A gripping and emotional tale continuing the story started in the Pony Psychology Series.
Twilight Sparkle and her fellow Elements of Harmony have faced down supernatural foes of the highest order, but sometimes the deadliest danger can come from places one would least expect. As Twilight is forced to bear a devastating secret, her efforts to keep the Elements together may well tear them all apart. The plotline of the thrilling Pony Psychology Series continues with an exploration of deception, despair and Discord. This series takes place between Season Two and Season Three. Secrets and Lies shares the Pony Psychology Series TVTropes page.
SECRETS AND LIES By Saddlesoap Opera Part One: Not Even Ashes
In the blink of an eye, it was over. She was alone.
The glow in Twilight Sparkle’s eyes faded at pace with the glow surrounding her horn, and soon the library’s basement was as dim as it had been a moment before.
She stood in the shadows for a long time, her face locked in a savage scowl and her breath hissing between her clenched teeth.
An eerie, eye-of-the-storm calm slowly settled over her, bringing with it a nauseous chill in the pit of her stomach.
“N-No,” she whispered. “I-I didn’t, I…”
She swallowed hard and numbly headed over to the spot on the far side of the basement where her spell had detonated. Her hooves dragged on the dusty floor.
A two-yard-wide circle of the back wall’s rough-hewn rock was shattered and dimly glowing like half-cooled magma. Black, sooty streaks marred the floor, wall and ceiling around the blast site.
Twilight’s purple eyes scoured the gloom for any sign – even the smallest vestige – of the Pony she’d been facing only a moment before.
There was nothing but a smoky, acrid scent in the air and a slightly-singed stuffed toy on the blackened floor. With nothing else to draw her focus, Twilight looked down at the toy.
The likeness was uncanny.
The serpentine body was brown corduroy, and each mismatched limb was stitched from a different brightly-coloured fabric. The antler was driftwood. The horn was twisted glass. The eyes were wide polished-brass buttons, sewn onto the sand-coloured felt head with vivid red thread. Despite its dusting of soot, the doll lay on the floor in a relaxed pose, its button eyes looking up at her as though in a playful but accusing stare.
Twilight sat down in front of the doll and magicked it up to face her.
She scowled at it. “You. You planned this from the start. Didn’t you?”
“Ho-hum, am I that predictable?” Twilight said in answer to herself, bobbing the doll’s head in time with her words and mimicking its model’s snide, mocking tone. “Oh well. It still worked. You’ve done a ba-a-a-ad thing, Miss Sparkle.” Twilight’s magic made the doll raise its leonine paw and wave a finger back and forth in a tsk-tsk-tsk gesture.
“This was NOT my fault!” she snarled at the doll. Her outrage burned back the sickening tide of guilt rising up inside her. It felt good. “She PROVOKED me! She knew just what to do! What to say! She knew everything! Sh-She knew…she knew about…” Twilight gritted her teeth, fiercely determined not to shed even a single tear in front of the little effigy. “You did this!”
“Oh, really?” Twilight said to herself in the doll’s voice as she cocked its head at an angle. “Was I the one who chased her down? Was I the one who lost my temper? Was I the one who cast that nasty battle magic?”
The tide of guilt was rising once more. Twilight magicked the doll closer and slid its finger down her cheek in a gesture that made her skin crawl in spite of herself. “You can’t pin this one on poor little ‘Discorduroy,’ Twilight Sparkle,” she said, “this one’s all you. Face it…”
She sagged, let the doll drop, and then finished the thought in her own small, hollow, horrified voice:
“…you’re a murderer.”
• • • • • • •
TWO DAYS EARLIER
“Just wait’ll you see what I have planned for the BACHELOR PARTY!”
The Ponyville Ponies shared a kind-hearted laugh at Spike’s expense as enchanted fireworks brightened the night sky. The wedding – and all of Equestria, for that matter – had teetered on the precipice of disaster, but true love and friendship had won out in the end. All was well.
With the breaking of the next dawn the seven of them said their farewells to the Princesses and to their Canterlot friends and boarded the Friendship Express back to Ponyville.
While Spike snoozed in a sunbeam and Twilight Sparkle wrote in her journal, several of her companions discussed the way their confrontation with the sinister Changelings had turned out.
“I still say we shoulda just rushed them in the Cathedral!” said Rainbow Dash, hopping out of her seat in the train car and kicking the air with her front hooves. “Those freaky bugs were pushovers once Twilight got them outta their disguises!”
“An’ just how many were ya fixin’ ta ‘push over,’ huh?” Applejack asked. “There musta been HUNDREDS o’ the lil’ varmints!”
“I agree,” said Rarity. “When you’re hopelessly outnumbered, there is no shame in surrendering.” She adjusted a coiled purple forelock with her hoof. “I strive for dignity in all things – even defeat!”
Applejack cast a sidelong glance at the slightly-rumpled bridal bouquet next to Rarity. “Uh-huh.”
“Aw, come on!” Dash swept her front hooves outward in denial. “There is NO way to make losing cool! Back me up here, Pinkie!”
Pinkie Pie was studying her faint reflection in one of the train’s windows. “Mmmyep…they definitely coulda done better on the mane,” she mused. “This thing’s one of a kind!” She shook her head; her frizzy pink mane bounced in all directions. “I mean, if you’re gonna copy somepony, don’t do it halfway!”
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and then snorted in annoyance.
“Um, well, I’m just happy that nopony got hurt too badly,” offered Fluttershy. “When Princess Celestia got knocked down I was just, I m-mean I thought we were all…” She trailed off and squeaked.
“You and me both!” said Twilight Sparkle, looking up from her journaling. “I’m so relieved things turned out the way they did. And I’m DEFINITELY looking forward to a break from all this excitement!”
Twilight’s friends had no trouble at all agreeing with that sentiment.
• • • • • • •
Upon returning to Ponyville the Ponies went their separate ways for some well-deserved rest.
Applejack trotted back to Sweet Apple Acres, Fluttershy went to check on the animals surrounding her rural cottage, Rainbow Dash flew off to her cloud-home on the outskirts of town, Pinkie Pie bounded away to Sugarcube Corner, Rarity returned to the Carousel Boutique, and Twilight Sparkle and Spike headed for home: the Golden Oaks Library.
Twilight magicked the door open, trotted inside, and then gasped in shock.
The library had been vandalized.
Cruel, hateful, offensive slurs rendered in garish purple paint covered the walls – even spreading across the spines of the books on the crowded shelves – and somepony had painted a long, snaking body with mismatched limbs for the wooden Pony-head centerpiece in the middle of the room.
Spike popped his head in through the door and stared. “Whoa!” he said. “Uhh, Twilight? What does ‘Screwhead’ mea–”
Before the little Dragon could finish his sentence Twilight Sparkle ignited her horn and magically jerked every book off the shelves, rendering the majority of the graffiti unreadable.
Twilight closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath. When she spoke her voice was rigid and cold:
“Spike, fetch a mop and bucket. We’ve got to get this place cleaned up.”
Spike nervously wrung his tail in his claws. “Twilight, what’s going on?”
Twilight turned to stare him down and stomped a front hoof. “NOW, Spike!”
“Yes’m!” he said and hastily scampered off.
Twilight knew that Ponyville had been founded by Earth Ponies, but she was far from the only Unicorn in town. Reluctance to use magic to change the seasons was one thing; out-and-out prejudice was another. Who could have done this?
She looked up at one of the few still-readable slurs staining her home: FREAK, scrawled above the south shelf-row. She frowned. She was still staring at the word when Spike returned with cleaning supplies.
While she and her Dragon assistant scrubbed the walls, floor and books, Twilight found her thoughts drifting back to her foalhood. That period of her life was now mostly a blur of study and stories, intercut with the protective presences of her foalsitter and older brother and the mean-spirited jeers of her fellow schoolfillies.
In Magic Kindergarten they had simply mocked her awkwardness and bookishness, but once she’d gotten her Cutie Mark and Princess Celestia had chosen her as Her favoured student, their mockery had turned to mistrust and rumours.
“I heard that there was a tremor and a thunderclap when she got her Cutie Mark.”
“Well, I heard she turned half the faculty into potted plants, and threatened to feed them to her Dragon familiar unless the rest gave her a scholarship!”
“I heard that too! What a FREAK! No wonder nopony but the Princess could handle teaching her!”
The trio of Unicorn fillies shared a laugh. Around the corner, unseen in the shade of the school’s soaring white marble wall, young Twilight Sparkle sat shaking in silent fury. A fallen tear left a dark spot on the topmost of the pile of books next to her.
Twilight snapped out of her reverie. “What? What was that?”
Spike set down his purple-stained washcloth. “I said can we take a break? We’ve been at this for an hour!”
“Oh. Sure, Spike. We’re just about done, anyway.”
As Spike scampered up the stairs to fetch a choice rhodochrosite he’d set aside for a snack, Twilight’s gaze strayed back to the faint violet smear above the south shelf-row.
• • • • • • •
Later that afternoon, Twilight sat helping Rarity magick the contents of a wicker picnic basket out onto a red-and-white checkered cloth spread on the grass in Ponyville’s largest park.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice,” said Rarity as she arranged carrot sticks in an overlapping fan pattern around the diagonal-cut sandwich on her plate. “The wedding left me with quite a backlog of orders, you see, and–” Rarity paused. “–Are you all right, Twilight?”
Twilight looked up from aimlessly stirring the chopped vegetables on her plate. “…Huh? Oh. I’m fine, Rarity, thanks.”
Rarity looked down her nose at her fellow Unicorn with a highly unconvinced stare.
Twilight swallowed. “It’s just… H-Has anypony ever called you names?” She looked away. “Bad ones, I mean? Really bad?”
Rarity’s eyes widened. “Oh, darling! What happened? Did somepony impugn your character?” She stood and fixed her stance, one front hoof raised defiantly. “Such GALL! This will not stand! NOPONY insults my friends!” Rarity’s dramatic bellowing drew the attention of a few passersby.
Twilight waved her hooves in dismay. “No! No, it’s not like that! Somepony just…” The thought of explaining what she’d seen written on her walls – and why it had stung her so badly – brought an ashamed flush to Twilight’s cheeks. “…It’s nothing. Really, Rarity. It’s okay. Can you just forget I said anything? Please?”
Rarity sat back down. “All right. But you know I’m always here for you, don’t you? We all are.”
Twilight gave a half-smile. “I know. Thank you.”
She magicked her thermos out of the basket and poured herself some tea. She levitated the cup and took a sip.
Rarity dived out of the line of fire as Twilight spat out the mouthful of tea.
Salt! thought Twilight as the bitter flavor made her grimace. But as the bitterness turned to heat – which quickly turned to burning – she reconsidered. No…LYE!
Her mind racing, Twilight scrambled over to the basket and dug through it with her hooves, gritting her teeth against the rising pain of the chemical burns in her mouth. She found what she needed, and acted.
Rarity had seen Twilight Sparkle do a great many unusual things, but she had never before seen her rinse her mouth out with the vinegar from a jar of sour pickles.
“Too hot?” she asked, once Twilight had finished swishing and spitting.
“G-Guess I should have been more careful!” Twilight forced a chuckle.
She could already feel the burns fading from severe to simply irritating; they’d be all but gone in minutes. Twilight felt a twinge of guilt about lying, but she knew she had no choice. Explaining the graffiti would have been awkward, but explaining what the Element of Magic had done to her? Well, that would be impossible. What would they say if they knew?
Twilight met Rarity’s gaze. “What?”
“I was asking – is Spike free? To come help me dig up some gems? With all these orders my supply’s running out. I wanted to check with you first in case you needed him – it would be just cruel to get the little dear’s hopes up only to dash them!”
Twilight shook her head in a vain attempt to clear it. “Sh-Sure. Yes, it’s fine. I’m sure he’ll help. He’s always willing to make time for you, Rarity!”
Rarity giggled demurely. “Oh, go on!” She magicked up the thermos.
Twilight’s horn flared; the thermos hurled itself away and smashed against a tree.
Rarity gawked in confusion.
“Uh-oops!” said Twilight. “Guess I don’t know my own strength! I was – the tea, I mean, it – the, uh, THE MILK!” Twilight nodded emphatically. “Yes, the milk was off! Too hot, and the milk was off! Can’t have tea with bad milk in it!” She cleared her throat and smiled nervously.
Rarity said nothing for what seemed like an eternity.
“Thank you, I suppose?” she managed at last.
Twilight let out the breath she suddenly realized she had been holding.
As the pair continued their somewhat-awkward lunch, a frizzy-maned pink Earth Pony watched them from behind a nearby row of thick bushes. She giggled softly, punctuating the sound with a small snort.
• • • • • • •
Once the picnic ended, Rarity went ahead to the library to fetch Spike while Twilight Sparkle headed for the market square.
She trotted through the bustling crowds, racking her brain for a list of enemies and coming up short.
Every foe she’d faced was gone, and nearly all of them had composed far grander schemes than racial slurs and dangerous pranks.
Every face in the crowd and in the market stalls was cheerful and welcoming, and more often than not paired with a hoof raised in a friendly wave.
There wasn’t the tiniest hint that any of them held her any ill will at all – let alone defiled her home and poisoned her tea.
If not for the lingering taste of blood and vinegar in her mouth, Twilight might have worried she’d imagined the whole thing.
“Hey Twilight! Watcha doin’?”
Twilight Sparkle shrieked.
Pinkie Pie hopped back from her spot right next to Twilight. “Hee hee! Woopsie! You seem kinda antsy, Twilight – is everything okay?”
Twilight took a deep breath and let it out shakily. “Yes, Pinkie. Everything’s fine. I was just…looking for somepony.”
Pinkie Pie tilted her head in curiosity. “Yeah? Is it Rainbow Dash? Cause if it’s Rainbow Dash she’s probably up in the clouds – cause she’s a Pegasus, you know – and so you probably wanna–”
“It isn’t Rainbow Dash!” said Twilight, cutting Pinkie off. “It’s somepony else. Somepony I don’t know.”
Pinkie’s bright expression grew brighter. She hopped up and down in excitement. “OOH! Lemme help lemme help! I know EVERYPONY in town! And I just LOVE helpin’ Ponies make new friends!”
She reached into the crowd and jerked a random Pony off her hooves.
“This is Rose!” Pinkie Pie said. “Isn’t she nice?”
“What’s happening?” asked the beige Earth Pony as she struggled in Pinkie’s grasp.
Twilight frowned. “Pinkie, I–”
“No? Okay!” Pinkie tossed Rose back among the passersby and fished out a second Pony. “What about Davenport?”
The dun-coloured Earth Pony stallion raised an eyebrow. “Twilight? Is this about your shipment of quills? Because I–WAAHH!” Pinkie threw him back into the crowd.
She giggled. “Woops! That’s right, you already knew him! Okay, well there’s always–”
Twilight stomped a front hoof. “PINKIE! I am NOT looking for a friend!”
Pinkie paused. “What do you mean?”
Twilight looked around; as they often did, Pinkie’s antics had drawn a fair-sized crowd. Twilight wished she knew an invisibility spell.
“Pinkie, I was looking for – I mean, I need to know who…” Twilight could feel a dozen gazes boring into her. She cringed. “…Never mind. Let’s just go find Rose. I’m sure she’s wonderful.”
Pinkie jumped for joy. “Woo-HOO! She IS wonderful! She grows the yummiest flowers EVER! I’m sure you two will be SUPER good friends! C’mon!”
Pinkie reared up, tucked Twilight under one of her front legs like a parcel, and hopped away down the street.
• • • • • • •
By the time Twilight finally returned to her library home the sun was just beginning to sink behind the tallest rooftops in Ponyville.
Judging from the scattered books still covering the floor, Spike had yet to return.
She stole one more glance up at the smear on the south wall; she let out an exhausted sigh.
“They couldn’t have known,” she told the empty room. “It was probably just some misbehaving foals trying to be outrageous.”
She slowly nodded, as if encouraging herself to accept the notion. “And they must have thought that lye was like soap. They wanted me to spit out bubbles or something!”
She nodded again. “Just some ill-conceived, foalish pranks. They couldn’t have known. It’s the only logical explanation.”
Twilight trotted up the stairs and through the doorway to her bedroom.
WELCOME HOME, FREAK
The thick purple letters ran all the way across the front edge of the balcony holding her bed.
Twilight’s left eyelid twitched.
She stiffly trotted over to the cupboard, magicked up the bowl of tainted sugar, and tossed its contents into the fireplace.
She magicked up a rag, soaked it in the wash basin, and approached the fresh graffiti.
With every ounce of composure she could muster, Twilight repeated:
“It’s the only logical explanation.”
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle floated in a blood-warm green sea.
She became aware of walls surrounding her, and she realized that she was encased in a fleshy cocoon. She kicked and struggled, and eventually her prison ruptured.
She spilled out onto smooth black stone, sliding on her belly on a wave of slime. When she came to a stop, several shadows fell on her.
“She made it out,” said a resonant feminine voice.
“Of course she made it out!” snapped a sneering male. “She’s no mortal Pony! She’s one of us!”
“Yes, that explains everything,” added a second female. “How else could she have defeated me?”
Twilight rubbed the ooze out of her eyes and then turned to look in the direction of the voices.
The needle-toothed Queen of the Changelings and a starry-maned Alicorn as black as deep space flanked a coiling Draconequus. The three were looking down at her with something not unlike pride.
Behind them, dozens of green pods like the one she’d escaped held piles of bare bones.
The Draconequus grabbed her on either side of her ribcage and lifted her up to his eye level.
“Hello, Miss Sparkle,” said Discord with a cheery grin. “Happy birthday.”
Twilight looked down at herself; her four mismatched wings flapped convulsively as she opened her mandibles to scream.
• • • • • • •
Spike smashed through the pot of flowers with a startled “OOF!”
On the other side of the bedroom-balcony Twilight Sparkle was sitting up in bed and gasping for breath. Her pupils were pinpoints, her horn was glowing, and she was covered in a cold sweat.
“Sheesh, Twilight! That hurt!” Spike crawled out from the pile of pottery shards and broken stems and dusted himself off. “I was just waking you up like you wanted – nine o’clock sharp!”
Twilight came to her senses. “Oh! Spike! I’m so sorry!” She leaped out of bed and cantered over to the little Dragon. “I was having this terrible dream, and then you grabbed me, and I…” She bit her lip anxiously. “Are you okay?” She craned her neck to look him over.
“Aww, I’m fine,” he said. “Thick scales, you know.” He rapped on his chest with a fist.
Twilight sighed in relief and pulled her assistant into a hug. Spike happily hugged back.
“I could never forgive myself if I hurt you!” she said and squeezed him tighter. She shuddered, holding back a sudden sob.
“Twilight…?” Spike pulled back a bit and looked up at her.
Twilight shook her head. “I–I’m fine, Spike,” she insisted. “That bad dream just put me in a weird mood.”
Spike shrugged. “All right. Oh! Don’t forget you’ve got that event at the school today. Rainbow Dash wants you there with your wind-thingy before ten!”
Twilight sagged. The nightmare had erased whatever rest her night’s sleep had provided, and she wanted nothing more than to drop right back into bed. She rubbed the back of her neck with a front hoof. “Can’t we reschedule?”
“Uh-uh! No way!” Spike reached behind himself and retrieved a spooled scroll. The paper reached the lower floor of the room once he’d unrolled it. “You kept me up half the night last week helping you make room for your big bro’s wedding, remember? You are booked solid until WINTER!”
Twilight groaned. “Fine. My anemometer and I will be there.”
While Twilight trotted over to her mirror and magicked a brush through her tangled mane, she mulled over the past day’s events. Somepony had come into her home while it was unguarded. They’d poisoned her food. They’d defaced her books. And they knew things she thought she’d left behind in Canterlot. Perhaps even, a nagging, splinter-like stray thought added, things about the way her Element had changed her. A knot of tension twisted her guts.
“Hey, uh, Twilight? Do you mind if I spend the day at Rarity’s while you’re out?” Spike blushed and twiddled his claws. “She’s got all these orders to catch up on, and I kinda said I’d help her out yesterday. I know the books aren’t all re-shelved yet, but I’ll get right on that as soon as I get back – I promise!”
The knot tightened.
Twilight looked away from her reflection. “No, Spike.”
“No?” he asked. “No you don’t mind, or no I can’t go?”
Twilight turned and ducked down to meet the little Dragon’s gaze. “No, Spike! No you can’t go! We can’t keep leaving this place empty all day! Owlowiscious can’t keep watch while the sun’s up – he’s nocturnal!” Twilight started pacing. “We let our guard down when we went to the wedding, and somepony came in here and wrote on the walls and put–” She caught herself. “–put me in a bad mood. I can’t keep a shield on this place all the way from the school, so if I’m going out, you’re staying here!”
Spike frowned. “B-But you don’t know if anything else will even happen! It was just some prank! It could have happened to anypony! You don’t have to freak ou–”
Twilight’s shout shook the rafters and sent her assistant tumbling back into the pile of flowerpot debris.
When his head popped back up, Spike’s tear-rimmed eyes seemed wider than his head. His lower lip quivered. “Yes, ma’am!” he squeaked.
Twilight caught a glimpse of her enraged expression in the mirror; the sight melted her anger into a fresh layer of shame.
“Spike, I…I’m sorry!”
Twilight leaped down from the balcony and galloped down the stairs. Her horn glowed, and the anemometer hovered off a shelf and bobbed along in her wake.
Spike sat in the pile of soil and broken pottery until he heard the front door close.
He wiped his eyes with his claws, heaved a dejected sigh, and then shuffled over to the closet to fetch a dustpan and broom.
He had just finished sweeping up the last of the mess when he heard Twilight’s voice calling out from outside.
He plodded down the stairs, raising his voice to answer as he did:
“Yeah, what is it?”
Twilight didn’t open the door. “Spike, I wanted to apologize. I overreacted. It was wrong of me to shout at you just because I’m having a bad day.”
Spike stood in the middle of the library’s main floor, rolled his eyes and folded his arms. “You can say that again.” He huffed sulkily; a small curl of greenish-black smoke puffed out of his nostrils.
“I mean it, Spike. I’m running late so I have to go, but you should go too. Go do what you wanted to. Take your time. I’ll use magic to check up on the library now and then.”
Spike’s sullen expression snapped into an achingly-wide grin. “R-Really? I can go see Rarity?”
“Yes. Rarity. Right. You’ve earned it, kiddo! See you tonight.”
Spike raised an eyebrow, but a single odd turn of phrase couldn’t deflate his excitement. He shrugged, wrenched open the door and then bounded off in the direction of Carousel Boutique, failing miserably at suppressing his lovestruck guffawing.
A pink hoof thrust into the closing door’s path. The hoof’s owner spoke as she trotted into the library, her voice shifting from Twilight’s friendly tone to a high-pitched sneer:
“You run along, now! Run off to your vapid Screwhead!”
The Earth Pony giggled a sinister giggle.
• • • • • • •
“It’s perfect! It couldn’t BE more perfect!” Scootaloo punctuated her statement with a hop and an excited flap of her wings.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders were standing in the field outside the schoolhouse. All around them, foals were stretching, trotting in place, doing pushups, and otherwise warming up.
“I dunno, Scootaloo,” said Apple Bloom warily. “I tried a whole BUNCH o’ athletic per-soots tryin’ to get ma Cutie Mark, and they didn’t go so well.”
“And I loved the Sisterhooves Social,” added Sweetie Belle, “but it didn’t get me OR Apple Bloom our Cutie Marks!”
“But that’s the beauty of this one – we can ALL go for it at once!” Scootaloo pointed a hoof at the poster hanging on the school’s outside wall:
TRIPLE TIARA TOURNAMENT TEAM TRYOUTS THIS TUESDAY
“We qualify as a team, we all do the events we’re best at, we run the team relay at the end, and BAM! Tiaras and Cutie Marks all around!” Scootaloo’s grin shone in the sunlight.
“Yeah, I guess that could work!” replied Apple Bloom, tapping her chin with a hoof.
Sweetie Belle nodded. “Maybe our special talents are each different events?”
“YEAH!” Scootaloo hoof-pumped. “Now you’re talkin’! We are TOTALLY gonna win this one!”
The three foals shared a high hoof, and:
“CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS, TRIPLE TIARA TRIUMPH!”
“Pfft! More like Triple Tiara TRAGEDY!”
The Crusaders turned around to face Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. Silver was sniggering over Diamond’s barb.
Scootaloo flitted over to stare the Earth Pony down. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom flanked her and added a “Yeah!”
Diamond rolled her eyes. “It means you three are a huge joke! Every time you pull some ridiculous new stunt, the only thing that happens is everypony else ends up paying for it! And huh! Would you look at that! STILL no Cutie Marks!”
Scootaloo advanced until her forehead pressed into Diamond’s. “Oh, well sorry we aren’t quitters like you!”
Diamond scowled. “That printing press is a health hazard! I had every right to quit the paper!”
Scootaloo pushed, driving Diamond backward. “You just can’t take it when you don’t get to be a spoiled BRAT!”
Diamond Tiara shoved the little Pegasus back. “I am NOT a spoiled brat! I deserve everything Daddy gives me!”
Scootaloo scoffed. “Like being grounded half the time?”
Diamond narrowed her eyes. “You’re one to talk. You’re grounded ALL the time!” She flicked one of Scootaloo’s wings with a hoof.
Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom and Silver Spoon gasped and backed away from the pair.
Scootaloo’s jaw dropped, but her expression quickly turned from shock to rage. She lunged for Diamond with an anguished cry.
“Diamond Tiara!” Silver Spoon leaped into the fray.
“Scootaloo!” Apple Bloom joined in as well.
“Miss Cheerilee!” Sweetie Belle looked up and past the melee in front of her.
“All of you! Stop this at ONCE!” The burgundy school-mare reached into the swirling mass of fillies and forced them to part.
Diamond Tiara’s namesake headwear was bent and off-kilter, her mane was in tangles, and a spot of blood marked her lower lip. Scootaloo’s feathers were ruffled and a faint bruise was already visible above her right eye. Apple Bloom and Silver Spoon were only slightly less disheveled. All of them were covered in schoolyard dust.
“That filly should be locked up!” Diamond Tiara pointed an accusing front hoof over Cheerliee’s outstretched leg.
“Go ahead and try it!” shouted Scootaloo, similarly reaching around Cheerliee’s other front leg.
“That’s ENOUGH!” Cheerilee barked. The foals cringed. “One more outburst from either of you, and you’ll BOTH be cleaning the blackboard erasers until next Winter Wrap-up. Is that clear?” Cheerilee eyed Scootaloo and Diamond in turn.
They both muttered a sullen “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Good. Now, all of you go get cleaned up and go back to practicing – in peace!”
On the other side of the field, Twilight Sparkle plodded up with the anemometer hovering along behind her. Her eyes were downcast, focused on nothing in particular.
Rainbow Dash swooped down off of a low-hanging cloud and alighted in front of her friend.
“Hey, Twi! Glad you made it. Oh – and you remembered that machine! Awesome!”
Twilight set down the anemometer. “Yeah,” she muttered anemically, “happy to help.” She sighed.
Applejack came trotting over to join the pair.
“Howdy, Twilight!” Applejack smiled warmly. “All set to help tell the lightnin’ bugs from the garden slugs?” She trotted in place, full of energy.
“You can count on me…” Twilight trailed off and then flopped down on her belly, frowning.
Applejack’s eyebrows knitted in concern. “Aww, hey now Sugarcube – what’s got ya so glum?”
“Yeah, Twilight!” added Rainbow Dash. “You gotta perk up a little – don’t forget, we’re today’s celebrity judges!” She buffed a front hoof on her chest.
Twilight struggled her way back onto her hooves. “I know, I know – Ponyville’s top Earth Pony, Pegasus and Unicorn athletes.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure if I feel very athletic, though. I was in a bad mood this morning, and I shouted at Spike. He must be so mad at me…” Twilight hung her head.
Applejack shrugged. “If yer so worried, why doncha go apologize?”
“But I said I’d help out with the tryouts! I can’t just run off and–”
Scootaloo’s excited cry drowned Twilight out completely. The foal raced up and hugged Dash’s left hind leg.
“Whoa! Hey there squirt! Lookin’ forward to the tryouts?” Rainbow Dash chuckled.
Scootaloo let go and started hopping up and down. “Ooh! Ooh! Yes-yes-yes! I can’t wait to show you what I can do!” She posed proudly, wings spread; a loose feather fell to the grass.
Dash eyed the tiny Pegasus with suspicion. “Say…you look a little banged up. Did you get in a fight?”
Scootaloo blushed and swallowed hard. “M-Maybe. But it wasn’t my fault! Diamond Tiara started it!”
Dash frowned, pulled Scootaloo in close and then ducked down to whisper to her. “So…did you win?”
Scootaloo grinned as she whispered back. “Miss Cheerilee broke it up, but I was TOTALLY going to!”
Dash giggled and mussed the foal’s mane. “Atta girl! Good to see you fillies standing up for yourselves! Why don’t you meet me at the smoothie shop tomorrow after school? I’ll give you a few pointers about fighting – and flying!”
Scootaloo’s eyes shone, and her grin threatened to split her head. She nodded vigorously.
The older Pegasus straightened, her features returning to a serious frown. “…And don’t let it happen again!” she said firmly.
Scootaloo struggled to conceal her smile and then winked conspiratorially. “Yes, Ma’am!”
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle cantered over to the group.
“Heya sis!” said Apple Bloom.
“Hi everypony!” added Sweetie Belle.
Twilight sagged as the two other foals’ worse-for-wear state sparked a conversation about the evils of brawling, techniques for avoiding conflict…and how best to take a kick.
“Maybe I will go talk to Spike after all,” she mused, half to herself.
“Good timing!” said Sweetie Belle. “He’s right over there!” She pointed a hoof and then started waving.
Rarity was sashaying her way through the crowds of schoolfoals, carefully avoiding the dustiest patches of ground. Her horn was aglow, and a hoof-stitched purple satin lunch-bag emblazoned with a needlepoint portrait of Sweetie Belle hovered along next to her. Spike was sitting on her back, waving to Sweetie Belle.
Twilight stared. “S-Spike?”
Spike hopped down off Rarity’s back. “Hey Twilight! Thanks again for changing your mind.” He looked over at Rarity with hearts in his eyes.
“Changing my…?” Twilight’s features twisted in confusion.
Rarity magicked the lunch-bag over to her sister and then fixed Twilight with a concerned look. “Twilight, are you quite all right? You look a little pale.” Her eyes widened in worry. “Oh, dear! Did that spoiled milk the other day make you ill?”
Twilight’s eyes darted from Spike, to Rarity, to the direction of the library, and back again.
She ignited her horn. “I have to go!”
Twilight disappeared in a reddish flash.
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle flashed into being next to her bed on the Library’s second floor; an instant later, her world collapsed into an inferno of knee-buckling agony.
Twilight’s jaw dropped in a silent scream. Every breath felt like it threatened to tear something inside her. The sound of her racing pulse throbbed in her ears. Sweat shone on her forehead as she struggled to string together a coherent thought through the torturous pain.
“R-Rope?” she sputtered after a few endless seconds.
Several heavy hemp ropes had been strung across the room at various angles; one of them was now occupying the same space-time as her ribcage. The fibrous material was not so much impaling her as part of her.
“Rope!” Twilight repeated. A glimmer of realization shone through the anguish twisting her features. Years-old memories of her Thaumaturgical Principles and Practices lessons drifted back into focus. She could almost hear Princess Celestia’s noble timbre as she recited the instructions:
“This is a rare and unlikely eventuality to be sure, Twilight, but should such a sorry fate befall you, this lesson could well save your very life! To escape a teleportation matter-intrusion, use a ROPE.”
Twilight forced herself to stop hyperventilating. She put every ounce of her focus into following the lesson’s steps.
“R: Release the spell matrix…”
Twilight’s horn flickered like a guttering candle as she strained to concentrate.
“O: Open a new one…”
Her horn glowed brighter; the reddish-purple aura spread across her body and the intruding rope in slow, twitching pulses.
“P: Phase the intrusion…”
The rope gradually faded into translucence as Twilight magically separated its particles from hers. She whimpered gratefully as the pain went from burning and fierce to cold and aching. Mild internal bleeding felt like a relief after what she’d just endured.
“E: Escape the area!”
Twilight collapsed, and felt the ghostly rope slip clear of her body.
She ended the spell. The re-solidified rope, warm and damp, draped over her back. The power of the Element of Magic was already knitting the damage to her organs, and her pain was fading by the second. She let out a half-sob, half-chuckle.
As in in reply to the sound, a high, snorting giggle came from downstairs.
Twilight’s eyes widened; it couldn’t be.
She shakily stood and trotted down the stairs. “Pinkie…is that you?”
The library’s main floor was in total disarray.
What few books Spike had gotten around to shelving had been tossed back onto the floor, and a large pile of tomes surrounded the room’s centerpiece like a witch-burning waiting to happen. Still-wet paint gave the wooden bust at the top of the pile a dark blue mane with a pink streak. More ropes were strung between the shelves.
Twilight fought to stay calm. She breathed as slowly and deeply as the pain in her lungs would allow. She magicked up her second copy of the The Astronomical Astronomer’s Almanac to All Things Astronomy and hefted its weight. She turned in a slow circle, her eyes scanning every nook and cranny for signs of movement.
As insane as the notion seemed, Twilight’s analytical mind began considering the possibility. Pinkie Pie had been raised on an isolated rural farm, after all. And she had been dragged into all sorts of magical mayhem since Twilight had come to town. And Twilight had certainly glimpsed something darker lurking behind Pinkie’s cheery façade. If anypony could turn a room into a grim spectacle in the blink of an eye, Pinkie Pie could. But would she really? Did she really?
The silence in the room was absolute; Twilight could hear the tiny scrape of hoof-on-wood as she shifted her stance. And then:
Twilight shrieked, turned and swung the book in one smooth motion.
The frizzy pink party-Pony took the blow on her face and hit the book-strewn floor like a falling encyclopedia. She lay silent and still save for the subtle movement and whistle of her breathing.
Twilight let the Almanac drop.
“P-Pinkie! Why?” She stood over her unconscious friend; tears welled up in her eyes. “H-how COULD you? I thought we–”
Twilight’s dog-eared copy of Travelling without Moving: Essentials of Teleportation smashed into the tip of her horn like a hammer striking a nail. She cried out in pain and fell to her knees.
With no small effort, Twilight turned to face whoever had swung the book; for a moment, she almost thought Pinkie had been concealing yet another sister.
A bright pink Earth Pony with a frizzy purple-and-white-striped mane stood over her. The Pony’s flanks were marked with a screw next to a baseball, her dark purple eyes were swirled like pinwheel candies, and she wore a yellow propeller beanie as sunny as her expression.
“You silly filly!” said the Earth Pony. “You weren’t due home for a while, yet! I didn’t even have a chance to get the fire going! And then you call a friend over, too? Tsk tsk!”
Twilight squinted in an effort to focus her watering eyes. “Wh-Who…?”
“Woopsie! Where are my manners? Hello, Miss Sparkle!” The Earth Pony gave a cheery wave. “My name’s Topsy Turvy. I run the Joke Shop here in Ponyville, and this time…” Her tone turned low and menacing. “…the joke’s on you.”
“W-Why did you d-do this?” Twilight panted. Her horn felt like a railroad spike driven into her forehead.
Topsy chuckled. “Well, gee! It looked like so much fun when you walloped Pinkie Pie that I just HAD to give it a try!”
Twilight frowned. “No! This! ALL of this! Why are you doing this to me?”
Topsy chuckled louder. “Why? Isn’t it obvious, Miss Sparkle?” She narrowed her eyes. “Because I hate you.”
The Earth Pony trotted around to face Twilight head-on and gently pulled her up into a crouch. She sat and cradled Twilight’s face between her front hooves.
“I hate you,” she repeated, her soft, tender tone deeply at odds with her words. “I’m IN hate with you.”
She brushed a lock of Twilight’s mane aside.
“This is the real deal. Hate. True hate. Hate at first sight.” She smiled. “Nopony else could ever hate you the way I do.”
Twilight’s brow knitted in confusion. “B-But I don’t even know you!”
Topsy pressed a hoof to Twilight’s mouth.
“Shh,” she whispered, “don’t spoil the moment.”
Fast as a colt-in-the-box, Topsy Turvy slapped Twilight across the face. The force of the blow sent the Unicorn sprawling.
