• Published 20th Jan 2013
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The Irony of Applejack - Mister Friendly



Applejack has never told a lie. Merely... omitted some details about herself...

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Chapter 2: Knock on Wood

Chapter 2: Knock on Wood

“This sucks.”

“I know, Rainbow. But what can we do?”

“How about we start by letting go of my tail.”

Twilight, who’d been trotting back down the road from Sweet Apple Acres, finally seemed to remember that she was lugging around a certain ornery Pegasus pony through the air behind her.

She turned around, a sheepish blush on her cheeks to meet the gaze of a very unhappy Rainbow.

She was hanging upside down by this point, her hooves folded across her chest in annoyance – annoyance she was currently trying very hard to bore into the back of Twilight’s retinas.

In any other circumstance – or rather, if any other pony was doing it – Twilight might’ve laughed at the spectacle of an upside down, grumpy Rainbow Dash.

The same thought seemed to occur to Rainbow, and she narrowed her eyes at her friend.

“If you laugh,” she warned dangerously, “I’ll kill you.”

Twilight pursed her lips in an effort to hide her grin, and gently set her weary friend back on the ground.

“Better?” she asked, not bothering to hide her amusement.

Rainbow didn’t miss it, but she did ignore it. Instead, she just wiped off some phantom dust from her shoulder in indifference and chose not to answer immediately.

The two stood in silence for a while, the only sounds between them coming from a gentle, rolling breeze as it passed from one end of the apple orchard across from them to the other.

That breeze tickled Rainbow’s nose with the scents of apples, but for once in her life, the smell only brought a frown to her face.

“What’re we gonna do, Twi’?” she asked, breaking the silence between them.

When she look towards her friend, she found her staring off into the orchard, her brow likewise creased, only with worry rather than… whatever it was Rainbow was feeling. Irritation, maybe.

But mostly worry, too.

“I don’t know if we can do anything except keep an eye on her,” Twilight mumbled. She tried to stay as factual as possible, but Dash didn’t miss the little undercurrent of helplessness that ran through her voice.

“If something really is bothering her –”

If?”

When Twilight flinched, Rainbow realized that she’d snapped a lot more than she’d meant to.

“Sorry, it’s just… it feels like nothing’s been the same since your brother’s wedding. It’s just… weird.”

Rainbow had never been one for words. How could she explain how everything just felt so… different? Some differences she could take just fine. But when it came to her friends, any changes – especially for the worse – just… felt so wrong to her.

Maybe it was just the changeling invasion getting to her. After all, she was Rainbow Danger Dash! She always saved the day.

So why did it feel like she was failing to do that with Applejack?

Thinking like that was almost toxic to the pony – the more she went over it, the worse it felt. She’d been hoping for some closure, some sort of way to show to herself that she was just being stupid.

But Applejack’s behavior only redoubled her concerns.

While Rainbow just stood there, struggling to find the right words to explain what she didn’t know how to explain even to herself, Twilight put a hoof on her shoulder.

“It’s okay, Dash. I know things are weird, but nothing’s changed. Not really.”

Rainbow looked her friend in the eye, and for a moment, she almost felt like agreeing. There was always something about her friend that made her seem so certain about whatever she was talking about.

But then she spotted something not far down the road behind the unicorn, and all her sourness came back in force.

“Then explain them.”

Twilight gave her a confused look, turned around… and almost collided with the front of a tall stallion clad in golden armor.

Normally, seeing a pair of royal guards marching down a dirt road in any setting would’ve been weird, even worrying.

Certainly, Twilight looked like she was on the verge of having a heart attack. In fact, she yelped and jumped back a step in shock.

Had Rainbow been in a better mood she might’ve even snickered at that.

The two guards, however, were as stoic and emotionless as marble.

“Oh, uh… hello sirs,” Twilight said, struggling to recompose herself as fast as possible. “I didn’t see you there.”

Neither seemed to hear what she said.

“Identification, please,” one of the unicorn guards stated bluntly.

“Oh, er, right,” Twilight said, her polite smile faltering once more. Rainbow didn’t even have that much tact; she just openly rolled her eyes and didn’t even bother to hide her grumpiness.

Once again, Twilight lit her horn. This time, she directed her magic to her saddle bags, prying them open and pulling out a small laminated card.

She floated it over to the nearby guards to inspect while she spoke.

“My name is Twilight Sparkle, personal student of Princess Celestia, Element of Harmony, sister to Captain Shining Armor and sister-in-law to Princess Mi Amor Cadenza,” she rattled off with such precision that Rainbow suspected that she’d practiced. A lot.

While she spoke, one of the guards pulled out a rather bulky tome and began flipping through it. “Twilight… Twilight…”

Before Rainbow could voice her disbelief that these ponies didn’t know perhaps the most famous living unicorn in Equestria, the guard found what he was looking for.

“Ah, yes, here you are. Student of… sister to… yep, it all checks out.”

And then he turned his eyes towards the other mare in the group, and instantly she felt just a little more uncomfortable.

“And this is…?”

Now Rainbow was miffed. “How could you not know about me? Rainbow Dash? Element of Harmony? Master of the bucking Sonic Rainboom?”

Neither guard looked impressed, much to her immense frustration.

Twilight, too, looked a little exasperated. “It’s their job, Rainbow. Just give them your ID.”

“Yeah,” Rainbow hedged, once more very uncomfortable, “about that…”

“You don’t have it, do you?” Twilight deadpanned.

Her friend's only response was a cross between a sheepish grin, a grimace and a shrug.

“Rainbow,” Twilight groaned in disapproval.

“Hey, I’ve been busy,” she snapped defensively. “And I totally haven’t needed it ‘till now, so I kinda forgot, okay?”

How have you not needed you ID card until now?!”

“Two words, Twi’. High. Altitude.”

