• Published 15th Jan 2013
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The Combinatorics Project - Ringcaat



In this story spanning five parallel universes, the Mane Six get shipped in every possible way. That's fifteen combinations! It's not just romance, though - there's actual substance and story behind these pairings.

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Chapter 2: Noise and Silence

CHAPTER 2:

NOISE AND SILENCE

or

SUGAR AND SPICE

[+] [+] [+] [+] [+]

#4: FT—The Quiet Life

My Faithful Student, Twilight Sparkle:

I hope that you know I would never seek to denigrate the peace of mind and holy bliss your marriage has brought you. Everything I said at your ceremony still resonates firmly in my heart. The Lady Fluttershy completes you, just as you complete her, and nopony should ever be denied the most perfect wholeness of being they can attain.

That said, I confess I have been concerned about the quality of your latest missives. Since returning from your honeymoon two months ago, my dear Twilight, you have sent only four letters concerning the nature of friendship, and of these, none appear to have required you to do so much as leave your home. While there are certainly endless insights to be fathomed on the subject of a harmonious marriage, I fear that your particular union may be too staid to give you a comprehensive view. I do not, for instance, need to hear the details of your system for allocating bed space, and while it pleases me that you have taken an interest in guessing what kind of tea your new wife might like to drink each morning, I imagine you might have spared me the complete log of your success/failure record.

Have you forgotten that you have other friends? Marriage is by no means an end to the friendship phase of one's life, Twilight Sparkle. One still must remain connected to the outside world, and what better way to do this than through the well-worn goodwill of one's oldest friends? I would like you to draw your next few letters from the experiences of others besides yourself and your wife, my dearest pupil. And in the meantime, you may wish to consider ways in which your marriage might be made more…exciting.

With an enduring affection,
Your mentor,
Princess Celestia.

Twilight frowned as she set down the letter. She looked over to the corner where her wife was, with help from her bunny, tending to an injured tortoise.

"Angel?" she called.

Both bunny and pegasus looked over.

"Ugh," said Twilight. "We have got to get this worked out. My wife can't have the same pet name as her actual pet does!"

"So you meant me, Twilight?" asked Fluttershy humbly.

"Yes, I did! Hmm." The letter forgotten, Twilight climbed to her feet from her homemade beanbag chair. "Angel bunny, would you mind if we gave you a new name? Something like…Fred?"

The bunny adopted a tense stance and shook his head.

"Not Fred? Well, what about…Pip? That's a good rabbit name, isn't it?"

The head shaking became more emphatic.

"No? Roger?"

Now the bunny was staring downright aggressively at Twilight.

"To be fair," offered Fluttershy, "he did have the name first."

Twilight sighed. "How about Devil Bunny? Look. To me, Fluttershy is an angel. She's the sweetest, gentlest angel I could ever hope to meet. I've tried coming up with another pet name for her, but there's just nothing half as good! I've been through every thesaurus in the library!"

Fluttershy sighed a far more ethereal sigh as she settled next to her lapine helper. "Don't worry, Angel. No one's going to make you change your name. You'll always be my little angel."

Twilight watched with a pang of jealousy as the rabbit snuggled up to the pegasus with a level of affection he'd never yet shown Twilight. "But then what do I call you?" she asked her spouse helplessly. "I need a pet name for you! The literature agrees—I can't just keep calling you Fluttershy all the time."

"Oh, that's all right," said Fluttershy. "You can just call me Angel Two."

"What? As in, the number two?"

"That's right. He was the first Angel in the household, and now I'm the second."

"But Ang—Fluttershy, you're my wife! I am not calling you number two when you're first in my heart!"

"That's…well, that's very sweet of you, Twilight, but then I don't know what we can do. This is a real quandary." She brightened up. "Do you think we could write to the princess for a solution?"

"Gaaahh!!" erupted Twilight, provoking the hurt tortoise to crane its neck in surprise. "Celestia was right! We are homebodies! We need to stop poring over every little thing and get out of the house more."

Fluttershy was sitting beside the tortoise now, trying to calm it down. "Celestia said that?"

"She implied it. She wants me to write about our friends for a change, and not us. I think she's tired of hearing about our little marital triumphs and squabbles."

"Oh." The yellow pegasus flushed with embarrassment. "Twilight, do you know if Princess Celestia was ever married?"

"A few times, I think. Why?"

"I wonder if she already knows everything about marriage there is to know."

"Doubtful," Twilight replied. "Being immortal and the ruler of the sun, she could never have an ordinary marriage. It can't have been the same for her as for everyone else."

Fluttershy's tone was very meek now. "I feel like it probably isn't the same for anypony, Twilight."

But Twilight was rolling up the letter to stash it away. "Aren't Rarity and Pinkie having a masquerade tomorrow night?"

"I…I think so. But they know we aren't coming. They have a masquerade every month, so they won't be offended if—"

"That's it, then! We'll go to that. There's sure to be something there I can write a friendship lesson about, and maybe we'll pick up some tips for spicing up our home life."

Fluttershy was visibly nervous now. "Spicing…up?"

