Cleave

by BlazzingInferno

First published

Lyra and Bon Bon aren’t best friends, or even real ponies. They’re two thirds of a spell gone horribly wrong.

Candy Heart knew she wasn’t a normal pony. Between her unmatched intellect and unshakable ambition, she knew she was destined for greatness. She was destined to be the best, and once the incantation was complete she truly would be: everything holding her back, from loneliness to regret to remorse, would be gone. She’d be free, and she’d be unstoppable.

Except that isn’t what happened.

Instead, two more ponies came into being. This is their story.


Takes place prior to Season One


Featured on Equestria Daily
Edited by Dubs Rewatcher
Cover art designed NovelIdea

“… It's just an amazing story, however you slice it, and I hope everyone will take a moment to go read it right the heck now. Highly Recommended: Top Fifteen” — PresentPerfect

In Threes

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Lyra would always remember being born: gravity pinning her to the hard kitchen floor, acrid smells from spent spell ingredients burning her eyes, and chilly midnight air sapping heat away from her damp coat. Bon Bon lay on the opposite side of the room, splayed on the floor like a rag doll and staring at Lyra with the same wonder and fear that she herself felt overcome with.

Most of all, she’d remember Candy Heart’s screaming. Her hooded form had crashed around the room, kicking over the steaming cauldron in the middle of the floor, tearing down the crystal charms suspended from the ceiling, and running her hooves across the suddenly bare spot on her forehead.

For nearly ten seconds Lyra remembered the full incantation, the unholy mixture of Zebra potion craft and unicorn spell wizardry that was responsible for her life, for Bon Bon’s, and for Candy Heart’s missing horn. And then she fell asleep for the first time.

---

Lyra woke in the late morning. A strong breeze was whipping through the streets outside, rhythmically opening and slamming the unbolted side door. Candy Heart probably broke the hinge when she ran off into the night. At least, that’s where Lyra assumed she’d gone. At the moment she didn’t care.

She rolled onto her back and gave the kitchen a thorough examination. Everything looked so funny from down here with her mane against the floor. The massive twelve-burner stove sitting against the opposite wall almost looked like one of those magic chariots that pegasi sometimes pulled through the skies. She held up her hooves and squinted until the illusion was complete. She was floating up in the sky, miles above the ceiling-turned-ground, and the boring old stove was a magnificent metal chariot waiting to take her on a wild adventure. She laughed at the thought and turned her attention to the giant metal door directly behind her.

It wasn’t just a walk-in freezer, not for her. Just behind that door was a magical world where ponies did nothing but eat ice cream and dance. Or something like that. Lyra rolled onto her stomach and felt the drabness of the kitchen, its utter familiarity, tear at her mind. She couldn’t just sit here all day, not when she had a whole house to explore.

She stood, stretched her legs, and took one last moment to listen. The kitchen was deathly silent, but she could hear a faint scrubbing sound coming from the storefront. Maybe that other new pony she’d seen last night, the one with the light tan coat, was cleaning up. Maybe that’s why the kitchen floor wasn’t a mess like it’d been last night. That was nice of her.

The front of the shop was boring, though. There was nothing out there except dusty countertops, dustier floors, and filthy display cases. Maybe they wouldn’t stay filthy, assuming that other new pony really was cleaning or something. Just so long as Lyra didn’t have to do it.

Lyra headed through the other door instead, the one that led to the house’s front room. She started her examination with the line of pictures perched over the fireplace. In the first one she saw good ol’ Mom and Dad on either side of a barely-walking Candy Heart, still young and innocent. She moved down the line of pictures, watching time take its course. Each picture immortalized a moment on that little filly’s journey to adulthood: playing with blocks here, baking cookies with Mom there, learning to count with Dad, and so on. The only constants were her steady march towards maturity and her parents’ decline into old age. They were all wrinkles by the time she was a teenager, but still looked so proud.

By the next to last picture, she was fully grown and endowed with an X-shaped cutie mark formed by two candy canes. Her expression had changed, too. The youthful enthusiasm from the earlier photos, the can-do-anything attitude that’d earned her A’s in school and the attention of prestigious universities, had morphed into something else. What was it, exactly?

Lyra checked her own reflection in frame’s glass covering. Try as she might, she couldn’t match Candy Heart’s eerie smile; she just couldn’t get the right mix of almost-malice and definite-arrogance. Instead, she crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. “Nyaah!”

Her own voice made her giggle. She’d never heard it before. It wasn’t as harsh as Candy Heart’s. She was a much nicer color, too: a light greenish blue (or was that bluish green?) and a mane with white highlights. That was so much nicer than mean old Candy Heart’s dark green coat and stark-white mane.

Mom and Dad weren’t even in the last picture. Was that before the funerals, or after? Lyra didn’t remember. Candy Heart was just standing there in front of the then-bustling candy shop, giving the camera a confident smile. This was the photo for the paper, wasn’t it? For that article about the much-beloved shop owners passing on the business to their only daughter. Lyra could guess Candy Heart’s thoughts through the photo, even if her facial expression didn’t match; she wasn’t happy about owning the shop, and never had been. Why bother keeping up the family business when she could board up the windows and work on her own freaky ideas? What ideas were they again? Candy Heart could keep all the scary memories for all Lyra cared.

Lyra’s own reflection caught her attention again. Her gaze drifted upward to the horn sticking out of her unkempt mane. “I got to keep it! I got the horn! I got the horn!”

She pranced around the room and dove into the nearest armchair. The armchair rocked back on two legs, prompting her to steady it with her magic. Her magic. It was her magic now. No more weird stuff from those ancient, falling-apart spell books. Now it was nothing but lounging around while she let her horn do all the tough stuff.

She pointed her foreleg at the kitchen. “Now go make me an ice cream sundae, magic horn!”

Her horn lit up, but that was all. The distant freezer door handle didn’t even rattle. Instead, sweat broke out on Lyra’s brow. Magic was harder than she’d expected, and a lot more tiring. How had Candy Heart gotten so good at it?

She scowled at the freezer. Ice cream could wait. She still had most of a house left to explore.

Lyra moved from room to room, interspersing moments of contemplation with general silliness. All of Candy Heart’s scary spell and potion stuff was tucked away in her room, thankfully. With the door shut, it’s like it wasn’t even there. Lyra didn’t need it, and if she couldn’t see it she didn’t need to worry about it. Besides, there were two perfectly usable guest bedrooms down the hall, complete with beds, blankets, and no Candy Heart memories. That weird pony never had guests, much less friends, anyway.

Far too quickly, Lyra found herself running out of house. She’d made faces in every shiny surface, decided on a new color for each wall (rainbow), and taken more than enough slides down the banister. She sat on the upper landing, watching bright afternoon sunlight make its slow procession across the floorboards. Her boredom was starting to get serious now, like an itch inside her head. Could she use her unicorn magic to scratch her own brain? That sounded too scary.

She looked up at the skylight and the sun perfectly framed within it. Looking directly at the sun hurt her eyes. Maybe if she squinted just right it wouldn’t, or maybe it’d hurt even more. She didn’t want her eyes to get burned out; being blind would be really sad and boring. She opted to check out the ceiling instead, and soon found something even Candy Heart had forgotten about. “The attic!”

At last she’d found something her magic was good for: grabbing the just-out-of-reach pull cord on the attic’s trap door. The door in the ceiling swung open, and a set of steps unfolded in front of her. Lyra took a deep breath of the musty air as she stared into the darkness above. What was up there? If Candy Heart didn’t even remember, then there couldn’t be any of her scary magic stuff, right? At least finding out would stave off boredom for a few minutes.

She took the steps one at a time, noting how some of them creaked noisily under her weight while others remained silent. The shapes of long-forgotten family heirlooms and childhood relics were barely visible in the attic’s dim light. Some ponies might’ve called the place spooky, but then again most ponies didn’t have Candy Heart’s memories in their heads. All of those cardboard boxes didn’t look like much fun, but at this point Lyra was desperate. Even leafing through an old photo album sounded better than trying to stare at the sun.

She left the stairs and paced through the attic. Boxes surrounded her on all sides, along with what looked like all the dust in the world. Every time she set down her hoof, a miniature explosion of grey nearly overtook her foreleg. Would stirring up enough dust to make her sneeze be fun? Definitely, but that could wait. She needed to savor this last room, this last bastion of newness. After this, she’d be stuck trying to entertain herself with all the stuff she’d found already or, worse still, help that other new pony clean.

A hefty wooden case became her first target. She leaned down, blew the dust off, and watched with delight as it shrouded another box in an indoor fog bank. Without its dusty blanket, the case looked downright fancy. Time couldn’t erase the lacquered wood, shiny metal hinges, or the carved insignia over the clasp. The lettering was almost too curvy and decorative to read. “Heart… Strings. Heart Strings.”

