• Published 4th May 2012
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Secrets and Lies - SaddlesoapOpera



A gripping and emotional tale continuing the story started in the Pony Psychology Series.

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The Poisonous Tree

SECRETS AND LIES
By Saddlesoap Opera
Part Two: The Poisonous Tree


Applejack galloped down the farmhouse stairs and skidded into the family room.

“Big Mac! Have ya seen mah hat?”

Her brother hastily stuffed something underneath a throw pillow on the couch and turned to face her.

“Uhh–”

Applejack trotted in place. “Dang it, hurry up! Those tryouts at the school took longer‘n I thought! I’m gonna be late! Have ya seen it or not?”

Big Macintosh gave his eldest sister a stare as long and flat as a river. “AJ…yer WEARIN’ it.”

Applejack’s green eyes darted upward. “…Oh.” A soft blush warmed her cheeks.

“Shewt! If’n I didn’t feel nervous as all git out already. I’d lose track o’ mah LEGS if they weren’t stuck on!” Applejack stomped a front hoof. “She’s gonna think I’m nuttier ’n Granny Smith’s fruitcakes!” She hung her head.

Applejack’s brother stood up and trotted over to her. He bent to nuzzle against her neck.

“Sis, ya look fine. Ya’ll DO fine. Ya always do. Poppa would be proud ta see ya right now.”

Applejack nuzzled back. “Ya really think so?”

“Eeeyup!” He chuckled.

Applejack smiled. “Thanks, big brother.” She took a slow, deep breath, put on a stern, determined expression, nodded resolutely, and then headed for the front door.

Big Mac trotted back over to the couch and flopped down onto it. He retrieved a scruffy grey doll from underneath the throw pillow. He hugged the stuffed toy and said:

“She trots up a mountain ta’ face a fire-breathin’ Dragon with a spring in ‘er step, but goes right ta pieces over a first date. That Applejack sure is a funny one ain’t she, Lil’ Miss Smartypants?”

Big Mac made the doll’s head bob a few times as though it were speaking.

“That’s different!” he replied. “I wasn’t thinkin’ clearly at the time.”

He bobbed the doll’s head some more.

He blushed and cleared his throat. “W-Well, I s’pose we’ll see, won’t we?”

He made the doll nod.

• • • • • • •

Twilight Sparkle paced back and forth in the library’s basement. Her mane was unkempt, and her gait was too quick for comfort. She was muttering to the room’s only other occupant – a small plush Draconequus toy.

“…You knew we might beat you, so you turned somepony to your side. A minion hidden in Ponyville, waiting to do your bidding. You made her hate me. You twisted her mind until she actually thought it was a good idea to make me…” She passed the blackened blast-hole in the wall.

Twilight shuddered and then violently shook her head. “No, no, NO! It’s not going to work! You might have made me do something… terrible… but I am NOT going to break!” She stopped and stared down at the stuffed toy as her voice rose in volume. “I won’t bring the others down with me! They’re the best friends a mare could ask for, and I won’t let them down again!”

She turned away and ignited her horn. “I WON’T!”

Machines and crates glowed and took to the air. In moments, Twilight had rearranged the basement’s contents to conceal the charred crater in the wall and the burn marks on the floor.

Twilight turned back to the ‘Discorduroy’ doll. “Nopony knows what happened. Nopony knows… and I’m not going to tell them.” Twilight grinned an off-kilter grin. “I’ll just pretend it never happened, and get on with my life. Out of sight, out of mind! You lose, Discord!” She chuckled in half-mad satisfaction.

“Do you really think you can do it, Miss Sparkle? Take a Pony’s life and then cover it up, just like that?”

Twilight took a moment to realize that she’d spoken the words herself. She had magicked Discorduroy into an incredulous pose, his head tilted and his tiny arms folded.

Twilight scowled in disdain. “Don’t even bother. I’m wise to your tricks. Feints and misdirection and manipulation. You WANT me to get riddled with guilt and confess! You want to see all of my friends be shocked and horrified and ashamed, and see me thrown in a dungeon for eternity. You want to see our friendship fail, and the Elements with it. Well...” She magicked up an empty crate, upended it, and dropped it on top of the doll. “…tough luck!”

Twilight trotted up the basement stairs and through the open door. The sight of the rope-garlanded, book-strewn main floor didn’t upset her as much as she’d feared it might.

She took a slow, deep breath. “I can do this,” she said to herself. “Just don’t think about it. Easy as–” Her gaze fell on the dazed pink Earth Pony on the floor.

“Pinkie!” Twilight galloped over and knelt next to her friend. “Pinkie, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!” She shook her with her front hooves. “Wake up! Please, wake up!”

Pinkie stirred and her eyelids creaked open to different degrees; the right side of her face now sported an impressive black eye. “Mmm-whuzza-huh…?” she said eloquently. “Ooh… my head’s all ouchie!”