"That's right! I mean, how do we spend our time, Angel? Uh, Angel Two? Fluttershy? What do we do all the time when I'm not away at the library? You tend to your animals, and I read books! Sometimes you make a nice quiet supper for me, and I make you nice quiet breakfasts in the morning. We have a nice quiet garden on the roof and a variety of nice quiet hobbies. You replaced the shuttle on your loom so it wouldn't make so much noise against the harness! Let's face it, Fluttershy. Our lives together are hopelessly, utterly tranquil!"

"But…But Twilight..."

"Yes?"

"I, uh…I like it this way."

Twilight's face turned briefly crimson, but her anger faded. "Well, that's the problem," she conceded. "So do I. But don't you see, Fluttershy? Our lives are slipping away. With each quiet day that goes by without anything changing…we're one day closer to the grave, and with nothing to show for it!"

Fluttershy only returned a mournful look.

"No, we're going to that masquerade, and that's that. At the very least, it's a start."

"But…but what will we dress as?"

This was a problem. "I don't know. Normally I'd ask Rarity for help, but…since she's hosting, it doesn't seem quite proper. The only other time I went to one of these, I just put a bag over my head with holes in it, but that didn't seem to go over so well. I guess the idea is that you cover your whole body, not just your face, so that your coat color doesn't give you away."

"Maybe I should put my new extra-quiet loom to good use," the pegasus suggested.

"Yes! Yes, a woven costume would be perfect. And I should read up on the subject. I don't think I have anything in my private collection about masquerades…" Twilight quickly tore through her twelve-shelf library, leaving the books scattered on and around the sofa in a matter of seconds. "Nope! I guess I'll head on over to the library, then!"

"But it's…it's your day off!"

"I never took a day off when I lived there! At least, not a scheduled one. Besides, Spike is always glad to see me."

"Well, that's true," Fluttershy acknowledged. "All right, Twilight. We can go to the masquerade together. But let's…not get our hopes up. Okay?"

"Not get our hopes up? But Angel!" The bunny glared at her. "Uh, Fluttershy, my hopes have always been up. You knew that when you married me!"

Fluttershy lowered her head bashfully. "That's true. And I love you for it."

"Don't worry, we'll find the perfect way to spice up our lives. I'm sure of it. See you later!"

With that, Twilight pulled on her saddlebags and trotted out the door, and Fluttershy surveyed the pile of disheveled books she'd left in her wake.

"I guess it's time to invite everyone in for clean-up," she told Angel. "You can take care of the tortoise while I go and fetch a few helpers." With that, she slipped out the window, singing alluringly in some animal language about the joys of sorting and filing, leaving Angel alone to stew in his juices as he took the tortoise's temperature.

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#5: AD—Rough and Tumble

"Twilight!" called Spike from the next room as the library's entrance bell rang. At least, it was Spike's voice. But Twilight was having a hard time reconciling that with the monstrous dark form rushing toward her. She backed away, capsizing a table. "What? Who?"

The fearsome and rather deformed visage, made from what now appeared to be paint, cardboard, and feathers, fell aside, revealing Spike's familiar face behind it. "What's wrong? I just wanted to give you a hug."

Twilight laughed nervously, picking up the table with her magic while trying to hide her embarrassment. "Oh, it's you, Spike! I thought for a moment you were an owlbear."

The diminutive dragon grabbed up his mask in excitement. "Really?! An owlbear, huh? So my costume is that good?"

He turned to admire himself from various angles. Now back in command of her senses, Twilight could see that the brownish black outfit covering her erstwhile assistant was ill tailored, giving it a bulky, deformed appearance. Feathers of various colors were glued to the shoulders and chest as well as the face, and what she had taken for claws were really jaggedly cut popsicle sticks. Oddly, his lack of skill in assembling the outfit seemed to have made it more terrifying, if only for an instant.

"It's…impressive, Spike. I take it you're going to tomorrow night's masquerade?"

"Of course! I've been going every month! They just keep getting bigger and better!"

Twilight tilted her head somewhat. "Do…you fool anyone? About who you are?"

The dragon became slightly downcast. "Not yet. I'm the only one in town with a build like this, you know." He pumped a meager bicep for elucidation. "But it's still plenty of fun, and I think my costumes are getting better." He lowered his voice. "Rarity gave me some tips last time."

"Did she." So his previous attempts had been worse?

"Yeah! She taught me a couple basic stitches, and how to hide your mistakes, er, I mean, your seams, with decorations like feathers…plus I've been getting better at using my flame to fuse bits of cloth together. Here, I'll show you!" He raced for a trove of scrap materials stored in a book cubby.

"But…doesn't cloth burn?"

"Not if you breathe on it right! Watch!" The young dragon held two pieces of satin at arm's length, suffused them with a misty green exhalation, and showed the fused green and pink product to Twilight. She seemed to recall once seeing a similar effect when Pinkie Pie had spit out two pieces of bubble gum she'd been chewing simultaneously.

"That's great, Spike! I'm proud of you. It's always good to learn new skills."

Spike returned the fused cloth to his cubby. "I bet Fluttershy could make a really nice costume, especially with your help." He scratched at an earflap. "Say…I don't remember ever seeing Fluttershy at the masquerades. Or you, either, except for that one time. With the bag?"

Twilight flushed in embarrassment. "Well, you know Fluttershy. She prefers to stay in."

