Three's A Crowd

by Sir0Chicken

First published

Fluttershy and Twilight have grown close, but will the Fluttershy stand a chance against Applejack?

Twilight Sparkle has the best friends a pony could ask for, and her stay in Ponyville has allowed her to spend plenty of time with all of them. But when one of her friends begins to see her as more than just a companion, will she be able notice the hints? Or will she break her admirer's heart and pit friend against friend without even realizing it?

If you like this story, check out its sequel: Two Paths.

A Good Friend

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The romp of otters scampered at play in the morning sun as Twilight Sparkle approached. Since she started helping Fluttershy take care of the animals that surrounded her woodland cottage, many of them had embraced Twilight as a caretaker and a friend—especially the otters.

“Hello, everyotter,” Twilight said with a grin as she levitated a bucket of fish up to her muzzle. Grabbing a few fish with her teeth, she tossed them out to the chattering creatures. It left a taste in her mouth, but it was worth it to see the otters' smiling faces.

One of the otters, the runt of a recent litter, approached Twilight, nuzzling her forelegs tentatively. Dropping a small fish at the otter’s feet, Twilight returned the nuzzle, whispering, “How are you holding up, little guy?” The otter purred quietly and picked up the fish, continuing to brush against Twilight’s legs and smile. The sight was almost cute enough to distract her from the fishy slime now being smeared on her shins.

After Twilight had moved on to the rest of the otters, she saw Fluttershy approaching from her cottage, a bag of vegetables on her back and a broad smile on her face. “Hello, Twilight,” she said in a happy, sing-song voice. “It’s nice to see you this morning.”

Twilight smiled at how much her friend had loosened up since the first time they met. Nodding, she replied, “It’s great to see you too, Fluttershy!”

Fluttershy blushed and turned away slightly. “Oh, you don’t have to say that, Twilight."

Okay, so she hasn't loosened up that much. Laughing, Twilight trotted over and answered, “I know. I try to make a habit of saying only what I mean, and it really is great to see you.”

Fluttershy’s face lit up and she hugged Twilight for a moment before breaking away. Her hasty hoofsteps betrayed her embarassment as she trotted faster than before down the path toward a nearby rabbit warren.

Having finished feeding the otters, Twilight decided to join Fluttershy, who cast her eyes at the road and blushed yet again. She nudged her friend lightly, but Fluttershy refused to look at her directly. “Lighten up, Fluttershy. No need to be so nervous. We've known each other for years.”

Straightening herself, Fluttershy nodded. “You’re right, Twilight. I should be assertive.”

“Exactly!" Twilight giggled. "You've gotten so much better at it, but you keep forgetting. Just loosen up and let everypony know what you’re thinking.”

Fluttershy's eye's shimmered as a smile spread across her face. Grinning back, Twilight felt herself relax as the two ponies neared their destination.

In what felt like no time, Twilight and Fluttershy finished caring for the local animals. Fluttershy's grin never left her face for a moment, and the extra spring in her step worked wonders as the chores flew by. Looking up to the sun, Twilight judged that it was hardly ten o’clock by the time they finished—a full half-hour ahead of schedule.

“Wow, Fluttershy!” Twilight marveled. “I don’t think we've ever finished this early.” She beamed, her eyes shimmering. “It feels like the whole day’s out there wide open and ready to be seized!”

Fluttershy's ears perked up. “Oh,” she whispered. “Does that mean you’re free later today?”

Twilight rubbed her chin with a hoof for a moment. “Well, I’m supposed to meet Applejack for lunch, but—” she stopped an raised a hoof “—Wow! I haven’t got anything scheduled the rest of the day. Oh, there’s so much to do! I could finally get caught up on some reading I've been putting off. Or maybe I could talk to Cheerilee about that book exchange program she wanted to set up at the library.”

“Or,” Fluttershy interrupted meekly, as if afraid that Twilight’s words would crush her if she dared to speak up. “Maybe you’d like to come over for dinner this evening?”

It wasn't the first thought to come into Twilight’s head, but it sounded fun, and Fluttershy’s eyes were wide open, staring directly at her. Actually, maybe it seemed even… desperate? No, Twilight thought. What would Fluttershy even be desperate about?

“Sounds great, Fluttershy,” she answered, shaking her head and waving a hoof as if she were pushing smoke away from her face. “When do you want me to come over?”

Fluttershy whinnied and reared up suddenly, clopping her hooves together. “Oh, this is so wonderful!” Fluttershy nearly sang. Twilight laughed and stepped back; she hadn't seen her friend act like this since she met Spike. “Um, how about five. Or, no. Um, is six okay? I want to have time to get ready.”

“Sure thing, Fluttershy.” Twilight was still giggling at her friend’s grin; it was positively infectious. “I’ll see you later this evening.”

Fluttershy smiled and nodded. “Okay. Oh, and have a great day, Twilight.” She hugged her friend goodbye and then turned around, humming to herself as she trotted back to her house.

Finishing early with the animals was an absolute blessing to Twilight’s schedule. Sure, today wasn’t that busy, but the extra half-hour gave her more than enough time to get back home and clean up before her luncheon with Applejack. They were just going to a restaurant in town—nothing fancy—but Twilight didn't want to show up with otter fur all over her legs and stinking of fish.

When she got to the restaurant, Applejack had already arrived and was standing outside, waiting for her. Seeing Twilight approach, she smiled and waved, trotting up to greet her.

“Howdy, Twilight. How’s it goin'?” Applejack tipped her hat in greeting and shook her friend’s hoof before leading her into the restaurant.

“It’s been excellent so far. I went over to help Fluttershy with the animals this morning, and we finished almost a half hour early.”

Applejack smiled and nodded. “That's great. I don't know about you, but I always say a job well done and a job done early are the best two things a pony can ask for.”

"I couldn't agree more. I can't imagine you can get done early too often on the farm, though."

Applejack grimaced a bit and shrugged. “It ain't too bad. The crops take their sweet time, to be sure, but it’s all a cycle. You got busy days and free days.” She smiled at Twilight. “Today’s sort of in between.”

“Thanks for coming to talk with me, Applejack. Sometimes it seems like I hardly see you.”

Dismissing the notion with a wave of her hoof, Applejack chuckled. “I ain't working harder than any other time of year. I think you're just too busy studying lately. Especially with Fluttershy.” A smile crept onto Applejack’s face.

“Oh! And I’m going over for dinner with Fluttershy this evening.” Twilight laughed and took her seat as Applejack did the same. “This day is really shaping up to be a fantastic one!”

Applejack smirked at her friend's enthusiasm. After watching Twilight for a moment, she nodded slowly and said, “It sure sounds like it, sugarcube.”

A moment of silence passed between the two ponies, and their waiter trotted up with a notepad in his hoof. Twilight and Applejack gave him their orders, glancing at each other through the entire process.

“You know,” Twilight drawled after the waiter left, “I've done so much here in Ponyville. I've studied all sorts of things with all sorts of ponies. Baking with Pinkie, sewing with Rarity, animals with Fluttershy—even Rainbow Dash helped me get to and from Cloudsdale to study pegasus culture, and I owe her big time for that.”

“Sure, you do,” Applejack grunted. In less than a second, her pleasant smile returned. “You've done a lot these past years, Twi.”

“Well, yes, but don't think I'm done yet.” As Twilight paused, the waiter brought their salads. “I've done all those things with our friends, and yet I still haven't studied a single thing with you!”

Applejack shrugged. “So?”

“There’s so much to learn on a farm! I could study tool-making, woodworking, horticulture—I… I mean, we could study those things.” She looked down at her hooves for a moment before shaking her head and looking back up. “It’d be such an amazing opportunity. I have no idea why I haven’t thought about it before.”

“Ah, it ain't nothing, Twi. Like I said, you've been mighty busy, that’s all.” Applejack leaned closer to Twilight and looked her directly in the eyes. “Don’t worry about it none. And don’t you cut short any of your other projects just for my sake.” Twilight almost thought she heard a graver tone creep into Applejack’s voice as the mare said, “If things are going well with Fluttershy, then me and my farm can wait.”

“Thanks, Applejack.” Twilight kept smiling as her tone became abruptly more professional. “Still, you know how I don’t like to just make plans willy-nilly. If I did decide to study with you, when would be a good time to start?”

Pursed her lips and blew out a sigh after a long moment of silence. Even when she opened her mouth, she shut it again, looking away and taking a deep breath before returning her gaze to Twilight.

"Please, Applejack. I won't take no for an answer."

“Well,” she began, “I guess next Tuesday’d be a good time to start, seeing as we’re planting some carrots. That way you’d see things all the way through. But, I mean, you’ll have plenty of time to help me on the farm. We've got our whole lives to do that. You're still working with Fluttershy, and you want to see that through, right?”

Tilting her head just a bit, Twilight asked, “Is everything okay, Applejack?”

A wide smile plastered itself over Applejack’s face, and Twilight had to fight the urge to roll her eyes. For a moment, she was silent, wondering whether she should press the farm pony to discover what she was hiding, but that was out of the question. If Applejack wasn't ready to tell Twilight what was bothering her, then she’d wait till her friend was good and ready.

Twilight put a hoof on her friend's shoulder. “Don’t worry, Applejack. You know you can tell me anything. And thanks for the advice.”

“I know, Twi,” Applejack said. “And don’t mention it. Really.”

She’s never been good with secrets, Twilight mused. It’s admirable, in its own way.

Pausing in their conversation to take a quick drink, she finally said, “Okay, then. So, how’s everything on the farm?”

Twilight was coming over for dinner.

Fluttershy's wings fluttered and her breath caught as she repeated the sentence in her head. Twilight is coming over for dinner!

She blushed softly just thinking about it. It’s too early to get excited, she reminded herself. I mean, it hasn’t even started and, well, who knows what could happen.

Despite the daydream scenarios that rushed unbidden into Fluttershy’s mind every time she thought about the incoming visit—too early to call it a date—she could still feel her shoulders slump and her wings wilt as she considered her chances.

After all, this was Twilight Sparkle she was courting. Princess Celestia’s greatest student! She could take her pick of any stallion or mare in Equestria, and Fluttershy was just a hermit living out in the middle of nowhere. Sure, they’d grown close lately, but that was just because of Twilight’s studies. Soon enough, she would be off on her next scholarly pursuit, and Fluttershy would be left behind, like always.

Like always…

This was her best chance. If Fluttershy didn't make a move now, she’d never get a better opportunity. This dinner had to be perfect.

As Fluttershy set the table, she put candles on it before taking them right back. Would that gesture be too obvious? Was being obvious a bad thing? Was she worrying too much about this? Whimpering softly, she placed the candles back at the center of the table. It wasn't worth getting herself worked up for something so trivial. Unless it could make the difference.

Shaking her head, Fluttershy sat down for a moment to collect herself. The clock mounted on her living room wall read four o'clock, but she’d made great progress. The table was set, the house was clean, the animals were fed, Angel wasn’t glaring daggers at her for once, and dinner was—

She had forgotten to start dinner. She barely had two hours to get something ready for Twilight! She couldn’t make anything nice that fast. Gasping and beginning to hyperventilate, she glanced frantically in every direction.

Relax, Fluttershy, she thought. It’s only dinner. We can think of something. A salad—no, that's too plain. This needs to be something special.

She had to make something; she had to show that she could put real care and effort into a relationship. But there just wasn't time, and she didn't have any decent ingredients. The only place she could realistically go to with enough time to spare was…

Sweet Apple Acres.

It could work, Fluttershy insisted to herself. Applejack’s a good friend, and she’d understand if I needed some apples to bake with. Maybe she’d even give some recipes if I asked nicely enough. Straightening her posture, Fluttershy left for Sweet Apple Acres with a song on her lips.

Living out on the family farm most of the time meant that Applejack didn’t really deal with ponies quite as much as some of her friends did. Namely, she had never had a special somepony, but that didn’t mean she didn’t know a crush when she saw one.

It didn't take Applejack long to figure out that something was up with Fluttershy. She had always been, well, shy, but the way she started to blush when talking about Twilight was different somehow. It was… happier, maybe. When she blushed, she smiled, and Applejack could practically feel the sunshine exuding from her as she spoke. It was darn near infectious.

Applejack had to admit, she almost felt jealous of the pony. Her eyes grew distant as she fell back on old memories, but the reverie only lasted a moment before she was catapulted back into reality with a scowl. Kicking at the dirt, she shook her head forcefully

No use thinking of the past. This was the present, and Fluttershy was in love. Well, not really in love, but it was so much easier to say that than something more accurate. In like? In crush? All those phrases sounded, well, wrong. And after all, Applejack was only thinking to herself. She knew what she meant.

She only hoped that she hadn’t been too obvious about Fluttershy’s infatuation at lunch with Twilight. A lie of omission was still a lie, and Applejack took pride in her guileless nature. Of course, that left her in some sticky situations, but her integrity was worth it.

However, if Applejack had blown Fluttershy’s cover…

She was drawn out of her musings by the sound of lightly flapping wings approaching. Not even looking away from her work, she called, “Howdy, Fluttershy. What can I do you for?”

“Hello, Applejack,” Fluttershy said softly once she got closer to her friend. “Um, if it’s not too much trouble, I wanted to ask if you could do me a favor.”

Applejack chuckled. “That depends, sugarcube. What kind of favor?”

“Well, um, I was… Do you have any… I need apples.” Fluttershy's voice grew quieter with each sentence, and Applejack could barely hear her when she added, "For dinner with Twilight."

“Whoa, there, honey. I’d be happy to help.” Applejack smirked. “Especially if you’re having a date with Twilight.”

Fluttershy blushed until her cheeks were tomato red. “Oh, um, well, no… I… I mean it’s not really a… I mean Twilight never said that—”

“Relax, Shy. I was only teasing. I’m sure things’ll go great for you. Just be yourself.”

“O-okay, Applejack." Fluttershy hid behind her mane, stealing a glance at Applejack every so often. "Thank you.”

Applejack placed a hoof on Fluttershy’s shoulder. “Now, would you like a pie or something to go with those apples?”

Fluttershy’s looked down and pawed at the ground. “Oh, that would be lovely, but I don’t want to impose.”

“Don’t mention it, Fluttershy. Anything for a friend.” She began to walk to her house so she could grab one of the pies Granny Smith had baked earlier in the day. “Besides, this is a big day for you, so I want to make it the best it can be.”

“Thank you so much, Applejack.” Fluttershy started to extend her hoof before taking a step back and offering a small smile.

“It’s nothing, sugarcube." Applejack nodded and tilted her hat. "You’re more than welcome.”

Fluttershy trotted home with apples in her satchel and a spring in her step. Her dinner with Twilight was closer than ever, and although she’d have to hurry just a bit to cook the food in time, giggled just thinking about it.

With her mind fully occupied with daydreams about how the next hours could progress, the pegasus made short work of cooking a casserole with the apples Applejack gave her and a few sweet potatoes she’d been saving for a special occasion.

Well, actually, it was only special to her, as far as she knew. She had to constantly remind herself to keep her expectations in check. It was just dinner. It would be a wonderful dinner, and maybe even the start of something more, but it was still just dinner. Take it slowly, was her mantra. Nice and easy.

Angel's good behavior was an immense blessing to Fluttershy. She loved her favorite bunny with all her heart, but he could be a hoofful. Whatever was causing her good mood kept Fluttershy’s mind at ease as she watched the little rabbit hop about leisurely and cast the occasional smile her way.

Fluttershy felt as if the world had collaborated to make this dinner as amazing as possible, and it took a conscious effort not to sing at the top of her lungs out of sheer joy. But she wouldn’t want Twilight to hear. That would be far too embarrassing.

The seconds couldn’t pass fast enough for Fluttershy, and she passed the time fussing over everything. The food, her hair, the decorations—Are the candles really okay?—nothing was safe from her scrutiny, and yet she had to check again. She had to make every effort, take every precaution. This day was as important as life itself, she felt, and she had to pour all of her heart and soul into it.

Every so often she checked outside her windows to see if Twilight was coming, but the knock on her door still came as a surprise. Shifting a vase of flowers an imperceptible bit to the left, she called, “Coming!” hoping that her quiet voice would carry to Twilight's ears. Rushing to open the door, she beamed as she looked at the most beautiful mare in Equestria.

That mare was standing at her door, a bottle of cider floating by her side and a polite smile on her face.

The sight was enough to take Fluttershy’s breath away.

Moving On

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“Are you okay, Fluttershy?”

Fluttershy blinked as she realized that Twilight was frowning at her. Backing away and averting her gaze, Fluttershy stammered, “Oh—uh—sorry. I mean, hello, Twilight.”

There's that beautiful smile again. Oh, I hope she doesn't notice me blushing! Fluttershy tried to hide her face ever deeper into her hair, but Twilight just giggled and brushed her mane aside with a hoof.

“C’mon, Fluttershy. No need to do that. We’re friends here. There's nothing to be nervous about.”

Fluttershy chuckled and nodded. Nothing for her to be nervous about, at least. Taking a deep breath, she let Twilight enter her house and then closed the door.

I don't know if I've ever seen Twilight this beautiful before, Fluttershy thought, fighting to stay upright as her knees began to wobble. She's so… radiant.

If Twilight noticed her friends nervousness, though, she never pointed it out. "How have the animals been doing?" she asked. Her eyes widened as she tilted the cider bottle and added, "Oh! And where should I put this?"

“They’re doing, um, very well,” Fluttershy said. “They all seem to be having a very good day.” Maybe they’re reflecting my own joy. “Here, let me take that,” she added after a moment, grabbing the bottle and walking to the dining room.

A smile flashed across Twilight's face. “I’m glad to hear it. Even Angel?”

“Oh, yes! He’s been such a good bunny today.” Fluttershy saw the rabbit lounging around nearby and went to pet him. “I’m so proud of him.”

Hopping up in response to his owner’s touch, Angel rubbed against her leg affectionately before scampering away. As he darted out of sight, though, he stopped briefly and offered a wink to Fluttershy, who blinked rapidly and turned her attention back to Twilight.

Twilight just looked on with the kind of smile that only a truly adorable sight can elicit. “That bunny can be a hoof full sometimes, but he sure can be cute.”

“So how did lunch with Applejack go?” Fluttershy pulled out a chair at the dinner table for Twilight.

Sitting down, Twilight answered, “It was nice. She’s such a good-natured pony, and you really have to admire her work ethic.”

Fluttershy nodded. “I’ve known her for a long time, and she’s never been anything but kind,” she agreed.

Twilight sighed and kept talking. “Not to mention her experiences on the farm. It’s all so interesting—well maybe not everything, but that’s how most subjects are.”

“Yes,” Fluttershy said with a nod. “She really is great at what she does.”

“But it’s not just that,” Twilight insisted. “There’s something about what she does—working with her hooves to create an actual, physical thing. I’ve never done that before.” Her eyes adopted a distant look as she said, “I’d love to be able to feel what that’s like.”

She glanced back at Fluttershy suddenly and, noticing her friend's frown and downcast eyes, leaned forward to put a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder. “I mean, not that other work isn’t as worthwhile or anything. Working with you to help the animals has been great, for example.”

Seeing Fluttershy's shoulders relax, Twilight pulled away and kept silent, allowing Fluttershy to speak.

“I’m really glad you’ve enjoyed our time together,” Fluttershy said. “Working together, I mean.”

A timer began to ring in the kitchen, and Fluttershy stood and walked over to turn it off. After a moment, she returned with a casserole dish held between her wings. Twilight peered at it to see what was inside, but the dish was opaque, as was the lid on top of it.

“It really has been great,” Twilight said. “I’ve learned so much, and it really feels wonderful to have a positive impact on those animals’ lives.”

Fluttershy nodded sheepishly as she put the casserole dish on the table, but Twilight swore that her friend's shoulders remained slumped well after she returned to her seat. Why? She could only shrug and wait while Fluttershy straightened herself and lifted her head high.

“Yes, it's been nice,” Fluttershy agreed, forcing a small smile onto her face. “And it’s been nice to have you around so much. It's so great to have a friend to help out, and I don't think I could ask for a better friend than you.”

Twilight smiled and blushed just a touch at the compliment. “Oh, Fluttershy! You're too kind.”

Fluttershy shook her head and giggled, adding, “And it’s been great to have someone else to help me take care of all the animals. They’re so lovely and so cute, but they all need so much. I really appreciate all that you’ve done these past weeks.”

Twilight nodded again, still smiling, but her grin lost a hint of its enthusiasm. “Actually, Fluttershy, about that.”

Fluttershy stopped beaming, and her mouth hung open as her ears flattened. “W-what do you mean?” she asked, trembling.

“Well, I’ve really loved being able to spend so much time tending to your pets, Fluttershy, and I’ve learned so much, but I feel like it’s time I moved on.”

“So soon?”

“Actually,” Twilight insisted, “I've spent more time working with you than with anypony else in Ponyville. It’s been months of constant study—and it’s been fantastic, don’t get me wrong.” She licked her lips as her mouth suddenly began to feel dry. “I mean, it’s not like we’ll never hang out anymore. We’ll still see each other in town, and I’ll come back from time to time so I can see my new animal friends. We’re just not… studying together.”

Fluttershy remained silent for a moment, and the tension in the room made that moment drag on for an eternity in Twilight’s mind. It wasn't like she was leaving Ponyville. She’d done this sort of thing with all her other friends, and they weren’t phased in the slightest. Heck, Rainbow Dash was almost happy to get rid of me. This is just ridiculous!

“C'mon, Fluttershy,” Twilight almost snapped, her scowl deepening with every passing moment. Why does she have to stare at me like I'm some sort of bad guy? “It’s not that big a deal. Just… say something! Are you even—”

“Okay,” Fluttershy said simply. The pleading expression left Fluttershy’s eyes, and she lowered her gaze. The slump in Fluttershy's shoulders made Twilight ache, but she still couldn’t escape the feeling that this was all decidedly unreasonable.

“I’m sorry, Fluttershy,” Twilight said. “I lost my temper. I just don’t quite understand. Why is this such a big deal, anyway?”

Straightening in her chair, Fluttershy put on a weak smile and answered, “Oh, it’s not, Twilight. Don’t worry about it. I’m just being silly is all. I’ll just miss the help when I’m working. But I’m ever so thankful that you helped me for so long.”

Twilight wasn’t convinced, but she couldn’t think of any course of action better than nodding and accepting the thank-you. “You’re welcome, Fluttershy. It was nothing, really."

"Still," Fluttershy trailed off almost before she started her sentence.

A long pause engulfed the pair, and Twilight looked around at the cottage for a moment before asking, "So, what're we eating?"

"Oh, how silly of me!" Fluttershy pulled the lid off the casserole dish. "I'm sorry, Twilight—"

"It's nothing to be sorry about," Twilight interrupted.

"Well, either way, we're having apple casserole. I hope that's okay."

Twilight grit her teeth. "Of course it is, Fluttershy."

Fluttershy nodded and began to spoon casserole onto Twilight's plate. After the second scoop, Twilight began to motion for Fluttershy to stop. By the time Fluttershy stopped giving her food, there were at least four generous helpings in front of Twilight.

As Fluttershy served herself, she added, "Also, Applejack was kind enough to give me an apple pie for dessert earlier today."

Twilight clopped her hooves together. "How will we tell the difference between dinner and dessert?" she joked, and Fluttershy giggled softly. Fluttershy raised her hoof and opened her mouth, but she closed it after a moment and served herself another helping of casserole.

Doing likewise, Twilight dug into the hearty meal. "Wow!" she exclaimed after she swallowed her first mouthful. "This is amazing, Fluttershy." She barely got the words out before shoving another piece into her mouth.

Fluttershy positively beamed at the compliment, and her cheeks blushed bright red as she ducked behind her mane. "Thank you, Twilight," she murmured. "I, well, I'm glad you liked it."

The two continued on in silence for a few minutes, Twilight devouring the delicious casserole as Fluttershy daintily picked away at her portion, paying more attention to Twilight than to her meal.

Putting her fork down, Fluttershy opened her mouth and took a deep breath. A moment passed before she simply exhaled and picked her fork back up, glaring at her plate. After the meal, she promised herself, although she wasn't quite sure if she could even find her voice then. Either way, Twilight was too engrossed in her meal to notice Fluttershy's indecision, and the pair went on eating in silence.

Fluttershy forced her eyes away from Twilight and toward the lump of warm casserole on her plate. With just a hint of extra effort, she began spooning more substantial mouthfuls into her mouth. The food was indeed delicious, but she still found her eyes drifting back to Twilight, wondering if the unicorn thought she was being too messy, or eating too fast, or… She pushed the thoughts out of her mind. If she didn't pick up her pace, Twilight would finish long before her, and then the unspoken scrutiny would become unbearable. Galvanized by that notion, she found her appetite, and the pile of apples before her began to shrink rapidly.

As she scooped up a second helping of casserole, Twilight realized how impolite she was being. Blinking once or twice, she looked straight at Fluttershy and said, "I'm so sorry, Fluttershy. I've been so rude! It's just that this casserole is so good and I—" She blushed. "Well, I got a bit carried away."

"That's fine, Twilight. I was busy eating, too." Fluttershy cringed at her own words. Even she could hear how hollow and unconvincing they sounded, and Twilight's unchanged expression confirmed her doubts.

Twilight waved a hoof. "Thanks, but I know I was out of line." She paused for a moment as she searched for a decent conversation starter. "So, where'd you learn to cook such an amazing casserole?"

Fluttershy's cheeks began to redden. "It's just a recipe Applejack taught me a few years ago. I like to save it for special occasions."

"Well, I must say, just eating that casserole is a special occasion in my book," Twilight answered. She sneaked a small bite before continuing. "So it's an Apple family recipe? I'll have to ask Applejack how they keep track of those someday. I know my mom uses a recipe book that her mom made, but with so many Apples out there, I wonder how they keep it all straight. I guess I can ask on Tuesday."

Fluttershy dropped her fork and stared for a moment. "Tuesday?"

"Well, yes. That's when I'm going to start helping out at Sweet Apple Acres."

"You mean, this Tuesday?" Fluttershy's eyes widened, and Twilight found herself unable to look her in the face as she continued.

"Yes, Fluttershy. This Tuesday. But please, we've been over this." She lifted her eyes, knowing she had to be firm with her friend. "I've studied with everypony but Applejack, and although I've loved studying with you, all good things must come to an end." She sighed. "Look, Tuesday isn't for another few days. I can help you tomorrow and over the weekend, but that's it. That's the best I can do."

Fluttershy nodded, but the movement became a shake of her head as she cast her eyes to the floor. Twilight waited for something—anything to indicate that the pegasus was okay—but nothing came forth.

"Fluttershy—" she began to plead, but an upraised hoof stopped her. Determination flaring in her eyes, Fluttershy gulped and said, "I understand, Twilight. I'm just being selfish. We'll still see each other plenty. Just—just promise you'll come back and visit the animals from time to time."