While Twilight groaned and struggled to get back to her hooves, Topsy trotted in a wide circle around the room, kicking fallen books this way and that. She hopped over Pinkie’s unconscious body with a carefree bound. She came to the basement stairs and trotted down them, speaking over her shoulder as she descended:
“You know, I never really visited the Library much before, but now I see how much fun reading can be! Your old textbook gave me that awesome rope idea, and those reports to the Princess were a laugh riot.” Topsy mimicked Twilight’s voice: “Dear Princess Celestia, today I learned something most foals figure out in Kindergarten! Go me!”
Topsy’s amused sigh echoed up the floor below.
“That’s not funny!” Twilight rose and followed Topsy into the basement, magicking the door closed behind her. She raced to catch up, but the intruder had a head start.
“Week after week of mayhem and damage control – oh, sorry – ‘friendship lessons.’ You and your pals are some of the biggest losers I’ve ever seen! Really, now – how many different ways can six Ponies mess things up?” Topsy giggled.
Twilight caught a streak of pink out of the corner of her eye; when she turned, Topsy was nowhere to be found.
Just then, the Earth Pony’s mocking voice sounded from farther into the basement. “Your diary was a great read, too, by the way. I couldn’t stop laughing.” She smirked. “The thing reads like a textbook. I mean, who puts hoofnotes and citations in their own diary? What a SCREAM!”
Twilight scowled. “That book is private!” An edge of menace crept into her voice.
Topsy ignored her. “I especially liked the part where you had a dream about Princess Celestia adopting you as Her daughter once your parents die of old age. ‘Princess Sparkle’ – hee hee! That’s so cute I could just puke!”
Twilight winced. A hot blush coloured her cheeks. “Sh-Shut up..!”
Topsy giggled again, the high pitch and snort so very much like Pinkie Pie’s most irritating laugh. “Oh, but She’d never DO that, would She? Because She’s a Goddess…and you’re just an undead egghead.”
“SHUT UP!” Twilight gritted her teeth. She was all but galloping now, weaving between the magi-tech machinery and crates of unsorted books in search of her tormenter.
Twilight’s eyes finally met Topsy’s from across the basement as the Unicorn skidded out from behind a tall box. The Earth Pony was standing half-silhouetted in the shadows with her back to the far wall. A stuffed toy sat on the floor next to her.
Topsy grinned, but her gaze was pure venom.
“You know, Discord made it so anything was possible. He took magic away from you greedy Twinklers and put it into everything – the clouds, the buildings…even the ground! With Him in charge, Earth Ponies could FLY. But you couldn’t stand not being the Super-Special Screwhead Supreme, so you had to take Him down.” Topsy blew a disapproving raspberry.
Twilight grimaced in outrage. “That’s INSANE! You can’t possib–”
Topsy clopped her front hooves together like a pair of flapping jaws. “Blah-blah-blah! Oh no, Twily! Don’t do it! Not a speech! Don’t bore me into submission!” She cringed theatrically.
Twilight tensed. “Stop interrupting me! And DON’T call me that!”
Topsy smirked. “Oh, right. Only your big wonderful brother can call you that. How’d the wedding go, by the way? ‘Cause I hear there was more magical mayhem, courtesy of you and your fellow Twinklers. Even at a wedding? For shame!” She waved a front hoof in a chiding gesture.
Twilight stomped a hoof. “I helped my brother and his bride save all of Equestria at that wedding!”
Topsy scoffed. “Big deal! This Earth Pony town doesn’t NEED a stuck-up, magic-spewing, undead THING like you to keep it safe!”
She mimicked Princess Celestia’s stern tone: “You’ve been an utter waste of my valuable time, Twilight Sparkle. A total disappointment. I should have just gotten a cat.”
“Don’t you DARE–”
Topsy resumed her normal voice, drowning out Twilight’s furious shout with even higher volume: “Face facts, Twily: you’re a FREAK, you’re a FAILURE, you’re a SCREWHEAD, AND NOPONY WILL EVER LOVE YOU!”
Twilight Sparkle screamed in blind, unthinking rage. Her eyes and horn ignited blazing-bright as she unleashed a hellish explosion of battle magic. For a moment the basement was engulfed in a red flash brighter than the noonday sun.
SECRETS AND LIES By Saddlesoap Opera Part Two: The Poisonous Tree
Applejack galloped down the farmhouse stairs and skidded into the family room.
“Big Mac! Have ya seen mah hat?”
Her brother hastily stuffed something underneath a throw pillow on the couch and turned to face her.
Applejack trotted in place. “Dang it, hurry up! Those tryouts at the school took longer‘n I thought! I’m gonna be late! Have ya seen it or not?”
Big Macintosh gave his eldest sister a stare as long and flat as a river. “AJ…yer WEARIN’ it.”
Applejack’s green eyes darted upward. “…Oh.” A soft blush warmed her cheeks.
“Shewt! If’n I didn’t feel nervous as all git out already. I’d lose track o’ mah LEGS if they weren’t stuck on!” Applejack stomped a front hoof. “She’s gonna think I’m nuttier ’n Granny Smith’s fruitcakes!” She hung her head.
Applejack’s brother stood up and trotted over to her. He bent to nuzzle against her neck.
“Sis, ya look fine. Ya’ll DO fine. Ya always do. Poppa would be proud ta see ya right now.”
Applejack nuzzled back. “Ya really think so?”
“Eeeyup!” He chuckled.
Applejack smiled. “Thanks, big brother.” She took a slow, deep breath, put on a stern, determined expression, nodded resolutely, and then headed for the front door.
Big Mac trotted back over to the couch and flopped down onto it. He retrieved a scruffy grey doll from underneath the throw pillow. He hugged the stuffed toy and said:
“She trots up a mountain ta’ face a fire-breathin’ Dragon with a spring in ‘er step, but goes right ta pieces over a first date. That Applejack sure is a funny one ain’t she, Lil’ Miss Smartypants?”
Big Mac made the doll’s head bob a few times as though it were speaking.
“That’s different!” he replied. “I wasn’t thinkin’ clearly at the time.”
He bobbed the doll’s head some more.
He blushed and cleared his throat. “W-Well, I s’pose we’ll see, won’t we?”
He made the doll nod.
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle paced back and forth in the library’s basement. Her mane was unkempt, and her gait was too quick for comfort. She was muttering to the room’s only other occupant – a small plush Draconequus toy.
“…You knew we might beat you, so you turned somepony to your side. A minion hidden in Ponyville, waiting to do your bidding. You made her hate me. You twisted her mind until she actually thought it was a good idea to make me…” She passed the blackened blast-hole in the wall.
Twilight shuddered and then violently shook her head. “No, no, NO! It’s not going to work! You might have made me do something… terrible… but I am NOT going to break!” She stopped and stared down at the stuffed toy as her voice rose in volume. “I won’t bring the others down with me! They’re the best friends a mare could ask for, and I won’t let them down again!”
She turned away and ignited her horn. “I WON’T!”
Machines and crates glowed and took to the air. In moments, Twilight had rearranged the basement’s contents to conceal the charred crater in the wall and the burn marks on the floor.
Twilight turned back to the ‘Discorduroy’ doll. “Nopony knows what happened. Nopony knows… and I’m not going to tell them.” Twilight grinned an off-kilter grin. “I’ll just pretend it never happened, and get on with my life. Out of sight, out of mind! You lose, Discord!” She chuckled in half-mad satisfaction.
“Do you really think you can do it, Miss Sparkle? Take a Pony’s life and then cover it up, just like that?”
Twilight took a moment to realize that she’d spoken the words herself. She had magicked Discorduroy into an incredulous pose, his head tilted and his tiny arms folded.
Twilight scowled in disdain. “Don’t even bother. I’m wise to your tricks. Feints and misdirection and manipulation. You WANT me to get riddled with guilt and confess! You want to see all of my friends be shocked and horrified and ashamed, and see me thrown in a dungeon for eternity. You want to see our friendship fail, and the Elements with it. Well...” She magicked up an empty crate, upended it, and dropped it on top of the doll. “…tough luck!”
Twilight trotted up the basement stairs and through the open door. The sight of the rope-garlanded, book-strewn main floor didn’t upset her as much as she’d feared it might.
She took a slow, deep breath. “I can do this,” she said to herself. “Just don’t think about it. Easy as–” Her gaze fell on the dazed pink Earth Pony on the floor.
“Pinkie!” Twilight galloped over and knelt next to her friend. “Pinkie, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!” She shook her with her front hooves. “Wake up! Please, wake up!”
Pinkie stirred and her eyelids creaked open to different degrees; the right side of her face now sported an impressive black eye. “Mmm-whuzza-huh…?” she said eloquently. “Ooh… my head’s all ouchie!”
“Pinkie! Oh, thank Celestia!” Twilight pulled Pinkie up into a tight hug. Pinkie gave a small shrug and then hugged back.
After a moment, Pinkie sniffed the air. “Hay, I smell smoke. Is something cooking?” She slipped out of the hug and hopped up and down excitedly. “OOH! Are we gonna roast marshmallows?
Twilight winced. “It’s not a cooking fire. It’s…” Words failed her.
“Mmmm! I LOVE roasted marshmallows! SO good! All burnt on the outside and melty on the inside! YUM!”
Twilight’s thoughts veered irresistibly to the smoke-smell’s origins. Her stomach lurched. “Pinkie…”
Pinkie continued undaunted. “I like to give that black crispy crust a little poke and just–” Pinkie mimed holding something up to her mouth and loudly slurped the air with her tongue.
Twilight grimaced and then galloped up the stairs to find a place to retch.
“Uh, okay, then,” Pinkie shouted up the stairs, “what about corn on the cob?”
• • • • • • •
Applejack shifted on the small haystack and looked around the open-air bistro for the hundredth time. She glanced back down at her menu in her hooves, confirming that the twenty-three items listed there had indeed not changed in the intervening seconds since she’d last looked.
“So, what’s good here?”
Applejack yelped and fumbled with the menu.
Carrot Top was standing on the other side of the table. Her wavy orange mane was freshly brushed, and she smelled of carrot-juice soap. She smiled.
“H-Howdy!” Applejack cleared her throat. “T-Take a load off, why doncha?” She gestured at the unoccupied haystack across from her.
Carrot Top took a seat. “Don’ mind if I do.”
“Thanks again fer takin’ a rain check last week, by the way. None o’ the other bridesmaids brought a plus-one, y’see, an’ a weddin’ seemed kinda… forward… fer a first date, anyways – not that I got any misgivin’s er nothin’, mind you! Don’t get the wrong idea – I think we’ve really hit it off! It’s just that I never actually done somethin’ like this before, and I din’t wanna…” Applejack caught herself and sighed. “…Shewt. I’m babblin’ like a brook. Can I start over?”
Carrot giggled. “Aww, I thought ya were doin’ just fine. Yer cute when yer nervous!”
Applejack fought back the blush spreading across the bridge of her nose, which only caused it to spread faster.
“’Sides,” added Carrot Top, “not like I ain’t a mite bit nervous, too, ya know. Ya might be a neighbor, but yer also a friend o’ the Princess Herself! I spectated the Royal Weddin’. YOU were in the weddin’ party! An’ now here ya are, sittin’ down with lil’ ol’ me!”
Applejack turned as red as her big brother. She looked away for a moment to compose herself; when she turned to face Carrot Top again she all but fell into her eyes.
Eyes the same shade of leaf-green as her own, bright and shiny and full of life. Eyes framed by those carrot-coloured curls and a velvety hide the pale yellow of a freshly-peeled apple…
“Eyes…” Applejack muttered dreamily.
Applejack shook her head; the waiter, it seemed, had arrived.
“Uh… I-Ice! Can I get some water with ice, please?”
The slick-maned stallion raised a well-groomed eyebrow. “Uhhm, if I may be so bold as to point out… madame already ‘as a glass of ice water.”
“Oh. Right.” Applejack chuckled weakly. “I reckon we’ll still need a couple minutes, then.”
“As madame pleezes.” The waiter trotted away.
Carrot Top smirked. She put a hoof to her mouth, stifling the laugh.
“Now what’s so dang funny, missy?” asked Applejack defensively.
“I’m s-sorry,” Carrot Top said with effort, “I don’ m-mean ta be–” Her resolve broke, and she laughed uproariously.
Applejack tried to maintain her accusatory frown but Carrot Top’s delight was infectious, and she soon joined her in a helpless fit of giggles.
By the time she finally recovered, eyes watering and sides aching, Applejack found her nervousness had evaporated like so much morning dew.
• • • • • • •
Twilight sat, silent and grey-faced in front of her fireplace, preparing a pot of tea.
Pinkie sat nearby, waiting patiently with her ever-present grin and carefully looking everywhere except at Twilight.
Eventually, Twilight took the bait. “Pinkie, why aren’t you looking this way?”
“Well, DUH!” said Pinkie. “If I watch it, it won’t boil!”
Twilight frowned and turned around to face Pinkie head-on. “That’s just an old mare’s tale–” behind her, the kettle began to whistle. Twilight sighed and then poured the steaming water into a pot holding a sachet of Zecora’s Everfree Tea. The soothing scent of spices soon filled the air.
Pinkie inhaled deeply. “Mmm! That smells yummy!”
Twilight leaped at the chance for some normal conversation, even if it was with the least normal Pony she knew. “It sure does! Zecora’s tea is as good as the imported stuff Princess Celestia drinks. Would you like a cup?”
Pinkie nodded. “No milk and six sugars, please!”
Twilight rolled her eyes and smiled. She trotted over to the cupboard and magicked it open. The empty sugar bowl sat where she’d left it. The memory of a mouthful of caustic salts made Twilight’s upper lip quiver.
“Oh. Sorry, I’m… kind of short on sugar right now.”
“Aww, that’s okay!” Pinkie trotted over to the fireplace and pushed a loose brick aside, revealing a small pile of sugar cubes. “I have sugar stashed all over Ponyville – in case of sugar emergencies!”
Twilight growled in frustration. “Pinkie! You CAN’T keep sneaking into my home and hiding things!”
Pinkie’s mouth made a mournful moue. “B-But it’s for emergencies! Better safe than sorry, you know! I mean, lookit all the rope you’ve got saved up for rope emergencies!” Pinkie gestured expansively.
“That isn’t – I wasn’t the one who – it was more like a…” Twilight groaned. “Look – it’s dangerous to sneak around Ponies and startle them, okay? Look at what happened to you today!”
Pinkie raised a front hoof and gingerly poked at her black eye as her memory of recent events came more clearly into focus. “Twilight… it was you…?” The Earth Pony began to shake. “You’ve never, ever, never-ever-ever hit me before!” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Wh-wh-y-y-y-y?” Pinkie’s right front leg jerked upward. “Owww! Pi-ii-in-chy!” she whimpered, trotting in place on her three other legs as she sobbed.
Twilight’s pupils shrank. No! Not Pinkie Sense! Not now!
“No, no!” Twilight insisted. “N-Nothing scary going on! Nothing at all! I was… I was just…” Her eyes widened. “Playing a joke on you!” Her horn glowed as she magicked Pinkie’s leg to straighten it out. “You know – pulling your leg?” She gave Pinkie’s leg a few gentle tugs.
“A j-joke?” A glimmer of Pinkie’s customary good cheer shone through her upset, but then her head tilted in confusion. “…I don’t get it.”
“Well, I, uhh… I caught you sneaking into the library, so I… I threw the BOOK at you!” Twilight nodded emphatically. “Yeah, that’s it! And it was an ASTRONOMY book, so you ended up seeing STARS! Get it? Book? Stars?” Twilight’s desperate smile showed every one of her teeth; sweat beaded on her forehead.
Pinkie considered this for an endless moment.
“Ohhh, okay!” she said at last.
Twilight sighed in relief.
“I gotta tell you, though,” Pinkie continued, “that’s a pretty crummy joke. And you hit me really hard – that’s dangerous! I think you oughta get some professional advice before you try joking again. Comedy is serious business! Have you ever been to the Joke Shop? The mare that runs it is kinda weird, but I bet she could–”
“NO!” Twilight winced; she hadn’t intended to shout so loudly. She cleared her throat. “No, I think I’ll just leave the joking to the pros. Sorry again about your eye!” She chuckled anemically.
Pinkie eyed Twilight with suspicion. “Twilight, are you super-duper-LOOPER sure that everything’s okay? You’re acting kinda funny. Like, creepy-funny, not ha-ha-funny.”
Twilight’s heart pounded. The walls of the bedroom were closing in. Pinkie loomed over her like a rose-coloured spectre of judgment as she cringed down on the floor.
Twilight covered her head with her front legs. “P-Please! Everything’s okay! I’m fine, really! I… I… I PINKIE PROMISE!”
The towering Pinkie’s curly mane hung down on either side of her face like an old-fashioned judge’s wig. “Cross your heart and hope to fly?” she boomed. “Stick a cupcake in your eye?”
“Y-YES!” Twilight shakily mimed the proper gestures.
In an instant, as though a magic word had been spoken, the room was as it had been: wide, high-ceilinged, tea-scented, and occupied by a puffy, perky, almost-painfully-pink party-Pony.
“PHEW! What a RELIEF!” Pinkie Pie hugged her friend. “You had me worried for a second there!”
As she hugged back, shame stabbed Twilight’s insides like so much inter-phased rope.
• • • • • • •
“…So there’s not a THING in there when I look, save fer a lil’ note that reads: ‘I emptied your fridge’. That’s all! I never SEEN a Pegasus with such a big appetite! T’ain’t like she totes bales fer a livin’, neither – how much energy can it take ta carry a few letters?”
Applejack chuckled. “That Ditzy’s a funny one, fer sure!” She took a sip of her apple juice. “But It takes all kinds, I s’pose…” Applejack trailed off.
Twilight Sparkle trotted into view behind Carrot Top. Her mane was in disarray, dark circles ringed her eyes, and an aura of tension lingered around her like a cloud of hornets. She stopped at an empty table, sat, and rested her front hooves on the table’s edge, tapping them nervously.
Carrot Top had continued the conversation, unaware of Applejack’s distraction. “…but he’s even stranger than she is, I tell ya whut! I ran inta him in Canterlot when those bug critters attacked, an’ danged if he didn’t come up with one Pony-Helluva crazy plan…”
“Uh-huh,” said Applejack absently. She narrowed her eyes as she kept watching Twilight.
The Unicorn jerked in shock when the waiter trotted up to her table, and it took her three tries to magick her menu right-side-up to peruse it.
Now what in tarnation’s up with her? Applejack wondered.
“…all over the street! It was jus’ EVERYWHERE, I tell ya! I swear, I ain’t been more embarrassed since that magician came ta town on th’same day I tried out a new mane colour. I tried ta come off all haughty and fancy, but o’course I don’t need ta tell ya how THAT went over – ya were there!” Carrot Top laughed.
“Mm-hm,” said Applejack. She frowned.
Twilight seemed lost in thought for a moment, and in that unguarded moment a look of haunted despair crossed her face. She caught herself, and put on a too-wide, lopsided smile that stopped before her eyes.
“…ain’t that right?”
“U-Uh, sure is!” said Applejack.
This time Carrot Top frowned. “Applejack, I just said: ‘you ain’t been listenin’ ta me at all…ain’t that right?’”
Applejack rubbed the back of her neck with a front hoof. “Shewt, I’m sorry, Carrot. I’m kinda distracted, is all. Y’see, one o’ mah best friends is right over there, and danged if she doesn’t look awful upset.”
Carrot Top peered behind herself and then sighed. “Well, shucks! Why didn’t ya say somethin’ sooner? Go an’ make sure she’s all right!”
Applejack shifted uncomfortably. “You sure yer okay with that?”
“O’course I’m sure! Don’t ya worry none.” She took one of Applejack’s hooves in her own and then smiled. “I’ll still be here.”
Applejack smiled back. “I’ll be back in two shakes of a Pony’s tail!”
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle barely stopped herself from crying out when the waiter appeared at her side.
“Désolé, Madame! I seem to be ‘aveeng ze most unsettling effect on Poneez today.” The waiter put a hoof to his chin in thought. “Per’aps I should start weareeng a bell?”
“No, no, my fault,” said Twilight airily. She magicked up the menu sideways. And then turned it upside-down. And then spun it twice over before stopping it right-side-up. She chuckled nervously.
As she studied the menu, certain words snagged her attention and tripped her up:
Fried. Crispy. Seared to perfection. Skewered.
“…Does Madame need a few minutes to decide?”
Twilight forced herself to smile. “Not at all! I’ll have a daisy sandwich and a glass of carrot juice, please.”
“Magnifique. It weel be right out, Madame.” The waiter snapped up the menu hovering in front of Twilight’s face, revealing a Stetson-wearing orange Earth Pony approaching the table.
Twilight’s left eyelid twitched.
“Hay there, Sugarcube!” said Applejack. “I couldn’t help but notice that ya seem a little outta sorts. Is everythin’ all right? Ya aren’t late finishin’ another assignment, are ya?”
Twilight swallowed hard; Applejack’s guileless gaze seemed to cut right through her. “L-Late? Not me! Everything’s right on schedule! Yup! Nopony’s late! No late Ponies here!” Twilight winced at her own choice of words, but quickly covered it up with another lopsided smile.
Applejack frowned incredulously. “…Come on, now, Twi. Ya can tell me. What’s eatin’ ya?”
Twilight shifted on her haystack. “I…”
I killed somepony.
She looked away. “…that is to say, I’m…”
I’m a murderer.
She ground her front hooves in the dirt. “…uh, I mean, it’s…”
It’s all because of–
Applejack’s eyes widened. “Discord? Whut about Discord?”
Twilight tensed; she hadn’t meant to say the name out loud. Her features quickly brightened, however, with the recognition of an opportunity.
“Discord!” said Twilight, almost triumphantly. “Yes, that’s it! I’m… I’m worried about Discord!” She nodded quickly. “I think he might be trying to break loose, so all of the Elements of Harmony need to be in top shape.” Twilight’s tone slowly grew more and more confident. “When Discord nearly beat us last time, he made you afraid to talk about what you’d seen. So this time, I need you to tell me if you find out anything suspicious, all right?” Twilight leaned forward, her front hooves sliding on the tabletop. “…Anything.”
Applejack fidgeted, suddenly unable to meet Twilight’s intense gaze. “I… I dunno if that’s such a good idea. Are ya SURE he’s up ta somethin’?”
“Definitely! Absolutely!” said Twilight. “We need to be at our best! There could be more servants of chaos secretly lurking in Ponyville right now!”
Applejack twitched in confusion. “Wait… ‘more’? Whaddya mean ‘more’?”
Twilight gritted her teeth, silently cursing herself. “Uhh… more than just him alone, I mean!” Twilight’s smile was so lopsided it was nearly vertical.
Applejack gave Twilight a long, silent, Stetson-shaded stare. “…Okay, Twilight. Ya can count on me.”
Twilight sagged in relief. “Thanks, AJ. I knew I could count on you.” She smiled, turned, and then trotted away.
A moment later, the waiter brought a sandwich and a juice to her empty table.
Carrot Top grinned warmly as Applejack returned to their table and sat down.
“So, is she gonna be okay?” Carrot asked. When Applejack stayed silent, she added: “…Applejack?”
Applejack stared down at the polka-dotted tabletop. When she spoke, shock and disbelief left her voice a wounded whisper:
“I think she just lied ta me!”
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle reclined alone on a bench in the park. Maintaining her façade of normalcy – poorly maintaining it, a cynical voice in her head noted – was exhausting, and she hadn’t even spoken to half of her closest friends yet.
“I can’t do this.” She cradled her tail in her hooves. “Oh, Celestia, I am so tired…”
There was so much lying, so much stress and strain and guilt, and nopony to confide in. Nopony to share her burden. Who could understand?
Her brother gasped in horror. “Twily… How could you?” Twilight tried to trot up to him, but he encased her in a shell of magic. He turned his back and trotted away. “That THING is not my sister!” His new bride followed him, too upset to even look Twilight in the eyes. Twilight banged on the shell with her hooves, screaming and crying behind the soundproof barrier.
Mother hugged Father for support. “We n-never should have let you go away for school!” she sobbed. “My baby! Celestia help me, my baby’s a KILLER!” Father stared Twilight down in silent despair, and then slowly shook his head. Twilight begged for their forgiveness, but as clearly as her mother’s wailing filtered in, no sound escaped the sphere.
Princess Celestia scowled in disgust. “So, after all I taught you, it comes to this. The first time somepony puts you to the test without any support from me, you end up with blood on your horn.” Celestia’s eyes darkened, turning into swirling purple whirlpools. “You’ve been an utter waste of my valuable time, Twilight Sparkle. A total disappointment. I should have just gotten a cat.” Twilight cringed inside the magical globe as the Alicorn loomed to gigantic proportions. Celestia picked up an enormous version of Opalescence, and dropped the snarling, hissing feline in front of her.
Twilight cried out in fear as hooves shook her awake at pace with the clawed dream-paws batting at her dream-prison. She opened her eyes to the off-kilter golden stare of an ash-grey blonde-maned Pegasus.
“You shouldn’t nap on benches!” said the Pegasus. “It’ll give you a headache!”
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Uhh… thanks. I’ll remember that, Derpy.”
A look of tension flickered across the Pegasus’s face. “Um, really, m-my name’s Ditzy. Ditzy Doo.”
Twilight sat up on the bench. “Oh. Sorry.”
Ditzy hopped on to the bench and sat next to her. “It’s okay!” She sat, smiling and staring at nothing, until Twilight spoke again:
“So!” replied Ditzy cheerily.
Twilight frowned. “No, I mean what are you doing?”
Twilight slapped a front hoof to her forehead and slid it down her face in exasperation. “I know! But WHY? Why are you sitting here?”
“Oh-h-h-h!” Ditzy craned her neck as she drew out the word. “I’m waiting for my little Muffin and her foalsitter. They’re gonna meet me here, and then we’re gonna go get ice cream!” Her expression softened from cheer to sympathy. “…And also, you look like you need a friend!”
“I…” Twilight swallowed, trying to clear the lump in her throat. “I don’t think that will help.”
“Awww, sure it will!” said Ditzy. “The Doctah says I should always talk about my troubles – an’ he gives real good advice! REAL good! He’s even helping me talk better!”
Twilight managed a weak but sincere smile. “That is good advice, Ditzy. But I can’t talk about this problem.”
“Awww, sure you can!” said Ditzy. “You just talk it out, and things won’t seem so bad! Promise!”
Cheerful, upbeat music floated on the early evening breeze, rising up from nowhere in particular.
Ditzy hopped off of the bench and turned to face Twilight. “Friends are real important! And talking to them always helps you feel better!”
“Ditzy, please... don’t…” Twilight looked around nervously; for the moment, the two of them were still alone in the park.
Ditzy ignored Twilight’s entreaty. She turned to face the rest of the park, spread her wings, and sang:
TALK OUT YOUR PREDICAMENT (to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”)
DITZY: You know, it’s very helpful when you talk out your predicament, Like orthopedic treatment when you think you’ve pulled a ligament, Some say it’s kind of sappy, but I quote Princess Celestia –
TWILIGHT (shouted): Stop!
Twilight tackled Ditzy, cutting off her patter.
Ditzy landed on her back and looked up at Twilight. “Was my singing bad? I was just trying to help…” Her lower lip quivered.
The knot in Twilight’s guts turned to fire. She stomped her front hooves down on either side of Ditzy and stared into her splayed eyes.
“You want to help me?” she shouted in the Pegasus’s face. Ditzy cringed. “You want to HELP? FINE! Why don’t you tell me how to live with yourself when YOU’VE KILLED SOMEPONY?”
Twilight froze; the screamed confession had left her lips before she’d even thought about what she was saying. She backed away from Ditzy, her pupils shrinking and her heart racing.
Ditzy rolled onto her belly and smoothly lifted herself into a seated position. She kept her head down, her eyes hidden behind her unruly blonde mane. In a low, steady, emotionless voice, she spoke:
“De-equinize your opponent. Don’t think – rely on your training.” She lifted her head just slightly, and revealed perfectly-aligned eyes as cold and piercing as a bird of prey’s. “Never doubt they’d do the same to you.”
Twilight stared in disbelief. “Wh-what…?”
Ditzy shook her head, sending her eyes whirling back out of alignment. “What?”
• • • • • • •
Applejack took off her hat and hung her head. “I’m powerful sorry, Carrot. I know all o’ this drama an’ whatnot musta been a bit of a drag.”
The café was almost empty now. The remains of Applejack’s and Carrot’s meals – barely-touched and totally devoured, respectively – sat on the table between them.
Carrot’s silence made Applejack’s heart sink… until she felt soft lips peck her cheek.
Carrot smiled warmly. “AJ, yer worried about yer friend. An’ even so, yer worried about lettin’ me down. Ya ain’t a drag – yer sweeter n’ maple-glazed carrots!”
Applejack smiled through her rising blush. “W-Well sh-shucks! I – I mean, I…” AJ chuckled bashfully.
“We should do this again, fer sure. Ya can pick th’place next time, too, awright?”
As Carrot Top trotted away to return to her farm, Applejack’s good cheer receded along with her. Worry and dread chewed away at her giddy delight until hardly any remained.
Why would Twilight lie? she mused. An’ about somethin’ as serious as Pony-folks workin’ fer Discord!
She put her hat back on, added some coins to those that Carrot had left, and then trotted off down the street.
Applejack frowned. She’d never doubt or suspect me… would she? No, never! I’m th’most dependable Pony Twilight knows! But if not me…
She turned and looked back the way she came.
Ponies busied themselves at work and play, running errands, sweeping doorsteps, preparing to close shops for the evening, heading back to their homes, or just sitting and chatting. Applejack found herself focusing on every sidelong glance, every parcel changing hooves, every conspiratorial peek over a shoulder.
The murmuring din of the townsponies’ conversations seemed to rise in volume, surrounding Applejack like a whirlwind. She strained to pick out intelligible words:
The image of Carrot Top giggling and blushing while entwined in Draconequus coils slithered sickeningly through her imagination.
Applejack’s eyes squeezed shut; she gritted her teeth and then cried out in frustration.
She was galloping before she knew it, blindly taking this or that turn, kicking up divots in her wake, racing through the streets to escape–
Applejack slowed to a halt at the edge of the park. She was gasping for breath, her heart was pounding and her hide shone with sweat. She sat down heavily.
“D-Dang it,” she panted, “now that N-Nervous-Nellie’s got ME all noo-rotic too!”
She flopped down on her side on the warm grass.
“Twi’s prolly jus’ o-overreactin’ like sh-she always does. Nuthin’ ta get so w-worked up abou–”
Applejack’s gaze fell on the Nervous-Nellie in question.
A dozen yards away, Twilight Sparkle was shaking the town’s mailmare in her front hooves. Her anxious shouting easily reached Applejack’s ears:
“Where’s the other Ditzy? Bring her back! Now!”
Applejack’s pupils shrank. She stumbled to her hooves and crept cautiously toward the pair.
• • • • • • •
“I du-u-nn-nn-o wha-at you me-ee-ee-ean!” Ditzy stammered as Twilight shook her.
Twilight let the Pegasus go and took a step back. “Stop playing around, Ditzy!” she said, desperation dripping from every word. “Do what you just did! Snap out of it! Please! Tell to me more about–” Twilight caught herself this time. She lowered her voice to a hissed whisper. “–You know! About dealing with guilt!”
Ditzy sat staring mostly in Twilight’s direction. Her splayed eyes were wide and her face was bent in a helpless frown. She sniffled, poorly holding back tears. “I’m s-sowwy... I… I’unno wha’ you wamme to s-say!” She winced as if in pain, and put a front hoof to the side of her head. The gesture shifted her mane, briefly revealing a jagged scar on her forehead.
Twilight narrowed her eyes. “Then I guess I’ll just have to remind you!” She ignited her horn and focused on the memory-boosting spell she’d last used to help purge her friends of Discord’s influence.
Ditzy backed up against a tree and reared up with her back to its trunk in an effort to evade the glowing tip of Twilight’s horn. Fear purged her of the last of her hard-trained diction: “N-No…! Row a-day! Floor bury!” She waved her front hooves in a feeble defense as Twilight drew closer, closer…
Twilight’s horn snuffed out and her eyes widened. She turned to face her Earth Pony friend.
“A-A-Applejack! What’s up?”
“Ya know, I was about ta ask th’very same thing.”
Twilight coughed softly into a front hoof. Get a hold of yourself, Twilight! she silently insisted. “I w-was having a conversation with Ditzy Doo, here.” She nodded at the terrified Pegasus.
“K-Kelp knee!” Ditzy whimpered. “Fleas!”
“A conversation.” Applejack’s tone was flat and emotionless.
“Yup!” said Twilight. Her mouth was aching from a day’s worth of forced smiles.
“Y-Yup!” Twilight’s guts resumed their twisting. Applejack’s green stare felt as heavy as an anvil.
“An’ this has nuthin’ ta do with all that Discord business ya mentioned earlier.”
“Oh, that? No! No, no, no. Nope! Not at all!” Twilight laughed, too loudly. “We’re just, just hanging out, you know?”
“Uh-huh!” Twilight tried not to wince. Every flat statement from Applejack was another needle in her innards.
Applejack shuddered as if on the verge of an outburst, but instead she sagged and let out a tired sigh.
“Fine, Twilight. I may be a farm-Pony, but I ain’t dumb. I can take a hint. Ya don’ trust me enough ta tell me what’s really goin’ on. That’s fine.” She turned to trot away.
“Applejack..!” Twilight moved to follow the Earth Pony but then paused, reluctant to leave Ditzy – and what she might know – behind. “AJ, please! Wait!”
Applejack turned back. “What, Twi? What?”
Twilight choked back a sob. The tug-of-war battle between her guilt and her stress threatened to tear her in half. “P-Please believe me, I c-can’t tell you what’s going on. I can’t! You just have to trust me and stay your honest, earnest self. You’ve got to!” Twilight’s voice lost volume until she was fighting to even whisper. “H-He’ll get free, AJ. S-Something happened, and n-now I’m scared he’ll get free!”
Fear slowly drained the blood from Applejack’s face. “P-Peel n’ core me…! Yer… yer serious!”
Twilight nodded. “I need your help, Applejack. I need you to tell me if anypony acts suspicious.”
Applejack fixed her stance. “Awright, Twi. I won’t letcha down.” She tipped her hat, turned, and trotted off.
Twilight let out a heavy sigh, the act releasing no small measure of her wound-up tension. She turned back to Ditzy, only to find her flanked by two Unicorns – a young pink mare and a little lavender foal.
“…An’ free struck fur morn might in why lace! Wheeze lazy! WHEEZE LAZY!” Ditzy pointed an accusing hoof at Twilight. She was hardly pausing for breath as she babbled.
The mare put her front hooves on Ditzy’s shoulders. “Easy, now, Ditzy. Take a deep breath and think about each word. Just like the Doctor said.”
Ditzy looked down at the foal, who was hugging her front leg supportively. Her off-kilter eyes jumped from the foal, to the mare, to Twilight, and back again. She slowly inhaled and exhaled several times before she spoke again:
“I… I want… ice cream.”
“Yay!” cheered the little foal.
The three of them trotted away together without a single backward glance.
“B-But…” Twilight said to the once-more-empty park. Her tension was already rebuilding itself.
She frowned and headed back to her library, dragging her hooves through the lush emerald grass.
• • • • • • •
On the far side of the same field, Rainbow Dash hovered along next to Tank, her achingly-slow pet tortoise, while Fluttershy followed on the other side of Tank and Angel the bunny curled up asleep on top of Tank’s shell.
“…It’s not like I don’t think he’s fast,” said Dash hastily, “he does great with that propeller-thingy Twilight slapped together for him. The school-foals loved chasing him this morning! But when we bank and climb and dive and barrel roll, sometimes he gets a little…”
Tank’s tiny eyes followed Dash’s mimed aerobatics; he turned a darker shade of green and halted in his tracks. He gurgled.
“Oh, my!” said Fluttershy. “The poor dear! Luckily, though, there’s medicine for airsickness. Um, n-not that I ever need it myself!” She blushed lightly. “You should make an appointment with a vet.”
Dash raised an eyebrow. “A vet? Can’t you just give him some herbal thing yourself? You took care of him until I got him, didn’t you?”
Fluttershy looked away, letting her mane hide her face. “Oh, I couldn’t. Not after…” Her soft tone got even softer still. “…what happened.”
Dash landed and trotted over to face Fluttershy. “’Shy… you know I don’t blame you, right? It was an honest mistake! And no matter what happened before or after, it was MY brilliant idea to eat so many of those berries, not yours.”
