• Published 19th Feb 2017
  • 1,869 Views, 23 Comments

Control Freak - Pascoite

The nightmares started… Twilight can’t remember just when. But they’ve gotten worse and worse, and why won’t Luna help, and now they’ve even stopped bothering her. That scares her more than any nightmare ever did.

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Chapter 1: Dream a Little Dream

“Wakey, wakey!” Pinkie Pie cried.

“Wha—?” Twilight jerked her head up and stared at the pastry case right under her nose. A nose now flooded with wonderful scents of cinnamon and nutmeg and—when had she come to Sugarcube Corner? Oh… yeah, for some coffee. But Pinkie was still shaking her by the shoulders. Twilight swatted Pinkie’s hooves away. “Stop it, Pinkie! I’m not asleep.”

Oh! No, she shouldn’t—shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t Pinkie’s fault.

“Is somepony grumpy-wumpy today?”

Twilight exhaled sharply and rubbed her bloodshot eyes, then took Pinkie’s hoof in her own. “I’m sorry, Pinkie. I didn’t mean to snap at you.” Like too many mornings lately, she had to fight to hold in tears, and she didn’t even know why. But a little coffee must have spilled on the burner, and that stench always gave her a headache.

“Aww, that’s okay!” Pinkie said as Twilight finally let her hoof go. “Everypony has a bad day once in a while.”

“Not just one day.” Twilight shook her head and forced a tight-lipped smile. “I haven’t been sleeping well lately. It’s giving me a short fuse, but it’s not fair to take it out on my friends.”

“Well, here then!” Pinkie trilled. She shoved an orange-cranberry muffin across the countertop. “Something sweet to make you sweet again. Hehe!”

“Thanks, Pinkie,” Twilight said through her yawn. “For the muffin and for not prying.” She leaned over the counter and gave Pinkie a one-hoofed hug. Nice, warm contact—something she’d lacked recently. She could feel Pinkie start to pull away, but if it bothered her, she didn’t let on. Probably just a longer hug than she expected. Twilight could almost taste the sweet fruit before even sinking her teeth in.

Pinkie shrugged. “I figured if you were ready to talk, you’d talk. ’Cause I’m always ready to talk.”

It wasn’t really the best time for that. Twilight let out a little chuckle and took a bite of her muffin, its tang sparking her from her lethargy a bit. “I will if I need to. It’s nice to know I have a willing ear, though.” She closed one eye again and pressed the spot next to her horn where that headache was starting. No reason to dump her problems on Pinkie. What could she even do about nightmares?

It would all be over soon anyway. She had to believe that. Show a little patience, and her problems would all work themselves out. And now it was Pinkie who flashed a sympathetic smile and pulled Twilight into a hug, all warm and safe.

Princess Luna focused on the little ball of light in her mind, but for all the racket going on in the next room, she could not hold her concentration. “Dawn Ember!” she barked toward the laboratory that adjoined her study. “What is going on in there?”

“Lookin’ for some more beakers,” her student shouted back.

“In here,” Luna replied. “They have come back from being washed.”

A unicorn mare with a pale yellow-green coat and even paler mane emerged from the door and made a beeline for the tray of glassware by the hallway. Ember lit up her horn as bright as she could and barely lifted one end of it, dragging it along the rug. But when she looked up through her tangles of forelock, she left the tray in the middle of the floor and eased up to Luna’s desk.

“Again?” Ember said.

Luna stifled a yawn and lay her chin on a stack of test papers. “I am afraid so. I can scarcely cover the foals’ nightmares, let alone the adults’.”

Pursing her lips, Ember slid a sheet of paper from the scrap pile and took a pencil in her magic’s unsteady grip. “Well, whose do you remember havin’ to pass up? We’ll make a checklist, and if some o’ the same names come up, help ’em first. The rest must’ve solved their own problems.”

“Checklist…” Luna chuckled and shook her head. “You remind me of…” Dawn Ember raised an eyebrow. “Never mind. Not a bad idea, but if I could only track down that one.” Luna rubbed a hoof between her eyes.

“Still haven’t found it?” Ember clicked her tongue and reached for Luna’s hoof. “Why’s it so tough? Just… follow the bad dreams, right?”

Luna lifted her head up. “This one is not a dream, not in the normal sense.”

“Really?” As if it might set things right, Ember frowned at her blank page. “How do you follow it then?”

Luna’s eyes wandered toward the window. “I do not know. It is like… if somepony whispered in your ear while you slept and… coerced you into living out your worst fears!” She pounded a hoof on the desk, and one of the bats clinging to the rafters overhead opened an eye. “But since it is not the subject’s own dream, I cannot trace it.”

“Oh.” Ember fidgeted with her forehooves. The young mare always took things so personally.

“It is not your fault. I guess I must continue checking randomly until I luck into finding it. And in the meantime, that poor pony suffers.” Luna gritted her teeth, but she forced the knots out of her shoulders as Ember began tugging at her matted mane. No need to make her a victim as well. “Please. Do not let me keep you from your work.”

Ember drew her eyebrows together, but at Luna’s smile, she returned to her tray of beakers. She switched two of them before pushing the whole assembly again with her forehead. “They were out of order,” she said at Luna’s questioning glance.

“But… they are identical.” Luna wrinkled her brow and flicked a hoof toward her student.