The name stirred something in her, something old. Lyra undid the clasp and lifted the heavy lid. She’d knocked over a vase on one of her earlier banister rides and hadn’t batted an eye when it shattered on the floor. Somehow this felt different. Was it the attic, the wooden case, or something within herself? She’d been breathing for less than twenty four hours, and yet her first wild imaginings in the kitchen seemed like a lifetime ago.

When the lyre caught the attic’s meagre light, Lyra started to cry. Childhood memories came flooding back, the kind that Candy Heart refused to revisit. She remembered the front room, decked out in balloons and streamers, and containing every filly in her class. She remembered winning Pin the Tail on the Pony, eating two slices of Peppermint Chocolate cake, and opening present after present after present. The dolls were nice, and so were the puzzle and toy train. The contents of the fancy wooden case at the bottom of the pile, the gift from Mom and Dad, was beyond imagining. “This was great grandma’s. Mom and Dad gave it as a birthday present… something challenging and different for their super-smart filly… something to help her find her special talent.”

Lyra’s hoof caressed the burnished metal and, after a moment’s hesitation, gently plucked the strings. The twanging notes were a revelation, a moment of enlightenment second only to being born. She remembered the whole story now. She remembered Candy Heart keeping the lyre on her nightstand so it’d never be out of sight. She remembered whole Saturdays spent practicing until her hooves chipped and her eyes couldn’t focus on the songbook. She remembered Dad paying the music tutor for the advanced lessons since she already knew the basics. Most of all, she remembered crying as she read the rejection letter from the Canterlot Academy of Music. She hadn’t gotten the scholarship, so she wasn’t going at all.

At least the dark days that followed earned Candy Heart her cutie mark. She realized she hadn’t loved the lyre, not really. What she actually loved was being the best, and if the lyre couldn’t give her that, then back in its case it would go. Everything that wouldn’t make her the best had to go, too; the lyre was just a big X on her list of possible life pursuits. And so she finally had her cutie mark: an X formed by candy canes to match her namesake and to sum up her conviction: she would be the absolute best at something, no matter what.

Except that was Candy Heart’s story. The mare currently plucking out chords was only a small part of her: the creative, free-spirited part. A tear disappeared in the dust covering the floor as Lyra hummed a nursery rhyme. Hours flew by as she extracted melodies first with her hoof and then with her magic. With the greatest reverence, she removed the instrument from its case and pressed it to her chest. “But I do love you, lyre, I really do… I’m calling myself Lyra! Lyra Heartstrings!”

A warmth rushed through her, all the way from her horn to her tail. All of her past antics, and her race against boredom, faded away in a glowing sense of completeness that lingered on her flanks. She’d found her passion, her talent, her purpose. She was here to inspire, to dream, and to create. Based on her new cutie mark, she planned on starting out with music.

---

Bon Bon’s eyes flew open. She studied the dim light illuminating the kitchen and how the sun was just barely peeking over the rooftops visible through the window. Was it five in the morning? Six? Seven? Candy Heart’s rampage last night included smashing the clock that normally sat on the countertop.

She pushed herself off the floor with her front hooves. “Need a new clock… Have to have a clock in the kitch—ugh!”

Last night’s nightmare, which began with her being called into existence and ended with Candy Heart storming through the side door in a rage, also included the kitchen being destroyed. The awful black cauldron where Candy Heart had mixed those foul-smelling ingredients was tipped over, and the green slop she’d brewed had spread out in a massive puddle. The other spell ingredients were here too: burnt phoenix feathers from the Everfree forest, dark crystals from the frozen north, exotic plants from the Trottingham mountains, and, assuming Bon Bon remembered the incantation correctly, a dragon’s claw procured at midnight.

All of it was charred black, and all of it had to go. Bon Bon ran to the broom closet in search of a mop, bucket, and a bottle of industrial strength disinfectant.

Bon Bon didn’t notice the other pony until she’d finished mopping. She was a ghastly shade of aquamarine, not too far removed from the color of the horrible stuff Bon Bon had just finished pouring down the drain. She leaned down and gave her a sniff. The pony didn’t smell bad, at least. Hopefully she was clean, and hopefully she’d wake up soon and be on her way.

The front of the shop came next. Nopony had been in here, to sell candy or to buy it, for years. What little light the boarded-up front windows would admit painted a scene almost as horrific as the kitchen. Dust. There was dust everywhere. The floor looked like it hadn’t been cleaned, or even stepped on, since Candy Heart shut down the shop and threw out whatever candy was left over.

Not that the display cases were fit to hold food anymore, of course. Just looking at the grime on the glass twisted Bon Bon’s stomach in knots. Getting this place back in working order would take hours, four of them, by her estimation.

Three and a quarter hours later, Bon Bon was once again dumping a final bucketful of filth down the drain. She watched the grey water spiral around in the sink on its way out of sight. “So much better… That’s so much better!”

Never had the display cases shined like they did now, not even when they were new. There wasn’t a single particle of dust to be found. Better still, the kitchen was even cleaner. Every countertop gleamed, and every floor tile sparkled. Even the stove and freezer door looked brand new. Not even a surgeon needed a room cleaner than this.

She trotted to the center of the kitchen and took a deep, satisfied breath. She had every reason to be happy. Never had the shop been in better shape. Mom and Dad would’ve been so proud.

Bon Bon’s smile faltered. Every way she turned she saw cleanliness, but somehow that wasn’t enough. She sat on the floor and ran her hooves through her mane. Her stomach was twisting into knots again, and her heart was pounding. Hopefully it was just a little panic attack, nothing too serious. Hopefully she wouldn’t throw up; although if she did, at least she’d get to mop the floor again.

Where was that other new pony with aquamarine coat? Maybe she knew what was wrong, maybe she could fix all of this. A gleeful scream, followed by the crash of an antique vase on a hardwood floor, echoed through a doorway. Maybe that other pony was nothing but trouble. At least she’d left the kitchen. Bon Bon didn’t care if she burned the rest of the building to the ground, so long as the kitchen and shop stayed the way they were supposed to.

What did ‘supposed to’ look like? If she figured that out, then maybe her breathing would slow down, not to mention her heart rate. Cleaning everything had felt so good, though! What else was there? She closed her eyes and rocked back and forth. “Cleaned everything… everything… everything. What’s next?”

Her mind swam with old memories. Candy Heart’s life was such an incoherent mess, the kind that a broom or a mop just couldn’t fix. “Mommy, if I help you do the dishes, can I help you make the candy? That sounds lovely, dear! Let’s make candy… candy… candy…”

Bon Bon sprang off the floor and ran to the cabinet closest to the shop, the one where Candy Heart’s mom kept her books, books that adult Candy Heart had never seen fit to move. Her hooves trembled as candy recipes, some in books and others on hoofwritten index cards, tumbled out of the cabinet and onto the floor. She took a glance at each one and tossed it aside. She’d made them all before, or at least Candy Heart had. Wasn’t that one of her happiest childhood achievements, memorizing all the family recipes?

That meant Bon Bon knew them all too, or so she hoped. The panic monster still had its claws wrapped around her neck. If she didn’t do something fast, if she didn’t make the kitchen feel right—whatever that meant—then her heart would burst out of her chest. And who’d clean up a mess like that? Definitely not Miss Aquamarine over in the front room, based on her success at keeping the family heirlooms intact.

The freezer was remarkably well-stocked, considering how long it’d been since Candy Heart cooked anything. All the basic ingredients were still here, and thanks to the miracle of refrigeration they were probably all still good. Bon Bon wrapped her foreleg around a package of frozen butter and dragged it into the warmth of the kitchen. Why did the other new pony get the horn? Why was she stuck doing all this work with nothing but hooves? Why didn’t that awful spell just make a horn for each of them?

At some point she’d have to clean out the pantry, too. Candy Heart’s potion supplies were lined up on the shelf right next to the confectioner’s sugar and condensed milk. That was a problem for later. Right now, Bon Bon needed to cook.

She snatched a mixing bowl out of a cabinet, set it on a scale, and started pouring in the sugar. “Three dozen bonbons needs a pound of sugar, half a pound of chocolate, one and a half—”

The scale’s needle jumped past the one pound mark, and yet Bon Bon didn’t stop. The bonbon recipe floating in her mind was joined by two others that required common dry ingredients. “That’s three dozen bonbons, two dozen caramels, and a dozen truffles… I’d better get the double boilers ready!”

The stove was a monstrous beast. Twelve burners, and just as many dials, were ready and waiting to handle everything a professional confectioner could possibly need. The instant Bon Bon twisted the nearest knob, jets of blue flame erupted under the corresponding burner amid the quiet hiss of gas. She turned the knob clockwise until the flames roared with the fury of a bonfire, and then counterclockwise until they were tiny glowing pinpoints. The finest clocks in Equestria couldn’t match this level of precision. Before her sat a fine-tuned instrument just waiting for skilled hooves like hers to make it sing.