Fluttershy let out a small squeak.
“Come on – would I have asked you to help us make that hurricane if I didn’t trust you?”
Fluttershy muttered something, the sound mostly lost in her mane.
“A l-little ginger might help settle his stomach…”
Dash smiled. “NOW you’re talkin’!”
Fluttershy smiled a modest smile. “If you come ‘round tomorrow, I’ll have some dried slices ready for him, all right?”
Dash nodded happily.
“Right now I should be going, though – if you don’t mind that is. It’s getting late, and I still have to feed the flamingo, and I’m meeting Rarity at the spa tomorrow morning…”
Dash raised a hoof to interrupt Fluttershy’s self-justification. “It’s cool, Fluttershy! I was going to put the propeller on Tank and take a spin around town, anyways.”
Tank looked up at the sky and gulped.
“Aww, Pony up, ya big baby!” said Dash, good-naturedly nudging the top of Tank’s shell and waking Angel. “I’ll go easy on you until you get your medicine.”
“Um, okay then. Have a good evening!” Fluttershy picked up her scowling rabbit friend and flew off, staying close to ground level.
“Okay, little buddy,” said Dash, turning to the tortoise, “let’s get you airborne!”
With the quick addition of a magi-tech device on his back, Tank was soon hovering at Rainbow Dash’s side as the pair flew above the streets of Ponyville along a relaxed, meandering flightpath. After a few laps around town, Dash laid eyes on the library and banked into a wide downward spiral.
“C’mon, Tank,” she said, “I wanna see how Twilight’s doin’. She never came back to the tryouts this morning!”
Dash swooped in and touched down on the library’s uppermost balcony with all four hooves at once, sending a small shock through the wooden structure. “OH yeah!” she said with satisfaction. “Perfect four-point landing!”
Tank whirred into view from above and landed precariously on top of a tripod-mounted telescope.
Dash chuckled. “Feeling a little unsteady?”
A few moments later, Twilight surged up through the hatch leading down into the library, her eyes wild, her horn blazing and her jaw clenching.
Dash hopped backward in surprise, perching on the edge of the balcony and spreading her wings for balance.
“Uhh, hey Twilight,” she said, “wassup?”
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle could barely summon up the willpower to magick open her front door.
She plodded inside, noting the partially-reshelved collection; Spike was home. Twilight inhaled to call out to the little Dragon, but instead she let the breath out in a bone-weary sigh. She simply didn’t have the strength for any more social interaction.
“This has been the longest day of my life,” she muttered to the empty room, and then began the arduous climb up the stairs to her bedroom.
She crossed the room and stumbled past Spike’s basket-bed, currently occupied by said snuggled-up, snoring, thoroughly tuckered-out Dragon.
Twilight magicked her blanket up… and then jammed a front hoof into her mouth to stifle her shocked scream.
There, spread out under the covers like some warped parody of a body-pillow, was Discorduroy. The doll was still sooty from the blast in the basement hours earlier; the bitter scent of charcoal made Twilight’s stomach lurch.
Twilight glanced over at Spike. No, he wouldn’t, she thought to herself. Not after all that’s happened! But if it wasn’t Spike…
In answer to the unfinished thought, the entire building shook as if struck from above. A book dropped off the shelf near her bed: Pursuing Pony Poltergeists – A Paranormal Primer.
Twilight swallowed hard. “T-Topsy Turvy…?” she whispered.
She climbed to the upper balcony like a Pony condemned, counting between breaths in an effort to stop herself from hyperventilating.
Twilight squinted through the balcony-hatch’s blurry window; the setting sun afforded her a backlit glimpse of a Pony silhouette topped by a whirling propeller.
A raspy, mocking laugh rang out from the balcony, followed by a husky voice mimicking Rainbow Dash’s:
“Feeling a little unsteady?”
Twilight ignited her horn and lunged through the hatch to face the impossible dread awaiting her, teetering on the razor-edge of tumbling into sanity-shredding panic.
Rainbow Dash – very much alive and in the flesh – hopped backward in surprise. She perched on the edge of the balcony and spread her wings for balance. Her propeller-topped pet tortoise took to the air in fright.
“Uhh, hey Twilight,” said Dash, “wassup?”
Twilight’s left eyelid twitched. Every jagged shard of pain and fear and shame and guilt the day had brought boiled inside her like so much slag in a crucible, melting down into pure, seething, toxic, rage.
“What’s up…?” She scowled and took a step forward. “I’ll tell you what’s up!” Twilight’s horn glowed brighter, and its reddish aura surrounded Rainbow Dash. The Pegasus flipped forward and found herself pinned upside down against the library’s narrow upper trunk. Twilight turned and ducked down to stare into Dash’s eyes.
“What’s UP is that DISCORD is trying to get FREE, and if he does... IT’LL BE YOUR FAULT!”
SECRETS AND LIES By Saddlesoap Opera Part Three: True Blue
Scootaloo closed her eyes for the twelfth time, only for them to pop open once again. She turned on her side and snuggled up against her pillow. She took a slow, deep breath.
Closed. Pop. Thirteen times.
Tomorrow. Today’s tryouts had been a forgettable – even regrettable – affair, but tomorrow would be different.
Tomorrow she would get some one-on-one flight training from the best flyer outside the Wonderbolts. From her personal idol. From the only living Pony to have performed a Sonic Rainboom. From one of the Ponies who defeated Nightmare Moon AND Discord. Who could sleep? Just thinking about it made Scootaloo’s heart race.
Ha… I’d like to see that dummy Diamond Tiara get pointers from a V.I.P. like Rainbow Dash! Hmph. ‘Grounded’… I’ll show her! Scootaloo frowned, immediately regretting allowing her snide classmate into her otherwise-gleeful thoughts.
She flexed her tiny wings under her blanket.
I’ll show her… she repeated to herself. I’m gonna fly. And Rainbow Dash is gonna help me do it!
Scootaloo’s eyelids finally began to droop on their own. She folded her wings.
“I’m gonna fly,” she whispered out loud as sleep claimed her at last.
• • • • • • •
“…and if he does, IT’LL BE YOUR FAULT!”
Rainbow Dash felt the warmth of Twilight’s breath as the Unicorn shrieked in her face. She struggled against the magic holding her upside down with her back to the library-tree’s trunk, but Twilight’s spell seemed unbreakable.
“My fault…? What are you TALKING about, Twilight?” said Dash indignantly.
Twilight straightened and then groaned in frustration. “I’m talking about the fact that I’m the only Pony who EVER takes things SERIOUSLY!” Her horn snuffed out, and Dash dropped to the wooden floor with a surprised grunt. “There’s a Chaos God trying to escape and turn Equestria into his own private playground, and all I can think about is how BADLY everything went last time!”
Dash dusted herself off and sat up. “Badly? That’s crazy! We TOTALLY kicked his butt!”
“No, THAT’S crazy!” shouted Twilight. She turned away and looked out at the town below. “Maybe you weren’t paying attention, but I was. I watched the world get turned into a messed-up mockery of itself. I had to deal with all of you after you lost your minds and turned against me. Everything and everypony I cared about fell apart until I… until I just… just gave up!” Twilight shuddered at the memory. “If the Princess hadn’t sent me all those letters, I would have spent the rest of –” Eternity. “– my life in a living Pony Hell!”
Dash winced. “W-Well, maybe, but if he comes back we’ll be ready for him this time!”
Twilight turned and then stared Dash down. “Will we, Rainbow Dash? Will we? You all wouldn’t even trust me when I told you that something was wrong with my own brother and the mare who helped raise me! Oh, that’s crazy old Twilight – overreacting again! And then what happened, huh? LOVE-SUCKING PARASITES!” Twilight’s voice had picked up a hysterical edge; she was panting by the time her tirade ended.
“We still won, though! Your brother blasted them right out of Equestria!” A hint of doubt coloured Dash’s defiant words.
Twilight ducked down and forward until her horn raked through Dash’s mane and her forehead pressed against the Pegasus’s. “We got LUCKY! And if Discord breaks out, I do NOT want to be stuck with nothing to depend on but luck!” Twilight backed away and then sat down heavily. Her lower lip quivered. “Is a little loyalty really too much to ask?”
Dash got to her hooves. “I’ve GOT loyalty, Twilight! TONS of it! I got your back – I promise!” Dash saluted Twilight with a front hoof.
Twilight scowled. “No, Dash. You don’t. You let me down when we faced him… and I’m terrified it’ll happen again!” Twilight galloped past Dash and down the hatch in the balcony’s floor, magicking it shut behind her.
“F-FINE!” Dash shouted after her. “BE that way! See if I care!”
Dash curled up on the wooden floor and buried her face under her front legs. She shuddered silently.
Tank the tortoise whirred down onto the balcony. His back-mounted propeller device slowed to a stop. He ambled over to his owner and gently nudged her with his head.
“I’m… I’m n-not c-cry-i-ing!” she whimpered, her head still hidden. “I’m n-not!”
Tank reared up at Dash’s side and spread his front legs against her in a slow-motion hug.
• • • • • • •
When Twist trotted into classroom a half-hour early for school, Scootaloo was already at her desk, bouncing with nervous energy.
“Hi Thcootaloo,” lisped the little beige Earth Pony. “I didn’t exthpect to thee you here tho early!”
“The sooner school starts, the sooner it’ll be after-school!” said Scootaloo. “I didn’t want Miss Cheerilee to hafta hold things up waiting for me!”
Twist raised an eyebrow. “Uhh… I thee.”
By the time the other schoolfoals had arrived and the day had made some progress in its agonizingly-slow creep toward completion, Scootaloo’s best friends had taken note of her excitement.
“So whut’s so great about school bein’ done fer the day?” Asked Apple Bloom. “Ain’t like we don’t hafta come back tomorrow!”
“Yeah, but after school today, I get a flying lesson from… Rainbow Dash!” Scootaloo’s grin was so broad it made her cheeks ache.
“Oh. Neat!” said Sweetie Belle.
Scootaloo scoffed. “Neat? It’s more than neat – it’s super-ultra-extreme-awesome-azing! With Rainbow Dash teaching me, I’ll get a flying Cutie Mark for SURE!”
The other two Cutie Mark Crusaders shared an awed Ooooh.
“Golly!” said Apple Bloom. “Ya really think so? Cause before we really started hangin’ out, she–”
Scootaloo cut her off. “You bet! Just watch – I’m gonna be a natural-born flyer, just like her!” Scootaloo flapped her wings in delight.
“Hey!” said Sweetie Belle. “Why don’t we watch? If you’re gonna get your Cutie Mark today, I don’t wanna miss it!”
“Yeah!” agreed Apple Bloom. “A special moment like that, ya share with yer friends!”
“Awright, awright… sheesh, don’t get all sappy on me!” Scootaloo did her best to sound irritated, but a soft flush coloured her cheeks.
• • • • • • •
After counting twenty-five thousand, two hundred and thirty-two ticks from the clock hanging on the wall near her bed, Twilight Sparkle finally gave up on getting any sleep at all.
She rolled over onto her side and scowled at the gradually-brightening room through an insomniac haze.
“It’s not fair…” she muttered. “Why me?”
“I think we both know the answer to that, Miss Sparkle,” she said in answer to herself. She magicked the Discorduroy doll out from its new home under her bed and set it down on its belly, its mismatched paws cradling its bearded chin.
Twilight turned away from the doll. “I’m not going to listen to you.”
“My, my! How the mighty have fallen!” replied Twilight-as-Discorduroy. “Not just a killer, but RUDE too!”
Twilight stayed silent, refusing to take her own bait.
“But I suppose it’s to be expected,” she continued in the doll’s voice. “You don’t do well under stress – just look at how you handled the parasprite infestation!”
She turned back to face the doll. “That’s not fair! You don’t even know about that – you were still a statue then!”
“Give me SOME credit!” she said, magicking the doll to tilt its head and fix her with an accusatory button-stare. “I AM a primeval spirit of chaos and disharmony, you know. Well, either that, or…”
“Or…? Or what?”
“…Or you’re sitting here talking to yourself because you’re losing your mind.”
Twilight softly gasped, but her look of shock was soon replaced by an enraged scowl. She ignited her horn, and Discorduroy burst at the seams. She tore at the doll with magic until it was reduced to a pile of shredded cloth and rag stuffing.
She ignored the voice. She started pounding the unraveled remains with her front hooves; every blow sent up a small puff of linty dust.
The voice was louder now – more insistent. “I’m! Not! LISTENING!” she shouted, punctuating each word with another stomp.
Twilight stopped; she realized that the voice had been coming from behind her. She slowly turned around.
Spike was sitting up in his basket-bed, his green eyes wide and his tail nervously clutched in his claws.
“S-Spike!” said Twilight, running a front hoof over her disarrayed mane. “...Did I wake you?”
Spike nodded silently. He was trembling.
“Oh. I’m sorry. You see, I was… well, uhh, I was a-angry at… at…” A lengthy pause ensued before inspiration struck. “…my pillow!”
Twilight’s horn lit up once more, and she surreptitiously stuffed the pulverized remains of Discorduroy inside her pillow’s case. She magicked up the now-lumpy pillow and growled theatrically at it:
“Grr! Stupid pillow! S-So uncomfortable! What a rough night!” She cuffed the pillow with a front hoof.
She trotted over to the fireplace, magicking the pillow along behind her. With a brighter flare from her horn, the remaining wood in the hearth burst into rich yellow flames.
Twilight pointed an accusing hoof at her bed. “Let this be a lesson to the rest of you!” she said sternly, and tossed the pillow onto the fire.
Twilight turned to face Spike. “Okay,” she said with a false smile of extreme size and dubious quality, “now that that’s taken care of, let’s get the day started!”
Spike stared at Twilight in silent dismay.
Twilight stared back, still smiling. Anxiety slowly tainted her expression, knitting her brows and glossing her face with sweat.
Spike kept staring.
When a knock at the front door sounded, both of them spoke, but Spike spoke faster:
“I’ll get it!” The little Dragon scampered out of the room in a purple and green blur.
Spike skidded to a stop at the front door and pulled it open.
His jaw dropped.
• • • • • • •
Rainbow Dash anxiously paced back and forth on the library’s front doorstep. Her drooping wings and reddened, dark-circled eyes belied her apparently high energy level.
Why isn’t she answering? she silently wondered. Is she THAT upset with me?
Self-doubt squirmed inside Dash like a clot of ice-cold worms, stirring up unwelcome memories.
A slithering, floating Demon rests his paw on her smooth, wingless back, and then offers salvation wrapped with a yellow ribbon… if she’ll just let down everypony who believes in her.
She strains against the boulder pinning her wing, wondering how soon after sunset the Quarray Eels will emerge from their tunnels and come devour her.
A single bad wingover sends her corkscrewing out of control, and she feels her alar humerus crack as she crashes into a woodpile.
A chitinous horror gloats as she and her friends plod in defeat into Canterlot Castle’s throne room.
Dash shook her head and flapped her wings, vainly trying to shake off the bleak reminiscences.
She turned and raised a hoof to knock again, but then Spike opened the door. And his mouth.
Dash winced; did she really look that bad?
“Hey, Spike…” She cleared her throat. “Hey, is, uh…” She rubbed the back of her neck with a front hoof. “…is Twilight home?”
“Okay, what’s going on?” Spike asked indignantly. “Twilight’s been acting really, REALLY weird lately, and now you’re–”
“Who, me?” Dash cut him off. “No w-way! I’m fine. No, better than that! Awesome! Why…? W-What have you heard?” Dash silently commanded herself to stop shaking right this second.
Spike raised a scaly eyebrow. “Huh? I didn’t hear anything!”
“Well good! Cause there’s nothin’ to hear! Everything’s great. You can depend on me! Y-Yeah!”
“O-o-o-o-kay, then…” Spike gingerly backed away, his claws held up and out in a warding gesture.
“O-Okay! Cool!” Dash trotted past the disquieted Dragon and headed for the stairs.
In her years of flight, Dash had sprinted for vertical miles. She had ascended until the clouds were as small as cotton balls beneath her. She had flown until frost stung her hide and every breath was an ordeal.
But nothing had ever seemed as tall as that flight of stairs.
At the summit, the doorway into Twilight’s room loomed like the mouth of an elder Dragon’s cave.
Dash swallowed hard and then trotted up to the entrance. She rapped on the archway.
Twilight Sparkle was sitting with her back to the entrance, staring into the flickering flames in the fireplace. If she heard Dash, she didn’t show it.
Dash approached the Unicorn cautiously. “Twilight, listen, please. I thought about what you said, and I… y’know, I don’t want you to think I’d... but, uh, okay, I did, but it wasn’t my…” Dash stomped a front hoof in frustration. “Come ON, Twilight! Could you at least LOOK at me?”
When Twilight Sparkle turned to face her, Dash immediately regretted her request. Twilight’s sunken gaze held every ounce of disappointment and accusation that it had the night before, with an added layer of fatigue.
“What are you trying to say, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight asked sullenly.
“I... I am NOT a weak link!” Dash put what little remained of her resolve into each word.
Twilight sighed. “I want to believe that. I do.”
Dash scowled. “This isn’t fair! What am I supposed to do to convince you? I WON’T ditch you, Twilight! Never again! I PROMISE!”
Twilight’s sad, silent stare spoke volumes.
Dash closed the distance between them and pressed her front hooves to Twilight’s shoulders.
“You GOTTA believe me! Please!”
“No matter what, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight said after a long pause. “I have to be sure about ALL of you if we’re going to win. I can’t afford to chase you this time. You SWEAR you won’t turn on me, no matter what?”
Dash met Twilight’s gaze. “Yes!”
“You swear you’ll stay loyal?”
“On your wings?”
Dash’s eyes widened; nopony had ever asked her for the ultimate promise before. Was it a coincidence? Did Twilight know enough about Pegasi to realize? Did Unicorns swear oaths on their horns? She swallowed hard.
“…Y-Yes! I swear! I swear on my wings!”
“Oh, thank Celestia!” Twilight lunged forward and wrapped her front legs around Dash in a crushingly tight hug. “As long as you don’t let me down, I KNOW I can make it through this!”
“Don’t worry, Twilight,” Dash said with an awkward chuckle, “I’m here for ya!”
For the first time since a sobbing Pinkie Pie had held her like a drowning Pony clutching at flotsam, the weight of a friend’s embrace felt like a burden to Rainbow Dash.
• • • • • • •
Fluttershy turned at the sound of the door-chime’s dingle and smiled as Rarity trotted into the Spa’s ground-level waiting room.
“Hello, Rarity!” she said cheerfully. “I already paid for the usual…” She shifted in her seat. “…if that’s okay with you.”
Rarity concealed her gentle laugh behind a front hoof. “Of course it is, darling! Why wouldn’t it be?”
“W-Well, I didn’t want to jump to concl–”
A second dingle from the door cut Fluttershy off. A trio of schoolfoals cantered into the Spa.
“Sweetie Belle?” said Rarity. “Why aren’t you in school?”
“It’s lunchtime!” said the little Unicorn.
“That just raises further questions!” replied Rarity.
“We’re here fer Scootaloo, Miss Rarity,” said Apple Bloom. “We all agreed she oughta get a lil’ bit gussied up for her meetin’ with–”
“H-Hey!” said Scootaloo from where she’d skidded to a halt in front of the reception desk.
“We’ll be back in school for afternoon class, I promise!” said Sweetie Belle, solemnly raising a front hoof.
Rarity shrugged. “Very well. Far be it from me to stand in the way of fabulosity.”
“Yay!” said Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle as they shared a high-hoof.
At the reception desk Scootaloo strained to stand her tallest on her hind legs, and deposited a small bag of coins on the counter.
“This is two weeks’ allowance,” she said to the graceful blue Earth Pony at the desk. “Is that enough?”
The Earth Pony smiled. “Well, it dee-pends on what you’re after, my leetle Pony.”
Scootaloo dropped back down onto all fours. “Oh! Uh, I don’t wanna get all frilly and fancy or anything.” She rubbed a foreleg with her other front hoof. “I just wanna look… cool. You know?”
The Earth Pony giggled. “Trying to eem-press somepony, are we?”
“H-How did – I mean, no!” Scootaloo blushed.
“There, there. The confee-dentiality of an aesthetician is abso-loot.” She motioned toward the stairs down. “Just trot on down, and my sister will have you loo-king cool in no time!”
Scootaloo nodded and then headed down into the Spa’s main area, followed closely by her two comrades. All three giggled excitedly.
“It will just be a fee-ew moments more, girls,” said the Earth Pony, turning back to face Rarity. “The rocks in the sa-oo-na are still hee-ting up.”
“Oh, no need to rush,” said Rarity blithely, “I’m taking it easy today!” She sat down and magicked up an old fashion magazine with a picture of Fluttershy cringing endearingly on the cover.
Fluttershy looked away from the magazine, suddenly even more self-conscious than usual.
“So, um, who do you think she’s meeting?” she asked. “Scootaloo, I mean.”
“I should think that’s fairly obvious,” replied Rarity. “…Unless she didn’t get as far as your cottage with her Rainbow Dash Fan Club pamphlets?”
“Oh,” said Fluttershy softly.
Rarity set down the magazine.
“All right… why don’t you tell me what’s wrong, hmm?”
Rarity gave an incredulous stare – a maneuver she had found herself employing a great deal of late.
Fluttershy squeaked. “I… I can’t believe you still want to go to the Spa with me after I said all those awful things to you and Pinkie Pie!” She cringed, a double for her pose on the magazine cover.
“Don’t be silly, Fluttershy! Of course I still do! You were acting on some positively ATROCIOUS advice from that frightful Minotaur. I don’t hold it against you in the least.”
Fluttershy’s lower lip pouted. “But we haven’t gone for a while, and the last time, you invited everypony else along…”
“That?” Rarity tittered. “That was just a little preparation for the trip to Canterlot! As soon as Pinkie started raving about the National Dessert Competition, I knew I had to try to get our less fabulous friends a makeover. It’s important to remind the Canterlot crowd that beauty…” She shook her head, and her lustrous purple mane bounced to and fro. “…knows no borders!”
“So you’re not mad?”
Fluttershy sighed in relief. “Oh, thank goodness!”
The mare across the room leaned forward over the counter. “Ex-kee-ooze me? The sa-oo-na should be nice and hot. Wee’re ready for you now.”
Rarity hopped to her hooves. “Splendid! Come along, dear – there’s nothing like a little steam to melt away your worries!”
• • • • • • •
Rainbow Dash swayed unsteadily in mid-air in an effort to steady the teetering tower of books piled on top of her head.
“Hey, careful!” said Spike, crouching to maintain his balance on her back. “We aren’t done re-shelving the D’s yet!”
The tower leaned alarmingly; Dash grimaced and compensated. “Can’t you… just use… the ladder?”
“No way! I keep falling off those things – having you here’s a lot easier.”
Dash snorted in annoyance. “Right. Easier.”
Spike plucked the top book off the pile and turned to face the shelf-rows behind Dash. He slid the volume into its proper place and then turned back to the pile.
“Hrm. We’re still missing Delightful Discoveries in Dowsing and Divination.” He paused. “Actually, that reminds me. Why are you here, anyway? Don’t you have weather work to do? Is it a Pegasus holiday or something?”
Dash frowned. “I… I gotta stick by Twilight for a while. It’s… complicated.”
Spike growled in frustration. “Sheesh! Why won’t anypony tell me what’s going on? I might be a little young, but I’m not a dummy!”
He folded his arms and sat down heavily on Dash’s back.
The impact threw the Pegasus’s balance off; she swooped across the room in a low arc, fighting to keep the book-tower on her head.
“Whoa! Hey – careful!” Spike tugged at Dash’s mane, trying to pull her upward.
“Ow! Stop it!” Dash overcompensated, and then swooped into the shelves they’d just spent an hour setting right. The pair tumbled to the wooden floor in a rain of tomes.
Spike groaned from under a sizable pile of reference materials. “Ugh… now we hafta start over!” His head popped up. “We’re NEVER gonna get this done before Twilight’s done her nap. Maybe I should just use the ladder.”
Dash jerked as if doused with cold water. “NO!” She caught herself. “Uh, I mean, no. I can do this. You can depend on me. I won’t let Twilight down! I won’t!” Dash stood up and lowered her head to receive a new pile of books.
Spike stared in confusion for a long moment, but then shrugged, turned, and began gathering books.
• • • • • • •
Scootaloo bounced excitedly in her seat at one of the patio tables in front of the Smoothie Shop. She brushed her forelock aside for what felt like the hundredth time; its new dark purple streak – no, racing stripe – made it somehow more visible in her peripheral vision.
Apple Bloom noisily sipped some of her apple-oat smoothie through a straw. “Boy-howdy! I thought that school day wasn’t EVER gonna end!”
“You’re telling ME!” replied Scootaloo. “But now we’re here! We’re finally here!” Scootaloo let out a gleeful, high-pitched giggle. She slapped a front hoof over her mouth and felt her cheeks redden.
Sweetie Belle raised an eyebrow. “Scootaloo… did you just–”
The tiny Pegasus made a supreme effort to render her expression detached and neutral. “N-No! Cool Ponies don’t giggle! Cool Ponies are always…” The sides of her mouth trembled, creeping their way upward. She struggled for a moment longer before surrendering:
“YES! Okay, yes! I giggled! I admit it! I am soooo excited!” Her mouth exploded into a massive smile. She hugged herself and flapped her freshly-preened wings in delight. “Today’s the day! I’m finally gonna do it!”
Apple Bloom shared her smile. “Get yer Cutie Mark, ya mean?”
Scootaloo’s wild grin softened slightly. “Y-Yeah… my Cutie Mark.”
Her eyes strayed skyward. Staring up at the sky usually left her feeling morose after a while, but today the boundless blue only made her think of the blue mentor who was going to show her the way there. The clouds had never seemed so close. Her vision swam.
Sweetie Belle hesitantly pressed a white front hoof to Scootaloo’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Scootaloo rubbed the tears out of her eyes. “I’m f-fine.”
Today’s the day, she silently told herself. Today’s the day.
• • • • • • •
Applejack sat under the warm late-afternoon sun in Sweet Apple Acres’ east orchard, lost in thought. It wasn't a state she found enjoyable.
A little hard work usually helped to clear her head, but she hadn’t been able to focus on the task before her. She listlessly stirred the dozen-odd freshly bucked apples in the bottom of the wooden tub sitting next to her with a front hoof.
She picked up a soft, browned apple between her hooves, frowned at it, and then cast it aside. “So just how in tha Pony Hell am I supposed ta find out who’s workin’ fer Discord?” she asked the empty air. She picked up a plump, shiny red apple. “Ain’t like sussin’ out a Pony’s as easy as tellin’ good apples from–” A worm poked out of the apple’s glossy skin. Applejack grimaced and then threw it away.
A shadow passed over the troubled Earth Pony; she looked up.
“Well it’s about apple-pickin’ time, Rainbow Dash!” she called up to the light grey raincloud floating above her. “We scheduled this rain-shower more’n a month ago, fer this exact da–”
A charcoal-grey Pegasus stallion with an ice-blue mane peered down over the cloud’s edge.
“Uh, yeah, my bad,” he said sheepishly. “Rainbow Dash never showed up today, so I’m filling in for her, and I’m having some trouble keeping up with her schedule. It’s been total chaos all morning!”
Applejack raised an eyebrow. “She never showed?”
The stallion shook his head. “She had racked up a TON of vacation time, and I guess she’s taking it all at once.” He sighed self-pityingly. “And I’m taking double shifts.”
Applejack hopped to her hooves, happy to be distracted from her brooding. “Shucks, I’m sure yer up to it, uh…”
“Right, Thunderlane. Nothin’ to it. Give a good douse ta the main rows, and a sprinkle for the old growth, the Zap Apple field an’ the saplings. Don’t overwater those little ones, mind, and no thunder n’ lightin’ – makes the ripe apples drop ‘fore we can get ‘em!”
The stallion gave her a blank stare. “Uhh…”
“Maybe I oughta write this down,” said Applejack.
Thunderlane frowned. “No, no! I can do it! I can’t keep delaying – I gotta clear clouds and drop showers all over Ponyville today!”
“All over, y’say?”
“Yeah. I dunno how Rainbow Dash manages it. She does the work of THREE Pegasi, easy!”
Applejack tapped a front hoof to her chin in thought. “Say… d’ya think ya could do me a lil’ favour while yer out n’ about?”
Thunderlane spread his wings in shock. “WHAT? Are you kidding? I can’t take on any more jobs – I’m flying myself ragged already!”
“Naw, naw, nothin’ like that!” said Applejack, waving a hoof. “Just keep yer eyes peeled fer anythin’… funny. Could ya do that fer me?”
“Funny? What do you mean funny?”
Applejack sighed. Why did Twilight pick her for all this intrigue? “Ya know, unusual. Out o’ sorts. Just watch fer anypony doin’ or sayin’ somethin’ suspicious, an’ lemme know about it.” A moment of inspiration brightened her features as the memory of a certain Wonderbolt’s limitless appetite for pastries flashed through her thoughts. “…There’s a fresh apple pie in it for ya if ya do!”
“Pie?” Thunderlane licked his chops, but then his expression soured. “Wait… why do you wanna know? What’s going on?”
Applejack winced; Twilight’s desperate words echoed in her mind:
You just have to trust me and stay your honest, earnest self. You’ve got to!
“Uhh, I’d… I’d rather not say,” she answered honestly. Sweat beaded on her forehead.
“Aww, Pony Heck. Forget I asked – you Apples have a good name even as far as Cloudsdale! If it’s that important, AND I get a pie, I’ll do it!”
Applejack let out the breath she’d been holding. “Thank ya kindly! Welp, I’d better get ta work on that pie! Take care!”
She turned to trot back to the farmhouse, but paused when she spotted her younger sister plodding sadly up the front walk.
“Apple Bloom?” she said as she cantered over. “How come yer only comin’ back now? I thought ya finished school more’n an hour ago!”
The little foal sighed. “I did finish school then! But then me an’ Sweetie Belle went to this thing o’ Scootaloo’s, and…” She frowned, her brows knitting over her massive amber eyes.
Applejack rested a reassuring hoof on her sister’s back. “Hay now… why doncha tell me what happened?”
• • • • • • •
Scootaloo sat silent and still as a statue. She kept her gaze locked on the street in front of the Smoothie Shop, as though fearful that Rainbow Dash might streak past during a moment of inattention and be lost.
“…Maybe you heard her wrong?” offered Sweetie Belle after several minutes.
Scootaloo made no reply.
“Oh! Or maybe she’s gotta deal with an emergency!” said Apple Bloom. “She could be savin’ babies from a fire right this minute!”
“Yeah!” agreed Sweetie Belle. “Or fighting a great big monster!”
Scootaloo’s rigid pose softened slightly. “…Like a humongous Dragon?”
Apple Bloom nodded. “Sure! As big an’ red as ma farmhouse!”
“With fiery breath! Raawwwr!” Sweetie Belle roared squeakily.
Scootaloo sighed. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Rainbow Dash is a really important Pony – something came up and she’s running a little late, that’s all.”
The minute hoof on the clock above the shop’s counter, visible through the front window, crept a quarter-turn forward.
“She’ll be here any minute,” said Scootaloo.
With another quarter-turn, the minute hoof caught up to the hour hoof.
“Any minute,” she repeated.
After a few minutes more, Apple Bloom spoke up:
“I hope she gets here soon – if I miss supper ma Granny’ll be mighty cross!”
“Any. Minute.” Scootaloo bit off the words harshly.
Sweetie Belle shifted uncomfortably. “M-Maybe–”
“THERE SHE IS!” Scootaloo’s ecstatic shout almost knocked her friends out of their seats. She lunged over the table and skidded to a stop a short distance away from it, chest puffed and wings spread.
Across the street and a building over, the coolest, fastest, most super-ultra-extreme-awesome-azing Pegasus in Equestria was trotting out of a bookstore next to that kinda-boring-but-pretty-cool-I-guess purple Unicorn friend of hers, Twilight Sparkle.
Scootaloo’s wings flapped fast enough to buzz; she struggled to calm them and adopt a relaxed, cool pose... or the closest approximation of one she could manage in her excitement, at any rate.
A few moments passed, but Rainbow Dash was still across the street, chatting with Twilight about something.
“Come ON, Twilight!” said Scootaloo, trotting in place. “Rainbow Dash has places to be!”
Scootaloo spoke for the two mares, voicing their inaudible conversation:
“Blah blah blah! I love books!”
“Yeah that’s great, Twilight, but I got an important meeting to get to!”
“Oh, why didn’t you say so? I’ll just be going then.”
“Right! And I’ll…” A look of wounded shock spilled across Scootaloo’s face.
“…go with you?”
Scootaloo sat down on the dirt and watched Rainbow Dash trot away down the street, carefree and unthreatened by monsters or mayhem. Rainbow Dash hadn’t been saving babies from a fire. She hadn’t been fighting a terrible Dragon. Twilight Sparkle didn’t look all wild and panicky like she had when she’d offered up that lame-but-somehow-amazing doll. They were both doing just fine.
Scootaloo reached out a hoof in Rainbow Dash’s direction, but then let it fall once more. She silently folded up her wings.
Apple Bloom cautiously approached her.
The little Pegasus’s front legs trembled. She curled into a ball, hiding her face under her hooves.
"C'mon - Rainbow Dash prolly just forgot about the meetin'. Let's go git her!"
"Why bother?" muttered Scootaloo. "I woulda just messed up anyway."
“Now, don't be like that,” Apple Bloom continued. “Yer gonna be a great flyer someday, I know it!”
“No,” said Scootaloo without looking up, “I’m not.”
Sweetie Belle trotted over to stand opposite Apple Bloom. The two of them shared an awkward, helpless glance over Scootaloo’s back.
• • • • • • •
“…But we couldn’t think o’ anythin’ else ta say ta her, an’ she walked away, sad as ya please! It was just TERRIBLE!” Apple Bloom’s lower lip quivered.
Applejack nuzzled her little sister’s neck. “Now don’t be too hard on yerself, Apple Bloom,” she said softly. “Friends can be a big help, but hurt is hurt, and sometimes Pony-folks can get too upset ta get well right away, no matter HOW nice their friends are. If ya be there fer her, she’ll mend by and by.”
Apple Bloom hugged Applejack’s front leg and buried her face in her shoulder.
Question is, the older Earth Pony mused to herself as she gently stroked Apple Bloom’s mane, why would Rainbow Dash skip work and lie to a lil’ foal who thinks tha world o’ her?
Applejack’s gaze strayed to the sky, where Thunderlane was franticly pushing rainclouds this way and that. She narrowed her eyes.
• • • • • • •
“Renewed, that’s the word for it!” Rarity inhaled deeply and then let out the breath in a satisfied sigh as she trotted along next to Fluttershy. “I feel positively renewed!”
Her stomach gurgled in a most improper fashion.
“Ah. I guess renewal works up a bit of an appetite!” She giggled demurely.
Fluttershy smiled a meek smile. “Um, if you’re still not busy, maybe we could go and get a bite to eat at Sugarcube Corner?”
“Why, that sounds like a marvelous idea! Do let’s!”
In short order the pair made their way to the town’s most well-known bakery and secured some fresh-baked treats: a plain cupcake with vanilla frosting for Fluttershy, and a razor-thin slice of double-dark-chocolate cheesecake with strawberry drizzle and a sugar-glass ornament for Rarity.
They settled down on the bakery’s front steps to chat and enjoy their desserts in the fresh air.
“…but then she winked out without another word!” Rarity paused to take a bite of cheesecake off the fork hovering before her. “I’m worried she might have caught something from the spoiled milk.”
“Oh, my! I hope she isn’t ill!” Fluttershy cringed in worry.
Before Rarity could respond, part of the cluster of pink blossoms next to the steps rustled and then rose up, revealing itself to be, in fact, the frizzy mane of their silliest friend.
“Hay girls!” said Pinkie Pie with her customary good cheer. “Watcha doin’?”
Both stared, but Rarity spoke first:
“Pinkie Pie… why were you hiding in th–” Rarity dropped her hovering magicked plate as Pinkie turned to face them head-on. “SWEET CELESTIA! YOUR EYE!”
Pinkie Pie touched a cautious front hoof to her left eye. “What? What’s wrong with it?”
“N-No,” said Fluttershy, “the other one. The one with the big, painful-looking bruise?”
“Oh-h-h-h!” Pinkie waved a hoof dismissively. “That’s nothing. Just a little joke mishap.”
Fluttershy and Rarity made no reply.