"But I thought she loves the great outdoors!" said Spike.

"Well, she also prefers to stay out! Out and in."

"Isn't that…everywhere?"

"Everywhere except for loud events, like masquerades. But don't worry, Spike! I'm going this month, and I'm determined to get Fluttershy to come with me. And that's why I'm here—to figure out a costume!"

"Uh…but it's tomorrow," objected Spike. "Isn't that a little last minute?"

"I've always been a talented procrastinator, Spike, and the other side of that coin is that I'm good at rushing to meet deadlines! Now, where is that Guide to Costume Balls and Other Themed Soirées?"

As Twilight was levitating books off the shelves seemingly at random, the door swung open with a thump. In strode Applejack, panniers loaded with yarn and a variety of random objects. "Did I hear somepony say they're aimin' to make a costume?"

Twilight looked down from the second level, half a dozen books in mid-air. "Aheh, yep," she admitted. "Wait. What have you got there? Yarn?"

"Among other things," deadpanned the farmer. "Twilight, yer not the only one who's a mite behind schedule. I got just one day to rustle up a costume fit to beat Rainbow's, an' I figured if I could find a decent book o' patterns, I could have my ol' granny whip me up somethin'…unless you've got a better idea."

Spike was in place behind the desk. "I think we do have some books of patterns! But what kind of patterns do you want?"

"Uhr…knittin' patterns? Not sure what ah'm gonna be this month. Me an' Rainbow had a bake-off this last week an' we kinda lost track o' time."

Twilight had returned to the library floor by now with a selection of relevant books for both herself and the farmer. "AJ…is there anything you and Rainbow don't do competitively?"

Applejack frowned in thought. Before she could answer, the library shuddered as a cyan cannonball tumbled through the window and hit the wall.

It resolved, predictably enough, into Rainbow Dash, who rolled to her hooves and started looking through the books she'd dislodged. "Let's see. Costumes, costumes…"

A rattled Twilight addressed her from behind. "Can I help you, Dash?"

"Huh? Help me?" The pegasus looked over her shoulder with confusion. "I dunno…AJ might think that was cheating. Nah, I'm good." She resumed sifting through books on diverse subjects like swimming pool maintenance and regional taxation policy, tossing most of them aside.

"Excuse me!" Twilight caught some of the discarded books in her magic and brought them around to Dash's eyes. "In this library, I'm the only one who gets to abuse the source material. I take it you're also looking for a book on costumes?"

Rainbow Dash glanced over uneasily at Applejack, who stared confidently back. "Heh. I guess we both had the same idea. But that's okay. I'll just read faster than her. I do everything faster."

"She really does," muttered the farmer. "And it ain't always something worth tootin' your horn about," she added loudly.

"That's it!" exclaimed Rainbow, shaking the books off her head and back. "I'll make a fake horn! Everyone will think I'm a unicorn!"

"Oh yeah?" retorted Applejack, drawing near. "Well, ah'm gonna make fake wings!"

"Well I'm gonna tie down my wings, so no one knows I have any!"

"I'm gonna have wings and a horn, just to really confuse 'em!"

Twilight managed to wedge herself between the bickering pair. "Well, I guess that answers my question! You two will compete over anything!"

"Sure will!" replied Applejack proudly. "With us, every peck on the cheek turns into a tongue war."

"Every romantic stroll turns into a footrace," added Dash.

"Or a poetry contest!" said AJ.

"Or both!" countered Dash.

"Every supper date turns into an eatin' contest."

"Or a cook-off!"

"You kiddin' me? Half the time, ah can cook faster'n y'all can eat!"

"Only because half the time, you're cooking disgusting stuff on purpose."

"Apple rhubarb is not disgusting!"

"It is to me and you know it!"

"Ah guess some of us have hardier stomachs than others!"

"Well some of us can tell the stem of the plant from the actual fruit!!"

Each retort brought the pair of tense bodies and glaring faces closer together. Again, Twilight was moved to split them up. "You know, I'm astonished you two ever found time to fall in love."

Applejack sat back, slightly chastened. "Ah fell in love faster'n she did," she muttered.

"Nuh-uh! I fell for you twice as fast!"

"Well, ah fell harder."

"Maybe so, but I fell from ten times higher!"

"Are we…are we still bein' metaphorical?"

"Wow," interrupted Twilight. "Things aren't ever quiet with you two, are they?"

"Oh," said Rainbow, happening to glance at a big sign reading QUIET on the wall. "Sorry."

"Oop! Sorry, Twilight," added Applejack.

"No no, it's fine! What I meant was… you two have plenty of spice in your lives…right?"

They both looked oddly at the unicorn. "Spice?" asked Applejack.

"Uh huh! You know…Pizzazz? Zest? You're never bored, are you?"

"Well, no," praised Rainbow, "because AJ here makes even farming exciting. I don't know how she does it, because it sure looks boring from the outside."

"It's all about pride," she explained.

"I know! I've been cultivating my pride," Rainbow answered, fluttering up a few feet.

"You still ain't got a farmer's pride," chastised Applejack.

"You're right, 'cause I'm still a weather pony at heart! And we've got a whole different sort of pride!"