“Pinkie! Oh, thank Celestia!” Twilight pulled Pinkie up into a tight hug. Pinkie gave a small shrug and then hugged back.

After a moment, Pinkie sniffed the air. “Hay, I smell smoke. Is something cooking?” She slipped out of the hug and hopped up and down excitedly. “OOH! Are we gonna roast marshmallows?

Twilight winced. “It’s not a cooking fire. It’s…” Words failed her.

Mmmm! I LOVE roasted marshmallows! SO good! All burnt on the outside and melty on the inside! YUM!”

Twilight’s thoughts veered irresistibly to the smoke-smell’s origins. Her stomach lurched. “Pinkie…”

Pinkie continued undaunted. “I like to give that black crispy crust a little poke and just–” Pinkie mimed holding something up to her mouth and loudly slurped the air with her tongue.

Twilight grimaced and then galloped up the stairs to find a place to retch.

“Uh, okay, then,” Pinkie shouted up the stairs, “what about corn on the cob?”

• • • • • • •

Applejack shifted on the small haystack and looked around the open-air bistro for the hundredth time. She glanced back down at her menu in her hooves, confirming that the twenty-three items listed there had indeed not changed in the intervening seconds since she’d last looked.

“So, what’s good here?”

Applejack yelped and fumbled with the menu.

Carrot Top was standing on the other side of the table. Her wavy orange mane was freshly brushed, and she smelled of carrot-juice soap. She smiled.

“H-Howdy!” Applejack cleared her throat. “T-Take a load off, why doncha?” She gestured at the unoccupied haystack across from her.

Carrot Top took a seat. “Don’ mind if I do.”

“Thanks again fer takin’ a rain check last week, by the way. None o’ the other bridesmaids brought a plus-one, y’see, an’ a weddin’ seemed kinda… forward… fer a first date, anyways – not that I got any misgivin’s er nothin’, mind you! Don’t get the wrong idea – I think we’ve really hit it off! It’s just that I never actually done somethin’ like this before, and I din’t wanna…” Applejack caught herself and sighed. “…Shewt. I’m babblin’ like a brook. Can I start over?”

Carrot giggled. “Aww, I thought ya were doin’ just fine. Yer cute when yer nervous!”

Applejack fought back the blush spreading across the bridge of her nose, which only caused it to spread faster.

“’Sides,” added Carrot Top, “not like I ain’t a mite bit nervous, too, ya know. Ya might be a neighbor, but yer also a friend o’ the Princess Herself! I spectated the Royal Weddin’. YOU were in the weddin’ party! An’ now here ya are, sittin’ down with lil’ ol’ me!”

Applejack turned as red as her big brother. She looked away for a moment to compose herself; when she turned to face Carrot Top again she all but fell into her eyes.

Eyes the same shade of leaf-green as her own, bright and shiny and full of life. Eyes framed by those carrot-coloured curls and a velvety hide the pale yellow of a freshly-peeled apple…

“Eyes…” Applejack muttered dreamily.

“Pardon?”

Applejack shook her head; the waiter, it seemed, had arrived.

“Uh… I-Ice! Can I get some water with ice, please?”

The slick-maned stallion raised a well-groomed eyebrow. “Uhhm, if I may be so bold as to point out… madame already ‘as a glass of ice water.”

“Oh. Right.” Applejack chuckled weakly. “I reckon we’ll still need a couple minutes, then.”

“As madame pleezes.” The waiter trotted away.

Carrot Top smirked. She put a hoof to her mouth, stifling the laugh.

“Now what’s so dang funny, missy?” asked Applejack defensively.

“I’m s-sorry,” Carrot Top said with effort, “I don’ m-mean ta be–” Her resolve broke, and she laughed uproariously.

Applejack tried to maintain her accusatory frown but Carrot Top’s delight was infectious, and she soon joined her in a helpless fit of giggles.

By the time she finally recovered, eyes watering and sides aching, Applejack found her nervousness had evaporated like so much morning dew.

• • • • • • •

Twilight sat, silent and grey-faced in front of her fireplace, preparing a pot of tea.

Pinkie sat nearby, waiting patiently with her ever-present grin and carefully looking everywhere except at Twilight.

Eventually, Twilight took the bait. “Pinkie, why aren’t you looking this way?”

“Well, DUH!” said Pinkie. “If I watch it, it won’t boil!”

Twilight frowned and turned around to face Pinkie head-on. “That’s just an old mare’s tale–” behind her, the kettle began to whistle. Twilight sighed and then poured the steaming water into a pot holding a sachet of Zecora’s Everfree Tea. The soothing scent of spices soon filled the air.

Pinkie inhaled deeply. “Mmm! That smells yummy!”

Twilight leaped at the chance for some normal conversation, even if it was with the least normal Pony she knew. “It sure does! Zecora’s tea is as good as the imported stuff Princess Celestia drinks. Would you like a cup?”

Pinkie nodded. “No milk and six sugars, please!”