“But anyhoo, you don’t hafta worry about Twilight. She’s just disappointed ‘cause she has no sense of humour.” Pinkie’s smile was less wide than usual, to avoid pinching her black eye.
“You’re… you’re sure about that, Pinkie?” Rarity did her best to conceal her disquiet.
“Absotively-posolutely! I know for a FACT that there is NOTHING scary going on with Twilight.” Pinkie nodded firmly to emphasize her statement.
“Well, that’s good to know,” said Rarity. “If she’s just feeling a little down, then it’s obvious what she needs!”
“It is…?” said Fluttershy.
“Totally!” replied Pinkie Pie.
Pinkie Pie and Rarity shouted “A PARTY!” and “A MAKEOVER!” at the same moment. An instant later, they answered each other with “A makeover?” and “A party?” respectively. After a short pause, they found unison at last with a glad cry of:
“A MAKEOVER PARTY!”
Fluttershy’s eyes darted from Rarity to Pinkie Pie and back again.
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle trotted into the library with her head held high. A trip to the book shop always lifted her spirits, and Rainbow Dash’s constant supporting presence was no small help, either. Twilight permitted herself a tiny sense of self-satisfaction.
Applejack is steadfast and vigilant, Pinkie Pie is happy even though she’s a little the worse for wear, and Rainbow Dash is resolute, she thought to herself as she magicked aside a pile of unshelved books to get at the right shelf to stow her new acquisitions. Not too shabby! At this rate, I just might make it through th–
Twilight froze when she revealed what was hidden on the shelf behind the pile of books. As the bitter scent of charcoal filled her nostrils, she couldn’t help but whisper to herself:
SECRETS AND LIES By Saddlesoap Opera Part Four: Before Swine
Rose watched her flower garden closely as the sprinkling rain darkened its soil. She slowly raised a front hoof.
“Almost…” She raised it higher. “Almost… STOP!” She brought her hoof down firmly.
Thunderlane peered down from the edge of a low-hanging raincloud. “Did we really have to water each patch separately? I could’ve just grabbed a bigger cloud and done them all at once!”
Rose gasped. “What? Oh, no! Never! Good gardening is all about the little details.”
The Pegasus sighed long-sufferingly, but then perked up. “Hay, wait! You’re always gossip– uhh, chatting with your friends, right? You know all about what’s going on in Ponyville?”
Rose blushed modestly. “I wouldn’t say all about. But yes, we know what’s going on.”
“That’s great! Listen, I’m really, really busy, but somepony asked me to keep an eye out for anything out-of-the-ordinary going on in town.” The Pegasus leaned closer. “Do you think you could keep an ear to the wind and lemme know if anypony does anything suspicious? It would help me a lot.”
Rose sat and pressed a hoof to her chest. “Oh! That sounds serious!”
Flaky, golden-brown crusts barely restraining glistening, steamy, syrupy fruit slices danced through Thunderlane’s imagination. “Oh, believe me – it IS!”
Rose shivered under the intensity of Thunderlane’s gaze. “D-Don’t worry! If anypony’s done something wrong, we’ll find out about it! It might not look it, but this town’s just teeming with strange happenings and sinister goings-on!”
“Awesome! I can’t wait to hear what you dig up!” Thunderlane spread his wings and took off, leaving the raincloud drifting and unattended.
Rose galloped down the block and skidded to a stop in front of a nearby home’s front door. She pounded on it with a hoof.
“Lily?” she called out. “Lily, it’s Rose. Open up – I have BIG news!”
• • • • • • •
Pinkie Pie’s sky-blue eyes grew wide and watery, reflecting the colourful interior of the Carousel Boutique in their depths. Her black right eye made her mournful frown slightly lopsided. “Awww…! But if I can’t use my fly-a-ma-jig indoors, the Party Cannon is the only way to get the streamers all the way to ceiling!”
Rarity pressed a hoof to her forehead and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. “Pinkie Pie! We can’t go overboard on the decorations. There may be some VERY delicate dress-fitting and mane-styling going on!”
Pinkie pondered. “Okay, how ‘bout balloons? A whole BUNCH of ‘em!”
Rarity rolled her eyes. “Very well. But half a bunch. Maybe.”
Rarity cringed in horror. “Oh MY, no!”
“Shee-ee-ee-ee-sh!” Pinkie’s head rattled back and forth as she drew out the word.
The two Ponies sat in silent thought for a moment, but then turned to face each other with a shared look of inspiration and a shared shout of:
Pinkie Pie hopped to and fro in giggling delight while Rarity magicked up half a dozen spools of ribbon and eyed them critically.
“I’m so excited!” said Pinkie. “Are you excited? I haven’t been this excited since the last time I was this excited!”
Rarity gave her pink friend a sidelong glance and silently raised an eyebrow.
Pinkie bounded over to the Boutique’s front door. “I’m gonna gallop back to Sugarcube Corner and grab the biggest half-buncha balloons EVER!”
As Pinkie left, a pale-brown Earth Pony stallion with a slicked gunmetal-grey mane and a finely tailored collar and monogrammed tie caught the door and trotted inside.
“Ah! Good afternoon!” said Rarity with entrepreneurial good cheer. “Are you in the market for some haute couture for your very special somepony?”
He waved a dismissive front hoof. “No, no. Nothing like that. I’m here on business. My business, to be precise.”
Rarity sighed. “We’ve had this talk before, Filthy.”
“Please,” he replied with just a touch of annoyance, “call me Rich.”
Rarity narrowed her eyes. “We’ve had this talk before, Rich. My designs are my precious children – each one a unique jewel intended to meet a single, specific customer’s needs! Surely you can’t expect me to abandon them to the cold, cruel world of… bulk retail!” She cleared her throat. “No offense.”
Rich smiled a well-practiced smile. “None taken. But as I’ve said before, Rich’s Barnyard Bargains is a perfectly respectable business. High demand and low supply can both lead to profits. You simply favour the latter, while I favour the former.”
Rarity let out a ladylike harrumph. “I don’t put profits first. And I’ll have you know that the demand for my work is quite high, indeed!”
Rich smirked. “Oh? As high as the demand for zap-apple jam? Or shoeing nails? Or sugar cubes?”
“Those are staples! I deal in luxury! Fabulosity!”
Rich trotted over to a ponnequin half-covered in pinned navy-blue cloth. “What about this? It’s stylish, yet simple and functional, too – anypony would want one! I could sell a HUNDRED of these!”
Rarity frowned. “That is a one-off for a friend with simple tastes. And if I want to finish it before the party we’re going to hold for her, I need to get back to work. So sorry to have wasted your time, Filthy – ah, Rich.” She magicked open the front door.
Rich shrugged as he headed out. “You know where to find me.”
Rarity took a deep, cleansing breath before turning back to the ponnequin.
• • • • • • •
“H-Hello, Miss S-Sparkle. Did you m-miss me?”
Rainbow Dash stepped closer to her friend. “Did you say something, Twilight?”
Twilight Sparkle turned and sat, blocking Dash’s view of the singed plush toy reclining on the empty bookshelf.
“N-No! Just… just thinking out loud!” She giggled nervously.
“Oh, okay. Uh, you wamme to put those books away for you?”
“No, i-it’s fine. I got it.” Twilight could feel the doll behind her. His brass stare – No! Its! ITS stare! she fiercely corrected herself – bored into her back. “Say… I just realized I forgot to pick up sugar when we went out. Do you think you could pop down to the marketplace and get me some?” Twilight made a poor attempt at a guileless smile.
“Okay, sure!” Dash saluted Twilight and gave a firm nod. “I’ll be back in a flash!”
“Take your time!” shouted Twilight after the cyan blur streaking out of her front door.
As the swirling dust and stray scrolls settled in Rainbow Dash’s wake, Twilight let out her breath and sagged. Tension quickly reclaimed her, however, as she turned to face Discorduroy.
She narrowed her eyes. “You can’t be real. I tore you apart. I BURNED you!”
“Well, CLEARLY you didn’t,” she said to herself in the doll’s taunting voice. “I’m as healthy as a horse!”
“That’s not funny. And I am NOT going crazy!” Twilight stomped a hoof for emphasis as she shouted at the inanimate plush toy before her. “There’s a rational explanation for this – there HAS to be!”
“Of course, of course there is,” she said, her tone dripping with mock sympathy. She paced back and forth in front of the doll as she continued: “You killed somepony, you’re wracked with guilt, you haven’t slept more than a few minutes in a few days, and you’re hopelessly afraid that you’re going to mess up like you always do and let me loose to rain down delicious, chocolaty chaos on each and every living thing in Equestria! Why SHOULDN’T you be losing your mind, Twilight Sparkle? Why shouldn’t you? WHY SHOULDN’T YOU?”
She turned away from Discorduroy and unleashed an anguished, throaty shriek at the empty room.
A small bowl of assorted gemstones fell from Spike’s claws and clattered down the bottom half of the stairs. The little Dragon’s pupils were pinpricks, and his voice was needle-thin:
“Spike!” Twilight croaked. She cleared her throat. “What did you hear?”
“You were shouting something about losing your mind, so I came running, and you screamed…” Spike’s eyes shone with tears. “Twilight, what’s happening? Nopony will tell me, and you’re – you’re really scaring me!”
Relief and remorse tore through Twilight like a hurricane. Her back legs gave out, and she sat down heavily.
“S-Spike, I…” Ice-water chills slithered down her back and pooled in her stomach. “Come here. Please?”
Spike cautiously closed the distance between them; Twilight pulled him into a hug.
“I did something, Spike. Something very, very bad.”
She ducked her head down and wrapped her legs tight, engulfing her faithful assistant. Her voice was barely above a whisper as she continued.
“I want to fix things, or, or at least try to stop them from getting worse. B-But I don’t know if I can do it. And if I can’t…” Twilight shuddered. “I’m sorry, Spike. I’m so sorry!”
Spike wriggled out of Twilight’s grasp, hopped a short distance away and then turned to face her.
“Don’t be sorry, Twilight!” he said, with only a hint of fearful quaver in his voice. “You can fix things – I know you can! You’ve faced monsters and Dragons and who-knows-what else! You’re the most magical Unicorn in Ponyville. No – in EQUESTRIA! If you can’t do it, nopony can!” Spike rested his claws on his hips and stood as firmly as his anxiety would allow.
“Oh, Spike!” Twilight smiled gratefully, pressing a front hoof to her chest. But her smile soon faded. “…It’s not that simple.”
Spike tilted his head. “How come?”
“Because, I… I…” Words failed Twilight.
Oh go on – just tell him! she imagined Discord’s purring timbre with cringe-inducing clarity. Tell him the Pony who helped teach him not to give in to his bestial instincts wailed like a Windigo and burned her enemy alive! It’ll be HILARIOUS! Ah, what I wouldn’t give for some popcorn!
“Stop!” she growled under her breath. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and pressed her front hooves to her temples.
Now Topsy Turvy’s high, sneering voice joined the mental chorus: Tell him! Tell him you MURDERED ME, you bucked-up Screwhead! He’ll forgive you! Dragons are SUPER level-headed! The imaginary Topsy giggled; Twilight gritted her teeth.
“Twilight! Are you okay?” Spike approached her.
“I’m okay!” She held out a warding hoof. “I’m fine.” She took a slow, deep breath and let her front hooves drop. She opened her eyes and looked down at her assistant; it was now or never. With a short, shallow nod, she spoke:
“Spike, I don’t know how to tell you this, but–”
An explosion of ribbons and balloons and pink and purple and white burst in through the front door and shattered the moment; Twilight could only stare in shock.
• • • • • • •
As a decorated athlete, weather-worker, foal-rescuer and occasional world-saver, Rainbow Dash was no stranger to the scrutiny of strangers. So why, then, she couldn’t help but wonder as she flapped along Stirrup Street at roof-height, did she suddenly feel so exposed?
Dash alighted near a fountain and took stock of nearby townsponies and passersby. Every Pony she looked at averted their gaze in moments, and those standing or travelling in pairs or groups whispered frantically as soon as she began to turn away.
Dash frowned; what was going on?
As was her wont, she opted for the direct approach.
“Hay! You!” she said, pointing a hoof at a random Earth Pony. “What the Pony Heck is going on around here?”
“Ain’t ya heard?” said the orange-maned yellow mare. “There’s a criminal loose in Ponyville!”
“A criminal?” Dash tilted her head. “What did this crook do?”
The Earth Pony shuddered. “I dunno, but it must be somethin’ just AWFUL! Otherwise, why would folks be so worried?” She turned and gestured at the skittish crowd, currently occupied trying not to look like they were eavesdropping.
Dash rolled her eyes and sighed. A few months ago, she might have rocketed to answer the call of justice and pursue the perpetrator posthaste. But now? Now, Dash felt a new sense of perspective. Twilight’s fear-struck speech suddenly seemed a lot less burdensome.
“Aww, don’t get your saddle-blanket in a bunch,” said Dash with a chuckle and a dismissive wave of her hoof. “There’re WAY worse things than criminals to worry about! And we’re–”
Dash had only turned away for a moment, but the Earth Pony had taken the chance to bolt.
“–gonna deal with them?” Dash shrugged and then decided to finish the trip to the market on hoof.
By then the Earth Pony was already two blocks away, anxiously pounding on somepony’s door.
• • • • • • •
“You’re speechless – I understand!” said Rarity with a cheery grin. “It’s not every day that somepony gets the chance to have a simultaneous makeover and party in her honour. Or ever, I suppose, seeing as how Pinkie and I only just came up with the idea!” She tittered daintily.
While Rarity spoke, Pinkie Pie flitted from corner to corner of the library’s book-strewn main floor, affixing ribbons to the remaining hanging ropes and releasing a modest number of balloons from her saddlebags.
“Wh-What…?” Twilight finally managed.
“You’re gonna LOVE it!” replied Pinkie. “Music, dancing, snacks…”
“…Braiding, highlights, some eye shadow, a little fashion…” added Rarity, magicking her own saddlebags off her back and unpacking a dark blue dress covered in pockets.
Both concluded with: “…and RIBBONS!”
Twilight remained all but catatonic.
While the pleased party-planners shared a giggle, Spike stepped toward Rarity in a huff.
“Okay, uh, it’s like this,” he said hesitantly, “this was a nice idea, but it’s kind of a bad time. Twilight was telling me something pretty serious, and–”
Rarity sat down and then picked Spike up with her front hooves.
“Oh! And don’t think I’ve forgotten about my dear, dear Spikey-Wikey! I’m ever so grateful for all your help lately!”
“Hey!” Spike wriggled in her grasp. “I’m TRYING to tell you…” Rarity nuzzled Spike’s cheek with her own; Spike blushed and stopped struggling. “…your mane smells really good.” He giggled bashfully.
Rarity smiled. “My my! Such a charmer! Here – I made a little something for you while I was preparing for Twilight’s makeover.”
Rarity magicked a new pair of crimson-lensed sunglasses out of her saddlebags and slipped them onto the little Dragon’s face.
“Do you like them? The frames are onyx and the lenses are beryl, so if you start feeling, you know…” Rarity lowered her voice for a moment. “…grabby, you can just eat them right up!” She magicked up a small mirror and floated it in front of Spike.
“Well, I do look pretty slick…” Spike lowered the shades and studied his reflection over the top of the glossy black frames before pushing them back into position.
On the other side of the room, Pinkie had finished decorating and was clearing a space to set up a cake-serving table. She pushed aside a pile of books and righted the folding table, but then stopped and gasped in surprise.
“Oh wow, Twilight! Where’d you get this crazy doll?”
Twilight snapped out of her stasis as if struck by lightning.
Pinkie picked up the doll with her front hooves and wiggled it as she spoke in a low, growling, mock-sinister voice:
“Grrr! I’m Discord! I’m a great big meanie-pants! And I wanna make you all into meanie-pantseses, too-oo-ooo… aahhh-CHOOO!”
The doll dropped to the floor as Pinkie propelled herself away from it with the force of her sneeze. Once she tumbled to a stop and sat up, her ears started flailing in opposing circles. Shortly thereafter, twitches rippled down her back.
“Hmmm…” she said, and rubbed her nose with a foreleg. “Sneezy nose, flappy ears, tingly spine.”
Twilight bit her lower lip. “Wh-What does that mean?”
Pinkie Pie narrowed her eyes. “It means…”
Rarity, Spike, Twilight and the Discorduroy doll all stared at Pinkie Pie in identical expectant silence. Sweat shone on Twilight’s forehead.
“…that doll REALLY needs to be dusted! It made me sneeze so bad, you’d almost think my PINKIE SENSE was goin’ off!” Pinkie Pie giggled a snorting giggle.
The assembled crowd – minus the doll – breathed a sigh of relief. Twilight answered Pinkie’s giggle with a thin, unconvincing giggle of her own.
And then Pinkie sneezed again.
Twilight and Rarity dived out of the way as Pinkie streaked back and forth across the room like a tingling, ear-flapping, sneeze-powered rocket.
“GOODNESS!” said Rarity in a pause between Pinkie’s sneezes. “Maybe we should–” She ducked as Pinkie shot past above her. “–reschedule the makeover party?”
“N-No, no, it’s fine!” said Pinkie breathlessly. “Just lemme get back to the cake ta-aa-aaaah-CHOO!”
The Earth Pony flew backwards into an empty bookshelf and crashed down on top of – and through – the bare cake-table.
Twilight galloped over to her. “Pinkie! Are you all right?”
“Oof… yeah, I’m okay!” She popped up out of the wooden wreckage, sending Discorduroy flopping down next to her. “My knee’s just a little pinchy.”
Twilight felt some spine tingles of her own. “I don’t know about that, Pinkie. Maybe we should do this another time. Better safe than sorry, right?”
“Yeah!” agreed Spike, folding his arms. “Me and Rainbow Dash have hardly even STARTED cleaning up this mess – you shouldn’t make it worse!” He caught Twilight’s disapproving glare out of the corner of his eye. “Oh! And yeah, you should make sure you’re healthy.”
“Aww, I guess you’re right.” Pinkie scuffed the floor with her front hoof, kicking Discorduroy aside; she winced right after doing so, her leg bending double from the severity of the pinch in her knee. Her nose started to twitch. “Y’know, maybe I should – AHCHOO! – take it – AHCHOO! – easy for a while! AHCHOOO!”
Pinkie’s last sneeze sent her hurtling out the front door. Her shout of “See you – AHCHOO! – later!” faded into the distance.
Rarity sighed. “Well, I am simply crushed, Twilight! Here we’d hoped to give you a nice pick-me-up, and all we did was make a frightful mess.” She half-swooned, pressing a foreleg to her brow. “Alas! Could I be losing my flair for thoughtful gifts?” Spike pulled a fainting couch into position behind her.
“NO!” Twilight raced over and gripped Rarity with her magic. She pulled the white Unicorn close and stared at her head-on before letting the magic aura fade.
“Rarity, no! I thought this was a… a SUPER idea!” Twilight forced a smile. “Don’t even THINK of being even a TINY bit less Generous! You two really, uh, made my day!” Twilight ratcheted her smile so wide her cheeks ached.
Rarity tilted her head in confusion. “We did?”
“Oh, you bet! All these pretty decorations…” Twilight turned in a circle, pushing down the gruesome thoughts that gleaming blood-red ribbons dangling from hanging ropes evoked. Her left eyelid twitched.
Rarity grinned. “You liked the ribbons? Oh, I knew you would! They make me think of the moment we first met. Do you remember? At the Town Hall?”
Twilight nodded. “Even though you were busy getting ready for the celebration, you took the time to fix my mane.”
“Yes, that’s right!” Rarity smiled fondly at the memory.
For a moment, Twilight let herself do likewise. But the indulgence ended as she recalled her present worries. “But anyway, that’s why I need you to stay that way now. You’re more than just a nice Pony now – you’re the Element of Generosity, and I need you to stay that way!”
“Why ever wouldn’t I, Twilight? Is there something I should know about?” Rarity’s gaze strayed to the fallen doll. “Something about… Discord?” She spoke the name in a whisper, as if she were saying a dirty word during high tea in Canterlot Castle.
Twilight winced. She looked at Rarity, at Spike, at Discorduroy, and back again. She took a slow, deep breath.
“Yes. It’s about Discord. I think he’s trying to get free. That’s why–”
“That’s why you’ve been so skittish lately!” said Rarity. “And why you’re worried about the Elements!”
Rarity snapped to attention, her backbone as straight as a Royal Guard’s. “Well, then! I’ll have to be sure that I stay as Generous as possible, won’t I?” Her rigid pose softened, and she smiled. “Why don’t I start by giving you a nice gift to make up for letting you worry about this all alone for so long?” She magicked up the blue dress and floated it before Twilight.
Twilight looked away. “You don’t have to do that, Rarity.”
“Oh, but I’m afraid I do, darling!” replied Rarity. “My dear friend is anxious and troubled – the Generous thing to do is to give her something to help cheer her up.” The hovering dress dipped invitingly.
Twilight gingerly ducked her head and slipped into the dress. It was not unlike the simple outfit Rarity had given her in Canterlot, with the addition of several buttoned pockets in different shapes and sizes. Once she’d settled it in place, Twilight craned her neck to look at herself.
“It has pouches for quills and scrolls,” noted Rarity with a hint of pride, “and ink won’t stain the fabric.”
“Oh, hey – it even has a place to hang an inkwell!” added Spike, poking a claw through a loop at Twilight’s shoulder.
Twilight thought back to the fiasco surrounding the dresses for last year’s Grand Galloping Gala; the whole incident seemed so petty in hindsight. Did trivial details on a dress really matter, now that –
…Now that the one wearing the dress has blood on her horn?
Twilight hadn’t meant to look at Discorduroy, but the moment her gaze had fallen on him – IT! – she’d imagined the voice as clear as a bell.
She turned around and faced Rarity, who was still standing stock-still, awaiting a review.
“It’s beautiful,” said Twilight, summoning up every shred of good cheer she could muster. “I… I love it!”
Rarity sagged and let out a small sigh. “Hmm. That’s a pity. I was so sure you’d like it.”
Twilight shook her head in confusion. “Wh-what? Rarity, I said it’s beautiful! It’s thoughtful and practical and it goes with my mane and tail!”
Rarity ignited her horn and magicked the dress off Twilight in one smooth pull. “Not to worry! I’m not trying to impress any fashion designers or photographers this time – and I’m not making six dresses at once. Just tell me what you’d like, and I won’t rest until you’re delighted!”
Twilight stared in disbelief; she knew Rarity had a keen social sense, but was her upset that obvious?
“It’s fine as it is, really,” she insisted. “You don’t have to…”
The imagined staring of brass-button eyes tripped up Twilight’s focus.
It’s a positively GORGEOUS present, crooned the hallucinatory Draconequus. Nopony could reject it. And if it’s not the dress making you unhappy, what-EVER could be wrong? The smell of burning and the taste of blood and lye splattered through Twilight’s memory.
“You should change the buttons!” Twilight blurted. “Brass just doesn’t work for me!”
“Ah! I should have known!” Rarity exclaimed, as if the critique were the most obvious thing in Equestria. “Brass clashes with your eyes. I’ll replace them with silver.”
“Well, if it’s no too much trouble,” said Twilight sheepishly.
“Of course not! I insist! Now, in the meantime why don’t you try to get some beauty sleep?” Rarity leaned forward and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I don’t want to alarm you, but you’ve got some dark circles forming under your eyes!”
She straightened, turned, and then headed for the front door. “A little rest and a custom-crafted ensemble will do you a world of good – you’ll see!”
Twilight gave a half-hearted wave as Rarity left.
Spike lowered his new shades and looked at Twilight over the top of their frame. “You know… I feel a lot better. Rarity was right. And beautiful. Graceful…” He shook his head. “But mostly right! With friends like her on your side, why worry?” He slid the shades back into place. “Everything will be okay.” He pointed a clawed thumb upward in a Dragon gesture of approval.
For a time Twilight watched the little Dragon busy himself with piling up books in order of shelf position, but her eyes slowly turned back to the soot-stained doll.
A few moments later, Rainbow Dash half-opened the front door and stuck her head inside. “Hey, Twilight. I got the sugar – got any other errands that need running?”
“Yes,” said Twilight without shifting her gaze. “Take this doll outside… and burn it.”
• • • • • • •
Fluttershy trotted through the streets of Ponyville, her eyes fixed on the scattered clouds. She paused at a crossroads and turned to face the white rabbit sitting on the strap of her saddlebags.
“I’m starting to get worried, Angel,” she said. “Rainbow Dash didn’t pick up Tank’s medicine, she wasn’t at home, and now the skies are getting awfully untidy. I hope nothing bad happened to her!” She shuddered anxiously.
Angel looked around, pointing at every passing Pony that came into view.
“Oh… okay. Maybe somepony’s heard something.”
She approached a nearby home, where a fuchsia-maned pink Earth Pony mare was leaning at a window and Pony-watching nervously.
“Um, excuse me,” said Fluttershy hesitantly, “I’m looking for–”
“I’M INNOCENT!” shouted the Earth Pony. “It’s all perfectly legal! Read the town charter! Up to ten jugs for private use!” She jerked back inside and slammed the shutters closed in one smooth motion.
Fluttershy tilted her head in confusion. “Th-Thanks anyway?”
She turned around and trotted over to a brown-maned orange Earth Pony stallion who was hitching himself to a cart.
“H-Hello. Have you–”
The stallion hopped backward in fright, backing the cart into a tree. “It was one time! ONE! And I wasn’t even in town at the time! Don’t go trying to pin anything on me – I’m an upstanding citizen!” He galloped off, pulling the half-secured cart behind him.
“Alright! H-Have a nice day!” Fluttershy called out after him.
A few more moments’ trotting brought her to the newly refurbished Town Hall. Mayor Mare and a pair of aides were standing in front of the building, chatting around a small folding table covered in paperwork.
“Pardon me, Mayor. I don’t mean to be a bother, but do you know where–”
“Those charges were dropped!” replied the Mayor, backing away as her assistants closed ranks between her and Fluttershy. “Direct any further questions to my attorneys!” The two businessmares guarding the Mayor menacingly stared down their noses at Fluttershy.
Fluttershy cringed and whispered: “Um… never mind!”
She frowned as she slinked away. What’s wrong with everypony today?
As if in answer to her thought, a tight column of water drenched Fluttershy from above. She squealed in shock at the sudden chill.
Thunderlane poked his head through the bottom of the freshly-emptied raincloud hovering over Fluttershy and winced. “Sorry! My bad!”
Angel spat out a mouthful of rainwater and fixed the Pegasus stallion with a withering stare.
Fluttershy shook the water off of her wings and jerked her head to get her sopping mane out of her eyes. “Thunderlane? Why are you weather-working in Ponyville? Where’s Rainbow Dash?”
“Celestia help me, I wish I knew! I’m in over my head, here! She’s on vacation, the clouds are piling up, and…” He choked back a sob. “…there’s no spare time to eat my pie!”
“Your…?” Fluttershy shook her head, sending droplets scattering in all directions. “Why don’t you start from the beginning?”
• • • • • • •
Early morning daylight crept into the second floor of the Carousel Boutique through an unguarded window and made its presence known.
Rarity groaned blearily and rolled over in bed, forcing her dear, precious, lovely, ornery, vicious and disaffected cat to hop out of the way.
“Oh, Opal…” she lamented, “is she trying to find fault? Is this a test?”
Opalescence meowed crankily.
“Fourteen alterations! FOURTEEN! Back and forth to the library until the wee hours, and she still isn’t happy. This is easily the finest, most functional, most useful dress I’ve ever made – what more can I do?”
Rarity picked up the cat in her front hooves, an act which was met with significant resistance.
“I’m happy to strive for perfection, but she’s just so… so…”
“Yes! JUST like that!” Rarity frowned. “I’d even prefer her to HATE the dress, rather than be so totally unmoved by it. She just nitpicks and then goes right back to not thinking much of anything about it!”
Opalescence wriggled free of Rarity’s grasp, landed softly on the bed, and started sullenly licking her paw and grooming herself.
“I just want a little recognition – that isn’t un-Generous, is it Opal?”
The bell on the front door downstairs answered on Opalescence’s behalf.
“Just a mo-o-o-ment!” Rarity sang out as she hopped out of bed and ignited her horn. A teeming swarm of cosmetics and glamour supplies leaped into the air and surrounded her.
She descended several moments later, freshly-coiffed and fabulous and wearing a cheerful smile… which withered when she laid eyes on her customers.
“Ah! Sorry if we woke you, Rarity,” said Filthy Rich. “I was just walking my little girl to school, and I figured we’d make a slight detour on the way.”
Diamond Tiara sighed in annoyance. “Why are we even here, Daddy? This store’s full of tacky knockoffs!”
“Diamond Tiara!” said Filthy, biting off each syllable. “Mind your manners!”
Diamond cringed but held her ground. “But it’s true! That outfit looks just like the ones Sapphire Shores wore on her last tour!” She pointed an accusing hoof at the gem-studded jumpsuit in question.
Filthy Rich inhaled for a longer diatribe, but Rarity smiled, chuckled softly and stepped closer.
“That’s because it is her outfit, dear,” she said, ducking down to meet the foal’s gaze. “A few of the emeralds popped out during the grand finale, so she sent it back to me for repairs.”
Diamond Tiara’s jaw dropped. “Y-YOU made clothes for Sapphire Shores?”
Rairty straightened and puffed out her chest. “I did indeed! She was the epitome of class and ever so nice when she stopped by.”
“WOW!” Diamond raced to and fro in the shop, staring at Rarity’s wares with new eyes. “Daddy! Daddy, I want one!”
“Fillies who are rude to their elders don’t get new dresses,” said Rich sternly.
Diamond raced back to stand before Rarity and effortlessly adopted a wide-eyed pout. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said with immaculate faux sincerity.
“Oh, think nothing of it,” said Rarity, patting her on the head with a front hoof. Diamond smiled sweetly and returned to browsing the racks. “But regardless – why exactly did you come ‘round, Rich? Surely you don’t expect me to have changed my mind overnight!”
“No, no – I know you’re too intelligent to be swayed so easily.” Rich smiled, but his expression soon turned serious. “Actually, I wanted to make sure you were aware of the crime wave here in town.”
Rich nodded. “It’s all everypony’s talking about. There’s some awful criminal on the loose in Ponyville, but nopony’s even gotten a description. I wanted to warn you to be on your hooves – one retailer to another.”
Rarity smiled. “Thank you, Rich. I appreciate the gesture.”
Across the room, Diamond Tiara gasped in awe. “Daddy…!”
Rich frowned and trotted over. “Diamond Tiara, I swear to Celestia, if you don’t–” He froze midsentence as he saw what had arrested his foal’s attention. Tears glistened in his sky-blue eyes.
“It’s… it’s beautiful!”
Rarity approached, raising an eyebrow. “It is? I mean… it is?”
Rich and Diamond nodded, but only Rich found his voice:
“It’s the finest, most functional, most… most…”
Rarity leaned forward. “Useful?”
“…most useful piece of clothing I’ve ever seen! It’s incredible!”
“I want it!” said Diamond, her eyes still locked on the dress.
Rarity tittered behind a front hoof and blushed lightly. “Oh, you’re too kind! But it’s a one-off – and already spoken-for!”
“Money is no object,” said Rich. “I’m commissioning another one-off.”
“Pleeeeez!” said Diamond, pawing at Rarity’s leg with her front hooves. “I’ve GOT to have one! I’ll never need saddlebags again! Everypony at school will be sooo jealous!”
Rarity stared. “School? Today? Oh, GOODNESS, no! I couldn’t make a foal-sized copy of this dress in less than an hour!” She paused. “Well, unless…”
Rich met Rarity’s gaze. “Unless?”
Rarity sighed. “I suppose I could use magic and just conjure a dress out of whole cloth, so to speak, but I usually shy away from doing so. The results are so much more flimsy than real hoofiwork.”
“Do it!” shouted Diamond Tiara gleefully, hopping in a circle around Rarity. “Pleez-pleez-pleez-pleeeeeez!”
Rich nodded in agreement with his eager foal.
“Oh, all right. I can’t say no to enthusiasm like that!”
Rarity’s horn glowed, and a bluish swirl of energy formed in front of Diamond Tiara. The expanding sphere moved forward to engulf the gawking foal, and with a bright flash she was wearing a foal-sized lavender duplicate of Twilight’s gift.
“YES!” shouted Diamond Tiara. “Silver Spoon is gonna just DIE!”
“I appreciate it, Rarity. What do I owe you?”
“Owe me? Please. I didn’t use a scrap of fabric and I only worked for a few seconds. Whatever you gave me would be money for nothing.”
A tingle passed through Rich’s money-bags Cutie Marks. He cleared his throat. “Uh, yes. I guess you’re right. Come on, Diamond Tiara – you’re going to be late for school!”
Rarity waved as the pair headed out.
A few moments later, Opalescence came down the stairs carrying a toy mouse in her jaws.
“Did you see that, Opal?” said Rarity with a satisfied sigh. “Generosity at its finest!”
Opalescence made no reply.
• • • • • • •
“Twilight is my bestest friend, whoopee! Whoopee!”
“She's the cutest, smartest, all around best po-nee! Po-nee!”
“I bet if I throw a super-duper fun par-tee! Par-tee…”
“She'll give her extra ticket to the gala to meeee!”
Twilight shifted in midair, her eyes and horn glowing as she snarled in rage. A flare of magic sent the assembled crowd of Ponies flying. A high-pitched scream sounded over the roar of the blast.
Twilight landed on her belly in a pile of confetti, streamers… and ashes.
After the boisterous singing and the echoing explosion, the silence that fell was deafening.
Twilight sat up and looked down at her front hooves; the hot ashes had stained them black. She turned, and saw that her remaining friends were staring at her in shock.
Fluttershy slowly approached and bent to cradle a double hoof-full of the ashes. Her lower lip trembled.
Twilight stood. “Fluttershy! I didn’t mean to! It was an accident! You have to believe me!”
She reached out to press her hooves to the Pegasus’s shoulders, but Fluttershy shattered like glass the moment she touched her. Pink and yellow slivers rained down onto the ash-dusted ground.
“N-No…!” Twilight backed away in horror.
The three survivors turned and galloped away in fear; Twilight gave chase.
“Please! Don’t leave me!”
As Twilight ran, each hoofstep cracked the ground. Buildings subsided and Ponies panicked as she passed. She skidded to a halt and screamed:
Twilight’s shout broke every pane of glass in Ponyville.
As she stood panting and weeping in the shattered town, a familiar serpentine shadow stretched out in front of her.
“Oh, now don’t be sad, Miss Sparkle,” said Discord soothingly, “You’re just exercising your Special Talent.”
Twilight found she couldn’t turn around; she spoke to the grinning shadow.
“My Special Talent is Magic!”
Discord chuckled. “Yes, yes – but what KIND of Magic? Your dear BBBFF is a protector… so what does that make you?”
Twilight’s point of view rose upward, climbing until she saw that her body stood at the center of a massive six-pointed starburst, cut into the town with lines of fire and destruction.
• • • • • • •
When Rainbow Dash woke to the sound of screaming for the fourth time, she was relieved to see that the sun had finally risen.
She stumbled past Spike’s basket – the little Dragon was still sound asleep with cotton in his ear-holes after taking the first half of the night consoling Twilight – and climbed the short staircase to Twilight Sparkle’s bedside.
Twilight was sitting up in bed, covering her eyes with her front hooves.
“I’m s-sorry,” she whimpered, “I didn’t m-mean to…”
Rainbow Dash gently hugged her, resting her chin on top of Twilight’s head and stroking her mane with a hoof.
“It’s okay, Twilight,” she said softly, “it was only a dream.”
Twilight sniffled. “No… I mean I didn’t mean to wake you up. You must be so sick of this. Of me.” She shuddered.
“Well, I…” A press of memories stalled Dash’s reply.
“Are you sure you want Fluttershy to come along? That Pony’s afraid of her own shadow!”
“You’re not a laughing stock, Rarity!” “She kind of is!”
“Do you have any more of that…medicine?”
“Nice try! Ponyville’s YOUR problem, not mine!”
Dash pulled away from the hug and shook her head.
“I am NOT sick of you! I’m the Loyal-est Pony you’ll ever meet! I’m stickin’ with you, no matter WHAT happens!” She stomped a hoof and spread her wings for emphasis.
Twilight smiled weakly. Her dark-circled eyes shone. “Thank you, Rainbow.”
Outside, a faint rumble of thunder escaped the gathering clouds.