Twilight’s response was as eloquent as Dash deserved. She smacked herself in the face with a hoof.

“Is there a problem, ladies?” one of the guards asked, frowning in suspicion.

“No, no,” Twilight said quickly, turning to meet the two stallions with a forced smile. “Not at all.”

“Very well… Identification, please.”

Rainbow bit her lip. She knew the consequences for getting caught without some way to identify her, and despite what some ponies might think, she’d never seen the inside of a dungeon cell and intended to keep it that way.

It was lucky, then, that she was with one of the fastest thinking ponies out there.

“She’s with me,” Twilight said, indicating Rainbow.

“That’s… all well and good,” one of the guard said slowly, “but we still need some identification.”

Twilight sighed in irritation. “Dash?”

“Uh… yeah, Twi’?”

Please don’t zap me… Please don’t zap me…


“Come over here for a second.”

Rainbow did so, if every nervously.

Twilight suddenly rounded on her, and before the Pegasus could do anything, she felt the unicorn’s horn jab her in the forehead.

Right away she knew that she’d been hit with something more than just a modest poke. If the hot electric tingling running up and down her body was anything to go by, Twilight had just done what she was best at.

Dang it…

It was over by the time Rainbow decided to look down at herself – possibly for any signs of injury – but only caught a faint, fading lavender light evaporating off of her frame. The spell still left a wake of horribly uncomfortable, almost spasmodic tingling running up and down her body, soliciting a trembling shiver, but seemed to do little else besides make Rainbow feel like she’d jarred her nerves or something.

“There,” Twilight stated, like she’d just presented irrefutable evidence.

“She’s not a changeling. Satisfied?”

Both guards hesitated, exchanging looks.

Finally, one broke his immaculate façade long enough to give a tiny shrug to his partner, who in turn looked back towards Twilight.

“Yes, that’ll be all. You two have a good day.”

And just like that, they marched off like nothing had just happened.

Twilight waited until Both guards were out of earshot before she let out a lungful of held breath.

“Gah… that was close. You need to be more careful, Rain… bow?”

When she turned around, she’d been expected to find her friend looking sheepish and repentant like she always did when she did wrong.

But this time, she found Rainbow staring after the two guards with a deep frown on her face.

“And what do you have to say about that?” she asked.

“Huh?”

Rainbow flicked her eyes over to Twilight, but otherwise didn’t move.

“Since when has Ponyville had guards patrolling all over the place, huh?”

Twilight was silent for a second, struggling to catch up with her friend’s unexpected turn of emotions.

When she finally caught up, she gave Dash a small smile.

“You know why,” she said. “There were hundreds of changelings in Canterlot, Rainbow. There’s no telling where they could’ve gone when Shining and Cadance threw them out. Some could’ve ended up in the Everfree Forest for all we know.”

“But we haven’t found any,” Rainbow complained, scuffing at the ground. “They all probably just got blown all the way out of Equestria.”

“We don’t know that,” Twilight pressed. “And nopony wants a repeat of the wedding.”

Rainbow grumbled ineligibly. After all, as much as she hated to admit it, Twilight had a point.

“It’s only temporary, anyway,” she went on with a smile. “Everything will go back to normal once we know for sure that there are no more changelings in Equestria. Maybe you're right and there aren’t any anywhere near here. If that’s the case, then we have nothing to worry about.”


~~***~~


With a blast of steam, the Friendship Express came to a grinding halt at the station on the outskirts of Ponyville.

Ponies from all over clambered from the colorful cars, some rushing to meet friends and family waiting on the platform while others wearily trudged forward like zombies, intent on a hot meal and a soft bed.

At the same time, packs of ponies waited on the sidelines, patiently letting the passengers vacate the train while waiting for their turn to board.

It was a controlled sort of chaos – throngs of ponies coming and going in almost choreographed steps.

And amid that chaos, nopony noticed a mustard yellow stallion calmly step from the train. He navigated the crowd with ease, and within hardly a few moments, he put his hooves on a cobblestone road – one that led to a small forest of thatched roofs and colorful cottages.

The stallion regarded it all without inflection, instead letting his emerald eyes sweep across the rural cityscape before him.

Nopony really paid him much heed as they moved passed him and towards Ponyville.

If anypony did, all they would’ve seen was a pony as bland and unremarkable as they come; a mustard coat, a coal-black, slicked mane, and an hourglass stamped across his flanks.

Families moved passed him. Weary traveling trudged on by. Nopony gave him so much as a glance.

Nopony, save for one.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the stallion had a companion – a short, vermillion fellow who stood almost half a head shorter than the one beside him.

“Nice weather we’re having,” the bland stallion stated benignly, seemingly to nopony in particular.

“It won’t hold,” responded the vermillion stallion as he eyed a nearby father fawning over an exuberant daughter.

Nothing further was said.

They just started walking, falling into step beside each other without so much as glancing at each other.

“Have you found any stragglers?” asked the mustard stallion, sounding almost disinterested.

“A few,” his companion responded conversationally. “Our efforts have been… slow, however. Moving with so many… eyes… has been difficult.”

As the two continued on, they passed by a set of patrolling guards, both of which were currently preoccupied with checking the identifications of quite a large family. Neither so much as glanced towards the pair of stallions as they passed.

“So it would seem,” commented the first. “Well then… we’d better make this quick. Gather up as many as you can and fan out across this town.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, sir,” queried his vermillion counterpart, “but do you have a plan?”

“Yes,” he said without inflection. “Have you prepared everything?”

“Yes, sir,” his counterpart responded. “Papers, IDs; everything’s ready.”

“Good. Then we’ll move ahead as planned. Her Highness expects nothing less than perfection, and so we shall conduct ourselves to no less of a standard.”

“Yes, sir”, the vermillion stallion said, still speaking in an almost conversational tone despite the subject matter.