Hours flew by, as did recipes. Dirty mixing bowls, whisks, pots, and spatulas first filled the sink and then began overtaking the neighboring counter. Bon Bon didn’t care about the mess, not anymore. Dirtying everything in the kitchen just meant she’d get to clean it all again. Besides, all of her effort wasn’t in vain. Tray after tray of candies, from caramel to toffee to chocolate, lay cooling on countertops. At this rate she’d run out of room in the kitchen and have to start using the shop’s display cases for their intended purpose.

Bon Bon studied the thermometer sticking out of the double boiler on the corner burner. The red liquid inside the glass vial was drawing ever closer to perfection, to the precise temperature at which she could turn off the heat. Why had Candy Heart hated the family business so much? Bon Bon could, and had, spent hours sitting here churning out sweets. The whole process was so perfect: a set of instructions that, if followed to the letter, yielded success. That’s all Bon Bon needed to survive. She needed order. She needed instructions. She’d cleaned the kitchen so she could start cooking, and she’d started cooking so she could make the little balls of sugar crowding up the countertops.

At long last, the candy thermometer gave Bon Bon its silent signal: the chocolate was ready. She turned off the heat and reached for the double boiler with gloved hooves. Steam poured out of the water-filled lower section as she hefted the chocolate-filled upper pot away. “Time to pour some more bonb—”

Her back legs gave out just as the pot left the stove. Gravity pulled her down, but her eyes never left the pot clutched between her forelegs. Molten chocolate sloshed over the pot’s rim, thankfully to the side and not towards her face, and splashed across the floor just as she hit the ground. The pot clanged against the floor and rolled away, spilling the last of its contents on the tile that she’d spent hours scrubbing.

She didn’t move for over a minute, during which time her gaze remained fixed on the ruined chocolate. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Pots didn’t belong on the ground, and chocolate definitely didn’t. That insides-twisting sense of panic came back at full force, this time accompanied by the sudden realization that her whole body was shaking. She’d felt cool a moment ago, and yet now she realized her mane was soaked through with sweat.

What was wrong now? Why did she suddenly feel so weak? Her body, new as it was, couldn’t be that different from the oven. It was just a machine, and machines only needed so many things to keep functioning properly. “Need something… but what? Have to clean up that chocolate…”

She reached a trembling hoof towards the mess and clawed helplessly against the floor. “Have to… I have to…”

And then the smell hit her. This whole time she’d been acting like she was manufacturing lug nuts, as opposed to sweet-smelling, delicious candy.

“I’m… I’m hungry!”

Saying it made it real. It took the notion out of the nebulous realm of thought and made it into a self-given command: eat something.

In her current state, she stood no chance of getting the freezer door open. Instead, she crawled over to the counter with her nose in the air. Everything smelled amazing! If she’d been any less desperate she’d never have been able to choose. Instead she forced herself into a standing position and wrapped her lips around the first morsel she saw. It was chocolate, smooth, rich, and slightly warm. A sweet nougat center hit her a moment later, and she sighed in contentment. At last she understood. She understood it all.

Bon Bon knew Mom’s pained realization when Candy Heart first asked her why all the candies in the shop tasted the same, and she knew Candy Heart’s mounting annoyance at having to make more of the stuff every day.

Once the learning was over, once she memorized every recipe, candy preparation was just a chore. Sweets did nothing for Candy Heart; she was tone-deaf to the symphony playing out on Bon Bon’s tongue. Why would she ever want to spend her life making sugar confections that tasted like wax? It wasn’t her fault there wasn’t anypony else to take over the family business, no matter how much the shop would be missed. Other ponies were as dull and useless as candy itself.

Not even the counseling after school helped. Not like Mom and Dad hoped, anyway. Those degreed and accredited ‘doctors’ might’ve thought they’d gotten through to her, that they’d shown her the value of friendship and empathy. All they’d really done is explain how normal ponies worked, how Candy Heart needed to treat them in order to get her way. It turned out that ponies weren’t any different from candy recipes or sheet music; she just had to learn to read them, to manipulate them, and, in time, to rise beyond their reach.

Bon Bon grabbed an entire tray and brought it with her to the floor. She lay there, blissfully consuming her hard work. “Candy Heart was just crazy… Even Mom and Dad knew that by the end. B-but not me! I’m not crazy! I’m a good little filly! I’ll carry on the family business, and I’ll love every second of it! Every sale, every dirty pot, and every—” she scarfed down another candy “—and every bonbon, because that’s me!”

Three wrapped candies appeared on her flank as she ate more.

First Sales

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Bon Bon glared at Lyra, who’d been incessantly tapping out a tune with her hooves for minutes now, and tried to focus. On a cutting board in front of her sat the last apple in the entire house. She steadied her grip on the knife and sliced the apple precisely down the center.

Lyra grabbed her half before Bon Bon could put down the knife. “Yay! I’m so—” she somehow fit the entire half-apple in her mouth “—so so hungry!”

Bon Bon nibbled on her half, despite her stomach begging her to follow Lyra’s lead. There was no point in scarfing the whole thing down in one bite, not when there wasn’t anything else to eat besides candy. Filling up on sugar alone made her irritable, and made Lyra even more annoying than normal. “You’ve got the bit bag, right?”

Lyra gave a nod and held up a small cloth sack bulging with coins. “Mmm hmm! This is gonna be so much f—”

Bon Bon pounded her hoof on the counter. “I’m so sick of hearing you say that! This is serious, Lyra! We’re out of food, and since you can’t cook, clean, count to ten, or—”

“Hey!”

“Since you can’t be trusted with anything basic, you’re definitely not running the shop on its big opening day.” Bon Bon prodded the bag of bits. “Until the candy starts selling, this is all we have. This has to feed us, so make sure you buy everything on the shopping list. Apples, carrots, cheese, eggs, hay—”

Lyra lifted the bag out of reach with her magic and stuck out her tongue. “Settle down, Bons.”

“My name is Bon Bon!”

“Settle down, Bon Bons. I’ll buy us a bunch of food and stay out of your precious kitchen.”

“And the shop.”

Lyra rolled her eyes. “And the boring old shop.”

“It’s not boring! It’s clean, it’s organized, it’s—”

“Boring.”

Bon Bon gritted her teeth and pointed at the door. “Get out. Don’t come back without food.”

Lyra saluted her. “Aye aye, captain. Have fun selling insta-cavities.”

Bon Bon stomped out of the kitchen, pausing only so she’d catch the sound of the door latching behind Lyra. At long last she was alone, free to bask in cleanliness, sensibility, and the lingering desire to lock all the doors and windows while Lyra was out. If only that air-headed mare wasn’t family. They were each a portion of Candy Heart. Did that make them sisters? She shivered at the thought. Arch Nemeses sounded more appropriate.

She approached the shop’s front door and took a deep breath. In the past week she’d cleaned every surface, stocked every display case, and pried off every window-covering board. Lyra’s only contribution, to use the term loosely, was repainting the sign outside. At least she’d spelled ‘Candy’ right.

All it took was a quick hoof movement to flip the sign on the front window from Closed to Open. At long last the family legacy was being carried out: the shop was open, and soon the candy would sell.

Two hours later, Bon Bon began doubting the second part. Nopony had so much as glanced her way. She’d seen plenty of ponies pass by the sparklingly clean shop windows. Didn’t they see the Open sign? Didn’t they like candy? What was wrong with them?

Annoyances aside, there was a certain pleasantness to the solitude. Simple pleasures like counting the candy in the display cases or polishing the countertops just wouldn’t feel the same with some other pony present. Still, she needed some customers. Without customers she wouldn’t sell any candy, and without sales she couldn’t buy ingredients to make more candy. The thought of starving was a distant second on her list of worries.

At long last, a silhouette slowed to a stop outside the shop window. Bon Bon gasped and made a mad grab for her pencil. She stood behind the counter, perched over the massive journal she’d dug out of the attic, and waited. Why had somepony given Candy Heart a journal for a birthday present anyway? She didn’t forget important things, so why write them down? Writing down all her ‘feelings’ and ‘deepest thoughts’ like the present’s accompanying card had suggested was just an invitation for some lesser pony to read them. That’s what started that annoying episode with the school counselor.

Bon Bon was of a different opinion. Writing things down made them more permanent, more real. Writing freed her from having to commit the day’s minutia to memory, such as the precise time when her first customer would walk through the door. She’d record it all: what time they arrived, what candies they stared at the longest, which ones they actually bought, and what price they paid. The old journal would be her ledger, her log book of all things pertaining to the sale of candy.