Twilight rolled her eyes and smiled. She trotted over to the cupboard and magicked it open. The empty sugar bowl sat where she’d left it. The memory of a mouthful of caustic salts made Twilight’s upper lip quiver.

Oh. Sorry, I’m… kind of short on sugar right now.”

“Aww, that’s okay!” Pinkie trotted over to the fireplace and pushed a loose brick aside, revealing a small pile of sugar cubes. “I have sugar stashed all over Ponyville – in case of sugar emergencies!”

Twilight growled in frustration. “Pinkie! You CAN’T keep sneaking into my home and hiding things!”

Pinkie’s mouth made a mournful moue. “B-But it’s for emergencies! Better safe than sorry, you know! I mean, lookit all the rope you’ve got saved up for rope emergencies!” Pinkie gestured expansively.

“That isn’t – I wasn’t the one who – it was more like a…” Twilight groaned. “Look – it’s dangerous to sneak around Ponies and startle them, okay? Look at what happened to you today!”

Pinkie raised a front hoof and gingerly poked at her black eye as her memory of recent events came more clearly into focus. “Twilight… it was you…?” The Earth Pony began to shake. “You’ve never, ever, never-ever-ever hit me before!” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Wh-wh-y-y-y-y?” Pinkie’s right front leg jerked upward. “Owww! Pi-ii-in-chy!” she whimpered, trotting in place on her three other legs as she sobbed.

Twilight’s pupils shrank. No! Not Pinkie Sense! Not now!

“No, no!” Twilight insisted. “N-Nothing scary going on! Nothing at all! I was… I was just…” Her eyes widened. “Playing a joke on you!” Her horn glowed as she magicked Pinkie’s leg to straighten it out. “You know – pulling your leg?” She gave Pinkie’s leg a few gentle tugs.

“A j-joke?” A glimmer of Pinkie’s customary good cheer shone through her upset, but then her head tilted in confusion. “…I don’t get it.”

“Well, I, uhh… I caught you sneaking into the library, so I… I threw the BOOK at you!” Twilight nodded emphatically. “Yeah, that’s it! And it was an ASTRONOMY book, so you ended up seeing STARS! Get it? Book? Stars?” Twilight’s desperate smile showed every one of her teeth; sweat beaded on her forehead.

Pinkie considered this for an endless moment.

“Ohhh, okay!” she said at last.

Twilight sighed in relief.

“I gotta tell you, though,” Pinkie continued, “that’s a pretty crummy joke. And you hit me really hard – that’s dangerous! I think you oughta get some professional advice before you try joking again. Comedy is serious business! Have you ever been to the Joke Shop? The mare that runs it is kinda weird, but I bet she could–”

“NO!” Twilight winced; she hadn’t intended to shout so loudly. She cleared her throat. “No, I think I’ll just leave the joking to the pros. Sorry again about your eye!” She chuckled anemically.

Pinkie eyed Twilight with suspicion. “Twilight, are you super-duper-LOOPER sure that everything’s okay? You’re acting kinda funny. Like, creepy-funny, not ha-ha-funny.”

Twilight’s heart pounded. The walls of the bedroom were closing in. Pinkie loomed over her like a rose-coloured spectre of judgment as she cringed down on the floor.

Twilight covered her head with her front legs. “P-Please! Everything’s okay! I’m fine, really! I… I… I PINKIE PROMISE!”

The towering Pinkie’s curly mane hung down on either side of her face like an old-fashioned judge’s wig. “Cross your heart and hope to fly?” she boomed. “Stick a cupcake in your eye?”

“Y-YES!” Twilight shakily mimed the proper gestures.

In an instant, as though a magic word had been spoken, the room was as it had been: wide, high-ceilinged, tea-scented, and occupied by a puffy, perky, almost-painfully-pink party-Pony.

“PHEW! What a RELIEF!” Pinkie Pie hugged her friend. “You had me worried for a second there!”

As she hugged back, shame stabbed Twilight’s insides like so much inter-phased rope.

• • • • • • •

“…So there’s not a THING in there when I look, save fer a lil’ note that reads: ‘I emptied your fridge’. That’s all! I never SEEN a Pegasus with such a big appetite! T’ain’t like she totes bales fer a livin’, neither – how much energy can it take ta carry a few letters?”

Applejack chuckled. “That Ditzy’s a funny one, fer sure!” She took a sip of her apple juice. “But It takes all kinds, I s’pose…” Applejack trailed off.

Twilight Sparkle trotted into view behind Carrot Top. Her mane was in disarray, dark circles ringed her eyes, and an aura of tension lingered around her like a cloud of hornets. She stopped at an empty table, sat, and rested her front hooves on the table’s edge, tapping them nervously.

Carrot Top had continued the conversation, unaware of Applejack’s distraction. “…but he’s even stranger than she is, I tell ya whut! I ran inta him in Canterlot when those bug critters attacked, an’ danged if he didn’t come up with one Pony-Helluva crazy plan…”

“Uh-huh,” said Applejack absently. She narrowed her eyes as she kept watching Twilight.