For the first time, the mustard stallion turned to regard his companion with a single eye. “The list, if you will.”

A leather-bound tome was magically lifted from the vermillion stallion’s saddlebags. To all the world, it was an unremarkable book, free of adornment or even a title.

Exchanging one emerald aura of magic for another, the other peeled back the cover and turned his eyes to the first page.

There, arranged in alphabetical order, were a list of names. Lots and lots of names.

There must’ve been dozens on that first page alone. More than a few had been either crossed out completely or run through with a single, razor thin line of ink.

Very few had been marked as such, and in comparison there where many other crossed out names that bore two quickly slashed lines, as if denoting some level of disdain.

To just anypony, it would’ve seemed like a careless mistake on the part of the pony making the modifications.

But the stallion wasn’t just anypony.

He quickly surveyed the page with a knowing eye, yet still came back with a frown on his face.

So few…

There were also quite a few unmarked names, and these were the ones that held the most attention for the one inspecting them.

Quickly he ran down the list, stopping at the end of the first page, before returning back to the top – to the first name that’d yet to receive any attention whatsoever.

“Applejack…”


~~***~~


Applejack was helpless.

All she could do was stand there, limbs frozen in shock and terror, as the gangly monster before her cackled in victory.

She could only stare at the Queen of the Changelings as she laughed her cruel laugh.

She didn’t understand it; not ten minutes ago, she was filled with fire and fury and bucking in heads like it was going out of style.

And now… now her limbs felt so cold and uncooperative. The moment she stopped moving – stopped fighting – the inevitable shock and horror had struck her full force like an icy wave.

Because she was looking in a mirror.

Not literally, but… the towering monster before her was more than a little familiar in more ways than one.

Applejack’s thoughts were a wild slurry; none made sense, except for the pounding horror in her chest.

Even the sting of defeat didn’t compare to the sensation like her world was crashing down around her head.

Only one thought hit her again and again like a sledgehammer.

That monster… looks just like me.

She was vaguely aware of her friends at her side, all standing stock still, petrified. Twilight was probably trying to formulate a plan of action, though judging by the beads of sweat rolling down her forehead, she was coming up empty.

Pinkie Pie was, very uncharacteristically, standing as still as a statue, her smile gone, her eyes huge.

Rainbow Dash was crouched, every muscle in her body primed and tensed, but the uncertainty and fear in her eyes showed that she wouldn’t be the one saving the day today.

How Fluttershy was still standing was beyond her. She’d sandwiched herself between Rarity and Rainbow, and yet somehow she was standing, even if she looked on the verge of dropping in a dead faint.

Rarity just stood there, letting Fluttershy lean against her, while she bit her lip. She herself didn’t seem too far away from hitting the floor, either.

All Applejack could do was prepare to fight – to go down fighting.

But… she wasn’t sure if she could. Her legs felt so heavy…

And then, out of nowhere, something started to glow a faint purple color.

Brighter and brighter it grew, until even the sun gave way to it.

It happened so fast – Applejack had been staring transfixed at the queen when it started.

The monster turned, confused, and just as a look of shock crossed her face, Applejack saw it; a nova of light exploding out from the trashed wedding altar.

The raging wall of magic plowed into changeling after changeling, smashing them aside with unyielding force.

Within a heartbeat, it’d reached the queen, roaring like a furious beast.

She didn’t even get a chance to cry out in alarm as it reached her and her obsidian form was lost to the light.

Applejack saw the surge of magic coming her way, brighter and more terrible than anything she’d ever seen before, moving faster than a hunting Timber Wolf. There was nowhere for her to go.

She could only gasp, take a step back…

Applejack felt the wave crash into her – an almost physical force with limitless power behind it.

She felt her forelegs start to leave the stone floor…

And then, something strange happened. Something she’d never be able to explain.

As the nova washed over her, she felt it – almost literally felt it – touch something inside of her. Heat coursed through her, surging out from a central point in her chest, and for one horrifying moment, she thought that she was burning from the inside out.

And without warning, the spell let her go. What was once a physical, almost brutal wall of force turned to a rush of warm air in the blink of an eye, relinquishing its hold on her.

When Applejack came back to her senses, she found herself seated forcefully on her rump a foot or so from where she’d been standing.

But she was still there, still with her friends.

The changelings were not so lucky.

She could see holes blown in the masonry all around her. Stained glass windows were blown to pieces. All of their eerie green cocoons were gone, vaporized into nothingness.

In the distance, just over the ringing in her ears, she thought she could hear a voice shrieking in alarm. But within moments, it was gone.

But she wasn’t. She was still there.

And she had no idea why.

“Applejack?”

She felt her head turn automatically, even though her head was still reeling. All she saw were a pair of magenta eyes gazing at her with concern.

“Are… are you crying?”

She dully reached up with one hoof, wiping at her cheek. It came back wet.

Her chest was throbbing, pounding like it’d just received a near fatal jolt. Of what, however, she had no idea.


~~***~~


Applejack jolted back to awareness, struggling momentarily to get her hooves beneath her before twitching back into a lying position with a groan.

“Consarnit… just dreamin’…”

She sighed and wiped at her face with a hoof, ignoring the uneven, holey quality of her limb.

Pulling her leg away, she inspected it. Still black, still full of holes.

Still a changeling.

But more importantly, its smooth surface came back glistening with moisture.

Frowning, she wiped at her eyes again.

They were wet.

She sighed in exasperation and rubbed her muzzle against her pillow to wipe it clean.

But instead of getting up – like her first instinct told her to do – she forced herself to fall back onto her belly and collapse into her pillow.

She still felt a little lightheaded, and knew better by now than to take her chances. If she wasn’t fully rested, the headache would come back in no time at all.

Usually, it only took a few hours undisguised to get back to one hundred percent.