The door swung open, and Bon Bon set to work. The tip of her pencil flew across the first line of the ledger. Three of the nine columns in the first row were filled already! She couldn’t wait to jot down a sale price.

“Ahem. Pardon?”

Bon Bon shivered. The pony was talking to her. Her eyes left the ledger and regarded her customer, a white mare with a overly styled, purple mane. “Hello.”

The mare smiled. “Good afternoon, I don’t believe we’ve met. I must say, it’s lovely to finally have this shop open again.”

Bon Bon replayed the mare’s words in her mind, confused at how none of them were related to the sale of candy.

The mare raised a hoof to her mouth and giggled. “I suppose I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I am Rarity, Ponyville’s resident up-and-coming fashionista, and the proprietor of the newly-opened Carousel Boutique just up the street. I thought it only proper to introduce myself to a fellow business owner.”

Rarity’s words reached Bon Bon’s ears but traveled no further. Bon Bon stared, unblinking, in hopes that this babbling apparition would either go away or morph into an actual customer.

Rarity’s smile faltered and she looked away. “Well, I assumed it would be proper at least… I-I’m sorry if I’ve been too bold, or come at a bad time…”

Bon Bon was quite sure that there would never be a right time for talking to this mare. “I sell candy.”

Rarity’s eyes lit up. “Oh, yes, yes! I-I noticed. As it so happens, my little sister’s birthday is coming up, and she does have a bit of a sweet tooth…”

At last they were getting somewhere. Bon Bon silently counted the seconds that Rarity spent eyeing the merchandise: a mere ten with the taffy, fifteen with the gumballs, five with the licorice, and finally a full minute with the chocolates. Bon Bon had reserved the display case by the register, the shop’s centerpiece, for her namesake candy. Half of Mom and Dad’s recipes were devoted to variations on that one perfect theme: something delicious wrapped in chocolate.

Bon Bon left her hallowed position by the ledger and followed Rarity from the opposite side of the glass. Rarity’s silence, Bon Bon knew, said it all: she was in awe of the vast chocolate selection, not to mention its aroma. Any moment now, Rarity would buy no less than a dozen bonbons and be on her way. She’d tell all her friends, and half the candy stock would be sold before closing time.

Rarity lifted her gaze from the chocolates to meet Bon Bon’s stare. “Darling… Please don’t take this the wrong way… but my little sister would be terribly disappointed if she thought I’d given her a box of plain chocolates.”

Bon Bon reared back on her hind legs. “They’re not plain! Don’t you see the labels in front of each kind?”

Rarity gave a quick nod and attempted to smile. “Yes, of course, darling. The selection is indeed impressive, and I have to say that the mere thought of Caramel Oat Swirl has me sorely tempted to purchase a few for myself… but aside from the labels, these all look the same.”

She raised her hoof and, to Bon Bon’s horror, pressed it to the glass. “I do applaud the avant garde chic of identical bonbons, but I’m afraid my little sister is far too young to appreciate it. If I were to take a Caramel Oat Swirl and place it in a box with a Lemon Zest and a Daisy Double Mint, my poor little sister would only see three identical chocolates and assume they were plain. There’s a certain… lack of variety in the presentation that a great many residents of Ponyville might, shall we say, struggle to appreciate.”

Bon Bon held her hoof to her chest as she looked over her legion of little chocolate soldiers, her army for waging war against panic and starvation. The perfect uniformity of the bonbons, her crowning achievement, meant nothing. Worse still, her heart was still beating; she hadn’t spontaneously died prior to this awful moment. “But… I… I can’t…”

“Dear, are you all right?”

Bon Bon shook her head. Her death wish was about to be granted: she was going to die on the shop’s opening day, and without having sold a single bonbon.

And then Lyra burst through the shop’s front door.

---

Why did the shopping list have so many little numbers and checkboxes on it? Lyra had been standing in the middle of the market for ten agonizing minutes, missing out on untold amounts of fun because of the dumb shopping list and her dumb almost-empty stomach and dumb Bon Bon making her do this dumb chore.

At times she’d come so close to cracking Bon Bon’s nefarious code. She’d fix her eyes on one line and read “Apples. Two doz—” and then somepony nearby would laugh. She’d glance around in hopes of finding them and overhearing their joke, and then be stuck starting all over.

Her carefree walk from the house seemed like forever ago. What she wouldn’t give to be trotting down the quiet streets again, smelling all the flowers, looking in all the windows, and sticking her tongue out at the quickly vanishing candy shop.

The market was just too crowded. That had to be it. She couldn’t focus in a place like this; there were too many smells to smell, too many signs to read, and too many ponies lined up to buy things. How come all the ponies in line looked so content? Didn’t they realize how crushingly boring standing in a line was?

A bright red stallion, as big as he was muscular, brushed past her. The apples in the cart he was pulling looked delicious. Almost as delicious as he did. Lyra’s stomach rumbled, and she shut her eyes tight. “Shut up, brain, shut up! Gotta buy food, gotta buy food!”

Something tapped her side. “You okay, Sugarcube?”

Lyra shook her head. “No! I’m confused, I’m hungry, I… Who are you?”

Applejack tipped her hat just as Lyra opened her eyes. “The name’s Applejack. Can’t say I’ve seen you around before. You new in town?”

Lyra nodded. A hundred explanations flew through her head, each further from the truth than the last. “Y-yes. I’m Lyra… Me and another pony are running the candy shop now.”

Applejack smiled. “Do tell! ‘bout time somepony opened that place up again. I still remember goin’ down there with Big Mac for fudge when we were foals. That is until… well… I don’t suppose you knew the previous owner? She skipped town about a week back.”

Lyra shook her head and tried to hold back her giggling, not to mention her desire to imitate Applejack’s accent. “I definitely don’t know who that is.”

Applejack’s smile faded away as she looked down the street. “That shop used be a family business goin’ back generations, up until a mare by the name of Candy Heart inherited it. She was actually in my class at school, for a time.”

“Oh, did you know her?” This was getting fun. Candy Heart, and Lyra by proxy, had no memory of Applejack, for good or ill.

Applejack shook her head. “Not well. It’s for the best, truth be told.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well… How do I put this… You ever try a kumquat?”

“A what?”

Applejack motioned her over to a nearby fruit stand. She pointed a basket full of what looked like miniature oranges. “How much for just two, Berry?”

The purple mare behind the stand grinned. “You sure you don’t want a full dozen, AJ? Just fifteen bits!”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “I’m sure. I’ll give ya two bits for a pair.”

“Okay, okay. Just remember there’s other ponies that like ‘em too, so you’d better stock up before I run out.”

Applejack dropped two bits on the table. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll think about it.”

Applejack took two of the little fruits, rolled them between her front hooves, and held them up. “These ‘re kumquats. I picked up a taste for ‘em in Manehattan. Can’t say they’re cheapest fruit in the world, but I figure the explanation’s worth it.”

Lyra sniffed the nearest kumquat. “Ooh, that almost smells like candy!”

Applejack chuckled. “You’re in for a surprise, Sugarcube.”

Lyra took a kumquat in her magic and popped it in her mouth. The rind tasted just as good as it smelled. “Wow! These are amazi—urm!”

Applejack grinned. “The juice just hit ya, huh?”

Lyra gave a lip-puckered nod. Strikingly bitter juice had flooded her mouth as soon as her teeth pierced the sweet rind. “Not sure I like this…”

Applejack chewed on her own kumquat for a moment before continuing. “Candy Heart was kinda like that: nice and sweet on the outside, bitter and confusing on the inside. Even in school, there was somethin’ about her smile that just didn’t sit right. I tried to be friendly an’ all, but… let’s just say there’s plenty of ponies that get a taste for kumquats, but I’ve never met a pony that had a nice thing to say about Candy Heart.”

Lyra couldn’t decide if she wanted to swallow her mouthful or spit it out. Eating something felt too good to pass up. At least the extreme tanginess was mellowing out. “Maybe these things aren’t so bad after all.”

“Darn tootin’ ! My big brother swore off ‘em after one bite. So, what’s got you all worked up?”

Lyra frowned and held up her shopping list. “I’ve gotta buy a bunch of stuff, but…”

Applejack leaned in for a closer look. “The writing’s awful small. Sure is neat ‘n organized, though!”

Lyra rolled her eyes. Boring Bon Bon strikes again. “My… um… business partner wrote it. I-I guess I’m just too exhausted from all the moving-in and stuff.”

“Looks like the first thing on your list is apples! How about I help ya knock this list out?”

Lyra gasped. “Wow, you’d really do that for me?”

“Welcome to Ponyville, Lyra. Now let me show you where the tastiest apples in Equestria come from before Pinkie spots you.”

“Who’s Pinkie?”

“You’ll find out soon enough, Sugarcube.”

