Trixie Lulamoon’s head hung low. Blood dripped from her nose, and her eyes crossed a little, but she forced them straight and gritted her teeth, willing her magical ward to hold for another few seconds as the maddened townsponies charged it.
Behind their tumultuous forms, Apple Bloom squealed and flung herself bodily at Granny Smith, forcing her back. “Don’t you dare! We need to stop this! Come on, Sweetie Belle! Applejack! Help me make them stop!” And sure enough, beside the enraged filly was her little unicorn friend, looking distraught but joining with Apple Bloom in her valiant effort to turn the stampede, starting with Granny. Sweetie kept glancing to the side, where Rarity had dragged Derpy. She’d been moving very strangely, and had become lost to sight behind the milling bodies, and Sweetie’s loyalties were plainly divided.
There was a shower of sparks from overhead, and two figures appeared, flying low over the churning stampede of ponies as it crashed against the house and Trixie’s faltering wards.
“Stop this right now!” cried Twilight Sparkle in a clear, commanding voice, and Trixie lifted her head and saw the two winged forms above her. The wards winked out as Trixie gazed upon her Twilight, transformed. Trixie almost fell over, making a dry little scuffling noise as she cast a shaking hoof out to catch herself—and the sound could be heard, for every one of the townsponies had also stopped in their tracks to stare up at the regal, hovering creatures, and the only other noise was a pitiful sobbing from behind that crowd, and a chirping of crickets in the violence-shattered night.
Trixie slowly turned her head… and stared directly at Princess Luna.
“You… what did you do to her?” she croaked. She swallowed, tossing her mane, and her rage built. “What did you DO? You… you’ve TAKEN MY TWILIGHT…” Her body shuddered visibly as her horn flared into blinding brightness, and the crowd gasped expecting to see what nopony there had ever seen, what nopony should ever have to see, the death-bolt of a brilliant unicorn wizard: that last desperate resort, the dumping of one’s entire life-force into a magical attack. Trixie Lulamoon, believing her life was lost and her mate destroyed, bared her teeth and began to build that one fatal bolt that could, perhaps, even obliterate a full-grown alicorn… and then a wall of lavender blocked her sight, as she was tackled from above by Twilight Sparkle, who swooped down and knocked her to the ground. Trixie flailed, pinned down and helpless.
Twilight turned her head and squealed “Leave!” and above her, Princess Luna whirled and fled. Twilight turned, grabbing Trixie. “Listen! It’s me! Feel me! Smell me! Taste… okay, not that so much, not in front of everypony. Trixie, this is Twilight! Twilight Sparkle! Hello?”
All of Ponyville stared in astonishment at the huge, flapping purple wings, at the frantic scene played out on the library doorstep. From behind Trixie, there was a commotion and Applejack appeared in the doorway, looking haggard and concerned.
“Sweet Celestia, Twi,” she blurted, “look at you!” The unseen crying continued, somewhere out of sight.
“What did she do to you?” wailed Trixie, her momentum broken, her magical energies spent.
“She didn’t do anything!” yelled Twilight. “I did this myself, okay? I’m the new Princess! I’m kind of her boss now or something—it’s complicated! Now what’s going on here?”
Applejack looked out at the pony crowd, which looked back, stunned. They’d unthinkingly obeyed Twilight’s command to stop, just as they’d unthinkingly charged to attack the threat of the dangerous griffin.
“Uhh… ain’t nothin’ goin’ on right at the moment. Thank goodness! It looks like they kicked nine kinds o’ hell out of her!” She turned her head, calling back into the library. “You stay back! You hear? I’mma protect you if it’s th’ last thing I do! This here’s all my fault, Gilda!”
At the sound of that name, the crowd of townsponies stirred, upset and restless. Twilight let go of Trixie, and leapt to her hooves, facing them. “Don’t you dare! Don’t start that again, do you hear me? We’re gonna do this properly, I had a checklist, a checklist!”
They fell back in dismay, and finally revealed the source of that pitiful sobbing.
Derpy Hooves stared woefully up, eyes streaming with tears, bent over the grimacing form of Rarity. Rarity had dragged Derpy by the mane, away from the stampede, after sheltering the wall-eyed pegasus with her own body. She’d got Derpy safely out of harm’s way using just her teeth, her magic, and three very determined hooves.
It was plain to see why she’d moved so oddly while dragging Derpy to safety. She lay on her left side, sweating and disheveled, and with her right foreleg bent in an extra place. Sweetie Belle shrieked.
Twilight went pale, and began to walk forward, muttering, “I guess it’s time to find out what powers I really have!” The other ponies made way for her—even Sweetie Belle, who looked up imploringly at Twilight with her lip quivering, distressed beyond words.
“Hello… darling,” managed Rarity. “Nice… wings. Forgive my not shaking your hoof, I have had a little too much fun today.”
“She protected me!” said Derpy. “Rarity protected me from getting stepped on!”