Twilight nodded and smiled weakly. "Of course, Fluttershy."

The pegasus cringed at the emotion she could hear in her friend's voice. With tears welling in her eyes, she turned away abruptly and mumbled, "I… I'll go get dessert."

"That sounds like a great idea." Twilight cleared her throat and glanced away as Fluttershy left the room. Left alone, the unicorn bowed her head, searching for a solution to her problems that she knew would never come.

The two mares ate the apple pie in relative silence, the sweet apples and cinnamon acting as a buffer against the unpleasant realities they faced. They both tried starting new conversations, more pleasant than before, but neither seemed eager to carry a topic far. All the pair could hope for was a swift end to the night, and as soon as they had finished dessert, Twilight put her fork down and stood.

"Um, I think it's getting late," she said, and the air was still for a moment as she waited for Fluttershy.

Finally, Fluttershy nodded and pushed away from the table. "I guess you're right." She blew out a sigh. "I'll see you to the door."

In the awkward quiet, each hoofstep clashed loudly against the cottage floor. The sun had set long ago, and when Fluttershy opened the door to let Twilight out, nothing but the deep shadows of the Everfree Forest greeted them. Not even the moon could offer a comforting light, as nothing but a thin sliver of the celestial body remained visible in the sky.

Slouching her shoulders, Twilight turned around and said, "Goodbye, Fluttershy. I'll see you tomorrow?"

Fluttershy nodded weakly, letting her head bob limply until she was looking at the floor. "Yes. That sounds… nice."

They stood there, shifting about and averting their gazes. Then, unable to take the melancholy of the scene any longer, Twilight straightened herself, dipped her head, and trotted away without another word. Fluttershy stood there for a moment, blinking back tears, before slowly shutting the door.

Alone in her cottage, Fluttershy glanced at the candles still burning on the dining room table before looking out the window to Twilight's retreating form. It was dark out, but her horn glowed like a beacon in the night, bathing her smooth coat and soft hair in soothing lavender light.

The view Fluttershy received of her unrequited love—Twilight's youthful, carefree movements, her easy contentment, her undeniable beauty—left her with a gaping emptiness in her chest. It went beyond mere emotional discontent; Fluttershy felt physical pain, and she at last tore her eyes away from Twilight's departure, unable to bear any more.

As Fluttershy moved to snuff the candles and put away the tablecloth, Angel hopped in front of her, a frown on his face. He reached up toward Fluttershy, who scooped him into her hooves and nuzzled him like a mother, tears welling up in her eyes.

"Hi there, Angel." She struggled to get the words out, hoping in vain that saying such a typical phrase would lift her from her melancholy. If anything, it brought her to the brink of a sob. "How's mama's… mama's—"

Angel put a paw over Fluttershy's mouth and used his other to wipe a tear from her eye. Lip quivering, she stared at Angel's sympathetic eyes for a moment before hugging him tightly and letting all the emotions she'd kept pent up wash over her.

It had all gone so wrong. Her last, best chance to tell Twilight how she felt and maybe, just maybe find something more in their friendship: gone. Tears filled her eyes and began to wet Angel's fur, and sobs wracked her body as the defeat and disappointment overwhelmed her.

The whole night, she had told herself to wait for the perfect moment, the best of all possible times to confess her feelings to Twilight, but with the mare of her dreams long gone she couldn't hide from the truth. She lacked the courage to speak up. She backed down, chickened out, and gave up… everything.

She silently scolded herself for her own melodrama. She hadn't lost everything with that one dinner. It's just… Everything was so perfect, and I was so close, and… I couldn't even stand up for this.

After a minute or two of outright sobs, Fluttershy loosened her embrace of Angel and placed the bunny back on the ground. He gently stroked her mane, but all she could offer in reply was a sad, pathetic smile. He smiled back and, with one last pat of reassurance, hopped away to let Fluttershy deal with her pain alone.

It was nothing, really.

Twilight's words from earlier in the night rushed to her mind unbidden, stinging her with their easy delivery and ironic poignancy. Fluttershy had been fooling herself the whole time. It was nothing. It was just her and Twilight working together. Anypony who thought different was deluded at best.

Faced with the truth of her situation, Fluttershy preferred delusion. The pain seared her heart like a lance, and she doubted she could bear it for another moment.

Still crying, she left the dishes to wash in the morning, assuming she could will herself to even wake up. She knew she would. Even if it never solved her problems, crying seemed to calm her down in the end. She'd get through the night; she didn't have much choice. And she'd wake up feeling empty, but at least she wouldn't hurt quite as bad. She would survive, like always.

Like always…


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As a new morning dawned over Equestria, Twilight opened her eyes to see a glorious sunrise…

And she shut them.

She shut them tight and pulled her blankets over her head, shielding her eyes from the hateful sun. It was beautiful, to be sure—she could tell that just from the brief glance she got—but she wanted none of it. This day felt bad, she felt bad, and more than anything, she just wanted to go back to bed.

Actually, that might not have been entirely correct—there was always some new topic to study in the library—but getting out of bed would mean acknowledging that a new day had begun. It meant acknowledging her promise to Fluttershy. I'll see you tomorrow. Those were the words Twilight had spoken, and she kept her word.

Except now, more than ever, she really didn't want to.

For some reason she couldn't quite describe, Twilight wanted to stay away from Fluttershy. Not for long—certainly not forever—but at least for a day. Fluttershy's sad eyes the night before… She wasn't sure if she could stand their heartbreaking gaze any longer.

But even worse than the fact of her good friend's sadness was her inability to understand it. Twilight was going to work with Applejack, and she'd have less time to help Fluttershy care for the animals, but that simple reality seemed to devastate the pegasus. As best as Twilight could tell, Fluttershy was acting jealous—possessive, even. Maybe I'm just being silly, but what if I'm not? With the way Fluttershy was acting, Twilight had no choice but to guess, and she hated moving forward on flimsy evidence.

Which was why, on this morning, she chose not to move at all. Burying her head in her pillow as if its downy innards could shield her from the ills of the world, shut her eyes tight enough to hurt and hoped that pain could drive away her aching guilt.

Unfortunately, time cares not for feathers and fabric, nor does a hungry baby dragon. At first, it was a light tug, as Spike's scaly hand tried to rouse Twilight from what he thought was actual slumber. Then, he poked her in the side, forcing her to jerk away and eliciting a muffled grunt. "Go away!"

"I know you're awake, Twilight," Spike whined at last, poking her harder than before. "Get up! I can't reach the Cupcake Crisp, and it's time for breakfast."

Growling, Twilight tried to bury her head deeper into her pillows, but Spike would have none of that. Grabbing her head, she turned it to face him directly, and though she tried to keep her eyes closed as long as possible, she had to open them eventually, and then the gig was up.

"Aha! Rise and shine, Twilight!" Spike rocked his shoulders back and forth in a childish victory dance. "Why would you even try to sleep in on a day like this? It's gorgeous!"

"I… had a long night," Twilight blurted out. End of story.

"I guess that's fair." Spike began to walk toward the stairs. "I can't believe you were out so late." He frowned and arched an eyebrow. "I had to put myself to bed, you know."

"And I'm very proud of you for that, Spike, but it's just… I'm just… tired." Twilight forced a smile, but it hardly came across as convincing.

"If you say so," Spike said, his eyes narrowing as he drew his lips into a thin line. "Oh, and by the way, I think you're supposed to visit Fluttershy today." He frowned and snorted. "You know, since you always visit her." He began to step out of the room, but then he shook his head. "Wait, that's it! Can you help me reach the cereal?"

Twilight sighed and lifted her reluctant body out of bed. The short walk into the kitchen took more willpower than she would have expected, and Spike's casual reminder only made things worse for her. No pretending she'd forgotten. She'd have to deal with Fluttershy somehow.

The gleam in Spike's eyes when Twilight poured him a bowl of Cupcake Crunch made Twilight smirk. Nothing but marshmallows! That was Pinkie Pie's pitch for the breakfast food—that is, if you could really call something like that food. Even so, knowing that she could still make somepony happy distracted Twilight for just long enough to give her a much needed smile.

That smile dissipated as she fixed her hair in preparation for visiting Fluttershy, but she clung to the idea that today would be better. Whatever she'd done to disappoint Fluttershy the night before would be a distant memory; she wouldn't ask for anything more or anything less.

If she got less, though…

Twilight took a deep breath and exhaled, slouching her shoulders as if her entire body was deflating. Straightening herself, she cast one last glance at Spike. "I'm going out," she said. "Don't get into any trouble while I'm gone."

Spike rolled his eyes. "As if! Have fun with Fluttershy." He tilted his head as she saw Twilight sigh and open the front door.

Before she could step out onto streets of Ponyville, though, Twilight saw a multicolored blur streak past her house, mere feet away from smashing her open door to splinters. With a loud yelp, she jumped back, and when Rainbow Dash rushed back to apologize, she scowled at the brash pegasus for her recklessness.

"Careful, Rainbow!" Twilight warned. "You almost clobbered me."

Rubbing the back of her neck, Rainbow waved a hoof and chuckled. "Hehe, yeah, but I didn't. So whatcha up to, Twilight?"

Twilight snorted and shook her head. "Oh, no. The real question is: What are you doing?"

"Oh, just being awesome, like always." Rainbow flew into the air and spread her forelegs wide, grinning all the while. "And I was thinking of practicing some of my moves today."

I mean now. What were you doing when you nearly slammed into me? But just then, a hint of an idea flickered in her mind, and she seized on it with a mental vice-grip. "So, you're trying to practice, eh?"

"Well, yeah." Rainbow rolled her eyes. "That's usually what ponies mean when they say they're gonna practice."

"Okay, true," Twilight admitted. "But still, do you have anypony to practice with?"

"Um, no offense, Twilight, but it's not like you have any flying experience." Rainbow landed beside Twilight and patted her shoulder, drawing another scowl from Twilight. "Beside, I'm awesome enough on my own!"

Twilight's toothy grin grew wider, and she put a foreleg around her friend's shoulders. "You're misunderstanding, Rainbow. Good ol', friendship-loving Rainbow."

"Uh, Twilight, can you just get to the point." Rainbow inched away slowly. "I have to go do, like, stuff, so—"

"You should ask Fluttershy to watch you practice." Twilight kept her voice as upbeat as possible, fearing that the faintest sign of faltering would drive Rainbow away. "She can cheer you on and let you know if there's any way for you to improve."

Rainbow rolled her eyes and waved her hoof. "As if there's any way I could be more awesome." Nonetheless, she paused a moment to consider the suggestion. "I guess it would be nice to have a first-hoof account of how awesome I am. And Fluttershy sure has gotten better at cheering since I did that sonic rainboom—"

"See! It's perfect!" Twilight had her chance, and there wasn't a prayer of her letting it go. "You should go get her now. She's probably at her cottage—she could use a good time."

"Well, okay." Rainbow Dash grinned like a foal and began to fly off. Before zooming out of sight, though, she stopped and turned to Twilight. "Why?"

Twilight brought a hoof to her chin and averted her gaze. "Oh, well, um, I just think that'd be fun for you two. You know, two pegasi flying together. You'll both enjoy the company."

Rainbow narrowed her eyes and stared at Twilight, but the scrutiny only lasted a moment before she shrugged and shook her head. Twilight was her friend, and she knew the unicorn would never do anything to hurt her. "Alright, then. See you later, Twilight."

With that, Rainbow dashed off toward Fluttershy's cottage, and Twilight breathed a long sigh. "Guess I'm free for the day, then," she told no one in particular. She considered heading back inside the library, but then she'd have to explain to Spike why she was bailing on Fluttershy. Besides, she could use something to help her relax. As that thought prevailed in her mind, she trotted off toward the Ponyville Cafe.

Fluttershy had no problem waking up in the morning; all the sorrow that would have sapped away her willpower had drained away with her tears. All that remained was emptiness, true, but she could work through that. After all, her animal friends depended on her, and even her broken heart wouldn't stop her from tending to their innocent lives.

As she trotted past the spot by the river where her otters's made their den, Fluttershy let her eyes linger on the spot. They're Twilight's favorite, she thought, blinking back tears. I can feed them later. They won't even know I passed them by. Biting her lip, Fluttershy turned and began to leave, but then she heard the pitter patter of tiny paws behind her.

"Oh, hello," she said to the runt of the litter, who now sat in front of her. He blinked from time to time, but no sound escaped him as he and Fluttershy stood transfixed in the middle of the clearing.

At last, the runt purred softly, taking a step forward to brush against Fluttershy's legs. He circled her a few times before coming to a stop and sniffing her.

"Sorry, little otter," she said, stroking his fur tenderly. She sat down and showed him her hooves. "I don't have anything with me right now."

The runt licked one of her hooves and nuzzled it. As his purring grew louder, the rest of the otters began to emerge from their den. Soon, the air was alive with the sound of chattering otters. A few stepped forward and sniffed Fluttershy tentatively, but they gave her a wide berth as she began to pet the runt once more.

"Okay, friends," she said, lips trembling as she tried to smile. "I'll go back to my cottage and get you some food. Then I'll… I'll…" The tears she had been blinking back finally spilled over, and she buried her face in her hooves as the otters all rushed to her at once. The sound of her weeping was quickly drowned out by their noise, and as they began to nuzzle and pet her all over, Fluttershy wiped her eyes and smiled at all of them.

"Thank you so much," she said, her voice breaking as she threatened to burst into tears again. "Here, let me get you your—"

Fluttershy's ears perked up as she heard something zooming through the air—in her direction if she wasn't mistaken. Her eyes widened and her knees began to shake. "Find shelter, friends," she told the animals, who scurried away with loud chattering and high-pitched cries. If it was a hawk, or an egret or a d—d—dragon…

Or Rainbow Dash. Before Fluttershy could even contemplate what she was about to face, she realized that Rainbow was hovering just inches in front of her. Screaming, she tried to gallop away, but Rainbow grabbed her by the shoulders and put a quick stop to that.

"Hey, 'Shy!" Rainbow chirped, still holding Fluttershy fast. "Whatcha doing?"

"Um, I'm tending my animals…" Fluttershy's turned her gaze to the grass at her hooves.

Rainbow snorted and inched closer with a powerful flap of her wings. "Sounds fun." She rolled her eyes. "Anyway, if you want to do something more, I don't know, awesome, you should watch me practice some new moves I've been working on.

Fluttershy's eyes widened and she took a step forward. "Oh, but it's been so long. You haven't asked me to—"

Rainbow Dash drooped a bit and landed, putting a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder. "I know, I haven't seen you around so much. I had some…" She huffed as she gazed at the sky with misty eyes. "I had some things to deal with. Anyway, we're friends! I mean, I've known you since Cloudsdale. We've gotta stick together."

Fluttershy grinned and wrapped Rainbow in a tight embrace. "Okay, Rainbow Dash. But Twilight was supposed to come over to help me with my animal friends, so—"

Rainbow put a hoof up. "Is she here yet?"

Fluttershy backed away. "No, but—"

"Are you still not done feeding the animals?" Rainbow tilted her head and leaned toward Fluttershy.

After a moment, Fluttershy hid her face behind her mane. "I'm almost done."

Rainbow soared upward and pumped her hoof in the air. "Then wrap it up, and let's get going! If Twilight needs us she'll use some egghead magic to find us anyway."

For a moment, Fluttershy hesitated, but in the end Rainbow's words won her over. She needed something to distract her from the night before, and working with Twilight would do anything but that. Rainbow Dash was a good friend, and her smile practically stretched from ear to ear—although she always looked like that when she was ready to practice.

"Okay, Rainbow Dash." I'll do it, Fluttershy thought. Let Twilight find me if she needs me. Today, I get to do what I want.

Today, I get to fly with Rainbow Dash.

Sipping a latte, Twilight took a seat at one of the Ponyville Cafe's patio tables. Normally, she didn't like sitting on her own with nothing to read or work on, but she needed time to think. Whatever was wrong with Fluttershy, Twilight knew that she had some sort of responsibility for it, and she had to figure out why. She had always prided herself for her critical thinking skills, but at the moment, she found those skills remarkably lacking.

"Twilight! What are you doing here on a fine Friday morning like this."

Without turning around, Twilight replied, "Hi, Rarity." She turned to see her friend approaching and grinned.

"Fancy meeting you here," Rarity said, an espresso levitating by her side and a smile spreading across her face. "I was just stopping by to get my morning coffee, but please, Twilight, may I sit with you?" Her eyes twinkled when Twilight nodded. "Splendid! How have you been, by the way?"

Twilight shrugged. "I've been busy, that's for sure."

"Your studies, I presume?" Rarity raised an eyebrow.

"Yes. I'm actually sort of in the process of shifting focuses." Twilight almost began to tell Rarity about the last night's events, but she pressed her lips together and took a deep breath. "Applejack told me I can start working at Sweet Apple Acres with her on Tuesday, so I'll be joining her soon."

Rarity nodded, sipping at her coffee. "I suppose that means you won't be helping Fluttershy as much anymore."

Twilight sighed. "Yeah. I think she's a little disappointed, but it's just one of those things. You know?"

"It's inevitable, dear." Rarity nodded. "I'm sure she'll find a way to cope. She's a strong mare."

Though she didn't fully agree, Twilight nodded. "Yeah, and she's got other friends, right? We're all friends." Her voice grew louder, almost to the point of shouting. "We've all got one another!"

"Yes, dear," Rarity said pursing her lips and tilting her head. "And I'm sure she knows that, but, ah." She furrowed her brow and shrugged. "I fail to see the relevance."

"Nevermind, Rarity." Twilight's eyes grew dull as she slouched her shoulders.

"Oh, Twilight, you really mustn't look so glum!" Rarity edged her chair toward Twilight's a put a hoof on her shoulder. "Surely she can't be that disappointed."

It took her a moment, but Twilight frowned slightly and nodded. "You're right, Rarity. Change is just difficult…for both of us. As soon as I start working with Applejack, Fluttershy will figure out a new routine. We'll be all right again." At least, I hope so.

Rarity smiled. "Exactly, dear. And you simply must tell me what it's like to work with Applejack." She frowned a bit as she continued. "I can't imagine she cares much for propriety and the like." Almost instantly, her closed-mouth grin returned. "Anyway, we have so much to catch up on. How has life been treating you lately?"

Fluttershy almost forgot how skilled a flyer Rainbow Dash was. Not quite, but almost.

The two hadn't spent time together in so long, it seemed like an eternity. They'd both gotten so busy: Fluttershy with Twilight and Rainbow with… stuff. Whatever it had been, Fluttershy was confident that her friend had been able to deal with it. It had just taken time.

At least we've had today, Fluttershy thought. I don't think we've been apart for more than a couple of minutes all day. She grinned. She sure loves to fly. I'm lucky I managed to convince her to stop for lunch.

Rainbow soared within a few feet of Fluttershy, who tried in vain to keep her pink mane from being blown all about by the resulting winds. Rainbow, whose eyes watered as the air protested against her speed, paid her friend no heed and proceeded to perform a rapid series of loops, flips, rolls and dives.

As Fluttershy watched Rainbow, a lurching emptiness began to take shape in her stomach. What if Twilight comes to the cottage and can't find me? Will she be mad? Fluttershy had made the decision to join Rainbow Dash without much thought. It was an impulsive, somewhat spiteful act. Let Twilight figure things out. Now, though, Fluttershy kicked herself for her own selfish behavior.

"What's wrong, 'Shy?" Rainbow landed next to her friend, and Fluttershy realized that she had stopped cheering.

"S-sorry, Rainbow Dash. I was just thinking." Fluttershy tried to hide behind her hair, but Rainbow pushed it aside to look straight into her eyes.

"You've got to stop being so shy," Rainbow insisted. "I know it's in your name and all, but c'mon! Scaredy cats never make it in the history books."

"I know." Fluttershy tried to hide behind her mane.

Rainbow saw the gesture and frowned, slouching her shoulders as she took a step forward. I'll be a horsefly if I let her avoid telling me what's eating at her.

"What's wrong, Fluttershy." Rainbow folded her wings and nuzzled her friend's cheek. "Seriously, you can tell me anything."

Anything. It all stretched out before Fluttershy. The day Twilight asked if she could help care for the animals. The day they fixed that hurt bird's wing. The moment Fluttershy looked at Twilight's face and saw this twinkle in her eyes that she never wanted to look away from. Every moment since then: the longing, the unattainability—so close, yet so far. She could tell Rainbow anything. Anything…

"I'm just worried that … one of my animal friends might be sick." Fluttershy was disgusted at herself, but she couldn't bring herself to say anything different. "One of the bunnies. He has me a little concerned; that's all."

Rainbow Dash's wings flared as a scowl flashed across her face, but to her credit she didn't roll her eyes. "Well, do you think it's serious?" There clearly wasn't much heart behind the question, but Fluttershy appreciated the gesture even so.

"Um, probably not," she admitted—a true assessment, judging by the fact that none of the animals really were sick. "I'm just a silly pony, I guess."

Rainbow snorted, a smile returning to her face. She pulled Fluttershy closer to her and began to tousle Fluttershy's pink mane, giggling as she did so. "I've known that for a while, 'Shy." She lowered her hoof and yawned slowly. "Well, I think that was a good day of practice. I'm beat."

Fluttershy looked at the sun and saw that it was already nearing the horizon. "Oh my, I didn't even realize you'd been flying so long."

"Well, I'm not the only thing that flies when you're having fun." Rainbow chuckled. "C'mon, I'll fly you home."

Nodding, Fluttershy joined her in the air as they made their way to her cottage. "Thank you, Rainbow."

"Don't mention it." Rainbow forced herself to stop grinning as she added, "And if anything does come up, if you need somepony to talk to—about anything—just let me know."

Fluttershy grimaced. "I promise."

A Hard Day's Work

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Tuesday arrived at Twilight's doorstep in a flash. Before she knew it, Friday became Saturday, Saturday became Sunday, and Sunday became Monday in a giant blur. But today was the big day, and as soon as the sun rose she jumped out of bed to make herself a hearty, balanced breakfast. She would have to keep her strength up if she didn't want to get in Applejack's way, and the last thing she wanted to be was a hindrance.

She hadn't really done much the past few days. Aside from studying and going a couple of errands, she mainly just rested up for her first big day at Sweet Apple Acres. Part of her could hardly wait to start working, and she wanted to impress Applejack with her energy and endurance. Even so, she knew there was another reason she'd been such a shut in. Every minute spent out of the library was a minute she ran the risk of dealing with Fluttershy. She'd have to talk to Fluttershy again at some point, but Twilight had enough on her plate at the moment. Whatever issues Fluttershy had would have to wait.

Twilight winced at her own thoughts. She knew her reasons for avoiding Fluttershy were weak, but she didn't want to hurt her friend even more. Whatever she had done a few nights ago was far from intentional, and Twilight knew better than to assume she wouldn't make things worse by trying to confront Fluttershy about it. She'd need to think about how to approach the situation first, and that kind of thing couldn't be rushed. A checklist, maybe, or, better yet, a flow chart. Before she could construct one of those, though, it was best to exercise caution.

Her inner turmoil might have taken a small fraction of the spring out of her step as she trotted to Sweet Apple Acres, but Twilight kept a grin on her face as she approached the farm. Today was the start of something new, and interesting, and fun! As soon as the apple orchards came into view, she could smell the scent of their sweet fruit in the air. As she let the heavenly smell wash over her, the chirping of nearby birds filled her ears. Twilight closed her eyes, her smile spreading ever wider as she fell into a deeper and deeper bliss.

"Howdy, Twi!" Her rapturous state interrupted, Twilight opened her eyes to look for Applejack, only to find the mare's orange face less than two feet away from her own. She yelped and jumped back, falling on her rump before grinning sheepishly. As she regained her footing, she lowered her eyes and turned her head to the side.

"Hey, Applejack," she replied in a low tone, blushing furiously. Her friend offered a hoof to help her up, and she accepted it with a smile. "I was, um, just enjoying the scenery."

Applejack stifled a laugh and came out with a less than graceful snort. She coughed and brought a hoof to her face in a vain attempt to cover the blush that rapidly spread across her cheeks. "Sorry, sugarcube. It sure is beautiful 'round here."

Twilight bobbed her head up and down. "It must be so great having this to enjoy while you work."

At that, Applejack felt no need to suppress her laughter. "There ain't much time for enjoying it if you're working hard enough. But yes, I wouldn't want to live anyplace else."

"I can't blame you." Twilight noticed that Applejack had a pair of full saddlebags on and asked, "Do you need any help with those?"

"I've got it," Applejack drawled, but Twilight chuckled and shook her head. A shimmering purple haze engulfed the bags before they lifted into the air. Twilight smirked as she glanced back at Applejack. Her smirk widened as she saw Applejack breathe a sigh even as she rolled her eyes.

"It's nothing, really," Twilight told Applejack curtly.

"Yeah, which is why I was dealing with it just fine," Applejack commented without missing a beat.

Twilight giggled before letting out a low whistle under her breath. "I'm the one who has to earn my keep here, Applejack. You have to give me every chance I can get."

"Twi, you're helping my family on the farm for no pay, just to learn. S'long as you don't break nothing, you'll be more than good in my book."

Twilight's cheeks exploded into a deep pink blush that quickly became rose red as she turned away from Applejack to hide it. "You're the one who's doing me a favor."

"How about we both agree to be thankful and just leave it there?" Applejack drawled. Seeing Twilight nod and giggle, she smiled back and said, "Great. Let's get going to the carrot field, then."

It turned out that the two weren't far from the field they would be planting, and there was only room for the most basic small talk before they reached their destination.

Once the field came in view, Twilight immediately slowed down and glanced back at Applejack. She furrowed her brow as she gazed at a field that was already plowed in neat, parallel lines.

"I thought you said we were just starting the planting process today." Twilight tried to keep the complaint out of her voice, but the effort proved futile.

Applejack rubbed the back of her neck and offered up a toothy grin. "I did," she admitted, "and we are. It's just, well, plowing is a mighty difficult job, and Big Mac and I thought we'd take care of it just this once so you could ease into things a bit more."

Twilight blew a large, forceful sigh, easing the saddlebags slowly onto the ground. Glaring at each and every rut, she said, "Is there anything I can do to touch things up?" After a moment, her eye caught on something, and her ears perked up immediately. "Aha!"

"Um… What is it, Twi?" Applejack asked.

The unicorn thrust a hoof at the last furrow on the right. "Look at that line, right there! See!" She smirked and peeked back at Applejack's tilted head. "It's crooked, Applejack."

Applejack trotted up to the trench and, sure enough, Twilight was right. Toward the end of the line—for maybe the last five paces—the line became slightly jagged. This time, Applejack made a point of rolling her eyes in full view of her friend.

