncomprehending Applejack – heading straight into the teeth of the one pony she should be the furthest from at the moment.

But she didn’t have time to think it over. At that very moment, Applejack was moving in the wrong direction. And if Verily had called for her specifically…

With a sudden jolt of panic, Twilight disappeared in a flash of violet magic, startling Rainbow.

“Wait!” she cried the moment she rematerialized; parked directly in the path of Verily’s assistant and the apple farmer.

Applejack halted immediately, leaning back in surprise but not losing an inch regardless. “Twilight, what in tarnation are ya doin’?” she asked, confused.

Twilight’s mouth opened… but nothing came out. She floundered, suddenly at a loss. Just what was she doing?

Applejack caught on, and Twilight could tell by the way the changeling’s eyebrow was slowly creeping skyward.

But what was she supposed to say? That Applejack shouldn’t chase after Verily because she just so happened to hate her for no good reason? That her friends knew this, but had decided to keep that knowledge to themselves for fear of troubling her?

Yeah, that won’t upset her at all…

But she had to do something!

“U-um… maybe we all should go with you,” she said suggested. When she saw the look Applejack was giving her, she went on as confidently as she could, putting on the most enthusiasm she could muster. “Whatever Verily has to say to you, she can say it to all of us, too.”

Applejack gave her a weird look in response, but it was ultimately the assistant that spoke up.

“I’m sorry, miss,” he said gruffly, “but Miss Vermillion asked for Miss Applejack specifically, not ‘Applejack and her friends’. You girls will just have to wait until they’re done if you want a word with Verily.”

Now Twilight really started to panic. That’d been her one option, and it’d been shot down so cleanly. She knew that whatever Verily had planned for Applejack, it was something she simply had to put an end to. Nothing good could come of it. But she was coming up empty. There simply wasn’t enough time!

Think, Twilight, think! You can do this, you know you can! Just…

“Twilight?”

The unicorn jolted back to her senses, only then realizing that she’d started to pace slightly out of pure anxiety.

And of course, Applejack hadn’t missed a step of it, and now she was giving Twilight her most worried look yet.

“Twilight, what’s the matter?” she asked, all the while searching her friend’s features. “Why are ya actin’ like this?”

Warning bells went off in the unicorn’s head, and before she could stop herself, her lips were moving. “N-nothing’s the matter! I just… don’t think you have to talk to Verily alone is all!”

The more Twilight talked, however, the more she started to see Applejack’s expression shift. And the more she talked, the more she realized how much it’d started to backfire.

Applejack waited for Twilight to peter out, at least, but by that point, the confusion had given way to something else entirely.

“And now yer lyin’ ta me, too?” Applejack said. The sheer disbelief in her tone made Twilight wince. But it wasn’t just the farmer’s astonishment that struck home the most; it was the hurt in her voice.

Suddenly, meeting her friend’s gaze was one of the hardest things Twilight could do, but that didn’t stop Applejack from trying to hold it.

“Sugarcube, if ya have somethin’ ya want ta say ta me, just say it already and stop dancin’ ‘round the issue,” Applejack said. Her tone made it clear to Twilight that she couldn’t believe that she even needed to point that out to her.

It was that tone of voice that stung lavender unicorn the most. Out of nowhere, her shoulder throbbed in the exact shape of a pegasus’ hoof.

That’s for being stupid…

“You’re… you’re right,” Twilight mumbled, her voice dropping nearly to a whisper. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you upset, really I didn’t… It’s just…”

Applejack waited quietly, but some of the pain in her eyes subsided. When Twilight looked up at her, the faux earth pony gave her a simple, patient look, her expression too neutral to gauge. But for some reason, seeing Applejack clearly reserving her judgment for Twilight’s next words only stressed the unicorn out even more.

Twilight gulped, her confidence truly starting to wilt. But, she kept herself from backing down. There was no getting out of it now.

So, she forced herself to straighten up and meet the apple farmer’s questioning gaze squarely. “The… truth is, Applejack,” she forced herself to say, “I… We found out that Verily Vermillion really, really doesn’t like… you know… changelings. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you, but I thought that if we did, you’d just get upset, so…”

Applejack paused, her eyes widening in surprise. Clearly, that had not been the response she’d been expecting.