But to Applejack, that was a few hours too many.

She forced herself to stare at the wall – anywhere where she didn’t have to see her blackened form.

She didn’t really want to sleep, but… it was either that or think.

And she was tired of thinking.

Thinking got her nowhere. She could mull over what she was all she wanted, but in the end it didn’t change anything. It hadn’t any other time in her life, and probably wouldn’t for the rest of it.

She was who she was – of that she was certain.

And yet, her head sure loved to linger…

It was the inactivity that got to her. She hated it – always had. It always made her think, but up until recently, it’d been about other things besides the possibility of her being, for all intents and purposes, an enemy of Equestria.

She didn’t like thinking like that, but how else would anypony else put it?

She just had so many questions… so many infuriating questions that wouldn’t accept that they didn’t matter, no matter how much she tried to convince herself so.

So, rather than sit there and stew until another dream took her, Applejack decided to do what she was best at – she got up and got busy.

For one brief moment, she regarded the changeling in the mirror, who likewise regarded her with a sour expression.

But then she turned away, stretched luxuriously, grabbed her hat and headed into the living room. There was cleaning to be done.


~~***~~


Rainbow drifted listlessly through the cloudless sky on thermals without much commitment.

She was tired – dog tired, in fact – but the will to sleep just kept evading her.

Her mind was preoccupied, hence why she was content to just go where the wind pushed her at the moment.

For anypony looking up from the ground, a slow-flying Rainbow Dash meant only one thing; she was thinking. And as anyone knew, Rainbow Dash stopping to think something over was not a good sign, especially for their next insurance bill.

But today, they were lucky; she wasn’t mulling over the idea of some trick that’d likely leave more holes than win fans, and considering Dash’s reputation, that was saying something.

No; today, her mind was preoccupied with thoughts of a certain apple farmer.

The more she thought about Applejack’s recent behavior, the more concerned she got. The more concerned she got, the more frustrated she got.

RD and AJ had been friends for a long, long time – almost as long as her and Fluttershy – and if there was anything she’d picked up on over these long years, it was that Applejack had a frustrating tendency to keep her problems to herself, especially when she couldn’t fix them herself.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that she was struggling with something, but at the same time, Dash knew that she herself couldn’t pry it from her. She’d tried in the past, but always it’d just been like reasoning with a wall.

But why did she freak out?

That question was the biggest one on her mind. There she was, trying to be considerate and observant, and Applejack yelled at her.

But it was the look on her face that really confused her. She’d never seen Applejack panic before, not really. Flustered, yes. Uncomfortable, too.

But that’d been panic, no doubt about it.

It just wasn’t adding up… the long week she disappeared from the farm, the frequent headaches – though that wasn’t anything new – and her inexplicable panic connected to all of it.

For the umpteenth time that afternoon, Rainbow groaned and rubbed at her face with her hooves.

“Why am I freaking out over this,” she whined to herself. “Applejack’s just being Applejack. Case closed, end of story.”

But what if it isn’t that simple?

Shut up, brain, I wanna sleep.

If only it were that simple…




For nearly an hour, Rainbow circled far above the outskirts of Ponyville, waging an internal argument that was simultaneously for and against trying to wheedle the truth out of her friend.

On the one hoof, she wanted to make sure her friend was alright.

On the other, however, she knew she would never get Applejack to fess up, and trying would just be a waste of time without backup.

The only unifying factor throughout it all was that she didn’t want to leave Applejack to suffer through whatever was eating at her. What kind of a friend would she be if she did?

But after a while, even Rainbow had to admit that she was talking herself in circles. Pretty soon, she’d go “Tardy-mode Twilight” and then nopony would be safe.

She finally let the air slip from under her weary wings, and gently she glided in for a landing in the Ponyville park.

Or rather, she immediately did a face-plant the moment her hooves got under her.

“Ow,” she grumbled to an earthworm.

“Um… Rainbow?”

The Pegasus in question craned her head just enough to get one eye into the open air to regard the pony talking to her.

Standing just at the end of the path from her was a light canary yellow Pegasus, her coat matching almost perfectly with the golden leaves of a nearby poplar. Where it not for her pink mane and big, worried eyes, she might’ve just been a part of the yellowing bush behind her.

“Oh… hey Fluttershy,” she mumbled. “What’s up?”

Fluttershy just continued to stare at her with soft, careful eyes, fidgeting.

Rainbow knew her enough by now to know that she was trying not to say something that she really, really wanted to say.

And that was when she realized the position she was in; literally face down in the dirt, her flank pointed almost perfectly straight up to the sky.

In a flash, she righted herself while making a show of wiping herself off to hide her embarrassment.

“Uh… er, yeah… Anyway… what’s up, Fluttershy?”

“Oh, um… I was just wondering… but it seems like you’re fine now, so… unless…”

She gave Rainbow a diminutive look and drew shapes into the dirt with the tip of one hoof while keeping herself turned away slightly, like the idea of merely facing her completely was too confrontational.

Rainbow just folded her hooves across her chest and waited, cocking an eyebrow.

Still not quite facing her friend full on, Fluttershy carefully went on. “Well, it just seemed like… you maybe had something on your mind.”

Dash sighed, slumping a bit.

“That obvious, huh?”

“Oh no,” Fluttershy said quickly – yet exceedingly gently – with a small shake of her head. “Well… maybe a little, yes.”

She didn’t say anything further, but the way she looked at the cyan Pegasus was clue enough that she was trying to coax her problems from her.

For a moment, Rainbow considered just blowing it off. It was a knee-jerk reaction to just deny, deny, deny.

Until she suddenly realized that it was somepony else being bullheaded that was frustrating her in the first place.

“It’s… well, it’s Applejack,” she mumbled hesitantly.

Fluttershy didn’t say anything. She just sat down and waited for her friend to get whatever was eating at her off her chest.

