• 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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Before Swine

SECRETS AND LIES
By Saddlesoap Opera
Part Four: Before Swine


Rose watched her flower garden closely as the sprinkling rain darkened its soil. She slowly raised a front hoof.

“Almost…” She raised it higher. “Almost… STOP!” She brought her hoof down firmly.

Thunderlane peered down from the edge of a low-hanging raincloud. “Did we really have to water each patch separately? I could’ve just grabbed a bigger cloud and done them all at once!”

Rose gasped. “What? Oh, no! Never! Good gardening is all about the little details.”

The Pegasus sighed long-sufferingly, but then perked up. “Hay, wait! You’re always gossip– uhh, chatting with your friends, right? You know all about what’s going on in Ponyville?”

Rose blushed modestly. “I wouldn’t say all about. But yes, we know what’s going on.”

“That’s great! Listen, I’m really, really busy, but somepony asked me to keep an eye out for anything out-of-the-ordinary going on in town.” The Pegasus leaned closer. “Do you think you could keep an ear to the wind and lemme know if anypony does anything suspicious? It would help me a lot.”

Rose sat and pressed a hoof to her chest. “Oh! That sounds serious!”

Flaky, golden-brown crusts barely restraining glistening, steamy, syrupy fruit slices danced through Thunderlane’s imagination. “Oh, believe me – it IS!”

Rose shivered under the intensity of Thunderlane’s gaze. “D-Don’t worry! If anypony’s done something wrong, we’ll find out about it! It might not look it, but this town’s just teeming with strange happenings and sinister goings-on!”

“Awesome! I can’t wait to hear what you dig up!” Thunderlane spread his wings and took off, leaving the raincloud drifting and unattended.

Rose galloped down the block and skidded to a stop in front of a nearby home’s front door. She pounded on it with a hoof.

“Lily?” she called out. “Lily, it’s Rose. Open up – I have BIG news!”

• • • • • • •

Pinkie Pie’s sky-blue eyes grew wide and watery, reflecting the colourful interior of the Carousel Boutique in their depths. Her black right eye made her mournful frown slightly lopsided. “Awww…! But if I can’t use my fly-a-ma-jig indoors, the Party Cannon is the only way to get the streamers all the way to ceiling!”

Rarity pressed a hoof to her forehead and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. “Pinkie Pie! We can’t go overboard on the decorations. There may be some VERY delicate dress-fitting and mane-styling going on!”

Pinkie pondered. “Okay, how ‘bout balloons? A whole BUNCH of ‘em!”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Very well. But half a bunch. Maybe.”

“Confetti?”

Rarity cringed in horror. “Oh MY, no!”

“Shee-ee-ee-ee-sh!” Pinkie’s head rattled back and forth as she drew out the word.

The two Ponies sat in silent thought for a moment, but then turned to face each other with a shared look of inspiration and a shared shout of:

“RIBBONS!”

Pinkie Pie hopped to and fro in giggling delight while Rarity magicked up half a dozen spools of ribbon and eyed them critically.

“I’m so excited!” said Pinkie. “Are you excited? I haven’t been this excited since the last time I was this excited!”

Rarity gave her pink friend a sidelong glance and silently raised an eyebrow.

Pinkie bounded over to the Boutique’s front door. “I’m gonna gallop back to Sugarcube Corner and grab the biggest half-buncha balloons EVER!”

As Pinkie left, a pale-brown Earth Pony stallion with a slicked gunmetal-grey mane and a finely tailored collar and monogrammed tie caught the door and trotted inside.

“Ah! Good afternoon!” said Rarity with entrepreneurial good cheer. “Are you in the market for some haute couture for your very special somepony?”

He waved a dismissive front hoof. “No, no. Nothing like that. I’m here on business. My business, to be precise.”

Rarity sighed. “We’ve had this talk before, Filthy.”

“Please,” he replied with just a touch of annoyance, “call me Rich.”

Rarity narrowed her eyes. “We’ve had this talk before, Rich. My designs are my precious children – each one a unique jewel intended to meet a single, specific customer’s needs! Surely you can’t expect me to abandon them to the cold, cruel world of… bulk retail!” She cleared her throat. “No offense.”

Rich smiled a well-practiced smile. “None taken. But as I’ve said before, Rich’s Barnyard Bargains is a perfectly respectable business. High demand and low supply can both lead to profits. You simply favour the latter, while I favour the former.”

Rarity let out a ladylike harrumph. “I don’t put profits first. And I’ll have you know that the demand for my work is quite high, indeed!”

Rich smirked. “Oh? As high as the demand for zap-apple jam? Or shoeing nails? Or sugar cubes?”

“Those are staples! I deal in luxury! Fabulosity!”

Rich trotted over to a ponnequin half-covered in pinned navy-blue cloth. “What about this? It’s stylish, yet simple and functional, too – anypony would want one! I could sell a HUNDRED of these!”