But Twilight had in turn been expecting to see Applejack’s confused expression dissipate… not return in full force.

“…That’s what this is all about?”

That response drew Twilight up short considerably. It hadn’t been, in any way, anything close to what she’d been anticipating.

“W-what?” she said back, hopelessly lost.

Applejack just kept giving her that same blank stare in return. “Twi’, Ah already knew about that.”

That one sentence was all it took to bring Twilight’s thought process to a complete, screeching halt. For an instant, she thought that she’d just imagined those words entirely. They just didn’t match with anything she could’ve expected.

“You… you knew?” Twilight gasped, all-but speechless.

“You knew?!” echoed a familiar, raspy pegasus voice at a much louder decibel, causing Twilight to leap in the air with a yelp. “But how!?”

That was precisely the moment when both she and Applejack became aware of the fact that there were four other ponies eavesdropping on their conversation right on the lip of the stage platform, and each of them was staring with unmitigated astonishment straight at the farmer mare; a cyan pegasus, especially.

Applejack held Rainbow’s gaze briefly, just before her frown deepened. “Of course Ah knew. Ah even told y’all Roseluck was bein’ a worrywart. Ah didn’t think it was much of an issue or else Ah woulda brought it up, since none of ya knew who Verily was when y’all were talkin’ about it back on the train. But it looks like Ah was wrong.” she said, a point to her tone.

Rainbow caught it, and immediately she knew what it meant. Twilight, however, missed the warning sign. She was too busy fumbling internally to take notice.

“Not an issue?” she repeated, trying to wrap her head around that one statement. “How can it not be an issue to be hated for no reason?”

She suddenly threw out her hoof, thrusting it in the direction Verily had disappeared down. “Whatever she’s up to, it can’t be good! We need to be there to make sure nothing bad happens!”

The moment she saw Applejack’s eyes flash, Twilight knew she’d said the wrong thing.

“Ya think this is somethin’ new ta me, Twi’?” Applejack said tersely. She didn’t snap, but it was clear to anypony looking at her that it’d taken a great deal of effort to keep that from happening. “Not all ponies feel like forgivin’ Queen Chrysalis’ behavior just yet; Ah get that better than anypony. But Ah also know fer a fact that Verily ain’t one of ‘em.”

Twilight’s jaw hit the floor. That last statement made no sense; none whatsoever. “What are you talking about, AJ?” she questioned, her voice rising. “She directed the worst anti-changeling play in Equestrian history! How can she be anything but –”

“Because, Twi’,” Applejack cut across shortly, her patience failing, “she’s married ta one.”

If Twilight hadn’t been speechless before, she was now. It made no sense; absolutely no sense whatsoever. On one side of her head, there was her constructed image of Verily in all her spiteful, racist glory, built out of the evidence she herself had accumulated. But now, on the other side, there was this piece of contradictory information; Verily, standing shoulder to shoulder with the thing she was supposed to despise beyond rationale.

This didn’t make sense; if it was anypony but Applejack making the claim, she would’ve dismissed it as a baseless lie without even a second thought. It just didn’t make any conceivable sense!

But as she sat there, jaws flapping like a beached fish, Applejack unexpectedly turned around.

And even more perplexingly, she was looking directly at Verily’s assistant, who seemed to be trying to appear as unobtrusive as possible.

“Clover, would ya mind showin’ her?” Applejack asked, her voice tinged with equal parts annoyance and apology.

The unicorn stallion – Clover – looked up at Applejack uncertainly, but after an encouraging nod from the farmer, he sighed lightly.

And as quick as a flash, his body was wrapped in green flames. It was only there for a second, but it shot up like a puff of fire from an afterburner for all to see.

In an instant, his dull coat was blown away. His eyes flashed from bright, almost neon green to uniform icy blue, just before the flames evaporated entirely.

In the stallion’s place stood a single – but irrefutable – changeling drone.

As the flare of fire faded, Twilight noticed something glowing around the base of the drone’s horn – something red-hot, as if superheated.

And there, clear as day without Clover’s mane getting in the way, was a small, simple ring of platinum, fitted perfectly to the base of his horn. It was only in that moment that Twilight realized what it was.