Rainbow hesitated a little bit longer, frowning into the dirt before speaking again.

“I’m… worried about her.”


~~***~~


“So, I really don’t know what to do,” Rainbow finished helplessly, flopping her hooves in front of her.

It was strange. Usually whenever she unloaded on Fluttershy, she started to feel at least a little better. But instead, she found herself feeling increasingly frustrated, like her words were manifesting her irritation even better.

Fluttershy finally looked away from her friend – choosing instead to look down in thought.

They’d stayed pretty much in the same place; on that dirt road on the outskirts of the Ponyville park. They’d only relocated enough to find a nice bench to sit on before Rainbow could really unload on her friend.

And as usual, Fluttershy had just patiently listened, her brow scrunching up at all the right times.

“My, that is a problem,” she said. “I thought that… well, Applejack is usually so strong.”

“Yeah, that’s what’s bugging me,” Rainbow admitted, rubbing at her mane. She didn’t even care that she ended up getting mud lodged in it. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“If Applejack is having trouble with something, it… well, it must be really big or something, you know? But she just doesn’t talk with anypony about it. Normally that doesn’t bug me – she’s a big mare – but this time…”

She kicked at a small pebble in frustration, sending it skittering across the path and into the bush. It didn’t solve any of her problems, but it certainly made her feel a little better.

Fluttershy remained silent for a moment, carefully gauging her friend’s emotions.

“Maybe you should try sitting her down and having a nice talk about it,” she suggested, but already Rainbow was shaking her head.

“That won’t work. She never talks about things like that.”

“But she’s been getting better,” Fluttershy pointed out. “Remember Cider Season?”

“I… guess,” Rainbow admitted, though with uncertainty. That’d been different; she’d let them help in making cider in order to help her family. When it came to her own problems, however, she’d sooner play dress-up at Rarity’s than confess to her own shortcomings.

Beside her, Fluttershy was silent for a few moments, her eyes watching Rainbow carefully. “I really think you should talk to her. I mean… only if you want to… But sometimes, just letting somepony know that you care can mean a whole bunch.”

Rainbow was silent for a bit, letting her words wash around in her head for a few seconds. And slowly, her words started to make sense.

“You know… I bet you’re right.”

With a sudden burst of energy, she hopped off the bench, a familiar smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth. “So Applejack might not listen to me. So what? What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t at least try, right?”

She turned her head to flash a bigger smile at Fluttershy just as she spread her wings, her weariness forgotten.

“Thanks Fluttershy! I’ll catch ya later!”

And with that, she catapulted herself into the air. In only a matter of seconds, the only sign of her was a prismatic streak through the sky and a distant boom.

Fluttershy only smiled after her. “She’s so silly…”


~~***~~


Rainbow Dash managed to keep up quite a head of speed as she made her way across the sky towards the all-too familiar silhouette of Sweet Apple Acres on the edge of town.

Even though her wings complained quite a bit, she pushed it to the back of her mind. There’d be time enough to rest later.

She was so fire up, in fact, that she didn’t think twice about flying straight over Ponyville. She’d never had to think about it before.

That, however, proved to be a mistake.

“Halt!”

Oh for the love of Celestia…

Rainbow threw her wings back, braking so hard that most of her went vertical before she came to a stationary hover.

She was somewhere over downtown Ponyville, a place filled with a myriad of cafes, small businesses and the general financial backbone of the town. Two blocks down, she could just see the large open square that usually held the market – its multicolored tents and stalls were just visible even from where she was.

But currently, Rainbow’s attention was drawn a little more skyward, and a little more behind her – towards a pair of snow white, armored pegasi darting towards her from ground level.

Royal guards.

Just great…

“What do you guys want,” Rainbow grumbled, folding her hooves across her chest as they approached.

Neither guard reacted in the slightest to her grouchy tone, and instead came to hover in perfect synchronization in front of her.

“Citizen, please present your identification,” one state in a clipped tone.

“Really?” Rainbow droned in disbelief. “I mean really?”

“Identification, please.”

She just rolled her eyes.

“I’ve been all over the sky for, like, days now, and now you want my papers?”

Again, no reaction from the guards.

“We can’t be too careful, ma’am,” the one on the right stated. “Changelings can be anywhere. By the will of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, all citizens are required to –”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Rainbow grumbled, waving them off. “ID cards. Got it.”

Both guards waited patiently, one already reaching back towards his saddlebags to retrieve a familiar tome.

The problem was that Dash wasn’t quite so calm as she was pretending to be.

For at that moment, she suddenly realized that she’d forgotten something. Again.

One would think that after Twilight’s lecture, one would remember certain key things. Of course, to Rainbow, half of Twilight’s lectures sounded like “Blah blah blah use doors blah blah windows blah blah property damage” – she got that last bit a lot – but quite frankly she’d gotten them so much that, as a reflex to counteract boredom, she tended to just block out anything disapproving.

It wasn’t a flawless system, but it’d worked.

Emphasis on ‘worked’.

“Um, I kinda… left my ID in my other saddlebag,” she hedged, fidgeting.

Even if she’d been wearing saddlebags – which she most certainly wasn’t – that would have been an Applejack-class lie.

Needless to say, the guards didn’t buy it.

They glanced towards each other, their hard expressions turning somehow harder as one nodded to the other slightly.

“I’m going to have to ask you to come with us,” stated the second guard flatly.

“Oh come on,” Rainbow whined in exasperation. “Can’t I do something to prove I’m really me?”

“After we go downtown,” responded the guard bluntly.

“We are downtown.”

“Then it won’t be a long flight.”

And that, as the proverb goes, was the straw that broke the cyan pegasus’ back.

It started, like most such episodes, with an eye-twitch. The eye twitch was followed with an explosion of frustrated rage.