Rarity frowned. “That is a one-off for a friend with simple tastes. And if I want to finish it before the party we’re going to hold for her, I need to get back to work. So sorry to have wasted your time, Filthy – ah, Rich.” She magicked open the front door.

Rich shrugged as he headed out. “You know where to find me.”

Rarity took a deep, cleansing breath before turning back to the ponnequin.

• • • • • • •

“H-Hello, Miss S-Sparkle. Did you m-miss me?”

Rainbow Dash stepped closer to her friend. “Did you say something, Twilight?”

Twilight Sparkle turned and sat, blocking Dash’s view of the singed plush toy reclining on the empty bookshelf.

“N-No! Just… just thinking out loud!” She giggled nervously.

“Oh, okay. Uh, you wamme to put those books away for you?”

“No, i-it’s fine. I got it.” Twilight could feel the doll behind her. His brass stare – No! Its! ITS stare! she fiercely corrected herself – bored into her back. “Say… I just realized I forgot to pick up sugar when we went out. Do you think you could pop down to the marketplace and get me some?” Twilight made a poor attempt at a guileless smile.

“Okay, sure!” Dash saluted Twilight and gave a firm nod. “I’ll be back in a flash!”

“Take your time!” shouted Twilight after the cyan blur streaking out of her front door.

As the swirling dust and stray scrolls settled in Rainbow Dash’s wake, Twilight let out her breath and sagged. Tension quickly reclaimed her, however, as she turned to face Discorduroy.

She narrowed her eyes. “You can’t be real. I tore you apart. I BURNED you!”

“Well, CLEARLY you didn’t,” she said to herself in the doll’s taunting voice. “I’m as healthy as a horse!”

“That’s not funny. And I am NOT going crazy!” Twilight stomped a hoof for emphasis as she shouted at the inanimate plush toy before her. “There’s a rational explanation for this – there HAS to be!”

“Of course, of course there is,” she said, her tone dripping with mock sympathy. She paced back and forth in front of the doll as she continued: “You killed somepony, you’re wracked with guilt, you haven’t slept more than a few minutes in a few days, and you’re hopelessly afraid that you’re going to mess up like you always do and let me loose to rain down delicious, chocolaty chaos on each and every living thing in Equestria! Why SHOULDN’T you be losing your mind, Twilight Sparkle? Why shouldn’t you? WHY SHOULDN’T YOU?”

She turned away from Discorduroy and unleashed an anguished, throaty shriek at the empty room.

Almost empty.

A small bowl of assorted gemstones fell from Spike’s claws and clattered down the bottom half of the stairs. The little Dragon’s pupils were pinpricks, and his voice was needle-thin:

“Twilight…?”

“Spike!” Twilight croaked. She cleared her throat. “What did you hear?”

“You were shouting something about losing your mind, so I came running, and you screamed…” Spike’s eyes shone with tears. “Twilight, what’s happening? Nopony will tell me, and you’re – you’re really scaring me!”

Relief and remorse tore through Twilight like a hurricane. Her back legs gave out, and she sat down heavily.

“S-Spike, I…” Ice-water chills slithered down her back and pooled in her stomach. “Come here. Please?”

Spike cautiously closed the distance between them; Twilight pulled him into a hug.

“I did something, Spike. Something very, very bad.”

She ducked her head down and wrapped her legs tight, engulfing her faithful assistant. Her voice was barely above a whisper as she continued.

“I want to fix things, or, or at least try to stop them from getting worse. B-But I don’t know if I can do it. And if I can’t…” Twilight shuddered. “I’m sorry, Spike. I’m so sorry!”

Spike wriggled out of Twilight’s grasp, hopped a short distance away and then turned to face her.

“Don’t be sorry, Twilight!” he said, with only a hint of fearful quaver in his voice. “You can fix things – I know you can! You’ve faced monsters and Dragons and who-knows-what else! You’re the most magical Unicorn in Ponyville. No – in EQUESTRIA! If you can’t do it, nopony can!” Spike rested his claws on his hips and stood as firmly as his anxiety would allow.

“Oh, Spike!” Twilight smiled gratefully, pressing a front hoof to her chest. But her smile soon faded. “…It’s not that simple.”

Spike tilted his head. “How come?”

“Because, I… I…” Words failed Twilight.

Oh go on – just tell him! she imagined Discord’s purring timbre with cringe-inducing clarity. Tell him the Pony who helped teach him not to give in to his bestial instincts wailed like a Windigo and burned her enemy alive! It’ll be HILARIOUS! Ah, what I wouldn’t give for some popcorn!

“Stop!” she growled under her breath. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and pressed her front hooves to her temples.

Now Topsy Turvy’s high, sneering voice joined the mental chorus: Tell him! Tell him you MURDERED ME, you bucked-up Screwhead! He’ll forgive you! Dragons are SUPER level-headed! The imaginary Topsy giggled; Twilight gritted her teeth.

“Twilight! Are you okay?” Spike approached her.