"An' I took you fer good weather an' bad," chuckled Applejack.

"For richer or for poorer," added Rainbow Dash.

"Fer better or fer worse," countered Applejack.

"For better and for worse!" chimed Rainbow.

"Okay, knock it off," said Twilight. "I only ask because the Princess wrote in her latest letter that…" She lowered her voice so that Spike, who was helping a patron, wouldn't hear. "…she thinks my and Fluttershy's home life could be more exciting."

She was met with silence. "Could be more excitin'?" deadpanned Applejack. "Well, tarnation if ah know how. Don't you two do a crossword together, like, every day?"

"Yeah, I don't know," said Rainbow Dash, carrying the joke. "If that cottage of yours were any more exciting, we might have to put up warning fences."

"You'd be keepin' the whole town up at night," added AJ.

"And Pinkie might just put out a hit on you if you threw any more wild parties," added Dash.

"What? Pinkie would nev…oh." Twilight chuckled. "Sarcasm. Right."

"If I were you, ah wouldn't worry," Applejack confided. "Each home's got its own rhythm, after all."

"My old house didn't," said Rainbow, still hovering above them. "It was more like the part of the music where no one's playing, and you can take a nap."

"Well, that's a rhythm, of sorts," said Applejack. "But you're happier followin' the rhythm of the earth, aren'tcha?"

The pegasus flapped lower. "I follow your rhythm," she flirted.

"Yeah? You keep up pretty good," said the earth pony.

Rainbow glanced at the mess of books she'd created and then narrowed her eyes lasciviously. "What do you say we check out our stuff, and then head back home for a refresher session?"

"Uh, girls…" said Twilight nervously, indicating Spike's presence with her head.

"A refresher? Dash, ah was born refreshed!"

"I don't even know what that means!" said Rainbow. "But I bet I give you an orgasm before you give me one."

"That so? Bring it on!" retorted Applejack, her eyes fierce.

Twilight instantly created a shimmering cone of silence around Spike and his patron. "I did not just hear that."

Rainbow laughed at the librarian's reaction. "Heh, that's tame compared to some of the bets we get into. You should hear how we're gonna decide who gets to be the first biological mother."

"Now, now…don't wanna give anypony ideas," chided Applejack.

"Why not? She said she needed more spice in her life. Oh hey, I know!" Rainbow landed behind Twilight, wings still raised. "How about we let Twilight watch?"

Applejack's features rose with astonishment. "Now that's an idea! Wanna come home with us, Twilight?"

Twilight was shaking her head in terror, her face fuchsia. "I couldn't possibly!"

"Aw, pleeease?" begged Rainbow. "You can be the judge!"

But Twilight couldn't take any more. She piled the books with knitting patterns in a neat stack on a table, pulled the book she was looking for out of the pile, and zipped off, leaving a puff of white smoke in her wake. The competitive couple was left blinking in amazement.

"Ah bet ah can do that," said Applejack.

"Oh yeah? I bet I can make it rainbow-colored," rejoined her lover.

"You're on! Seeya at home!" said Applejack, upon which she adopted a dramatic runner's pose and shot off, leaving the room clouded with dust.

"Gonna beatcha there!" shouted Rainbow, soaring off through the window.

Spike hurried to the door and looked after the racing pair. "Wait! You forgot your books!" But the two were long out of earshot.

"Huh," he said, trotting back to put the books away. "Well, I'm sure they'll come up with something. I wonder what that cone of silence thing was all about!"

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

#6: PR—Playing House

Fluttershy picked her way along the gravel path leading to town, her skirts getting tangled whenever she had to step over so much a pebble. Since the whole path was made of pebbles, it was taking a while. Twilight looked back impatiently from ahead. "Angel Two! At this rate we won't get there in time for the grand unveiling, let alone the Dancing Sea!"

The pegasus let out a whimper. "I'm not so sure this is a good idea. What if Drizzle is there?"

Twilight paused to look over Fluttershy's costume. With lilac chiffon covering her body, light orange strands woven throughout her mane and tail, a fake umbrella cutie mark, and even a five-petaled blossom in her hair, she did look strikingly like the meek weather pony. Twilight herself was similarly disguised as Romana, a local watchmaker's assistant believed by many to live a double life. Her hair was done up in dramatic swooshes of light and dark blue, her fake cutie mark an hourglass. They'd worked all day on their costumes, though Fluttershy had never been quite comfortable with the whole concept.

"If she shows up, she'll be dressed as someone else!" consoled Twilight. "So no one will know."

"But she'll know," breathed Fluttershy. "And so will Romana."

"Eh, it'll be good for a laugh!" Twilight replied.

Fluttershy continued to inch along the path. "But aren't most ponies going to be dressed as fantastic beasts, or legendary figures, or…?"

Twilight shook her head. "That doesn't matter. The book I checked out—er, well, forgot to officially check out—said that there's a difference between a costume ball and a masquerade. In a costume ball, you try to dazzle everyone with images of the strange and exotic, or play a role and stretch your boundaries! But a masquerade is less about the costume than it is about disguising your identity. The whole idea is that no one should know who anypony is until the grand reveal! And we're sure to fool everypony in these outfits!"