“Ooooh, so you ponies don’t know who Rainbow Danger Dash is?”

Both guards hesitated, suddenly less eager to haul in mare.

“Well then, I got your ID right here!”

And with that, she executed a Rainbow-approved plan of awesomeness.

She turned tail and bolted.



~~***~~



Admittedly, running from the guard might not have been the wisest of moves on Dash’s part.

Had she been rested, she might’ve just pulled it off, too. But three days of almost non-stop flying could take it out of a pony. And Rainbow had a sneaking suspicion that those guards weren’t wearing metal at all; nopony should move that fast with that much weight.

But speed was what Rainbow lived for, and every muscle in her body knew what to do with it and how to work it like a pro. Sure, she was teensy bit tired; that didn’t mean she could just turn off being awesome.

So why couldn’t she shake those two guards?

On and on she flew, zooming away from Ponyville and out towards the bordering mass of fiery fall trees.

She flew low, just barely dodging the top of trees in an effort to shake up her pursuers.

It didn’t work. And if anything… they were starting to gain.

Rainbow was just starting to consider that maybe – just maybe – this had been a bad idea when she caught sight of something through the trees.

Somepony was down on the road. Somepony who looked an awful lot like...

Wait… was that… Daring Do? What the hay?

No conscious decision was made. Rainbow just suddenly veered sharply, pulling a tight U-turn so fast that she felt all the blood in her body surge into her hooves for one brief moment.

Her move was so sharp that the guards whizzed right on by and had to scramble to correct.

In front of Rainbow, she found the trees suddenly giving way. Like a landing strip, a dirt road stretched out in front of her, momentarily ringing a bell in her head.

And there, walking away from her, was a stallion.

“Hey!” she cried out. “Incoming!”

The stallion flinched and turned his head, just as a prismatic blur whizzed right passed him, collided with the ground on four wobbling limbs, and skidded nearly ten feet before grinding to a halt.

He only blinked at Rainbow in surprise as she suddenly and quite frantically scurried up towards him.

“… Can I help you?” he asked plainly.

“Uh…”

“Hold it right there!”

Rainbow flinched downward like she’d been shot at, just as two very irate royal guards dropped out of the air on either side of her with a heavy thud.

“You’re coming with us, missy!” one of them bellowed, completely dropping the stoic façade in favor of pure unadulterated rage.

“Oh come on, you two,” Rainbow whined, grinning nervously, “can’t you take a joke?”

“A joke?!” bellowed the second furiously. “Running from law enforcement is a joke to you?!”

“That… came out wrong,” Rainbow squeaked as the two furious guards stalked menacingly towards her.

“… Excuse me.”

That was when the two guards seemed to realize that the three of them had company.

They both turned to appraise the stallion standing before them. He just stood with a bland expression on his face.

“What’s going on here?”

Both guards frowned, their irritation levels once more climbing.

Rainbow Dash, however, couldn’t help but stare.

The stallion before her looked almost strikingly like a certain fictitious adventure pony. From his mustard coat to his jet black mane, he could’ve been Daring Do’s stunt double. Well, save for two facts; the biggest being that he was, in fact, a he rather than a she.

The other thing that stood out was the rather glaring lack of wings and the addition of a blunted horn on his forehead.

The stallion didn’t seem to pay her ogling any attention, however, and turned a stiff frown towards the guards.

“We are conducting official business, sir,” one stated bluntly. “Please, step ba—”

For some reason, he didn’t finish. His angry words just kind of died halfway like “ba” was a real word.

When Rainbow turned to find out why, she saw the guard staring at a rather odd spot – the stallion’s chest.

She followed his gaze and found the object of his attention – a thin silver chain that hung from his neck, and more importantly, the badge that hung from it in turn.

It was a simple golden star wreathed by a pair of wings, something Rainbow had never seen before.

It meant nothing to her, but clearly the same could not be said for the guards standing on either side of her.

“Yes, I can see that,” the stallion said blandly, ignoring the look he was getting. “May I ask what kind?”

And to Rainbow’s astonishment, the guard actually responded.

“Yes, sir. This mare has failed to produce her identification. We were in the process of arresting her and bringing her to the guard house for further questioning when she fled, sir.”

“I’m a criminal now?” Rainbow growled, scuffing at the ground in indignation.

“So it would seem,” stated the stallion without inflection, earning him a glare, to which he paid no mind.

Now that Rainbow looked, there was something about his vivid green eyes that unsettled her. The sheer control of his emotions was almost alarming. They showed nothing but mild disdain.

And when he turned those eyes on her, she felt even more nervous. It was like he knew things about her, things she didn’t want anypony to know…

“Good job, you two. I’ll handle things from here.”

Rainbow had never seen a guard to a double-take before. Heck, she’d almost done one herself.

“Sir?”

Finally, he shifted his gaze off Rainbow, much to her relief.

“Procedure dictates we take her to the guard post for further –”

“I know the proper procedure,” the stallion stated almost patiently. Almost. “And I doubt either of you want the embarrassment of harassing an Element of Harmony, do you?”

Wow, they actually flinched, Rainbow thought in amazement.

“As you were, sirs,” the stallion said with a stiff nod. “I will sort this out.”

Both guards turned to each other, clearly conflicted.

Clearly they didn’t want Rainbow to just slip between their hooves after what they’d been through. There would definitely be a grudge there, no doubt about it.

But at the same time, there was obvious reluctance to go against the stallion’s inexplicable authority, giving them enough cause for debate.

It took them nearly ten whole seconds to reach a proper consensus. Considering not a word was exchanged, it’d hardly taken any time at all.

“Very well, sir,” one of them said at last. “We will leave her in your custody.”

“Very good,” the stallion stated blandly. “Then, as you were.”

Both guards gave a curt salute, and without a backwards glance, they turned and marched off – perhaps a little too quickly to be normal.