Even with Applejack’s help, shopping took forever. Lyra trotted next to her, nodding whenever her new friend pointed out the next item on the list and wincing as it joined the others in her saddlebags. Food was so heavy! They shouldn’t have started with the apples; they were the heaviest food of all.

At long last, Applejack passed the grocery list back to Lyra. “Looks like you’re all set.”

Lyra took the list in her magic and crumpled it up. “Thanks a lot, Applejack! Come by the shop sometime. Bon Bon makes crazy-good candy, just like Mo—err, just like her mom used to!”

“Shucks, I can’t say no to that. Take it easy, Lyra.” Applejack leaned in to whisper. “And remember: if you see a pink, bouncing pony headed your way, run.”

Lyra nodded, even though this Pinkie pony sounded like a lot of fun. “Right!”

The walk home was uneventful, but not in the bad sort of way. Lyra didn’t feel much like sniffing flowers or making faces in the windows while she had a million pounds of groceries weighing her down. That just left talking to herself. “Hi, I’m Applejack. I say y’all and stuff and I like weird fruit, but I’m super-nice.”

She lowered her eyebrows and scowled. “I’m Bon Bon. I hate music. I can’t imagine anything besides candy and bits and grocery lists. I also hate fun.”

A gentle breeze brought a whiff of the fruit she’d bought to her nose. “At least you picked some nice food for us to eat.”

Her Bon Bon impression voiced a reply. “And I’m going to be so shocked that dumb-dumb Lyra bought it all by herself.”

Lyra held her head high. “But I did! I got all the groceries! And I did it all by… Okay, fine. Applejack helped a lot. Next time, you’ve gotta make the list easier for me, Bon Bon. No checkboxes! More pictures!” The taste of the kumquat came back to her: sweet enclosing bitter. “No wonder you hate me. I can’t even buy food by myself. I had to get help like a tiny foal! Ugh.”

The candy shop’s front window lay a few hoofsteps ahead. A little colt had his face pressed against the glass. “Daddy, can we go in and look at the candy?”

A stallion came up and led him away from the window. “You don’t want to mess with the pony that lives there, Truffle. I’m surprised the crazy mare even bothered opening the shop again.”

Lyra rushed forward and blocked as much of the street as her forelegs would allow. “Hi there!”

The colt waved. The stallion raised an eyebrow.

Lyra gave them her biggest smile. “You’re talking about Candy Heart, not Bon Bon, right?”

The stallion nodded. “Yeah… Who’s Bon Bon?”

It took all of Lyra’s will to maintain her smile. “Why, she’s only the friendliest, smartest, nicest, bestest candy-maker ever! I run the shop with her now. Candy Heart moved away.”

The stallion frowned. “That’s nice, I guess. That place still gives me a bad feel—”

Lyra leaned down, no small feat while lugging groceries, and winked at the colt. “Did I mention that every good little filly and colt gets a free sample today? The Daisy Double Mint is my favorite.”

The colt’s eyes lit up and he turned to his father. “Can we go, Daddy? Can we? Please?”

The stallion chuckled. “Well… all right. We’ll take a look and get you that free sample right after lunch. Thanks, Miss…”

Lyra stuck out her hoof. “I’m Lyra! Lyra Heartstrings! And you’re cute!”

She bolted for the shop door before the stallion could reply. The sweet scent of sugar did nothing for her blushing cheeks or her aching jaw. Smiling this much made her face hurt, but she couldn’t stop now. There was a customer in the shop, a mare with the most beautiful purple hair ever. How did she make it curl like that?

Bon Bon gasped. “Lyra! You’re back.”

The words “help me” were practically painted on Bon Bon’s panicky face. Or maybe it was “kill me.” Either way, it was an improvement over the “I’ll kill you” that Lyra was used to seeing in her eyes. “Hey, Bon Bon! How’s the big opening day going?”

Bon Bon was shaking like she’d just stepped out of the freezer. “N-not good. There’s… There’s something wrong with all my recipes. They don’t say anything about… decorating.”

Lyra trotted behind the counter and dropped her saddlebags on the floor. “Ooh, like drawing on the candy? I can do that!”

Bon Bon tried to smile, but skepticism wouldn’t let her. “I don’t know… A-and I’m with a customer right now.”

Rarity backed away. “Oh, that’s all right. I-I’m sure I’ve worn out my welcome already.”

Lyra managed to laugh, but only by thinking about pouring melted ice cream on Bon Bon’s head. “But you haven’t had your free sample!”

Bon Bon tensed up. “Free sample? Free?”

Lyra pulled a tray of bonbons out of the nearest display case and set it on the counter. “Right! I forgot to put that on the sign outside, didn’t I? We should put ‘Under New Management’ on there, too! Turns out some ponies still think Candy Heart runs this place.”

Bon Bon snorted. “She wouldn’t open the shop again. She didn’t even like candy.”

Lyra gave Bon Bon a shove towards the kitchen. “Candy Heart was a real kumquat, all right. Why don’t you go get the paints so I can fix the sign.”

Rarity let out what could only be called a flagrant overuse of the letter ‘m.’ “That’s the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted! Forget Caramel Oat Swirl, could I please have a dozen assorted bonbons? Actually, make that two dozen. I’m sure I can convince Sweetie Belle that not knowing which is which is just part of the fun.”

Lyra and Bon Bon let out simultaneous cheers, the first of many.

Introspection

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Candy Heart sat on the floor, adding up the tick marks on the padded wall. To the doctors and orderlies, the wall was a sterile white. To her, it was a chalkboard filled nearly to capacity. One hundred and seventy three days were checked off on her mental chalkboard, one week shy of fulfilling her court-mandated period of ‘observation and assessment.’ Not that she’d given the idiot doctors much to observe or assess, of course. She’d been passing psychological evaluations since grade school; the whole process was rote now.

‘Rote’ was about all she was good for, unfortunately.

An empty tray lay by her side, her morning meal and medications dutifully consumed. Did they assume the pills were working on her, turning her back into a functional member of society? Pills, for the hoof or the head, were for curing sick ponies. No drug could alter her mind. At least, not the portion of it that she still possessed.

Her time here, forced though it may be, wasn’t a complete waste. The solitude gave her time to adjust to her newfound handicaps, to feel out the dregs of creativity and organization that the incantation had left her with. There wasn’t much of either quantity left, but at least she’d moved beyond robotically harvesting spell ingredients. If she’d ventured onto that nature preserve at midnight instead of noon, she might’ve gone unnoticed. Or she might’ve been eaten by a dragon. What-if scenarios were largely beyond her, at least for now.

Candy Heart’s invisible chalkboard was mainly tick marks. The only other thing worth noting, the only other thing she could visualize, was the incantation. It started with a small paragraph she’d found in an ancient spell book pilfered from the restricted section of the Royal Canterlot Library. The language was antiquated, and yet potent. The title over the spell read For the Exorcisement of Undesired Quality. The final word had caught her eye from the start: quality. The spell itself was riddled with the word, too. At no point did the spell confine itself to leeching impurities out of diamonds like the author intended; it was a magic of a more general use, assuming the spell-caster gave it enough thought.

After the neat paragraph came the wild Zebra scribblings she’d found on a dried papyrus leaf in a museum, a potion to make thoughts and traits manifest, to make the emotional physical. Combining those two disparate magic sources, unicorn spell casting and Zebra potion brewing, was the key to removing everything holding her back. There would be no more loneliness, remorse, or regret. Everything that debased her, everything that brought her down to the level of other ponies would be gone. The quest she’d started upon earning her cutie mark would finally be complete, and not by excelling at some mere talent. She herself would become the best: the smartest, most perfect pony to ever live. Her purified intellect would rival that of Celestia herself.

At least that’s what the incantation should have done. She’d make it right soon it enough.

The door’s heavy bolt slid aside. A moment later, an orderly was standing next to her, regarding the white wall with his usual, vapid expression. He cleared his throat and spoke in a thick Trottingham accent, the backwards speech that was nigh-inescapable in this rotten corner of the world. “Never did figure what you saw in that wall, Miss Candy Heart. Your time with us is just about up! Seven more days and you get to clear out.”

Candy Heart nodded. “I know.”

He picked up her tray and set it on his back. “Been such a model patient, you have. Wish you could have a word with a few of your neighbors for me.”

She’d sooner curse his whole family, both verbally and magically. She’d sooner jam the corner of the tray in his eye and dash through the open door. If only she still had a unicorn horn. If only she still possessed the creativity to plan an escape and the organizational prowess to execute one. The incantation had stripped so much of her away; thinking too hard both hurt and tingled, like trying to flex an amputated limb. All that remained was the very core of her being: pure, burning ambition.

“Thank you,” she said, “I can’t wait to go back home and put myself back together.”