The Unicorn jerked in shock when the waiter trotted up to her table, and it took her three tries to magick her menu right-side-up to peruse it.

Now what in tarnation’s up with her? Applejack wondered.

“…all over the street! It was jus’ EVERYWHERE, I tell ya! I swear, I ain’t been more embarrassed since that magician came ta town on th’same day I tried out a new mane colour. I tried ta come off all haughty and fancy, but o’course I don’t need ta tell ya how THAT went over – ya were there!” Carrot Top laughed.

“Mm-hm,” said Applejack. She frowned.

Twilight seemed lost in thought for a moment, and in that unguarded moment a look of haunted despair crossed her face. She caught herself, and put on a too-wide, lopsided smile that stopped before her eyes.

“…ain’t that right?”

“U-Uh, sure is!” said Applejack.

This time Carrot Top frowned. “Applejack, I just said: ‘you ain’t been listenin’ ta me at all…ain’t that right?’”

Applejack rubbed the back of her neck with a front hoof. “Shewt, I’m sorry, Carrot. I’m kinda distracted, is all. Y’see, one o’ mah best friends is right over there, and danged if she doesn’t look awful upset.”

Carrot Top peered behind herself and then sighed. “Well, shucks! Why didn’t ya say somethin’ sooner? Go an’ make sure she’s all right!”

Applejack shifted uncomfortably. “You sure yer okay with that?”

“O’course I’m sure! Don’t ya worry none.” She took one of Applejack’s hooves in her own and then smiled. “I’ll still be here.”

Applejack smiled back. “I’ll be back in two shakes of a Pony’s tail!”

• • • • • • •

Twilight Sparkle barely stopped herself from crying out when the waiter appeared at her side.

Désolé, Madame! I seem to be ‘aveeng ze most unsettling effect on Poneez today.” The waiter put a hoof to his chin in thought. “Per’aps I should start weareeng a bell?”

“No, no, my fault,” said Twilight airily. She magicked up the menu sideways. And then turned it upside-down. And then spun it twice over before stopping it right-side-up. She chuckled nervously.

As she studied the menu, certain words snagged her attention and tripped her up:

Fried. Crispy. Seared to perfection. Skewered.

“…Does Madame need a few minutes to decide?”

Twilight forced herself to smile. “Not at all! I’ll have a daisy sandwich and a glass of carrot juice, please.”

Magnifique. It weel be right out, Madame.” The waiter snapped up the menu hovering in front of Twilight’s face, revealing a Stetson-wearing orange Earth Pony approaching the table.

Twilight’s left eyelid twitched.

“Hay there, Sugarcube!” said Applejack. “I couldn’t help but notice that ya seem a little outta sorts. Is everythin’ all right? Ya aren’t late finishin’ another assignment, are ya?”

Twilight swallowed hard; Applejack’s guileless gaze seemed to cut right through her. “L-Late? Not me! Everything’s right on schedule! Yup! Nopony’s late! No late Ponies here!” Twilight winced at her own choice of words, but quickly covered it up with another lopsided smile.

Applejack frowned incredulously. “…Come on, now, Twi. Ya can tell me. What’s eatin’ ya?”

Twilight shifted on her haystack. “I…”

I killed somepony.

She looked away. “…that is to say, I’m…”

I’m a murderer.

She ground her front hooves in the dirt. “…uh, I mean, it’s…”

It’s all because of–

Applejack’s eyes widened. “Discord? Whut about Discord?”

Twilight tensed; she hadn’t meant to say the name out loud. Her features quickly brightened, however, with the recognition of an opportunity.

“Discord!” said Twilight, almost triumphantly. “Yes, that’s it! I’m… I’m worried about Discord!” She nodded quickly. “I think he might be trying to break loose, so all of the Elements of Harmony need to be in top shape.” Twilight’s tone slowly grew more and more confident. “When Discord nearly beat us last time, he made you afraid to talk about what you’d seen. So this time, I need you to tell me if you find out anything suspicious, all right?” Twilight leaned forward, her front hooves sliding on the tabletop. “…Anything.

Applejack fidgeted, suddenly unable to meet Twilight’s intense gaze. “I… I dunno if that’s such a good idea. Are ya SURE he’s up ta somethin’?”

“Definitely! Absolutely!” said Twilight. “We need to be at our best! There could be more servants of chaos secretly lurking in Ponyville right now!”

Applejack twitched in confusion. “Wait… ‘more’? Whaddya mean ‘more’?”

Twilight gritted her teeth, silently cursing herself. “Uhh… more than just him alone, I mean!” Twilight’s smile was so lopsided it was nearly vertical.

Applejack gave Twilight a long, silent, Stetson-shaded stare. “…Okay, Twilight. Ya can count on me.”