“I’m okay!” She held out a warding hoof. “I’m fine.” She took a slow, deep breath and let her front hooves drop. She opened her eyes and looked down at her assistant; it was now or never. With a short, shallow nod, she spoke:

“Spike, I don’t know how to tell you this, but–”

“SURPRISE!”

An explosion of ribbons and balloons and pink and purple and white burst in through the front door and shattered the moment; Twilight could only stare in shock.

• • • • • • •

As a decorated athlete, weather-worker, foal-rescuer and occasional world-saver, Rainbow Dash was no stranger to the scrutiny of strangers. So why, then, she couldn’t help but wonder as she flapped along Stirrup Street at roof-height, did she suddenly feel so exposed?

Dash alighted near a fountain and took stock of nearby townsponies and passersby. Every Pony she looked at averted their gaze in moments, and those standing or travelling in pairs or groups whispered frantically as soon as she began to turn away.

Dash frowned; what was going on?

As was her wont, she opted for the direct approach.

“Hay! You!” she said, pointing a hoof at a random Earth Pony. “What the Pony Heck is going on around here?”

“Ain’t ya heard?” said the orange-maned yellow mare. “There’s a criminal loose in Ponyville!”

“A criminal?” Dash tilted her head. “What did this crook do?”

The Earth Pony shuddered. “I dunno, but it must be somethin’ just AWFUL! Otherwise, why would folks be so worried?” She turned and gestured at the skittish crowd, currently occupied trying not to look like they were eavesdropping.

Dash rolled her eyes and sighed. A few months ago, she might have rocketed to answer the call of justice and pursue the perpetrator posthaste. But now? Now, Dash felt a new sense of perspective. Twilight’s fear-struck speech suddenly seemed a lot less burdensome.

“Aww, don’t get your saddle-blanket in a bunch,” said Dash with a chuckle and a dismissive wave of her hoof. “There’re WAY worse things than criminals to worry about! And we’re–”

Dash had only turned away for a moment, but the Earth Pony had taken the chance to bolt.

“–gonna deal with them?” Dash shrugged and then decided to finish the trip to the market on hoof.

By then the Earth Pony was already two blocks away, anxiously pounding on somepony’s door.

• • • • • • •

“You’re speechless – I understand!” said Rarity with a cheery grin. “It’s not every day that somepony gets the chance to have a simultaneous makeover and party in her honour. Or ever, I suppose, seeing as how Pinkie and I only just came up with the idea!” She tittered daintily.

While Rarity spoke, Pinkie Pie flitted from corner to corner of the library’s book-strewn main floor, affixing ribbons to the remaining hanging ropes and releasing a modest number of balloons from her saddlebags.

“Wh-What…?” Twilight finally managed.

“You’re gonna LOVE it!” replied Pinkie. “Music, dancing, snacks…”

“…Braiding, highlights, some eye shadow, a little fashion…” added Rarity, magicking her own saddlebags off her back and unpacking a dark blue dress covered in pockets.

Both concluded with: “…and RIBBONS!”

Twilight remained all but catatonic.

While the pleased party-planners shared a giggle, Spike stepped toward Rarity in a huff.

“Okay, uh, it’s like this,” he said hesitantly, “this was a nice idea, but it’s kind of a bad time. Twilight was telling me something pretty serious, and–”

Rarity sat down and then picked Spike up with her front hooves.

“Oh! And don’t think I’ve forgotten about my dear, dear Spikey-Wikey! I’m ever so grateful for all your help lately!”

“Hey!” Spike wriggled in her grasp. “I’m TRYING to tell you…” Rarity nuzzled Spike’s cheek with her own; Spike blushed and stopped struggling. “…your mane smells really good.” He giggled bashfully.

Rarity smiled. “My my! Such a charmer! Here – I made a little something for you while I was preparing for Twilight’s makeover.”

Rarity magicked a new pair of crimson-lensed sunglasses out of her saddlebags and slipped them onto the little Dragon’s face.

“Do you like them? The frames are onyx and the lenses are beryl, so if you start feeling, you know…” Rarity lowered her voice for a moment. “…grabby, you can just eat them right up!” She magicked up a small mirror and floated it in front of Spike.

“Well, I do look pretty slick…” Spike lowered the shades and studied his reflection over the top of the glossy black frames before pushing them back into position.

On the other side of the room, Pinkie had finished decorating and was clearing a space to set up a cake-serving table. She pushed aside a pile of books and righted the folding table, but then stopped and gasped in surprise.

“Oh wow, Twilight! Where’d you get this crazy doll?”

Twilight snapped out of her stasis as if struck by lightning.

“Pinkie! Don’t!”

Pinkie picked up the doll with her front hooves and wiggled it as she spoke in a low, growling, mock-sinister voice:

“Grrr! I’m Discord! I’m a great big meanie-pants! And I wanna make you all into meanie-pantseses, too-oo-ooo… aahhh-CHOOO!”

The doll dropped to the floor as Pinkie propelled herself away from it with the force of her sneeze. Once she tumbled to a stop and sat up, her ears started flailing in opposing circles. Shortly thereafter, twitches rippled down her back.