• • • • • • •
Diamond Tiara waved to her father as they parted ways for the tail end of their trot – she to school, and he to Barnyard Bargains. She trotted in smug silence for a time, until another foal stepped outside and trotted out onto the street.
They both briefly frowned.
“Sweetie Belle.” Diamond kept her voice neutral, her head high and her eyes closed.
“Diamond Ti – whoa!”
Diamond grinned at the little Unicorn’s awe. “Pretty nice, huh? It was custom-made by Sapphire Shores’s costumer.”
“My sister made that?”
Annoyance scrunched up Diamond’s mouth. Finding herself lacking anything else in the way of a reply, she simply said: “…Yes.”
Sweetie Belle smiled. “Neat!” She craned her neck to examine the outfit. “Ooh, it’s got pockets for pencils, and a pouch for a notebook–”
“For a compact, you mean,” corrected Diamond. “Not to mention a loop to hang a perfume atomizer!”
“It’s really nice!” said Sweetie Belle earnestly. “I wish I had one!”
Diamond posed, half-lifting a front hoof demurely. “It is amazing, isn’t it? If you mention me, maybe your sister will make a knockoff for you.”
Either Sweetie Belle missed the edge of sarcasm in Diamond Tiara’s voice, or she chose to ignore it. “That’s not a bad idea!”
The pair trotted silently for a time, side-by-side but widely separated.
“You know,” said Diamond at length, “for a blank-flank, you aren’t all THAT hard to be around.”
Sweetie Belle half-smiled. “Thanks. For a spoiled brat, you’re only a LITTLE unbearable.”
The two stopped at the front steps of the school and stared each other down with mock aggression before they both broke out laughing.
They trotted inside, their chuckling still subsiding, and nearly bumped into Apple Bloom and Scootaloo.
“Oh! Morning,” said Sweetie Belle.
Apple Bloom nodded, but Scootaloo narrowed her baggy, red-rimmed eyes. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Sweetie Belle raised an eyebrow. “What do you mea–”
“MAY-be she’s just trying to climb the ladder a little,” interjected Diamond Tiara.
Sweetie Belle raised a front hoof. “I wasn–”
Scootaloo scowled and pointed to the stylized R marking one of the pockets of Diamond’s dress. “You even had your sister make her a present? What the PONY HELL, Sweetie Belle?”
Miss Cheerilee was looming over the group in a heartbeat.
“Scootaloo! School is no place for foul language – especially from little fillies! I’m putting you on eraser cleaning duty, starting this morning recess.”
Scootaloo sagged. “…Whatever.”
Diamond Tiara grinned a smug grin. “Careful, Miss Cheerilee. You better put somepony on guard so she doesn’t fly away. Oh, wait…”
Cheerilee turned to the little Earth Pony. “Diamond Tiara! Mind your manners! …Also, where did you get that fascinating dress?”
• • • • • • •
Pinkie Pie finished warming up her smiling and laughing muscles with the Cake twins, toweled off, and then bounded over to the stairs down to Sugarcube Corner’s main floor, humming a cheery tune.
As she took the first step, her ears flopped forward to cover her eyes and all four of her legs snapped to rigid attention; she gasped in surprise and tumbled down the staircase like a toppled statue.
She staggered to her hooves once her ears unfolded and her legs relaxed enough to let her bend her knees.
“Wooh,” she said, rubbing a fresher but milder bruise forming on the cheek below her black eye, “guess I musta overdone the exercise a little!”
SECRETS AND LIES By Saddlesoap Opera Part Five: The Cosmic Joke
Applejack frowned up at the gathering clouds as she trotted down the street. Judging from their dark colour and the occasional rumbles of thunder, the Pegasi had scheduled some storms, but she couldn’t recall hearing about any. She made a mental note to check the almanac when she returned to the farmhouse.
A flicker of movement from a side-street caught Applejack’s attention; she stopped and turned to peer into the alleyway.
The stallion was half-hidden under a pile of dogeared and water-damaged scrolls and pages, his brush-top blue mane tangled and his sunken eyes wide and watchful.
“Th-There’s too many of them!” he said in a fearful hiss. “They’re EVERYWHERE!”
Applejack cantered over and crouched in front of him.
“Ya found somethin’ out?” Applejack matched Thunderlane’s low volume, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper.
He shuddered. “I c-can’t take it anymore! It’s too much! They’re AFTER me, I know it!” He cringed, hiding his head under his front legs.
Applejack cleared away some of the pages. At a glance they made little sense, mostly consisting of names, times, and arrows marked with shorthoof symbols she didn’t recognize. She pressed her front hooves to Thunderlane’s shoulders and shook him.
“Who, dang it? Who’s after ya? Who’s gone bad?”
Thunderlane kept his head hidden and pointed a hoof skyward.
Applejack looked up, and met the gaze of an ice-blue-maned lilac Pegasus mare standing on a rooftop. The mare narrowed her eyes and scowled. Thunder rumbled.
Applejack froze in shock; all at once, the pieces fell into place to form a terrifying picture. She hadn’t been able to find the conspirators in the streets of Ponyville because they’d been above them the whole time!
She stooped down to whisper in Thunderlane’s ear. “You musta took an awful risk ta tell me this, friend,” she said. “Don’t ya worry none – when all this is over, I’ll see ya get a MEDAL instead o’ just a pie!”
As Applejack stood and trotted off, the oppressive grey skies loomed all the larger above her.
Up on the rooftop, a second similarly-coloured Pegasus mare alighted next to the first.
“Pathetic,” said the first, sighing in irritation.
“What a disgrace,” agreed the second.
“If he couldn’t handle weather-work, he, like, shouldn’t have taken the job.”
The second mare rolled her eyes. “I know, right? La-a-a-a-ame.”
Down in the alleyway, Thunderlane burrowed deeper under his pile of notes. “C-Clouds! Too many clouds!” he muttered. “They’re everywhere!”
• • • • • • •
Sweetie Belle took a sip of her juice-box.
Scootaloo munched on a carrot stick.
Apple Bloom sat between them behind the schoolhouse, watching her two best friends pointedly ignore each other. She sighed.
Across the field, Diamond Tiara took in the sight of the unhappy trio and chuckled.
“You didn’t have to get into ANOTHER fight with her, you know.” Silver Spoon was half-turned away, lying on her belly and hoofing through a magazine. She was speaking as much to a passing cloud as to her best friend.
“I didn’t WANT to,” said Diamond. “Sweetie Belle is the only one of those three with any class at all, and her sister made me this incredible dress, so I tried being nice. And see what it got me? If my fabulous fashion hadn’t distracted Miss Cheerilee, I could have gotten punished for getting cussed at!” She harrumphed. “I guess she isn’t like her sister after all. Serves me right for being nice to a blank-flank.”
Silver Spoon shifted uncomfortably. “W-Well, for a little while, I was nice to a blank-flank…”
Diamond turned to face her and scowled. “You said you’d never hold it over me that you got yours first! You PROMISED!” She put up her nose in a huff and turned to trot away.
Silver Spoon leaped to her hooves and gave chase. “Wait! I know I promised, I know! But I…” She sighed. “Never mind. I’m sorry.”
Meanwhile, Scootaloo turned up her nose and draped a front leg over Apple Bloom’s shoulders. “Apple Bloom, tell Sweetie Belle that we wanna find a different partner for the Triple Tiara relay race. Maybe she should go ask her new best friends over there.” Scootaloo nodded in Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon’s direction.
Apple Bloom frowned. “But–”
Sweetie Belle cut Apple Bloom off by pulling her out of Scootaloo’s grasp and into her own. “Apple Bloom, tell Scootaloo that WE don’t wanna be in the race with HER if she’s gonna be a jerk!”
Apple Bloom’s frown deepened. “Whoa, hay now–”
The little Earth Pony suddenly found herself pulled back and forth in a tug-o-war as her friends traded insults.
Both Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo pulled in opposite directions, and shouted: “COME ON, APPLE BLOOM!”
Apple Bloom’s hooves slipped from their grasps and all three foals tumbled to the ground.
“FINE!” said Sweetie Belle. “Maybe I’ll just finish my lunch over there!” She turned away as she got to her hooves, put on her saddlebags and then trotted off.
“See if I care!” replied Scootaloo. “I’M going THIS way!” She picked up her bags and trotted off in the opposite direction.
Apple Bloom, still flat on her back, sighed a dejected sigh. “Well, NOW what am I s’posed ta do?” she muttered.
At the far side of the field, Scootaloo’s moody wandering had brought her to the spot where Diamond and Silver had spoken. The breeze had blown the forgotten magazine closed. Scootaloo examined the cover:
CLOTHESHORSE Equestria’s Premiere Fashion and Modeling Magazine Since 954 A.C.
The little Pegasus’s gaze settled on the lean, statuesque, cream-coloured, gossamer-clad Pegasus mare below the magazine’s title; specifically, on the broad, fine-boned, lushly-feathered wings supporting her in midair. Every pinion was a work of aerodynamic art.
Scootaloo craned her neck to examine her own short, downy wings. At their full extension, they were shorter than a single one of the covermare’s pinions.
With a furtive glance around, Scootaloo picked up the magazine and slipped it into her saddlebag.
• • • • • • •
Cheerilee frowned. “Can’t I take the display piece? That one over there? I need to get back to the school before lunchtime ends, and I’ve just got to have that dress!”
Rarity frowned back. At last count, her racks held more than two hundred dresses, but lately it seemed like everypony just wanted her newest design. Well, not EVERYPONY, she thought sullenly.
“It’s not a display piece, it’s–” Rarity sighed in frustration. “For Celestia’s sake, how did you even know I came up with a new dress design?”
Cheerilee chuckled awkwardly. “Uhh, well, you know how it is. Word gets around…”
“I’m sorry to let you down, but I’m not continuing that line. It’s really meant to be a one-off. Of course, I’d be happy to work with you to design something that suits you perfectly!”
Cheerilee stepped closer, her stare growing wild and desperate. “You’ve already DONE that! It’s right there! I’ve never SEEN such an incredible outfit!” She held Rarity by her shoulders and shook her. “You don’t understand… I’VE GOTTA HAVE IT!”
“Cheerilee!” shouted Rarity in dismay. “Get a hold of yourself!”
Cheerilee’s expression turned from mania, to shock, to shame; she let Rarity go, stepped back and fought to catch her breath.
“I’m s-sorry, Rarity. It’s such a wonderful dress... I couldn’t control myself!” She turned away and sighed. “With so much of my time dedicated to teaching, I almost never get the chance to spoil myself.” She turned back to face Rarity. “Don’t get me wrong,” she added hastily, “my students mean the world to me! But the last time I felt… pretty… it was because the Cutie Mark Crusaders POISONED me!”
Rarity gave a wry smile. “I remember. You left a very pretty hole in my wall!”
Cheerilee winced. Her blush was visible even through her burgundy hide. “I’m so sorry about that, Rarity. We Earth Ponies are usually a LOT more careful with our strength. Oh! That reminds me! I never asked – did what I gave you cover the damages?”
Rarity tittered behind a front hoof. “Of course! You were very generous.” Rarity paused. “… In fact, I think I should do something to make up the difference. Give you your change, as t’were.”
Cheerilee’s expression brightened. “You mean…?”
Rarity nodded and then ignited her horn.
Cheerilee’s eyes lit up, glittering like Rarity’s diamond Cutie Mark.
• • • • • • •
Carrot Top stood at a small table in Sugarcube Corner and adjusted the malachite-cameo-topped ribbon tying back her mane. The keepsake – a gift from dear old Great Aunt Chantenay – had always brought her luck, and she expected no less from it today.
Mister Cake stepped out of the kitchen holding a tray of cupcakes in his mouth. He set the batch down on the counter and smiled brightly when he saw her.
“Why, if it isn’t Golden Harvest! I haven’t seen you since Filthy Rich’s foal’s party – how have you been?”
“Aww, shucks,” she said, waving a front hoof to match the statement, “ya can just call me Carrot Top, ya know. Most folks do.”
Mister Cake mussed the top of Carrot Top’s mane affectionately. “I know, I know. Ah, it seems like only yesterday you were smaller than my twins are now.” He looked to the floor for a moment, and sighed at the memory. “How is your mother doing?”
Carrot Top ran a hoof over her mane to smooth it. “She’s well. Y’all have known each other fer a real long time, huh?”
Mister Cake nodded. “Almost our whole lives. She even helped me get my Cutie Mark.” He smiled a small, nostalgic smile, but then shook his head. “But that was a long time ago, of course – before I met Cup and your mother met your father.”
“Say – y’oughta come round some time an’ catch up. I bet she’d be real happy ta see ya!”
Mister Cake rubbed the back of his neck with a front hoof. “Th-That’s nice of you, but with the bakery and our babies I’m pretty busy these days.”
A moment as silent as a passing cloud went by before Mister Cake thought of something else to say:
“Ah! Speaking of the bakery, are you going to wait for your date to arrive before you order?”
Carrot Top’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Whut makes ya think I’m on a date?”
“Well, if you were here alone you would have ordered something by now.”
“Maybe I’m just waitin’ fer a friend!”
“If it was somepony you knew that well, you could order for them.”
“Okay, fine! MAYBE I’m waitin’ fer somepony, and MAYBE it’s a date.” Carrot Top huffed and frowned in mock annoyance. “Shewt! Are all you bakers this per-ceptive?”
Mister Cake chuckled. “No, just me. Well, me and–”
As if in answer, Pinkie Pie came tumbling down the second-floor stairs like a toppled statue, her legs locked and her ears covering her eyes.
She staggered to her hooves once her ears unfolded and her legs relaxed enough to let her bend her knees.
“Wooh,” she said, rubbing her bruised face below her black eye, “guess I musta overdone the exercise a little!”
Before Carrot Top and Mister Cake could respond, the bakery’s front door opened and Applejack trotted inside.
She tipped her hat. “Sorry I’m late, Carrot. But there’s been some really–” Applejack’s eyes widened as they passed over Pinkie Pie. “TARNATION! WHUT HAPPENED TA YER FACE?”
Pinkie Pie gently poked the tiny fresh bruise under her black eye. “Aww, what – this? It’s nothing! I’ll be fine!”
Applejack frowned, shook her head, and then turned to address the three Ponies before her. “Listen up, y’all,” she said in her best authoritative round-up voice. “I found out somethin’ mighty troublin’ just now, and we need ta spread the word about it. Awright?”
“Spread the word?” Pinkie’s bruises restricted her broad grin somewhat. “I LOVE spreading the word… especially when the word is chocolate frosting!” She licked her lips sloppily.
“It ain’t like that,” replied Applejack. “There’s some bad apples here in town. Some Pony-folks are workin’ for…” Applejack looked left and right, as if suspicious of eavesdroppers. “Discord.”
Pinkie Pie, Mister Cake and Carrot Top shared a stunned gasp.
“D-D-Discord?” said Mister Cake bravely. “Are you sure?”
Applejack nodded. “Twilight warned me about it, an’ now it’s been confirmed.”
“Shewt!” said Carrot Top. “THAT must be what Rainbow Dash meant when she said there’s worse than criminals here in Ponyville!”
“She did? Well that clinches it,” said Applejack gravely. “Dash skipped givin’ one o’ her biggest fans a flyin’ lesson the other day – she’d only miss a chance to fly if somehin’ BIG was goin’ on. She musta already known about this back then!”
“We gotta raise the alarm!” said Pinkie, thrusting her head behind the counter and pulling it back now wearing a dome-light-topped safety helmet. “Put up posters, open the party shelters… call the WONDERBOLTS!”
“NO!” said Applejack. “Not them! This here’s Earth Pony business.”
Applejack shook her head. “We dunno if we can trust ‘em. We dunno if we can trust ANY of ‘em.”
“Why not?” asked Mister Cake.
“Because…” Applejack narrowed her eyes. “The ones workin’ fer Discord are all Pegasi.”
While Mister Cake and Carrot Top stood in shocked silence, Pinkie Pie turned away and stooped to speak to her pet baby alligator.
“Wow, Gummy!” she whispered. “This is pretty intense! But don’t worry… if anything REALLY scary was gonna happen, my Pinkie Sense would warn us!”
Pinkie smiled warmly, adjusting her stance to compensate for the shivers in her spine, the shudders in her tail, and the pinching in her knee.
Gummy’s only response was to blink one eye at a time.
• • • • • • •
“Can you say Spike, Peewee? C’mon, try it: Spi-i-i-i-ike.”
The tiny Phoenix stared up at the baby Dragon towering over the nest and replied with a small whistle.
“Close enough!” Spike mussed his little friend’s brilliant head-plumage and giggled. At the sound of the front door opening, Spike leaned over the edge of the library’s middle balcony and lowered his shades.
Twilight Sparkle stepped outside.
She sighed. “I just need some fresh air, Dash! You–” She tripped over a small paper bundle on the doorstep and stumbled forward. She sighed in irritation. “–You don’t have to come along.”
Rainbow Dash followed her outside, pausing for a moment to examine the careful hoofwriting on the package. “Are you sure? Cause if there’s anything – anything – you need…”
“YES, Dash. I’m sure. Why don’t you and Spike make sure we aren’t missing any books after all the shelf mishaps lately?”
Dash frowned, but then nodded. “…Okay.”
As Twilight trotted off, Spike hopped down into the library’s foliage and slid his way down to land next to Rainbow Dash.
“Don’t feel bad, Rainbow Dash,” said Spike cheerily. “We’ll get done in no time!” He tilted his head to peer past Dash. “What’s that?”
“It’s ginger for Tank. I guess Fluttershy musta flown by.” Dash looked up at the grey sky; thinking about flight made her wings itch and her heart ache.
Spike pensively stroked his chin with a claw. “You know, if Twilight’s on a walk, nothing’s stopping you from stretching your wings a little. You’re getting kinda stir-crazy being cooped up in here – last night you were flapping in your sleep!”
Dash fidgeted nervously. “Wh-What? I wasn’t – I mean, I probably was, but Twilight’s counting on me to…” Dash’s eyes strayed skyward again; the clouds thundered invitingly. She bit her lip. “…Maybe just a quick wing around the block?”
Spike grinned. “Sure! I’ll cover things here. Fly around a bit. Oh! Or you could even give Peewee a flying lesson!”
Dash’s eyes widened.
The memory of purple eyes wide with hero-worship and tiny orange hooves hugging her leg drained Dash of her enthusiasm.
Spike peered at Dash over the top edge of his shades. “Are you okay?”
Dash shook her head. “Y-Yeah. I was… remembering something. Y’know what? I don’t think it’s a good time to fly. It looks like they’re planning a storm, and I don’t wanna cramp anypony’s style up there. Let’s just go get on those books.”
She turned and trotted back inside the library without another word.
• • • • • • •
Carrot Top’s expression soured. “ – She’s a real nice Pony! She loves her foal more’n anythin’, and she always tries her best ta make her rounds on time!”
Applejack frowned back. “Yeah, but how well do ya really know her? Where’d she come from? Who’s her foal’s daddy? An’ why’s she act so… well, derpy, all the time?”
The two of them leaned back for a moment as Mister Cake reached his head down between them to pick the now-empty tray off of their table and trot away to take it into Sugarcube Corner’s kitchen.
“Hay now!” Said Carrot Top sternly as she leaned forward once more. “Ya can’t go thinkin’ somepony’s EVIL just ‘cause they’re a mite bit different!” She looked away. “After all, I seem ta recall that a certain somepony had a lotta trouble controllin’ what she was sayin’ not so long ago.”
Applejack blushed. “Th-This ain’t like that!”
Carrot Top met her gaze. “How so?”
Applejack sighed. “It’s ‘cause o’ Twilight. I ran into her the other day, an’ she was actin’ like Ditzy was dangerous. She had her cornered with her horn, and…” Applejack shifted uncomfortably. “…she was tellin’ her ta bring the other Ditzy back.”
Confusion creased Carrot Top’s righteous expression. “What other Ditzy? What’s that even mean?”
“I ain’t sure. But it’s gotta have somethin’ ta do with this Discord business!”
Carrot Top shrank back, her brows knitting anxiously.
“…What? What is it?” asked Applejack.
“W-Well, back when that ornery Griffon came ta town, and Pinkie Pie held her that party, I started feelin’ pretty awkward when the argument started getting fierce. So I stepped outside fer a bit.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow. “And…?”
Carrot Top inhaled and released the breath in a slow sigh. “And Ditzy was there – outside on the street. When th’ Griffon came out they had words, and Ditzy, she… she knocked her block off!”
Applejack stared. “Ditzy scrapped with Gilda the Griffon?”
Carrot Top shook her head. “Naw… she HUMILIATED her! I ain’t never SEEN a Pony move that fast in a fight. She beat that critter so bad that she couldn’t even FLY! An’ the look in Ditzy’s eyes…” Carrot Top shuddered. “I never told this t’anypony before. I tried ta ask her about it later on, but she didn’t even know what I was talking about.”
A sudden thought made Applejack straighten in shock. “But that party was before Discord even broke loose! There’ve been bad Pegasi in Ponyville fer that long? Shewt, I gotta tell Twilight!” Applejack turned toward the door.
Carrot Top stood and stomped her front hooves down in the tabletop. “No! This ain’t right! Ditzy’s never been anythin’ but good, as long as I’ve known her!” Her eyes shone. “She can’t be on Discord’s side… she can’t be!”
Applejack’s stern expression softened. She trotted around the table and pulled Carrot Top into a hug.
“I’m sorry, Carrot Top. I really am. I know better’n most – sometimes the truth can be a real bitter thing. But please… we need ta tell Twilight.”
Carrot Top pulled back to face Applejack, and then silently nodded.
• • • • • • •
Meanwhile, Twilight trotted down Stirrup Street, lost in meandering, insomnia-frayed thought.
“Everypony’s pretty much doing fine,” she mused to herself. “Five out of six is enough, isn’t it? The book only mentioned five. Maybe the Princesses never figured out the sixth at all. And Discord stayed locked away for THOUSANDS of years. Maybe they don’t need me. Maybe we CAN do this. Even if I’m–”
She turned to face a charred, blackened Pony skeleton wearing a singed propeller beanie.
Twilight yelped and staggered back, stumbling into a passing Earth Pony stallion; by the time she regained her balance, the skeleton was nowhere to be found.
“S-Sorry. Excuse me,” Twilight muttered.
“Now you’re falling asleep standing up?” she chided herself. “You can’t lose control like this. No slacking until it’s over. Not until you’re absolutely sure he won’t get out. Wake up, Twilight!”
Twilight shook her head, took a few slow, deep breaths, and then trotted on.
Pinkie Pie trotted around a corner, hopping and humming as was her wont. When she met Twilight’s gaze, she inflated like a balloon.
Twilight scowled. “I said, WAKE UP!”
She dunked her head in a nearby public trough, shuddering from the shock of the cold water.
When she lifted her head, all Twilight could see through the sopping strands of her mane was a wall of pink. Pinkie was really there. All of her.
“Hi, Twilight!” said Pinkie, waving a dangling hoof. “Wassup?”
Twilight wiped water out of her eyes with a foreleg. “E-Everything’s fine Pinkie. H-How are you?”
Pinkie snapped back to her normal size in the blink of an eye, only for her right legs to fold up into a sitting position. She tipped over.
“OOF! Fine here, too! Just out spreadin’ the word!” Pinkie smiled up at Twilight; her ears flapped.
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What word?”
Pinkie got to her hooves. “About the evil Pegasus-es-izzes-ss-SBBL-BBL-BBL!” Pinkie’s tongue blew a raspberry, apparently without her consent.
Twilight stared. “The WHAT?”
“Habba-blaah blubba-ba-ba buh-blah!” Pinkie’s tongue continued rebelling.
Twilight said nothing.
Pinkie cleared her throat. “S’cuse me! Applejack said there’re Pegasus-es working for Discord, so I’m warning Ponies to watch out!” Her tail quivered and then spun like a propeller.
“It’s Pegasi,” Twilight corrected reflexively.
“Them who?” applejack asked as she and her next-farm neighbour trotted up.
Pinkie pointed a hoof skyward. “The pegasuseses!”
“So, ya already heard, huh Twilight?” said Applejack.
Twilight turned around to face Applejack.
“Not really,” said Twilight. “What’s all this about evil Pegasi?”
“It’s just like you and Dash figured,” replied Applejack. “There’s Pegasi in Ponyville workin’ fer Discord, and there have been for a long while – before he first got out, even!”
Twilight tilted her head in confusion. “Like Dash and I… w-what?” The twisting thread of the conversation was rapidly taxing her already-overtaxed mind.
Carrot Top stepped forward. “Hay, now – you pay attention! You said there’s more’n one Ditzy Doo, right? W-Well I need ya ta promise me ya won’t hurt the good one. All right?”
“Ditzy?” said Pinkie. “The mailmare?” She winced as her knee pinched for no reason.
“I didn’t mean… that isn’t what I…” Twilight sat and pressed a front hoof to her forehead. “It’s not Ditzy. She’s strange, but she isn’t working for Discord.”
Carrot Top sighed in relief.
Applejack frowned. “So WHO, then? You told me ta keep my eyes open fer trouble here in town, an’ I did. An’ everythin’ points ta Pegasi.”
Twilight jerked in surprise. “Wait. You really found something? Something else?”
Applejack scoffed. “O’course! Didn’t ya think I would?”
“No – I mean, yes!” Twilight rubbed the back of her neck with a front hoof. “Sorry. I’m a little tired.”
Pinkie Pie’s mane jerked upward into a Bride-of-Pferdenstein beehive and then flopped back down. She ignored it. “Okay, so now we just figure out who’s a Pegasus AND a meanie-pants here in Ponyville!” She giggled and leaned over to whisper an aside to Carrot Top: “I love detective work! I have a hat and everything!”
Carrot Top shook her head. “That won’t work! There must be DOZENS o’ Pegasi in town! T’ain’t like ya can just ask somepony which ones of ‘em are snakes and which ones ain’t!”
Applejack and Twilight shared a sidelong glance.
“Actually,” said Twilight, “We can.”
Applejack nodded. “Fluttershy.”
“Fluttershy,” said Twilight.
“Fluttershy!” agreed Pinkie. “Wait… why Fluttershy?” She shivered so severely she seemed to vibrate.
“Fluttershy had a… difficult… foalhood, and more than her fair share of bullying,” said Twilight. “I’ll ask her who was the meanest, and the ones who live in Ponyville will be our prime suspects.”
“Ohhhhh,” said Pinkie. “Gotcha.”
“Good. I’ll let you all know what I find out.” Twilight turned and trotted away, her gait and path slightly uneven.
Carrot Top watched Twilight go. “Hmm. She looked run-down. She oughta get more sleep.”
Pinkie Pie nodded sagely and then tap-danced in place, not giving the slightest sign that this was unusual.
• • • • • • •
On a typical day, Miss Cheerilee would never have allowed Scootaloo to peruse a magazine in the middle of class.
However, on a typical day, Miss Cheerilee would not be wearing such a fascinating new dress.
While the bulk of the class crowded around Miss Cheerilee – and left Scootaloo with a poor view of her, anyway – the little Pegasus did some research.
“A Pegasus mare’s wings should be smoothly feathered,” she read to herself, “with no flyaway down, for ideal air… aerodynamic appeal.” Scootaloo looked down at her own fuzzy, stubby wings. She frowned.
At the front of the class, Diamond Tiara was standing next to Miss Cheerilee. “You know, you have ME to thank for this fashion sensation. I gave Rarity the idea to take the line public! I guess I was just born to turn heads!” The little Earth Pony posed proudly, while the crowding students ooohed and ahhed.
Scootaloo rolled her eyes and then kept reading. “A Pegasus mare’s mane and tail should be worn long and loose, free to flow with breezes, with no product or dye.” Scootaloo’s brows knitted as she looked up at her short, spiky, dark-streaked forelock.
Miss Cheerilee mimicked Diamond’s pose before responding to a student’s comment. “Good question, Archer! I may be a teacher, but I still like to dress up now and then. I guess I just felt like today was the day!” Her lashes batted over her glittering eyes.
At the back, Scootaloo read on. “To maintain a suitably elegant suh… silhouette in flight, a Pegasus mare should be fit but not overly muscled, and weigh less than nine stone.” Scootaloo raised an eyebrow. “Okay, but how heavy is a stone?”
Apple Bloom leaned over from the next desk over. “Stones? They’re MIGHTY heavy! Big Macintosh pulls ‘em outta the fields now and then, and they’re almost as big as HE is!”
Scootaloo shook her head. “That can’t be right. I can’t weigh myself with those! But what else could stone mean?”
“Weighin’ yerself with stones?” Apple Bloom pondered for a moment, and then inspiration struck. “Wait, I know! We need ta get outside. You go on ahead – I’ll be out in a sec.”
Scootaloo pointed at Miss Cheerilee. “But, what about the cla–”
Miss Cheerilee giggled bashfully. “Autographs? But you all see me every day! Oh, all right. Maybe just one or two.”
Scootaloo frowned. “…Yeah, okay. I’ll meet you in the yard.”
Minutes later, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo stood in front of the old seesaw in the schoolyard.
“Okay – Scootaloo, you sit on that end,” said Apple Bloom.
Scootaloo trotted over and perched on the lower side of the seesaw.
Apple Bloom placed a small bucket on the upper side.
Sweetie Belle trotted up, a purple velvet sack dangling from her jaws.
“Hay there – did ya manage ta borrow gems from Rarity?” asked Apple Bloom.
Sweetie set down the sack. “Yeah – she was pretty distracted, so she didn’t mind, but I still don’t see–“ She scowled. “HAY! What’s she doing here?”
“Yeah!” said Scootaloo.
Apple Bloom stomped a front hoof. “Now cut that out! We’re all best friends, an’ even if you two’re havin’ a row, yer both still friends with ME. An’ I’m here ta help Scootaloo. So if you wanna be a friend ta ME, Sweetie, ya’ll lend me a hoof.”
Sweetie Belle sighed. “Fine.”
Scootaloo turned to Apple Bloom. “So how’s this even work?”
“Well, it doesn’t make no sense at all to weigh a Pegasus with great big stones, so I thought, what else could stone mean? Then I remembered GEM-stones! So I had Sweetie Belle get some from her sister, and now we just toss gems in the bucket until the seesaw evens out.”
“Ohhh!” said Scootaloo. “That makes sense! Go for it!”
“Okay…” Sweetie Belle opened the sack and picked out an emerald between her front hooves. She reared up, threw it into the bucket, and said:
Apple Bloom did likewise with a sapphire. “Two.”
Sweetie added a ruby. “Three.”
Scootaloo’s eager smile faded when Sweetie Belle counted seven.
It was replaced by a dismayed frown when Apple Bloom counted twelve.
By the twenty-first gem, Scootaloo’s wings and ears were drooping, and her pupils were pinpricks.
When the seesaw finally leveled out, Scootaloo’s voice was barely above a whisper:
Sweetie Belle wiggled a front hoof. “Ehhh, more like Thirty-eight-and-a-half. I think that last one had a bite taken out of it. So why did we do all this, anywa–” Sweetie Belle trailed off.
Scootaloo was crying.
Sweetie Belle sagged guiltily. “I… I’m sorry, Scootaloo. I don’t even like Diamond Tiara! She got that dress all by herself! Honest!”
Scootaloo shook her head. “Th-That’s n-not it!” she whimpered.
Apple Bloom trotted closer. “Then why’re ya cryin’?”
Scootaloo looked up to face her friends. “Why? Because now I have PROOF! Because I’m so ugly and stumpy and FAT that I’m NEVER gonna fly! THAT’S why!”
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle slowed to a trot on the path leading up to Fluttershy’s cottage.
The serenity of the place – the singing birds in well-kept wooden birdhouses, the gentle babbling of the narrow brook, the scent of the herb garden on the warm breeze – salved the pain of the past week’s horrors.
Twilight’s eyelids drooped as she lost the nervous energy her tension had given her.
She stumbled, shocking herself back to alertness. She shook her head, sat, and then slapped her cheeks with her front hooves.
“Wake up, Twilight!” she told herself once more. “You can do this. This is probably a wild goose chase anyway. Just find out what you need to know, and you’ll be one step closer to some rest!”
Twilight trotted up to the front door and raised a hoof to knock. Before she could, however, Fluttershy’s soft voice reached Twilight’s ears through the door:
“No, I can’t. I had to run an errand earlier, and now I’m behind. He’ll be so upset if I don’t replace it soon!”
Fluttershy chuckled softly, and answered a series of chirps and whistles. “Oh, he’s not that bad. You just need to get to know him. Once he comes back, I’m sure you’ll be friends in no time!”
Twilight shrugged, and then knocked.
After a moment, Fluttershy opened the door. “Oh! Hello, Twilight. I wasn’t expecting you. What a nice surprise!”
“It’s nice to see you too,” said Twilight as cheerfully as the fatigued scratch in her voice would allow. “I’m just stopping by to ask you a question or two – I won’t be long.”
Fluttershy turned and headed back inside. “Um, all right, Twilight. Can I get you some tea?”
Twilight trotted into the living room and flopped down on a green divan. “Sure. That would be lovely.”
While Fluttershy went to the kitchen to fetch the teapot, Twilight’s gaze wandered around the living room. She surveyed the modest bookshelf, the omnipresent animal beds and birdhouses, the stone fireplace… and a basket of sewing notions on the floor next to the divan. The corner of a piece of brown cloth hung out of the basket.
A subtle, formless, creeping dread slithered up Twilight’s spine.
She forced a low chuckle. “Th-that’s ridiculous, Twilight,” she told herself. “You’re being ridiculous.”
Twilight turned away from the basket and squinted at the titles of the herbals and animal husbandry books on the shelf, but in moments her eyes crept back to the scrap of cloth.
Helpless to stop herself, she reached out a front hoof and lifted the basket’s lid.
At the bottom of the basket, a loose brass button on a bed of brown corduroy and shredded rags stared back at her.
The world lurched.
Twilight scrambled to her hooves and dodged rolling bric-a-brac as the floor tilted. She backed away from the basket as the cottage walls stretched to towering heights above her.
A serpentine shadow streaked downward from the vanishing point that was now the ceiling, its mismatched talons reaching out to seize her. A deep, mocking laugh echoed off the looming walls.
Twilight Sparkle squeezed her eyes tightly shut and screamed into her front hooves.
“Twilight…?” Fluttershy called out from the kitchen.
Twilight opened her eyes.
She was sitting with her back to the front door in the pristine and unchanged living room. All was as it should be.
But the edge of the brown corduroy was still visible on the lip of the basket.
“N-No…” Twilight whispered pleadingly. “Not her…”
“Izzit ree-eally so hard to beee-lieve?”
The imagined voice coming from the sewing basket was slurred and indistinct; unfinished. In her mind’s eye, Twilight saw pieces of rag stuffing crawling into the half-sewn corduroy carcass like so many flatworms.
Twilight shook her head in denial. “It can’t be! I helped her! I SAVED her! I saved ALL of them!”
“I have bee-eeen corr-rrupting Poniesss sss-ssince before yoo-our great-grandparentsss were borr-rrn,” she heard the basket reply. “Yoouu are jussst a grad sssstudent, Misss Sssparkle. I am a GOD. You never even had a chan-sssss!”
Twilight magicked open the door and fell out onto the front walk. She scrambled to her hooves and galloped away.
Fluttershy flitted into the living room.
“Twilight? Are you all right?”
The room was empty; the Pegasus frowned.
“There is something really wrong going on in Ponyville lately,” she said to a cardinal standing on a nearby perch. “Everypony’s acting strangely, and I don’t think it’s just Applejack’s rumour-mongering doing it.”
She trotted over to the divan and opened the sewing basket.
“Once I get finished sewing Angel’s new cushion, I’m going to get the girls together and get to the bottom of it!” She caught herself. “…If they don’t mind.”
• • • • • • •
Rarity paced in front of Twilight’s gift in her boutique, frowning.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” she said to herself. “It was just for her! Why did I dilute my art, not once but twice?” She sighed. “Maybe it was flawed from the start. So a foal and a school-mare liked it. So what? If it doesn’t please the one I made it for, what’s the point of it?”
She magicked the dress off of the ponnequin.
“I should just toss it in the trash and go back to the drawing board!”
She trotted over to the entrance, followed by the hovering dress. She magicked open the door.
Her jaw dropped.
“There it is!”
“Oh, honey, you were right… it’s BREATHTAKING!”
“Mummy! I want one!”
“My goodness! Never mind YOU… we’re getting one for ME!”