“None of them are ever perfectly identical.”

Luna chuckled again. Surely she could not be serious! She had decided several days ago that Ember must be deliberately trying to keep her spirits up. And it was working.

“Why not get that mane cut?” Luna replied, eliciting some indecipherable sound from Ember. The badly needed grin lingered for a while, and then Luna, alone once more, propped a cheek against her hoof, closed her eyes, and sought out that dream light again. Maybe tonight she could finally discover it and set a pony free.

Twilight Sparkle watched the moonlight spill through the window of her bedroom. She’d heard of that idiom before, and it seemed especially appropriate. Spilling, running all over, pooling on the floor, getting where it wasn’t wanted. The moon mocked her and had done so for weeks. It might as well have been Princess Luna herself.

At least it gave her a bit of distraction from… She shuddered.

Please. Please don’t let it happen again. She pulled the blanket up a little higher so it covered her muzzle, then flicked her eyes around the room to find something, anything that could occupy her attention. The chemistry book on her nightstand… No, she’d already recited all the elements in the periodic table. She already knew there were precisely two hundred ninety-six nails in the wooden furniture she’d brought in to break up the crystal motif. The constellations on her star maps, the titles of Daring Do novels on the shelf downstairs, her school transcript… nothing.

Soft snoring emanated from the shaded spot under the windowsill. At least Spike could sleep well. She glowered toward him, but… No, it wasn’t his fault. She hadn’t exactly been forthcoming about her nightmares, but he’d sensed something and insisted on sleeping in here.

She could handle them herself. It was… It…

Twilight’s head sank a little further into her pillow until she gasped and her eyes jerked back open. Pressing them closed as she rubbed a hoof at the bags underneath, she grimaced at the bright yellow moon-shaped blob dancing on the inside of her eyelids.

After another glance at the window, Twilight whispered into the darkness. “I am master of my own mind; I have control of my own thoughts, my own dreams, my own vision. I am master of my own mind; I have control of my own thoughts, my own dreams, my own vision.” Outside, a cloud drifted across the moon and dragged a heavy velvet shroud over the landscape, and somehow the odor of burnt coffee lingered in her nostrils. Was Princess Luna doing this on purpose? Why didn’t she help? Twilight yawned so hard that her head shook, and her limbs felt terribly heavy.

“I am master of… my own mind; I have… control of… my own thoughts…” Her eyes drooped shut.

Twilight made her morning sweep of the castle’s library: check the after-hours book drop, file away magazines that had arrived in the mail, straighten the chairs, dust off the tables. She would put on some coffee in a minute; the smell would wake Spike, and he could get started on breakfast. Good old routine, one of her dearest friends. On her way to hang the feather duster back in the broom closet, she paused in front of the array of mirrors standing in the middle of the floor. They… they didn’t belong there.

No! The—the nightmares always started with mirrors. She held a hoof to her mouth and trembled.

Empty mirrors, without her reflection, but in all five of them, she spotted Pinkie Pie hopping up the road like a big, goofy kangaroo. And then her own reflections finally appeared: one scowled, another shook her head. A third pointed and laughed silently, the fourth gritted her teeth and seethed. What did they want? But the last one, in the center mirror, wore an unsettling smile, like some malevolent imp watching a coiled snake about to strike at Twilight from behind. She stared at that mirror intently, raising an answering hoof to touch the one stretched out to her until it tapped against the cool glass, and a shock—

In the blink of an eye, the reflections disappeared, and Twilight’s hoof felt… numb, and somehow green. Green and wrong and—no. No, it felt right. She’d been looking at things all twisted before, but now… That same curious little smile invaded her own face, and she turned toward the glass door where Pinkie waited, the usual overflowing basket of envelopes dangling from her mouth. Another party?

Already?” Twilight grumbled. She stalked over to where Pinkie’s crossed eyes were pressed against the window. “What is it?” Twilight said after opening the door halfway.

“It’s been almost three weeks since my last after-party party!” Pinkie shouted, pushing her way in and grinning as if Twilight had clapped her hooves and squealed. Instead, Twilight sighed and willed Pinkie to walk away quietly, but simple body language was usually washed away in the torrent of thoughts through that hyperactive head. “So, are you coming?”

“No.” Twilight raised a hoof to shut the door behind Pinkie, but somehow she hadn’t moved.

“Are you suuuuuure?” Pinkie said, leaning forward within inches of Twilight’s face.

“No.” Twilight swung the door back around until Pinkie’s hooves blocked it, but she wouldn’t budge.

“No, you’re not sure, or no, you can’t go?” A toothy grin stretched across Pinkie’s face.

“Pinkie. No. I’m not going.” Little by little, Twilight leaned into the door and shoved Pinkie out into the hall, finally clicking the latch into place. At last, some quiet.

“I’ll just leave this here for you!” Pinkie trilled through the window as an invitation drifted back and forth on its way to the ground.

Twilight frowned at where it had landed. The welcome mat. She hadn’t been very welcoming, had she? At least Pinkie was too oblivious to notice. Twilight scrunched her nose up. Maybe she should pick up the envelope. No, sometimes being a friend meant telling Pinkie when she needed to tone it down. How else would she know?