" I don't like fooling ponies," whispered Fluttershy. But Twilight was ahead on the road again, and didn't hear.

[+][+][+][+][+]

As Twilight strode through the doors to the Town Hall's sizable auditorium, where the ball was being held, the first thing she encountered was Pinkie Pie, appearing with her characteristic squealy gasp. Twilight looked at her in horror—had the perspicacious pink pony already seen through her disguise? But no, Pinkie gave the same gasp to Fluttershy…and to the next five ponies who walked in. She seemed to be gasping at everyone, although she varied her tone and direction of approach, occasionally clinging to the mantel in order to gasp diagonally from above. But that made sense, as Pinkie was dressed as a caterpillar.

The hall, meanwhile, was resplendent. Its walls had been covered in smooth white sheets topped with streamers, and additional streamers connected various points of the roof and upper window corners to one another. There were stacks of blue-green boxes against the walls on which fuzzy wild sculptures had been placed, evoking the vague sense of a coral reef. Beside these sat tables of refreshments against the sides of the room, but for once they were out of the way. The focus was on the dance floor, a polished circular space cut from the trunk of a single tremendous tree, the natural grain accented by rings of peach and topaz. From the center of the ceiling descended a paper chandelier constructed from endless curved pockets of white and beige paper. Little points of light were somehow suspended within it. There were tables and seats scattered throughout the room and divans along the walls. Finally, near the front entrance was a jungle gym on which several children, Spike among them, were playing, strands of their wayward costumes dangling beneath the bars. Pinkie leapt from the mantel to the jungle gym using only her torso and her teeth while Twilight watched in amazement. The green-and-black-clad earth pony proceeded to curl among the bars like a real caterpillar might.

"It's so crowded,' murmured Fluttershy from beside Twilight. She was right, of course. More than half the town must have been there, but it was hard to tell who had come, because the costumes were fairly amazing…and because there was just so much swirling activity that Twilight couldn’t keep her eyes focused on anyone for long. She found herself shaking her head to clear it…but hardened herself, remembering her mission.

"That's how it should be," she told Fluttershy. "Remember—we're here to have a spicy time!"

Fluttershy looked anxious anew, wandering off to sit on one of the divans. Oh, well. Someone was certain to strike up a conversation with her. Meanwhile, Twilight went to go find what excitement she could.

"Romana!" exclaimed a cultured voice that could only belong to Rarity. Twilight turned to see the host adorned with butterfly wings much like the ill-fated pair she'd worn to Cloudsdale, only even more elaborate, and no doubt non-functional. She also had on delicate little antennae and a swatch of black wrapped around her midsection to complete the effect.

Twilight smiled demurely. She said nothing for now, only bowing.

"So good of you to come!" continued Rarity. "But dear, didn't you hear this was a masquerade? Surely a few wisps of chiffon and a few streaks in your hair don't constitute…OHH." Twilight grinned: Rarity had gotten it. "You aren't Romana, are you? You're…somepony else! Very good. Very mysterious!" Rarity chuckled and bowed back.

"I suppose we'll just have to see!" said Twilight, taking care to disguise her voice.

"We will!" replied Rarity. "If we can't see through your disguise, perhaps we'll reveal who you truly are through questions and games later tonight! But for now—welcome to the ball!"

"My pleasure!" said Twilight. "But I must ask—is there a significance to the fact that you and Pinkie Pie are dressed as different metamorphic stages of the same life form? Is it some kind of symbolic restructuring of the marital relationship?"

Rarity blinked, her antennae bobbing. "Er…hello Twilight. Good to have you!"

Twilight winced. "I guess the cunning questions and games won't be necessary, huh?"

"Your personality does tend to shine through," Rarity replied. "Nothing at all to be ashamed of! And your Romana costume is quite convincing. But to answer your question, no, not really—we just thought it would make for a fun thematic connection. And, well, I am three years Pinkie's senior, after all."

"Really? But I thought the two of you were in the same class in Hoofington. Isn't that how you met?"

"It was an age-integrated classroom," Rarity explained. "Apart from which, Pinkie skipped a grade."

"Yep!" exclaimed Pinkiepillar, swinging in suddenly from the bottom of the chandelier, which didn't look like it should be able to support her weight. "But don't worry! I went back and did it later."

Twilight laughed awkwardly. "Well, given how things turned out, I'm sure it was for the best. Did the two of you have any clue, way back then, that you'd end up married?'

"Clue?!" exclaimed Pinkie, falling to the floor in a snakelike heap. "You mean they leave clues for that sort of thing?"

"Um…well, I mean…there might have been some sign…"

"Of romance?" said Rarity. "I think not quite yet, at that tender age. But I was one of Pinkie's earliest supporters when it came to her hobby of…entertaining!"

"Hobby?!" exclaimed Pinkie, rising from the floor to menace the butterfly. "You call this a hobby? I think you meant to say, 'Ultrasupreme joy and passion!'" The pink caterpony stood up straight within her costume, wobbled, and fell upon her well-cushioned back.

"Of course, dear. Pinkie always did have a passion for parties…and I've always had a passion for decorating!! It's only natural we would end up together."

"I can see that!" said Twilight. "And I know you love hosting soirées and dinner parties! But why this? Why have you started throwing masquerades every month?"