“Hmmm…” she said, and rubbed her nose with a foreleg. “Sneezy nose, flappy ears, tingly spine.”

Twilight bit her lower lip. “Wh-What does that mean?”

Pinkie Pie narrowed her eyes. “It means…”

Rarity, Spike, Twilight and the Discorduroy doll all stared at Pinkie Pie in identical expectant silence. Sweat shone on Twilight’s forehead.

“…that doll REALLY needs to be dusted! It made me sneeze so bad, you’d almost think my PINKIE SENSE was goin’ off!” Pinkie Pie giggled a snorting giggle.

The assembled crowd – minus the doll – breathed a sigh of relief. Twilight answered Pinkie’s giggle with a thin, unconvincing giggle of her own.

And then Pinkie sneezed again.

Twilight and Rarity dived out of the way as Pinkie streaked back and forth across the room like a tingling, ear-flapping, sneeze-powered rocket.

“GOODNESS!” said Rarity in a pause between Pinkie’s sneezes. “Maybe we should–” She ducked as Pinkie shot past above her. “–reschedule the makeover party?”

“N-No, no, it’s fine!” said Pinkie breathlessly. “Just lemme get back to the cake ta-aa-aaaah-CHOO!”

The Earth Pony flew backwards into an empty bookshelf and crashed down on top of – and through – the bare cake-table.

Twilight galloped over to her. “Pinkie! Are you all right?”

“Oof… yeah, I’m okay!” She popped up out of the wooden wreckage, sending Discorduroy flopping down next to her. “My knee’s just a little pinchy.”

Twilight felt some spine tingles of her own. “I don’t know about that, Pinkie. Maybe we should do this another time. Better safe than sorry, right?”

“Yeah!” agreed Spike, folding his arms. “Me and Rainbow Dash have hardly even STARTED cleaning up this mess – you shouldn’t make it worse!” He caught Twilight’s disapproving glare out of the corner of his eye. “Oh! And yeah, you should make sure you’re healthy.”

“Aww, I guess you’re right.” Pinkie scuffed the floor with her front hoof, kicking Discorduroy aside; she winced right after doing so, her leg bending double from the severity of the pinch in her knee. Her nose started to twitch. “Y’know, maybe I should – AHCHOO! – take it – AHCHOO! – easy for a while! AHCHOOO!

Pinkie’s last sneeze sent her hurtling out the front door. Her shout of “See you – AHCHOO! – later!” faded into the distance.

Rarity sighed. “Well, I am simply crushed, Twilight! Here we’d hoped to give you a nice pick-me-up, and all we did was make a frightful mess.” She half-swooned, pressing a foreleg to her brow. “Alas! Could I be losing my flair for thoughtful gifts?” Spike pulled a fainting couch into position behind her.

“NO!” Twilight raced over and gripped Rarity with her magic. She pulled the white Unicorn close and stared at her head-on before letting the magic aura fade.

“Rarity, no! I thought this was a… a SUPER idea!” Twilight forced a smile. “Don’t even THINK of being even a TINY bit less Generous! You two really, uh, made my day!” Twilight ratcheted her smile so wide her cheeks ached.

Rarity tilted her head in confusion. “We did?”

“Oh, you bet! All these pretty decorations…” Twilight turned in a circle, pushing down the gruesome thoughts that gleaming blood-red ribbons dangling from hanging ropes evoked. Her left eyelid twitched.

Rarity grinned. “You liked the ribbons? Oh, I knew you would! They make me think of the moment we first met. Do you remember? At the Town Hall?”

Twilight nodded. “Even though you were busy getting ready for the celebration, you took the time to fix my mane.”

“Yes, that’s right!” Rarity smiled fondly at the memory.

For a moment, Twilight let herself do likewise. But the indulgence ended as she recalled her present worries. “But anyway, that’s why I need you to stay that way now. You’re more than just a nice Pony now – you’re the Element of Generosity, and I need you to stay that way!”

“Why ever wouldn’t I, Twilight? Is there something I should know about?” Rarity’s gaze strayed to the fallen doll. “Something about… Discord?” She spoke the name in a whisper, as if she were saying a dirty word during high tea in Canterlot Castle.

Twilight winced. She looked at Rarity, at Spike, at Discorduroy, and back again. She took a slow, deep breath.

“Yes. It’s about Discord. I think he’s trying to get free. That’s why–”

“That’s why you’ve been so skittish lately!” said Rarity. “And why you’re worried about the Elements!”

Twilight nodded.

Rarity snapped to attention, her backbone as straight as a Royal Guard’s. “Well, then! I’ll have to be sure that I stay as Generous as possible, won’t I?” Her rigid pose softened, and she smiled. “Why don’t I start by giving you a nice gift to make up for letting you worry about this all alone for so long?” She magicked up the blue dress and floated it before Twilight.

Twilight looked away. “You don’t have to do that, Rarity.”