Rainbow watched them go in amazement.

“Wow, uh… thanks,” she muttered, turning back to the stallion.

There really was something about him, something she just couldn’t put her hoof on…

He didn’t respond for a moment. Instead, he just stood there, watching the retreating guards passively.

It took him nearly five seconds to speak, and when he did, he only confused Rainbow even further.

“Nice weather we’re having.”

Dash blinked, confused. “Uh… You’re welcome?”

The stallion hesitated, his lips pursing momentarily. It took Dash a moment to wonder if that hadn’t been the answer he was looking for.

“Uh, so… I’ll just be on my way, then,” Rainbow said uncomfortably.

“No, I think not,” he stated bluntly. “You are in my custody, after all.”

Rainbow frowned, already disliking her new ‘friend’.

“And what’s to stop me from just taking off right now, huh?” she shot hotly.

She didn’t fail to notice that horn on the stallion’s head, but she’d had experience with Twilight – she knew that if she went fast enough, he wouldn’t be able to grab ahold of her. And speed was kind of her thing.

But the stallion barely even seemed to react. In fact, he was still watching the guards march away.

“Nothing, I suppose,” the stallion remarked. “Though, I can’t imagine you’ll make it far without a repeat of just now, minus my intervention of course.”

Rainbow glared at him. “Who the hay are you?” she growled in indignation.

“Nopony special,” he said blithely. “But you may call me Vigil. I am an investigator for the royal court.”

“Oh yeah?” Rainbow shot suspiciously. “What kind of investigator, huh?”

Vigil glanced towards her, his eyes unknowable. “Given the guard presence in your town, I thought it’d be quite obvious.”

Dash felt her heart thud in her chest as realization hit her.

“As in… a changeling investigator?”

“Indeed,” he responded plainly. “In fact, it is my specialty. I have… something of an eye for spotting them. I know what to look for. Therefore, I am quite confident that you yourself are not one.”

“At least somepony figured that out,” she grumbled in a huff.

There was silence between the two for a time, each staring each other down – one without emotion, the other with plenty.

“You’re not going to let me go, are you,” Dash asked after nearly a minute of silence.

“No,” was plain response she got.

At that, the Pegasus ground her teeth in frustration.

“What do you want from me, then?” Rainbow growled, her temper fraying once more.

“A favor,” Vigil replied. “I figure I’m owed that much, yes?”

“Ugh, fine,” she grumbled petulantly. “What do you want?”

“Directions,” he stated plainly.

“Where to?” Rainbow asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Sweet Apple Acres.”


~~***~~


Of all the times Rainbow Dash had been to the apple farm, that one was perhaps the most unpleasant.

It wasn’t just that she was all-but forced to go against her will. It wasn’t even just that she was about as tired as a pony could get. Even having to walk wasn’t the single most bothersome part of the trek.

The thing that got her, however, was the fact that the one dragging her there was infuriating to no end.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out why an investigator specializing in changelings wanted to go investigate some place, and the fact that that someplace was the home of one of her friends was not lost on Rainbow, either, and it was making her dislike her unwanted companion even further.

But the worst part was that Vigil refused to talk about his reasons beyond saying “Just to ask some questions.”

He was worse than a brick wall – he was a solid concrete block and twice as unyielding. After only a few minutes of having a monologue-ed interrogation, Dash finally gave up and sunk into sulking instead.

It seemed to take forever for the large front gate to come into view, and then another small eternity to creep up to it.

The only silver lining Rainbow held onto was that no matter how infuriating Vigil was being, he was putting her on course with her original objective – to get to the bottom of Applejack’s behavior once and for all.

Or, at the very least, she had literally hundreds of impromptu beds in the orchard.

One way or another, she was going to accomplish something.

But she was distracted, however, but a loud barking sound.

Looking up, she found an odd sight.

Big Macintosh was seated quite comfortably against an apple tree, a long sprig of wheat bobbing and dancing in his mouth as he chewed the end.

From where he was seated, he had an almost peerless view of the road leading up to the farm, and so it came as little surprise that he was already well aware of the two uninvited guests marching through the front gates.

To Rainbow’s surprise, she also spotted Winona bounding around the nearby trees, occasionally barking as she chased the scent of something.

It was odd seeing Applejack’s faithful pet without its owner. In fact, it’d never been done before; when the apple farmer was on the farm, the other was undoubtedly only a stone’s throw away at any given moment.

But now here she was, clearly minus one orange earth pony, and that fact was making Rainbow all the more anxious.

She was only distracted away from the playful collie by the sight of a towering red stallion rising from his resting place.

“Hey Big Mac,” Rainbow called over, waving.

“Howdy,” he responded. “Ya here fer Applejack?”

She nodded slowly, trying as hard as she could to dissect Big Mac’s mood. It didn’t work, but she tried.

“Yeah. Just to talk. Is she around?”

Big Mac’s face didn’t shift one way or another. Honestly, he was harder to read than a royal guard sometimes.

His response, however, was less mercurial.

“Nope.”

For the umpteenth time that day, Rainbow’s temper flared, as did her impatience.

“Oh come on, Big Mac!” she complained. “Just tell me where she is!”

“Nope.”

There was that eye twitch again.

“Okay, big guy, listen up,” she snarled through clenched teeth. “I have had it up to here! I’ve already had a lousy day, so you better fess up, or else!”

To her immense frustration, however, Big Mac didn’t back down.

Years of dealing with Applejack had steeled his nerves worse than a soldier when it came to getting shouted at. “Applejack needs her rest, and she ain't gonna get any with ya’ll breathin’ down her neck.”

“Yeah, headaches, I get that,” Rainbow snapped, waving a hoof. “The way this day’s been going, I’m kinda getting one myself. So what?”