"Because every two months isn't often enough!" squealed Pinkie.

"And because of the allure!" cried Rarity. "Think of it—an entire ballroom full of mysterious strangers, each with a powerful secret—the fact that, after all is said and done, and danced, and breathed…"

"…and sucked up, and spit out, and rolled flat, and circled into little spirals…" added Pinkie.

"…you knew them all along," concluded Rarity. "And you may be surprised! During these masquerades, so many ponies have told me they've been astounded by what they're learned about their fellow townsfolk! The roles we play! The sides we choose to show, and not to show, when we get the chance for a fresh approach! This, Twilight, this is the infinitely varied appeal of the masquerade!!"

"That," said Pinkie, "plus, we get to play dress-up all day and no one thinks it's weird!"

"Which is, of course, one of the chief reasons I got into fashion in the first place," concluded Rarity.

"Huh! That sounds a lot like the theory in the book I read last night!" exclaimed Twilight. "It was talking about how in a setting where no one has any preconcep—oh MY."

She'd stopped talking because of the arrival of an amazing figure. From hoof to mane, this was an ANGEL. In billowing silver gray, with lofty wings bearing tremendous, perfectly shaped feathers, an amazingly coifed tail, a shimmering halo, and an expression of perfect serenity behind a face draped in white veils, the figure entering the hall dwarfed even Princess Celestia in grandeur, if not quite in stature. Twilight found herself falling to her knees in the mysterious pony's direction. From the crowd, she heard Derpy's voice cry, "AANNNGGEELLL!" providing evidence for Twilight's theory that the gray mailmare had never forgotten her time in the place of unborn souls.

The crowd parted for the huge, charismatic newcomer, who paced forward on silent, graceful legs. She—it? She, probably, came to Rarity and Pinkie Pie and lowered herself to one rear knee. "I thank you for extending your invitation," she said in a voice both beautiful and buzzingly distant, as though spoken through layers of cloth—which, of course, it probably was. Still, the effect was amazing.

"You're quite welcome," said Rarity, almost as stunned as anyone. Pinkie merely stared.

"You're…you're not Princess Celestia, are you?" asked Twilight weakly. "Or…or Princess Luna, for that matter?"

The angel, smiling a secret smile, shook her head. "They are the keepers of this realm alone. I hail from another."

"Well." Twilight had forgotten to disguise her voice. "That's, uh…something, all right! You have a very nice…costume." On impulse, Twilight turned to check on Fluttershy, who was, sure enough, still sitting on the divans near the entrance, though she'd struck up a conversation with a ribbon-festooned pony who might have been Cloud Kicker. So the angel wasn't her angel in disguise, as much as Twilight would have loved for it to be.

"As do we all, as we pass through life," said the angel mysteriously. She, or it, moved away toward the back of the room, while amazed ponies either bowed or struck up timid conversation with her as she went. Twilight watched for a while, transfixed, before pulling her attention back to her hosts.

"Do you have any idea…?" she whispered. But they only shook their heads.

There was a game, later, where everypony gathered into circles and asked each other questions from cards, to be answered in character or according to whim. This was enjoyable for Twilight because it addressed some unusual aspects of friendship she hadn't seen much of hitherto—where one draws the line between respecting a friend's autonomy and rescuing her from self-destructive behavior, for example. Despite a number of insightful and humorous moments, she wished she could have been in the same circle as the angel. That must have been quite a game. In Twilight's circle, the funniest moment was when Scootaloo, dressed as a pirate, asked an overelaborate black monster with a hidden face, five black horns and three black tails whether it had ever considered competitive aeronautics. "How'm I supposed to do that without any wings??" the monster had blurted. Everyone laughed. It was evident that Scootaloo had somehow identified the presence of her hero, Rainbow Dash, beneath all the folds of cloth and papier-mâché. Maybe she'd actually recognized her smell—Twilight wouldn't have been surprised.

And there were other diversions, as well as hot food being intermittently served at the refreshment tables by stallions dressed as lobsters and crabs. Twilight took a tray of delicious fare back to Fluttershy, hoping to see how she was doing. It seemed she wasn't having such a bad time, so long as she took things easy.

"I've been having some great conversations with the weather ponies," she told Twilight privately, seated together on the long cushions. "I never knew that being a weather pony could be so interesting. I'm almost tempted to try it in real life!"

"Maybe you should!" Twilight suggested. "I'm sure Rainbow would be glad to train you. She got such a blast out of teaching you how to cheer."

"Well," said Fluttershy modestly, 'I don't know if you could really call it a…a blast. It was more of a…more of a…"

Twilight leaned in to catch her wife's whisper.

Fluttershy erupted in remembered excitement. "…A SONIC RAINBOOOM!! EEEEAAUUGHH! YYEEEAAAHHH!!!" She leapt from the divan with wings upstretched…and then fell to the floor, chattering her teeth and looking aghast.

Twilight leapt over her, only to find everyone nearby staring. "Wow, Angel Two! I mean…Drizzle! I mean…That was…wow!"

"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to…it just all came back to me at once," said the mortified pegasus.