"It ain't even a big deal, Twi," she insisted, stomping a hoof on the ground. "You've just got to—"

Before Applejack could finish her sentence, a purple haze engulfed the entire furrow and pulled the dirt in on itself, filling the trench like it had never existed. Applejack jumped back a step and grit her teeth. "Consarnit, Twilight! Why'd you do that?"

"I hope there's a plow nearby," Twilight said to herself, smirking at Applejack. "I'd like to try this the old-fashioned way."

What felt like Applejack's thousandth sigh of the day deteriorated into a begrudging laugh as she watched Twilight plant her hooves and pout. "We've got a shed over here," Applejack said, jerking her head in the direction of the small, worn building. "I think Mac left it there after he finished this morning."

Twilight's eyes twinkled and her teeth sparkled as she beamed at Applejack. "Thanks, Applejack."

Shaking her head, Applejack chuckled. "Only 'cause you twisted my leg, sugarcube."

Once Applejack got to the shed and threw open the door, Twilight started to levitate the plow out of the shed before her jaw went slack and she released her magical grip on the tool.

"You okay, Twi?" Applejack asked, frowning and taking a step forward.

Twilight nodded and bit her lip. "Absolutely, Applejack. I just realized that if I'm going to do this right, I should pull the plow on like you or Big Macintosh would: no magic required."

At last, it was time for Applejack to put her hoof down. "Alright, sugarcube, I'll let you plow that furrow—one furrow, mind you—but please, just magic it on over to the field. It's heavier than you think."

Not about to strain her friend's good humor, Twilight looked her in the eyes and nodded. The purple haze rematerialized around the plow, and it slowly made its way out of the shed before picking up speed and flying over to the beginning of the furrow.

It took only a few moments to trot back to the field, and once Twilight made some final adjustments to the position and orientation of the plow, she grunted and turned to Applejack. "So how do I hook myself into this?"

"Don't you remember your first Winter Wrap Up?" Applejack asked.

Twilight looked at the plow—it looked nothing like the canopied wagons used to clear snow, and something that looked like a harness hung in the air in front of the blade. "This is nothing like that!"

"Exactly, sugarcube. It's nowhere near as cushy," Applejack responded without skipping a beat. "You sure you want to do this?"

"I'm not taking no for an answer," Twilight insisted. She stomped a hoof and scowled. Walking up to the harness, she asked, "Can you help me figure this thing out, though?"

Once Twilight had herself properly situated in the plow's harness, she began to pull it down the field. For a good few moments, she worked and strained against the immutable force of friction, failing to win out against unforgiving physics. After a while, she took a moment to catch her breath, then started to pull again, dragging the plow a few inches forward at a dreadfully slow pace.

Content to let Twilight learn for herself the error of her ways, Applejack sat back and watched, grinning despite herself. I've got to admit, she's got a fantastic work ethic. Her eyes began to stray from Twilight's grimacing face to her straining shoulders down to something much more appealing to look at. And now that I think about it, she's got some pretty fine flanks, she added, blushing. She chuckled and shook her head, tugging her hat down to shade her face. Its true after all. I can see why Fluttershy's taken such a shine to her.

The thought reminded her of Fluttershy's visit a few days earlier, and Applejack hollered, "Hey, Twi! I forgot to ask. How'd dinner with Fluttershy go the other day?"

Twilight immediately stopped pushing and collapsed on the ground, out of breath. Applejack rushed toward her friend, eyes widening, but Twilight waved her off with a hoof. "I'm not hurt, I'm just—sorry. Dinner was sort of… awkward?"

A pit opened in Applejack's chest, and her heart fell right into it, going into free fall. "Oh, Twi, you didn't—"

"It's not that big a deal!" Twilight snapped. "Yeah, I told her I was going to work here for a while, that I couldn't help her with the animals every day, but why's that such a problem?"

Applejack let out a sigh, but her frown remained. "Just tell me what happened, sugarcube."

"I don't know. That's the problem." Twilight bowed her head. "Fluttershy was acting like it was the end of the world. It was ridiculous! But I don't know, maybe I was wrong. What do you think, Applejack?"

Applejack shook her head. "Whatever it was, Twilight, I'm sure you didn't do nothing wrong, especially not on purpose. Did Fluttershy tell you what the problem was later on?"

Twilight's grimace only caused Applejack's frown to deepen. "Um, I've been kind of busy this weekend, so I haven't really seen her yet."

Applejack narrowed her eyes, and Twilight's shoulders drooped even more. "You know better than that, Twi," Applejack said softly, almost sadly. "You can't let things linger like that."

"I know. I feel horrible, but—"

"So how do you think Fluttershy feels?" Applejack had known the pegasus for years, and for all her hidden strength, Applejack held no illusions about her emotional fortitude. "I just can't believe you'd do something like this, Twi—especially to a good friend."

Twilight winced. She hated the idea that she was anything but good to her friends. "I don't even know what to do, though! Do I apologize? Do I try and brush it off? Whatever it was, anyway." She shifted around in her harness as she let out a loud groan.

"Let me help you out of there," Applejack offered, but Twilight shook her head firmly. Her horn flared, and the plow began to move on its own, leaving her to just trot ahead with it.

"Careful, Twi!" Applejack shouted. "Remember Winter Wrap Up!"

"This is nothing like that, remember." Twilight accompanied her smile with a roll of her eyes. "Hold on a moment."

Applejack stood stock still as the plow made its way across the field and when Twilight completed the furrow without incident, she let out a massive sigh of relief. Even in her stressed condition, though, she did not miss the irony of what Twilight had just done. She smirked as she asked, "Not as easy as it looks, huh?"

Twilight laughed and rolled her eyes. "I might have bit off more than I could chew," she admitted. "My magic sure took care of it, though."

"Fair enough," Applejack conceded. "How about we get back to something your magic can't fix, though."

Twilight pouted and slouched her shoulders. "Alright. Nice segue, though."

Applejack couldn't help but laugh at the compliment. "Thanks, I guess."

"Anyway…" Twilight took a breath before resuming. "I was going to say that I'm not avoiding her on purpose. I mean, I guess I kind of am, but it's not because I don't want to fix things—I definitely want to clear the air. I don't really know what to do, though, and I don't want to make things worse."

"Sometimes you have to take a risk, Twi," Applejack said, putting a hoof on Twilight's shoulders. "You can't help it."

"But you could try and figure out what's wrong," Twilight insisted, her eyes widening as a grin slowly spread across her face.. "Please, Applejack. Just go over sometime soon and ask her what's up, make small talk."

Applejack grimace. "I'm the element of honesty, sugarcube."

"It's not lying, Applejack. It's not even—" Twilight began to take a step forward, but Applejack stopped her with an upraised hoof.

"Have you seen me try to be keep a secret, though?" Applejack raised an eyebrow.

Twilight opened her mouth and blew out a sigh. "I guess that's a good point."

"And besides, I hardly ever go to Fluttershy's. It'd be weird, and she'd notice. This is your responsibility, sugarcube."

Twilight's ears flattened against her head. "What if she's mad at me? What if she doesn't want to see me?"

Applejack half-smiled. "Twilight, just trust me when I say she'd be anything before she'd be angry with you."

Twilight returned the weak smile. "Promise?"

Applejack's grin spread to overtake her whole face. "Of course I do, Twi."

Planting the carrots was a fairly uneventful job. Uneventful and long, just like always. Even so, Applejack laughed inwardly at the way Twilight's mouth scrunched up when she was deep in thought. At the end of the day, she found herself enjoying her work far more than she had any right to.

In fact, she was awful glad that Twilight had decided to join her on the farm. The two ponies had remained friends in the years since Twilight's move to Ponyville, but Applejack's farm work kept her busy most of the time. Besides, most of their time together had been with the rest of the girls, and Applejack rarely got to interact with Twilight one on one.

Now, as the two worked on a farm—Twilight at a farm, of all places!—Applejack could kick herself for not making this happen sooner.

For their friendship, of course. It was just fun to have Twilight around as a friend. Nothing more. Applejack had always been fond of mares, but not Twilight. Of course not. After all, it wasn't like they had all that much in common. And they hadn't even spent too much time alone before today. And that was to say nothing of Fluttershy…

Applejack knew what it was like to love someone. She knew what it was like to yearn so long and so deep that it hurt, emotionally and physically. And she knew what it was like to have that thrown in her face, after so long. So many wasted efforts, broken dreams...

She would do everything she could to keep Fluttershy from feeling that. She would do anything to ensure that nopony ever experienced that sort of pain again.

She would do it in ten seconds flat—that is, if the very phrase didn't fill her mouth with a bitter taste that refused to go away.

Those thoughts cast only the slightest, most fleeting shadows on Applejack's day. On the whole, it was wonderful. Twilight proved surprisingly helpful. Most of the facts and figures she brought to bear were things Applejack already knew, but from time to time she revealed a brand new landscape of insight to the seasoned farm pony. They were booksmarts—not the product of honest experience—but they impressed her all the same.

And it didn't hurt that the twinkle in Twilight's eye and her enthusiastic work ethic made Applejack feel like a young filly again, just learning about the wonders life bore witness to.

As they covered the last carrot seeds with rich, fertile soil, Applejack patted the earth and offered Twilight a warm smile. "Hey, Twi. Thanks for helping today."

Twilight's eyes twinkled as she beamed at Applejack, and it looked like she had to work just to keep still. "It really was nothing, Applejack. It was all so much fun seeing what you do and how you do it. I should be thanking you, really." She giggled and said, "So, thank you."

Applejack chuckled and turned her gaze to the setting sun. "I guess it's getting late," she commented, though the fact hardly surprised her. The pair was right on schedule, according to Applejack's estimation.

"Does that mean we're done for today?" Applejack could hear the whine in Twilight's voice, but she also caught a hint of fatigue. Twilight was ready to be done; Applejack was sure of it.

"I think we've got enough work done for one day," Applejack drawled, letting her words stretch out into a yawn. "Granny Smith's probably finishing dinner about now. Do you want to eat with us?"

"Sure." Twilight dipped her head in a shallow nod and yawned. "Just promise not to be weird or anything," she joked, although the words seemed a bit strained coming from her.

Applejack scoffed. "I can't make no promises, sugarcube, but I'll try my best." She offered a playful grin. "If you insist, of course."

Twilight giggled and rolled her eyes, nudging . "Oh, I definitely do, Jackie."

Suddenly, like a snuffed candle, Applejack's face darkened. The grin was gone. The twinkle in her eye was gone. Her mouth hung agape as she struggled to blink tears back. A few gasps and whimpers escaped her lips, and her whole body trembled as she stood motionless for a long, agonizing moment.

"What's wrong, J—Applejack?" Twilight asked, a frown overtaking her features.

Applejack refused to make eye contact. "Don't call me Jackie, Twilight." She spat the words out as if they were venom befor biting her lip and pausing. "I'm sorry, but that's just got to be a rule with us."

"Okay…" Twilight nodded. "But—"

"No questions, please." Applejack drew her lips into a thin line and shrugged. "Let's just say it brings up bad memories."

Knowing she'd get nothing more from her friend on the subject, Twilight nodded again, eager to move on. "I understand. Anyway, let's get going, AJ."

Applejack gave her a half-smile. "What's with the nicknames, Twi?"

Twilight looked around as she casually replied, "Well, you call me Twi, so I thought I'd have to find something to call you." A smile spread across her face as she finished her sentence, and she leaned into Applejack's shoulder. "It only seems fair."

Applejack pulled away suddenly, causing Twilight to lose her balance and fall into the dirt. Not good, Applejack thought, cursing silently. She blushed a bit as her mind raced at a thousand miles a minute. Not good, not good, not good!

"Sorry," Twilight said hastily, drawing back with a blush. "I was just trying to be funny." Whatever that means, she silently added as she marveled at her lack of eloquence.

"Oh, no, it was funny," Applejack replied just as quickly, wondering how much worse this conversation could get. "You just startled me was all."

Twilight giggled longer and louder than necessary. "Okay. Yeah, I didn't mean anything." Her eyes widened and she reached toward Applejack befor pulling away once more. "I mean—no, I guess that's true."

Applejack snorted. "Not even sure what it could mean?" she asked with an eyebrow raised.

"Not a clue," Twilight answered, stifling another giggle.

"Me neither." As the two both laughed, they smelled the sweet scent of baked apples wafting from the Apple Family home and began to trot in its direction, hoping that dinner was ready and eager to dig into a hearty meal.

Just Desserts

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Falling somewhere just short of a full-fledged barn, the Apple Family home was quaint in its own way. Its design was a bit odd, Twilight thought, but she really didn't have any room to object. After all, she was the one who lived and worked in a tree. At the very least, the Apples kept their home much tidier than Twilight kept her living quarters. It looked nice and homey. The whole house simply exuded warmth.

Actually, that might have just been the kitchen. That room in particular also hosted a variety of delectable scents that wafted into Twilight's nose and tantalized her with their intangible appeal. She could feel her mouth water, and she could hardly wait for Granny Smith to bring out dinner so she could dig in.

Apple Bloom and Big Macintosh already sat at the table, joined by Applejack after she was assured that Twilight was fully taken care of. The farm pony sat between her siblings so that Big Mac separated her from Twilight, and an empty chair—presumably for Granny Smith—rested to the unicorn's left. It seemed to confuse everypony else just as much as it confused Twilight, but Applejack didn't say anything, so neither did she.

Could it be because of what I did outside? Twilight wondered. It hadn't seemed like a big deal at the time, but Applejack had seemed surprisingly uncomfortable when Twilight leaned into her. Weird was the only word Twilight could find to describe it.

It wasn't as if Twilight thought she was doing anything inappropriate. She was just telling a joke, and she'd read that delivery was everything when it came to that. Right? It wasn't like she'd been acting flirty, and besides, Applejack was a mare!

Twilight stopped herself. She hadn't actually thought of that before. True, Applejack was a mare, but what did that matter? It wasn't like Twilight hung out with many stallions, and she definitely never thought of them romantically. Well, maybe occasionally. Some of the fiction in the library was very … evocative. Either way, mares were easier to deal with. Twilight understood them. And they could be really pretty. As a matter of fact, Applejack was very pretty—but of course, Twilight couldn't date a close friend like her.

With Big Mac and Applejack whispering harshly to each other and Apple Bloom trying to listen in, no one interrupted Twilight's increasingly wayward train of thought. Or could I? Her parents had always told her that they were best friends, and that was what made their marriage so strong. With that in mind, Twilight supposed she could see herself dating one of her friends. Well, not Rarity—she seemed way too high-maintenance. And Pinkie Pie would only drive her crazy. Needless to say, Rainbow Dash wasn't even close to a good match.

I guess Fluttershy's nice, Twilight thought to herself, ignoring how strange her ideas were becoming. She'd definitely do everything she could to take care of me— she shook her head, and the Apples looked at her questioningly.

"You okay, sugarcube?" Applejack asked.

Twilight nodded, blushing slightly. "Yeah. Just got a chill," she lied. Big Mac tapped on Applejack's shoulder and they resumed their conversation, leaving Twilight to reenter her mind. Fluttershy's way too innocent to even think of that sort of thing. She's so vulnerable, I don't think she could handle the ups and downs of a relationship.

That left … Applejack, really. Twilight had to admit she wouldn't mind seeing how that scenario might play out. Applejack was one of the best ponies Twilight knew: hard-working, skilled, honest, loyal to the bitter end, and always striving to improve. She had a tendency to be simple, but not in a negative way. Applejack felt the world shouldn't have to be complicated, and Twilight admired that quality.

Of course, that was all assuming that Applejack could even be interested in that sort of thing. Other than Rarity's occasional and often tumultuous relationships, Twilight didn't know much about her friends' love lives. She didn't even know if Applejack liked mares! Or anypony, for that matter. If anypony was married to her work, Applejack fit the bill. Twilight suppressed a sigh as she surmised that she probably wouldn't stand a chance.

And then she stopped herself. Maybe I worked too hard today, she thought. I might be delirious. For a second, she felt like she actually wanted to try being more than friends with Applejack, and that was just … that was just silly!


Just then, Granny Smith came through the kitchen door with a tray in one hoof. Hobbling to the table, she placed the tray on it and said, "Soup's on everypony!"

As Apple Bloom cheered and Big Mac licked his lips, Applejack smiled at Twilight and said, "Let's eat."

Oh, this is bad. Applejack couldn't believe it. This is extremely very not good. Just as Fluttershy was trying to win Twilight's heart, here she was accidentally stealing the unicorn away from one of her best friends!

It's not so bad, Applejack told herself. I'm just overreacting. I just need somepony to talk me down. Set me straight. As she and Twilight entered the dining room, she saw Big Mac. More importantly, she saw an open chair next to him. Perfect!

When Twilight took the seat to the left of Big Mac, it made things a bit more awkward, but when she had to decide between sitting next to her friend and sitting next to her brother, there was little question. Big Mac had never been the loquacious type, but Applejack needed advice fast, and he had a way of cutting right to the core of things.

Of course, that also meant that he wasn't afraid to call somepony out when he saw something wrong. As Applejack sat next to him, he turned his head, the glare on his face making it apparent that he was about to speak up.

"Just hear me out, big brother," she whispered hastily, hoping to head off whatever sharp words he had in mind.

"Make it quick then," he rumbled, taking his sister's cue and keeping quiet. "The way I see things, you're bein' mighty rude to your friend Twilight here."

"It's just—it's complicated," Applejack started. "For starters, I think Twilight's flirting with me!"

A bemused smile spread across Big Mac's face. "That's cute," he said simply.

"Not helping," Applejack hissed. "I happen to know somepony who has her eye on Twilight, and I am not going to mess things up for her—or him. I won't say which."

Big Mac thought for a moment and blew out a sigh. It seemed he would have to use more than a few words to answer that. "I have two problems with your thinkin', sis," he began.

"Them being?"

"Well, first, how do you even know if Twilight's sweet on you?" He asked right back. He glanced at the unicorn, seeing her absorbed in thought and added, "I can't see it right now."

"She was—it—" Applejack breathed out in frustration. "Let's just say she was getting awfully touchy feely out there, and maybe I'm overreacting, but I don't want to see F—my other friend get hurt."

Big Mac frowned as he guessed who Applejack was concerned for. "I don't need to know," he said tersely. "And either way, don't you think you're being a bit selfish?"

Applejack was completely lost with that twist of logic. "Beg pardon?" she asked harshly. "I'm trying to spare my friend's feelings, and you go call me selfish?"

"Psst! What're y'all talkin' about?" Apple Bloom suddenly interjected. Both of her siblings glared at her, and when Applejack hissed, "It's private, sis. Hush!" she backed away, thoroughly discouraged. Applejack and Big Mac kept their eyes on her for a second before continuing.

"You're trying to make yourself feel better, like you're bein' generous or something," Big Mac accused, returning to their conversation. "If Twilight—"

Applejack turned her attention to Twilight when she saw the unicorn shake her head suddenly, like she was clearing her thoughts or trying to get rid of a distraction.

"You okay, sugarcube?" Applejack asked without thinking. Shouldn't say "sugarcube," she scolded herself immediately after.

"Yeah," Twilight answered, a slight blush on her cheeks. "Just got a chill." She didn't seem eager to start a conversation, so Applejack went straight back to her conversation with Big Mac.

"Like I was saying," her brother started as he regained his train of thought, "if Twilight's taken a shine to you, who are you to say no just 'cause somepony else wants her. This should be your choice—and Twilight's, if she's made it."

Applejack was surprised by the conviction with which Big Mac spoke. He'd said more than he typically said in a full day right then and there. And despite the voice in Applejack's head still warning her to shut out her brother's advice, she found it remarkably appealing. It sounds so right, but … Fluttershy's such a good friend. Still, never thought he'd put so much thought into this kind of thing, she mused.

"Did you hear me?" he asked sharply as Applejack silently stared into space.

Drawn out of her thoughts, she nodded. "Yeah. It's just … I don't know."

Big Mac smiled. "You never do, sis."

As he finished his sentence, Granny Smith came through the kitchen door with dinner. Applejack's stomach rumbled in greedy anticipation as the meal's sweet scent filled her nostrils, and her eyes grew big as saucers as the older pony placed a tray on the table. It was piled high with apple turnovers and apples coated in homemade peanut butter—Applejack's favorite.

Looking to see what Twilight thought of the meal, she looked at the unicorn. Seeing an equally hungry expression on her friend's face, she smiled warmly as they locked eyes and said, "Let's eat."

The meal was absolutely delicious. There was no way Twilight could deny that. Nothing surprising, all in all. The Apples only brought the very best apples and apple-based products to market, and they kept the same standards for their own consumption. They were the family business that anypony could get behind, including Twilight.

"This is amazing, Mrs. Smith," Twilight exclaimed as she swallowed a slice of peanut butter apple. "Thank you so much for letting me have dinner with you guys."

Granny Smith waved a hoof dismissively. "Oh, it's nothing for one of Applejack's best friends," the older mare drawled easily. "And call me Granny, hon."

Twilight smiled and nodded. "If you say so, Granny."

As a momentary quiet settled over the dinner table, Apple Bloom took a bite of apple turnover and asked, "Are you going to be having dinner with us all the time, Twilight?"

"Apple Bloom! Don't talk with your mouth full!" Applejack snapped at her younger sister. The filly lowered her head in shame, but Twilight waved her rude behavior away.

"It's okay, Applejack." Trying to read her friend's expression, she failed and answered, "I don't know. I'd certainly love to if it's always this good." Unable to stop herself for another moment, she levitated a turnover into her watering mouth.

"Maybe not always, Apple Bloom," Applejack told her sister condescendingly. Looking straight at Twilight, she added, "She's got a lot of other friends, and I'm sure she wants to spend plenty of time with them, too."

Stung by Applejack's none-too-subtle hint, Twilight plastered a fake smile on her face to mask her hurt feelings. "That's true." A hint of sincerity crept back into her grin as she said, "I'll definitely eat with you guys every once in a while, though—if that's alright, of course."

"Absolutely," Big Mac interjected to everypony's surprise. He smirked at Applejack—if Big Mac was even capable of smirking—and said, "So long as you like it here, you're always free to hang around."

Applejack glared at her brother for a moment before smiling at Twilight and saying, "That's right, Twi. You're always welcome. But don't think you have to skip out on anypony for our sakes." She added the last sentence as casually as possible, which only made the message she was really trying to convey painfully clear to Twilight.

Silence once again fell, allowing Applejack's hostile subtext to burrow deeper into Twilight's confused mind before anypony worked up the courage to speak.

"So how did planting the carrots go today?" Big Mac finally asked. "Did you have fun with Applejack here?" If he were a lesser pony, he might have yelped as Applejack kicked him in the shin, but as it was he simply smiled pleasantly at Twilight.

"Yeah!" Apple Bloom chirped. "What'd you guys do?"

"Planting carrots mostly sort of speaks for itself," Twilight deflected, unwilling to risk whatever Applejack's dismissive reply could be. "Of course, you plowed the fields already, but I made sure I had the chance to at least try that before we really got started."

Applejack smiled in spite of herself and let out a brief chuckle. "Yep. She got it in her head that she needed to plow a row all by herself. You should've seen her straining and pulling in that yoke of yours, Big Mac."

"Hey!" Twilight said sharply. "You never said that was his yoke. I though you both used it."

Big Mac let out a deep, throaty laugh. "Nope."

"Glad to see you're back to normal, brother," Applejack said out of the corner of her mouth. Immediately moving past the sarcastic jab, she turned to Twilight. "I tried to tell you not to worry about it. And besides, you did great with your magic."

"Ooh, that sounds so cool!" Apple Bloom practically shouted, and she bounced in her seat excitedly until a sharp look from Granny Smith instantly calmed her down. She looked down at her hooves, keeping to her own thoughts.

Applejack wanted to keep a sober expression. She knew she had been rude since dinner started, but it was all for the right reasons. Twilight was a great friend, but so was Fluttershy. She'd be a two-bit Flim Flam hustler before she saw either of them hurt.

Who are you to say no? Big Macs unsolicited advice floated into her mind once more, harrying her thoughts. This should be your choice.

If Applejack had learned anything over the past few years, it was that trying to manipulate other ponies never turned out well. And if she just let things take their natural course…

Aw, what the heck? Applejack finished her internal debate in a matter of moments, and her stern expression melted away into a genuine smile. "It was," she chuckled, leaning back in her chair. "It was something else."

Twilight beamed as she saw Applejack drop the gruff demeanor she'd been displaying. "Thanks, AJ."

Applejack laughed again, truly enjoying herself. I'm just being friendly is all. "No need to thank me, sugarcube." Her smile never left her face as she added, "Just don't think I'll forget about that cool magic of yours the next time a field needs plowing."

Just as Applejack finished speaking, Apple Bloom's ears perked up, and she nearly hopped out of her chair as she said, "Oh! That's what she said!"

Twilight dropped her fork in mid-air, and after it finished clanging against her plate the room was silent for what seemed like an eternity. Seeing the less-than-positive reaction to what she had just said, Apple Bloom withdrew into herself, trying to become as small as possible in hopes that she'd make a smaller target for her sister's wrath.

The effort proved futile, as Applejack's eyes not only glared daggers at her, but also smoldered, essentially hurling flaming daggers at the poor filly. Next to the severely irked mare, Big Mac seemed undecided between embarrassment and uncontrollable laughter. Twilight's mouth still hung open from when she was about to eat another bite of apple turnover. She was too shocked to close it—or to look away from Applejack's scowling face.

Fortunately, Granny Smith came to the rescue of everypony present. She smiled and faced Apple Bloom with ageless calm, saying, "I guess it's true. She did say it."

With that, Big Mac finally made his decision. His rich laughter shook the room as he let loose all his immaturity in one hearty burst of mirth. Apple Bloom, however, no longer found anything funny about her own joke, as Applejack's deathly gaze still bore into her soul like a changeling's horn, attached to a phoenix's talon, pushed forward by a zebra's charge, as hot as dragon's fire, and even scarier than … clowns, maybe. Although Apple Bloom figured that even her big sister would be hard pressed to beat those comedic horrors.

The point was that Applejack's glare was very, very imposing, and Apple Bloom had to fight the urge to whimper so she could stammer, "I—I'm sorry, Applejack. It—the kids at school—"

"They don't allow goats at the Ponyville Schoolhouse," Applejack interrupted harshly.

Twilight, of course, couldn't let such a statement go uncorrected. "That's just because there aren't any goats in Ponyville."

"I mean my classmates," Apple Bloom sputtered. "Scootaloo said that's what the adults say, and it's supposed to be funny and cool."

Applejack breathed a sigh, relieved that however off-color Apple Bloom's joke had been, it hadn't been intentional. "First off, Apple Bloom, I don't ever want to hear you saying that again. Second, it ain't funny—or cool. Who the hay told Scootaloo it was?"

"Who do you think?" Apple Bloom chirped, immediately returning to her perky, endlessly energetic demeanor. "Rainbow Dash!"