Back out in the street now, Pinkie doled out her little envelopes to whatever townsponies had nothing better to do than to listen to her pitch. Just because she liked to party didn’t mean everypony else had to indulge her. They weren’t helping.

Twilight slumped her shoulders. She’d have to be the one to do it.

A little smirk slithered over Twilight’s face and coiled up to strike. She slipped out the door, trotted down the street after Pinkie, and hid behind a rain barrel when Pinkie stopped to brandish another invitation.

“Tonight at eight o’clock sharp,” Pinkie declared. Junebug ran her eyes down the glitter-covered piece of paper Pinkie had extended to her and opened her mouth to reply.

Let’s give her a little disappointment to dampen her mood. Twilight reached out with her mind. A little gap here, an opening there. She twisted her way into Junebug’s thoughts, poking around as if picking a lock. Going merely on touch and finesse, tumbler and pins well out of sight, but she could feel them sliding into place, all arranging themselves into perfect order.

“No, I have to… clean out my closet,” Junebug answered with a feeble smile.

“Oh.” Pinkie stared ahead for a moment, but soon burst into the same grin she would have used if Junebug had promised to attend and bring a wagonload of cupcakes with her. “Okay, then! I’ll catch you next time.”

Twilight snorted, stirring up a little cloud of dust on the barrel’s lid. How was she supposed to get anywhere if Pinkie wouldn’t play along? She stepped out from behind her cover and slunk after her quarry, hurrying from shrub to doorpost to tree trunk as she followed Pinkie another half block.

“I hope you’ll come to my party!” Pinkie exclaimed to Bon Bon.

Her eyes closed, Twilight cast her magic about once more, finding the little cracks and crevices in her target’s mind and wrapping her tendrils around it. Fertile soil tilled, a seed planted, a suggestion made. A nettle growing up among the flowers and choking them out.

“I’m sorry,” Bon Bon said, shaking her head. “I already had plans. My sister’s coming in from… Appleloosa. Yeah.”

“Appleloosa?” Pinkie asked. Bon Bon nodded. “Didn’t the only train come in an hour ago?”

Yes, put the pieces together, Pinkie. Everypony’s getting tired of you. No, Twilight didn’t feel that way! She opened her mouth to cry out, to—

Another shock jolted her, and Twilight’s mouth wrenched into a grin again. She chuckled from behind her tree.

“She’s stopping by… Canterlot… first. To do some sightseeing,” Bon Bon said. The smile on her face would have crumbled under a slight breeze.

“Well, bring her along, silly filly! I’ve never run out of cake before, and I’m not gonna start now!” Pinkie’s eyes were already sparkling at the prospect of welcoming another new pony to town.

“She’ll be… too tired from the journey.” Bon Bon stood there fiddling with her hooves and looking at the ground.

For a minute, Pinkie subjected Bon Bon to a one-eyed, frowning inspection, then called her toothy grin back for an encore. “Oh. Okay!” Without missing a beat, Pinkie was off, bouncing down the road again.

Twilight scowled and pounded a hoof against the tree. What did she have to do to make Pinkie understand? It was time for the direct approach.

She fell into step behind Pinkie again, through a couple of turns and eventually into an alley. No doubt a “shortcut” on this horribly inefficient, meandering route that crisscrossed all over town.

When she was deep into the shadows, Pinkie must have heard the hoofsteps behind her, because she cast a timid glance over her shoulder, then put her basket down and beamed. “Oh, hi, Twi! Hehe! Did you change your mind?”

“Maybe,” came Twilight’s oily response. “What’s going on at this party?” She leaned against the wall and swished her tail.

“Oh, just the usual,” Pinkie said as she flicked a hoof and closed her eyes. “Cake and confetti and punch and streamers and…”

The usual? It was always the same thing over and over and over again. How many times could somepony pretend to be excited about that? With each word grating on her ears, Twilight’s jaw tightened. How could somepony be so insufferably… happy all the time? Pinkie wasn’t even watching anymore—she was busy seeing whatever saccharine tableau occupied that empty space in her head. This had to stop.

Pinkie paused mid-sentence to scratch a bit at her neck. Twilight had managed to tune out the sound, but Pinkie kept spouting her inane chattering. Then again a minute later, Pinkie scuffed a hoof at some little tickle in her throat. Another few syllables, and she rubbed harder before coughing. Pinkie knit her brow as her eyes wandered up to Twilight’s glowing horn. “Um… Twi? Are you doing that?”

All I have to do is twist. Just twist, and that incessant babbling will go away. The constant interruptions, the endless invitations, the maddening nonsense, all gone. One corner of Twilight’s mouth curled up.

Her ears drooping, Pinkie’s voice rose to a squeak. “Twi?” She coughed again, and her breath came out in rasps. “This… isn’t fun. Twi?” She swallowed hard against the pressure on her throat. “Twi? I… trust you…”

Twilight flung her blanket off, sending it halfway across the room. Her heart racing, she sat up and sucked in deep breaths of cold night air. She held her hooves to her mouth and trembled. The moonbeam had migrated over to her legs, leaving her head engulfed in shadows.

“Not again! Not again!” she hissed into the veil of darkness. She raised leaden forelegs to massage her temples and squeezed her eyes shut. Her mind immediately dredged up the awful sound of Pinkie’s struggling gasps—she jerked her eyes open and concentrated on the clock. Through sheer will, she forced that rasp out of her mind, only the breeze’s light whisper and her own panting filling her ears. Then… the soft rustle of cloth.