“Oh, but I’m afraid I do, darling!” replied Rarity. “My dear friend is anxious and troubled – the Generous thing to do is to give her something to help cheer her up.” The hovering dress dipped invitingly.

Twilight gingerly ducked her head and slipped into the dress. It was not unlike the simple outfit Rarity had given her in Canterlot, with the addition of several buttoned pockets in different shapes and sizes. Once she’d settled it in place, Twilight craned her neck to look at herself.

“It has pouches for quills and scrolls,” noted Rarity with a hint of pride, “and ink won’t stain the fabric.”

“Oh, hey – it even has a place to hang an inkwell!” added Spike, poking a claw through a loop at Twilight’s shoulder.

Twilight thought back to the fiasco surrounding the dresses for last year’s Grand Galloping Gala; the whole incident seemed so petty in hindsight. Did trivial details on a dress really matter, now that –

…Now that the one wearing the dress has blood on her horn?

Twilight hadn’t meant to look at Discorduroy, but the moment her gaze had fallen on him – IT! – she’d imagined the voice as clear as a bell.

She turned around and faced Rarity, who was still standing stock-still, awaiting a review.

“It’s beautiful,” said Twilight, summoning up every shred of good cheer she could muster. “I… I love it!”

Rarity sagged and let out a small sigh. “Hmm. That’s a pity. I was so sure you’d like it.”

Twilight shook her head in confusion. “Wh-what? Rarity, I said it’s beautiful! It’s thoughtful and practical and it goes with my mane and tail!”

Rarity ignited her horn and magicked the dress off Twilight in one smooth pull. “Not to worry! I’m not trying to impress any fashion designers or photographers this time – and I’m not making six dresses at once. Just tell me what you’d like, and I won’t rest until you’re delighted!”

Twilight stared in disbelief; she knew Rarity had a keen social sense, but was her upset that obvious?

“It’s fine as it is, really,” she insisted. “You don’t have to…”

The imagined staring of brass-button eyes tripped up Twilight’s focus.

“Y-You…”

It’s a positively GORGEOUS present, crooned the hallucinatory Draconequus. Nopony could reject it. And if it’s not the dress making you unhappy, what-EVER could be wrong? The smell of burning and the taste of blood and lye splattered through Twilight’s memory.

“You should change the buttons!” Twilight blurted. “Brass just doesn’t work for me!”

“Ah! I should have known!” Rarity exclaimed, as if the critique were the most obvious thing in Equestria. “Brass clashes with your eyes. I’ll replace them with silver.”

“Well, if it’s no too much trouble,” said Twilight sheepishly.

“Of course not! I insist! Now, in the meantime why don’t you try to get some beauty sleep?” Rarity leaned forward and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I don’t want to alarm you, but you’ve got some dark circles forming under your eyes!”

She straightened, turned, and then headed for the front door. “A little rest and a custom-crafted ensemble will do you a world of good – you’ll see!”

Twilight gave a half-hearted wave as Rarity left.

Spike lowered his new shades and looked at Twilight over the top of their frame. “You know… I feel a lot better. Rarity was right. And beautiful. Graceful…” He shook his head. “But mostly right! With friends like her on your side, why worry?” He slid the shades back into place. “Everything will be okay.” He pointed a clawed thumb upward in a Dragon gesture of approval.

For a time Twilight watched the little Dragon busy himself with piling up books in order of shelf position, but her eyes slowly turned back to the soot-stained doll.

A few moments later, Rainbow Dash half-opened the front door and stuck her head inside. “Hey, Twilight. I got the sugar – got any other errands that need running?”

“Yes,” said Twilight without shifting her gaze. “Take this doll outside… and burn it.”

• • • • • • •

Fluttershy trotted through the streets of Ponyville, her eyes fixed on the scattered clouds. She paused at a crossroads and turned to face the white rabbit sitting on the strap of her saddlebags.

“I’m starting to get worried, Angel,” she said. “Rainbow Dash didn’t pick up Tank’s medicine, she wasn’t at home, and now the skies are getting awfully untidy. I hope nothing bad happened to her!” She shuddered anxiously.

Angel looked around, pointing at every passing Pony that came into view.

“Oh… okay. Maybe somepony’s heard something.”

She approached a nearby home, where a fuchsia-maned pink Earth Pony mare was leaning at a window and Pony-watching nervously.

“Um, excuse me,” said Fluttershy hesitantly, “I’m looking for–”

“I’M INNOCENT!” shouted the Earth Pony. “It’s all perfectly legal! Read the town charter! Up to ten jugs for private use!” She jerked back inside and slammed the shutters closed in one smooth motion.

Fluttershy tilted her head in confusion. “Th-Thanks anyway?”

She turned around and trotted over to a brown-maned orange Earth Pony stallion who was hitching himself to a cart.

“H-Hello. Have you–”

The stallion hopped backward in fright, backing the cart into a tree. “It was one time! ONE! And I wasn’t even in town at the time! Don’t go trying to pin anything on me – I’m an upstanding citizen!” He galloped off, pulling the half-secured cart behind him.