Figures. Applejack could only offer a strained smile in the face of her exasperation. "Sugarcube, she's definitely wrong about that. I wouldn't trust everything Rainbow says. You got that?"

"Okay." Apple Bloom cast her gaze down to the floor again.

"It's not that big a deal, though," Twilight said, succeeding in sounding completely unfazed. "Right, Applejack?"

Applejack smiled and rolled her eyes. "You're right, Twi." As Apple Bloom began to smile, her sister gave her a brief glare and added, "But don't do it again."

Everypony laughed at that, except Granny Smith. As the laughter died down, her snores began to fill the room, and when repeated nudges from Apple Bloom failed to rouse her, Applejack chuckled and looked away from Twilight, focusing instead on nothing in particular.

"So, uh…" She stumbled on her own thoughts as Granny Smith's snoring cut through her mind. Pursing her lips in thought, she regained her train of thought. "I think we ought to let Granny have her rest. You done eating, Twi?"

Twilight nodded slowly; she could already feel the food coma coming. "I don't know if I could eat another bite."

"Well don't you fall asleep too," Applejack laughed, walking over and grabbing Twilight's forelegs. "C'mon, let's go. Outside."

Her friend cooperated—albeit reluctantly, and before long the two ponies were alone, with nothing but the chirping of crickets breaking the stillness of the evening. The sky still retained a bit of a pink hue as the sun set on Equestria. Struck by the beauty of the scene, Twilight smiled and leaned into Applejack. Once again, to the unicorn's dismay, her earth pony friend pulled away.

After she retreated from Twilight's touch, Applejack began to trot down the road away from Sweet Apple Acres. After taking a few steps, she turned to Twilight and asked, "You coming? I'll walk you home if you want."

Sighing, Twilight weighed her options. "I guess it is getting dark," she mused. Her decision made, she nodded. "That'd be wonderful, AJ—Applejack."

"AJ's fine, sugarcube," the mare chuckled, nudging her friend playfully. Remembering herself, she looked away in embarrassment and added, "I mean, either name's fine."

Twilight just nodded silently, not sure how to react. When she noticed that Applejack had started to blush, she did the same, and the two walked in awkward silence for what seemed like an eternity.

At last, Twilight found something to break the terrible lull in their conversation. "Have you been to town lately, Applejack?" she asked simply, unable to create a segue out of nothing.

Applejack snorted a brief laugh. "I saw you just a few days ago, Twi."

Twilight blushed again after realizing how silly her question had been. "Oh yeah. But I mean, like, besides that."

"So you mean, like, did I do anything else that day?" Applejack asked, a smirk on her face.

Her friend's sarcastic expression made Twilight feel she'd said something wrong, but she couldn't place it. "Could you say that again?" She tilted her head as she asked the question.

Applejack's smiled and threw her head back before replying. "I guess I, like, went to Sugarcube Corner. Pinkie Pie sold me these apple cupcakes that were, like, the best." When she said, "like," she took care to dwell on the word, so her joke would not go unnoticed a second time.

Twilight's annoyed expression let her know that the joke had landed, and she laughed as a small smile sneaked its way onto the unicorns face. "It ain't my fault you were talking like a valley filly, sugarcube."

Surrendering to Applejack's mirth, Twilight laughed in return and said, "That's the first time I said it in forever, AJ. It's not like I do it often—and I used it right that time!" She pointed a hoof accusingly in case her friend thought differently.

Applejack lifted a hoof in surrender, rolling her eyes as she replied, "If you insist. Who am I to question Celestia's favorite student?"

Now it was Twilight's turn to roll her eyes. "Well I didn't get that way by being wrong, now did I?" For the third time that day, she leaned into Applejack as they both laughed at their verbal duel.

This time, at last, the farm pony didn't pull back. This time, she just smiled as the two ponies approached Ponyville.

Thrown For A Loop

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Fluttershy awoke with heavy lidded eyes that rebelled against her efforts to open them. For once, she couldn't find a good reason to disagree with them. Today was Tuesday—the day Twilight started working at Sweet Apple Acres. It wasn't a day to be welcomed.

Pulling her blankets over her face to block the intruding sun, Fluttershy tried to block out the world as well. The animals would care for themselves—at least for a while. Selfish as it was, she could take this time for herself—time to heal, to pick up the pieces.

There wouldn't be any real harm; her pathetic laziness wouldn't last forever. She'd find the strength to power through. It had happened before—like when she took Iron Will's assertiveness training too seriously. She locked herself away, said goodbye to the world she put at risk, but her animal friends understood, even when nopony else did. She'd come back to them eventually, like always.

Like always…

"Hey, Fluttershy!"

A knock on her door drew Fluttershy out of her self-pity—she would have no time to wallow this morning. Seconds later, whoever was at the door knocked again, louder than before. Sighing, Fluttershy pushed away her blankets and stepped out of bed, calling, "In a minute," while she briefly checked her hair and trotted toward her living room.

Opening the door, her eyes widened a bit as she saw Rainbow Dash waiting for her with a big grin on her face.

Rainbow pulled her friend outside without a word, acting as if this rude awakening had already been agreed to. "You ready to watch me practice today?"

"Um, excuse me?" Fluttershy weakly tried to pull away, but Rainbow still held her front hooves.

Rainbow tilted her head. "I thought I—" She let go of Fluttershy and scratched her head. "Didn't we talk about you watching me fly the other day?"

"Yes, but, um, we only planned for yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before—"

"Oh yeah." Rainbow Dash blocked Fluttershy's mouth with a hoof and chuckled. "Well, are you busy today?"

Fluttershy glanced back to her cottage, where she could still see the bed she had just gotten out of. Her gaze held on her home for a moment before she smiled and said, "Okay, Rainbow Dash."

"Awesome!" Rainbow grabbed Fluttershy's hoof and made to fly away, but the other pegasus stopped her.

"I haven't fed my animal friends yet," Fluttershy told her when she turned back around and tilted her head. "You're welcome to help me so I finish faster."

Rainbow rolled her eyes and said, "Fine. Where's the food? I'll feed those animals in ten seconds flat!" She crouched, wings spread so she could dash off at a moment's notice, but Fluttershy put a hoof on her shoulder to stop her.

"You can't do that, Rainbow Dash!" Fluttershy almost shouted, eyes wide. Remembering herself, she shrank back and looked away. "I mean, um, sorry, but you might scare the animals."

Rainbow relaxed and chuckled briefly. "Guess you're right," she admitted as she furled her wings. "Thanks for reminding me, Fluttershy."

Fluttershy nodded perfunctorily, but she was already on the move. "Let's get going—um, if you don't mind."

Rainbow Dash might have underestimated how long it would take to feed Fluttershy's pets.

Sure, part of the problem was that she had to be slow and cautious so she wouldn't scare the animals, but even then, there were a lot of animals. It seemed that the options Fluttershy had shown to Rainbow when she'd asked for the perfect pet only scratched the surface of her impressive array of creatures. Sure there were bunnies, songbirds, and squirrels—a ton of them as a matter of fact—but just mentioning them ignored the diversity of animals that made their homes near Fluttershy's cottage.

First there were the owl butterflies. Actually, they were just butterflies, but their wings looked just like an owl's head. It was supposed to be a disguise they used to keep predators away, Rainbow would've fallen for it too if Fluttershy hadn't been there to set her straight.

Then came the lemurs. According to Fluttershy, most of them lived in the Everfree, but she'd managed to befriend a few of them with a little help from Zecora. Their big inquisitive eyes and strange bipedal movements freaked Rainbow out a bit, but they seemed friendly enough. One of them even checked Rainbow's hair for bugs, and that was … cool, she guessed.

After the lemur gave Rainbow the go-ahead to leave, she asked Fluttershy if they could split it. "It'd save us so much time, and I really want to get flying!"

Fluttershy considered the request for a moment before nodding. "You can take care of the otters," she said, slumping her shoulders. "They need a new friend since Twilight stopped visiting. Just make sure you stay away from the Everfree."

Rainbow shrugged and nodded. "Sure, if you say so, Fluttershy. That's pretty much what I'd do anyway."

"But especially near the otters," Fluttershy insisted. "None of the animals there need to be fed, and the Everfree's not safe, so be careful."

"Got it, awesome." Without another word, Rainbow was off, ready to feed those otters like they'd never been fed before!

Rainbow flew over to the riverbed where she assumed the otters lived. Fluttershy had forgotten to tell her where to find them—or maybe she just didn't have time with Rainbow taking off so suddenly—but there was only one river nearby. She figured that was as good a place as any to start looking.

Before she started her search in earnest, though, Rainbow glanced at the Everfree, wondering what Fluttershy found so dangerous about it. Be careful. Of course, Rainbow would be careful—it was practically her middle name. Or her second middle name at least—after "Danger." Except, now that she thought about it, that was sort of dumb.

Either way, Rainbow would be careful. She didn't have any reason to be poking around the Everfree, where who knows what sort of monsters lied in wait. Going in there didn't appeal to her in the least. It didn't sound awesome at all.

Rainbow glanced at the forest again. Maybe just one peek. Without a second thought, she was off and into the underbrush.

At first nothing seemed amiss. The trees obscured the morning sun, making the area as spooky as any part of the Everfree, but the undergrowth all seemed harmless enough. No snakes, no monsters, no poison joke to speak of. It was just a forest. Rainbow rolled her eyes. Just like Fluttershy, she thought. That pony's afraid of her own shadow. She turned around, ready to leave the forest disappointed.

A rustle in the canopy above her made her glance up, figuring a squirrel was coming by to greet her.

Suddenly, scales. And little, membranous wings. And lizard claws. And teeth!

Rainbow shrieked as the strange winged monster dove down from the treetops. She tried to run, but too late—the creature's ambush had been successful. It landed on her face, blocking her view as she sprinted forward, hoping at once to avoid any trees and to perhaps to find something to dislodge the demon lizard with.

Still yelping and hollering, she screamed with renewed terror as the beast's forked tongue darted in and out of its mouth, lightly brushing her forehead as the little monster squealed in delight. No doubt it was tasting her, overjoyed by the delicious meal Rainbow Dash would momentarily prove.

She felt something brush past her haunches before landing right behind her—more of the hellish dragonlings, of course!—but there was nothing more to do. The creatures had her; she was trapped. Still running, she felt tears stream from her eyes as she stood face to face before her scaly end. Mostly face to underbelly, actually, but—

"Rainbow Dash!"

Hearing Fluttershy's voice cut through her own screams, Rainbow slowed her terrified charge. A hoof landed on her back and her calls for help caught in her throat. As she slowed to a complete stop at her friend's wordless command, the lizard creature on her face chattered animatedly, turning its gaze to the left where Rainbow assumed Fluttershy stood beside her.

The pegasus removed her hoof from Rainbow's back and offered it to the winged lizard, who squealed once more and hopped off Rainbow's head. Watching certain death recede from before her very eyes, Rainbow wobbled uncertainly and whimpered like an injured fawn.

Still holding the lizard on one hoof, Fluttershy trotted in front of Rainbow Dash and smiled. "It's okay, Rainbow Dash—although I told you to stay away from the forest over here." A sterner expression made its way onto her face as she continued. "You scared little Lizzie half to death!"

Rainbow might have felt a bit dazed—because of the lizard's hidden venom, of course, not because she was scared!—but she still had the presence of might to leap back a couple feet and shout, "Watch out, Shy! That's, like, a mini dragon or something!"

She almost moved to swat the tiny hellspawn from Fluttershy's grasp, but the yellow pegasus immediately moved to cradle the scaly beast. "Oh, no, Rainbow Dash," she insisted. "This isn't a dragon. Lizzie's just a flying lizard."

Rainbow tilted her head and the lizard did the same. "Say what?"

"A flying lizard. Zecora says they come from her homeland. She found a family of them lost in the Everfree and asked if I could watch after them." Fluttershy frowned slightly. "They still need to glide around it, though, so they just stay over here."

Rainbow flapped her wings and threw her hooves up. "You said you didn't have any of your pets over here! I thought that thing was gonna eat me!"

"Lizzie's not a pet; he's a friend," Fluttershy corrected, stroking the lizard's back as she did so. "Besides, he would never do something like that. He couldn't even eat anything bigger than a fly. You're safe, Rainbow Dash."

"But—um—yeah." Rainbow lowered her head and closed her eyes briefly, letting her wings droop for a moment before drawing them back to her sides. "Okay, Fluttershy. Sorry I didn't listen." When her eyes opened, though, she looked the flying lizard straight in the eyes and pointed an accusing hoof and its scaly form. "You still scared the hay out of me, though."

"And he's sorry, Rainbow Dash." Lizzie's high-pitched chattering interrupted Fluttershy's response for a moment, and she listened patiently before turning back to her fellow pegasus. "He says you scared him too, but he forgives you."

Rainbow Dash scratched her head, uncertain of how to react to that. "Uh, thanks, I guess. And I forgive him too."

Fluttershy's tentative smile broadened, and she whispered something into Lizzie's ear before setting him on the ground. He skittered toward Rainbow, flashed a toothy, reptilian grin, and darted off for the Everfree, joining up with a few of its companions that had inched out of the forest to see what was amiss.

"So, uh…" Rainbow fished for the right words to say. "Thanks, Fluttershy. I guess I should go feed the… uh… otters, right?"

Fluttershy's put on an all-enduring smile and began to trot toward the riverbed. "Yes, please—but just to keep you safe, I'll stay with you this time."

Chuckling nervously, Rainbow Dash found no other option but to join her friend as they made their way to the otters' den.

No otherworldly creatures lied in wait on Rainbow's second attempt to feed the otters, and before she knew it she and Fluttershy were done.

"Is that it?" she asked, hoping to Celestia that they were done. Her wings itched with pent-up energy, and she unfurled them for a moment just to move them around a bit.

When Fluttershy answered, "That's it," Rainbow finally let loose, flying into the air and cheering with her trademark enthusiasm. After taking a moment to enjoy herself, she swooped back down to where Fluttershy still stood and scooped her into her forelegs, lifting the startled pegasus into the air.

"Finally!" she almost shouted, wincing as she saw Fluttershy's frightened eyes. "Uh, I mean, you ready to watch me practice now?" she said more quietly.

Taking a moment to calm down, Fluttershy nodded once. "But put me down first, please."

"Totally. But first, have you got any clouds around here?"

Fluttershy rested her chin on a hoof thoughtfully. "I don't think so, Rainbow Dash." She looked up at the sky for a moment and nodded in confirmation. "Nope. I don't see any."

Rainbow groaned loudly. "Ugh! C'mon, then. I've got a new trick I've been practicing, and we need clouds to make it work." Still holding Fluttershy aloft, she began to drag the pegasus through the air, but a tug on her foreleg stopped her.

"What is it?" She turned to face Fluttershy, who smiled sheepishly.

"Um, you can let go, Rainbow Dash," she reminded her friend.

Letting go, Rainbow chuckled for a moment. "Oh yeah." Doing a quick loop-de-loop to warm up, she pointed ahead and said, "Let's find some clouds!"

"Wait!" Fluttershy tried to stop her friend, but she was already off. The yellow pegasus knew she couldn't hope to keep up with her more athletic friend, but she spurred herself on nonetheless, struggling to keep Rainbow in sight as she sped away in search of the perfect spot for her brand new trick.

That perfect spot happened to be situated near the Ponyville Town Hall. In the midst of the clear blue sky, Rainbow Dash found her target: a large, fluffy white cloud just floating there, no buildings or other potentially breakable landmarks in the immediate area. Except the Town Hall, of course, but if Rainbow just nudged the cloud a few yards away, she figured she could leave herself with plenty of room for her new stunt.

She had already started moving the cloud around when Fluttershy arrived—panting and sweating, but still airborne. She perked up when she realized that Rainbow had stopped, but her exhausted muscles burned in protest. Aching and out of breath, she glided slowly to the ground, landing hard and stumbling before managing to stay standing.

"You okay, Fluttershy?" Rainbow called, peeking her head from behind the cloud. Pushing the fluffy mass one more time, she brushed her hooves together and yelled, "There we go. Awesome!"

Fluttershy darted her eyes around to see if anypony heard Rainbow's outburst and said, "What is this trick you're trying out, Rainbow Dash?"

Rainbow dove down to earth and landed next to her friend. With a laugh, she told her, "It's a secret," and sped off again, climbing high above the buildings of Ponyville as she readied herself for her stunt.

Coming to a stop a good distance above her cloud, Rainbow took a deep breath and shrugged her shoulders to loosen them up. With each flap, her wings began to slow down, and as they came to a stop she closed her eyes and folded them, keeping herself slim and aerodynamic as she plummeted toward the ground.

Wind flew into her face and flung her mane back as Rainbow picked up speed, pulling the corners of her mouth into a grimace that slowly became a genuine smile. She kept her eyes closed, opting instead to let her instincts guide her. She'd pulled out of free fall like this a thousand times; she knew how to stay safe—and more importantly, she knew how to make it exciting.

To Fluttershy, the excitement registered as fear more than anything. Gasping as Rainbow neared the hard, unforgiving earth, she averted her eyes for a moment before shaking her head and forcing herself to look. Rainbow would end up alright. Fluttershy just had to trust her.

That trust paid off, as Rainbow Dash opened his wings less than thirty yards from the ground. Yelling in triumph and excitement, she pulled up, blowing Fluttershy's hair as she came within mere feet of her nervous spectator. As she leveled off and began to turn skyward, she felt a wave of euphoria course through her body, eliciting another excited whoop as she soared toward her cloud.

Picking up speed as she climbed, Rainbow avoided the cloud by inches, sending it spinning as she passed. Again, she dropped down, zooming by the cloud and speeding up its rapid rotation. Again and again, she zipped past the cloud, twisting and turning it until it looked like a ball of pure, whirling white energy.

As the fluffy white sphere continued its mad gyrations, Rainbow began to dive toward the cloud again, but this time, she didn't avoid it. Her mane and coat became soaked to the skin as she plunged right through the spinning cloud's center, splitting it in two as she went. Leveling off near ground level, she flew to the side before dashing back toward the two still spinning halves. Once more, she rushed through both pieces in one go, and again, and again, until what had once been one cloud was suddenly more than a dozen swirling white orbs.

Now, for the big finish!

With the cloud split into pieces, Rainbow Dash began to fly circles around it, hoping desperately that her plans would work. To her relief and to her utter glee, it did. The clouds, pulled outward by the winds she created, began to form a swiftly rotating ring, leaving an open space in the center—plenty of space for the fastest flyer in Equestria. For one last time, Rainbow soared into the air, taking one last look at her elaborate setup before flying full speed for the ring of clouds.

Her eyes watered as she began to feel the air rebel against her speed, pushing against her so much that it forced her eyes open and pulled her lips into a far wider smile than she thought possible. The winds only grew stronger as she continued to pick up speed, fighting air resistance with every flap of her wings. As she neared the ring of clouds, she could see a cone of air form around her falling form. Just before she passed through the ring, she saw a hole open up in the tip of the cone, and she surged forward with every bit of strength she had, knowing that her goal was easily within her grasp.

As the sky thundered behind her, she knew that she succeeded. She'd made another sonic rainboom! Though she couldn't see it as she came within inches of the ground, she could imagine what had happened.

The ring of clouds, which she passed through just as she broke the sound barrier, would be pushed out in all directions by the wave of color she created. Assuming the cloud fragments weren't reduced to nothing by the force of her dive, they would stay at the edge of the spreading rainbow, continuing to spin until air resistance tore them apart. Everypony assumed that there was no topping a sonic rainboom, but Rainbow was determined to prove them wrong. As she brought herself to an easy stop, Rainbow looked for Fluttershy, confident that the pegasus's expression would confirm whether she'd met her lofty goal.

From the beginning of the trick, Fluttershy stood transfixed, unable to tear her focus away from Rainbow's speeding form. Her speed, her fearlessness, Rainbow Dash represented everything Fluttershy lacked. Rainbow wasn't afraid to go all-out in pursuing the perfect trick—she never took no for an answer. She would try and try again until she got what she wanted, and if she failed once she'd try again. If Fluttershy could gain just an ounce of Rainbow's courage, she swore she would use it. She would—

But any concerns outside the moment of Rainbow's trick proved short-lived. For as long as Rainbow cared to fly—and as long as Fluttershy kept watching—nothing else mattered. There was only the up and down of Rainbow's flight, her constant battles against gravity and the wind. She defied all expectations—defied nature itself! She did what nopony else could, and Fluttershy could only look on with rapt attention as the impossible suddenly became possible.

When Rainbow whipped the clouds into a constantly spinning ring, Fluttershy thought she knew what would happen next, but even then she couldn't believe it. The sonic rainboom taking the clouds outward, scattering them to the winds even as they continued to move in an ever expanding ring, took her breath. Even so, she tried to cheer, but she found herself struck dumb by the grandeur of what she had just seen. Unable to summon forth anything more than a whimper of awe, she galloped in the direction of where she last saw Rainbow, eager to congratulate her on the successful stunt.

She found Rainbow Dash still soaring through the sky, trailing a rainbow as she moved in ever slower arcs. At last, as the multihued trail began to fade, she came to a hard landing right in front of Fluttershy, stomping her hooves against the ground to slow herself down and at the same time emphasizing her impressive strength.

"How was it?" she asked, smiling broadly with eyes wide open. "C'mon, how was it, Fluttershy?!"

"Oh, Rainbow Dash, it was amazing! The way you split that cloud up, and the spinning, and the rainbows—" Fluttershy kept gushing, unable to stop herself. She reveled in the moment, letting it absorb her completely. She could have gone on forever, but she was startled into silence when Rainbow Dash grabbed her front hooves, lifting them up in triumph.

"That's awesome!" she cried, jumping for joy and pumping her hoof into the air. As the euphoria slowly wore off, she grabbed Fluttershy's head in both hooves and said, "You have to tell me all about it!"

The size of Fluttershy's smile was matched only by the sincerity of her laughter as she answered, "Of course, Rainbow Dash. It'd be my pleasure." As she spoke, her stomach begin to grumble loudly, and she blushed softly. "Sorry."

Rainbow rolled her eyes and looked up at the sun. As it began to sink toward the horizon, she replied, "No worries. It looks like it's dinner time anyway." She wrapped a foreleg around Fluttershy's shoulder and gestured expansively at Ponyville's many restaurants. "Go ahead: pick a place. It'll be my treat."


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Rainbow Dash had to admit, she had her doubts when Fluttershy named the restaurant she wanted to eat at. The Smiling Daisy hardly sounded cool, let alone delicious. It didn't take long after the pair entered the modest eatery on Mane Street for her to realize how wrong she was, though. From minute one—no; second one!—she was sold on the little hole-in-the-wall, and once she and Fluttershy ordered their food, it only got better.

Well, at least the food got better. Unfortunately for the Rainbow, her friend hardly seemed to be reacting to the friendly service and upbeat atmosphere of the Daisy as much as she did. Tilting her head and raising one eyebrow, Rainbow pointed a hoof at Fluttershy and asked, "What's wrong?"

"What do you mean?" Fluttershy tried to hide behind her mane, but she couldn't manage to mask her sadness completely.

Rainbow thrust her hoof forward accusingly. "That! Did I make you mad or something? Was the trick not awesome enough or something? You looked so hyped up when I actually did it, but now you're just acting mopey."

Fluttershy smiled weakly but kept part of her face covered. "I'm not sad, Rainbow Dash." At last she found the courage to push her hair aside and look Rainbow straight in the eyes, but it only lasted a moment as she remembered herself. "I mean, today has been really nice…"


Rainbows question cut off Fluttershy's feeble attempt to escape, and the pegasus looked away in shame. "It's nothing, Rainbow Dash. Really."

"Take as much time as you want," Rainbow said matter-of-factly. "I won't force it out of you right away, but we're not getting through dinner without you telling me what's up."

Fluttershy's mouth worked rapidly as she tried to protest, but words failed to heed her call. Sighing, she lowered her head in surrender. She'd known Rainbow for years—since before Ponyville, even—and she knew better than to keep fighting. Rainbow was nothing if not stubborn, and she'd find out what she wanted to know eventually. It was only a matter of Fluttershy finding a voice for her feelings.

And what were those? She loved Twilight Sparkle—at least she was pretty sure she did. She admired her, she liked her—but more importantly, she wanted to be with her. But how could she tell Rainbow that? How could she find the courage to tell anypony?

"Hello? Equestria to Fluttershy." Rainbow waved a hoof front of Fluttershy's face, drawing her out of her frustrated thoughts.

"Well, Rainbow Dash, um—" It was now or never; Fluttershy had to speak her mind. "Rainbow Dash, I think I'm in love with Twilight."

In a matter of moments, Rainbow's face played host to more emotions than there were colors in her mane. From surprise to suspicion, she seemed unsure of how to react. Trying to give Fluttershy an adequate response to such an important secret, she managed, "Bwuh?"

"It's silly, I know," Fluttershy almost whimpering, looking away as her eyes began to brim with tears. "I just… Please don't tell anypony, Rainbow Dash!" She reached toward her foalhood friend as desperation tugged at the edge of her voice.

Rainbow threw up her hooves. "No problem, Fluttershy. You're secret's safe with me." Leaning back in her chair, she asked, "So, uh, why Twilight?"

A blush stained Fluttershy's cheeks red as she answered. "She's so wonderful. She's smart, and beautiful and kind—"

"I bet you put her to shame when it comes to that, though, right?" Rainbow punched her friend's shoulder lightly.

"Oh, I don't know." Fluttershy's cheeks only grew redder as she continued. "But thank you for the compliment."

Barking a laugh, Rainbow nodded. "It's only true." Breathing deeply, she leaned back and put her hooves behind her head. "What are you gonna do about it, Shy?"

Fluttershy's eyes grew wide as saucers. "Oh, no. I can't—oh! But she's—"

"C'mon! What've you got to lose?" The off-hoof way in which Rainbow spoke unnerved Fluttershy, but she couldn't quite grasp why.

"She's such a good friend. What if she doesn't feel the same?"

"You move on." Rainbow almost made it sound as if that wouldn't end Fluttershy's life on the spot. "There're lots of ponies in Ponyville. Heck, you've saved Equestria twice. You could have stallions and mares falling all over you."

Fluttershy could only shake her head. "I'm just some pony who likes animals. I'm not cut out for being a hero like you Rainbow Dash."

"Well not everypony can be as awesome as me," Rainbow laughed, rolling her eyes. "Don't sell yourself short, though." She paused for a moment, hunching forward and twiddling with her hooves. "Everypony has doubts sometimes, but… Well I've known you for a long time. You're a great pony, Fluttershy, and you're stronger than you think you are."

Fluttershy blushed with her reply. "Thank you, Rainbow Dash. I needed that. But what do I do?"