“Tw-Twilight?” called a sleepy voice from near the window. The silver light glinted off Spike’s scales as his head popped up. His own built-in armor against the world—if only she could conjure something like that herself, against… whatever this was. He rushed to the side of her bed and put a claw on her quaking shoulder. “Aw, Twilight? Again?” After a few tremulous breaths, she nodded. He leaned forward to hug her, but she flinched away before letting him touch her again.

“I-I’m sorry, Spike,” she said, leaning her head against him. “I don’t mean to worry you.” She sniffled and tried to steady her breathing. He didn’t deserve to be roped into this.

“Who was it… this time?” How did he even know that much? She’d never told him anything about her dreams. She must talk in her sleep.

“Don’t concern yourself with it, Spike.” No sooner had she built her wall than she let a sob escape her throat and tear its foundation away.

“Please, Twilight.”

“It—it was Pinkie. I—” Twilight clenched her eyes shut and shook her head vigorously. She took a corner of the pillowcase and wiped her tears away before turning her face on Spike again. “It’s just a bad dream. I’ll be fine.”

“But it’s been weeks now. Shouldn’t you ask for help?” he asked, tightening his grip on her shoulder a little.

“It’ll pass. Just give it time.” Who would help anyway? Apparently not Princess Luna.

“You sure?” He gathered up his tail and fiddled with it, like he always had as a hatchling.

“It’s okay,” she said with a strength she didn’t possess, then waved him off and rolled out of bed. She stumbled down the stairs to brew a pot of coffee. As long as she didn’t burn any. Her head throbbed already. It would be dawn soon, anyway.

Twilight sat at a desk in the library’s main room with a steaming mug of coffee beside her. Her fifth cup, but the richly bitter taste hadn’t chased the phantoms from her head. Her chin briefly sagged toward the oaken surface before snapping back up. She’d already had breakfast, cleaned the dishes, and suggested Spike go back upstairs for a nap, since he’d been awakened unexpectedly early, no thanks to her. Or to Princess Luna, for that matter. After taking a minute to blow on her drink, she sipped at it, then looked up at the creaking door.

Rainbow Dash poked her head in and waved. “Hey, is the new Daring Do novel in yet?” Twilight continued staring at the wall and propped her head on a hoof. She couldn’t do cheerful right now. “Twilight?”

What?!” Twilight snapped, then immediately flattened her ears.

“Um… You okay, Twilight?” Rainbow opened her wings halfway and slunk half a step back out the doorway.

“I’m sorry, Rainbow Dash.” Twilight let her hoof fall to the desktop and fought down the tingling in her stomach. “I’m just… not feeling quite myself lately. I don’t know why.” Her chest tensed up, trying to force out more words, but… No. It was bad enough that Spike knew. She didn’t need to spread word around to anypony else, feed the rumor mill, air her personal business. Still, Dash always stuck by a friend.

Rainbow Dash went rigid for a moment and sidled a couple more steps out the doorway, but then she gritted her teeth and came in, letting the door swing shut behind her. After a steadying breath and sigh, she said, “Do you… want to talk about it?” Twilight shook her head, and Rainbow let her shoulders relax. Rainbow Dash didn’t care. She’d rather be anywhere but here right now. Was that what loyalty meant to her? Going through the motions when she’d lost interest? “Okay. But if you need to—”

“I feel like I’m not in control.” The—the words had slipped out. Why would she say that? To her, of all ponies? Twilight jammed a hoof against her mouth and bit down on her tongue. Why was she bothering, anyway? It wasn’t like Dash could help. Pegasi were just too… flighty. They never stayed focused long enough to be useful.

“Oh.” Rainbow’s shoulders tightened again as she looked back at the entrance.

Just fly away, Rainbow Dash. Twilight took a long pull of her coffee. It’s what you want. You made a show of it, at least.

“Well, I guess I’ve always felt like you gotta choose your own destiny.” She had that look on her face that she got whenever she tried to scavenge for words longer than a syllable: squinting and a bit cross-eyed, like she might find them balanced on the tip of her nose. “Make stuff happen yourself, y’know?”


Rainbow shrugged. “If you want something, make it yours. Take it.”

“That… actually makes sense,” Twilight said while tracing a few circles on the desktop with her hoof.

“Good.” Rainbow puffed out her chest and fluffed up her feathers. She probably thought that was some pearl of wisdom. Stale platitudes aside, she was trying. “Now, about that book?” Her neck craning forward, Dash pointed her nose at the bookshelf she knew so well and scanned for an unfamiliar title. Yes, problem solved, crisis averted, and swear allegiance to Daring Do.

“No, I’m not expecting it for another two days.” Twilight looked up and forced a smile, her hoof frozen where it had been following a swirl of wood grain.

“Oh.” After a few moments of incredibly loud silence, Rainbow scratched a hoof at her leg. “Well, I’m gonna take off, then. Gotta do prep work for tomorrow’s thunderstorm.” Twilight let out a soft snort. Goof off, more like it. It was nice to be below a book and a nap in the pecking order.