Platitudes

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Lyra’s tail flicked back and forth as she gazed through her bedroom window at the streets below. There wasn’t much traffic this morning, just a few ponies running errands. Or maybe they were going to the train station, or on a secret mission for the Princess. She fixed her eyes on a stallion trotting by a leisurely pace. What kind of music did he like? What color would he want to paint their dining room? How many kids did he want? What would he give her for their tenth wedding anniversary?

“What’s your name, handsome?”

She’d probably heard his name before; remembering details like that wasn’t her strong suit. “Blue coat… Dark blue mane. What’s his cutie mark… music notes? Awesome! You’re not some classical snob, are you?”

The stallion glanced at the clock tower and quickened his pace. Lyra gave him one last look before abandoning her game. Nopony else out there looked all that interesting. She retreated to her bed, treading on old sheets of half-written music, and collapsed on the pile of blankets. Her lyre floated off the dresser in the corner, the one clean spot in the room, and made its way to her waiting hooves. She lay on her back with the lyre cradled in her forelegs, idly playing it with her magic.

Her ears perked up. Whatever she was playing right now wasn’t half bad. The rise and fall of the high notes bordered on catchy. She plucked the strings with slightly more force, repeating the melody over and over. Maybe this was it; the first song she’d actually finish! Her excitement usually waned about halfway through, but maybe that wouldn’t happen this time. “I’m gonna finish this one! I’ll frame it, and think up an awesome title, and play it all the t—”

Bon Bon’s shouting echoed up the stairs. “It’s eight thirty, Lyra! Get down here and help me!”

And with that, the melody was gone, out of Lyra’s head before the lyre strings had even stopped humming. “Argh, I’m busy!”

“So am I, and there’s a dozen trays down here that need decorating before the shop opens!”

She shut her eyes tight. Arguing would just make Bon Bon sad, and that would make Lyra sad. That just left grudging acceptance, something both of them were quite familiar with. “I’ll be right there.”

Once her lyre was safe on the dresser, Lyra rolled off her bed and opened the door. Directly across the hall was Bon Bon’s room. Why did she keep her bedroom door open all the time? Was her perfectly clean room, so clean that it looked more like a museum exhibit, supposed to be inspiring or something? It wasn’t. It looked like nopony lived in there at all. Lyra made her own bed once in a while, largely against her will, but it never looked like Bon Bon’s, like it’d just been delivered from a bed factory fully made and never before used.

Lyra gave the immaculate display an eye-roll and continued on. Mom and Dad’s master bedroom, unused and untouched, came next. Candy Heart’s room was by the stairs. The door was shut, but when it came to Lyra’s imagination that hardly mattered. Beyond that door wasn’t the immaculate husk that Bon Bon had turned it into; beyond that door she saw shelves lined with old spell books, boxes filled with smelly potion ingredients, and one not-quite-right filly staring at a wall that was both blank and not blank. At least the details were fading now. Lyra had brand new happy memories to replace the old scary ones. Maybe someday the bad memories would be gone completely, and her head would be filled with nothing but gawking at stallions, making music, and decorating candy. She couldn’t wait.

She skipped sliding down the banister, once again to avoid an argument, and made her way to the kitchen. Her stomach growled as soon as she inhaled. It always smelled delicious in here. Bon Bon could probably stew up a rusty horseshoe and make it smell good. Not that she’d ever allow something that dirty to enter her inner sanctum; even with pots simmering on the stove, countertops covered in mixing bowls, and tray after tray of nearly finished candies, the kitchen still felt clean somehow. Bon Bon kept everything that way, right down to the neat line of decorating supplies that she’d set out for Lyra.

Bon Bon walked over and nodded to the trays. “Here’s the candy to decorate.”

Lyra saluted. “Right! What flavor is it?”

“Orange walnut.”

“Aww, again?”

“That’s what’s what we’re out of. Ponies keep buying it.”

“So where’s breakfast?”

Bon Bon paused. Bringing up anything other than candy during prep hours tended to do that. At least it didn’t make her angry anymore. “I made pancakes. Yours are in the oven.”

“Woohoo!”

“Just please don’t—”

“Eat them in the kitchen. I won’t.” Lyra winked.

Bon Bon smiled, at least until she dropped back into business mode. “I’ll be in the shop.”

---

Bon Bon settled into her spot behind the counter, double checked the time, and opened her ledger. She had exactly half an hour before the shop needed to open, time enough to review her notes and hopefully wipe down the display cases one last time. Sweeping the floor again would be nice too, but she just couldn’t squeeze that in. If only she could bring herself to change the setting on her alarm clock.

Her two favorite smells, chocolate and graphite, swept her troubles away. The ledger before her was a grid of numbers, a dense jungle of information that she’d often get lost in. She’d sold ten pounds of fudge yesterday, but only eight the day before. Lollipop sales had alternated between eighteen and six for three weeks in a row. There had been six more ponies in the shop yesterday than the same day last month. If only she knew what it all meant. There had to be some sort of pattern there, something useful that could be divined from her near-perfect bookkeeping.

Lyra could probably find that pattern. She was good with patterns. If only she could focus on a sheet of paper for more than ten seconds, or be trusted to not smear chocolate on the edges. That thought prompted Bon Bon to recheck the time and glance at the kitchen. “Stop taste-testing, Lyra!”

Lyra responded through a mouthful of stolen chocolate. “Thowy, Bon Bon!”

Bon Bon sighed and turned back to her ledger. Patterns or no, there was a certain comfort to her numbers: all the logic and precision of a recipe distilled down to an essence so fine that she herself couldn’t fathom it. The most comforting number of all was the date that began each row, the steady march of time carrying her away from her near-disastrous first day running the shop and from her own horrid creation at Candy Heart’s hooves.

Time marched ever onward, and she needed to do the same. That was the only solution. That was the only thing that kept the panic-attacks at bay. She just needed to keep the shop running. She just needed to keep getting up every morning at the same exact time, cook and sell candy, clean every inch of the house, and go back to bed. That was the recipe for life, the logical set of steps that carried her safely through time without incident.

She closed the ledger, grabbed a cloth, and started polishing. Hoof and nose smudges on the display cases were to be expected. She had to accept that. She fought with herself every day to accept that. At least all the grime that the customers dragged in washed off quickly. Just a few quick wipes with a wet cloth brought back the mirror-like shine that she expected. Nothing less would do for her signature candy, although it wasn’t just hers anymore. Thanks to Lyra, each metal tray was a canvas, and each bonbon was a portion of an edible painting.

This was another sight that could rob Bon Bon of untold hours. She understood the process perfectly: Lyra spread colorful frostings and sprinkles on the bonbons, often in lines that marched over candy and metal alike. Most of her ‘straight’ lines weren’t very straight, and her circles were far from perfect. What was perfect was the effect, a pattern that Bon Bon and the rest of Ponyville could clearly discern. What had once been a six dozen Caramel Oat Swirl bonbons laid out in a grid was now a picture of ponies in the park. Colts and fillies would all-but drag their parents here as early as they could just to see the pictures before the daily tide of sales decimated it. She’d been a witness to three minor squabbles over who was going to get to buy the last bonbon with a pony’s face or cutie mark on it.

Bon Bon fixed her eyes on a single bonbon, one with a tiny pegasus on it, and scowled. “They all taste good. Why do they need pictures?”

“So they sell” wasn’t a good enough answer. How did Lyra come up with all these images on the spot? They must have been things she saw outside. Bon Bon shivered at the thought. The world outside the shop was equal parts confusing and revolting. The limited and highly sanitized view she got through the shop windows and Lyra’s decorating was more than enough.

Bon Bon let out a gasp and turned to the clock. She’d wasted too much time thinking again; the shop was due to open in under two minutes. The display cases, and Bon Bon, would have to get through the day with only one pass of polishing.

“Lyra, I need to open the shop! Where’s the candy?”

Lyra hurried through the door with the missing trays in her magic grasp. “I’m coming, I’m coming! Where’s the shopping list?”

Bon Bon watched the display case’s back panel glow and slide open, a smooth and sterile feat she would forever envy. Lyra’s latest creation depicted ponies flying orange kites in front of town hall. One tray never made it out of the kitchen, as expected. Lyra’s taste testing had prompted Bon Bon to start preparing one extra tray with every batch.

Lyra tapped her hooves. “So, shopping list?”

Bon Bon blinked. “It’s Tuesday, Lyra. Wednesday is shopping day.”

Lyra smiled and clapped her front hooves together. “Awesome! I’m off to Sugarcube Corner!”

Bon Bon counted the tap-tap of Lyra’s hooves and the latching of the door. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The shop didn’t open for another fifteen seconds. She could take five leisurely, annoyance-free breaths in that time. Nopony was demanding volume discounts, asking if she remembered their ‘usual order,’ or smearing their dirty hooves across the glass. Best of all, nopony was humming annoying music. A double boiler to the face was probably the only thing that could cure Lyra of that habit.