The gathered throng of school-foals and parents filled the entire yard in front of Carousel Boutique, their eyes glittering with desire. All of them were squirming and pressing to get a clearer view of the dark blue masterpiece hanging in midair next to its stunned creator.
“Wh-What are you…” Words failed Rarity. The crowd spoke on regardless:
“That dress! That incredible, amazing dress!”
“It must be mine!”
“Oh PLEASE tell me it comes in yellow!”
“Do you make a version as a suit-jacket?”
Rarity backed away as the crowd drew closer. “P-Please! I’m not…”
“I’ll pay anything!”
“I’ll give you my puppy!”
“Ha! I’ll pay FIVE puppies!”
“DAA-AAA-ADDY! I WANNIT!”
Rarity bit her lip. Sweat shone on her forehead. “I… I’m not s-selling any…” The crowd united in stomping their hooves and chanting:
“Ra-ri-ty! Ra-ri-ty! RA-RI-TY! RA-RI-TY!”
Rarity fixed her stance, held her head high, and pointed a hoof at the front walk before her.
“…I’m not selling any copies of this dress until you all form an orderly line!”
The assembled Ponies erupted in an ecstatic cheer.
• • • • • • •
Carrot Top smiled warmly as she and Applejack paused at a crossroads to let a caravan of overloaded wagons pass by. “Shucks, AJ… ya don’t hafta keep apologizin’. T’ain’t yer fault so many strange things have been happenin’ lately.”
Applejack hung her head. “I know, I know. But I still feel ya got a raw deal these past coupla dates. I wanted ta show ya a good time.”
“Ya have! Ya showed me that ya care about yer friends, an’ about Ponyville… an’ about me.” Her eyes shone. “I’m happy as a foal on Nightmare Night that Ditzy ain’t bad, but when we worried she was, I’m glad I had ya lookin’ out fer me.” A blush coloured the bridge of her nose. “A filly could get used ta havin’ ya around.”
In the distance, swallowed by the creaking and clopping of the wagon train, a thin voice said: “Applejack.”
Applejack blushed back. “Yeah…?” she stepped closer.
The drowned-out voice spoke again, and louder: “Applejack!”
“Yeah.” Carrot Top closed her eyes and leaned closer still, her lips slightly parted.
Applejack gulped softly and moved to meet Carrot halfway.
The last wagon passed by, revealing a greyish-purple Unicorn, wide-eyed and shivering, standing as knock-kneed as an idle marionette.
Applejack jerked back in shock. “T-Twilight?”
Carrot Top opened her eyes. “Huh?”
Twilight stared straight ahead, not making eye contact. “A-A-Applejack… can we talk?”
Applejack winced; Twilight’s voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a well. “Uh, I’m a mite bit tied up right now, Twi. What’s this abo–”
“You need to come with me. N-Now.” Twilight’s tone was as haunted and hollow as it had been that day in the park, when she’d warned Applejack about–
Oh, sweet Celestia!
Applejack’s ears drooped. Her pupils shrank. Her back knees trembled.
She silently nodded.
“Hay!” Carrot Top moved to interpose herself, but then she met Twilight’s gaze.
Twilight Sparkle. Carrot Top knew about her. Everypony knew about her. She was the mare whose magic could unleash swarms of town-eating bugs and turn a rag-doll into a raison-d’être and lull a raging Ursa into sleep and Celestia knows what-all else. And now she was so ravaged by fear that she looked fit to fall apart at the seams.
The realization froze Carrot in mid-step.
Her wide eyes watched her maybe-very-special-somepony fall into step behind Twilight Sparkle and trot away. She stayed where she was, stock-still with her pulse throbbing in her ears, until a heavy raindrop splashed down on her cheek and snapped her out of it.
• • • • • • •
Scootaloo sighed a dejected sigh as she watched clouds she’d never help tame start spilling rain she’d never help plan.
When Apple Bloom trotted over and slid the Cutie Mark Crusaders Clubhouse window closed, she leaned forward and pressed her forehead against the glass.
“There’s GOTTA be something we can do!” said Sweetie Belle from the other side of the room.
“Uh-uh,” muttered Scootaloo. “It’s hopeless. I’M hopeless. I’m a big fat PILE of hopeless!”
Apple Bloom’s eyes brightened. “Hay! Ya look fine ta me, but if yer worried about bein’… heavy… can’t ya just get some exercise? Big Macintosh always puts on a little weight in the winter, but it’s gone a week after Winter Wrapup ‘cause o’ all the hard work he does!”
Scootaloo raised her head. “Exercise?”
Sweetie Belle nodded in agreement. “Sure! Or you could go on a diet! Rarity lost a LOT of weight a few months ago, and when I asked about it, she said she was on a diet!”
Scootaloo turned to face her friends. “Okay. I’ll do it!”
Confusion creased Apple Bloom’s features. “Uh, do what? Work out, or go on a diet?”
Scootaloo smiled resolutely. “Both.”
Sweetie Belle frowned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Totally! I get it now…” Scootaloo held her head high. “To fly like a bird, one must EAT like a bird.”
“Is that a quote or somethin’?” asked Apple Bloom. “Who said that?”
Scootaloo’s eyes darted to and fro. “I, er, I dunno. I read it somewhere, I think.” Her mouth scrunched up.
Apple Bloom’s brows knitted. She scratched the side of her head with a hoof. “Yeah, I dunno if that’s really–”
Scootaloo hopped forward to stare down Apple Bloom. “Hay! I thought you said you wanted to help!”
Apple Bloom backed away. “I do! Sheesh!”
Scootaloo turned toward the Clubhouse’s front door. “Well, good then! C’mon – I’ve got some fat to burn! I gotta lose like thirty stones!”
She galloped out the front door, followed soon after by her two friends; they moved slowly as they shared a worried look.
• • • • • • •
Fluttershy flapped along a few inches off the ground, talking herself up as she made her way into town.
“It’s just a chat. Talking is o-okay when there aren’t too many Ponies doing it. I just tell them what I think, and we will deal with it. N-No problem.”
She gulped, but then lowered her eyebrows.
“Come on, Fluttershy!” she chided herself. “You know how to be assertive without being mean! You can DO this!”
Thunder rumbled, and it began to rain.
“M-Maybe I should go back and get Angel,” she muttered. She turned, then paused, then jerked back toward town and made a four-hoof landing.
“NO!” She looked down at her reflection in a slowly-growing puddle.
“S-Stop being such a doormat! There’s something wrong with your friends, and you’re going to take care of it just like they take care of you. You got that?”
She shrank back from herself. “Yes, ma’am,” she said meekly. She headed into town on hoof.
• • • • • • •
Applejack staggered back from Twilight as if struck.
“No. No, it… it ain’t her. She’d never work for him! Never! I tied her down! I WATCHED you fix her! Yer lyin’… yer LYIN’!” Applejack’s stomp left a crack in the library's floor. “She’d never do it! She must be sick again!”
“No way,” said Rainbow Dash. “She’s better now! Twilight helped her! I SAW it!”
"Twilight?" Spike called out from upstairs. "Is everything okay?"
"It's fine, Spike!" Twilight shouted back. "Stay upstairs like I said!"
She turned to face her friends.
“No. It’s her. I wish it wasn’t. But either it’s her, or it’s her and she’s sick again.”
Twilight looked down at the floor. The blast crater was just a short ways below and behind her, on the other side of the cracked floor. She shuddered.
“I thought I could fix her. I thought I could treat her. I was so sure it worked. But it wasn’t enough. I guess I just pushed all that… that darkness… down where it could do the most damage. I… I f-failed.” She swallowed through the lump in her throat. “And now either she’s betrayed us all to Discord, or she’s so sick she doesn’t even realize what she’s doing to me–” Twilight caught herself. “To us.”
“What are we gonna do?” asked Rainbow Dash softly.
Applejack’s lost, wide-eyed expression silently repeated the question.
Twilight was silent for a long moment before answering:
“What I should have done in the first place.”
Twilight magicked up a blank scroll and a quill.
• • • • • • •
Mud clung to Fluttershy’s hooves as she trotted down the path to Carousel Boutique. She rounded a corner and the building came into view.
Or at least the upper half did.
The bottom of the boutique was mostly obscured by the huge crowd braving the worsening rain for the chance to purchase a Rarity original.
“R-Rarity?” Fluttershy called out from the back of the line. “Are you there? I wanted to talk to you!”
No answer came over the din of the rain and the murmurs of the crowd.
“Rarity?” Fluttershy repeated. She took to the air, but then a green Earth Pony stallion snagged her tail in his teeth.
“H’yy!” he said. “Nw’w cuh-ing nn l’nn!”
“Yeah!” agreed a yellow Unicorn mare. “What nerve! Just LIKE a Pegasus!”
“O-Oh, but I’m not trying to…” Fluttershy stared down at the sea of angry eyes staring back at her. “Um… maybe I should come back later.”
She veered away from the boutique once the stallion released her.
A short flight later, Fluttershy came to Sugarcube Corner.
A flicker of movement in the upper story window drew her attention; she flapped over to the pane.
“Pinkie?” Are you home?”
The window burst open, sending Fluttershy darting backward. Pinkie leaned out on the sill.
She was wearing a tied-on fake pig snout and the Cake twins were sitting on her back, giggling playfully.
“Hey Fluttershy… OINK-OINK-OINK!” Pinkie sang, bobbing her head to the rhythm. “What’s goin’ on? …OINK-OINK-OINK!”
“W-well,” replied Fluttershy, still somewhat shaken, “I wanted to get the girls together to talk about something.”
“Oh, okay… OINK-OINK-OINK! Do you think it can wait? … OINK-OINK-OINK! ‘Cause I’m watchin’ the foals… OINK-OINK-OINK! And they’re starting to like… OINK-OINK-OINK! This funny song… OINK–”
“That’s all right, then,” said Fluttershy, holding out a hoof to silence Pinkie. “I guess I’ll catch up with you later.”
Fluttershy flapped down to ground level and trotted on, only to find herself diving out of the way as a speeding wagon-pulling scooter nearly crashed into her.
Scootaloo skidded to a stop in front of Sugarcube Corner’s front steps, struggling to catch her breath.
“Can we stop yet?” asked Sweetie Belle from the wagon. “We’re getting pretty wet.”
“An’ cold!” added Apple Bloom, next to her. She sneezed.
“M-Maybe…” panted Scootaloo. “I m-mean, th-that’s s-six laps a-around town…”
Pinkie Pie leaned over the windowsill to wave at the trio of fillies.
“Heya girls… OINK-OINK-OINK!”
Scootaloo’s lower lip started quivering, but she stopped it with a grim scowl. “…Hold on.”
Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom squealed in fear as the scooter and its wagon trailer took off like a cannonball.
Fluttershy shook the mud from her wings and tilted her head in confusion as she watched the foals shrink into the distance.
• • • • • • •
By the time Fluttershy reached the library, the rain was heavy enough to leave her navigating as much by memory as by sight.
She reached the front door and knocked.
“Twilight?” she called out. “Are you there?”
Rainbow Dash opened the door, and jerked back in surprise when she did so.
“F-Fluttershy!” she said. “You’re here!” Dash backed away into the library.
“That’s… that’s fine, Dash,” said Twilight from the back of the room.
Applejack nodded. “Maybe it’s better this way, even.”
Fluttershy trotted inside, tapped the door closed with a rear leg, and then tilted her head in confusion. “I don’t understand. What’s better?”
“Fluttershy…” Twilight took a slow, deep breath. “I’m glad you came here. There’s something we need to talk about.”
“Oh, I think so too!” agreed Fluttershy. She shook her head to shift her soaked mane. “Honestly, I’m really worried. Something bad is happening in town, and I’m not sure what it is.”
Twilight looked away; she sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
“So you see it too?” Fluttershy sagged in relief. “Thank goodness!”
Twilight looked up and met Fluttershy’s gaze. “No. You don’t understand. But I want to help you. Like I should have originally.”
Fluttershy frowned. “Wh-What do you mean? What’s–”
There was a firm knock at the door. Fluttershy yelped and turned around.
“That will be them now,” said Twilight. “Rainbow?”
Rainbow Dash hovered over and opened the door.
A pair of stallions – one Earth Pony, one Unicorn – trotted inside.
“Good evening, Miss Sparkle,” said the clay-coloured, silver brush-maned Earth Pony.
“Have you located the patient you mentioned?” added the custard-yellow, brown-maned Unicorn.
Twilight took a long, silent look at Fluttershy, and then pointed a hoof at her.
“Yes, we have. She’s right here.”
Fluttershy looked over her shoulder at Twilight, then at the stallions and their Cutie Marks, then at Applejack and Rainbow Dash.
Fluttershy started trembling. “Twilight…?”
“Now, try to stay calm, miss,” said the Unicorn, sitting and holding out his front hooves in a calming gesture. “We have reason to believe you may be experiencing some psychological distress, and we’d like you to come to the hospital for an… assessment.”
Fluttershy’s pupils shrank. “To the h-hospital? Psychological…” Her trembling worsened. Her voice dropped to a squeaking whisper. “No… oh, please, no!”
“I’m so sorry,” said Twilight softly. “This is all my fault. I should have gotten you real help sooner. But sometimes the kind thing to do can be the hardest thing to do...”
The stallions took a cautious step further into the room.
Fluttershy backed away from them. “Applejack!” An edge of panic tinged her voice. “This isn’t right. Tell them this isn’t right! I’m okay… I feel fine! Tell them I feel fine!”
Applejack’s eyes tightened and she ground her teeth, but she said nothing.
Fluttershy let out an anxious whimper.
“Please, miss,” said the Unicorn in a soothing tone. “You’re becoming agitated. Just take a moment to calm down.”
Fluttershy’s expression darkened. “N-No! Stop talking to me like that! I am NOT crazy!”
She flapped her wings and flitted over to Rainbow Dash. Her knees trembled as she landed, and she flopped down into a crouch.
“Rainbow Dash, PLEASE!” she begged. Tears shone in her eyes. “Help me! I’m sorry! Whatever I did, I’m sorry! Oh Celestia, don’t let them take me!”
Rainbow Dash’s lip quivered. She looked away.
“No one’s trying to hurt you,” said the Unicorn.
“We’re here to help,” said the Earth Pony.
Fluttershy backed into a bookshelf and stumbled amid a hail of books. “I am n-not going with you! N-NEVER! I can’t!” With each word, her voice rose in volume and pitch. “You… YOU CAN’T MAKE ME GO!”
• • • • • • •
Carrot Top shivered under her leaf-green poncho.
“AJ,” she recited to herself as she trotted through the rain, “I feel pretty sure that yer gettin’ ta likin’ me, an’ with all the scary stuff happenin’ lately, I don’t wancha ta think that the feelin’ ain’t mutual. Cause it is – a whole bunch.”
The library loomed up ahead.
“...An’ so I wancha ta know that if there’s anythin’ I can do ta help, all ya gotta do is–”
The library’s front door burst off its hinges.
A shrieking yellow Pegasus with a rope tied around her waist surged out into the rain, followed soon after by a line of Ponies gripping the rope.
“HELP! SOMEPONY HELP!” screamed the Pegasus. “LET ME GO!”
Carrot Top stared in horrified shock. “Whut…?”
Her ears shifted at the sound of Applejack’s voice.
“Hold on! We gotta reel ‘er in!”
Carrot Top squinted into the rain. “AJ?”
“PULL!” shouted Rainbow Dash.
“DO-ON'T LE-ET THE-EM GET ME-EE!” cried Fluttershy, her voice jerking with each tug on the rope.
“Hold her steady!” shouted Twilight Sparkle. “We’ll have to sedate her!” Carrot Top saw the reddish glow of Twilight’s horn shine in the deepening dark.
“NOOOO–” A red flash glittered on the raindrops, and Fluttershy was silenced in mid-scream. She dropped down onto the muddy street like a discarded rag-doll.
The group of Ponies crowded around her.
Carrot Top felt dizzy; numb. She staggered. Her stomach lurched. “A-Applejack?” she whimpered.
Applejack looked up from untying her lasso and stared into eyes the same shade of leaf-green as her own, teary and reddened and full of crestfallen horror.
SECRETS AND LIES By Saddlesoap Opera Part Six: The Second Element
Pegasus foals swarmed above the cloud-street, singing in mocking unison:
“Fluttershy! Fluttershy! Fluttershy can hardly fly!”
Young Fluttershy whimpered and hopped up and down, vainly scrabbling at the air with her front hooves. Her wings felt glued to her sides, unable to even spread.
“C’mon – doncha want yer stupid toy?”
“Heh heh! Yeah! Fly up here and get your patchy rabbit!”
Bit by bit, the school-foals changed into her grown friends – the Earth Ponies and Unicorns sporting enchanted gossamer wings – and her stolen toy slowly wriggled to black-eyed, white-furred life.
“It isn’t natural for a Pegasus to spend so much time grounded, Fluttershy,” said Twilight Sparkle. She tossed Angel to Rarity.
“We’re just trying to help you be normal, darling,” added Rarity. “You should be THANKING us!” She threw Angel to Rainbow Dash.
“You COULD stand to be a little more… Pegasus-like,” said Dash. “I mean, REALLY – how was I supposed to love somepony who’s weird AND crazy?” She underhoofed Angel to Pinkie Pie.
“Yeah!” agreed Pinkie Pie. “Nopony likes a madpony! You’re a mess!” She head-butted Angel to Applejack.
“Yep,” said Applejack, nodding, “she needs work, that’s fer sure. Step one – get a pet that flies!”
Applejack whipped around and tossed Angel over the edge of the clouds.
Fluttershy leaped after him, remembering too late that her wings wouldn’t budge. As she struggled hopelessly to gain some lift, the ground got closer, and closer, and closer…
• • • • • • •
Fluttershy woke up with a fearful gasp, her pulse pounding and a rabbit’s death-shriek echoing in her ears. She blearily tried to spread her wings, but found they were tightly bound inside a padded canvas restraint-girdle.
She crashed into full wakefulness.
She was in a sparse square room with canvas-padded walls and a cushioned floor.
“It’s n-not real. I’m still having a b-bad dream…”
Weak, cloud-muted daylight shone between the thick iron bars set in the window.
“W-Wake up, Fluttershy… Wake up!”
Fluttershy leaped up and charged the room’s heavy wooden door. She reared up and pounded on it with her front hooves.
“WAKE UP! WAKE U-U-U-UP!”
She backed into the middle of the room and fell to her knees.
“P-Please wake up…”
The door opened and a rosy Earth Pony wearing a nurse’s cap and a long blue cardigan the same shade as her eyes trotted in, pushing a small metal cabinet-cart ahead of her. She closed the door.
Fluttershy backed all the way into the far corner of the room and cringed.
“Oh, hay now… don’t be scared,” said the nurse softly. “You must be feeling very confused and anxious, but I promise, the more you try to stay calm, the sooner this will all be over. All right?”
Fluttershy peeked out from between her front legs and the strands of her mane. She shakily nodded.
The nurse smiled a motherly smile. “Good. You’ve just recovered from a sedative spell, so you’re probably pretty thirsty.” She sat down, opened a door on the side of the cart and retrieved a small, covered paper cup with a straw sticking out of it. She held it out between her front hooves and leaned forward to set it down in front of Fluttershy. “Why don’t you try to drink some water, and I’ll brush some of those tangles out of your mane?”
Fluttershy nodded once more and then took a sip; the cold liquid soothed her screamed-raw throat.
The nurse slipped a hoof into a brush-shoe from the cabinet and moved to sit down next to Fluttershy. While Fluttershy slowly finished the water, the nurse gently ran the brush through her pale pink locks. Soon, the tangled mess was well-tamed.
“That’s better,” said the nurse. “Now, I’ve got some other patients to check on, but I’ll be back in a little while. If you feel up to it, I’d like to ask you a few questions then. Does that sound all right?”
Fluttershy nodded and whispered: “Okay.”
The nurse smiled cheerfully, opened the door and then left, pushing the cart ahead of her.
Out in the hallway, she passed by a dark brown Earth Pony stallion wearing a security guard uniform.
“Say, have you lost weight?” he asked. “You look great today!”
The nurse giggled and waved a bashful front hoof. “Oh, go on!”
• • • • • • •
Applejack pinched the neck of the flask between her teeth and tilted her head skyward. The last three swallows of Cousin Calvados’s double-distilled special reserve burned her throat on the way down. She spat out the flask, sending it tumbling into a pile of empty cider jugs. She coughed out a humourless laugh.
The cider shed’s door opened; a bulky male silhouette half-blocked the overcast daylight.
Big Macintosh stood there, big and silent as a mountain, until his eldest sister spoke:
He spat out the stem he’d been chewing. “Ya been in here since last night.”
“O-Oh, s-s-sorry Big Mac,” Applejack slurred from her spot sprawled on the dirt floor, “Didja have another date planned wi’ th’Mayor? Am I in th’way?”
Big Mac narrowed his eyes. “If Granny Smith saw ya like this, she’d peel n’ core ya.”
Applejack chuckled grimly. “After whut happened last night, I’d LET her!”
Big Mac frowned and half-turned away. “She asked after ya, ya know.”
Applejack clumsily pawed at a clay jug of hard cider. “Granny did? Or Apple Bloom?”
Applejack winced. She pulled the jug close and tipped it on its side, cradling it like an infant. “I got nothin’ ta say ta Miss Carrot Top an’ her judgin’ ways,” she mumbled self-pityingly. “Starin’ at me wi’ those… those EYES o’ hers…” Her face creased from the effort of stifling a sob.
Big Mac sat down. “Whut happened, Jackie?”
Applejack half-smiled as tears wet her flushed cheeks. “Y’ain’t called me that since I was smaller’n Apple Bloom is now.”
“Y’ain’t cried in fronta me since then, neither.”
“F-Fluttershy…” Applejack swallowed down a fresh sob. “She… she was – I was so sure she was – but then she… w-we had no choice…” She squeezed the jug tighter and gritted her teeth. “Oh, Celestia! What’ve we done?”
Big Macintosh stood up and then ducked down to grab the jug’s neck in his jaws; Applejack gripped harder. Big Mac wrenched sideways in an upward arc, effortlessly hurling Applejack up and onto his back. The jug fell to the ground.
“OOF! Hay! L-Lemme down, ya big buckin’… dang! ‘M d-dizzy…” Applejack’s eyes rolled up and then closed. She sagged bonelessly, hanging over Big Mac’s withers like an orange saddle.
Big Mac sighed morosely and then turned to trot back to the farmhouse.
The rhythm of his stride half-roused his sister; she squinted at the finely-tailored dark cloth covering his torso and muttered:
“…Shewt… thass’ a nice suit…”
• • • • • • •
The pink-maned white Earth Pony did a slow pass by a few of Carousel Boutique’s many mirrors. Her eyes glittered like diamonds as she took in the lines of her newly conjured scarlet-accented white dress.
“Oh, my! It’s BEAUTIFUL! And it’s so functional! It has pockets for pencils and thermometers, and even a loop to hang my st–”
“To hang your stethoscope from, yes,” said Rarity distractedly. “You’ll be the best-dressed nurse in the whole hospital.” She sighed.
“I can’t believe how great I look!” the nurse continued, heedless of Rarity’s apathy. “And not a moment too soon, either! Nurse Sweetheart’s been looking really fit and trim lately – I’m sure she has her sights set on Doctor Stable, the two-timing hussy! Just because she’s got a little trouble at home, it doesn’t give her the right to move in on one of the only eligible bachelors in town! He should be mine! MINE!”
“Mm-hm,” said Rarity by reflex. She magicked on her red catseye reading glasses and then started attaching a series of small gemstones to the dress’s hemline.
“And as if that isn’t enough competition, now there’s a SUPERMODEL at the hospital! I ask you – what’s a mare to do?”
Rarity paused and looked over the top edge of her glasses. “…Did you say a supermodel?”
The nurse nodded. “Well, former supermodel. It’s sad, honestly. She’s in the psych ward – her friends brought her in last night. Pretty seriously disturbed, I hear. It’s a shame to see them fall like that. After all, barely a year ago, she was Photo Finish’s favourite!”
The remaining gems clattered to the floor.
• • • • • • •
By the time the nurse returned with her cart, Fluttershy’s pulse had slowed to something approaching a survivable rhythm, and the walls had ceased closing in on her. Nevertheless, the frigid threat of panic still flowed inside her like rushing rapids beneath thin ice.
“Hello again,” said the nurse, her words as soft and round-edged as her bun-tied purple mane. “I’d like to ask you some questions now, all right?”
The nurse took out a printing-press-made form and spread it flat on top of the cart, and then readied a quill and inkwell. She picked up the quill between her teeth and jotted down a few details. Setting the pen back in the well, she spoke:
“Just for the form’s sake, would you please tell me your name?”
Fluttershy dipped her head, half-hiding her face with her mane. “I’m Fluttershy.”
“Good. Do you know where you are?”
“I’m at P-Ponyville Urgent Care…” Fluttershy’s soft voice grew softer still. “… in the mental ward.”
“Yes. Can you tell me who rules Equestria?”
“Princess Celestia… and Her sister, Princess Luna.”
“Thank you. You’re doing well.” The nurse took the quill and ticked some boxes on the form. “So, tell me: how are you feeling?”
“Um, I… I…” Fluttershy swallowed. “I’m s-so scared! I can’t STAND places like this! It b-barely even seems real! It’s like a NIGHTMARE! LIKE MY WORST NIGHTMARE!” She gasped for breath.
“It’s all right,” said the nurse reassuringly, “nopony here means you any harm.”
She picked up the quill again and wrote:
Patient exhibits feelings of dissociation,
Fluttershy looked away, hiding behind her mane once more. “I know, but I shouldn’t be here. Twilight thinks I’m crazy, but I’m not.” She turned back to face the nurse and bent into a pleading crouch. “P-Please… I have to get out of here! This is all wrong! I’m not crazy! You have to believe me!”
“We don’t use labels like that here,” said the nurse. “Nopony here is any different from the ones outside. They just need a little help to feel better, is all.” The nurse added another note:
“Now, what about Twilight?” the nurse continued. “You say she mistakenly thinks you’re… unwell. Why would she think that?”
Fluttershy shifted uncomfortably. “It’s… I think it’s because of my mother. She had Cutie Mark Decay.” Her lower lip quivered. “She died.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said the nurse.
and has a family history of mental illness (CMDD).
She craned her neck to the side for a moment. “Your Cutie Mark seems clear at the moment. Have you ever had any flare-ups of fraying or speckling, or seen a drop in your talent at… butterfly collecting?”
Fluttershy’s eyes tightened. “Yes, once. But it was just a little bit! And I got better!” Her brows knitted. Her voice dropped in volume. “…Um, and my Special Talent is taking care of animals.”
The nurse nodded. “Ah, I see. My mistake.”
Atypical CM presentation. Previous CMDD episode(s?) – now in partial remission.
“So you’re fond of all animals, then?”
Fluttershy’s tension softened somewhat. “Ah, yes! I love animals! Bunnies and birds and bears – anything, really! Angel Bunny is one of my best friends.” She gasped. “Oh, my! He must be so worried about me! You have to send somepony to my cottage outside of town to make sure all the animals are all right!”
“You live alone?”
Fluttershy shook her head. “No, no, there’s Angel and the other bunnies, and the Mouse family, the seal and otter, the goat, the kitties… Oh! And the chickens and the other birds have lived with me for a LONG time… well, except for Mister Cardinal, but he’s new–”
The nurse cut in. “But no other Ponies? Just the pets?”
Fluttershy frowned. “Um, well… no.”
Living in severe social withdrawal, with concurrent animal hoarding.
“I’ll be sure to send somepony ‘round to make sure your pets are okay.”
Fluttershy sighed in relief. “Thank goodness! Once I get out, I’ll explain everything to them. Angel said just the other day that I should spend more time with some of the animals.”
The nurse raised an eyebrow. “Angel said that?”
… and paracusia.
“Thank you for being so open with me,” said the nurse. “I’ll report to the doctor, and he’ll review your situation. If there’s been a mistake he’ll know it, you’ll see.”
Fluttershy’s eyes shone. A surge of emotion reduced her voice to a hoarse squeak. “Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!”
The nurse smiled widely. “Think nothing of it.”
• • • • • • •
Spike wrung his tail in his claws. He looked up at Twilight over the edge of his sunglasses.
“So it was like before? When she chained me up?”
Twilight Sparkle looked away, turning her gaze on the pile of ashes in her bedroom’s fireplace.
“Something like that. She needed help we couldn’t give her, and she was scared to get it. So we had to do what was best for her, even–”
“Even if she screamed and cried and begged you not to?”
Twilight turned back to face her assistant; his sad-eyed stare made her wince.
“Y-You heard, even from upstairs, huh?” Twilight sat down and sighed. “Sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing. It’s so h-hard.”
Spike frowned. “This is it, isn’t it? This is the bad thing you wanted to tell me about before.”
Twilight’s eyes widened. She looked away again, unwilling meet the little Dragon’s gaze. “I… w-we...”
Spike slowly nodded. “It’s okay. I understand. This must have been really tough to deal with.”
Twilight hung her head. She imagined coarse Draconequus fur scraping against her side, a leonine paw patting her back, and a purring voice that said: Ohhh, now don’t be ashamed. It’s not your fault he misunderstood. It’s for the best. He’s a baby – he isn’t old enough to hear what a terrible thing his ‘mommy’ did…
Scaly warmth on her opposite side snapped Twilight out of her self-punishing reverie.
Spike was hugging her.
“I understand,” he said once more. “You don’t have to feel bad. It’s like when you told me not to eat all that ice cream. You’re always looking out for us.”
“Th-Thank you, Spike!” The effort of keeping her voice from trembling was almost too much for Twilight to bear; the little Dragon’s words felt like razor-wire squeezing her heart.
“Hay!” Rainbow Dash called up from the main floor. “Somepony’s at the door!”
Twilight ran a foreleg across her damp eyes and sniffled. “I’ll be r-right down!”
She trotted down with Spike scampering along behind her.
Dash opened the door; Twilight and Spike froze at the bottom of the stairs.
An elegant white Unicorn was standing in the open door, her jewel-studded saddlebags hanging off-kilter on her back and her face locked in a cold, furious scowl that seemed to rob her of colour and life.
“Uh-oh…” Rainbow Dash backed away, her wings drooping.
Rarity stepped inside, trotting slowly but purposefully toward Twilight. She ignited her horn.
“W-We had no choice!” said Twilight. “Try not to overreact, Rarity, please! You weren’t there! You don’t know what she did!”
With a flare from her horn, Rarity whipped an immaculately-sewn dark blue dress out of her saddlebags. She held it in midair before Twilight’s face. Her horn flared brighter, and the dress glowed from its seams for a moment before bursting like a balloon, sending shreds of singed cloth scattering to every corner of the room. Spike dived for cover.
Twilight winced. “I’m sorry! I am! But I’m trying to stop DISCORD from getting free! I was going to tell y–”
A wave of pale blue magic slapped Twilight across the face.
She staggered, sat, and then brought a hoof up to her reddening cheek.
Rarity stared her down without a word. A moment later, she turned up her nose, spun on her hooves, and trotted back out the door.
“Rarity! Wait!” Spike ran after her, his brows knitting in worry.
Twilight took a shaky breath. “Thanks for the help,” she said.
Rainbow Dash sagged. “Sh-She knew Fluttershy even better than I did,” she whispered without looking up. “What was I supposed to say?”
Twilight scowled and hopped to her hooves. “Stop talking like she isn’t coming back! Fluttershy is going to be fine! She’s getting HELP!”
Dash’s wings spread in agitation. Her eyes shone. “But it’s Fluttershy, Twilight! FLUTTERSHY! And we locked her up like some madpony!”
Twilight rounded on Dash, staring her down, and shouted: “She IS a madpony!”
Dash shrank back, but held Twilight’s gaze.
“She turned on us!” Twilight continued. “On ME! She hid that doll here just to torment me, and she was making another at her cottage! Whether on her own or because of Discord, she could have cost us EVERYTHING! We did what we HAD to do!”
Dash gritted her teeth. “I don’t care! It was WRONG!”
Twilight narrowed her eyes. “Dash…” her voice dropped to an iron-hard whisper. “Are you on my side, or not?”
Dash stared back for a long, tense, silent moment.
And then she looked away.
“…I’m with you,” she muttered gloomily. “No matter what.”
“Good. I knew Rarity would be upset, but she’ll understand when Fluttershy recovers. She’ll u-understand…” Twilight swallowed down the lump tightening her throat. “We’re almost through this,” she continued. “We just have to tell Pinkie, and then all the loose ends are taken care of. Once Pinkie knows, I can finally get some rest.”
• • • • • • •
“N-No… NO! It’s not true! You can’t do this! I’m not crazy! I’M NOT CRAZY!”
Two Earth Pony orderly-stallions struggled to hold Fluttershy down as she thrashed and screamed.
“Let me out! LET ME OU-UU-UU-UT!”
“Please, Fluttershy!” urged Doctor Stable. “You’re only making things worse for yourself!”
He ignited his horn and narrowed his eyes.
The doctor’s threatening stare stripped Fluttershy of the remaining shreds of her composure. Her cries fragmented into incoherent sobs as the orderlies buckled her into more thorough restraints.
The pink nurse at the doctor’s side sighed sadly and slowly shook her head. “Try to understand, Fluttershy,” she said, “we only want to help you get well.”
“I’m very sorry it’s come to this,” added the doctor. “You will only be restrained to the extent that you present a danger to yourself or others. If you can control yourself, the bindings will be taken off. Understand?”
Fluttershy whimpered despairingly.
The doctor took a final look at Fluttershy’s file and then trotted out of the room, followed by the orderlies.
The nurse trotted closer to Fluttershy and knelt down.
“I’m so sorry,” she said softly. “I did everything I could. But it wasn’t up to me.”
“P-Plee’v…” Fluttershy slurred around the bit and bridle strapped to her head, “Hhl’f mhh…”
The nurse gently stroked Fluttershy’s canvas-wrapped back.
“Shh… there, there. I know. You don’t belong here.”
Fluttershy craned her neck to get a clear view of the nurse. Her wide sea-green eyes welled up with fresh tears. “Hhl’f…”
The nurse looked to and fro, ensuring the coast was clear, and then leaned in to hug the trembling Pegasus.
“I will. I’ll help you. Rest for now – later on, I’ll come back and set you free. I promise.”
Even if the bit hadn’t all but muted her, Fluttershy had no words to express her thanks. She leaned into the nurse’s hug like a newborn foal in her mother’s embrace.
• • • • • • •
Pinkie Pie bounded out from Sugarcube Corner’s kitchen, her face a patchwork of flour, batter stains and bruises.
“Hi Twilight! Hi Dashie!” she waved cheerfully. “Mister and Missus Cake are taking the twins clothes shopping, so I’m minding the shop!”
Twilight Sparkle shifted uncomfortably. “W-We wanted to talk to you, Pinkie.”
“Well, you see, last night, something… happened… to Fluttershy.”
Pinkie Pie tilted her head. Her ears flapped. Her tail jerked backward like an uncoiling spring. “Whaddya mean, Twilight? Was it something FUN?”
Rainbow Dash winced. “No. It w–”
Pinkie’s eyes repeatedly winked flicker-quick in opposite rhythm. “OOH! Did she get a new pet? Is it an ostrich? I hear they can run really fast!”
Twilight frowned. “No, nothing like that. If you’ll just–”
Pinkie juddered to and fro as her whole body suffered a lock-legged spasm. The vibration shook the flour and batter off of her. “Nothing like an ostrich?” She pondered for a split second, and then gasped. “An ALLIGATOR! Woo-hoo! Gummy’s gonna have a friend to play with!”
“For Celestia’s sake!” Dash sat down and turned away. “There’s no pet, Pinkie!”
Confusion settled across Pinkie’s face like falling confetti. “But if it wasn’t a pet, then what happened to her? Was it a party?” Her lips curled in a minor pout. “Aww, I hope it wasn’t a party! I hate missing parties!”
Twilight shuddered. The insomnia-ravaged muscles in her shoulders and neck tensed, the stress creeping up to her jaw and making the almost-faded slap-mark on her cheek ache. Finally, she fixed her stance, groaned in frustration, and bellowed:
“NO, Pinkie! NO PARTY! Fluttershy betrayed us all to DISCORD, and so I had her put in an ASYLUM, Okay? Do you hear me? FLUTTERSHY WENT INSANE, AND I LOCKED HER UP!”
Twilight stood, straight-legged and shaking with fury, gasping for breath.
Rainbow Dash cringed in shame.