Twilight sagged in relief. “Thanks, AJ. I knew I could count on you.” She smiled, turned, and then trotted away.

A moment later, the waiter brought a sandwich and a juice to her empty table.

Carrot Top grinned warmly as Applejack returned to their table and sat down.

“So, is she gonna be okay?” Carrot asked. When Applejack stayed silent, she added: “…Applejack?”

Applejack stared down at the polka-dotted tabletop. When she spoke, shock and disbelief left her voice a wounded whisper:

“I think she just lied ta me!”

• • • • • • •

Twilight Sparkle reclined alone on a bench in the park. Maintaining her façade of normalcy – poorly maintaining it, a cynical voice in her head noted – was exhausting, and she hadn’t even spoken to half of her closest friends yet.

“I can’t do this.” She cradled her tail in her hooves. “Oh, Celestia, I am so tired…”

There was so much lying, so much stress and strain and guilt, and nopony to confide in. Nopony to share her burden. Who could understand?

Her brother gasped in horror. “Twily… How could you?” Twilight tried to trot up to him, but he encased her in a shell of magic. He turned his back and trotted away. “That THING is not my sister!” His new bride followed him, too upset to even look Twilight in the eyes. Twilight banged on the shell with her hooves, screaming and crying behind the soundproof barrier.

Mother hugged Father for support. “We n-never should have let you go away for school!” she sobbed. “My baby! Celestia help me, my baby’s a KILLER!” Father stared Twilight down in silent despair, and then slowly shook his head. Twilight begged for their forgiveness, but as clearly as her mother’s wailing filtered in, no sound escaped the sphere.

Princess Celestia scowled in disgust. “So, after all I taught you, it comes to this. The first time somepony puts you to the test without any support from me, you end up with blood on your horn.” Celestia’s eyes darkened, turning into swirling purple whirlpools. “You’ve been an utter waste of my valuable time, Twilight Sparkle. A total disappointment. I should have just gotten a cat.” Twilight cringed inside the magical globe as the Alicorn loomed to gigantic proportions. Celestia picked up an enormous version of Opalescence, and dropped the snarling, hissing feline in front of her.

Twilight cried out in fear as hooves shook her awake at pace with the clawed dream-paws batting at her dream-prison. She opened her eyes to the off-kilter golden stare of an ash-grey blonde-maned Pegasus.

“You shouldn’t nap on benches!” said the Pegasus. “It’ll give you a headache!”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Uhh… thanks. I’ll remember that, Derpy.”

A look of tension flickered across the Pegasus’s face. “Um, really, m-my name’s Ditzy. Ditzy Doo.”

Twilight sat up on the bench. “Oh. Sorry.”

Ditzy hopped on to the bench and sat next to her. “It’s okay!” She sat, smiling and staring at nothing, until Twilight spoke again:

“So…”

“So!” replied Ditzy cheerily.

Twilight frowned. “No, I mean what are you doing?”

“Sitting!”

Twilight slapped a front hoof to her forehead and slid it down her face in exasperation. “I know! But WHY? Why are you sitting here?”

“Oh-h-h-h!” Ditzy craned her neck as she drew out the word. “I’m waiting for my little Muffin and her foalsitter. They’re gonna meet me here, and then we’re gonna go get ice cream!” Her expression softened from cheer to sympathy. “…And also, you look like you need a friend!”

“I…” Twilight swallowed, trying to clear the lump in her throat. “I don’t think that will help.”

“Awww, sure it will!” said Ditzy. “The Doctah says I should always talk about my troubles – an’ he gives real good advice! REAL good! He’s even helping me talk better!”

Twilight managed a weak but sincere smile. “That is good advice, Ditzy. But I can’t talk about this problem.”

“Awww, sure you can!” said Ditzy. “You just talk it out, and things won’t seem so bad! Promise!”

Cheerful, upbeat music floated on the early evening breeze, rising up from nowhere in particular.

Ditzy hopped off of the bench and turned to face Twilight. “Friends are real important! And talking to them always helps you feel better!”

“Ditzy, please... don’t…” Twilight looked around nervously; for the moment, the two of them were still alone in the park.

Ditzy ignored Twilight’s entreaty. She turned to face the rest of the park, spread her wings, and sang:

TALK OUT YOUR PREDICAMENT
(to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”)

DITZY:
You know, it’s very helpful when you talk out your predicament,
Like orthopedic treatment when you think you’ve pulled a ligament,
Some say it’s kind of sappy, but I quote Princess Celestia –

TWILIGHT (shouted):
Stop!

Twilight tackled Ditzy, cutting off her patter.

Ditzy landed on her back and looked up at Twilight. “Was my singing bad? I was just trying to help…” Her lower lip quivered.

The knot in Twilight’s guts turned to fire. She stomped her front hooves down on either side of Ditzy and stared into her splayed eyes.