By then, however, Rainbow had quelled whatever streak of sentimentality that had just shone through. Reclining in her seat again, she answered, "Dunno. You could just talk with her. What's the worst she can do?"

"She could…" The words caught in Fluttershy's throat, but she forced herself to finish, to face her fears openly. "She could say no."

Rainbow shrugged. "And then you move on. Like I said, you can handle it." Looking around lazily, she added, "Where's our waitress anyway?"

"You called, ma'am?" The perky teal mare seemed to materialize out of thin air, startling both ponies with her broad smile and the spring present in her movements.

"Uh, yeah," Rainbow answered after a pause. "I just wanted to ask what sorts of desserts you've got here. My friend here needs the sweetest, tastiest thing you've got on the menu."

"Oh, no, Rainbow Dash," Fluttershy protested. "I don't know if I could eat another bite."

Shaking her head, Rainbow waved away Fluttershy's words. "You're just saying that." She turned her attention back to the waitress. "So, what'll it be?"

Not her smile to do so much as shrink, the mare, rubbed her chin thoughtfully for a moment. "I think your friend would just love the Chocolate Twilight Mousse!"

"Chocolate Twilight?"

The waitress's head nodded at an alarming rate in answer to Fluttershy's question. "It's a combination of rich dark chocolate, creamy milk chocolate, and chewy brownie bits. It's delicious!"

"If you told us any different, I think your boss'd have some choice words for you," Rainbow shot back with a chuckled. "Either way, you've got me sold. Sound good, Shy?"

"Um, I guess." Fluttershy tried to ignore the irony of the moment as she nodded. "And how about we split a bowl?"

Rainbow mulled the question over. "How big are the bowls?"

If the waitress's smile could have grown any wider without ripping the fabric of space time, it would have. "They're nice and big, but it's awfully tasty. You could always take some home."

As the waitress made no gestures to actually describe the size of the bowls, Rainbow frowned. "Yeah, thanks," she retorted with a roll of her eyes. "I guess splitting a bowl is good." She took particular satisfaction in watching the tiniest hint of displeasure break through the waitress's joyful demeanor.

"Alrighty! I'll go get that for you." Without another word, the waitress left, humming as she went.

Watching the disturbingly cheerful pony leave, Rainbow arched an eyebrow doubtfully. Turning to Fluttershy, she asked, "Is that normal here?"

Fluttershy offered a small smile. "I like it."

With a quiet laugh, Rainbow shook her head. "It's so cheesy, though!"

"Its sweet." Fluttershy blushed a bit as Rainbow continued to laugh, but her smile only grew. "Stop!" she giggled. "I'm sure you like it too, deep down."

"Oh no," Rainbow replied without hesitation, pointing a hoof skyward for emphasis. "Absolutely not." As Fluttershy continued to stare at her, though, her unyielding expression began to crumble, and she looked away and said, "Fine. It's kind of okay."

"You can call it cute," Fluttershy said matter-of-factly. "That's what it is—at least, that's what I think."

"Well I didn't say it." Rainbow chuckled nervously. "I've got a reputation to protect after all."

This time it was Fluttershy's turn roll her eyes. "If you say so, Dashie. Anyway, where's our—"

"Don't!" Rainbow shoved a hoof over Fluttershy's mouth, cutting her off and eliciting a frightened squeak from the yellow pegasus. "She might just, like, pop up out of nowhere again." Her eyes darted from side to side, as if anticipating the waitress's stealthy arrival.

Satisfied that the all-too-cheery pony was far away, Rainbow blew out a sigh of relief. Turning back to Fluttershy and their table, she opened her mouth, halting before she could even begin to speak when she saw a bowl of chocolate mousse sitting right in the center of the table. She froze for a moment, every muscle taut as she turned her head slowly to the right—

"Let me know what you think!"

"Augh!" Rainbow's wordless scream startled even the unflappable waitress as she nearly leaped out of her chair, rattling the glasses and bowls on the table as he legs kicked it frantically. It took her a moment to calm down, but even when she did, she threw a withering glare at the offending pony.

Still flashing her insufferable grin, the pony bowed her head and backed away, not even blinking at her customer's angry expression. Crossing her forelegs, Rainbow snorted and took a closer look at the mousse.

The bowl was, indeed, "nice and big." It looked almost like it would hold a medium-sized filly—needless to say, Rainbow was glad they only ordered one serving. As excessive as the helping seemed, it definitely looked tantalizing. Swirls of darker brown punctuated the smooth milk chocolate color of most of the mousse, and brownie chunks poked out of the surface to further emphasize the variety of the dish. As her mouth watered, Rainbow Dash grabbed a spoon and began to dig in.

The mousse was as tasty as it looked—if not tastier. Rainbow smacked her lips greedily as she ate mouthful after heaping mouthful, overcome by the sugary delight before her. "So good," she somehow muttered even as she continue to shovel food into her mouth, but she abruptly came to a stop as she noticed that Fluttershy had yet to even grab a spoon.

"You gonna eat any of this," Rainbow asked her friend, tilting her head slightly to the side. "We sort of ordered it to share, you know."

Fluttershy hunched up and lowered her eyes. "Um, can I ask you for some advice first?"

Rolling her eyes, Rainbow nodded. "Make it quick, though," she said, frowning as she did so.

"When should I—I mean, with Twilight, um—"

"I say tell her the next chance you get," Rainbow insisted, pounding a hoof on the table for emphasis. "You obviously need to get this out of your system." She snorted and rolled her eyes again. "If this is what love is like, I hope I never have to deal with it."

Fluttershy blushed and shook her head. "It's… nice," she managed. "It can hurt sometimes, but you wouldn't miss it for the world."

"Maybe some ponies wouldn't," Rainbow huffed, but she shrugged off her disagreement. "I guess if you can deal with it though, it's no problem for me. Now could we please just eat this thing?"

Each hoofstep felt light as air as Twilight trotted home with Applejack. They traveled in near total silence, but neither pony minded. Their presence alone communicated far more than any conversation could, and Twilight could hardly imagine that this could even be happening. Still leaning into Applejack's shoulder, she could feel her friend's strong heart beat—a constant thumping that was steady, comforting, timeless…

Unfortunately, the walk back to her library lacked that endless quality. As the pair approached the impressive tree house, they pulled away from each other, turning so they could say their goodbyes.

Neither pony seemed to know what to say, and as Twilight blushed and looked away, Applejack rubbed the back of her neck and moved her mouth wordlessly for a moment.

At last, the orange mare found her voice. "Thanks for helping on the farm," she managed, leaving her mouth open when she finished as if she hadn't expected to stop speaking.

"It—um—You're welcome," Twilight whispered, suddenly unable to raise her voice. "And, um, thanks."

A blush found its way onto Applejack's cheeks. "Aww, dinner weren't nothing, Twi," she insisted, averting her eyes and lowering her head.

Twilight's smile dimmed as she saw the conflict playing out on Applejack's face. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"Don't know what you're talking about," Applejack answered brusquely, hardening her expression and trying to excise all emotion from her face.

"Please, Applejack. Let me help." Twilight put a hoof on Applejack's shoulder, but the farm pony shrugged it off, her eyes downcast.

"It's… complicated," Applejack admitted, slouching as the weight of her knowledge overwhelmed her.

"That's fine, AJ," Twilighted assured the mare, hugging Applejack with one foreleg. She offered a hopeful smile. "I'm good with complicated."

Tears nearly filled Applejack's eyes as she looked at her best friend, torn between two choices, two impossible alternatives. Blinking them away angrily, she grit her teeth and turned her head. "I'm just tired," she tried to explain. "Being silly, is all."

"Applejack, I know there's something eating at you." Twilight pushed further, her smile gone. "Just tell me, please!"

The words hung on the tip of Applejack's tongue, ready to spill forth if she would just send them on their way. The barest effort… No turning back…

Only one alternative—the flimsiest one possible—remained in Applejack's mind. Head bowed, she looked at the library and said, "Maybe we could rustle up some cocoa to talk over. It's awfully chilly out here."

The gleam of curiosity never left Twilight's expression, but the smile at least returned. "That sounds lovely," she replied. Maintaining her half-embrace of Applejack, she guided the farm pony into the library and set a kettle on the stove.

If Applejack had hoped that the act of making hot cocoa would make Twilight forget about what they had discussed outside, she was gravely mistaken. It took only a couple of minutes to boil the water and mix the cocoa, and before Applejack could even come up with a good distraction, Twilight walked out to the entry room with two cups hovering alongside her.

Taking a sip out of one of the cups, she levitated the other over to Applejack, who accepted it with smile and a nod. "Thanks, Twi."

"It's nothing, AJ." Twilight smiled back, taking another sip of the cocoa before setting her cup down on a nearby table. "Now, what's been bothering you all day?"

Applejack took her time taking a long sip of cocoa, savoring it as both a treat and a shelter. It could only last so long, though, and as she placed her cup down by Twilight's, she came face to face with the mare who would stop at nothing for answers.

"Come on, sugarcube," Applejack tried to deflect once more. "Is it really that important?"

"One of my best friends—maybe my very best friend—is acting weird all day, and I have no idea why." Twilight glared, her patience long spent. "Yes, it's important, and I don't understand why you're trying to keep secrets from me!"

A sigh escaped Applejack's weary lips. "I'll tell you if you want, Twi," she conceded, but she kept her expression resolute. "You've got to want to know, though. Are you sure you want to know?"

"Yes." Twilight didn't hesitated for a moment. "Just tell me, Applejack. I want to help."

Applejack smiled sadly, lowering her eyes and shaking her head. "Not sure how telling you'd help you do that, sugarcube, but…" She trailed off, pulling down the brim of her hat to hide her eyes. "Maybe later, Twi. I'm sorry." Her voice almost cracked as tears began to sting her eyes. "Just… G'night."

Taking one last swig of cocoa, Applejack straightened herself and wiped her face, knowing that there was no way to play this off as "just tired" anymore. Feeling the moisture of her tears as she wiped them away, she cursed herself, wondering how she'd let herself get so affected by the situation. She looked up to see Twilight coming forward to hug her and almost refused, but it was too much. Letting out a deep, ragged breath, she accepted the unicorn's embrace, enjoying it's comforting warmth for a moment before she returned the favor.

"Sorry, Twi," Applejack murmured after the ponies broke away reluctantly.

"There's no reason to be sorry," Twilight insisted. "Just make sure you're okay. If there's any way I can help—"

"I know, sugarcube." Applejack put a hoof on Twilight's shoulder, and the two smiled sadly at each other.

Clearing her throat as silence threatened to envelope them, Twilight glanced at the front door and said, "I guess it's getting late. You might want to get going before it's too dark to get back home." As an idea dawned on her, though, her expression changed. "Or, if you'd rather stay—"

Seeing where Twilight's train of thought was headed, Applejack wasted no time derailing it. "You're right, Twi. Got an early morning ahead of us, and I've got to be on the farm to get things ready. Thanks for the concern, though."

A tiny frown tugged at the corners of Twilight's lips, but she shook it off with a shrug of her shoulders. "Alright, then," she said, making her way toward the door. "Let me show you out then." Her horn began to shimmer as a magic aura wrapped around the door, swinging it open as Twilight and Applejack strode forward into the cool night air.

That same night air nipped at Fluttershy as she and Rainbow Dash left the Smiling Daisy, sending a shiver down the yellow pegasus's back. She had stayed out far later than she'd planned, and if not for the light of Luna's moon, the streets of Ponyville would have been unbearably dark and gloomy. As it was, the road to her cottage was clear on the other side of town, and she dreaded the long walk home.

Her companion, however, lacked those worries. Popping into the air with natural energy and power, Rainbow flapped her wings eagerly and asked, "You up for flying over Ponyville, Shy?"

Feeling a deep chill bite at her wings, Fluttershy shook her head. "I'm too c—cold," she admitted, stuttering as another shiver rippled through her.

Touching down next to her timid friend, Rainbow rolled her eyes as she draped a wing over Fluttershy's back. "Is this any better?" she asked gruffly, stiffening as Fluttershy leaned into her warm body.

"It is," Fluttershy answered. "Thank you so much."

"Don't get used to it," Rainbow grunted, focusing on putting one hoof in front of the other and not on how totally lame she was being at the moment.

As they passed a store sign boasting a quill and inkwell, Fluttershy's head perked up and she began glancing all around. "Are we near Twilight's house?" she asked, still looking back and forth as her eyes grew wider.

Seeing the large tree that hosted the town library a few blocks away, Rainbow shrugged and nodded. "I guess so. So what?"

Panic overcame Fluttershy momentarily as she pulled away from Rainbow and searched for an escape. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and reminded herself that there was nothing to worry about, nothing to fear, nothing at all. She couldn't fool herself completely, though, and her heart still raced as she shook her head and said, "Sorry, Dashie."

"No reason to apologize to me," Rainbow shot back. "Let's just get going. I've got some sleep I need to get to."

The pegasus trotted forward faster than before, leaving Fluttershy to catch up with her newly quickened pace. Before Fluttershy could even think of how the distance between her and the library steadily began to shrink, she was passing right in front of it.

Just as that realization struck the timid pegasus, the door to the library began to open, and a terrified squeak of terror erupted from Fluttershy's lips as she galloped forward to escape. Rainbow gave her no respite, though, and she stopped Fluttershy in her tracks as Twilight and Applejack exited the library, both smiling despite their silence.

"Hey, guys!" Rainbow called, drawing confused stares from both ponies. As Twilight tilted her head in confusion, splitting her attention between both pegasi, Applejack stared directly at Rainbow Dash as her smile vanished.

"What are you doing here?" Twilight asked, trotting forward to say hello.

"That's a good question." At first, Applejack remained motionless, but seeing Twilight join Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, she decided to join the unicorn.

Rainbow's eyes darted all about as she answered, "I'm just passing through, you know." Backing away slowly, she said, "Well, I've got a lot of… stuff to do and all that, so I'll just be going." As she finished her sentence, she began to flap her wings, and as soon as the last word exited her mouth she was gone, leaving nothing but a faint colorful trail in her wake.

Rolling her eyes in the direction Rainbow had flown off in, Applejack turned to Fluttershy, who seemed transfixed in surprise and terror as Twilight approached. Grabbing the unicorn's shoulder, she said, "Mind if I talk to Fluttershy for a moment?"

Startled first by Rainbow's unexpected departure, then by Applejack's odd request, Twilight looked decidedly puzzled. "I guess?"

With a soft smile, Applejack nodded. "Thanks." Leaving Twilight behind, she trotted a few steps over to Fluttershy and put a hoof on the frightened mare's shoulder.

"Um, hello, Applejack," Fluttershy somehow managed despite her wide eyes and quavering voice.

"Hey, Shy." Applejack's voice carried all the tenderness of a big sister as she looked down at Fluttershy's hunched, timid form. "No need to be afraid."

Fluttershy looked away. "I know," she said simply.

Applejack tried to smile, but found that she couldn't as her eyes grew wet. "Take good care of her, Shy, you—" She tried to keep her voice from breaking, but to no avail. Swallowing, she finished her sentence. "You hear?"

Lifting her gaze to meet Applejack's, Fluttershy answered, "Applejack?"

"Just—" Applejack shook her head as the tears refused to stay away. Grabbing her hat and jerking it down, she turned and ran, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust and two confused ponies in her wake.


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Twilight stood stock still as she watched Applejack run away in tears, unable to even comprehend what had just happened—much less react to it. Even after Applejack had disappeared into the night, she still stared off in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres, wondering how things could have changed so much so quickly.

Hesitating in the face of Applejack's emotional retreat, Fluttershy tentatively walked over to Twilight's side. "Um, hello, Twilight," she almost whispered, afraid to break Twilight out of whatever shock now enveloped her.

Twilight shook her head, trying to piece together the past few moments even as the present rushed to overtake her. Turning to Fluttershy with a blank look still on her face, she asked, "What did she say to you?"

"Oh," Fluttershy squeaked, blushing as she hid behind her mane. "She, um… That might be private—"

Twilight's fierce stare shut Fluttershy up instantly. "Applejack's been acting weird all day," she snapped. "I can't help her if I don't know what's wrong, so just tell me!" Seeing the terror writ in Fluttershy's eyes, Twilight winced and added, "Please."

With a deep sigh, Fluttershy lowered her head and mumbled, "I might know what's wrong."

"Please, just tell me what it is," Twilight begged, a high-pitched whine creeping into her voice. "This has been driving me crazy!"

"Okay," Fluttershy replied, straightening herself and taking a deep breath in the last moments before everything would change. She exhaled slowly, both savoring and dreading the moments simultaneously. No turning back… No way out…

It was time.

"I'm in love with you, Twilight." The words came easier than Fluttershy expected, all things considered. In a matter of moments, it was over. Everything was said, everything out in the open with just six simple words. Fluttershy's blush deepened, and she searched in vain for more hair with which to hide her terrified face. The veil of secrecy, with all its protective force, was gone, and Twilight had Fluttershy at her mercy. She could do anything…

And yet she didn't. Yet again, she was motionless, stunned. Her pupils didn't widen, nor did they narrow to pin-pricks. She seemed stuck in time, unable to respond to the reality that suddenly confronted her. She had to speak, though, had to acknowledge this brave new world. "Huh?" she managed, and her voice left her, unable or unwilling to return.

"I'm sorry," Fluttershy almost squealed, panic rising in her voice and her expression. "You were already so worried, and this is all so confusing. I…" She trailed off, knowing that another apology would be useless. Turning away slowly, she finished, "I hope we can still be friends."

Twilight's mouth moved, but no sound emerged from it at first. Memories of all the times she had helped Fluttershy care for her animal friends rushed back to her. The way Fluttershy's face lit up whenever she saw Twilight trotting up the road to her cottage, the excessive thanks, the dinner she invited Twilight to—

That dinner. Something clicked into place in Twilight's mind, and it all suddenly made sense. Fluttershy's horror at the thought of Twilight moving on, her nervous behavior—how did Twilight not see the signs? She rubbed her temples and groaned, overwhelmed by terrible knowledge that refused to go away.

"Um, I can leave, Twilight," Fluttershy offered weakly. "I mean, if you want me to. I—You might want time to think about things, or—"

"How long?" Twilight's gaze bore straight into Fluttershy, refusing to go away or dim its white-hot intensity. "How long have you felt this way?"

Stumbling back a few steps, Fluttershy sputtered for a moment before answering. "I don't know. I just started realizing that I really looked forward to when you came over, and you were always so nice, and smart, and…" She trailed off, but Twilight's insistent gaze offered no escape. As her blushed deepened, she added, "And beautiful."

Immediately, a blush emerged on Twilight's face to put Fluttershy's to shame. "Um, thanks, uh," she stuttered, unsure of how to react. "I, um, you're pretty yourself?" Her heartbeat quickened, and she found herself short of breath as the irrevocable reality of her situation closed in on her.

"So, um, what do you think?" Fluttershy asked. "Or—I mean, do you—um, not to put you on the spot…" She shut her mouth before she could mangle her question any further.

"I… I don't know," Twilight managed, understanding perfectly what Fluttershy meant to ask. "This is just all so sudden, and I've never even…" She shut her eyes and collected herself for a moment. Opening them again, she asked, "Why me?"

Fluttershy blinked, tilting her head back a bit and putting a hoof to her chin. When nothing came to mind, she shrugged and answered, "I'm not sure if anypony could ever answer a question like that. Either way, you're one of my best friends, Twilight, and I'd do anything for you." She looked Twilight straight in the eyes. "You know that, right?"

With a nod, Twilight replied, "Of course. And you know I care for you, too. I just… I don't know quite how much, if that makes sense."

A smile finally found its way onto Fluttershy's face as she nodded. "I understand, Twilight. You can think about things if you want. I'm just glad you know now." She moved to leave, but Twilight stopped her with an upraised hoof.

"Wait!" Twilight cried. "But what did Applejack say? And what does all this have to do with her?"

The smile died almost as soon as it took hold of Fluttershy's expression. "I don't know," she admitted, her voice little more than a whisper. "She told me to take good care of you, but… What happened today?"

Twilight's world seemed to collapse around her with every passing moment, and the entire universe swirled around in her mind, keeping her from focusing on any one thing even as she knew that she had to do just that. "I just don't get it!" she almost screamed, unable to hold back the tears that suddenly spilled forth. "This is all so confusing, and sudden, and—"

Stepping forward, Fluttershy wrapped her forelegs around Twilight, patting the unicorn's back as she sobbed into Fluttershy's shoulder. "There, there," she cooed, searching for better words and finding none. "There, there. There, there…"

After a minute that stretched on for what felt like hours, Twilight pulled away, sniffling and wiping the tears from her eyes. Putting a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder, she smiled and said, "Thanks, Fluttershy."

Fluttershy returned the smile as she began to step away. "You're welcome, Twilight." As she turned to walk away, she added, "Let me know when you've figured things out."

"Yeah," Twilight murmured, her smile fading as she slouched her shoulders. Whispering so only she could hear, she added, "Don't hold your breath."

Once Fluttershy disappeared into the all-encompassing darkness, Twilight started to trudge back to her home. Glancing back to where her two best friends had each fled so recently before, she sighed and focused on putting one hoof in front of the other. From what she could tell, Spike had to have put himself to bed before she returned with Applejack, so she was sure she'd get an earful from him in the morning, but she really didn't care. There were far more important matters to focus on.

The only problem was that they seemed so impossible to solve.

Her tears only made Applejack's return to Sweet Apple Acres that much colder as the wind froze her damp cheeks with each new gust. There was nothing else she could do though, and so she galloped onward, hoping to reach home before everything caught up with her—the shame, the regret, the pain…

That last emotion surprised Applejack the most. She was just an interloper in this whole affair—she shouldn't have gotten involved. She could have avoided all of this so easily. It was all because of those secrets she'd kept—all for Fluttershy's sake, true, but she knew they could never last! Now, it was all over.

At least Fluttershy would find some happiness.

As she approached her house, Applejack hesitated as he saw Big Macintosh's imposing form standing in the doorway. As she slowed to a near halt on the long dirt road leading home, Big Mac made his way towards her, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"I guess I don't need to ask how it went," he remarked wryly as he wiped another tear from Applejack's cheek. "Want to talk, sis?"

Applejack shook her head and buried her face in her brother's broad shoulders. "Twilight's got Fluttershy," she sobbed. "That'll just have to be enough for me."

Big Mac's frown became an outright scowl as he gripped Applejack's shoulder and lowered his head to gaze directly into her eyes. "What'd I tell you?" he asked, fighting to keep the reprimand out of his voice.

"Fluttershy was there first," Applejack insisted, ignoring the flash of anger that streaked through her brother's expression. "I couldn't—"

"Nope," he growled, silencing her with the force of his denial. "We went over this, AJ. Making yourself miserable isn't going to solve your problems, and it ain't helping your friends either."

Applejack swallowed another sob as it threatened to escape her throat. "It's so easy to talk like that, big brother, but what about Fluttershy?"

"What about Twilight?" Big Mac shot back. "Who says she wouldn't rather be with you? Who says she wants to be with either of y'all?" His glare made Applejack shrink, and she tried to look away but he refused to let her.

"I just—I don't want to hurt anypony," Applejack protested weakly, slumping in defeat.

"Well you're hurting yourself an awful lot," Big Mac pointed out. "You're the element of honesty, AJ. Stop lying to yourself."

"Hey! I ain't lying!" She bristled at the accusation and tried to stare her older brother down. "It's just that sometimes the right thing to do is also the hardest."

Big Mac shook his head and sighed. "That don't mean that the hardest thing is always right. Twilight's a big girl, AJ. Let her make the decision."

Snorting as a scowl overtook her face, Applejack drew away from her brother. "I'm done with this conversation," she growled, moving for the front door. "I'll see you in the morning, brother."

"Applejack!" Big Mac stamped a hoof, but her sister ignored him, still walking into their home. "You can't just ignore this!" He couldn't remember the last time he'd raised his voice like this, but he knew that if any time warranted it, it was now. "Don't let this end like it did with Rainbow Dash."

Applejack halted in the middle of the door frame, her body rigid. Silence hung in the air for long, agonizing seconds before Big Mac stepped forward. He approached his little sister, ready to comfort her, but when she turned to face him, he saw that he had made a big mistake by mentioning Rainbow Dash. She cocked her hoof, mere moments away from throwing a punch, but she settled for pounding the ground, gritting her teeth as she suppressed a bitter curse.

"Don't you ever bring that up," she hissed at Big Mac, leaning in as close as she could to his face. "Ever! Do you hear me?"

"I'm sorry, AJ, I didn't—"

"Oh you knew exactly what you were saying," she shot back, her words laced with venom. "That's why you said it. But don't you dare bring that mare's name up again!" She stormed into the house, warning Big Mac, "Don't you try to saying nothing more, brother. I'm way past playing nice today."

Applejack barely remembered to avoid slamming the door in Big Mac's face as the two siblings entered their home in silence. Her glare still attempted to bore into Big Mac's serene expression, but he refused to give his sister the satisfaction of cowing him. As she stomped her way upstairs, he called, "G'night," and sauntered over to the living room. Tonight was not the time to be anywhere near his sister, and the couch looked awfully comfortable at the moment.

He'd always found it easy to sleep anywhere, and it would only be one night. As he flopped onto the couch, he sighed deeply.

Him and his big mouth.

Rainbow Dash had meant it when she said she had stuff to do. It was late, and she had to sleep sometime! As she fled the scene of Twilight, Fluttershy, and Applejack's inevitable confrontation, though, she knew she had to go back. No matter what happened, she wanted to see it first-hoof. That way it'd be easier to deal with later.

Perching on a nearby rooftop, Rainbow made sure that she was reasonably well-hidden so she could watch the three ponies unnoticed. From her secret vantage point, she could see it all. She gritted her teeth as she was helpless to intervene, unable to stop the heartache taking place before her very eyes.

First came Applejack's tearful goodbye, and as the earth pony galloped toward home, it took all of Rainbow's willpower to not rush ahead and comfort her. Sure, Rainbow had made mistakes before. She hadn't always done right by Applejack, but at least here, maybe…

She shook her head, tearing her gaze away from Applejack's fleeing form and focusing on Twilight and Fluttershy. They were too far away for Rainbow to hear clearly—if only Fluttershy would speak up!—but their body language said it all. Fluttershy's increasingly skittish movements made Rainbow hold her breath: she knew the pegasus was finally going to confess. And of course, Twilight's shocked stillness didn't surprise Rainbow one bit—that was the sort of reaction she would have had, after all.

What Rainbow Dash didn't expect—not for a second—was the crying. Twilight's crying, to be more specific. Before Rainbow realized what happened, the unicorn was sobbing into Fluttershy's shoulder. Fluttershy—Fluttershy!—was supporting her own crush after confessing her feelings. Blinking more than a few times, Rainbow squinted as if that would help her understand. When it didn't—no surprise—she groaned and shifted uncomfortably on her perch.