“Alright! H-Have a nice day!” Fluttershy called out after him.

A few more moments’ trotting brought her to the newly refurbished Town Hall. Mayor Mare and a pair of aides were standing in front of the building, chatting around a small folding table covered in paperwork.

“Pardon me, Mayor. I don’t mean to be a bother, but do you know where–”

“Those charges were dropped!” replied the Mayor, backing away as her assistants closed ranks between her and Fluttershy. “Direct any further questions to my attorneys!” The two businessmares guarding the Mayor menacingly stared down their noses at Fluttershy.

Fluttershy cringed and whispered: “Um… never mind!”

She frowned as she slinked away. What’s wrong with everypony today?

As if in answer to her thought, a tight column of water drenched Fluttershy from above. She squealed in shock at the sudden chill.

Thunderlane poked his head through the bottom of the freshly-emptied raincloud hovering over Fluttershy and winced. “Sorry! My bad!”

Angel spat out a mouthful of rainwater and fixed the Pegasus stallion with a withering stare.

Fluttershy shook the water off of her wings and jerked her head to get her sopping mane out of her eyes. “Thunderlane? Why are you weather-working in Ponyville? Where’s Rainbow Dash?”

“Celestia help me, I wish I knew! I’m in over my head, here! She’s on vacation, the clouds are piling up, and…” He choked back a sob. “…there’s no spare time to eat my pie!”

“Your…?” Fluttershy shook her head, sending droplets scattering in all directions. “Why don’t you start from the beginning?”

• • • • • • •

Early morning daylight crept into the second floor of the Carousel Boutique through an unguarded window and made its presence known.

Rarity groaned blearily and rolled over in bed, forcing her dear, precious, lovely, ornery, vicious and disaffected cat to hop out of the way.

“Oh, Opal…” she lamented, “is she trying to find fault? Is this a test?”

Opalescence meowed crankily.

“Fourteen alterations! FOURTEEN! Back and forth to the library until the wee hours, and she still isn’t happy. This is easily the finest, most functional, most useful dress I’ve ever made – what more can I do?”

Rarity picked up the cat in her front hooves, an act which was met with significant resistance.

“I’m happy to strive for perfection, but she’s just so… so…”

Opalescence yawned.

“Yes! JUST like that!” Rarity frowned. “I’d even prefer her to HATE the dress, rather than be so totally unmoved by it. She just nitpicks and then goes right back to not thinking much of anything about it!”

Opalescence wriggled free of Rarity’s grasp, landed softly on the bed, and started sullenly licking her paw and grooming herself.

“I just want a little recognition – that isn’t un-Generous, is it Opal?”

The bell on the front door downstairs answered on Opalescence’s behalf.

“Just a mo-o-o-ment!” Rarity sang out as she hopped out of bed and ignited her horn. A teeming swarm of cosmetics and glamour supplies leaped into the air and surrounded her.

She descended several moments later, freshly-coiffed and fabulous and wearing a cheerful smile… which withered when she laid eyes on her customers.

“Ah! Sorry if we woke you, Rarity,” said Filthy Rich. “I was just walking my little girl to school, and I figured we’d make a slight detour on the way.”

Diamond Tiara sighed in annoyance. “Why are we even here, Daddy? This store’s full of tacky knockoffs!”

“Diamond Tiara!” said Filthy, biting off each syllable. “Mind your manners!”

Diamond cringed but held her ground. “But it’s true! That outfit looks just like the ones Sapphire Shores wore on her last tour!” She pointed an accusing hoof at the gem-studded jumpsuit in question.

Filthy Rich inhaled for a longer diatribe, but Rarity smiled, chuckled softly and stepped closer.

“That’s because it is her outfit, dear,” she said, ducking down to meet the foal’s gaze. “A few of the emeralds popped out during the grand finale, so she sent it back to me for repairs.”

Diamond Tiara’s jaw dropped. “Y-YOU made clothes for Sapphire Shores?”

Rairty straightened and puffed out her chest. “I did indeed! She was the epitome of class and ever so nice when she stopped by.”

“WOW!” Diamond raced to and fro in the shop, staring at Rarity’s wares with new eyes. “Daddy! Daddy, I want one!”

“Fillies who are rude to their elders don’t get new dresses,” said Rich sternly.

Diamond raced back to stand before Rarity and effortlessly adopted a wide-eyed pout. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said with immaculate faux sincerity.

“Oh, think nothing of it,” said Rarity, patting her on the head with a front hoof. Diamond smiled sweetly and returned to browsing the racks. “But regardless – why exactly did you come ‘round, Rich? Surely you don’t expect me to have changed my mind overnight!”

“No, no – I know you’re too intelligent to be swayed so easily.” Rich smiled, but his expression soon turned serious. “Actually, I wanted to make sure you were aware of the crime wave here in town.”

“Crime wave?”

Rich nodded. “It’s all everypony’s talking about. There’s some awful criminal on the loose in Ponyville, but nopony’s even gotten a description. I wanted to warn you to be on your hooves – one retailer to another.”