A pounding sound interrupted Bon Bon in the middle of her third breath. She eyes flew open and she faced the shop door. Some pony in a hooded jacket was standing at the doorway. They knocked again, making the ‘Closed’ sign on the inside of the door bounce and sway.

Bon Bon checked the time. Opening the shop a few seconds early would be far less painful than listening to that cacophony. “I’m coming, I’m coming!”

She flipped the sign to Open, unlocked the door, and stepped aside so her first customer could enter. “Welcome to my candy sh—”

The pony stepped through the door and lowered her hood. A shock of white hair, burned black in places, flowed down around her face and over her hornless forehead. She smiled a wide, eerie smile, and spoke in a voice made raspy by the potion fumes she’d breathed in her youth. “Hello again.”

Unity

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On her way home, Lyra couldn’t stop licking her lips, even if all the ice cream was gone. Bon Bon might’ve become the master of candy, but when it came to milkshakes and cookies there was just no standing up to the Cakes. Their shop was everything that Bon Bon’s wasn’t: noisy, crowded, and inviting. Ponies came to Bon Bon’s to buy candy, but they came to Sugarcube Corner to spend a few relaxing minutes in the company of a sugary escape.

In Lyra’s case, it was never just a few minutes. Sometimes she’d sit in there for hours, ogling stallions in closer quarters than her bedroom window allowed, spending her allowance on dinner-spoiling goodies, trading jokes with Pinkie Pie, and half-wishing that she’d brought her lyre. Taking it out of the house sounded too scary. What if she lost it? What if it fell on the ground and broke? She couldn’t take a risk like that, not with her lyre. Counting was a huge pain, but even she knew that her precious instrument cost a lot more than she could ever afford.

Mrs. Cake was so nice to count the bits out for her all the time. All Lyra had to do was dump some on the table and the kindly mare would count out what she was owed. She was older, so maybe she’d known Mom and Dad. Sometimes Lyra wondered how she could ask about her about them. Slowly losing Candy Heart’s scary memories meant losing the fun ones too, like the birthday parties where other foals actually came over. At least she’d always have the pictures on the mantle. Looking at those moments frozen in time helped her remember more. If she spent enough time staring at them she could probably remember a lot, but not fast enough to stave off boredom.

She stamped her back hooves as she walked, attempting to tap out one of the elusive rhythms that never fully left her head. Where was her notepad when she really needed it? If she could just get one of these songs written down already!

Dark clouds blotted out the evening’s dim sunlight. Lyra looked up just in time for a raindrop to hit her between the eyes. “Aww, rain?”

The sky offered a mighty thunderclap in response.

Forget music. Lyra needed to get home before the streets got all muddy. Bon Bon would kill her, or at least yell a lot, if she tracked mud through the house again. Getting muddy meant she’d have to take another shower, too. One trip through the agonizingly-plain-white shower stall per day was plenty. The shower head’s hiss didn’t even drown out her singing, at least not according to Bon Bon.

She galloped down the streets, zigzagging sometimes as she wondered if she could dodge raindrops, and finally reached home. Entering through the shop was a bad idea, especially if she was muddy. The side door that led to the kitchen was an even worse idea for the exact same reason. That just left the front door, the one that led into the living room just like on a regular house.

She came to a halt by the front door, safe under the awning and barely wet at all. She stuck her tongue out, first to mock the weather and then to try to catch stray raindrops. Neither worked very well. Thunder boomed again, and her original ‘get inside really fast’ plan came to mind. “Ooh, maybe we have hot chocolate!”

With that happy thought, Lyra turned the handle and stepped inside. “Hot chocolate, and marshmallows, and cinnamon, and—”

Something cracked under her hoof. Lyra looked down and gasped. One of the mantle’s pictures was right there: Mom and Dad on either side of a bunch of shatter lines in the glass instead of the baby Candy Heart shown on the film beneath. She started levitating the crushed picture frame to her eye level, and noticed the rest of the room in the process.

Chairs lay on their backs and tables on their sides. The floor was littered with shards from smashed pictures and shattered vases. The bookshelf on the far wall, which Lyra never touched and Bon Bon only dusted, had been tipped over on top of the flipped couch. Family photo albums, Equestrian classics, and an eight volume beginner’s guide to psychology were scattered on the floor.

This wasn’t home. Home was gone, possibly forever. Even Bon Bon’s cleaning and Lyra’s imagining couldn’t put this place back just the way it was, frozen in a bygone age when Mom and Dad were still around, a state of being never wanted, altered, or touched by their daughter in the years that followed.

Lyra’s legs wobbled. She felt lightheaded. Her breaths were shallow and quick. She needed to do something, but what?

Someone else decided for her.

A shadow rushed through the kitchen door and slammed into her side. Suddenly Lyra was on the ground next to the picture frame, flailing her legs and screaming while this hooded monster of a pony kicked her in ribs. The wall by the front door pressed against her back, and the floor pressed against her side. Everything else belonged to the pony standing over her. The kicks to the ribs came again and again, as did her screams. Finally the pony moved to her stomach, delivering one well-placed blow that drove the air from her lungs. Lyra lay there, gasping for breath, blinking away tears, and wondering why this was happening. Who was this pony? Why did they ruin her home and want to hurt her so much? What did they do to Bon Bon? How did they get in? Where was her lyre?

And then the pony lowered her hood.

Lyra’s disparate questions coalesced into something else entirely. As much as getting knocked down and beaten hurt, and as scary as it was to have her home violated and a stranger take her by surprise, nothing could surpass the raw terror of knowing who was standing over her.

Candy Heart pressed her hoof into Lyra’s aching ribs. “Hurts, doesn’t it? Losing my horn hurt a whole lot more!”

The kicking started up again, and Candy Heart adopted the same grimace she’d worn the night of the incantation. “Where’s all my stuff? Where’re my books, and my ingredients? It took years to collect all of that!”

Candy Heart aimed for Lyra’s cutie mark next. “And you took my old lyre! I should’ve buried it! I would’ve cut all the strings and tossed in the river if I’d known some third-of-a-pony was going to turn all my mistakes into… into…”

Lyra managed a whisper. “S-sorry.”

Candy Heart stared at her for a moment and shook her head. “Pointless. This is pointless. Six months in forced therapy and still I can’t… can’t… ugh! Short sentences. Staying calm… Deep breaths. That helps. Helps me focus. Helps me think.”

Lyra wanted nothing more than to run up to her bedroom, bolt the door, and strum the lyre until everything was happy again. Except things wouldn’t be happy again. They couldn’t. Simply looking at Candy Heart dredged nightmarish horrors from the depths of her borrowed memories, including the dangerous spells and foul-smelling potions that led to her life. She knew what was going to happen next, and what role she was going to play in it. She wouldn’t live to see another daybreak, at least not with her own eyes.

---

This aquamarine mare was heavier than Candy Heart expected. She’d scaled mountains and crossed wastelands to collect potion ingredients; dragging one tied up, whining pony with a third of a brain shouldn’t have been this hard. Maybe that earth pony wound up with her endurance. It hardly mattered. All of her mind’s components were here, split across three bodies. Recreating the incantation, this time with a dragon claw she’d harvested herself rather than whatever imitation that idiot back alley dealer had sold her before, would fix everything. They wouldn’t even need to drink it; simply having the corrected potion present during the spell would realign the magic.

One last tug brought the unicorn into position, right at the edge of the circle she’d drawn on the floor. On the circle’s other side was the earth pony, still bound, gagged, and looking like she was in the middle of a heart attack. Too bad it wasn’t an actual one, considering how many priceless spell books and magical antiquities she’d thrown away.

A tall steel pot, the closest thing to a cauldron the kitchen possessed, sat in the center of the circle. Candy Heart had removed it from the stove’s heat hours ago, but the green potion within still bubbled vigorously. The crystals hanging directly above swayed slowly in a nonexistent breeze, humming sometimes if one were to listen carefully.

Except Candy Heart couldn’t hear anything, not with the unicorn crying like she was. She paced around and jammed a hoof against her cheek. “You don’t need teeth for what comes next, unicorn, so keep quiet if you want to keep them!”

The unicorn frowned. “M-my name is Lyra, you… you—”

Candy Heart pressed down until Lyra’s shrill voice became a whimper. “You don’t deserve a name! You and the earth pony are just accidents… byproducts of the incantation going wrong. How do I know that?” She leaned down and bellowed in Lyra’s ear. “Because I’ve been stuck staring at the formula ever since! It’s on every wall, every ceiling, every piece of paper… and tonight… tonight, we’re going to fix everything!”