Returning her attention to the desk’s surface, Twilight laid her head down. She didn’t hear any hoofsteps—Dash must have been flying—but the door’s creak and click echoed in her ears. Afterward, just silence again. The clock ticking, a few leaves rustling in the breeze. That clock—she glanced over. Dash had only been here about ten minutes. Still another couple of hours until lunch. Ticking away. Tick, tick. Her chin sank a little lower. Tick, tick, like a sewing machine’s rhythm as it stitched the minutes together. Twilight blinked slowly.

In Twilight’s bedroom stood a full-length mirror that she didn’t remember. She glanced around. Everything else was in place—her mattress, her telescope, Spike’s bed, some clothes. She peered at her reflection, but something wasn’t quite right about it. She moved a hoof, and the image moved with it. She took a step forward, and her reflection did the same.

Cocking her head, Twilight let her eyes wander over the glassy surface. Some imperfection, some niggling detail threw the whole thing off, but she couldn’t figure out what bothered her about it. Finally, she settled on her mane. The stripe was on the wrong side. Well, it was on the right side—that was the problem. A mirror should flip it to the wrong side. “What…?”

“I’m just having a little fun with you, Twilight,” the reflection said as it stepped out.

Twilight backed off until she bumped into her bed. “Who are you?” she demanded as she took a defensive crouch.

“You really don’t remember me? We’ve been having these talks for weeks now.” She took another stride toward Twilight, who sidled along her bed frame a little closer to the door. The double smirked and paced out a leisurely arc around Twilight. “I am you. At least the better parts.”

“I don’t understand…”

The double wafted Twilight’s words away. “Your friend Rainbow Dash was onto something, you know. You need to learn to take control.” She pursed her lips and stopped near the hall. “None of this wishy-washy stuff,” she added, flicking a hoof in the air.

Twilight returned a blank stare. She’d already gotten the self-help babble from Dash and didn’t need it from herself as well.

The double sighed and rubbed her temple. “You remember when Pinkie wouldn’t shut up? And then she finally did? We made it happen. We took control.”

Backing harder against her bed, Twilight gasped and held a shaky hoof to her chest. “But that was a dream!”

“Doesn’t matter.” A sly grin permeated the double’s face. “We knew what you wanted, and we made it happen. It felt good, didn’t it?”

“No… no, it didn’t,” Twilight replied instantly as she shook her head vehemently. “It felt wrong. I-I didn’t like it.” She squeezed her eyes shut as if she could force that sight out of her memory: Pinkie gasping for air, and Twilight letting her have just enough to stay conscious. Just enough. A tremor shot through her body, and she gagged.

“You can’t lie to me. We were there.” The double jabbed a hoof at Twilight. “We were enjoying ourselves.”

“But she’s my friend! I couldn’t do that to her!”

“We knew it was a dream. We had fun doing it. I remember our smile.” The same one returned, that little serpent. Even though it had been on her own face back then, Twilight knew it on sight. “Anyway, that’s beside the point. Magic isn’t about right or wrong or any other irrelevant rules there might be. It’s about doing. It’s about power. It is both the ends and the means.”

The double waved a dismissive hoof at the town outside the window. “Let everypony else worry about what they want to call it. The magic is the thing. We can’t deny it.”

“But… there are so many things that magic can do for us!” She leaned into her words, forcing them into that double’s ears, making them take root. “I learn spells to help ponies—to make life better for all of them!”

The double had begun laughing even before Twilight finished speaking. “No, we don’t! We learn magic just for the sake of learning magic. Each spell is a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Have we ever asked ourselves why we’re so eager to learn magic as quickly as possible?”

Twilight’s eyes opened wide. That couldn’t be right; she’d never be that selfish. She studied magic for everypony. She did. “I want to… help more ponies. If I can get to the next tier, cast even more powerful enchantments, I can… No, I… I-it’s not about me. It’s all for them—I-I just need to get stronger so I—”

She stared at her twin and worked her mouth silently. She could feel what her lips were saying, and she dared not give them a voice, but each time she exhaled a sour breath, there was a slithery whisper: “I want more…”

“Now, you’re finally being truthful.”

Twilight shook her head. She didn’t want to think about this, didn’t want to admit—No, not admit. There was nothing to admit! As hard as she could, Twilight tried to steer her thoughts elsewhere, but they piled on, crushing her beneath their weight. More.

“We love that sense of accomplishment.” One slow step at a time, the double approached Twilight, coming closer, right up to her face. “More knowledge, more strength. That electric surge of power throughout our body when we’re weaving a new charm.” She bared her teeth, in much the same way a timber wolf did when it had some prey cornered. “It’s… thrilling. It’s knowing that there are few out there who can challenge us, and the number is diminishing all the time. Admit it.” Twilight winced at the use of that word. “We like being superior to everypony around us.”

“Y-yes—No!” Twilight’s knees quivered underneath her. “These are my friends! I’m not better than they are!”

Gradually, the bedroom walls faded away, only to be replaced by the library’s main floor. Beds became tables, clothes folded into books, and the crisp scents of linen and soap sharpened to those of old paper and ink. Twilight looked up from the biography she was reading at her desk to see Rainbow Dash reclining on the couch and paging through a novel.

Twilight’s double stood leaning over the back of the couch and glared down at its occupant. “Like this one?” she said, her voice dripping venom as she jabbed a hoof at Rainbow. “This is your equal?”