Rarity smiled. “Thank you, Rich. I appreciate the gesture.”

Across the room, Diamond Tiara gasped in awe. “Daddy…!”

Rich frowned and trotted over. “Diamond Tiara, I swear to Celestia, if you don’t–” He froze midsentence as he saw what had arrested his foal’s attention. Tears glistened in his sky-blue eyes.

“It’s… it’s beautiful!”

Rarity approached, raising an eyebrow. “It is? I mean… it is?”

Rich and Diamond nodded, but only Rich found his voice:

“It’s the finest, most functional, most… most…”

Rarity leaned forward. “Useful?”

“…most useful piece of clothing I’ve ever seen! It’s incredible!”

“I want it!” said Diamond, her eyes still locked on the dress.

Rarity tittered behind a front hoof and blushed lightly. “Oh, you’re too kind! But it’s a one-off – and already spoken-for!”

“Money is no object,” said Rich. “I’m commissioning another one-off.”

“Pleeeeez!” said Diamond, pawing at Rarity’s leg with her front hooves. “I’ve GOT to have one! I’ll never need saddlebags again! Everypony at school will be sooo jealous!”

Rarity stared. “School? Today? Oh, GOODNESS, no! I couldn’t make a foal-sized copy of this dress in less than an hour!” She paused. “Well, unless…”

Rich met Rarity’s gaze. “Unless?”

Rarity sighed. “I suppose I could use magic and just conjure a dress out of whole cloth, so to speak, but I usually shy away from doing so. The results are so much more flimsy than real hoofiwork.”

“Do it!” shouted Diamond Tiara gleefully, hopping in a circle around Rarity. “Pleez-pleez-pleez-pleeeeeez!”

Rich nodded in agreement with his eager foal.

“Oh, all right. I can’t say no to enthusiasm like that!”

Rarity’s horn glowed, and a bluish swirl of energy formed in front of Diamond Tiara. The expanding sphere moved forward to engulf the gawking foal, and with a bright flash she was wearing a foal-sized lavender duplicate of Twilight’s gift.

“YES!” shouted Diamond Tiara. “Silver Spoon is gonna just DIE!”

“I appreciate it, Rarity. What do I owe you?”

“Owe me? Please. I didn’t use a scrap of fabric and I only worked for a few seconds. Whatever you gave me would be money for nothing.”

A tingle passed through Rich’s money-bags Cutie Marks. He cleared his throat. “Uh, yes. I guess you’re right. Come on, Diamond Tiara – you’re going to be late for school!”

Rarity waved as the pair headed out.

A few moments later, Opalescence came down the stairs carrying a toy mouse in her jaws.

“Did you see that, Opal?” said Rarity with a satisfied sigh. “Generosity at its finest!”

Opalescence made no reply.

• • • • • • •

“Twilight is my bestest friend, whoopee! Whoopee!”

“Pinkie...”

“She's the cutest, smartest, all around best po-nee! Po-nee!”

“Pinkie.”

“I bet if I throw a super-duper fun par-tee! Par-tee…”

“Pinkie!”

“She'll give her extra ticket to the gala to meeee!”

“PINKIE!”

Twilight shifted in midair, her eyes and horn glowing as she snarled in rage. A flare of magic sent the assembled crowd of Ponies flying. A high-pitched scream sounded over the roar of the blast.

Twilight landed on her belly in a pile of confetti, streamers… and ashes.

After the boisterous singing and the echoing explosion, the silence that fell was deafening.

Twilight sat up and looked down at her front hooves; the hot ashes had stained them black. She turned, and saw that her remaining friends were staring at her in shock.

Fluttershy slowly approached and bent to cradle a double hoof-full of the ashes. Her lower lip trembled.

Twilight stood. “Fluttershy! I didn’t mean to! It was an accident! You have to believe me!”

She reached out to press her hooves to the Pegasus’s shoulders, but Fluttershy shattered like glass the moment she touched her. Pink and yellow slivers rained down onto the ash-dusted ground.

“N-No…!” Twilight backed away in horror.

The three survivors turned and galloped away in fear; Twilight gave chase.

“Please! Don’t leave me!”

As Twilight ran, each hoofstep cracked the ground. Buildings subsided and Ponies panicked as she passed. She skidded to a halt and screamed:

“WA-A-A-A-AAIT!”

Twilight’s shout broke every pane of glass in Ponyville.

As she stood panting and weeping in the shattered town, a familiar serpentine shadow stretched out in front of her.

“Oh, now don’t be sad, Miss Sparkle,” said Discord soothingly, “You’re just exercising your Special Talent.”

Twilight found she couldn’t turn around; she spoke to the grinning shadow.

“My Special Talent is Magic!”

Discord chuckled. “Yes, yes – but what KIND of Magic? Your dear BBBFF is a protector… so what does that make you?”

Twilight’s point of view rose upward, climbing until she saw that her body stood at the center of a massive six-pointed starburst, cut into the town with lines of fire and destruction.