She stomped over to the stove and started twisting knobs. Each burner roared to life, bringing with it the hiss, smell, and heat of fire. Then she approached a tall stack of books by the freezer. Mom’s Perfect Chocolate cookbook was the first to go. Candy Heart tossed it into the fire and watched the pages disintegrate. Then came Dad’s Confectioners Almanac, and binder after binder stuffed with hoofwritten notes. Each addition to the funeral pyre seemed to raise the temperature in the whole room, and elicit an agonized moan from the gagged earth pony.

The wallpaper behind the stove was turning black, as was the ceiling. In a few minutes the fire would take them, too. By the time someone outside noticed the smoke, it’d be too late. The house, the shop, and every last shred of the disappointments she called family and childhood would be gone forever.

“This is it, ponies! You’ve got two choices: recite the spell with me, or burn with the rest of the garbage!”

She undid the earth pony’s gag and braced herself for the crying that was sure to follow. Instead, the pony simply nodded. “We’ll do it. Of course we’ll do it.”

Lyra gasped. “B-but, Bon Bon—”

“We have to, Lyra! And not just because of the fire… She’s right about us: we’re not real ponies. We’re just parts of one… parts of her.”

Lyra strained her legs against the ropes, grunting and crying all at once. “But I wanna go back to how it was! I wanna be me!”

“You can’t even read, Lyra! You can’t read, you can’t think on something for more than thirty seconds without getting distracted… And I’m just as bad. I can’t stop cleaning, and cooking, and cleaning, and cooking, and… and I can’t even figure out what all those numbers I write down mean! I don’t want to do this either, but… but we have to.”

Lyra took a great breath of smoke-laced air and shut her eyes. Her struggling became small sobs as grief overtook fear. “Okay… Okay. I-I’m gonna miss you.”

Candy Heart stomped her hoof. “Enough! Let’s get this over with. You both remember the spell?”

Both Lyra and Bon Bon nodded. The present situation, not to mention company, was enough to dredge up the words they’d longed to forget: the spell that had once brought them into the world and would now carry them out of it.

The potion boiled over as they started to speak. Green liquid oozed across the floor while the crystals overhead jumped and spun. The three ponies began to glow with a golden light that eclipsed the fire’s brightness. The light spread through the air in tendrils, joining the ponies, the crystals, and the potion in a web of shared memories and cleft personalities.

For a moment, their separate hearts beat as one.

And then Candy Heart’s eyes flew open. Lyra and that other pony, the one called Bon Bon, were still there. She could sense it. She lifted a foreleg to shield her eyes against the magic’s glare and found that it didn’t help. She looked down and screamed in horror. There weren’t any legs holding her up. Her body was floating in midair with no visible support. She dared to check on her back legs, and found no back at all. Her tail was gone, her cutie mark was gone, and the rest of her was fading as well. “What? What’s happening? I did the incantation right, I know I did!”

“You did,” Bon Bon shouted. Anything less than that wouldn’t have been audible over the fire.

“Then why am I—”

“Because you’re the impurity! You’re what the spell was trying to get rid of!”

Lyra chimed in next, her chipper voice devoid of its previous anguish. “I-I can see it now! Oh wow, can I see! You stopped midway through the spell last time, and that’s why you split into three ponies. The two of us have been growing and getting better this whole time, but you’re just the same old mean-pony you were before. All the good stuff inside you made us, and now that’s all that’s gonna be left!”

Candy Heart attempted to rear up on her nonexistent legs and instead crashed to the floor. “That’s impossible!” she shrieked, “I’m better than all the ponies in Equestria put together, and as soon as I find my talent, my real talent, I’ll prove—”

In Twos

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Bon Bon breathed in the scent of sugar cookies as she trotted down the snow-covered main street. A cold winter’s evening made everypony into a baker. Ponyville’s streets looked so picturesque during sunsets, not big and imposing like Canterlot’s, Manehattan’s, or any of the other cities she’d set hoof in. Everything was so clean here, and the ponies were so friendly. If only she’d been able to appreciate that sooner.

She tossed back her mane, partly to dislodge the snowflakes threatening to take up residence. “But I see it now! I couldn’t pick a nicer place to… retire.”

That word still didn’t feel right. Retirement was something ponies twice her age were only starting to plan for. Retirement meant nursing homes, fiftieth anniversaries, and waiting for the grandkids to visit. She wasn’t ready for any of that, but she was ready to let the board of trustees take over Bons, her Equestria-spanning confection empire. Mom and Dad would be so proud; she’d brought their candy to the world, one detail-oriented batch at a time.

“I’m not retiring. I’m… resettling?”

That wasn’t it, either. Resettling is what she’d been doing for six years in a row, moving from city to city to expand her empire by day and run covert ops by night. Not that she could ever talk about the second part, of course. It all sounded so ridiculous in retrospect. It wasn’t like she needed the extra bits, or didn’t have enough to do with her time. It was probably all Lyra’s fault, or even Candy Heart’s. Getting a share of the former’s creativity and the latter’s drive certainly made for an interesting life.

“So what are you doing, Bon Bon? You’re walking through the town where you kind-of sort-of grew up, about to meet up with your… sister?”

She and Lyra never formally defined their relationship. They didn’t really need to. Lyra tried anyway, once, and got lost after the bit about rescuing each other from their burning childhood home. Up until today, the term penpal might have sufficed. She’d started writing the moment they went their separate ways, if only to keep her promise to a then-bawling Lyra. Just like their inaugural day of running the candy shop, the first awkward letters grew into something familiar and indispensable. At times Bon Bon even caught herself humming one of Lyra’s old tunes while she read about her latest antics.

The letters never stopped flowing, not even when Bon Bon moved to a yet another new city, or when she had to fudge a date or a description to keep her now-former espionage career under wraps. At least once a week she’d bolt the door, sit down by her bedside, and write. Lyra always listened, and always offered great advice on what new candy flavors to try, or where to open a shop next; she possessed creative insights that couldn’t be gleaned from Bon Bon’s never-ending numerical analysis of the buying and selling of sweets.

Lyra’s letters were always bursting with energy, regardless of if she was regaling Bon Bon with her latest musical accomplishment, tearfully admitting another breakup, explaining how hard the Princess’s school was, or formally announcing her engagement to one of her music buddies. Somehow reading about all those experiences just wasn’t enough. Bon Bon had always known that, and at long last she’d found the impetus to do something about it. Lyra’s final letter, the first one postmarked from Ponyville since they both moved away, set everything in motion.

Bon Bon paused. She read and reread at the address printed on the mailbox before her. This was definitely the right place. She didn’t need to recheck the letter in her saddlebag, not with her legendary memory. The house wasn’t as big as their old one, but that hardly mattered. Unless Lyra planned on having more kids than hooves, all of that extra space would’ve just gone to waste. Granted, this was far from a tiny cottage. Some of the neighboring houses looked to be half this size.

She stole a quick glance down the street. The burned-out husk of a candy shop had been replaced with something new. Bon Bon couldn’t quite make out the sign at this distance. Part of her wanted to wander down there and take a look, if only to give herself another moment to think. ‘Retirement’ wasn’t it, and neither was ‘resettlement.’ Identifying details like this is what she did for a living, so why was this one so hard? Lyra would probably know. They could talk it over at length for as long as it took. It wasn’t like Bon Bon couldn’t afford to stay a few extra nights at the Ponyville hotel while she figured out what to do next with her life. She could buy the whole hotel if she wanted to.

Knocking once was all it took. The door flew open and Lyra nearly tackled her with a hug. “Bon Bon! You’re finally here! You’ve gotta come inside. I made hot chocolate, and I’ve got this great idea for how we’re going to redo the wallpaper in your room, and—”

Bon Bon laughed and, with practiced ease, slipped out of Lyra’s crushing embrace. “Slow down. I’m glad to see you too and… did you say my room?”

Lyra’s smile was almost too big for her face. “Yeah! You didn’t book a room at the hotel, did you?”

“Well… actually…”

Lyra patted her on the head. “Good ol’ Bon Bon: always planning, always missing the big picture.”

Bon Bon rolled her eyes. “Well we didn’t talk about that me staying over and… You’re getting married, Lyra. Why would you want me living under the same roof as you? Is your fiancé even okay with that?”

Lyra beckoned her inside. The entryway’s walls were lined with picture frames, some immortalizing a moment with friends, some showcasing Lyra’s artwork, and one of her playing the lyre on a park bench. “He’s cool with it. He knows you’re my family… and he knows you make crazy-good peanut brittle. Anyway, when he said he wanted to settle down in Ponyville, I knew just what I wanted: a big house with enough room for me, my big hunk of a stallion, and my bestest friend in the whole world.”

Bon Bon breathed in the scent of chocolate, her one true love. “Are you sure? What if we just end up fighting and getting in each other’s way again?”

Lyra pulled her into another hug. “That’s family for you. Welcome home, Bon Bon.”

Bon Bon started to smile. That was it exactly. She was coming home.