Twilight chuckled. "That's okay. But I think you may have spoiled your cover…" She glanced around to see that the nearby ponies were now indulging in knowing smiles. "Still! You've tapped a place in yourself that's powerful and deep, and I love that. You've just gone through a transformation!" She gave Fluttershy a kiss, evoking a blush.

"I guess that's what masquerades are for," said Fluttershy. "Oh, but look, Twilight!"

"Romana!"

"Er…Romana. Sorry! But I think the Dancing Sea is starting!"

It certainly was! This was a long dance that started slowly, with one pair in the center of the room—in this case, Pinkie and Rarity. At the conclusion of each verse, each partner was to go off to find a new partner elsewhere in the room, thus doubling the number of dancers with every verse until everypony would be dancing. The streamers, now predominantly blue and green, somehow bobbed along overhead, and the coral sculptures on the blue-green boxes whirred about like little fans.

The first verse ended and Rarity went to dance with her little sister, Sweetie Belle, while Pinkie chose Big Macintosh, dressed in hero-warrior garb. At the end of the second verse, Sweetie Belle went straight to the angel. The huge celestial figure seemed flattered, and danced enchantingly with the little unicorn, sweeping her easily about, while the room watched in enchantment. Then the next verse began, and there were sixteen dancers. After that, Spike, who'd been chosen by Apple Bloom, went to take Twilight onto the floor, and from then Twilight lost track of who was where. She was awhirl. She danced with the five-horned monster, with the proprietor of Quills and Sofas, and finally—to her astonishment, found herself with the real Romana, who had just shown up. The two of them danced rather awkwardly together, but when others around them started to laugh, they loosened up and laughed as well.

Twilight glanced around and saw Fluttershy dancing in a heavenly trance with the mysterious angel. She felt a stroke of jealousy cross her heart…and then realized she was jealous of the angel, not of Fluttershy. Twilight wanted those temporarily lilac-colored hooves in her own. She wanted that sweet, leafy, natural smell nuzzled up against her face. She found herself looking forward to the night's end, when the masquerade would all be over and it would just be herself and her angel again…free to concoct their own spices.

Twilight hurried after the dance back to her wife. The two of them sat quietly at a table in the back. "Oh, Twilight!" said Fluttershy. "What an amazing time! We should come every month! I already have so many ideas for costumes!"

"That's wonderful! But more importantly, I think I've solved our problem!"

"The…the not enough spice problem?"

"Oh, Fluttershy, that was never a real problem. We can have as much or as little spice as we like—no one can tell us how our marriage is supposed to taste! …To strain a metaphor. No, I meant the pet name problem!"

"Oh." Fluttershy glanced at the unearthly silver-gray angel striding through the room, and then looked, embarrassed, back to Twilight. "You mean how you'd like to call me Angel, even though that name is taken in our household?"

"Aheheh. Yes. I mean, seeing what looks like the real thing sort of put things in perspective. But beyond that…the fact that you're having fun here…the way you suddenly burst out with that cheer…it made me see you in a new way."

Fluttershy seemed a little afraid at this. "A new way? A good way, I hope!"

"Yes, definitely! You transformed! And what else, in nature, transforms?"

The naturalist was shier than ever. "A lot of things transform, Twilight." She glanced furtively at Pinkie and Rarity, in costume, strolling together. "But I guess you mean…how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly."

"Exactly." Twilight gave her a kiss on the forehead. "And from now on…you're my Butterfly."

"Huh?"

Twilight grinned. "Butterfly! It's a Spoonerism! Well, kind of. But you can fly…and your coat's the color of butter…so…why not?"

Fluttershy rose from her seat to give Twilight a huge hug. "Twilight, that's the sweetest thing anyone's ever said about me! Or at least…I know the way you meant it is. Yes! Yes, I'll be your Butterfly. I'll be every bit as beautiful and delicate as you have the right to expect any butterfly to be."

They hugged, and nuzzled, for quite some time. Pinkie and Rarity joined them at their table.

"Awww," said Pinkie. "They look so adorable! And yet, it's as if Drizzle and Romana suddenly decided to make out! How weird would that be? The Doctor would be so jealous."

"Of which?"

"Of both!" Pinkie gave Rarity a warm cuddle under her chin. "You remember the first time we dressed up as each other? That was pretty intense."

"I certainly do. I seem to recall I had the scent of fresh cookies in my mane for a week!"

"You could do woo-ooorse!" singsonged Pinkie. "Oooh! And remember that time you dressed up like Princess Celestia and I dressed up like her first lover, Incitatus? That one took research!"

Rarity stood up, giving Pinkie one last nuzzle. "While it's true we've had a wide variety of fascinating games, I'm sure we don't want to bore our guests," she said with a hint of embarrassment. "Besides which!" she announced in a louder voice. "It's time for…" Her horn started to glow, and the room dimmed, except for the brilliant points of light in the paper chandelier. "…The Grand Reveal!!"

There was a roaring cheer. Everypony hurried to the dance floor and the area surrounding it. Rarity took center stage and waited for the commotion to subside.

"Pinkamina and I would like to thank you for another tremendous evening of alluring dissimulation and revelry!" she declared, her wings bobbing. There was another cheer. "But now, the time has come to be unmasked, and to stand true and undisguised before friend and foe alike!"