• • • • • • •

When Rainbow Dash woke to the sound of screaming for the fourth time, she was relieved to see that the sun had finally risen.

She stumbled past Spike’s basket – the little Dragon was still sound asleep with cotton in his ear-holes after taking the first half of the night consoling Twilight – and climbed the short staircase to Twilight Sparkle’s bedside.

Twilight was sitting up in bed, covering her eyes with her front hooves.

“I’m s-sorry,” she whimpered, “I didn’t m-mean to…”

Rainbow Dash gently hugged her, resting her chin on top of Twilight’s head and stroking her mane with a hoof.

“It’s okay, Twilight,” she said softly, “it was only a dream.”

Twilight sniffled. “No… I mean I didn’t mean to wake you up. You must be so sick of this. Of me.” She shuddered.

“Well, I…” A press of memories stalled Dash’s reply.

“Are you sure you want Fluttershy to come along? That Pony’s afraid of her own shadow!”

“You’re not a laughing stock, Rarity!” “She kind of is!”

“Do you have any more of that…medicine?”

“Nice try! Ponyville’s YOUR problem, not mine!”

Dash pulled away from the hug and shook her head.

“I am NOT sick of you! I’m the Loyal-est Pony you’ll ever meet! I’m stickin’ with you, no matter WHAT happens!” She stomped a hoof and spread her wings for emphasis.

Twilight smiled weakly. Her dark-circled eyes shone. “Thank you, Rainbow.”

Outside, a faint rumble of thunder escaped the gathering clouds.

• • • • • • •

Diamond Tiara waved to her father as they parted ways for the tail end of their trot – she to school, and he to Barnyard Bargains. She trotted in smug silence for a time, until another foal stepped outside and trotted out onto the street.

They both briefly frowned.

“Sweetie Belle.” Diamond kept her voice neutral, her head high and her eyes closed.

“Diamond Ti – whoa!”

Diamond grinned at the little Unicorn’s awe. “Pretty nice, huh? It was custom-made by Sapphire Shores’s costumer.”

“My sister made that?”

Annoyance scrunched up Diamond’s mouth. Finding herself lacking anything else in the way of a reply, she simply said: “…Yes.”

Sweetie Belle smiled. “Neat!” She craned her neck to examine the outfit. “Ooh, it’s got pockets for pencils, and a pouch for a notebook–”

“For a compact, you mean,” corrected Diamond. “Not to mention a loop to hang a perfume atomizer!”

“It’s really nice!” said Sweetie Belle earnestly. “I wish I had one!”

Diamond posed, half-lifting a front hoof demurely. “It is amazing, isn’t it? If you mention me, maybe your sister will make a knockoff for you.”

Either Sweetie Belle missed the edge of sarcasm in Diamond Tiara’s voice, or she chose to ignore it. “That’s not a bad idea!”

The pair trotted silently for a time, side-by-side but widely separated.

“You know,” said Diamond at length, “for a blank-flank, you aren’t all THAT hard to be around.”

Sweetie Belle half-smiled. “Thanks. For a spoiled brat, you’re only a LITTLE unbearable.”

The two stopped at the front steps of the school and stared each other down with mock aggression before they both broke out laughing.

They trotted inside, their chuckling still subsiding, and nearly bumped into Apple Bloom and Scootaloo.

“Oh! Morning,” said Sweetie Belle.

Apple Bloom nodded, but Scootaloo narrowed her baggy, red-rimmed eyes. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Sweetie Belle raised an eyebrow. “What do you mea–”

“MAY-be she’s just trying to climb the ladder a little,” interjected Diamond Tiara.

Sweetie Belle raised a front hoof. “I wasn–”

Scootaloo scowled and pointed to the stylized R marking one of the pockets of Diamond’s dress. “You even had your sister make her a present? What the PONY HELL, Sweetie Belle?”

Miss Cheerilee was looming over the group in a heartbeat.

“Scootaloo! School is no place for foul language – especially from little fillies! I’m putting you on eraser cleaning duty, starting this morning recess.”

Scootaloo sagged. “…Whatever.”

Diamond Tiara grinned a smug grin. “Careful, Miss Cheerilee. You better put somepony on guard so she doesn’t fly away. Oh, wait…

Cheerilee turned to the little Earth Pony. “Diamond Tiara! Mind your manners! …Also, where did you get that fascinating dress?”

• • • • • • •

Pinkie Pie finished warming up her smiling and laughing muscles with the Cake twins, toweled off, and then bounded over to the stairs down to Sugarcube Corner’s main floor, humming a cheery tune.

As she took the first step, her ears flopped forward to cover her eyes and all four of her legs snapped to rigid attention; she gasped in surprise and tumbled down the staircase like a toppled statue.

She staggered to her hooves once her ears unfolded and her legs relaxed enough to let her bend her knees.

“Wooh,” she said, rubbing a fresher but milder bruise forming on the cheek below her black eye, “guess I musta overdone the exercise a little!”

TO BE CONTINUED