“Hey, Twi”—Twilight winced as Rainbow’s words stabbed into the peaceful silence—“what’s this word? P-e-n-u-l-t-i-m-a-t-e.”

“Penultimate. It means ‘next-to-last.’” Dash was reading and learning, and that was a good thing. It was. As librarian, Twilight did have that responsibility. Twilight took a deep breath before returning to her own page. She only made it through four paragraphs.

“Twi? How about pl—plim—plimpest?” Rainbow didn’t even bother tearing her eyes away from her reading. No “excuse me,” no “sorry.”

“Palimpsest. It’s an engraved slab.” Several times, Twilight tried to work out some stinging punctuation, or at least to shush her, but too much time had passed now for it to be spontaneous. It’d seem deliberately mean.

“Oh,” Rainbow grunted. She nodded faintly and followed her progress with a hoof.

Twilight breathed easier as she made it through two more pages. Only the clock continued in the quiet.

“Twi?” Rainbow said, and the other Twilight over by the couch laughed out loud.

Twilight gritted her teeth and snorted.

With a small wisp of wind, the double’s horn lit up and levitated a large dictionary off the shelf. Ink lifted from the pages, and words peeled away, flitting about in a swarming knot. Tighter and tighter they writhed, until a jet-black ball hovered behind Rainbow. “We could force this into her head. Through her skull or down her throat or something. Maybe then she’d shut up.”

Twilight frowned and shook her head. “Just leave her alone. She’s trying.”

“Trying what?” the double erupted through her laughter. “To be a burden?”

Rolling her eyes upward, Twilight forced out a heavy sigh. Apparently Rainbow couldn’t hear what her twin was saying. That was just as well.

“What’s res-respr—This one?” Rainbow asked, holding up her book and pointing out the offending word.

“I can’t see it from here,” Twilight growled.

“Could you come over here, then?” Her half-lidded eyes keeping her place, Rainbow reached back and beckoned.

Twilight snapped her book shut and stomped over to the couch. “Sure. I’ll stop what I’m doing to accommodate your vocabulary.” She looked past Rainbow’s gaping mouth to where her hooftip rested on the page. “Resplendent. Adjective. Showy, luxurious, visually impressive. Any more? Should I just stay over here for you?” she barked.

“Oh.” First looking up wide-eyed at Twilight, Rainbow then folded her ears down and let her gaze drop to the floor.

“Familiar scene, huh? Why do you put up with her?” The copy shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Remember what we did to Pinkie?”

“It’s not necessary,” Twilight said in a monotone, her hoof held to her forehead.

“Of course it’s not necessary. This isn’t about what’s necessary.” The double ambled around the couch and cast a vulture’s scrutiny down on Rainbow. “It’s about what’s possible. Do you have a dream? We can make it happen. Do you want something? We can take it.”

Her wings sagging at her sides, Rainbow closed her book and slinked off to the door. “S-sorry to bug you, Twilight. I’ll just… finish this at home.”

Something was different in Rainbow’s eyes. Something Twilight had never seen before. She was walking out the door instead of flying, and her wingtips dragged on the floor. She glanced back one last time and held Twilight’s gaze with an apologetic grin—not the kind for a misunderstanding between friends, but one offered when bumping into a stranger on the street. Then she was gone.

After coughing up the breath caught in her throat, Twilight shook her head. Somepony had to say it. Rainbow deserved that, and if she couldn’t see it, then that was her loss. “See?” Twilight said, pointing a hoof at her departing guest. “She’s leaving. Problem solved.”

“Fair enough. But you can’t tell me you’re not glad to be rid of her,” the double said as Twilight set her jaw and massaged her temples. “You got what you wanted anyway. It’s quiet. And she has nopony to blame but herself. She caused the problem, but she told you how to fix it, too. Oh, they all have their uses—” she glanced out the window “—but it’s time you worried a little more about us. Or at least came to realize that you actually have been all along.”

Twilight couldn’t argue. That other Twilight understood a lot of things but was a little too… blunt, too coarse about it. Take the edge off, give it a softer touch, and…

Take care of the magic, and everything else would fall into place.

Twilight’s eyes went blurry, and she was just… too tired to think. That was it—too tired. She blinked a few times, and she needed to lay her head down on the couch—did she even have one?—but only for a minute. Did she even have a couch in the library? The pillow was so soft and warm, and did she even have a couch—?

Twilight picked her head up off the table and wiped a thin stream of drool away from the corner of her mouth. A dream.

Stiff muscles gave a brief protest as she stood, yawned, and shielded her eyes from the sun’s glint off a brass candlestick. It was the first time in weeks that she hadn’t awakened shaking from a dream. In fact, it hadn’t troubled her in the least. It should have. She knew that. She knew it. But it hadn’t.

A quick glance at the clock told her she’d slept through lunch, and she really wasn’t in the mood to cook something this late. She tossed her saddlebags over her back. “I’m going out, Spike!” Twilight called on her way out the door, not even waiting for an answer. For all she knew, he was still asleep.

What time had the clock shown? All that had registered was that it was well past lunch, but the low sun told her that it must be getting close to dinner. The market would be closing soon—she could pick up something cheap that the farmers would rather not have to haul back home.