“You want to help me?” she shouted in the Pegasus’s face. Ditzy cringed. “You want to HELP? FINE! Why don’t you tell me how to live with yourself when YOU’VE KILLED SOMEPONY?

Twilight froze; the screamed confession had left her lips before she’d even thought about what she was saying. She backed away from Ditzy, her pupils shrinking and her heart racing.

Ditzy rolled onto her belly and smoothly lifted herself into a seated position. She kept her head down, her eyes hidden behind her unruly blonde mane. In a low, steady, emotionless voice, she spoke:

De-equinize your opponent. Don’t think – rely on your training.” She lifted her head just slightly, and revealed perfectly-aligned eyes as cold and piercing as a bird of prey’s. “Never doubt they’d do the same to you.

Twilight stared in disbelief. “Wh-what…?”

Ditzy shook her head, sending her eyes whirling back out of alignment. “What?”

• • • • • • •

Applejack took off her hat and hung her head. “I’m powerful sorry, Carrot. I know all o’ this drama an’ whatnot musta been a bit of a drag.”

The café was almost empty now. The remains of Applejack’s and Carrot’s meals – barely-touched and totally devoured, respectively – sat on the table between them.

Carrot’s silence made Applejack’s heart sink… until she felt soft lips peck her cheek.

Carrot smiled warmly. “AJ, yer worried about yer friend. An’ even so, yer worried about lettin’ me down. Ya ain’t a drag – yer sweeter n’ maple-glazed carrots!”

Applejack smiled through her rising blush. “W-Well sh-shucks! I – I mean, I…” AJ chuckled bashfully.

“We should do this again, fer sure. Ya can pick th’place next time, too, awright?”

Applejack nodded.

As Carrot Top trotted away to return to her farm, Applejack’s good cheer receded along with her. Worry and dread chewed away at her giddy delight until hardly any remained.

Why would Twilight lie? she mused. An’ about somethin’ as serious as Pony-folks workin’ fer Discord!

She put her hat back on, added some coins to those that Carrot had left, and then trotted off down the street.

Applejack frowned. She’d never doubt or suspect me… would she? No, never! I’m th’most dependable Pony Twilight knows! But if not me…

She turned and looked back the way she came.

…then who?

Ponies busied themselves at work and play, running errands, sweeping doorsteps, preparing to close shops for the evening, heading back to their homes, or just sitting and chatting. Applejack found herself focusing on every sidelong glance, every parcel changing hooves, every conspiratorial peek over a shoulder.

The murmuring din of the townsponies’ conversations seemed to rise in volume, surrounding Applejack like a whirlwind. She strained to pick out intelligible words:

secret… never… foalish… return… prepare… hidden… chaos…

The image of Carrot Top giggling and blushing while entwined in Draconequus coils slithered sickeningly through her imagination.

Applejack’s eyes squeezed shut; she gritted her teeth and then cried out in frustration.

She was galloping before she knew it, blindly taking this or that turn, kicking up divots in her wake, racing through the streets to escape–

–what, exactly?

Applejack slowed to a halt at the edge of the park. She was gasping for breath, her heart was pounding and her hide shone with sweat. She sat down heavily.

“D-Dang it,” she panted, “now that N-Nervous-Nellie’s got ME all noo-rotic too!”

She flopped down on her side on the warm grass.

“Twi’s prolly jus’ o-overreactin’ like sh-she always does. Nuthin’ ta get so w-worked up abou–”

Applejack’s gaze fell on the Nervous-Nellie in question.

A dozen yards away, Twilight Sparkle was shaking the town’s mailmare in her front hooves. Her anxious shouting easily reached Applejack’s ears:

“Where’s the other Ditzy? Bring her back! Now!”

Applejack’s pupils shrank. She stumbled to her hooves and crept cautiously toward the pair.

• • • • • • •

“I du-u-nn-nn-o wha-at you me-ee-ee-ean!” Ditzy stammered as Twilight shook her.

Twilight let the Pegasus go and took a step back. “Stop playing around, Ditzy!” she said, desperation dripping from every word. “Do what you just did! Snap out of it! Please! Tell to me more about–” Twilight caught herself this time. She lowered her voice to a hissed whisper. “–You know! About dealing with guilt!”

Ditzy sat staring mostly in Twilight’s direction. Her splayed eyes were wide and her face was bent in a helpless frown. She sniffled, poorly holding back tears. “I’m s-sowwy... I… I’unno wha’ you wamme to s-say!” She winced as if in pain, and put a front hoof to the side of her head. The gesture shifted her mane, briefly revealing a jagged scar on her forehead.

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “Then I guess I’ll just have to remind you!” She ignited her horn and focused on the memory-boosting spell she’d last used to help purge her friends of Discord’s influence.

Ditzy backed up against a tree and reared up with her back to its trunk in an effort to evade the glowing tip of Twilight’s horn. Fear purged her of the last of her hard-trained diction: “N-No…! Row a-day! Floor bury!” She waved her front hooves in a feeble defense as Twilight drew closer, closer…

“Uhh, Twilight?”