Big Mac took a second to answer. Even though he did a superb job hiding it, Dash’s declaration had taken him off guard, and for a moment he questioned just how much she actually knew.

While he thought, Rainbow took a step forward.

“Come on, Mac,” she pressed, dropping her voice out of the grating range. “Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed AJ acting weird.”

Big Mac opened his mouth, then slowly shut it again. Asking “Define ‘weird’” seemed like a poor question at the moment, even if he really wanted to know.

“I promise I’ll be careful, okay?” she went on. “Just let me talk to her. Please?”

She almost gagged on that last word. So uncool…

And for a long minute, Big Mac thought about it.

For the first time in his life, he was torn. Never before had he questioned his choice of actions when it came to Applejack’s secret.

When somepony came around the farm looking for her, and she was resting, the answer was always to turn them away and tell them to come back later.

But for the first time ever, he wavered. Rainbow wore an emphatic plea on her face, and he knew that her words rung true. She was worried.

Perhaps… just perhaps…

But then he sighed, both internally and externally. No… no, it was too much of a risk. Maybe if it’d come up earlier, but now there was no way that the draft pony could see Rainbow taking it well, and betting on such a gamble with his sister’s future was not something he was remotely comfortable with doing.

“Ah’m sorry, Miss Dash,” he said quietly, trying to sound as apologetic as he could. “Ya’ll have to wait ‘till she’s done restin’.”

The plea on Rainbow’s face melted away – first into a look of frustration, before finally caving into one of defeat. “Oh… alright…”

Big Mac managed to hide his grimace, if only barely. That look was sure going to make him feel lousy later.

“Applejack ain't goin’ anywhere, Miss Dash,” he pointed out.

Now it was Rainbow’s turn to sigh, this time quite forlornly. “I guess…”

She then let out a jaw-popping yawn, and for the first time in a while, she felt the true depths of her weariness.

One way or another, she was getting something done…

“If anypony needs me, I’m gonna be taking a nap,” she said, her eyes on the ground.

Big Mac nodded and tried not to frown.

With that, she lazily drifted up into the air and floated off, a cozy tree bough already calling to her.

Big Mac watched her go, as torn as ever, before finally settling back into his place against the tree and resuming his surveillance of the road.

There was no helping it, he reasoned. Sometimes, one just couldn’t make everypony happy. Besides, soon enough, Rainbow would get her wish, so it wasn’t like he was denying her forever – just long enough for Applejack to get her hooves under her again. Then it’d be her problem, not his.

He was just starting to get comfortable again when he noticed how quiet it’d gotten.

A breeze blew in from the Everfree Forest, creating a familiar sighing in the multitudes of trees on the farm.

But something was missing.

“Winona?”


~~***~~


Applejack wiped her brow and heaved a breath. She leaned a well-used broom against her shoulder as she surveyed her work.

Before her, the living room of the cabin was… well, less dusty. It still wasn’t Rarity-ready, but that’d take a small miracle to achieve at this point.

But Applejack was pleasantly relieved. Seeing the fruits of her labor always got her in better spirits, and right now that’s exactly what she needed.

The living room was swept, the counter in the kitchen scrubbed, the windows worked at and even a hinge or two had been oiled. It wasn’t much, but it certainly made the old house feel just a little fresher.

Applejack didn’t even mind so much that, if she wasn’t careful, she might get the handle of the broom caught through a hole in her hoof, or even that her brow felt way too smooth to be comforting. She barely minded the sound of her buzzing wings thrumming with excitement at a job well done.

For the first time that day, she allowed a small smile to grace her lips. She was finally starting to feel like her old self.

Her little moment of relief passed, however, when she heard a bark outside.

Smile vanishing, she crept to a window to peer outside.

And there, bounding down the worn path to and from the cabin, came a familiar furry friend.

Still, Applejack couldn’t help but feel momentarily confused at the sight of Winona. Usually, at times like these, she stayed near the front of the farm with Big Mac. Once in a while, Fluttershy would come by and walk her, too, but only rarely did she ever venture back into the recesses of the farm on her own, not since she'd had a bad run-in with a Timber Wolf.

And yet here she was, diligently following Applejack’s trail all the way up to the house, looking as excited and energetic as a puppy.

When AJ heard the collie scratching at the door and whining, she couldn’t help but chuckle to herself.

Carefully, she headed to the front door and pried it open a little bit.

“Howdy there, Winona,” she greeted warmly. “Come to keep me company?”

The dog didn’t so much as hesitate to dash into the cabin, much to her master’s amusement.

Just a moment before closing the door again, Applejack cast a wary eye out into the wizened trees outside.

They just continued to sway and creak in the gusty breeze, betraying nothing but emptiness and serenity.

The changeling chuckled to herself, rolling her eyes before easing the door shut with a soft click. Of course no one was out there. Big Macintosh always kept anypony away while she rested up, and he’d done a flawless job for years.

Why should she doubt that now?


~~***~~


An emerald eye peered around the trunk of a particularly old apple tree, verifying one last time that the front door had indeed been shut.

Vigil stood as still as a statue, too shocked to move.

He’d suspected that following the dog when it took off might pay off, but he was not expecting anything of this magnitude.

It’d only been fleeting – hardly more than a second before he’d had to conceal himself behind a tree – but it’d been enough.

There was no mistaking what he’d seen, even if he was finding it very difficult to believe.

The holey black hoof, the smooth chitin… there was no doubt about that.

But that mane… and those eyes…

No, it didn’t make sense – not in the least – and it left one very important question on his frantic mind as he slipped away.

Just why was there a queen in Ponyville?

Author's Note:

Theme of this chapter: Murphy is an all-seeing prick.

Just a heads up: I have college starting the 22nd, so updates will likely slow down. So please be patient.
Again, feel free to field any questions about the story. I'll answer them to the best of my ability.