But as she ogled the changeling, Applejack’s voice snapped her back to attention, even though she wasn’t even speaking to her.

“Ah’m real sorry about this,” she apologized, looking directly at Clover.

The changeling was shuffling uncomfortably, avoiding what eye contact he could. “It’s no problem at all, Miss Applejack,” he said, though his voice couldn’t quite match up. “I need to start getting used to being like this now, anyway. Old habits, as it were.”

Applejack nodded, flashing a small smile… then rounded on Twilight, who still couldn’t take her eyes off of Clover.

“That silly play Verily put on?” she said, her voice hardening instantly. “It was Clover’s idea.”

Now Twilight was looking straight at Applejack again. “It was?”

Applejack nodded once. “A lot of ponies saw what they wanted ta see,” she said, “but the real idea was ta point out real security flaws right here in Canterlot.”

“I thought,” Clover mumbled uncomfortably, as if driven to speak despite the unwanted attention, “that if I came forward myself, the nobles would either ignore me, or spend too long lobbying to do anything useful in time. And… I didn’t want to impact Milly’s career, not when she was finally building a name for herself. Being married to somepony—or rather, someone like me could’ve ruined her.”

He then glanced towards Applejack, a tiny, self-conscious smile on his lips. “When it comes to helping Equestria, we changelings need to take… round about routes, sometimes. At least, until the trust is there.”

For some reason, Twilight found herself flinching at that last line. Trust…

“Thanks, Clover,” Applejack said, her tone almost too polite. “Would ya mind goin’ on ahead? Ah need a word with my friends.”

That time, Twilight knew exactly why she flinched.

Clover nodded obligingly, and without waiting another second longer, the drone changed forms again in a gust of magical fire, and was once again a stallion unicorn.

Twilight watched him turn and leave for a moment, her heart in her throat, before she finally forced herself to meet Applejack’s stony gaze. It wasn’t easy.

“I’m… I’m sorry, Applejack,” she muttered, hanging her head. “I didn’t know… I was only trying to protect you.”

Applejack sighed, her eyes pinching shut for a brief moment.

“Ah know, sugarcube,” she said, her voice stiff, “but ya went about it the wrong way by tryin’ ta cover it up instead of comin’ ta me. Just because everypony now knows what’s been under this here coat of mine doesn’t mean Ah suddenly can’t look after myself. Ah don’t need ta be treated like Ah’m a fumblin’ foal; Ah’d hoped y’all woulda figured that out after all this time we’ve known’ each other.”

Her gaze quickly darted over towards a particular cyan pegasus, who cringed in response. “Especially you, Rainbow. Ah expected a lot better from ya, of all ponies.”

The hurt in her eyes was almost too much for Rainbow to look at. Suddenly, there were a lot of places the pegasus wanted to be, and none of them were right there.

Applejack once more set her sights on Twilight, but her expression didn’t change.

“Ah get where yer heart is, Twi’,” Applejack said, “but that ain’t no excuse. If ya really were tryin’ ta avoid hurtin’ my feelin’s, then ya did a lousy job.”

As the last word left her mouth, her voice cracked. But with that, she turned and stormed away, too disappointed to look at each of them anymore.

Author's Note:

Happy Holidays everyone!
...
... It's not the holidays anymore, is it?

*sigh*

The ironic thing is that because I'm out of the holiday season, this chapter actually ended up taking longer due to a change in plan. Originally, this was supposed to go much differently; Applejack goes to pageant, Applejack gets cut out of pageant for not being a real Earth Pony, Applejack finds a way to be a part of it anyway. Obviously we're departing that scenario.

And before you Appledashers start squeeing over the mistletoe, consider this; in flower arrangement, mistletoe means something along the lines of "I overcome obstacles", which is why Roseluck -- a career flower arranger -- might've picked that for somepony like Applejack, given what she's done and been through. The fact that it had holiday connotations was just a bonus she kinda overlooked the full gravity of. She's silly like that sometimes.
Bottom line is, she's not trying to get her queen smooched! I swear!

Anyway, on to the conclusion! Will Applejack and her friends make up?
...Considering how they act in the true sequel, most likely. But -- suspense!