Back and forth, she threaded her way through the wooden carts and the wonderful odors: the cloying tang of overripe peaches, the dusty scent of potato bins, the airy smell of cucumbers, the pleasant bite of green onions. Her mind moved over and let her nose drive, leading her on past the tangle of wagons until she arrived at Applejack’s stall. Only a few apples rolled around in the bottoms of the large buckets, but more than half of the baked treats remained on the shelves.

Twilight leaned against the wagon and laid a foreleg on the counter like she’d been lounging there all day. “Business good today, Applejack?”

“Hm?” She pricked an ear toward Twilight while scooping the last few fruits out of one bucket into a customer’s bag. “Oh, yeah. Sorta. It’s been a hot one today—” she swiped a hoof across her forehead “—so not too many takers on the cooked stuff, but we can have those for dinner at home tonight.”

“You… eat the leftovers that nopony wanted?” Twilight scrunched up her nose.

“What’s wrong with that? Just ’cause an apple’s at the bottom o’ the barrel doesn’t make it bad. And I would’ve made the same stuff, anyway. Now, it’s already done, and I don’t have to cook twice today.” Applejack’s steely gaze dared Twilight to say otherwise.

Under the weight of that stare, Twilight merely shrugged. “Makes sense.” She swept a nonchalant glance around at the thinning crowds.

“I’ve only got about a half hour left before time to head home, anyways.” Applejack gave a wry smile and surveyed the well-stocked shelves. “Ponies wanted somethin’ cool today, so apples sold like hotcakes—er, cold… You know what I mean. Heh.”

Her eyes still off at the horizon, Twilight muttered an “uh-huh.”

Applejack followed her line of sight to the wall of inky clouds behind the distant mountains. “Yup, gonna be a big ’un tomorrow.”

“Huh? Oh. The storm. Yeah, must be, if they’re going to take an entire day getting it ready.” Twilight swished her tail back and forth once, then shook off her stare and snapped her head around to face Applejack. “Say, what do you think of Rainbow Dash?”

One eyebrow raised, Applejack shoved her hat back far enough to scratch her head. “I s’pose we get along just fine. Good weather pony, great flyer. Why?”

“I don’t—” One quick sigh later, Twilight squinted at the storm clouds again. “Doesn’t she ever, y’know, get on your nerves?” A frozen gape waited for her when she looked back to see why Applejack hadn’t answered. At least she could be quiet—a skill several of her friends sadly lacked. So, what would it be? Tact or full disclosure?

“Well… from time to time, I guess. Nopony gets along perfectly, Twilight.”

Tact, then. Being honest only so far as it suited her purpose. Twilight had a better word for that: guile.

Applejack’s jaw tensed as she took a measured breath and pulled her hat back down. “Got a bee in your bonnet about somethin’?”

Her hoof scuffing at the dirt, Twilight sank to her haunches and sighed. She’d have to play this one carefully. If Applejack got angry, she’d clam up—and Twilight actually wanted her to talk for a change. Maybe Twilight hadn’t given Dash a fair chance, and if anypony could convince her of that, it was Applejack. Or if Twilight had been on the mark, Applejack needed to see it. “No. It’s just that… she was in the library reading, and… she kept asking questions. Made it hard to get anything done.” Twilight sold it with a forced-but-not-forced laugh.

“Shucks, sugarcube,” Applejack said as her knotted shoulders relaxed. “You oughtta be glad she’s readin’ at all. You’re the one who encouraged her.” She chuckled and let her easy smile have its usual spot back. “’Sides, when was this? She stopped by on her way out. Said she hadn’t been there more’n five minutes.”

“Oh.” Twilight waved a hoof at last week. “No, it’s been on and off again for a little while. I was thinking about it today.”

“Yes’m, how can I help you?” Applejack asked as her ears swiveled toward an approaching mare.

Twilight gritted her teeth and frowned at the back of Applejack’s head. Lost her. Oh, well. Twilight needed to see to dinner soon, anyway. All those pies, turnovers, and crumbles that nopony wanted…

“Whole orchard o’ Empires came ripe today. Special, five bits a dozen,” Applejack remarked to her customer.

Her stomach rumbling, Twilight glanced at her distracted friend, then at the stacks of food in front of her. Inside her head, her own voice echoed through the gnawing hunger: Want something? We can take it. She licked her lips and strained her nose a little closer to the nutmeg-heavy aroma, then gave the small crowd a quick scan. Nopony was facing her way. It didn’t seem fair, though. Twilight’s hoof flinched toward the money in her saddlebag, but… No. She’d trade honesty for honesty. If Applejack would drop the act and give a straight answer, then Twilight would thank her for the food and pay. Her eyes fixed on Applejack, Twilight levitated a small apple tart off the shelf and gulped it down.

“Thank you kindly, ma’am, and please come again!” Applejack called as the mare trotted away. She turned back to Twilight and plopped down on her haunches. “Now, where—? Oh, yeah. So, what’s all this about, then? Dash do somethin’ to get on your bad side?”

Twilight whisked a hoof across her mouth to dislodge any stray crumbs that might remain. “No, not exactly…” This wasn’t getting her anywhere.

“Exactly what, then?” a stone-faced Applejack said.

Twilight should have planned this better. How to coax it out of her? She sat open-mouthed and scratched at the ground. “Um… You didn’t answer, though. Does she ever bug you?”