Pinkie stared in silent shock. “B-B-But…I don’t get it!” Her pale blue eyes swelled with feeling. “You said the other day that n-nothing scary was going on! You Pinkie-Promised! How did this happen so fast?”
Twilight sighed ruefully. “It didn’t all happen last night. I know I promised, and I’m sorry about that, but I only said that because I didn’t want you to overreact! You’re always so… unpredictable, and I had so much to deal with, I couldn’t…” Twilight trailed off.
Pinkie’s mane and tail were sagging like deflating balloons, drooping into lifeless poker-straight locks.
“Y-you… on p-purpose?… No, no-no-no… th-the whole time… T-T-Twilight… y-you… I… I…”
Pinkie’s pupils shrank. Some inner light flickered and dimmed within her; her hind legs quivered and then gave out, and she sat down heavily.
From somewhere far in the distance came the sound of glass cracking, and with it Pinkie froze as still as a statue.
After a long moment, Twilight took a hesitant step toward the motionless Earth Pony.
Rainbow Dash approached her as well, gently nudging her with a hoof. “Pinkie? Are you okay? Say something!”
Pinkie made no response. Her glassy blue eyes stared at nothing. Her shallow breathing barely shifted her chest.
Dash shook her harder, and shouted in her face: “SNAP OUT OF IT PINKIE! WAKE UP!”
Pinkie didn’t even blink.
Rainbow Dash turned to face Twilight. “What did you do?” She stomped closer. “WHAT DID YOU DO?”
Twilight stumbled backward. “I didn’t…! You saw! She wouldn’t listen! I wasn’t trying to–”
Dash scowled. “Rarity’s never gonna forgive us, Applejack ran away so fast last night that she’s probably back in Dodge by now, Fluttershy’s locked up, and now P-Pinkie…” She paused, willing her voice to un-crack. “How is all this supposed to keep Discord from getting out, huh? HOW?”
Outside, thunder rumbled.
Twilight cringed. “I KNOW it’s my fault, all right? I know it is! I should have gotten Fluttershy help a long time ago! But when she’s better, everypony will understand. Without her, we’re all feeling less kind. Discord… did a lot of damage.”
Dash growled in irritation. “WHAT damage? Some dolls? You keep talking like everything’s a big crisis, but YOU’RE the only one acting strange! Other than some two-bit crook and a little cruddy weather-work, this town’s doing FINE! Why was Fluttershy such a big threat? What has Discord even–”
“HE MADE ME KILL SOMEPONY!”
Twilight was nose-to-nose with Dash, close enough for her scream to blow back the Pegasus’s mane.
Dash backed away, her eyes wide. “Wh-What…?”
Twilight’s stare was nearly as vacant as Pinkie’s as the confession spilled out of her like blood from a wound.
“He m-made me kill somepony. H-He sent a twisted Pony to torture me and taunt me over and over and over, so I cornered her in the b-basement and I… I killed her with magic! I BURNED HER ALIVE, Rainbow Dash!”
For days the secret had been tearing at Twilight’s insides like a squirming lamprey, but now that she’d unleashed it, she realized that the truth had done nothing to ease her mind. The guilt and pain and shame were all still there. If anything, being exposed to the light had only put them in sharper relief.
Dash’s nose wrinkled. Her upper lip curled. “Y-You… that smell in the library – you said Spike burned a book again! But it was…” Dash staggered; her stomach clenched. “Oh, Celestia, I’m gonna…!”
She raced into the kitchen.
Twilight followed, keeping back a respectful distance as Dash coughed and spat into the sink.
“She made me do it, Dash! You have to believe me! What she said… what she did… she knew I’d do it! She WANTED me to! She was insane! It was all part of Discord’s plan!”
Dash shot Twilight an icy sidelong glare. “Don’t you think I know that?”
It was Twilight’s turn to stare. “What?”
Dash turned and dropped back down onto all fours. “I believe you. I KNOW you’d never mean to do something like that, Twilight. All of us know that.” Dash narrowed her eyes. “What makes me sick is… you lied anyway.”
Realization spilled across Twilight’s face. “No… Dash, no!”
Dash advanced, driving Twilight back into the bakery’s main room.
“You wouldn’t even trust your best friends to believe you! Or help protect you! Or… or protect PONYVILLE!”
With every stomp forward, Dash’s voice grew louder and fiercer.
“After everything we’ve been though, after you got proven right in Canterlot, you lied to me. You bucking LIED to me! You made me feel like a LOSER! You told me that I was the weak link, when YOU were the one who messed up! So I grounded myself and stayed up night after night trying to prove that I wasn’t gonna fail you! You made me swear over it! You made me swear on my WINGS! FOR A LIE!”
Twilight shrank back farther still. Tears wet her cheeks. “I’m s-sorry! Don’t do this! Don’t turn on me, Rainbow! Please! Don’t you see? We’re letting him win! This is what he wants!”
Dash stepped closer still, looming over Twilight. “Yeah? Well, I want a friend who’s worth being loyal to.”
She turned and plodded toward the bakery’s front door.
“Rainbow Dash… p-please…” Twilight whimpered. “You swore on your wings! If you leave…”
Dash paused; so Twilight had done some research. “Yeah… I know.”
She trotted out into the grey, gloomy beginning of another rain shower, her head hanging low and her wings hanging limp and ignored at her sides. The weak, filtered daylight washed out her colourful mane and tail, and made her blue hide look pale and sickly.
Pinkie Pie sat where she was, still motionless. Twilight’s shuddering, weeping form reflected in the Earth Pony’s wide, staring eyes.
• • • • • • •
Splashes and shouts echoed out from Sweet Apple Acres’ barn.
Applejack gasped for breath as Big Macintosh lifted her head back out of the water-filled apple tub. Her loose mane hung pale and limp over her face.
“T-Try n’ sober me up all ya w-want,” she sputtered, “b-but I ain’t gonna see ‘er.”
Big Mac stepped back. The rolled-up sleeves of his charcoal-grey suit-coat were damp and darkened. “If what ya did th’other night was so bad, doncha think she deserves an explanation?”
Applejack rounded on her brother.
“THERE AIN’T ONE!” she sat down and cradled her sodden head in her front hooves. “I tied up the meekest n’ mildest Pony I know with my own lasso, an’ watched her get locked up like a mad dog! She was screamin’ fer help – SCREAMIN’ fer it! – an’ I just did as I was told!”
She leaned over the water-tub and stared down at her reflection.
“Twilight made sense at the time. I didn’t wanna run from the truth again. I thought she was doin’ the right thing. I thought WE were. But then C-Carrot was there, starin’ at me, and Fluttershy was still cryin’ even though Twilight put ‘er out, and I wondered if I saw what I wanted ta see ‘cause I was still carryin’ a grudge over what happened with Dash, and…”
She slapped at the water’s surface with a hoof and turned away.
“I ain’t denyin’ the truth – I know what I did. I just can’t LIVE with it!”
Big Mac let a lengthy silence play out between them before replying. “The Applejack I know wouldn’t give up n’ crawl into a bottle instead o’ dealin’ with her troubles.”
Applejack sighed. “Then I guess the Applejack you know ain’t around no more.” Her voice was as dull and hollow as a rotted-out apple tree. She got to her hooves and plodded toward the open barn door.
Big Mac scowled and stomped a broad front hoof. “Dang it, Jackie! Y’ain’t a foal anymore! Ponies depend on ya! I depend on ya! Ya can’t just–” Big Mac moved to follow her, but her icy backward glare stopped him in his tracks.
“You come after me again, Big Brother,” she warned, “an’ I swear ta Celestia I will kick the apples offa yer hide or die tryin’.”
Big Mac stayed where he was, his head hung low.
Applejack trotted away.
Big Mac shuddered, gritted his teeth, and then let out a furious shout as he lashed out with a rear leg.
The barn’s wall cracked all the way up to the hayloft.
• • • • • • •
Fluttershy jerked awake at the sound of a knock on her room door. She tried to stand, but her restraints hobbled her and stopped her from moving more than half a pace forward.
The door opened, and the pink nurse – her savior – trotted inside, pushing a meal cart. She tapped the door closed behind her with a rear hoof.
“I’m sorry I took so long,” said the nurse softly. “I had to make sure the coast was clear.”
Fluttershy mumbled wordlessly around her bit.
“Oh, here – let me help,” replied the nurse.
She knelt down and gingerly unbuckled Fluttershy’s bit and bridle, freeing the Pegasus’s head.
Fluttershy flexed her jaw and licked her lips. “Th-thank you,” she whispered. “For everything.”
“It’s no more than you deserve,” said the nurse. She stood and turned back to the meal cart. “Now, first thing’s first. You need to get something in that tummy.”
She picked up a meal tray and set it down in front of Fluttershy. A small bowl of applesauce and a paper cup of juice with a straw flanked a plate covered by a spread-out napkin. The nurse ducked down and pulled the cloth away.
The paper plate was piled high with lush, ripe, red berries. Their sickly-sweet, spicy scent was already filling the air.
“I can’t eat that!” said Fluttershy fearfully. “That’s P–”
“Yup! Palfrey’s Nightshade,” said the nurse with a nod. Her voice rose in pitch slightly as she spoke. “The guard couldn’t tell them from wild cherries, the silly goose!”
“B-But it’s poison!” said Fluttershy. Her lower lip quivered. “I don’t understand! You said you were going to let me out!”
“I said I was gonna set you free.” The nurse giggled a cheery giggle punctuated by a snort.
Fluttershy drew back in fright. “Y-You aren’t Nurse Sweetheart. You never were! Who are you?”
The nurse giggled again. “Ooh! You’re pretty sharp for a Barehoof!”
She pulled out a bobby pin, letting her white-streaked purple mane erupt into a riot of frizzy tangles. She blinked several times and a pair of thin blue-glass lenses dropped to the floor, revealing dark purple eyes as swirled as pulled taffy. She shrugged out of her cardigan, exposing a screw and baseball marking her flanks.
When she spoke again, her voice was a clownish sing-song over an edge of menace, as friendly as a polka-dotted butcher knife.
“Hello Fluttershy!” she said with a cheery wave. “My name’s Topsy Turvy. I run the Joke Shop here in Ponyville, and this time… the joke’s on YOU.”
Fluttershy stared. “J-Joke? This was all a JOKE?” Outrage and relief battled in her voice.
Topsy retrieved a propeller beanie from the cart and perched it on her head. “Huh? OH! No, no, no – not a JOKE-joke. I mean, sure, I tricked you and Twilight pretty hard, and it’s pretty funny, but yeah you’re still one bucked Buzzard. You’re never getting outta here!” She giggled again.
Fluttershy scowled. “I… I’ll tell on you! I’ll tell them this was your fault! I’ll tell them you tried to poison me!”
“Eenope,” said Topsy, momentarily mimicking Big Macintosh. “You’re a madpony – and nopony believes a madpony. So, nope – you’re gonna sit there and eat your berries, and then you’re gonna die!”
Topsy Turvy gave a grin so broad it squeaked.
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle trotted slowly down the muddy street, her horn dimly glowing as she magicked along the small red wagon carrying Pinkie Pie behind her.
“I had no choice…” she muttered to herself. “He could have gotten free! I’d do ANYTHING to stop that from happening!”
Twilight passed by the Ponyville Post Office. Ditzy Doo and The Doctor trotted out onto the front steps, their gaits stiff with tension. Dtizy’s gold-and-white dress swished to and fro as she moved.
“WHY wu’n I get it?” she shouted at him. “WHY? ’Cuz I’m so derpy? ‘Cuz I can’t think so good?” She scowled, her nose crinkling. “I think about LOTS of stuff! I… I think about YOU!” Furious tears welled up in her skewed eyes.
“That’s not it! It isn’t!” The Doctor looked away. “I’m only trying to keep you safe!”
She growled in frustration. “I don’ WANNA be safe! I want… I…” She gritted her teeth. “I WAIT TRUE!” She briefly struggled to spread her wings under her dress before giving up and galloping off.
“Ditzy! Wait!” The Doctor galloped after her.
Twilight trotted on.
“They’ll forgive me,” she said to herself. “They’ll understand. Fluttershy will come back just like she was, and Rarity will be so h-happy. AJ will see that it had to be done, and Dash will come around once she cools off.” She looked over her shoulder; her eyes stung. “And you can host the party, Pinkie! It’ll be s-so much fun!”
A clay jug smashed through a home’s front window and cracked on the street behind Pinkie’s wagon. Foamy hard cider spilled out and mingled with the mud.
Cheerilee trotted out into the rain, another two jugs hanging from a thin net slung over her beautiful dress.
“I have had ENOUGH of watching you throw your life away!” she said grimly. “We’re family, Berry, and I’m not going to let you keep doing this!”
Berry Punch slid into view on her belly, her fine dress wrinkling as she clung to one of Cheerilee’s hind legs. “D-DON’T!” she wailed. “I NEED IT!”
Cheerilee turned to face her. “No, your FOAL needs her MOTHER!”
Berry Punch hid her face with her front hooves and sobbed.
Twilight trotted on. Rain soaked her mane and tail. She shivered.
“Even if I’m a murderer, I can’t let Discord destroy Equestria. Seeing the world like that… being ALONE like that… it was the worst moment of my life. I couldn’t let it happen again. They’ll understand that – they’ll HAVE to! We’re the Elements of Harmony!”
The Cutie Mark Crusaders trotted out from behind a pile of hay-bales, sporting freshly-donned new dresses and posing proudly. Scootaloo’s happy expression soon wilted, however, as her wings flexed under the smooth back of her purple dress.
“Hay! How’m I supposed to…” She scowled. “…Oh. Now I get it. That’s great, Sweetie Belle. Real nice.” She snorted derisively.
Sweetie Belle tilted her head in confusion. “Huh? What do you mean?”
“Yeah, like you don’t know! There are no wing-slits in this dress, JERK!” Scootaloo lunged forward and shoved Sweetie Belle, leaving a muddy hoofprint on her green outfit.
Sweetie Belle stumbled. “Hay! Watch it!”
Scootaloo advanced on the staggering Unicorn. “G-Great joke! ‘What’s the point? It’s not like she NEEDS her wings for anything!’ ”
Sweetie Belle cringed; her eyes shone. “Th-That’s not true! I didn’t know! I was just trying to be NICE!”
Apple Bloom hopped over to stand between the two.
“Awright, enough! Stop it, you two! Yer bickerin’ is drivin’ me crazy!”
“Stop taking her side!” shouted Scootaloo. “It’s hard enough tryin’ to lose all this weight without you two ganging up on me!”
Sweetie Belle narrowed her teary eyes. “Maybe you wouldn’t be so h-heavy if your head wasn’t so full of ROCKS!”
Scootaloo growled furiously and dived past Apple Bloom to tackle Sweetie Belle.
“GRRR! I SAID, STOP IT!” Apple Bloom pushed up the sleeves of her scarlet dress and then jumped into the fray. The three little Ponies kicked and shouted and bit and shoved, the damp mud coating their colourful outfits.
Twilight trotted on. Suddenly, she tripped on a loose cobble. She yelped in alarm and fell into a mud puddle.
As she groaned and magicked the mud off of herself, she finally took proper stock of her surroundings; the realization was infinitely more chilling than the rain soaking her hide.
Ponyville’s cheerful chatter and carefree songs had been replaced by shouted arguments, screamed accusations and despairing sobs.
Everywhere, hooves stomped in anger and spattered mud up hides darkened by disquiet. Windows and doors slammed. Foals cried. Thunder rumbled.
A Pegasus stallion raced past, chased by an angry Earth Pony mob.
Among the countless clear raindrops, a solitary opaque, brown, candy-sweet droplet landed on Twilight’s cheek and slid down to her lips.
She wiped away the drop and then looked down at her own front hooves, finally seeing how dull and grey they had become.
Twilight Sparkle’s eyes widened, her pupils shrank and her ears drooped as she softly whispered:
“Oh, p-please… no!”
• • • • • • •
Fluttershy narrowed her eyes. “I w-would never, EVER do something like that!”
Topsy waved a front hoof in a tsk-tsk gesture.
“Ah-ah-ah! Don’t be so hasty, Flutters. Pretty soon, you’re gonna realize that me offering you a way out is a lot kinder than you think. Y’see, I didn’t even PLAN for you to end up in here in the first place – this was all Twilight! I watched her, and gave her a few little nudges, and then the next thing I knew she just up and tossed you in the looney bin! Your little Screwhead pal messed up reee-ee-ee-aa-aa-al bad.”
Topsy held Fluttershy’s chin in both front hooves and stared her down. Fluttershy squirmed in disgust.
“And putting you in here was just the tip of the iceberg! The way things are going, pretty soon folks are gonna WISH they had the chance I’m giving you. ‘Cause, ya see…”
EVERYPONY OUGHT TO BE AFRAID
(To the tune of the ‘Everybody Ought to Have a Maid’ by Stephen Sondheim)
(Opens door and trots through the halls, attracting the patients’ attention)
Everypony ought to be afraid. Everypony ought to have a creeping fear, Everypony ought to have a seeping fear – To keep ‘em awake at night!
Everypony ought to be afraid, Everypony ought to feel just terrible, Until it gets, unbearable, And frightening-er than fright!
(Hops to and fro to the beat)
Oh, oh, won’t it be simply splendid, When the whole world has ended, And Chaos prevails?
(A guard-stallion gallops up, drawn by the noise)
Oh, oh, won’t He be truly frightful, Breaking out,
(Ambushes guard as he turns a corner, kicking him hard enough to make his head crack the opposite wall)
(tone low and menacing)Doing in.
Everypony ought to be afraid, Scared to be alone when all the lights get low
(Flicks a switch, halls turn dim and shadow-filled)
Because that’s when He comes, you know! You’ll never forget the sight:
(Returns to Fluttershy)
(Between Beats) He’ll be…
Shattering all the windows,
(Musses Fluttershy’s mane)
Scattering all the Buzzards, Brightening all the landscapes,
(Shoves open shutters on barred window, scaring away perched birds)
Frightening all your pet birds, Keepin’ ‘em all awake…
(Turns, rears up, spreads front hooves wide)
(Shivering, apprehensive, and slightly pale)
[THREE NEARBY MENTAL PATIENTS]
[PATIENTS, TOPSY TURVY]
(All dance in unison, Topsy leads and Patients back-up)
Everypony ought to be afraid, Everypony ought to kiss their flank good-bye, Because Discord’s the kind of guy To never forget a slight!
(Flitting past other patients, leaving each terrified)
Oh, oh, won't it be just delicious, Watching as things get vicious, Once He gets out?
Oh, oh, won’t Twily be delightful, Giving in,
(Slides a hoof across her throat, tone low and menacing)
Everypony ought to be afraid, ‘Cause the Lord of Chaos will be drawing nigh, So you’d best prepare to die, While I laugh at your plight:
(Between beats) He’ll be…
Saddening up the gigglers,
(Takes plush toy from Laughing Patient, who bursts into tears)
Maddening up the level-heads
(Throws toy at Orderly losing control of the growing mayhem; he cackles hysterically)
De-powering all the Twinklers,
(Flicks a Unicorn patient’s horn, messing up attempt to undo restraints)
(Beat; sly sidelong glance at the audience as Fluttershy cowers in the background)
…the flowerbeds --
Keepin’ you all awake… at night!
(Cringing, even more frightened and paler still)
[THREE OTHER MENTAL PATIENTS]
[PATIENTS, TOPSY TURVY]
[TOPSY TURVY, NEW BACKUP PATIENTS]
(Dancing through halls, kicking open still more doors)
Everypony ought to be afraid, Cuz His Lordship isn’t the forgiving sort, In fact he’s one to make a sport, Of putting wrong what went right!
(Retrieves terrified, straitjacketed and gagged patient and dances with him on hind legs)
He’s gonna make you suffer, If you don’t like it – tough! You’re All on your own.
[NEW BACKUP PATIENTS, TOPSY TURVY]
(All four grab, swing and toss bound patient up and out of view)
Oh, oh, won’t He be so creative?
(Rises into view in background, pleadingly hopeful)
(Patient crashes down on top of Fluttershy; Topsy grins at audience)
[NEW BACKUP PATIENTS, TOPSY TURVY]
Everypony ought to be afraid. No amount o’ necklaces will save the day – In fact, I think it’s safe to say, There won’t even be a fight!
(Between Beats) He’ll be…
Chasin’ you while you’re runnin’,
Doin’ the Moon and Sun in,
Racin’ to turn you ashen,
An’ ruin your only passion,
[BACKUP PATIENTS, TOPSY TURVY]
(Topsy Turvy and Backup Patients dance forward toward the front entrance; Fluttershy struggles against her restraints and begs far in the background)
Keepin’ you all awake… at night!
(Fluttershy: Don’t do this!)
(Fluttershy: Somepony help me!)
(Fluttershy, at the window, totally hysterical and turning grey: DON’T LEAVE ME IN HERE!)
(Topsy and Patients burst out through the front doors; Long note for finale)
(Topsy Turvy trots off toward downtown Ponyville, giggling; Crisis in Hospital is degenerating into a riot)
As the sounds of screams, cries, breaking glass and hooves pounding on hides echoed through the halls, Fluttershy added screams of her own to the din. She wailed and strained against her bindings until her joints burned and her wings threatened to dislocate.
Finally, she sagged and then flopped down onto the padded floor, panting and sobbing. She swallowed hard, took a slow, deep breath…
…and then closed her mouth around the bunch of berries on her meal tray.
SECRETS AND LIES By Saddlesoap Opera Part Seven: What You Sow
Twilight Sparkle’s pulse pounded in her ears as she sat on the side of the street and took in the sight of Ponyville’s descent into chaos. Conflict and misery were mounting by the second, the residents were at each other’s throats, the weather was worsening…
And it was all her fault.
“I… I…” Twilight tipped over onto the muddy ground and hugged her tail. “I don’t know what to do!”
Pinkie Pie sat in her red wagon nearby, stock-still and unmoved by Twilight`s cry.
Twilight curled up into a fetal position as the rain pattered on her hide. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
“I let you down, Princess! You trusted me with the Elements, and I…”
“…You crapped the bed! Hee hee!”
Twilight opened her eyes; a leering skull stared down at her. Topsy Turvy was there, her lean body intact but her face a fleshless horror.
Twilight frowned. “Enough, Twilight,” she muttered bitterly. “Enough hallucinating and imagining and obsessing. What’s the point? It’s over. You lost.”
“Couldn’t a’ said it better myself!” chirped Topsy’s animate corpse. “But you’re not quite done yet, Twily!”
Twilight sighed. “Oh? Okay, subconscious – what’s left for me to mess up?”
“Twilight, Twilight, Twilight.” The late Topsy shook her head. “Don’t you see? You’re still ALIVE!”
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Topsy’s remains giggled, her jawbone chattering. When she spoke again, it was in Twilight’s voice: “I’ve ruined my life, failed the Princess, lost all my friends, and doomed Equestria! Now all I can do… is die.”
Twilight shivered. “N-No… no, I can’t. Even if I… if I wanted to… the Element of Magic, it… it won’t…”
“Aww, that’s no biggie!” The ghoulish Earth Pony tilted her head and mimicked Princess Celestia: “You will live as long as you care to.” She grinned as much as her lipless face would allow. “You’ve done enough, my most disappointing student. Better to cut your losses and end it all now, before you live to see the full extent of your complete and utter failure.”
Tears welled up in Twilight’s eyes. Her heart sank. “I did. I f-failed. I’m so sorry…”
Topsy’s corpse sat down and nodded sympathetically, returning to her usual sing-song voice. “I know. It’s sad, really. You tried, you did your best, but in the end you just weren’t good enough.”
Twilight sniffled. “I r-ruined everything…”
Her hallucination sighed. “Yeah. Only a matter of time before You-Know-Who gets out, now. And you KNOW you can’t face that again. All alone, your friends turned against you, the one sane Pony in a world gone crazy…”
Twilight shook her head fiercely and choked out a sob. “I can’t! I can’t face it alone! Not again! I’m s-so tired…”
Twilight’s victim backed away, giving her room. Her mocking voice turned as soft and soothing as a warm bath. “So tired. No use. No hope. Can’t go on. It hurts so much. Please… it’s better this way. Just let go… let go… let go…”
“L-Let go…” Twilight relaxed, letting herself sink in the cold mud. She felt her pulse begin to slow. Her sidelong view of Ponyville’s storm-greyed streets lost still more of its colour. Her eyelids fluttered and closed.
The imagined Topsy leaned forward, her eye sockets fixed on the weakening rise and fall of Twilight`s ribcage in silent anticipation.
“…Spike?” The little Dragon’s voice had partially roused Twilight from her decline. She half-opened one eye.
Spike was standing next to Pinkie’s wagon. He was staring in confusion.
“I, uh, I tried to talk to Rarity, but she’s still really upset. So… how come you’re lying in the mud? And who’s that?”
Twilight shifted slightly; her thready pulse was hardly moving any blood. Her limbs felt like they were pinned down with iron chains. “Tha’ss jusst P-Pinkie, Spike,” she slurred. “You’ll hafta take care of her, okay?”
Spike raised a scaled eyebrow. “Well, yeah, I know who Pinkie is. I meant, who’s the Pony in the skull mask?”
Twilight’s eyes opened fully; she raised her head and gasped. “Wha–”
Topsy Turvy smashed an exceedingly solid and shod front hoof across Twilight’s jaw, forcing her head back down into the mud.
“Oh, Spike, Spike, Spike…” said Topsy with a rueful chuckle. “I’m the Pony who’s gonna kill your mommy!”
She lunged forward, bringing her hooves down on top of Spike before he or Twilight could react. Topsy’s right hoof crushed Spike’s fallen sunglasses, and her left hoof landed on his right arm.
Topsy peered over her shoulder at Twilight and then jerked her leg downward in a twisting stomp.
Spike let out a strangled scream, sparks and greenish smoke escaping his mouth with the sound. Once Topsy shifted, Spike lay on his side in the mud. He cradled his fractured limb and whimpered.
Topsy turned to face Twilight and then slipped off her carved wooden mask and tossed it aside.
“For peat’s sake!” she said in mock frustration. “Trust a Dragon to mess up a good joke, amirite? Guess I’ll have to do a little dragon-slaying before I go back to work on you!”
She turned back to Spike and raised her front hooves for a deathblow.
“NO!” Twilight raised her head and ignited her horn.
• • • • • • •
The pale green Earth Pony stallion brushed a lock of his sweaty brown mane out of his eyes and then peered through the narrow window on the hospital room’s door.
Inside the room, a silver-maned blue Earth Pony was sitting in the middle of the room, howling like a lonely coyote.
“Number twenty-two… minor agitation,” he said to himself. He turned to the clipboard hanging from a nail next to the door, grabbed the string-tied pencil hanging there with his teeth, and made a quick note calling for a doctor to investigate. “At this rate, we might actually get the place back to normal!”
He straightened his guard’s uniform and trotted on to the next room, where the newest arrival had been put. He looked inside.
Inside, the pink-maned yellow Pegasus was sprawled on the floor with her back to the door, her restraints twisted and her mane and tail in disarray. A crimson puddle surrounded her head.
The stallion hastily unlocked the door and galloped to the Pegasus’s side.
“Hay! Hay, can you hear me?” he asked. He reached down with his front hooves and rolled the Pegasus over.
Her eyes were closed, her mouth was splattered red and flecked with chewed-up seed husks, and a drinking straw was stuck between her lips.
The stallion raised an eyebrow. “What happened to your bridle?” He dabbed a hoof in the red stain and cautiously sniffed it.
“Wait… this isn’t bl–”
The Pegasus’s eyes snapped open, and her cheeks ballooned. With a barely-audible ftt, a small, red-stained yellow feather shot out of the straw and embedded itself in his neck.
The stallion jumped backward in alarm. “Ow! What the…?”
He staggered; the floor swayed. “I n-need to get the… I need t-to…” A warm, syrupy numbness crawled its way through his limbs.
“… g-get the n-n-nu-ur-r-r-s-s-s…” He collapsed.
Fluttershy spat out the last of the chewed-up berries and cracked seeds and licked her numbed lips.
She leaned forward and grabbed the key ring off the guard’s belt with her teeth. Once her hitch was unlocked, she got to her hooves and pressed her ear to the guard’s ribcage. He groaned. She patted him on the side with a hoof.
“Hush, now,” said Fluttershy softly. “You’ll be okay in a couple of hours.”
She turned to the window, and whistled a short, sharp note.
A pair of squirrels appeared at the windowsill and then slipped between the bars and hopped down into the room. They skittered up onto Fluttershy’s back and gnawed at the remaining straps restraining her.
The bindings soon fell away; Fluttershy spread her wings.
One of the squirrels chittered.
Fluttershy smiled an off-kilter smile. Her eyes gleamed. “Oh, I’m going to go into town now,” she said airily. “I need to find Twilight!”
She crept over to the room’s open door and then took to the air, her wing-beats making no more sound than a passing breeze as she hovered through the halls.
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle shakily stood, the rain sizzling on her still-glowing horn as the smoke occupying Spike’s former position cleared.
“You’re alive…” she growled. “You’re ALIVE! You were alive THE WHOLE TIME!”
Topsy Turvy chuckled. “Yup! I won’t spoil it, but it was a real simple trick, too. Pretty funny, huh? You shoulda seen the look on y–”
“DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU PUT ME THROUGH?”
A wave of purple-red magic bashed Topsy off her hooves. She landed in the mud with a surprised grunt.
Twilight stomped forward, bearing down on her.
“This week has been PONY HELL!”
Another surge of magic sent Topsy whirling through the air; she landed on a public water trough, smashing it to pieces.
The Earth Pony rolled onto her belly and looked up at Twilight between the strands of her sodden mane. She let out a sputtering giggle.
“Awww, now don’t be that way, Twily,” she said with a smile. “You really expect me to believe that you didn’t ENJOY turning the town into this?” She gestured expansively with her front hooves. “You Twinklers LOVE power trips!”
“SHUT UP!” Twilight magicked up a nearby vegetable cart and brought it down on Topsy with a deafening crash. “I didn’t want this! I didn’t want ANY of it!”
The orange-maned yellow Earth Pony mare who had been minding the cart backed away in alarm.
Twilight’s horn flared. Topsy emerged from the wreckage surrounded in a magical glow, limply dangling in midair. Twilight hesitantly trotted closer.
Topsy Turvy lashed out with a hind leg, clipping Twilight’s horn.
Twilight grunted in pain, jerking back on shaking legs. Her magic field winked out, and Topsy dropped to all fours in a ready crouch.
She chuckled. “Ya know, Twilight, it makes sense that you live in a library. I can read you like a BOOK!”
She pressed her advantage, surging forward to unleash a fierce left-right pair of front-hoof strikes to Twilight’s jaw. The force of the blows made Twilight skid left and right in the mud.
Twilight staggered, dazed.
“It’s so EASY to get under your skin!” Topsy whirled around, whipping out a hind leg to kick Twilight in the shoulder.
Twilight yelped and tumbled onto her side.
Topsy grinned a sinister grin. “You Screwheads are all the same – underestimating the big, dumb Mudhooves who grow your food and pull your carts and take out your trash. Well, Buzzards mighta got the wings, and you mighta got the horns, but we… GOT EVERYTHING ELSE!”
She reared up and bounded forward on her hind legs, unleashing a lightning-fast punt that sent Twilight exploding out of the mud and smashing through the front wall of the Ponyville Day Spa.
Nearby, the Earth Pony who’d lost her cart to Twilight’s magic turned and galloped off.
• • • • • • •
Rainbow Dash pulled open the library’s front door with her mouth and trotted inside. She shook out her head, tail and wings, taking perverse satisfaction in showering the bookshelves with rainwater.
She lay down in the middle of the room and sighed.
“Hope you don’t mind me stayin’ here until the rain gets dealt with, Twilight,” she said to the empty room. “Well, good. You BETTER not. ‘Cause it’s kinda, you know, YOUR FAULT that I can’t go home?”
She got to her hooves.
“And it’s your fault that I can’t do my JOB anymore…”
She kicked the room’s Pony-bust centerpiece, toppling it.
“Your fault that I can’t RACE anymore…”
She galloped around the room, one wing outstretched, pushing out what few shelved books remained.
“Your fault that I WON’T EVER! BE! A WONDERBOLT!”
She let out a hoarse, furious scream, stomping her hooves and squinting against the hot tears stinging her eyes. She fell to her knees, tipped onto her side, and wept.
Moments later, a bright purple-red flash briefly illuminated the room behind her.
Dash tensed. “I’m not b-bucking crying!”
The only answer was faint, laboured breathing.
Dash lifted her head and looked over her shoulder; she gasped.
Spike was there, cradling a broken arm. His scales were caked with mud and soot and his eyes were reddened and teary.
“H-Help…” he whimpered. “It hurts…”
Dash leaped to her hooves and raced over to the little Dragon.
“Omigosh! Spike, what happened?”
“S-Somepony’s attacking Twilight!” he said. His lower lip quivered. “… You gotta help her!”
“First thing’s first! We gotta get that arm fixed up!” Dash ducked down to examine the injury. “Rrrgh! Why didn’t I pay more attention in first-aid class at Flight Camp?” Her eyes widened. “Wait! I know! Twilight must have a book about–”
Dash turned to the bookshelves… which were currently emptied in unsorted piles on the floor. She pressed her hooves over Spike’s ear-holes and bellowed out a curse.
“P-Please,” said Spike, “you gotta help Twilight!”
“Are you KIDDING?” shouted Dash. “You should be worrying about YOURSELF! If somepony’s after Twilight, it’s probably her FAULT! Do you KNOW what she did?”
Spike swallowed; the muscles in his neck tensed against his pain. “I don’t care what she did! She’s in trouble, and she needs help! But I couldn’t do anything… I’m just a b-baby…” He sat down heavily, wincing as his arm shifted. “I’m really scared, Rainbow Dash. That Pony said she was gonna KILL Twilight, and I wanna save her, b-but I’m not big enough, and I… I...” Tears slid down his cheeks. “I don’t want her to die!” Sobs drowned his attempts to say more.
“I…” Dash gritted her teeth. Starting at her multi-hued mane, a wave of brighter colour began spreading down her body.
“I’m…” She flexed and folded her wings as they brightened. Her features hardened into a determined glare.
“…I’m NOT gonna let that happen!”
• • • • • • •
Twilight Sparkle awoke to the feeling of a brutal stomp forcing her right hip out of joint.
“THERE we go!” said Topsy gleefully. “Back in business!”
She scooped up Twilight with her front legs, leaned, whirled, and then tossed her back out through the hole she’d made entering the Spa.
“Don’t mind me!” said Topsy to the horrified blue Earth Pony standing at the reception desk. “Just passing through!” She winked cheekily and then bounded out after Twilight.
Twilight slid to a stop in the rain-soaked street. She groaned through gritted teeth as her hip popped itself back into place. Before she could gather her thoughts, Topsy unleashed another hoof-strike to her jaw.
“Wow! You’re mending already! This is gonna take a while!”
Topsy kicked Twilight in the stomach. The Unicorn let out a pained gasp.
“We might hafta keep this up all day! Maybe all NIGHT!”
She stooped to head-butt Twilight in the cheekbone.
“Won’t that be FUN?”
She hopped into the air and brought all four hooves down on Twilight’s ribcage.
Twilight coughed out a mouthful of fresh blood. “D-Doesn’t.. m-matter…” she wheezed, giving a strained half-smile as she struggled to crawl away from Topsy.
Topsy raised an eyebrow. “Oh? How come, Twily? Ya got a death-wish already? Did my little speech work after all?”
Twilight shook her head. “I don’t w-want to die… but even if you do manage to kill me, there’re still five more Elements. They’ll be h-horrified when they realize what you did. Disgusted. They’ll band together. And th-that’s more than enough to stop you… and to keep him bound.”
Topsy tapped a hoof to her chin in thought. “Hmm. Yeah, you might be right. You’d be some kinda, like, martyr to those five, or whatever.”
A leering grin slowly sliced across her face. She bent down, leaning so close that her lips tickled Twilight’s ear, and mimicked Fluttershy’s soft, anxious voice:
“Um, so I guess it’s lucky for me there are only FOUR left, huh?”
Twilight’s eyes widened; sickening realization spread through her like nightfall, draining the last of the colour from her hide.
• • • • • • •
“Why her, ‘Shy? Why’d ya hafta pick Dash?”
Applejack tipped back her wooden cider-tankard, draining it for the fourth time.
“W’looks like yers, ya coulda h-had yer pick o’ Ponyville an’ Cloudsdale, both!”