Just watching things was useless. Rainbow needed to act! Not right away, of course—that would only make things worse and make everypony feel like she'd been spying on them—but soon. It wouldn't be easy to solve whatever problems were going on, but Rainbow had to act. It was her responsibility as a friend.

Turning away from Twilight and Fluttershy, Rainbow flew away from the library, making sure to stay low and close to Ponyville's many buildings so her friends wouldn't see her. She had to get back to her cloud home. She had to think.

She rolled her eyes as she reached that conclusion. Rainbow was good at a lot of things—no, awesome at a lot of things—but thinking was not one of them. There's hardly a need to think while breaking the sound barrier and creating a sonic rainboom, after all. Still, Rainbow knew that this time, she would have to actually plan things. Even though she couldn't suppress a groan at the thought of that, she tried to suppress her reluctance.

She had to, for her friends.

The most obvious question—and hopefully the easiest to answer—was who she would talk to first. As soon as she thought of the question, Rainbow knew that Fluttershy was not the answer. At the worst, she would spend most of the day cooped up in her cottage. No risk of doing anything stupid; no risk of messing things up with Twilight. She would be safe for a while—of that much, Rainbow was sure.

Twilight was a bit more of a wildcard to Rainbow Dash. Sure, she was methodical and thoughtful and cautious, but she could be… completely crazy… sometimes. She could become totally paranoid about the silliest things, and love definitely fit in that category as far as Rainbow was concerned. Still, it seemed like Fluttershy had been able to calm her down a bit when she started to cry, so Rainbow figured she wasn't going to melt down right away. She might have been a ticking time bomb, but Rainbow hoped that she'd have a long countdown.

Applejack was a completely different story. Rainbow had seen the way she'd run away. It all looked familiar, and for the worst reasons. Rainbow knew Applejack better than possibly anypony else in Ponyville, and if she was right about how the earth pony was feeling, there were some serious problems on the horizon.

Just as Rainbow wrapped up her thoughts, she arrived at her cloud home, touching down on her fluffy doorstep and opening the door. It was settled: she would go visit Applejack first thing in the morning—before she started working on the farm and before she got started bucking apples. Rainbow wanted to be as far away as possible when Applejack got into a kicking mood—for a whole host of reasons.

She didn't quite know what she would say when she found Applejack, but Rainbow was good at improvising. She'd be fine. Besides, her bed beckoned to her, and she just couldn't tell her old friend no. Night-time was for sleeping, and as soon as she got the opportunity, Rainbow Dash slept.

The Hardest Thing

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Waking up before the sun finished its climb over the horizon was among the strangest experiences Rainbow Dash could think of. It smacked of being a productive member of society, and on any other day Rainbow would have just rolled over in her bed and drifted back off to dream land.

Not today, though. Today, she had work to do.

Rolling out of her bed, Rainbow stretched her wings and let out a long, wide yawn. It took incredible effort to get her hooves moving, but at last she began to walk toward the front door of her cloud home. She felt like the motion took forever, as each step dragged on with the sort of lethargic endlessness only drowsiness can bring. Her hooves sank into the floor deeper with each second that continued to trudge, and by the time she came to the door, she felt like she would plummet straight through the clouds she called home.

Creaking the door open with the same weary effort she had used to walk up to it, Rainbow unfurled her wings and gave them an experimental flap. Then another. And another.

Feeling a small gust of wind brush past her wings, she snapped her eyes open, and she was off.

Rainbow's home was at the north end of Ponyville, practically as far away from Sweet Apple Acres as possible, but that didn't worry the pegasus. One of the perks of being the fastest flier in all of Equestria was that only the greatest distances actually took any time to cover. Moving about town—even from one end to the other—was as easy as flight itself.

Before she knew it, Rainbow had reached the farm and a sea of apple trees stretched out under her in all directions. Near the center of the ocean of fruit and timber, she saw the Apple's vibrant red home, and she dashed down toward the distinctive building. Touching down just short of the porch, she trotted up to knock on the door before she suddenly realized something.

No one seemed to be awake.

It wasn't just that nopony was outside. It was that she couldn't hear any noise coming from inside the house. There was silence, and Rainbow had been Applejack's friend long enough to know that a silent Apple Family just didn't make sense.

Halted in her tracks, Rainbow glanced at the sun, then back to the house, then at the sun again. It was definitely over the horizon—the day had definitely begun—and yet the Apples hadn't awoken. Rainbow's foreleg wilted as she glanced at Ponyville, wondering if it was too late to scrap her plan and fly away. There were always plenty of clouds around town that she could nap on, after all, and it's not like she was expected…

She shook her head—not today—and lifted her hoof to knock on the door. Knowing that she'd reached the point of no return, she swung her hoof forward—

And just then the door opened, exposing Big Macintosh's worried face to Rainbow's enthusiastic hoof.

"Who—wha!" Big Mac half-asked, half yelped as Rainbow smacked him right in the snout. She cringed as she tried to pull her hoof back, but to no avail, and her unexpected attack sent him fleeing into the house's living room.

"Now, uh—Rainbow!" At first Big Mac seemed torn between indignation and fear as he tried to figure out what had just happened, but the scowl that overcame his expression the moment he recognized who stood at the door made it amply clear that the pegasus had not made the best of entrances. "Get out of here," he snapped. "We don't need any more trouble."

"Hey! Sorry!" Rainbow shot back, replacing her guilt with indignation in kind. "I was knocking on the door. Anyway, I need to see Applejack, so—"

"Nope!" The fear he had so recently abandoned found its way back to Big Mac's face as his eyes widened and his scowl disappeared. "Applejack's, uh, not here," he drawled, talking even more slowly than normal to overcompensate for his nerves. "Nope. No sirree. So, uh, I'll take a message, Miss Rainbow, and—"

"Nice try, Big Mac, but I know she's here and I've got to talk to her." Rainbow rolled her eyes at the stallion's pathetic attempt to get rid of her. Before he could react—before he could explain any further—she breathed in and shouted, "Applejack! Rise and shine and come downstairs!"

A moment passed during which nothing happened, and the pegasus wondered if Big Mac had been telling the truth—if Applejack really could be away for the day. Just as she began to doubt herself, though, a loud thump sounded upstairs as somepony rolled out of bed and landed hard on the floor. It wasn't a fall, though, as the thumps continued, sounding every couple of seconds with the regularity of deliberate hoofsteps.

Looking at Big Mac, Rainbow could see the burly stallion flinch with each new step, and she felt her ears go flat as she wondered whether should have been a tad more subtle when it came to waking Applejack. As the thumping hoofsteps moved closer to the stairs, Rainbow's apprehension only grew, and she found herself unwilling to blink lest she miss Applejack as she began to descend.

She needn't have worried. Applejack made no effort to speed up her steps as she began to move downstairs, and her steady, trudging march gave Rainbow plenty of time to absorb every sign of displeasure in the earth pony's expression.


She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, letting little more than a glint of vengeful green show.


What might have once been a mere scowl had long since moved past that point, developing into a full-blown snarl as her lips curled up to show her teeth.


She hadn't even taken the time to tie her hair, and the result was a wild, tangled mess that made her look more like a savage than a civilized pony.


Her hooves struck with imposing, almost mechanical force that threatened to splinter the wooden stairs every time they impacted.


She was almost face-to-face with Rainbow Dash, and the pegasus found herself rooted to the spot.


Silence fell over the house as Applejack stopped in front of Rainbow, close enough to touch—close enough to strike.

For the moment, though, she chose words as her only weapon. "We don't need your kind 'round here," she growled, her voice shattering the quiet and making Big Mac's knees wobble for a moment.

"Yeah, right!" Rainbow retorted. "After what happened last night—yeah, I saw it—you and me definitely need to talk."

"I ain't much in the mood for talkin' right now." Applejack's accent thickened as the anger in her voice rose. "I don't know what you saw, and I don't care, but I ain't gonna listen to some two-timin', shape-shiftin' liar!"

Rainbow wanted to roll her eyes, but instead she found herself slouching, lowering her head in defeat. "Sure, fine," she admitted. "I made some mistakes in the past, Applejack, but this isn't the time to—"

"Mistakes?" Applejack hissed, hackles raised. "You made some mistakes?! Rainbow, I suggest you get on out o' here 'fore I lose my temper!" She began to stomp forward again, and Rainbow had no choice but to retreat in kind. "I ain't in—" Thump! "—the talking—" Thump! "—mood!"

Thump! Thump!

Applejack lunged forward, bringing her face within inches of Rainbow's. The pegasus's heart skipped a beat as she searched for something to say—anything to turn this situation around. Finding nothing, she tried to speak anyway and came out with nothing but panicked sputtering.

"Oh what's that?" Applejack put a hoof to her ear as she mocked Rainbow's speechlessness. "Don't have anything to say? Not like that hasn't happened before." She rolled her eyes and raised a hoof before slamming it hard into the floor.

"I said I'm sorry!" Rainbow protested, trying to pull back in the face of Applejack's unrelenting glare. The other pony gave her no respite, though, and only moved in closer with every step back she took. "I can't change what I did, but I can help with Twilight."

"And how's that?" Applejack snarled. "You gonna break Fluttershy's heart too now? I might have been dumb before, Rainbow, but I ain't gonna let you do that to anypony else."

"Look—I—" Rainbow gritted her teeth and flapped her wings in agitation. "It's complicated, okay? There's just too much going on, and nopony else is around to help. Just, please, let's try to make this right."

Applejack eyed Rainbow suspiciously for a moment before pulling back, giving the pegasus some breathing room at last. Shifting her glare to Big Mac, she pointed at Rainbow and asked, "Did you send for her?"

Big Mac's head shook with impossible speed. "No, sis. I swear, she just came here." The stallion, for all his strength, seemed ready to bolt, and as soon as she turned her gaze away from him, he did just that, galloping out the door for the safety of the apple orchard.

With nopony else in the room, Applejack faced Rainbow once more, her glare still possessed of its full intensity. Her voice, at least, had mellowed somewhat. "You better be quick. I'm not going to be strung along here."

Rainbow cringed at the accusation hidden in Applejack's words. "I'm sorry, Applejack. I really am."

"I don't care." Applejack found one of her hair ties on the living room table and set herself to work fixing her hair. "You know what you did, now tell me what you're thinking of doing now."

Opening her mouth for a moment, Rainbow clamped it shut, realizing at last what a bad idea improvising was. "Well," she finally began, drawing out the word as long as possible before a harsh look from Applejack stopped her. "Okay, so this is going to be tough, right? We've got to deal with you and Fluttershy here."

"Yeah," Applejack grunted, her scowl deepening. "I ain't stupid, Rainbow."

"I didn't say you—Oh, Celestia, just give me a sec!" Rainbow lifted a hoof to rub her chin, but before she could even do that, the first idea popped into her head. "I've got it!" she cried, pumping her hoof as she did so.

"And?" Applejack arched an eyebrow and tilted her head slightly.

"See, the big problem is you and Fluttershy both got it bad for Twilight," Rainbow began, blinking rapidly and shaking her head as a thought flitted through her head. "Wow. Twilight. Who would've thought, right?" Applejack apparently didn't share Rainbow's sentiments, so the pegasus quickly moved on. "Yeah, ahem, anyway, you two both want the same mare, so neither of you know what to do so the other doesn't get hurt."

"Fluttershy doesn't have to worry about anything," Applejack protested. "I told her as much last night." She hung her head and sat down on the floor. "Twilight's all hers," she whispered.

"C'mon, AJ." Rainbow rolled her eyes. "Fluttershy's the definition of not wanting to step on ponies' hooves. I bet she's even more worried than you are right about now."

"Great," Applejack drawled sarcastically. "So I can't even give up a girl right, is that what you're saying?"

"Um, no?" Rainbow seemed more confused that Applejack would even ask such a ridiculous question than about its answer. "I'm saying that you two should probably have a good talk. You know, sort of figure out what's what and lay down the ground rules for…" She waved her hoof carelessly. "For all this."

Applejack rubbed her chin, considering the option. "I guess if it'd clear things up with Fluttershy, that'd be okay."

"Exactly!" Rainbow moved behind Applejack and tried to push her out the door. "So how about you go over to Fluttershy's place and—"

"Hey, there!" Applejack turned on Rainbow as the pegasus tried to shove her flanks forward. "First, get your hooves off my flank. Second—" She trotted to the kitchen table and grabbed her stetson. "—I never leave home without my hat."

Rainbow sighed and pointed out the door. "Fine. But you've got to get going. You need to get these things figured out pronto!"

Applejack nodded and began to trot out the door before a realization struck her. Bringing a hoof to her face, she groaned and said, "Oh, Celestia! I forgot; Twilight's supposed to be coming her to help with the farming." She turned to Rainbow, her eyes pleading. "I can't deal with that right now. What do I do?"

A smile spread across Rainbow's face. "I've got this covered," she assured Applejack. "You just worry about Fluttershy. I'll deal with Twilight."

"Alright." Applejack allowed herself to smile at Rainbow Dash. "Thanks, Rainbow."

"No problem, Jackie," Rainbow replied without thinking, and she cringed immediately when she realized what she just said. "I mean, uh—"

Rainbow could see rage flash across Applejack's face for a moment, but it passed soon enough, leaving a sad smile in its wake. "Yeah, yeah, you're sorry, I'm sure," she said as she put a hoof on Rainbow's shoulder. "I'll give you a pass this time, Rainbow." Her expression hardened for a moment as she added, "Just this time, though. Don't go making a habit of it."

Chuckling sheepishly, Rainbow nodded. "Sorry, Applejack," she mumbled as she moved for the door. "I'll go find Twilight, so… Yeah." She scuffed the floor and looked away. "Also, where's Apple Bloom and Granny Smith?"

"Granny Smith's always sleeping," Applejack explained, laughing a bit as she spoke. "As for Apple Bloom, well, I think my brother isn't the only pony in this family who I scared just a touch."

Rainbow nodded and chuckled again. "Yeah," she agreed. "Matter of fact, you might have scared some ponies outside your family."

"Oh, and I wonder who that could be," Applejack drawled, rolling her eyes.

Rainbow threw her hooves up. "What can I say? You're the last pony I'd want to pick a fight with… Not that I'd lose," she hastened to add. "It's just it might be tougher, is all. Anyway, good luck!" Not even waiting for a reply, the pegasus set off for Ponyville, leaving a puff of dust and a faint rainbow trail behind.

"Thanks," Applejack called, but she knew Rainbow probably wouldn't hear. Not that it really mattered, but since Rainbow had gone to all the trouble, the least Applejack could do was show a little gratitude.

With Rainbow Dash off to distract Twilight, Applejack turned her attention in the direction of Fluttershy's cottage. She couldn't actually see the humble home, but she knew that behind all her family's apple trees, there was a meek yellow pegasus with a heart of gold. She needed to talk with that pegasus.

Taking one last glance at home, Applejack set off on the road out of Sweet Apple Acres, steeling herself for the unpleasant conversation to come.

Morning brought with it no grand revelations. There were no sudden insights, and Twilight Sparkle sighed in the knowledge that the events of last night remained no clearer than the moment she had seen them unfold.

In fact, all that confronted the frustrated unicorn was a confused psyche and a remarkably peeved baby dragon.

"I just can't believe you bailed on me last night," Spike complained as he threw up his hands. "I had to take care of myself all day. Heck, I had to put myself to bed!"

Twilight nodded limply, slouching her shoulders. "I know Spike," she sighed more than said. "Let's just say that yesterday was a bit hectic. I'll try to be better next time."

Something in the way Twilight voiced her apology struck Spike as odd, and the dragon blinked before turning to face her directly. "Something wrong, Twilight?"

Twilight started to shake her head before hesitating. She began to nod, but even that seemed misleading somehow, and she gave up with a weak shrug. "Everything's all just so confusing," she said, fighting with little success to keep her tears from spilling.

"Whoa!" Spike almost shouted, waving his hands as if he could distract Twilight enough to stop the crying. "What is it, Twilight? Did something go wrong on Applejack's farm?"

Twilight laughed, but the tears did not stop. Rather, they seemed to stream even more freely down her cheeks with each word she spoke. "Everything was going so well on the farm. We were working together and having fun, and I just…" She lifted a hoof and grasped the empty air in search of the right words. "I was having such a good time, and I thought Applejack was too. And then she started acting weird, and we walked back here, and Fluttershy was there, and—" Her voice caught in her throat, and she swallowed deeply before continuing. "Applejack started running away, and she was crying! I don't even know what happened, but she off she went."

Twilight paused for another moment before giving the last crucial detail about her day. Sitting down, she buried her face in her hooves for a moment before looking back up at Spike. "And then Fluttershy told me she—she loves me."

"Hey!" Spike yelped, his eyes wide. "What the hay were you doing wasting my time with all that other stuff? Fluttershy said what?!"

"She said she loves me!" Twilight shot back, sending a glare along with her words. "Or I think she said she's 'in love' with me, but that's not the point." Her head swirled as all manner of worries emerged from every corner of her mind. "The point is that I don't know what I feel, and now I don't even know what's going on."

"Um," Spike managed after quite a bit of thought. "Uh… Alright?" He shrugged with a guilty smile, drawing another glare from Twilight.

After a moment, Twilight's anger subsided. Sighing, she said, "Don't worry, Spike. I know this isn't the sort of thing you're experienced with. It's just, I don't really have anypony to turn to, seeing as Applejack ran away from me last night and Fluttershy's… Well I guess she's part of the problem, if that's what we're calling it." She slapped a hoof against her forehead and groaned. "I just need somepony to vent to."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Twilight," Spike protested, puffing out his chest. "I'm totally experienced with romance and all that stuff—not that I'm all mushy and girly or anything! But I mean, have you seen me putting the moves on Rarity?" He grinned and nodded slowly. "Who says dragons can't be charming?"

Spike's self-confidence elicited a weak chuckle from Twilight. Rolling her eyes, she replied, "Of course you do, Spike." As she spoke, though, a realization crossed her mind, and she thrust her hoof into the air triumphantly. "That's it!"

"What's it?" Spike asked, arching an eyebrow.

"I should talk to Rarity about all this. She'll know what to do."

Shrugging, Spike turned away and began to walk toward the kitchen. "Alright, I guess," he said. "Have fun." He turned around suddenly, adding, "Oh, and let me know how she's doing. Or, uh, yeah… or something." Deflating just a bit as he lost his train of thought, he continued his short journey out of the room.

As the baby dragon went to make himself something to eat, Twilight straightened herself and put on a somewhat strained smile as she trotted toward the front door of the library. She figured it would be best if she went to Rarity as soon as possible. That way, even if the fashionista was too busy to talk just then, they'd be able to schedule a time at the very least.

Just before she opened the door, though, she hesitated. She felt like there was something she had to do, something important, but she wasn't sure—

She groaned and smacked a hoof against her forehead again. Applejack. As strange as the farm pony's behavior had been the previous night, Twilight had promised to come to Sweet Apple Acres today. Maybe Applejack would be fine with her missing the day, but it was better to be safe than sorry. It was time to pay another visit to Applejack.

Moving with the urgency that only a previously scheduled event could impress upon her, Twilight left her home behind, heading off for Sweet Apple Acres. Pausing after a few minutes of trotting down the streets of Ponyville, she glanced back in the direction of the tree library. Somewhere in that direction stood the Carousel Boutique as well, but she would have to wait to go there. Maybe later that evening, she would be able to sort things out with Rarity's help.

Before that, though, it was time to see what was up with Applejack.

At Odds

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From the moment Fluttershy's cottage came into view, each step became more and more difficult for Applejack to complete. It was a visceral reaction. It wasn't that she disliked Fluttershy, and it wasn't that she didn't see the need to speak with the demure pegasus, but even so, she knew that this would be difficult.

She knew that this would be painful.

After every few steps, Applejack's chest heaved with a deep sigh. She slowly made her way to the front door, glancing from side to side to see if she could find Fluttershy somewhere tending to her animals. No such luck. At last, she halted at Fluttershy's doorstep, taking time to straighten herself before lifting her hoof and knocking it against the door.

For a moment, the knock echoed emptily in Applejack's ears, jarring her consciousness and leaving just as suddenly as it arrived. She winced at the sound, so repulsed by the noise that she almost turned away from the cottage. This had to be done, though, and she gritted her teeth as she resolved to see things through.

Fluttershy opened the door just in time to see the farm pony's harsh, determined expression at the height of its potency. Recoiling, she fought the urge to slam the door shut in Applejack's face and hid behind her mane.

"Eep! I mean, um," Fluttershy forced herself to speak even as her body quaked. "Nice to see you."

Realizing what had shaken her friend so much, Applejack pulled back a bit and softened her glare, chuckling as she rubbed the back of her neck. "Heck, I'm sorry, Fluttershy." Trotting through the door as Fluttershy let her in, she spoke in a subdued tone, keeping her head up but not lifting it high either. "I reckon we need to talk about some things, so if you aren't too busy, then—"

"Is it what I think it is?" Fluttershy interrupted, her voice quiet but forceful. "What you want to talk about, I mean."

A grimace spread across Applejack's face as she nodded. "I think so. That whole thing with Twilight, I'm, well, I'm not sure what I am, as a matter of fact. You know what, I'm sorry for what I said last night, I think I know that much." Every word came only after a struggle, and Applejack had to make a conscious effort not to gnash her teeth in frustration. "I… I need to figure some things out, and I shouldn't have just run off like that."

Fluttershy nodded. "You looked very upset, Applejack." She put a hoof on the farm pony's shoulder. "What happened on the farm yesterday?"

Applejack's shoulder slumped as she let out a long sigh. "My guess is the same thing that happened to you," she admitted, shaking her head. "We hit it off so well, and I just never realized how much we have in common." She turned her head away from Fluttershy and pulled her hat as far down as she could. "I'm sorry, Shy. I'm so, so sorry."

Suddenly, she felt Fluttershy's hoof against her chin, pushing it up until the two ponies looked each other in the eyes. "There's nothing to be sorry about, Applejack," the pegasus said. "You feel what you feel. There's nothing you or I can do about it, and I respect that."

Applejack chuckled without humor and shook her head. "Doesn't mean we can share Twilight," she commented.

"No, I know we can't." Fluttershy lowered her head and backed away a step. "We can still try to figure things out, though. I mean, we can try to make a decision together."

"You know I made my decision already, Fluttershy. I told you what to do yesterday." Tears welled up in Applejack's eyes, but she blinked them back. "Just go to her. Only reason I'm here is 'cause I figured you'd need to hear it again."

"No." Fluttershy stomped a hoof against the floor. Even though the gesture really amounted to little more than a gentle tap, it stunned Applejack into silence, letting Fluttershy lean forward with a stare Applejack had seen precious few times before.

"I know you're trying to be nice, Applejack, and you want to put my wants first, but this isn't about me," the pegasus said, pacing around the room and punctuating the occasional phrase with a more forceful step. "This is about me and you—and Twilight, too! And you know you like her. You like her a lot—otherwise you wouldn't have come here. I don't care if I was first or if friends do favors for friends. This isn't the sort of favor you want to do for me, and it's not the sort of favor I want done."

Fluttershy continued pacing for a few moments after she stopped speaking, retaining her aggressive demeanor as if she had yet to finish. Eventually, she realized that she was, indeed, finished and came to an awkward stop in the middle of her living room, glancing at Applejack and blushing. "I'm sorry. Was that too mean?"

"Shy, I don't think you have a mean bone in your body," Applejack insisted. "Still, what do we do?"

The uncertainty that flickered in Fluttershy's eyes told Applejack all she needed to know. Even so, the farm pony had no way to anticipate the pegasus's answer. "Um, I may have told Twilight I love her."

Applejack could only laugh. "Of course you did." Seeing Fluttershy lower her head, she held a hoof out and shook her head. "No, no, Shy. I didn't mean it like that. It's just, well, I guess the decision's made at this point, right?"

"But I just said—"

"It's not about who was first, Shy," Applejack interrupted, putting a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder. "Twilight's got enough on her plate just figuring out things with you. She doesn't need two ponies putting that sort of pressure on her—let alone two friends."

"You can't just avoid her, though." Fluttershy began to pace before she realized what she was doing and stopped herself. Keeping her head low, she continued, "If you're around her, Applejack, don't lie to her. At least promise me that."

Applejack opened her mouth to speak and realized that she had no words to offer. Blinking and shaking her head, she finally managed, "Alright. Fine. If you say so, Shy. It's not like I could if I tried—Element of Honesty and all."

A smile crept onto Fluttershy's expression, but she stopped short of laughing. "So, I guess I haven't really asked you the question," she commented.

"Beg pardon?" Applejack tilted her head and arched a brow.

"Do you love her?" Fluttershy stood tall and confident for a moment, but the effect was shattered when she flinched and corrected, "I mean, do you think you love her at least?"

Applejack hesitated for a moment, but when she nodded it was without reservations. "I can't say it for sure, but she's definitely something more than the rest of y'all—no offense of course." Fluttershy waved the apology off with a smile.

Clearing her throat, Applejack went on. "I guess I could be wrong, seeing as it's not like I've spent all that much time alone with her, but yesterday was… Well, I only know one other pony who's made me feel that way." She tried to hold back her tears, but a couple pushed past her eyelids and streamed down her cheeks.

"Lost love is a terrible thing," Fluttershy almost whispered. Applejack's eyes widened slightly as she turned to face the pegasus more directly. "It's okay, Applejack. I know what it's like to have that sort of thing happen."

"Oh yeah?" Applejack drew her lips into a thin line and rolled her eyes. "The love was lost, sure as sugar, but it wasn't because of plain bad luck."

"Bad breakup," Fluttershy stated more than asked.

Applejack broke into a grin that just barely avoided becoming a grimace. "I guess you could say that."

"Well, if you ever want to talk about that, I'm here. I won't pry, though—I wouldn't want to be a bother."

"Shy, you ain't a bother." Applejack felt like she was comforting her little sister, and she brought a foreleg around Fluttershy's withers to grip her in a firm half-hug. "And remember you can talk to me about anything too." She tried to smile mischievously, but the end result looked mostly sad. "Even Twilight things."

Fluttershy noticed the sorrow in Applejack's expression, so she lowered her head and turned away. "Don't," she pleaded quietly. "Don't lie to me, and especially don't lie to yourself."

"I didn't even say nothing!" Applejack protested, pulling away from Fluttershy so she could stand tall.

"No, but you lied anyway." Fluttershy shook her head, but she remained subdued and melancholy. "We'll see what Twilight wants to do with her life. I mean, I'd like her to choose me, but I'd be happy if she chose you too, and there are so many ponies in Equestria… Oh my! Either way, you know you want her to choose you, so don't act like this isn't anything." She brushed her mane so it covered more of her face. "Please," she added, unable to keep her eyes on Applejack.