“Look, sugarcube. I don’t mean to get in the middle o’ y’all. I’d just hate to see some petty argument split y’all up.” Giving a goofy smile, Applejack poked a hoof toward Twilight’s shoulder.

All Twilight wanted was a simple answer to a simple question, but Applejack wouldn’t give her anything more than evasion and misdirection. I guess you can’t lie if you never say anything. Twilight flinched away, out of Applejack’s reach. “Never mind. Isn’t it closing time anyway?”

“Seems so,” Applejack said. She sighed and got to her hooves. “Talk to me if you need to. You know where to find me.”

Talk to her. The one friend that Twilight actually wanted to talk, but she’d only circle the subject without ever getting there. She was no different than the rest.

Applejack’s gaze stayed fixed on Twilight while she folded up the various collapsible parts of her wagon, but the small group of foals gradually surrounding her managed to wrest her attention away. “Heh. If I have a couple apples left, I usually give ’em to the young ’uns,” she called over the noise of the clamoring children.

“Leave it to me. I can handle that.” Twilight levitated the last three apples out of the array of buckets and juggled them in front of the colts and fillies. Their sparkling eyes followed each toss and every feint until all three pieces of fruit hovered in a row. One or two clapped their hooves, but most couldn’t tear their gazes away from those sweet apples bobbing in their purple glow. “Keep your eyes on the apples and tell me how many there are.”

“Three!” a colt immediately shouted while he rocked up on his hooftips for a better view.

“Are you sure?” Twilight made a show of straining to press them all together, finally panting as she managed to merge them into one large fruit. The children all laughed, and the smallest filly licked her lips.

That trick was for the kids. “Now, let’s see if I can get those apart again,” Twilight said as she flicked her mane and waved her hoof with a flourish. This trick would be for her.

She gripped the apple between her hooves and tugged, stretching first one way and then the other. She grunted and gave it one final pull. With a loud pop, Twilight now held one in each hoof. Taking a bow, she split the two apples into enough pieces for all of the children to have one, then floated the slices out to all the eager hooves. “Thank you. I’ll be here all week,” she said as she swept a hoof across her body. She chuckled at all the cheering and squealing foals galloping off to their homes to prattle at their parents about the amazing display of magic they’d seen.

Her audience gone, Twilight turned back to the wagon, where Applejack had finished stowing her various bins and baskets. Applejack was facing the other way, buckling herself into the cart’s harness. Twilight’s eyes flicked back and forth between her friend and the pile of fritters peeking out from under the tarp that covered the wagon’s bed. Applejack, up front… pulling on a knot in the rope with her teeth. Crisp pastry in the back, surely cold by now, but that cinnamony smell…

Applejack wouldn’t miss just two of them. She wouldn’t even know they were gone. Served her right for being dishonest.

Twilight teleported a pair into her saddlebag. A rushed farewell, a quick wave, and she was trotting back toward the castle. And only three steps later, she stood face-to-face with Apple Bloom.

The filly cocked her head and squinted up at Twilight. “Ain’t you gonna pay for those, Twilight?”

Sparks scurried on sharp little legs up Twilight’s spine, and her heart raced. “Um…” Trusting eyes gazed back at her, awaiting their answer. Too trusting. She fought down the lump in her throat. What difference did it make that it was a child? In fact, that made it easier. Children would believe almost anything, and even in the worst case, Apple Bloom would learn a valuable lesson. Who better to teach her than Twilight? And free of charge, too.

“Of course!” Twilight said through her best smile. She patted Apple Bloom on the head. “I don’t have my bit purse with me today, but Applejack knows I’m good for it. I’ll settle up with her tomorrow.”

“Oh.” Apple Bloom looked at the ground for a moment, then wrinkled her forehead. “Okay,” she said a little too slowly. She trotted past and fell into step behind her sister.

Twilight rolled her eyes and shook her head. She might have actually enjoyed giving Apple Bloom a full explanation of why saving the town from an Ursa Minor, an embodiment of chaos, Nightmare Moon, and Tirek warranted the occasional consideration. It wasn’t like anypony else there could do what she did. Simple-minded earth ponies. She deserved a reward now and then, and if nopony would give her one, then she could take it. Nothing overly complicated: if she wanted something, she would take it. She bored a glare into Apple Bloom’s back.

Continuing on her way back to the castle, Twilight levitated an apple out of her saddlebag—the third apple she’d been juggling. With a loud crunch, she took a big bite and sucked at the juice that tried to run down its skin. Applejack was right. Just because it was at the bottom of the bucket didn’t make an apple bad. This one, for example, tasted especially sweet.

Twilight brushed a hoof at something dark that kept flicking through her peripheral vision—a gnat circling her head, maybe. Or a strand of mane. She must have swiped at it a half-dozen times, but when she arrived home, it had either gone away or merely slipped her mind. Last bite, then she tossed the apple core into a flowerbed for whatever birds or bugs might want it and went inside.

She gave Spike the night off and enjoyed a dinner of fritters, a quiet evening of reading, and for the first time in weeks, a good night’s sleep.

Author's Note:

I decided to go ahead and publish the first two chapters together, since I think that gives a clearer picture of where the story is going than this chapter alone could do. So chapter 2 is coming… now!