Twilight’s horn snuffed out and her eyes widened. She turned to face her Earth Pony friend.

“A-A-Applejack! What’s up?”

“Ya know, I was about ta ask th’very same thing.”

Twilight coughed softly into a front hoof. Get a hold of yourself, Twilight! she silently insisted. “I w-was having a conversation with Ditzy Doo, here.” She nodded at the terrified Pegasus.

“K-Kelp knee!” Ditzy whimpered. “Fleas!”

“A conversation.” Applejack’s tone was flat and emotionless.

“Yup!” said Twilight. Her mouth was aching from a day’s worth of forced smiles.

“With her.”

“Y-Yup!” Twilight’s guts resumed their twisting. Applejack’s green stare felt as heavy as an anvil.

“An’ this has nuthin’ ta do with all that Discord business ya mentioned earlier.”

“Oh, that? No! No, no, no. Nope! Not at all!” Twilight laughed, too loudly. “We’re just, just hanging out, you know?”

“Hangin’ out.”

“Uh-huh!” Twilight tried not to wince. Every flat statement from Applejack was another needle in her innards.

Applejack shuddered as if on the verge of an outburst, but instead she sagged and let out a tired sigh.

“Fine, Twilight. I may be a farm-Pony, but I ain’t dumb. I can take a hint. Ya don’ trust me enough ta tell me what’s really goin’ on. That’s fine.” She turned to trot away.

“Applejack..!” Twilight moved to follow the Earth Pony but then paused, reluctant to leave Ditzy – and what she might know – behind. “AJ, please! Wait!”

Applejack turned back. “What, Twi? What?”

Twilight choked back a sob. The tug-of-war battle between her guilt and her stress threatened to tear her in half. “P-Please believe me, I c-can’t tell you what’s going on. I can’t! You just have to trust me and stay your honest, earnest self. You’ve got to!” Twilight’s voice lost volume until she was fighting to even whisper. “H-He’ll get free, AJ. S-Something happened, and n-now I’m scared he’ll get free!”

Fear slowly drained the blood from Applejack’s face. “P-Peel n’ core me…! Yer… yer serious!”

Twilight nodded. “I need your help, Applejack. I need you to tell me if anypony acts suspicious.”

Applejack fixed her stance. “Awright, Twi. I won’t letcha down.” She tipped her hat, turned, and trotted off.

Twilight let out a heavy sigh, the act releasing no small measure of her wound-up tension. She turned back to Ditzy, only to find her flanked by two Unicorns – a young pink mare and a little lavender foal.

“…An’ free struck fur morn might in why lace! Wheeze lazy! WHEEZE LAZY!” Ditzy pointed an accusing hoof at Twilight. She was hardly pausing for breath as she babbled.

The mare put her front hooves on Ditzy’s shoulders. “Easy, now, Ditzy. Take a deep breath and think about each word. Just like the Doctor said.”

Ditzy looked down at the foal, who was hugging her front leg supportively. Her off-kilter eyes jumped from the foal, to the mare, to Twilight, and back again. She slowly inhaled and exhaled several times before she spoke again:

“I… I want… ice cream.”

“Yay!” cheered the little foal.

The three of them trotted away together without a single backward glance.

“B-But…” Twilight said to the once-more-empty park. Her tension was already rebuilding itself.

She frowned and headed back to her library, dragging her hooves through the lush emerald grass.

• • • • • • •

On the far side of the same field, Rainbow Dash hovered along next to Tank, her achingly-slow pet tortoise, while Fluttershy followed on the other side of Tank and Angel the bunny curled up asleep on top of Tank’s shell.

“…It’s not like I don’t think he’s fast,” said Dash hastily, “he does great with that propeller-thingy Twilight slapped together for him. The school-foals loved chasing him this morning! But when we bank and climb and dive and barrel roll, sometimes he gets a little…”

Tank’s tiny eyes followed Dash’s mimed aerobatics; he turned a darker shade of green and halted in his tracks. He gurgled.

“Oh, my!” said Fluttershy. “The poor dear! Luckily, though, there’s medicine for airsickness. Um, n-not that I ever need it myself!” She blushed lightly. “You should make an appointment with a vet.”

Dash raised an eyebrow. “A vet? Can’t you just give him some herbal thing yourself? You took care of him until I got him, didn’t you?”

Fluttershy looked away, letting her mane hide her face. “Oh, I couldn’t. Not after…” Her soft tone got even softer still. “…what happened.

Dash landed and trotted over to face Fluttershy. “’Shy… you know I don’t blame you, right? It was an honest mistake! And no matter what happened before or after, it was MY brilliant idea to eat so many of those berries, not yours.”

Fluttershy let out a small squeak.

“Come on – would I have asked you to help us make that hurricane if I didn’t trust you?”

Fluttershy muttered something, the sound mostly lost in her mane.