"Why won't anypony just make this easy?" Applejack shot back, her voice suddenly carrying a sharp edge. "Twilight's yours. Just take her, darn it!"


Applejack shot a harsh glare Fluttershy's way, silencing the pegasus. "I won't take any more of this," she growled, her voice breaking as tears returned to her eyes. "I—I'm leaving." Gritting her teeth, the pony began to gallop for the front door.

"Applejack!" Fluttershy held a hoof out, fearing she was already too late, but she was thankfully mistaken. At the pegasus's pleading, Applejack stopped with her hoof on the door handle, shoulders slouched and eyes downcast. Slowly lifting her head to face Fluttershy, she took a deep breath and hesitated before finding the resolve to speak.

"Why won't it just end?" she asked, casting her sad eyes to Fluttershy. "I know you want to be nice, Shy, but now you're just torturing me."

A gasp escaped Fluttershy's throat. "Don't even say something like that!"

"I'm only saying the truth, Shy. I want you to go to Twilight—I need you to—" The words caught in her throat, and she stopped to collect her emotions before she could finish her sentence. "I need you to go to her. So long as she's still there, I—well, I'll deal with it, but you need to go to her. Please."

"Stop it, Applejack!" With Applejack's motives finally out in the open, Fluttershy looked absolutely livid. Thrusting a hoof forward accusingly, she snapped, "How do you think this makes me feel? You're telling me that whatever I do, I'm hurting you, and it's awful!"

Silence followed as Fluttershy searched for what to say next. At last, Applejack tried to protest. "But—"

"No, Applejack. Let me finish. Let me… think." Her eyes drifted upward as she did just that, but this time Applejack remained silent and still until Fluttershy was ready to continue.

"Thank you," the pegasus said when she had figured out what she wanted to say. "I think it's time to come clean. Um, I'm sorry, Applejack, but I can live with letting Twilight decide, no matter who she chooses." Fluttershy fixed her gaze on Applejack and asked, "Can you?"

Applejack blinked a few times and took a step back that only led to her bumping into the wall of the cottage. "Course, Shy. Why wouldn't I?" She glanced all about, looking at everything in the room but Fluttershy.

Fluttershy sighed as her suspicions were confirmed by Applejack's shifty behavior. "It's one thing to give things to other ponies. That's your choice; you can control that. It's different to want something and work so hard to get it with no guarantee it will ever be yours. Don't you agree, Applejack?"

"Well, it hardly seems fair," she admitted, but she knew Fluttershy expected more. Still, wishes don't always come true, and Applejack said no more.

"I know this is difficult, Applejack, but you have to admit your feelings one way or another. Either you'll speak your mind or I'll keep guessing at the truth." Fluttershy bit her lip, adding, "And I'm really sorry, because this seems so rude, but It's really for the best. I promise."

Applejack snorted, unable to take another moment. "I don't need this," she grumped, opening the door and stepping outside. "I'll be going home now, Shy. I reckon Twilight's heading over there right now." She tried to maintain a stern expression, but it dissolved to sadness before too long. "If she goes to you, don't say no, Shy. Don't you dare say no."

With a smile, Fluttershy nodded. "I never would've dreamed of doing that."

Rolling her eyes, Applejack shut the door and trotted down the road toward Sweet Apple Acres.

Twilight recognized the rainbow-colored blur streaking away from Sweet Apple Acres the moment she saw it, but that didn't make Rainbow Dash's sudden arrival directly in front of the unicorn any less surprising. As the pegasus skidded to a stop at the outskirts of Ponyvile, Twilight yelped and jumped back a step, remembering countless collisions in the past and knowing that even a flyer as skilled as Rainbow Dash could make mistakes.

"Hey!" Rainbow protested, recognizing the source of Twilight's fear. "I had it under control. I wasn't gonna hit you."

"Better safe than sorry." Even so, Twilight relaxed once her friend was well and truly stopped, knowing the danger had passed. "Either way, what were you doing out at Applejack's house?"

Rainbow plastered a smile over her face and shifted. "Just, uh, going over the weather schedule and stuff," she answered, eyes darted left and right as she began to sweat. "You know, what with new plants being, uh, planted." Rainbow stopped, unhappy with how the last sentence sounded.

"New crops notwithstanding, I hope you'll forgive me if I don't believe you right away." Twilight pursed her lips and arched an eyebrow. After a moment, though, she brushed off the suspicious expression and shrugged. "Doesn't really matter in the end, though." She began to continue toward Sweet Apple Acres as she said, "I'm off to help Applejack for the day, so nice to see you."

Rainbow's eyes widened and she flew over Twilight to land in front of the unicorn again. "Hold on," she insisted. "How about you…" Tapping a chin thoughtfully for a moment, Rainbow perked up as inspiration struck. "How about you go read a book or something, eh?" She nudged Twilight as a she smiled broadly. "Eh?"

Some ponies are masters of subtlety and manipulation. That's not to say that they were bad ponies—diplomatic was the better word. They could mask their own feelings well enough to blind their peers and colleagues to any hidden agendas they might have had, and they could guide events with grace and reserve.

Rainbow Dash was no such pony.

With that in mind, it was little wonder that Twilight simply frowned and rolled her eyes in the face of Rainbow's suggestion. Sighing, she replied, "I don't know what's gotten into you, Rainbow, but I told Applejack I would help out on the farm today. That means I'm going to help, even if—" She caught herself and cleared her throat. "Um, nevermind."

Now it was Rainbow's turn to grow suspicious, opening her mouth slightly as she tilted her head. "Even if what?"

"Nothing!" Twilight insisted, but she knew it was in vain. "It's none of your—well, you weren't there."

This time, Rainbow decided it was best to feign ignorance—to learn what Twilight thought about the situation. Leaning forward, she furrowed her brow and snapped, "Hey, Twilight! Don't try keeping things from me. If something happened between you and AJ, I deserve to know."

"Fine." Twilight slouched her shoulders and sighed. "Last night, after you left… Everything was weird, okay? First Applejack said something to Fluttershy and ran away without saying goodbye, and then Fluttershy—" Her voice caught and she shook her head. "One problem at a time," she muttered.

"Anyway, Fluttershy said Applejack told her to take care of me—whatever that means." Twilight immediately came to regret her decision to try and tackle what happened with Applejack without discussing the full context of the night. "Well, actually, Fluttershy sort of said she loves me, so I guess that's what Applejack was talking about, but like I said: one problem at a time."

"Alright," Rainbow agreed, waiting for her friend to continue. Twilight nodded curtly and paced briefly before taking a breath to continue.

"Okay. Anyway, I don't know what Applejack was so upset about." Twilight began to speak louder as she grew more agitated. She started to gestures more and more, lending as much force to her points through actions as through words. "As a matter of fact, she was acting weird starting with yesterday morning. One moment, we're being friendly and joking around, and then all of a sudden she gets this weird look on her face and she tries to pull away. It's driving me crazy!" She paused for a moment and took the time to wave her front hooves in the air.

Setting all four hooves back on the ground, Twilight closed her eyes and took a moment to collect herself. Taking a deep breath, she looked up at Rainbow and said, "You've known Applejack for a long time. Do you have any idea what might be wrong with her?"

Normally, Rainbow might have taken the opportunity to take a sarcastic jab at the farm pony, but given the circumstances and her audience, she resisted the urge and took a moment to consider her answer.

"I'm… I mean, it sounds like Applejack needs some space to think," she offered, unsure of how much she should reveal. Her answers came slowly, and she spoke with the same sluggishness that seemed to have taken hold of her mind. "She, um, she didn't mention all this when I was at the farm, but she seemed like she was handling it okay. I'd say wait till tomorrow. You know, let her figure things out."

Twilight seemed dissatisfied with Rainbow's suggestion, but she nodded nonetheless. Frowning, she said, "It's so frustrating, but I guess you're right."

Smirking, Rainbow brought a hoof up to her chest and said, "Naturally."

With a roll of her eyes, Twilight chuckled and moved on. "Of course, Rainbow Dash. Thanks for the advice."

"No prob, Twilight. So whatcha gonna do today?" Rainbow began to flap her wings, hovering just above the ground as she prepared to say goodbye.

"I think I've got a good idea," Twilight answered, a hint of relief creeping into her expression. "I'm going to head to Rarity's place. Want to head over that way with me?"

Rainbow took all of two seconds to make up her mind about the offer. Snorting derisively, she rolled her eyes and said, "Nah." If Twilight had thought for a moment, before asking, she wouldn't have expected anything different.

Giggling a bit, the unicorn shrugged and said, "Alright, then. I didn't mean to actually go to Carousel Boutique with me. I need to talk with Rarity about something." She shook her head and waved a hoof. "It doesn't matter, though. See you later, Rainbow Dash."

"See ya, Twilight!" With that, Rainbow was off, leaving nothing but a gust of wind and a rainbow trail behind her as she sped off into the clouds.

As she watched the pegasus fly away, Twilight turned toward Ponyville and took a few steps before stopping. Blinking rapidly, she glanced back in the direction she had seen Rainbow flying in and looked back at Sweet Apple Acres.

She hadn't quite bought Rainbow's reason for visiting Applejack, but it hadn't seemed important at the time. What did she care when her friends hung out together, or even why? Even so, Rainbow's obvious lie rankled with her.

Twilight turned around to face Sweet Apple Acres; maybe it was time to go see Applejack anyway. She would tell Twilight why Rainbow was there. At least then she'd have one answer to the thousand questions swirling through her head.

As the impulse faded, Twilight shook herself and turned back to Ponyville, blinking once more and working her mouth silently. A wave of guilt passed through her as she realized what she had just felt. Had she been jealous? What did she even have to be jealous about? Twilight groaned as those questions joined the swarm of unanswered mysteries.

At last, Twilight began to make her way toward the Carousel Boutique. Rainbow was right; whatever problems Applejack was dealing with would take time to get sorted out. It would be best to let Applejack make some headway on her own first before going to see the farm pony again.

Besides, Rarity would know what to do about Fluttershy. She would have the answers—or at the very least know how Twilight ought to look for those answers.

In such a strange, confusing time, that was just the sort of information Twilight needed.

Idle Gossip

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Fashion is an industry based almost entirely on appearances, and Rarity knew that to get anywhere in such a field, one must look as fabulous as the outfits one creates. That was why she made a point of going to the spa once a week with Fluttershy. It was her way of recharging herself so she could get through another week managing the Carousel Boutique. It also didn't hurt that—given how much of a shut-in Fluttershy was—Rarity could tell her friend all the week's juiciest gossip without the slightest fear that the pegasus had heard any of it before.

At least that was the typical routine. That's how things typically worked.

This week, however, Fluttershy missed their spa appointment. She had to cancel—she told Rarity that she was too busy caring for her animals. Rarity offered to change the time, but Fluttershy declined. It was just a busy week over all, she said, and hopefully they would be able to go next week. The pegasus hardly seemed sure about that, though.

Without Fluttershy to join her, Rarity found a strange apathy come over her. Sure, the spa was an important part of her weekly routine, but without somepony else to enjoy it with, what was the point? All that gossip she took such great pains to learn from her clients would go to waste if she couldn't share it. As far as Rarity was concerned, Fluttershy's sudden unavailability was the. Worst. Possible. Thing!

So Rarity decided not to go to the spa on that day. She went back to work—back to the daily grind. Her last visit to the spa had been twelve days ago, and it showed.

There was no way around it. She knew it, and she was sure everypony else knew it too. She looked positively horrid!

Twilight, for whatever reason, was oblivious to this undeniable truth when she knocked on Rarity's door. Even when Rarity answered, her pores clogged and her mane not just one but two steps away from perfection, Twilight failed to see anything other than the same Rarity she'd always known. Smiling, she waved at the fashionista and said, "Hi, Rarity."

"Why hello, Twilight," Rarity replied expansively. "So nice to see you. What brings you here?"

"Um, well, actually," Twilight began, "I was wondering if you had a moment to talk."

Rarity's ears perked up. "Talk, you say?" she asked, turning and taking a step toward Twilight.

"Yes," Twilight answered, arching a brow as Rarity moved closer. "Is something wrong?"

"Wrong? No, no, nothing's wrong, Twilight," Rarity smiled and wrapped a foreleg around Twilight's shoulders. "How much time did you want to talk for?"

"I… just want to talk," Twilight backed away, glancing at the still open door as she started to sweat.

"What?" Rarity dropped her foreleg, tilting her head until she realized what Twilight had been implying. "Oh no, Twilight! I'm—You know I'm straight, right?"

"Really?" Twilight stopped her slow retreat and stopped avoiding Rarity's gaze. "I mean, I guess that's normal, but it's not like we've ever talked about it."

Rarity responded with another smile. "Too true, too true." Levitating a small saddle bag from a nearby rack, she began to walk toward the door, saying, "We really should catch up about all that. Say, I've got a spa appointment in a few minutes. Care to join me?"

The unicorn stopped in the middle of the doorway, blocking Twilight's exit and jingling her saddlebag. "It'll be my treat!"

"Sounds good," Twilight answered with a shrug. Lowering her head, she added, "Could we talk about that thing I mentioned earlier?"

"Oh yes, of course!" Rarity furrowed her brow and pursed her lips for a moment. "I'm sorry, but did you actually say what it was?"

"No, but—ah, might as well! Um, just promise you won't freak out."

Rarity laughed airily. "Twilight, dear, why would I ever freak out? I'll support you, no matter what you did or what happened."

"Okay." Twilight took a deep breath and blurted, "Fluttershy's in love with me! And, uh—" She stopped when she noticed Rarity's blank stare.

For a long moment, neither pony spoke and Rarity remained motionless aside from a few surprised blinks. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, unable to find the words.

Twilight offered a toothy grin, but it soon died in the face of Rarity's silence. "I'll give you a moment to take that in, Rarity, but that's not it."

"Oh please, Twilight, no need to pace ourselves. I can handle it. It's just, ah—" She glanced at Twilight and asked, "How about we get going to the spa? You can explain all this on the way there."

Sighing as she weighed the option, Twilight finally nodded. "Just remember, it's a lot to take in, and this is all just as surprising to me as it is to you."

"I would certainly hope so."

Throughout Twilight's stay in Ponyville, she could only remember coming to the Lotus Day Spa two or three times. It wasn't that she didn't like the place—Lotus and Aloe were wonderful ponies, and they knew their craft well—but she couldn't justify spending a day "relaxing" when she could spend it studying or working on some project or another. She needed more reason than an idle whim to bring her to the spa, and this visit was no exception.

Even so, Twilight had to admit that she was glad to be there. Lotus was positively magical as a masseuse—nevermind that she was an earth pony! That didn't mean she could ignore her reason for being there, though, so she turned her head to face Rarity and asked, "Have you thought about it, Rarity?"

Moaning in pleasure as Aloe massaged her back, Rarity, answered, "What? Oh! Of course, Twilight, but I—that is, have you spoken with Applejack since last night?"

"No." Twilight deflated a little and shook her head. "I was going to this morning, but Rainbow Dash convinced me not to."

"Rainbow Dash? I don't quite see the connection, darling."

Twilight started to respond, but her answer was cut off for a moment as Lotus worked out a particularly bothersome knot in her back. "Oh, Celestia, that's amazing!" As the feeling passed, she blushed and turned her attention back to Rarity. "Sorry about that. What were you saying?"

"You mentioned Rainbow Dash," Rarity reiterated, figuring that Twilight wouldn't need any further prompting.

"Oh yes, that's right. I was going to Sweet Apple Acres when Rainbow came flying away from there and said hello." Twilight frowned a bit, but the expression was hard to maintain as Lotus continued to massage away. "As a matter of fact, I'm not sure why she was there."

"I'm sure she had a perfectly good reason to visit Applejack," Rarity assured her, though she furrowed her brow in thought as she did so.

"I know," Twilight sighed. "I mean, I know it in my head, but for some reason I just can't force myself to believe it. Like—I don't know. Do you know what I mean, Rarity?"

A broad grin spread across Rarity's face as she looked Twilight directly in the eyes. "I think I have an idea," she said in a sickly sweet tone.

"You do?" Twilight arched an eyebrow. "Because I don't know why you're looking at me like that if you—"

"Ladies," Rarity interrupted, looking up at Lotus and Aloe. "How much longer will these heavenly massages last?"

"We're actually just finishing up, Miss Rarity," Lotus answered with a smile. "That is, unless you want to extend them."

"Oh no, Lotus. Thank you. I'd actually like if Twilight and I could use the sauna for a bit—in private, if you please."

Lotus opened her mouth slightly and nodded slowly. "Very well, Miss Rarity. Right away."

With their customer's request in mind, the Blossom sisters finished their massages and brought Twilight and Rarity to the sauna. In short order, they had the room virtually filled with steam, and the two unicorns entered.

"Thank you, darlings," Rarity called as the Blossoms closed the sauna door, leaving their customers alone at last. Once the door fully closed, Rarity turned to Twilight and asked, "Do you want to know what I think?"

"Yes," Twilight answered, her exasperation clearly showing. "I've been waiting since you first mentioned it! Why was all this so important anyway?" She waved her hooves to indicate the sauna.

"Do you want your life to be the talk of the town?" Rarity shot back. "I love Lotus and Aloe—they're wonderful ponies—but they're terrible gossips." She giggled a bit. "I guess that's part of why I like them so much." Regaining her serious demeanor, she finished, "I will not make one of my friends' lives subject to their natures, though."

"Might be a bit late for that," Twilight remarked wryly, but Rarity ignored the comment and pressed on.

"Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I was just about to say that I think you're jealous." Rarity practically sang the words, and Twilight's eyes widened as she heard them.

"What?!" Twilight took a step back and fell onto the sauna bench. "I don't even—what?!"

"There's nothing wrong with it, dear," Rarity cooed, sitting down next to her friend. "I'm just saying it sounds like you have a little crush on Applejack." She frowned and shrugged as a thought came over her. "That's not exactly the best thing if you say Fluttershy has eyes for you, but I know a crush when I see one."

Twilight wanted to protest, to deny Rarity's every word, but she found herself unable to. Bowing her head, she admitted, "Maybe. I really did enjoy being with Applejack yesterday, and she's a wonderful pony in so many ways. She's driven, hardworking, talented, and she'll never let anypony down." A blush stained her cheeks red as she added, "Also, we get along really well. I just feel comfortable when I'm around her—I don't know any better way to say it."

"Say no more, Twilight. I know exactly what you mean." Rarity felt her grin return despite her best efforts to conceal it. "I think that's adorable."

Rarity's smile drew no less than an outright scowl from Twilight. "But what about Fluttershy? I'm not even talking about Applejack! Fluttershy's the one who's in love with me."

"Au contraire," Rarity chided, clucking her tongue disapprovingly. "I hear you saying an awful lot about Applejack right now. The heart wants what the heart wants, after all. Fighting it won't do any good."

"I just worked with Applejack for one day," Twilight almost growled. "It was one day! I helped Fluttershy for weeks—maybe even months." She seemed to shrink as she hunched her shoulders and lowered her eyes. "I don't know what I want—that's the problem."

Rarity patted Twilight's back sympathetically. "Very well, darling. Fluttershy and Applejack aren't going anywhere. You don't have to rush into any big decisions."

"Why didn't I just go talk to Applejack today?" Twilight asked nopony in particular, ignoring Rarity's words. "And what was Rainbow Dash even doing out there?"

"We've been over this, Twilight—"

"I know, Rarity," Twilight snapped. She glared at Rarity for a moment, but she soon remembered herself and slumped her shoulders. "I know. It's just, Rainbow's never been an early riser—you know what I mean? If she was out at Applejack's so early in the morning…" She trailed off, leaving the question she wanted to ask unspoken, but she couldn't let it go for long. "Do you think something's going on between the two of them?"

Rarity giggled before realizing that Twilight was being serious. "You mean as a couple?" she asked her friend. "Oh no, Twilight. Definitely not. Not a snowball's chance in Tartarus."

"Is there something I don't know about?" Twilight thought she knew the answer already, but she was more interested in the explanation anyway.

"Really?" Rarity grabbed Twilight's hoof, her voice carrying the sort of urgency Twilight would have expected if she'd said Ponyville had exploded. "You don't know?"

With a frown, Twilight nodded.

"Oh, darling! How didn't you hear? I mean, granted you miss plenty of the goings-on in Ponyville, but they're two of our closest friends. You don't have the slightest idea what I'm talking about?"

"No, Rarity," Twilight snapped. "Why don't you just tell me what in Celestia's name you're talking about?"

Rarity's eyes shone as she nodded and took a step back. "Very well. I will do my best. Just remember, I wasn't there all the time, but as far as I can tell, all of this is true." Twilight stood to move closer to Rarity, but the latter held up a hoof to stop her. "I recommend you take a seat, darling." A broad grin overtook her face as she declared, "This is a long story, and this time, it's my turn to tell it!"

A Proper Story

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"Alright, darling. I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning. Mind you, I didn't know about all this for quite some time, but I've managed to put the pieces together well enough. This is all true, as far as I can gather."

Twilight nodded without a word. Taking her cue, Rarity nodded in turn and began to speak, pacing about the room as she did so.

"Anyway, Rainbow Dash and Applejack have always been good friends. We all have, really, but you've seen how they are. They've both got athleticism, and competitiveness to match. It only makes sense that they'd grow close. I think it was maybe five or six months ago when things took a turn, though.

"Now pay attention, because I'm going to cover a lot of things in a short time. Love can be confusing sometimes, and if that's ever been true it was true for those two."

Rainbow Dash sighed.

As she sat on a cloud high above Ponyville, waiting for sleep to overtake her, she felt her wings and legs itch with pent-up energy. There was too much going on. She couldn't just take a nap. Even so, it wasn't like recent events could be solved by kicking clouds or doing barrel rolls.

She sighed again.

It had been a while since Applejack left to go talk to Fluttershy. Rainbow wasn't sure how long, but it had to have been at least a couple of hours. She knew Applejack; that discussion couldn't have lasted too long. Of course, it's not like I have a good reason to go check on AJ, but still…

Once more, she sighed.

As she exhaled, her eyes glinted briefly, and she stood up on the cloud, head held high. Who am I kidding? If AJ has a problem, She unfurled her wings and, with her jaw set, she jumped off and began to speed toward Sweet Apple Acres.

Rarity rubbed her chin and looked to the floor. "Anyway, where was I?" Her hoof shot up and her eyes opened abruptly. "Oh! Yes.

"At some point, Rainbow made a bet with Applejack. Whoever could buck the most apples in a day and get them back to the barn won. I don't have to tell you who won that bet, now, do I?"

It took Rainbow just a few moments to reach Sweet Apple Acres, and she landed with a flap of her wings on the dirt road that connected the farm and Ponyville. Best to come in on foot instead of flying, she figured. Not to say that Applejack would chase me off, but just in case…

A few small clouds hung over the apple orchard, remnants of the week's rain supply. It was Cloudchaser's turn this week, Rainbow thought. She snorted. Typical sloppy work.

Rainbow remembered a time when it was always her turn to bring clouds for the Apples. For Applejack, really. That's what I get for taking a dumb bet, really. Not the last dumb thing I did with Applejack.

She lowered her head and sighed.

"I honestly don't know what got into Rainbow Dash, but at least she accepted defeat when it came. Twelve weeks of cloud duty for Sweet Apple Acres: that was the deal, and Rainbow honored it. Every week, without fail, she would be there, and she made sure the Apples received every drop of water they needed."

A chuckled escaped Rarity's lips. "From what I was told, Applejack absolutely loved it. She was the boss—that was another part of the deal, I suppose. She would tell Rainbow where to put the water, and if Rainbow told me the truth Applejack took a good deal of pleasure from making things difficult for her. It was all in good fun, I'm sure, but you know how those two tease each other sometimes. It really is quite precious.

"Rainbow tried not to let that get under her skin, but that could only last so long." Rarity blew out a long sigh and shook her head. "She always has had such a temper—not a violent one, mind you, but even so, she simply would not take that sort of abuse forever."

I was just doing my job, Rainbow thought, staring at the ground as she walked toward the Apple Family home. So what if I was helping out a friend? It was just another work assignment.

She sighed.

That was the plan, anyway. But we were friends, and she started it! "A little to the left. No, a little right. How about forward a bit?" What else was I supposed to do?

Rainbow tackled Applejack on that day so many weeks and months ago. The two ponies went down in a plume of dust and a heavy thud, and when the dust settled, Rainbow found herself on top of Applejack. It was so weird, and then it was awkward.

Except then, well, it stopped being awkward.

And that was when I kissed her.

"I'm sure you can imagine what Rainbow did next." Rarity stopped pacing and turned to face Twilight with a flip of her hair.

"Um, no?" Twilight shrugged and furrowed her brow.

"Really?" Rarity clucked her tongue and shook her head. "I was hoping you would look to how you would react to that sort of decision. She panicked. Flew away as fast as she could, shouting apologies the whole way back to Ponyville. And who does she go to for advice?" Rarity fluttered her eyelashes at Twilight.

"I'm assuming you, Rarity," Twilight answered with a roll of her eyes.

"Indeed, Twilight, dear." Rarity tossed her head back and began pacing again. "The poor dear, she was so distraught! I don't know what she would have done if I hadn't been there." Rarity smiled and closed her eyes for a moment. "Fortunately, I was there."

I went to Rarity—what else could I have done? Rainbow scowled, casting her glare at the dirt road in front of her. She made me pay through the nose for that, that's for sure.

"Of course I couldn't give proper advice without knowing the situation." Rarity held her head high and placed a hoof over her heart. "And if Rainbow refused to keep me in the loop, then how would I know what was secret and what was not." A toothy grin found its way onto Rarity's face. "It would have been a shame if I accidentally let something slip to somepony like Pinkie Pie, after all. I think Rainbow understood it was better to keep me informed so that sort of thing never happened."

At least Rarity actually helped me out in return. Rainbow exhaled sharply as a grimace began to spread across her face. I don't know how experienced she really is, but all that fuss she makes about looking confident—not that I needed her to tell me how to look awesome. It was just a good reminder. Stay confident.

"Stay poised," Rarity said with a wave of her hoof, adopting the manner of a teacher giving a lecture. "As trite as it sounds, appearances are half the battle. If you look good, you feel good."

Twilight snorted before she could stop herself. "Sorry, but I find it hard to believe that Rainbow needed a reminder to be confident."

"Oh, Twilight, that's exactly what I thought you would say." Rarity adopted a slower cadence as she spoke, letting her voice linger over key syllables with the melodious quality of a song. "You must understand that bravado is not the same as true confidence. We were all able to tell that Rainbow was nervous about the Best Young Flier Competition, were we not?"

"I guess so," Twilight answered.

"But she never told us as much." Twilight started to answer, but it soon became clear that Rarity never meant her words as a question. "That is precisely what I am talking about, Twilight. You must act reasonably confident, not to the point of excess. It was something of a challenge to bring Rainbow around, but I believe she was better for the effort when all was said and done."