"Aw, don't be silly, Rarity!" said Pinkie, slinking insectlike into the center. "We're all friends here!"

After yet another cheer, Rarity gave an elegant nod. "Too true. And so! Are there any…requests, for who might be the first to unveil?!"

"How about the owlbear!?" shouted Apple Bloom before anyone else could speak, pointing at Spike.

There was a general groan. ""What?!" asked Pinkie, twirling about within her costume. "You mean that's not really an owlbear?"

"No, believe it or not!" exclaimed Spike.

Pinkie's eyes narrowed. "Harry? The cavehouse bear? Is that you?"

"No," laughed Spike, now excited.

Pinkie's eyes squinted further. "Are you an Ursa Teeny-Tiny?"

"No! I'm Spike!" He removed his mask with a flourish and there was general laughter. Of course just about everyone had known it, but one never knew just what could slip by Pinkie's brain.

"Ohhhh!" she said, swaying back. "Hi, Spike!"

"Enough of this!" shouted someone. "We want to know who the angel is!"

"Yeah! Who's the angel?" echoed the three-tailed monster.

Rarity turned to the majestic angel and was about to speak when Pinkie gasped again. "You mean she's not really an angel?!"

"Pinkie!" said Rarity sharply. But she followed it up with a laugh and a nose rub. "It's up to her to tell us! Isn't it?"

Pinkie leapt a foot off the ground, an impressive feat with her bulky caterpillar tail. "It sure is! So who are you, Miss Angel?"

The angel slowly looked over the assembled crowd. "Surely," she said in her strange voice, "some among you know me. Are there no blessed here? None with the true sight?"

"Nnnnnope!" said Pinkie.

"Show us!" called Sweetie Belle, along with half the crowd.

The angel shrugged, her massive wings falling limp to the ground. She stepped down off her stilts, kicked off the bronze support holding up her tail, dropped her wire-suspended halo, shook the layers of carefully shaped gauzy veils from her face and neck, and spit out the harmonica reed in her mouth. "Well shoot. I figgered at least some'a y'all'd recognize me."

The three-tailed monster's response was almost lost amid the roar of surprise and groans from the crowd. "Applejack!??"

The orange earth pony took a bow in Rainbow's direction. "You didn't even know me?" She snorted once, but her amazement turned proud within a moment. "Well, ah guess there's no question who wins this masquerade!"

"What?!" exclaimed Pinkie. "There's no winning in masquerades!" She glanced to Rarity. "Is there?"

Rainbow shook off her five-horned mask to reveal a look of disgust. "AJ, how on earth did…I don't…but…the way you talked! The way you moved! It was…you never act that way!"

"I have told you about mah trip to Manehattan, haven't I?" said Applejack, grabbing the tangle of white cloth enshrouding her and whipping it loose with a single tug. "Mah Aunt Orange ain't no miser. She got me some classical training so's I'd fit in better—figured ah may as well put it to good use, now an' then!"

Rainbow scoffed, shook her head, and then leapt from her own costume with a massive flying leap, leaving the shell standing for foals to marvel over. "You! You, Applejack, have been holding out on me."

"What? Never. I didn't reckon a gal like you'd have any use for fancy angelic manners, and you never asked!"

The crowd groaned. "What do you say, folks?" asked Rainbow. "Was she holding out on me?"

There was a mixed reaction—some boos, some cheers, some whoops, some laughs. Rainbow didn't bother weighing it all; she strutted over to Applejack and grabbed her in a winghug, a mischievous look in her eyes. "Face it, AJ. You've gotta make it up to me."

Now that got cheers, even a mild one from Fluttershy. "All right," said Applejack, "I'll do mah best." She planted a kiss on Rainbow's lips that got the crowd roaring again. By the time Rarity managed to get things under control again, everypony was unveiling themselves, the tension of the night over. The lights came on again, the streamers started to fall, and there was carefree laughter and lightness everywhere.

"What do you think, Butterfly?" Twilight asked her wife as they strolled past the buffet. "Ready to head home?"

"I don't know, Twilight. I think I could use another hour or two." She lifted her half-unraveled costume, her coat now an alluring mix of yellow and lilac. "To unwind."

Twilight laughed and nodded, unwrapping a layer of chiffon with her magic. "I know how you feel."

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Dear Princess Celestia,

I learned this week that everyone has a secret side—at least one, if not more! That secret side doesn't make us immoral, or duplicitous…it actually makes us more who we are, even if that isn't easy to see on the surface. And as we get to know people better and better—especially if we've made a commitment to them for life—it's more and more important to show our secret sides, to learn about them and embrace them in each other. I personally believe there's always more to discover. And even if that process of discovery isn't always interesting to those on the outside—sorry about boring you with the tea guessing game—it's important to the people in the relationship…as important as anything.

I wonder how many secret sides you have, Princess! No need to tell—I'm just thinking out loud. Only not out loud. In writing. I'm thinking out loud quietly. You know what I mean.

Your ever-faithful student,
Twilight Sparkle

Author's Note:

Did you guess who the angel was? 0:)

My original notes for this chapter mentioned that I would have entitled this story "The Permutation Project", except that that title was already taken by a series of clever little stand-alone stories you may want to check out.