“Beg pardon?”

“A l-little ginger might help settle his stomach…”

Dash smiled. “NOW you’re talkin’!”

Fluttershy smiled a modest smile. “If you come ‘round tomorrow, I’ll have some dried slices ready for him, all right?”

Dash nodded happily.

“Right now I should be going, though – if you don’t mind that is. It’s getting late, and I still have to feed the flamingo, and I’m meeting Rarity at the spa tomorrow morning…”

Dash raised a hoof to interrupt Fluttershy’s self-justification. “It’s cool, Fluttershy! I was going to put the propeller on Tank and take a spin around town, anyways.”

Tank looked up at the sky and gulped.

“Aww, Pony up, ya big baby!” said Dash, good-naturedly nudging the top of Tank’s shell and waking Angel. “I’ll go easy on you until you get your medicine.”

“Um, okay then. Have a good evening!” Fluttershy picked up her scowling rabbit friend and flew off, staying close to ground level.

“Okay, little buddy,” said Dash, turning to the tortoise, “let’s get you airborne!”

With the quick addition of a magi-tech device on his back, Tank was soon hovering at Rainbow Dash’s side as the pair flew above the streets of Ponyville along a relaxed, meandering flightpath. After a few laps around town, Dash laid eyes on the library and banked into a wide downward spiral.

“C’mon, Tank,” she said, “I wanna see how Twilight’s doin’. She never came back to the tryouts this morning!”

Dash swooped in and touched down on the library’s uppermost balcony with all four hooves at once, sending a small shock through the wooden structure. “OH yeah!” she said with satisfaction. “Perfect four-point landing!”

Tank whirred into view from above and landed precariously on top of a tripod-mounted telescope.

Dash chuckled. “Feeling a little unsteady?”

A few moments later, Twilight surged up through the hatch leading down into the library, her eyes wild, her horn blazing and her jaw clenching.

Dash hopped backward in surprise, perching on the edge of the balcony and spreading her wings for balance.

“Uhh, hey Twilight,” she said, “wassup?”

• • • • • • •

Twilight Sparkle could barely summon up the willpower to magick open her front door.

She plodded inside, noting the partially-reshelved collection; Spike was home. Twilight inhaled to call out to the little Dragon, but instead she let the breath out in a bone-weary sigh. She simply didn’t have the strength for any more social interaction.

“This has been the longest day of my life,” she muttered to the empty room, and then began the arduous climb up the stairs to her bedroom.

She crossed the room and stumbled past Spike’s basket-bed, currently occupied by said snuggled-up, snoring, thoroughly tuckered-out Dragon.

Twilight magicked her blanket up… and then jammed a front hoof into her mouth to stifle her shocked scream.

There, spread out under the covers like some warped parody of a body-pillow, was Discorduroy. The doll was still sooty from the blast in the basement hours earlier; the bitter scent of charcoal made Twilight’s stomach lurch.

Twilight glanced over at Spike. No, he wouldn’t, she thought to herself. Not after all that’s happened! But if it wasn’t Spike…

In answer to the unfinished thought, the entire building shook as if struck from above. A book dropped off the shelf near her bed: Pursuing Pony Poltergeists – A Paranormal Primer.

Twilight swallowed hard. “T-Topsy Turvy…?” she whispered.

She climbed to the upper balcony like a Pony condemned, counting between breaths in an effort to stop herself from hyperventilating.

One-Canterlot… breathe… Two-Canterlot… breathe… Three-Canterlot…

Twilight squinted through the balcony-hatch’s blurry window; the setting sun afforded her a backlit glimpse of a Pony silhouette topped by a whirling propeller.

Three-Canterlot…

A raspy, mocking laugh rang out from the balcony, followed by a husky voice mimicking Rainbow Dash’s:

“Feeling a little unsteady?”

Th-Three… C-Canterlot…

Twilight ignited her horn and lunged through the hatch to face the impossible dread awaiting her, teetering on the razor-edge of tumbling into sanity-shredding panic.

Rainbow Dash – very much alive and in the flesh – hopped backward in surprise. She perched on the edge of the balcony and spread her wings for balance. Her propeller-topped pet tortoise took to the air in fright.

“Uhh, hey Twilight,” said Dash, “wassup?”

Twilight’s left eyelid twitched. Every jagged shard of pain and fear and shame and guilt the day had brought boiled inside her like so much slag in a crucible, melting down into pure, seething, toxic, rage.

“What’s up…?” She scowled and took a step forward. “I’ll tell you what’s up!” Twilight’s horn glowed brighter, and its reddish aura surrounded Rainbow Dash. The Pegasus flipped forward and found herself pinned upside down against the library’s narrow upper trunk. Twilight turned and ducked down to stare into Dash’s eyes.

“What’s UP is that DISCORD is trying to get FREE, and if he does... IT’LL BE YOUR FAULT!”

TO BE CONTINUED

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