I figured Rarity was just going to give me a new dress and push me out the door. Rainbow laughed at her own thoughts and lifted her gaze to the horizon. Probably wouldn't hurt to keep following her advice now, though. She managed to keep her head held high, but her shoulders slumped despite her best efforts. Just a habit now, I guess. Best to stay in practice.

The apple trees seemed to loom over Rainbow even though the sun hung high in the sky, bathing her in its warm glow. The trees themselves didn't bother her. It was Rainbow's memory that haunted her. I'm sorry, she thought as she blinked back tears. Sorry… for everything.

"Looking back, I might have been asking too much of the poor girl, but I told her to go straight back to Applejack and sort this all out in the open." Rarity sighed. "Normally I would have liked to practice a bit more… restraint… in such matters, but Rainbow made her decisions, and we needed to act accordingly."

"You mean 'she,'" Twilight interrupted.

Rarity's mouth hung open for a moment before she shook her head and laughed. "Of course not, dear," she insisted. "This was a collaborative effort. I stand by my advice to the fullest possible extent. We were going to make it through this minor crisis—Rainbow and I both.

"Unfortunately, Rainbow was less certain that I. She was terrified—the poor thing! On the other hoof, it was a blessing that Applejack didn't have those same fears."

She came for me. The fact shocked Rainbow Dash to this day. I ran off like a… like a coward, and she still came for me.

Rainbow Dash sighed.

A whole lot of good that did. So what if we kissed again? So what if she forgave me? So what if I wanted it so badly? "Only make promises you can keep." You were taught that as a filly. Why didn't you listen?

Tears welled up in Rainbow's eyes and she stopped her steady walk toward the Apple Family home. Can't afford to let her see me like this, she thought. Her wings unfurled as she glanced back at Ponyville, but she pulled them back against her sides. I've got to do this. I've got to—

She turned around, and her heart almost stopped. Standing there, watching the tears streak down her face, was Applejack.

"It was so adorable!" Rarity closed her eyes and squealed, beaming all the while. "They belonged together." Her smile disappeared. "At least, that's what I thought. You see, I thought that competitive spirit they shared would be a blessing—a way to add some spice to their relationship. I suppose, though—and you must forgive the metaphor, Twilight—but after a point, a dish stops being spicy and ends up just being painful to eat."

"I think that competitiveness is what scared her in the end. She got nervous again—it really is so strange. That devil-may-care attitude she has, it crumbles at the slightest disturbance. From what I can tell, she was feeling overwhelmed by it all." Rarity grasped at the empty air with a hoof. "She had such great ambitions—still does, in fact. Everypony has their limits, though. I suppose she was afraid of reaching hers."

Rarity shook her head. "I told her to talk with Applejack, but… well, good advice only works for as long as you follow it. Rainbow has always been so headstrong…" For a moment, words failed her, and Twilight leaned forward as Rarity grasped a the air with a hoof.

"She ran away," Rarity finally said. She shook her head and rubbed her chin. "Actually, I suppose 'flew away' would be a better way to describe it. Nonetheless, after her weather duty at Sweet Apple Acres was over, she stopped visiting Applejack. They'd been together for more than two months, and she didn't tell the poor darling a word. I don't know what got into her, but believe me, once I heard I gave her a stern talking to."

"What?" Twilight leaned forward and threw her hooves up. "You mean she just left Applejack? Why didn't I hear about this?"

"That's the thing." Rarity breathed in and blew out a long sigh. "Rainbow was afraid other ponies would find out about them, and… Let's just say she wasn't sure if she was ready for that. She loved Applejack as a friend, to be sure, and she still does, but that's a far cry from true romance. Sometimes, ponies just grow apart, and that's fine. Rainbow simply did not handle it well—nor did Applejack."

Rarity smirked despite herself before wiping the expression off her face. "I wouldn't say she was being overly dramatic, but Applejack surely was quite emotional when she found Rainbow Dash." Rarity clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth and shook her head. "I wasn't there, but if Rainbow told me the truth, Applejack was terribly upset. Rainbow was scared half out of her wits when she got back to me."

Twilight crossed her forelegs and scowled. "I still can't believe you never told me about this, Rarity."

With a gasp, Rarity brought a hoof over her chest. "But darling, what could I do? Rainbow made me swear to secrecy, and I imagine Applejack would have been none too happy if I started gossiping about her love life.

"That being said… I guess there really isn't all that much more to tell." Rarity stroked her chin and pursed her lips, but she could only shrug in the end. "Rainbow managed to calm Applejack down somewhat, and she came to me as soon as they parted ways. She was so out of sorts, I thought somepony might have been hurt, but the worst had already passed at that point."

She lowered her head and sighed. "I spoke to Applejack not too long after they separated, and she was not pleased. To be honest, I'm surprised they're still on speaking terms, but I suppose time heals all wounds. What do you think, Twilight?"

Twilight stared slack-jawed at Rarity for a moment, and Rarity tilted her head. "Twilight? Darling?"

Shaking her head vigorously, Twilight stood and set her jaw. "I'm sorry, Rarity, but I have to go," she said.

She opened the door and started to walk out of the sauna, but Rarity held out a hoof and cried, "But Twilight, where are you going?"

Stopping in the doorway, Twilight turned her head and offered a small half-smile. "I need to talk to Applejack," she said, and without another word, she was gone.

"Back so soon, Rainbow?" Applejack reached to wipe a tear from Rainbow's cheek, but her friend pulled away and swatted the outstretched hoof away.

"What are you doing all the way out here?" Rainbow asked, rubbing her eyes. "I thought you'd be in your house."

"I'm just checking on the orchard." Applejack took a step forward, and this time, Rainbow didn't push away. "What's wrong, sugarcube?"

"Nothing." Rainbow finished wiping her eyes and looked Applejack in the eyes. "I was just wondering how your talk with Fluttershy went."

Applejack squeezed her eyes shut and drew her lips into a thin line. After a moment, she opened her eyes and shook her head. "Not so well, Rainbow. What am I going to do?"

Rainbow shrugged. "I don't know. How about you tell me what happened first?"

"She just won't see reason," Applejack huffed. "I'm trying to tell her that I won't go after Twilight, and all she can do is act like I'm doing something wrong." Crying out, she stomped her hooves on the barren dirt. "I'm doing all I can. Why can't she just accept it?"

Rainbow had to force herself not to roll her eyes. "Applejack, not to be harsh, but how is this even a problem?"

Applejack narrowed her eyes and took a step forward. "Hey, Rainbow! This isn't just about me. Besides, it's not like you haven't flubbed some easy decisions before."

As soon as she realized what she was saying, Applejack clamped a hoof over her mouth, but the damage was already done. Rainbow closed her eyes and flinched, but even then she couldn't prevent the tears from returning. "I'm sorry, okay?" Her voice was barely a whisper, and she turned away to hide her fresh tears, but Applejack refused to let her back down so easily.

"No, Rainbow," she said. "I'm the one who should be sorry. I didn't mean it, you got that?" She raised a hoof to place it on Rainbow's shoulder, but Rainbow shrugged it off and took a step away. "Look, I made my mistakes too. I just don't want to make another now."

Rainbow wiped her eyes and turned her head, keeping it low and her shoulders slouched. "Well, you know what I did wrong," she said. "Don't do that."

"I don't plan on it," Applejack said in reply to Rainbow's remark. "You made a big mistake; there's no denying that." She frowned and put her hoof back on Rainbow's shoulder. "Why didn't you just talk to me? All you needed to do was say something."

"I couldn't!" Rainbow fought to keep her voice from breaking, but the effort proved futile. "I—I still cared for you, but just not like that. You were so happy, and I was going to ruin all that, and—"

Applejack grabbed Rainbow's face and forced Rainbow to look her directly in the eyes. "I handled myself fine," she insisted. "I'm still here, aren't I? I know you're sorry, and I forgive you. Honest."

"You sure about that?" Rainbow wiped a tear from her face and chuckled. "That's not what it seemed like this morning."

"Well, you made another mistake this morning," Applejack laughed. "Besides, I might not have been in the greatest mood." Applejack shrugged. "Anyhow, I still might not be completely happy with what you did to me, but time moves on. It's time to let bygones be bygones."

Rainbow nodded. "Done is done."

Applejack chuckled and broke out in a grin. "I guess you could say that."

"I think we got a bit off track, though, AJ. You never admitted that you're being a drama queen."

"I am not being a drama queen, and what's it to you anyway?"

Rainbow shrank from Applejack's shouting, but she refused to back down entirely. "Applejack, you're my friend, and so are Fluttershy and Twilight. This means a whole lot to me, and I'm not going to let you mess up everything by acting all high and mighty."

"How am I being 'high and mighty?'" Applejack snorted and stomped a hoof. "I ain't the one telling other ponies what to do here."

"You think just running away from Twilight is going to solve anything?" Rainbow shot back. "This needs to be her choice, not yours. You've got to go for it. It'll be her choice either way, and that way nopony will feel like they didn't get a fair shake."

"But Fluttershy—"

"Fluttershy's strong," Rainbow cut in. "She might be stronger than all of us, really." She smiled and laughed softly. "It's actually kind of awesome. She'll take care of herself." Rainbow stepped forward and placed a hoof on Applejack's shoulder. "All you need to do is take care of yourself."

Tears welled up in Applejack's eyes, and she shook her head and grit her teeth. "Damn you," she hissed. "Why can't you all just let it go?"

"Because we care about you," Rainbow whispered. After a moment's hesitation, she took another step forward and wrapped her hooves around Applejack in a tentative hug. "There's a good chance somepony's getting hurt sooner or later, but I'll be a griffon if I let you hurt yourself."

The tears flowed freely now, but Applejack didn't care. As she pulled away from Rainbow, she smiled in spite of her tears and nodded. "I understand," she said. "Thanks, Rainbow."

Rainbow shrugged and flapped her wings, lifting her up into the air. "Don't thank me. It's your choice. Just make sure you don't mess this up."

Applejack laughed as Rainbow Dash waved and began to soar away. "Not a chance," she muttered in between chuckles.

"Not a chance."


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The road from Ponyville to Sweet Apple Acres wasn't long, nor was Twilight pressed for time, but she nonetheless had to force herself not to gallop forward as she made her way to Applejack's home. She had held back for so long, second-guessing herself and hesitating while the answer to all her questions stared her in the face.

She needed to talk to Applejack.

She needed to talk, and every moment spent walking to Sweet Apple Acres was a moment she didn't spend at Sweet Apple Acres. Her legs itched, but she maintained her steady pace. Composure, she thought. Keep your composure, even now.

Shaking her head, Twilight quickened her pace to a canter. No big deal. Just a little faster. Time was of the essence. No telling how long my courage will last.

Twilight never had to test the limits of her bravery. At her newly quickened pace, she saw the Apple Family home come into view in short order. As soon as she did so, she stopped for a moment and took a deep breath. This time, when she resumed her walk, she made sure to move no faster than a trot. Seriously. Composure, Twilight.

Once she reached the house, Twilight's ears perked up as she heard a loud thump from somewhere behind the building. At first, her heart jumped into her throat, but once she heard the sound once again, she let out a long sigh as she realized that it was the sound of hooves slamming against an apple tree. Shaking her head and smiling, she began to trot in the direction of the sound.

"Applejack," she called as she walked past the house and saw her friend picking up a basket full of apples. "Hello there."

"Oh." Applejack put the basket down and glanced away. "Howdy, Twilight."

Twilight continued her approach, but Applejack only stepped back in response. "Please, Applejack, don't do this," she whined. "We need to talk."

"I—" Applejack swallowed and waited a moment before continuing. "Okay. What about?"

Nostrils flaring, Twilight snorted. "You know exactly what we need to talk about. About us!" Twilight lowered her head and shifted her gaze to the ground. "I mean, what we could be."

Rainbow's words echoed in Applejack's mind. Go for it. We care about you.

Don't mess this up.

She grit her teeth against the implications of that sentence, against the fears she held inside, against the unfairness of it all. For many moments, she was silent, shaking her head and looking everywhere but at Twilight. Through it all, Twilight simply waited. She stood there, a small smile on her face, and waited for Applejack to finish.

At last, she looked back at Twilight and sighed. "I… Look, you're a wonderful pony, Twilight, and I…" She looked away and Twilight bowed her head. Seeing her friend's downcast eyes, she shook herself and carried on. "I really like you, Twilight, b—"

Any hope of finishing her sentence was cut off by Twilight lunging forward and gripping her in a tight hug. She could feel the softness of Twilight's coat, the warmth of her presence, the beating of her heart. It felt so… right.

A dumb smile remained plastered across Applejack's face when Twilight pulled away and said, "I really like you too, Applejack. I've never met another pony like you, and I know it's strange, and it feels kind of sudden, but I'm ready to take a leap of faith." She put a hoof on Applejack's shoulder. "Are you?"

It took all of Applejack's willpower to keep the tears out of her eyes, and though she managed to nod slightly, she could not voice her answer. "You know about Fluttershy, right?" she finally asked.

Twilight lowered her head and sighed. "She told me," she replied. After a moment, she looked back up at Applejack, straightening her posture as she did so. "I care about her so much, Applejack, but… I…" She shook her head.

Applejack began to pull away, but just as Twilight pulled her hoof away, something went off in her mind. Her eyes glinted and she stepped toward Twilight, this time placing her hoof on Twilight's shoulder. Eyes never wavering from her best friend, she said, "Fluttershy's strong. She just might be the strongest pony I know. We can help her through it." Tears began to well up in her eyes, but she blinked them back. "Only if you're sure, though."

Twilight's efforts to keep from crying proved less successful than Applejack's. Tears streamed down her face as she pulled Applejack in for another hug and said, "I'm sure."

The clock in Fluttershy's cottage became surprisingly noisy after Applejack left. Fluttershy wasn't sure whether it was a problem in the clock itself or all in her head, but the sound grated on her nonetheless. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Shaking her head to try and dispel the noise, she walked away from the front door and said, "Where are you, Angel Bunny?"

She looked around, frowning as she heard no approaching pitter-patter of paws. Her frown died as she turned toward the kitchen. Angel stood in the doorway, only a few paces from her, and she hadn't heard him at all. The pair stared at each other for a long moment, Angle tilting his head while Fluttershy struggled to drive the irritating clock out of her mind.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

"Are… Are you hungry yet, Angel?" Fluttershy began to exhale as her voice overcame the dreaded ticking, but her breath caught as the sound returned just as her sentence ended. The breath became a sigh, and she shook her head.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

"I haven't even given Applejack time to think," Fluttershy said to no one in particular. Angel, having only heard the promise of food, scowled and began to tap his foot, grabbing his pocket watch and shoving it in Fluttershy's direction.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

Fluttershy realized that she was pacing, and as soon as she stopped she could feel an itch building in her legs. She bit her lip and glanced at the front door. It wasn't far at all, and from there it would be a short journey to Ponyville.

It would be a short journey to Twilight's house.

Angel tugged at Fluttershy's wing, pulling her out of her musings. She turned her focus back to him, but it only took a moment for her thoughts to turn back to the Golden Oaks Library. Everything was out in the open now; all that was left was for events to sort themselves out. It would be best if they sorted out sooner than later.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

The unstoppable passage of time did nothing to faze Angel, as he turned to nudging Fluttershy's foreleg with his tiny body. She could feel the bitter aggression in his prodding, but she smiled nonetheless.

"Okay, Angel. I'll feed you, but nothing too fancy." Seeing the inevitable frown spread across Angel's expression, she bowed her head and grinned. "I'll make it up to you with dinner. I promise."

Raising an eyebrow, he finally nodded, and the pair went into the kitchen to fix Angel's lunch.

Before long, Fluttershy was out of her cottage, and the trip to Twilight's house sped by in a breathless blur. In what seemed like a matter of seconds, she had reached the entrance to the library, and as she stood at the front door, Fluttershy hesitated. This was it: the moment of truth. No more waiting. No more uncertainty.

Her hoof trembled as she knocked on the door.

"Coming!" Fluttershy could hear Spike's footsteps as he rushed toward the door. With two heavy steps, he stood on the other side of the wooden portal and began to swing it open.

"Hey, Twilight. How was…" He trailed off as he realized that the pony in front of him was far too yellow to be Twilight—not to mention the fact that she was a pegasus. "Oh. Hi, Fluttershy. What are you doing here?"

"Um, I was going to see if Twilight was here, but I guess she's out." Fluttershy bowed her head and turned to leave. "Goodbye, Spike."

"Wait! It's okay, Fluttershy." Spike waved his hands to stop her departure, and she hesitated just long enough for him to say, "She went to see Rarity, so you might want to go check at her house."

Fluttershy perked her head up, but her voice remained subdued. "Oh, okay. Thank you, Spike."

A toothy grin found its home on Spike's face as he took a step forward. "You know, if you want me to take you there, I could totally do that. Just, uh, maybe put in a good word with Rarity for me?" He lifted his arms to flex them but stopped halfway through the process.

"That would be nice, Spike," Fluttershy replied, giggling as he backed away haltingly. "I need to talk to Twilight alone, so maybe you can talk to Rarity while I do that."

He took a step forward and nodded. "Really?" Eyes shimmering, he threw his arms around Fluttershy's forelegs. "Thanks, Fluttershy!"

Fluttershy tried to stifle another giggle, but the effort failed as she patted Spike's head. "You're welcome, Spike." Glancing in the direction of the Carousel Boutique, she sighed and said, "I guess we should get going, then."

Spike nodded. "Totally." Beaming, he shut the library door behind him and joined Fluttershy as she went off once again in search of Twilight.

If anything, Fluttershy only met with worse luck at the boutique. This time, she wasted no time knocking on the door. Every moment of anticipation quickened her heartbeat, and she could feel her stomach flipping over and over as she waited for some sort of answer.

For a moment, there was no answer. She waited another few moments, and an answer remained elusive. With a sigh, Fluttershy knocked again, but to no avail.

"I guess they're not here," Spike offered, shrugging.

"Yes, Spike," Fluttershy replied. "They probably left to talk somewhere else."

Seemingly from out of nowhere, Spike pulled a quill and parchment and held it up toward Fluttershy. "We could leave a note if you want."

Fluttershy's ears perked up. "Oh yes, please!" She leaned in toward Spike, and drew back to prepare for writing.

"Well?" he prompted after a moment of silence.

Fluttershy let out a high-pitched laugh and said, "Oh. Of course." Clearing her throat, she began to dictate her note:

"Dear Rarity: I came over earlier because Spike told me that Twilight had stopped by to see you. I'll talk to you later. Fluttershy."

"Flu…tter…shy." With a flourish of his pen, Spike grinned and gave Fluttershy the parchment. "Done!"

"Thank you so much, Spike." Fluttershy slipped the note under the door and sighed. "Sorry you didn't get to see Rarity."

Spike shrugged and threw his hands up. "It's all good. I still managed to get out of the library for a few minutes, so at least I got that." He turned to leave, waving as he walked. "Bye, Fluttershy. Good luck finding Twilight!"

"Oh, you're leaving?" Fluttershy asked, but it was too late. Spike continued to walk away, leaving Fluttershy with no other option but to return home. Hooves dragging against the ground, she slumped her shoulders and began the long, slow walk back to her cottage.

"Hey, Fluttershy!"

A polychromatic blur sped past Fluttershy's face, and she let out a startled scream as she jumped back into the door of the boutique. With another burst of speed, Rainbow Dash came to rest in front of her, landing softly on the ground despite the blazing speed she had shown just moments earlier.

"What are you doing at Rarity's place?" Rainbow asked, wrapping a hoof around Fluttershy's shoulders and leading her friend away from the boutique.

"I was looking for Twilight," she answered, averting her gaze, but Rainbow would have none of it.

"C'mon, Fluttershy. Why do you have to keep doing that?" She rolled her eyes and she grabbed Fluttershy's head and forced her friend to face her directly. "We aren't strangers or anything. Just look me in the eye."

Fluttershy brushed Rainbow's hooves away and nodded. "Okay," she replied, never taking her eyes off of Rainbow.

Rainbow grinned. "That's what I'm talking about!" They continued walking away, and Rainbow said, "Speaking of Twilight, I was just talking to Applejack about her."

"Oh really? What about?"

Rainbow lifted an eyebrow and smirked as she noticed that Fluttershy still didn't turn her gaze away. "Oh, you know." The smirk disappeared as it was now her turn to look at the ground. "She said she wouldn't avoid Twilight anymore. That's all."

Fluttershy took a moment to absorb the news. "Oh," she managed, sighing when no more words came into her mind. She shook her head.

"Um, do you want to talk about it?" Rainbow put her foreleg on Fluttershy's shoulders again, and Fluttershy leaned into her as they continued to walk.

"No," Fluttershy answered. After a brief pause, she added, "Actually, yes. I… It'll be Twilight's choice now, and I'll be happy either way. Everything will work out in the end, right?"

Rainbow saw the tears beginning to well up in Fluttershy's eyes and pulled her friend in for a tight hug. "Of course it will, Fluttershy." She squeezed Fluttershy once more before letting go. Jerking her head in the direction of the Everfree Forest, she said, "How about I take you home? You know, keep you company."

Wiping her eyes, Fluttershy smiled and nodded. "That sounds… lovely," she said, leaning into Rainbow's side as the two ponies began to make their way out of Ponyville. Eyes half-closed as she felt the warmth of Rainbow's coat against her, she whispered, "Thank you."

She half-expected Rainbow to snort and pull away, but instead she just smiled and nodded. "If there's ever anything I can do, Fluttershy—anything at all—just tell me. I'll always be there for you—always."

Fluttershy nodded and mumbled something appreciative to Rainbow, but the words were less important than the sound itself. It showed her recognition, her acknowledgement that Rainbow was there for her—would be there for her no matter what. She was Fluttershy's rock, her source of encouragement, like she had always been.

Like always.

Once Twilight suddenly left the Ponyville Spa, Rarity tried not to let her departure put a damper on her treatment. After all, she still had the mud mask to look forward to. And the body wrap. And the hooficure.

Sure, Twilight had been a bit rude, Rarity thought, but it's hardly my place to blame her. Love is love, and if one does not answer its call, one has no guarantee that it will still be there in the future.

Of course, just because Twilight hadn't ruined the spa trip didn't mean that Rarity wasn't in need of a pick-me-up. As she left feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, a sign on one of the nearby shops caught her eye. The Golden Candelabra. Rarity let the name roll through her mind relishing the wonderful concordance of syllables. It must be new; I don't believe I've seen this store before. And if she was going to go to one store, she might as well go to another. And another. And another.

So she went on, and by the time Rarity returned to her boutique, she was carrying bags from seven different stores located all across Ponyville. As she opened the door to her home and business, she looked at all the clothes and knickknacks she'd bought and giggled. Who says I can't splurge every so often?

Halfway through the doorway, something on the ground caught her eye, and she hurried past it so she could put her bags down. With her new purchases all left in a neat pile, she turned back to the entrance of the boutique and saw that somepony had left a note. Her horn glow as she picked the scrap of parchment up with her magic. Levitating the note as she went, she found her glasses on a nearby table and put them on.

"Dear Rarity: I came over earlier because Spike told me that Twilight had stopped by to see you. I'll talk to you later. Fluttershy." Rarity let the paper flutter down to the floor as her eyes widened. Fluttershy!

A pang of grief lanced through Rarity's heart as she grit her teeth and bowed her head. She doesn't even know! She'll be so devastated.

She cast a lingering glance back at all the scarves and hats and centerpieces she had just bought, but she shook her head. Those can wait, she thought. Fluttershy comes first.

Even decorum took a backseat to Rarity's friend, as she hardly paused to lock the door before galloping off toward Fluttershy's cottage.

Perhaps I may need to find some time to exercise. Rarity's rush to reach Fluttershy slowed down considerably before long. Her legs ached before she reached the edge of Ponyville, and by the time Fluttershy's cottage came into view, she couldn't even bring herself to trot. Walking's fine, she thought. Walking is dignified, after all.

Just as Rarity began to catch her breath, she grew close enough to the cottage to see in through the windows. Seeing Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash sitting on the couch inside, she smiled. Oh, that's good. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash are cuddling.

Rarity's hooves were suddenly rooted to the ground as she blinked rapidly. Rainbow Dash? Eyes darting about, Rarity dashed over to a nearby bush and hid behind it, keeping an eye on Fluttershy and Rainbow the whole way.

Her first impressions had not deceived her: Fluttershy and Rainbow were, indeed, sitting on Fluttershy's couch, with Fluttershy leaning into Rainbow's side as the latter draped her wing over the former. Both were beaming, and Rarity found their smiles contagious. After a moment, Fluttershy shifted a little bit, moving herself even closer to Rainbow's body, and the two ponies rested against each other as birds chirped and animals chattered all about.

I suppose I'm not needed here after all. Covering her mouth with her hooves, Rarity stifled a squeal and moved out from behind her hiding place. She let her gaze linger on the two ponies for a moment, but she knew she couldn't risk spoiling the moment. Doing her best to keep her hoofsteps silent, Rarity walked away from Fluttershy's cottage with a wide grin on her face and a wonderful new story on the tip of her tongue.

Twilight wanted the embrace to last forever, and it felt like something close, but at last she surrendered to reality and let Applejack go.

"I'm so happy I met you," she said, smacking her hoof against her face as soon as the words left her mouth. "I mean, I… Nevermind."

Applejack chuckled. "I'm glad I met you too, Twilight."

"So, what do we do now, Applejack?"

Applejack blinked a few times before chuckling and wrapping a foreleg around Twilight's shoulders. "What's the rush in doing that, sugarcube?"

"It's just, shouldn't we have some sort of idea of what comes next? Shouldn't we have a plan?"

Laughing again, Applejack turned Twilight toward the slowly setting sun and leaned into Twilight. "How's this? We'll spend the night here so we can get right to farming tomorrow morning."

"We'll need to stop by the library so I can let Spike know," Twilight said.

"Then we'll have dinner in town tonight," Applejack shot right back. She pulled away from Twilight to show her a broad grin. "My treat."

Twilight smiled back at her and nuzzled Applejack's neck. "That sounds wonderful."

As she started to walk down the road to Ponyville, Applejack nodded. "That's why I suggested it, sugarcube. And don't worry about the rest." She paused for a moment to grab Twilight's front hooves in her own. "We've got our whole lives to figure this out. Just don't fret about it and let what happens happen."

Tears threatened to return to Twilight's eyes, and she wiped them as she drew closer to Applejack. "I can do that," she said at last.

"And I can help you," Applejack replied, drawing closer to Twilight in turn.

Their muzzles mere inches away from each other, the two ponies, unlike so many times before, did not pull away. Instead, they both leaned forward, eyes closing as their muzzles grew closer… and closer… and closer…

Then they kissed.

And it was wonderful.