She fumbled with the spigot on the barrel she’d tapped, clumsily refilling her mug.
“An’ now you go an’ make me feel like a s-sack o’ manure, too! Some friend!”
She took a long pull of cider; her face creased in anguish as she swallowed. She dropped the mug and hid her face in her hooves.
“Dang it, I’m so buckin’ s-sorry!”
Just then, there was an urgent knock on the cider shack’s doorframe behind her.
Applejack scowled, rubbing her eyes with a foreleg. “I warned ya, ya big galoot!”
She staggered to her hooves and turned around to meet the gaze of a far smaller Pony than she’d expected.
Carrot Top caught herself staring and half-turned away, blushing.
“… Oh,” Applejack said awkwardly. “L-Listen, Carrot… I didn’t mean fer ya t–”
“I ain’t here about that,” said Carrot, cutting her off. “I just thought ya might wanna know that right now yer friend Twilight is tearin’ up downtown in a ruckus with some Earth Pony. An’ she’s losin’ the fight – that Earth Pony ain’t holdin’ back her strength!”
Applejack’s eyes widened, but her alarmed expression quickly wilted into a frown. “I can’t. I’ve done enough ta help lately. Look what I did last time – she’s better off without me!”
Carrot top frowned back. “What, so yer gonna let some outta-control Pony beat yer friend ta DEATH ‘cause yer too busy drownin’ yer sorrows?”
Applejack inhaled for a defensive rant, but found herself at a loss for words. She sat down.
“Not in so many words, n-no,” she muttered sheepishly.
Carrot Top sighed. “You an’ yours have got some real serious issues, ya know.”
Applejack silently nodded.
Carrot Top rubbed the back of her neck with a front hoof. “Look… I don’t want ya ta take this the wrong way, but… I don’t need ya.”
Applejack’s brows knitted; her lower lip trembled.
Carrot Top waved her front hooves in a conciliatory gesture. “Hold on! W-What I mean is, yer nice. Real nice. Ya make me feel… special. But I ain’t gonna up an’ DIE if ya aren’t in my life. An’ right now, it seems like maybe some o’ yer friends WILL.”
Applejack scuffed the ground with a hoof. “M-Maybe…”
Carrot Top looked down. “We might have only been seein’ each other a short while, but I’ve lived next-door to ya my whole life. I know ya like things clear n’ simple, an’ there’s a whole lot o’ troublin’, terrible things goin’ on in yer life. Even though I wanna be there with ya, I think maybe I’m one carrot more’n a bunch for ya.”
Applejack’s eyes shone. “N-No! I’ll do better! I promise! Don’t give up on me, Carrot! Don’t–”
Carrot Top cut Applejack off with a kiss. Their eyes met as their lips parted.
“I ain’t givin’ up on ya,” said Carrot with a smile. “You’ll get yer head together. Help yer friends. Sort it all out. I know ya will. And when ya do… I’ll be waitin’.”
Carrot Top turned away, glanced briefly over her shoulder, and then trotted off.
Applejack stood in stunned silence for a long moment, her blush seeming to bring colour to her entire body.
She turned to retrieve her fallen Stetson from under a pile of empty cider jugs.
• • • • • • •
When a few moments passed and no new customer stepped through the curtains into the rear half of her Boutique, Rarity took the opportunity to quickly trot over to a mane-washing sink and run her horn under cold water.
She hissed in a breath and let it out slowly as steam rose from the graceful spire; she’d barely let her glow fade for the past hour or two, numbly churning out dresses ex nihilo and doling them out to the starry-eyed masses.
Work was good. Work kept her busy. Work pushed her dreadful, unpleasant, messy feelings down to a place where she could let them quietly fester without them giving her wrinkles.
Upon returning to the main room, Rarity found that there was still nopony there.
“Next…?” she asked the empty foyer.
Filthy Rich trotted into the Boutique from outside and shook the rain out of his charcoal-coloured mane.
“It’s just me, I’m afraid,” he said. “It seems you’ve saturated the market.”
Rarity frowned. “What do you mean?”
Rich chuckled softly. “You sold so many of those mass-conjured dresses that you ran out of customers.”
“Oh... I see.” Rarity cleared her throat. “So, why are you here, then, Rich?”
“Well, this is a dress shop, isn’t it? I’m here for a Rarity original.”
Rarity raised an eyebrow. “But you already got one! Surely Diamond Tiara doesn’t need another – they all look the same.” She sighed. “Exactly the same.”
Rich pointed a hoof for emphasis. “And that’s exactly the problem! Now that nearly everypony’s wearing them, those dresses just don’t seem as… special as they did before. So I’m here to get my little princess something unique.”
Rarity rolled her eyes. “I don’t mean to offend, Rich, but does she really DESERVE it? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about the trouble your little princess has gotten herself into. Why spoil her even more?”
Rich shrugged. “I know Diamond can be a hoofful at times, but confidence and ambition are important for a filly – and I discipline her when she crosses the line.” He sat down and adjusted his tie with his front hooves. “Besides… generosity isn’t about who deserves it, is it? That’s more like… salary.”
Rarity turned away, keeping an eye on her visitor`s reflection in one of the room`s many mirrors. “How do you mean?”
“I don’t give my little princess gifts because she EARNS them, or because I expect her to pay me back. I do it because it makes me happy to share the prosperity my hard work has built.” Rich smiled. “And because, no matter how foalish and troublesome she can be at times, I love her with all my heart.”
“I… th-that’s… that’s beautiful!” Rarity swallowed down the lump tightening her throat. She watched her reflection’s washed-out mane liven to a lustrous royal purple.
Just then, the Boutique’s front door burst open as a frantic pink-maned pastel-blue Earth Pony mare skidded to a stop inside.
“Rah-rity!” She gasped. “You h-haff to help! The Earth Po-nee from across tha street’s gone crazy! She’s trying to keel Tvy-light Sparkle!”
Rarity’s expression hardened. She magicked up a small hairband and tied back her mane into a queue.
“Like PONY HELL she is!”
• • • • • • •
On the fourth impact with the corner of the Joke Shop’s outside wall, Twilight Sparkle’s horn cracked.
She let out a strangled shriek; purple-red motes of energy dribbled from the fracture.
Topsy Turvy bent down to examine the wound, still holding Twilight’s head between her front hooves in a vise-like grip. “All-RIGHTY then!” she whooped excitedly. “NOW we’re gettin’ somewhere!”
She pulled Twilight’s head back from the wall and jerked it to the side, sending the Unicorn sprawling.
Twilight’s ash-grey body was speckled with cuts and bruises. Blood oozed from her split lower lip, and her left eye was reddened and squinting. None of the injuries were fading.
“Guess I shoulda told you that you killed your little Buzzard buddy sooner, huh? It woulda saved a lotta time!” She reared up and swung Twilight up and over by her head, slamming her body down onto the muddy ground.
Topsy stood, shook out her shoulders and craned her neck. “Oh – in case you were curious, she died alone. And terrified!” She giggled.
“F-Flu-uttershy-y…” sobbed Twilight, her face a mask of guilt-stricken agony. “I’m so-or-ry!”
Topsy smirked. “Heh. Little late for that, doncha think?” She straightened and tipped sidelong onto Twilight like a falling tree, landing in a reclining pose and letting the Unicorn take her full weight on her already-fractured ribs.
Twilight let out a muted, wheezing scream as the breath caught in her seizing lungs.
Topsy patted Twilight’s head. “You know, you really never stood a chance.” Topsy punctuated her words with an occasional hoof-slap against Twilight’s fractured horn.
“You Screwheads think you can do anything with a few SPELLS,”
“but we Earth Ponies have to take care of OURSELVES.”
“I taught myself to sew with my MOUTH so I could make those dolls.
“I climbed your tree with my bare HOOVES so I could watch you.”
“I read your diaries and your letters and set things up just RIGHT to buck with your head.”
“I broke you, Twily. And I did it FAIR. AND. SQUARE.”
Twilight shuddered, tensed, jerked half-upright and then finally screamed:
“FINE! YOU WIN! Are you HAPPY now, you bucking PSYCHOPATH? You’ve taken EVERYTHING from me! Your twisted scheme is going to DOOM the whole WORLD, everypony I know HATES me, and one of the first friends I ever made is D-DEAD!” Fresh tears cut clean tracks down her muddied, bloodied cheeks. “I have nothing left…” Twilight fell back down into the mud. “N-Nothing…”
Topsy got to her hooves. “You silly filly! I already told you. You still have ONE thing –” Topsy’s high-pitched voice turned low and menacing. “A PULSE.” She hovered a hoof over Twilight’s neck. “Lemme just take care of that for you.”
• • • • • • •
“Stop right there!” Rainbow Dash trotted toward Topsy Turvy and Twilight Sparkle with a firm, purposeful stride. Spike sat on her back, his arm crudely splinted and bound.
“S-Spike? R-Rainbow…?” Twilight’s cracking voice held a faint shadow of hope.
Dash frowned. “Don’t get the wrong idea, Twilight,” she said as she drew closer. “I’m still mad at you. But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna let some nutcase KILL you!” She came to a stop a few yards away. “Besides… if I don’t leave you hangin’ – then I didn’t break my promise!” She spread her wings proudly.
“Awww. That’s just a-bucking-dorable.” Topsy rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue in a silent retch. “But you don’t know what you’re messing with, here, Buzzard.” Topsy angled her shoulders, releasing ominous cracks. “You think you can take me? You ever faced an Earth Pony who wasn’t holding back?”
Topsy fixed her stance, wound up a hind leg, and then stomped down hard. Mud exploded out behind her, taller than the surrounding rooftops, and then rained down like so much chocolate.
Rainbow Dash’s wings drooped slightly. She gulped. “U-Uh, well…”
“Actually… she has.” Applejack’s steel-shod hooves left deep tracks in the muddy street as she approached.
Twilight struggled to lift her head. “AJ…?”
Topsy turned to face her fellow Earth Pony. “Gee! If it isn’t everypony’s favourite filly-fooler! How ya been?”
Applejack narrowed her eyes. “Honestly, I’ve been a mite bit tense. I’m lookin’ ta blow off some steam. A good, clean fight oughta do th’trick, I reckon.”
Topsy smirked. “Fat chance, nag. I fight dirty. I’ll smash your joints until I LAME you.” She chuckled. “Plus, you’re barely upright! You’ve probably been up all night drinking, amirite?” She shot Applejack a sly sidelong glance and winked. “At your best you just might take me.” Her voice took on a twanging drawl. “Aww, but yer a darn sight from top form. Ain’tcha, hayseed?”
Applejack stayed silent, but the sheen on her forehead was as much sweat as rain.
“I’ll have you know that I would rather have that hayseed at my side than a THOUSAND of Canterlot’s best and brightest!”
“Rarity!” A note of genuine resolve crept into Twilight’s voice. The merest hint of colour returned to her hide.
The elegant white Unicorn reared into a martial stance. “I’m here, Twilight. This ruffian won’t hurt you anymore.”
Topsy’s gaze passed from Pinkie’s immobile form, to Twilight, to the trio of newcomers. “Well, gee! The gang’s all here!” Her smile widened. “Oh, except for Fluttershy. ‘Cause she’s dead.”
Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Rarity shared a collective gasp. Rarity dropped back down onto all fours.
Twilight lost what little composure she’d regained. She hid her face in her front hooves.
Topsy laughed. “Aww! So sad! Twilight was no good at killing me, but that little Barehoof was dead a few HOURS after you roped her in! Go figure!” She once again copied Fluttershy’s voice: “Go out of my head… end up dead!” Topsy laughed harder, wiping a joyful tear from the corner of her eye with a hoof.
Applejack gritted her teeth in disgusted horror and slowly shook her head.
Rarity dropped into a sitting position and covered her mouth with her hooves.
Rainbow Dash spread her wings and charged the cackling Earth Pony with a howl of rage, leaving Spike to tumble to the ground in surprise.
Topsy reached out her front hooves to meet Dash’s as the Pegasus streaked into range. The echoing impact stopped Dash dead in the air, leaving her to drop down to the muddy ground.
Topsy stomped a hoof on the back of Dash’s multi-hued head in a brutal rabbit punch. Dash let out a dazed grunt and sagged, senseless.
“Uh-oh! Too bad AJ wasn’t close enough to grab your tail this time, huh, Dashie? Ya really just never learn, do ya?”
The Earth Pony stooped down over Dash. She gripped the Pegasus’s right wing between her front hooves.
“You’re so hot-headed… you need a BREAK!”
Topsy closed her jaws on the wing’s leading edge and then bit down until she felt a crack.
Dash shrieked herself awake, digging at the ground with her hooves and gasping for breath as pain forced the air from her lungs.
Topsy spat out a puff of fuzzy blue down. She started giggling. “Hee hee hee! Get it? A BREAK?” She laughed harder, the sound of her mad cackling rising up over the hiss of the rain and Dash’s tortured sobbing.
“That’s not funny.”
All of the assembled Ponies save for Dash turned to face where the voice had come from: the corner where Pinkie Pie’s wagon sat.
The wagon was empty.
“Wh-Whuh…?” Topsy raised an eyebrow, and then shivered as a pink shadow rose up behind her.
Pinkie stared Topsy Turvy down like a rose-hued executioner. Her eyes blazed like blue flames between the poker-straight strands of her mane.
“Being mean to Ponies… hurting them… KILLING them…” Pinkie narrowed her eyes. “That’s. Not. Funny!”
Topsy gulped, but held her ground. “H-Hay, speak for yourself, nag! I think it’s buckin’ HILARIOU–”
A lightning-fast streak of pink pushed Topsy back into the front door of the Joke Shop, smashing the thin wood like spun glass.
Pinkie’s furious voice echoed from inside the shop:
“YOU DON’T LAUGH WHEN PONIES GET HURT!
Bangs and crashes shook the shop’s foundations.
“YOU LAUGH WHEN EVERYPONY’S HAVING A GOOD TIME!”
The sounds of a circular saw, a jar of marbles spilling, a slide-whistle and a panicking chicken rang out. Beneath the din, Topsy screamed and gurgled.
“YOU LAUGH WHEN THINGS TURN OUT OKAY!”
A pneumatic ratchet’s staccato rattle mixed with a cat’s yowl and the warbling of party horns. Topsy wailed, and then choked out: “Oh, n-no, not… NO-O-O-O!”
“YOU LAUGH! TO MAKE THE BAD THINGS! GO AWAY!”
The sounds of a loud bang, a breaking spring, a cuckoo-clock chime, and Topsy’s shrieking propelled a burst of confetti out of the front door.
By then, even Rainbow Dash had turned her tear-blurred gaze to the Joke Shop.
Pinkie Pie trotted back into view, dragging Topsy Turvy by the end of a lengthy spring-snake coil tied around Topsy’s hooves and gripped in Pinkie’s jaws.
Topsy groaned, her bruised, heavy-lidded eyes straining to point in the same direction. She spat out a loose tooth.
Pinkie let go of the spring-snake. “She isn’t f-funny,” she said softly.
Applejack and Rarity hastily nodded in agreement. Their pupils were tiny pinpricks in the wide white seas of their eyes.
Rainbow Dash let herself fall back down, her broken wing held high and immobile. She whimpered softly.
Of all of them, Twilight Sparkle was the only Pony not staring at Pinkie and Topsy.
Instead, she was staring at the yellow Pegasus trotting down the street toward them.
• • • • • • •
Fluttershy’s pale yellow hide was marked with angular friction burns from her bindings, and her mouth was still stained crimson. Her tangled pink mane half-hid a stare fit to make a Dragon cringe.
She headed toward Twilight Sparkle with an even, heavy-hoofed gait.
Her other friends rushed at various speeds to meet her – crying and laughing and shouting all at once – but she kept her gaze fixed on the Unicorn beyond them. The group’s enthusiasm shriveled.
“F-Fluttershy…?” Pinkie Pie moved aside an unruly lock of her freshly-refrizzed mane as she stared at the approaching Pegasus.
“Oh, my,” said Rarity softly, tears silently spilling down her cheeks as her smile of relief battled with her anguished wince.
Applejack swayed unsteadily and remained silent, too overcome to speak.
Rainbow Dash’s legs started shaking from the effort of staying upright. “She s-said you were…!”
Fluttershy trotted past them all.
Like her friends, Twilight Sparkle wore an expression of elation that soon gave way to dismay as the Pegasus slowed to a halt before her.
“Fluttershy…” she squeaked, exhaustion draining the volume from her voice, “I’m so sorry!”
Fluttershy narrowed her eyes.
“Look what you did,” she said flatly. “Look. What. You. Did!”
She lunged forward, skidding to a halt behind Twilight and reaching down to seize her in an iron-hard grip; a grip that could pull a grizzly bear’s spine into alignment.
Twilight squirmed in Fluttershy’s grasp. “P-Please,” she whispered “I never meant–”
Fluttershy cut her off:
“Ohhh, yes. You thought you were helping. You thought you knew what to do, didn’t you? You thought you’d make it all okay again. Well, you didn’t. And it wasn’t you who paid for it, was it?” Her grip tightened. “WAS IT?”
“N-No.” The word was almost noiseless, but it carried with it the last of Twilight’s endurance. There had been too many shocks; too much pain and stress and too many sleepless nights. She went limp in Fluttershy’s hold, afraid of what was coming but unable to bring herself to resist.
Spike staggered toward Twilight and Fluttershy, raising his good arm to reach out to them.
On the far side of the pair, Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash crept closer to them as well.
“DON’T!” shouted Fluttershy as loudly and suddenly as a thunderclap. “Don’t you DARE try to tell me she hasn’t earned this! Don’t you DARE try to tell me she doesn’t DESERVE this!”
Fluttershy’s blazing cyan gaze passed over each of the objectors, and the weight of it seemed to silence and repel them.
“Do it…” wheezed Topsy from her vantage point on the rain-soaked ground a few yards away. “Do it, you bucking Buzzard. She’ll let you. Do it. DO IT!”
Fluttershy adjusted her hold on Twilight, her limbs snaking tighter still around the Unicorn’s forelegs and neck.
“Sometimes, Twilight Sparkle,” she whispered in Twilight’s ear, “sometimes, the kind thing to do can be the hardest thing to do...”
Twilight swallowed and then closed her eyes. She nodded as much as Fluttershy’s grip would allow.
Applejack and Rainbow Dash looked on in grim, pained silence. Rarity and Pinkie Pie turned away, afraid to watch.
Fluttershy took a slow, deep breath, adjusted her hind legs’ stance, and…
“I forgive you.”
Twilight’s eyes snapped open. “Wh-What…?”
Fluttershy’s deathgrip melted into an equally-tight embrace.
“I f-forgive you. I understand. You were s-so hurt and so tired, and you thought it w-was my fault. You weren’t mad… you just wanted it to be over. For it to end. You never… y-you…” Her voice cracked; she shuddered. “I just wanted to help you, M-Mommy!” She buried her head in Twilight’s shoulder and bawled.
Twilight turned around and hugged Fluttershy back, the pain of the past few days leaving her in her tears and grateful sobs. As the two Ponies held each other, Twilight’s injuries began to mend.
Spike and the remaining Elements of Harmony came forward and joined in the hug. The last vestiges of grey in their hides boiled away in the warmth of their embrace and the sincerity of their words.
In front of the Joke Shop, Topsy Turvy laughed in mockery.
“That’s it?” she scoffed. “You think that’s it? You think you can have a stupid lil’ love-in and Discord won’t get out?” She guffawed. “It’s happening already, idiots! Take a look around!” Topsy pointed a loose-shoed hoof down the street.
Less than half a block away, three formally-dressed little fillies were still fighting.
The three young Ponies pummeled and kicked and shoved and shouted, the whirling brawl slowly taking them down the street.
Topsy giggled. “Think you can get the whole TOWN to make nice before He finishes getting loose? Huh? DO YA?” She laughed until the motion made her wince in pain and hold her bruised sides.
Rainbow Dash frowned. She backed out of the hug and sat down, taking care not to move her wing. “She’s right. Everypony’s acting really messed up already. How do we talk to them all? I can’t even–” She tried to flex her wings by reflex, and cut herself off with a pained moan.
Twilight furrowed her brows; fatigue still made it so hard to think clearly. “I don’t know! M-Maybe an emotion spell like Cadance’s? Something to remind everypony how much they care?” She sagged. “But I don’t think I’m up to affecting all of Ponyville…” Twilight gingerly touched her still-hairline-cracked horn with a hoof.
“Well,” said Rarity, “we have to do something!”
She galloped over to the three fillies. “Sweetie Belle!” she shouted at the brawling trio. “You and your friends stop that this INSTANT! I just conjured those dresses today, and you’re making a mess of them!”
The Crusaders ignored her.
“Conjured?” Twilight frowned in confusion. “You didn’t sew them?”
Rarity looked up from surveying the ongoing brawl and turned to face Twilight. “W-Well, not as such, no. You see, I was quite upset with how you kept nitpicking the dress I made you, but then somepony else wanted a copy, and then another, and…” She gestured at the feuding fillies.
Twilight’s eyes widened. “Rarity!” she shouted, “That’s it!”
Rarity stared. “Beg pardon?”
Twilight shakily stood up. “That’s it! We ALREADY have emotion magic all over town – YOURS! You’ve been triggering the Pathetic Fallacy!”
Rarity stared blankly; the others did likewise.
Twilight sighed in frustration. “You know, the Pathetic Fallacy! When Unicorns let stress and upset push their feelings into their magic?”
Rarity cleared her throat. “Ah. Yes. Of course.”
Twilight trotted closer to her fellow Unicorn. “The townsponies aren’t falling to Chaos… they’re feeling as upset and unappreciated as you were when you conjured all those dresses! We just have to undo the spell!” Twilight paused, and then looked down sheepishly. “Oh, but sorry, Rarity – the magic will destroy the dresses.”
Rarity raised an eyebrow and then deadpanned: “I am willing to make that sacrifice.”
The two Unicorns faced each other and ignited their horns, bending their heads down to bring the two glows into contact. A wave of purplish-blue energy spread out from them, expanding faster and faster as it moved.
• • • • • • •
As the wave struck the Cutie Mark Crusaders, a sudden bright flash from the middle of the brawl threw Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo back; as they got to their hooves, their disheveled dresses sparked, rippled and then burst, the conjured fabric evaporating into motes of bluish magic and raining down onto them.
The trio staggered and shook their heads.
“I… I’m never gonna fly!” whimpered Apple Bloom scratchily. “You must think I’m so pathetic!”
“I keep messing everything up!” squeaked Scootaloo. “Rarity makes it look so easy to be generous!”
“You two are fightin’ all the time, an’ I’m stuck in the middle!” drawled Sweetie Belle. “I feel like I’m jus’ gonna split in half!”
The swarm of magical motes flickered brighter for a moment, then began to fade.
“I’m so fat and useless!” lamented Sweetie Belle. “I don’t DESERVE great friends like you!”
“I feel so darn helpless!” added Scootaloo. “Ya both mean so much ta me, an’ I can’t do anythin’ ta help!”
“I’m so dumb! I wish I could make us happy again!” said Apple Bloom sadly. “You’re the best friends I’ve ever had!”
As the last of the glowing motes disappeared, the three fillies’ faces twisted in confusion, which then gave way to tearful shock, and then bittersweet smiles. They jumped forward and all but tackled each other, their words of sympathy and regret and apology all jumbling together.
• • • • • • •
The counterspell struck Berry Punch and Cheerilee as they fought a tug-o-war over a heavy jug of cider. Their dresses ignited harmlessly and exploded into a shower of sorcerous twinkles.
“Every year, another class full of w-wonderful, bright little colts and fillies,” said Berry Punch, her voice full of borrowed regret, “and never one of my own! Why? It’s not fair! I have so much love to give…”
“One r-roll in the hay, and I’m s’posed to magically know what I’m doing?” slurred Cheerilee. “I love my little girl so much… but I’m so, so s-scared o’ messing everything up! I can’t even get through the day w-without… without…”
As the spell faded, the two mares stared into each other’s eyes and then pulled each other into a hug.
• • • • • • •
The Doctor caught up with Ditzy Doo near the Library.
“Flow!” shouted Ditzy, her upset still mangling her diction. “Through wink time plum!”
Before the Doctor could respond, the magical wave passed through them.
Ditzy’s dress sublimated into enchanted sparks that doused them both.
Ditzy staggered under the weight of the emotional link. “S-So many,” she whispered, her voice unnaturally low and clear. “I’ve lost so many. Too many to count. They trusted me, and I failed them. I can’t bear to let it happen again!”
“All I know is how to hurt Ponies,” said the Doctor. He sat and pressed a front hoof to the imagined scar on his forehead. “Either I’m dumb, or I’m dangerous. No wonder you don’t want me.”
The pair turned to face each other, and in perfect unison, said:
“I wish I was good enough for you.”
They both widened their eyes, fought back a surge of feeling too deep to express, and then embraced as they surrendered to it.
• • • • • • •
Topsy Turvy’s mocking grin melted into a furious scowl as forgiveness and friendship erupted throughout Ponyville.
“No… NO!” She tore free of the spring-snake, stumbled to her hooves and then charged Twilight Sparkle.
Twilight’s horn flared, and Topsy rose into the air surrounded by a purple-red aura.
“You made me do some terrible things, Topsy Turvy,” said Twilight. “You almost killed me, and you nearly cost me what I cherish most – my friends.”
She paused to look to each of her companions.
“I’m not sorry, FREAK!” said Topsy, her legs galloping fruitlessly. “I’d do it again!”
“And we’d beat you again!” shouted Twilight. “I’m not perfect, and I know it. I’m anxious and obsessive and awkward…” She paused to compose herself. “But this isn’t just about me. It’s about us. ALL of us. Not just my amazing friends, but every Pony who cares about doing right. You may WANT us to be cruel and hateful and selfish, Topsy… but we aren’t. And I’ll prove it.”
Twilight turned to address her friends.
“Ever since Celestia took me back to Canterlot during that argument last year, I’ve been scared to admit something to you all. I was afraid of what you’d think of me. But I trust you, and I’m not going to hide anymore.” She took a slow, deep breath.
“Go on!” jeered Topsy. “Tell your little friends what a MONSTER you are!”
Twilight ignored her as she continued. “The Element of Magic changed me. As long as it’s with me… I’ll live forever.”
A long and heavy silence hung in the air. Finally, Pinkie Pie was the first to speak:
“That’s it?” She tilted her head in confusion. “But that’s great! You’ll get to go to SO MANY parties!”
Rarity smiled. “Think of the fashions you’ll see!”
“You can help me through my awkward teen decades after all!” said Spike.
Applejack nodded. “Ya can tell Apple Bloom’s great-grandfoals all about the fun stuff we’ve done!”
Rainbow Dash chuckled, then winced as the motion shifted her wing. “And tell every new team of Wonderbolts about all of my racing records!”
Fluttershy hung her head, her unkempt mane hiding her face. “Y-You won’t forget about us when we’re gone, w-will you?”
Twilight smiled a teary smile. “Oh, never! Not ever! Not even if I live a thousand years!” She raced forward to hug Fluttershy.
Topsy gagged. “SPARE me.”
Twilight scowled. She released Fluttershy and stomped over to the hovering Earth Pony.
“You know what, Topsy?” she said. “Nearly half of Ponyville is Unicorns and Pegasi. And we all live together happily. If you hate us so much, maybe we aren’t the problem. Maybe it’s YOU. Maybe you need to let go of all this… this poison inside you. Did you ever think of that?”
“BUCK YOU, SCREWHEAD!”
Twilight sighed. “Okay, then. I tried.” Her horn flared brighter.
“Twilight!” said Rarity. “You aren’t going to…!”
Twilight shook her head. “No. I’m not.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow. “So, uh, whut…?”
Twilight turned back to Topsy. “Just a little spell my brother and my new sister-in-law cooked up!”
Twilight’s horn blazed. Her eyes glowed white.
A sphere of reddish magic rose up from the ground beneath Topsy.
“I’ll KILL you!” she bellowed. “This isn’t over, Twilight! I’ll kill you DE-E-A-A-AD!” The sphere rocketed outward, propelling Topsy up and into the horizon in the blink of an eye. Her vengeful wail shrank into the distance.
The six Ponies and one Dragon watched the sky for a long, silent moment, and then turned their eyes to each other.
• • • • • • •
Dear Princess Celestia,
This week, somepony made me confront the worst of my fears and doubts. She tortured me within an inch of my life, and I came closer than I ever have to giving up –
No, that’s not true.
Honestly… I DID give up. I felt lost and alone and helpless, and I was so scared of failing my friends that I pushed them away without realizing it.
When Discord was free, he turned them all against me. Maybe I never forgot that feeling of having nopony on my side. Maybe I was scared of giving them the chance to end up that way again.
And I gave up.
But then, when I was at my worst, when I truly expected to DIE, they came to my rescue.
Rainbow Dash teetered precariously in a sidelong stance on the wooden scooter, her one unbandaged wing propelling her in fits and starts.
“Rrgh… come on, you stupid thing! MOVE!”
She rolled forward smoothly for a few yards… and then tumbled to the ground for the eighth time as her front wheel struck a half-buried pebble.
She growled in frustration and stomped a front hoof.
An orange blur streaked past, curved, and then returned to stop before her.
“…Hay,” said Scootaloo nonchalantly, hopping off of her scooter.
Rainbow Dash dusted herself off. “Uh, hay.” She avoided meeting the little Pegasus’s gaze.
“Say…” said Scootaloo, “you look a little banged up. Did you get in a fight?”
Dash chuckled dryly. “Maybe.”
Scootaloo scuffed the ground with a hoof. “There was some pretty big stuff going on lately, huh?”
“Kinda, yeah.” Dash adjusted her new helmet. “Guess you sorta got stampeded by it all, huh?” She frowned apologetically.
Scootaloo’s eyes turned up to peer at the formerly-dyed, freshly-scrubbed forelock peeking out from under her helmet. “Kinda, yeah.”
Dash turned her gaze downward. “…Sorry.”
A long silence passed between the Pegasi.
“So…” Scootaloo climbed back onto her scooter. “… do you want a few pointers, or what?”
Rainbow Dash’s expression brightened. She grinned and nodded vigorously.
I gave them every reason to leave me to my fate, but they stood by me anyway. Even after dozens of Friendship Reports to You, they keep surprising me. And teaching me. I can’t imagine better friends.
Rarity trotted through the streets of Ponyville, her overladen saddlebags jingling with every hoofstep. Nearly every citizen she passed by received a small cloth bag of coins.
Several hundred bits later, she came to Rich’s Barnyard Bargains. Filthy Rich was out front adjusting some signage.
Rarity magicked up a coin-bag and gently tapped him on the shoulder with it.
“Hmm? Oh! Hello, there!” he said. He eyed the coin-bag. “You’re really doing it, eh? Giving out full refunds?”
“Proper dresses do NOT explode,” she said. “And besides, like I said before – they didn’t cost anything to make, anyway.”
Rich picked up the money-pouch with his mouth and hefted it; he set it back down. “I didn't even pay you for Diamond's dress. Why give me a refund?”
Rarity smiled. “Consider it… salary. A payment for some highly valuable advice.”
Rich smiled back.
Above them, a pair of newly-drafted weatherworkers kicked at the stubborn few rain-clouds left in the sky.
One ice-blue-maned lilac Pegasus mare turned to her similarly-coloured co-worker and sighed in frustration. "Sheesh! This is, like, hard!"
When it was all happening, there were times when I wanted to beg You for help. There were times when I wished You would come and save me from it all. But now, in hindsight, I can see why You didn’t.
When Discord broke free, You told us that the Elements belong to us now. When Equestria was in danger You were right there at our side, but You can’t just swoop in and fight all of our battles for us. If You did, we’d never learn to stand up for ourselves.
Davenport adjusted his navy-blue waistcoat and then trotted into the back room of Quills and Sofas.
A group of Ponies sat in a semicircle in the beige-painted room.
Berry Punch sat fidgeting nervously next to Cheerilee, who held one of her hooves between her own.
Thunderlane sat to their right. The dark circles under his eyes were somewhat smaller now.
Pinkie Pie sat next to Thunderlane, the platter of baked goods she’d brought with her placed temptingly in front of her.
The dun-coloured Earth Pony stallion in the doorway headed over to a well-cushioned settee and sat down. Before he could speak, however, a late arrival trotted in.
“U-Um, is th-this the… the group f-for…” Fluttershy trailed off into inaudibility under the weight of five Ponies’ gazes. She cringed.
Pinkie Pie nodded, and patted the empty cushion next to her.
As hesitantly as a mouse leaving its burrow, Fluttershy crept into the room and sat down next to her Earth Pony friend.
“I… I’m not…” she muttered. She started shaking.
“These meetings are completely voluntary,” said Davenport. “That door doesn’t close. If you don’t feel comfortable – if you don’t feel safe – you can leave whenever you like, no questions asked. That goes for all of you.”
Fluttershy looked at Davenport, at Pinkie, and at the others.
“M-Maybe I’ll just stay a little while,” she said.
Pinkie smiled and nuzzled against Fluttershy reassuringly.
Davenport nodded, and prepared a quill and notepad. “Now… who’d like to go first?”
And my friends stood up for me. More than I deserved. No matter what may happen, no matter what we face from here on, I’m not alone. I don’t ever want to forget that again.
Applejack kicked the bounty from a last tree in the orchard-row, and then paused to wipe her brow with a foreleg. She turned to survey the fruits of her labours: several dozen full tubs of apples.
Big Macintosh trotted over, pulling a wagon similarly-laden with fresh harvest.
He nodded at Applejack.
She nodded back.
“You awright?” he asked.
Applejack took a deep, sighing breath, and turned her gaze to the neighbouring Carrot Clan land.
“Eenope,” she said, “but I’m gettin’ there.”
This is where I would usually tell You what I’ve learned about friendship, but I suppose the best way I can put it is the way I did above: I learned to never forget that I have friends. We may have our differences, but no matter how dark things become, no matter what happens to us, nopony – nothing – can break the special bond we share.
Your faithful student,
Twilight set down the magicked quill, looked out at the view of Ponyville from the Library’s balcony and sighed contentedly.
Spike hopped out of his basket nearby and approached her. He now sported an ensorcelled cast and sling, as well as a pair of empty-lensed, sticky-tape-covered sunglasses.
“I coulda done that for you, you know,” he said. “I’m getting pretty good at writing south-claw!” He held up a parchment covered in indecipherable blotches.
“That’s okay, Spike,” Twilight replied. You just focus on getting better for now. Besides – I still need my assistant to help me send it!” She rolled up the letter and magicked it over to the little Dragon.
He snatched it out of the air, took a deep breath, and then sent it on its way in a burst of green Dragonfire.
Spike ambled over and sat down next to Twilight. After a moment, he spoke:
“So… where did you send that Pony to, anyway?”
Twilight looked skyward. “I really don’t know. Far away. If she ever finds her way back, I hope she learns some tolerance on the trip.”
Spike shifted his bound right arm. “You can say that again!”
• • • • • • •
Topsy Turvy staggered through the broken, barren, red-skied landscape in a haze of thirst, fatigue, and simmering rage.
“Choke you with your stripey mane,” she muttered. “Put your eyes out with your own horn!”
Just then, a long, snaking shadow passed over; her heart leaped into her throat. Shakily, she turned around and looked up.
There He was. Sneering and slithering in all His serpentine supremacy, staring smugly and smiling.
Topsy fell to her knees. “I… I knew You’d get out! I KNEW it!”
“Yes… it was touch-and-go for a while there, but I managed to sque-e-e-e-e-eeze my way free!”
Topsy crawled forward and nuzzled his reptilian claw with her cheek. “We’ll show her, now! We’ll show Twilight Sparkle!” She cackled a mad cackle.
“Oh, you bet your beanie we will!” Her lord and master waved a leonine paw, and the blasted desert became a checker-patterned carnival. He picked her up and swung her around, dancing for joy.
Topsy giggled like a school-foal.
Her savior held her up to an oozing butterscotch fountain; she gurgled hungrily as she gulped down the sweet, sticky goo.
Queen Chrysalis smiled as the vicious little Earth Pony swallowed down mouthful after mouthful of the swollen nectar-drone’s secretions. It wouldn’t do to let her starve before she was completely drained.
The Queen of the Changelings winced; the Pony’s love was sour, weak, unpalatable fare compared to the ambrosia she’d tasted so recently, but for now, it was enough to keep her alive.
“We’ll show her, my little Screwball,” she repeated in Discord’s voice, “We’ll show them all!”