Twilight looked over Derpy, who blushed and shied away from that intelligent, critical gaze. Then, Twilight studied Rarity, shaking her head gently. From broken foreleg to ruined mane and tail to the amazing collection of cuts and bruises, the fashionista was wrecked and demolished in every sense. Every sense, except one: her eyes were exultant, glowing with pride.
“You sure did, didn’t you?” said Twilight, gently.
“Yes!” replied Rarity, through a fierce, slightly mad grin.
Sweetie’s eyes got wider and wider as she looked back and forth between her Mom, and the sweet foolish pegasus that clung to her. As she took in Rarity’s amazing smile, Sweetie began to mirror it, her little face transformed as if she was looking upon something very beautiful and unexpected, but welcome all the same.
Twilight glanced back at Trixie, who was watching everything. She turned back. “I guess it all worked out, huh? We’re gonna miss you… ’girl’.”
At that, Rarity blinked, the crazy smile dropping away. She made as if to stand, and then grimaced horribly and abandoned the attempt, Derpy steadying her. “I’m not sure what you mean, Twilight. Just what are you implying?”
Twilight gave her a look. “Seriously? Hmph! We’ll get back to that. For now, Rarity, let’s try a little first-time alicorn magic. Hold out that hoof, please.”
Rarity tossed her mane with a snort, narrowed her eyes, muttered “Scening out here, darling? Really?” and began to lift her foreleg. It didn’t get far before it bent at that unwanted extra joint, and swung loose, to cries of horror from the townsponies. Rarity’s ears had flattened against her head, but still she held her leg out for Twilight, despite the pain.
Twilight narrowed her eyes as well, concentrating. “I saw this in one of Princess Celestia’s books. Don’t fidget. This might hurt but I’ll try to be quick.”
“Spoilsport,” crooned Rarity drunkenly, trembling as Twilight’s horn began to glow.
The glow reached out confidently, enfolding the shattered limb, drawing it out. Rarity convulsed for a moment as the broken leg was handled, but then she forced herself into tense motionlessness, hissing breaths between her tightly clamped teeth even as Derpy wailed and clung to her battered body. As the townsponies watched, Twilight restored Rarity’s foreleg to perfect straightness, holding it in a firm magical grip. Rarity gasped, her eyes rolling back in her head, and began to shake and sweat uncontrollably, but Twilight was unrelenting, the glow from her horn doubling as she worked the healing cantrip for all she was worth. The tableau remained still for second after second until, finally, Twilight bowed her head. She released Rarity’s foreleg, and Rarity held it outstretched, staring at it. She glanced out at the huge crowd, who stood silently and watched in awe. Every townspony gazed entranced at Rarity and only Rarity, as she extended her hoof in a curiously elegant and courteous gesture.
“I think that’s it,” Twilight said humbly. “I’ll want to have Celestia come tomorrow and check my work. Rarity, I suggest that you not attempt any strenuous activity for at least…”
There was a tiny delicate cracking noise, and the leg bent over at the break and dangled once more, swinging back and forth cheerfully.
“AHHNNN!” moaned Rarity. “Ngggh! Hhhh! Ohhh! Ahnnn!” As Twilight watched in horror, her jaw dropping, Rarity began shuddering all over and little globs of magic began spurting from her horn, as another spurt of vaginal ejaculation dripped across her lovely hindquarters to puddle on the ground. Derpy didn’t let go, even then: she just watched wide-eyed and held Rarity close as she orgasmed on and on, drained by her tribulations but still unicorn enough to squirt from both ends for a while, thanks to the so-piquant stimulation.
The onlookers were dumbfounded. Twilight’s jaw dangled in dismay. Trixie was shaking her head with the hint of a smile, and Applejack gulped, looking around. Apple Bloom was hugging Sweetie, who was scarlet with embarrassment.
Rarity’s shudders subsided, and she melted against the ground in a voluptuous manner, with one last sensuous quiver.
“Was it… good for you too? Ahnnnn…” she crooned.
“Y’all din’t see that,” said Applejack sternly, looking around at the shocked townsponies.
“Shit,” said Twilight Sparkle. “Can I get some help here? Let’s get her inside.”
Nopony moved. They just stared with comical looks of horror and dismay, and as the silence stretched out, Rarity lifted her sensuously lidded eyelashes and gazed out upon Ponyville gathered before her, Ponyville that had put her through so much, Ponyville that had shunned her for flaunting her kinkiness but turned avidly to her creations behind closed doors, Ponyville that had always judged her secretly and now stood before her, aghast at her final revelation.
Something else snapped within the harried fashionista.
Rarity writhed on the ground, kicking out and tossing Derpy off her with a squeak. She got her hind legs under her, struggled with her one good foreleg, and rose to three of her hooves… and advanced upon watching Ponyville with awkward little hops of her one front leg, laughing in their horrified faces and waving the broken limb at them, letting it bobble around.
“Hah! Judge me, will you? All your haughty propriety, and behind closed doors you are just as foul as I! Well, look, look! Do you see? Do you see what you have done?” declared Rarity triumphantly, wobbling and staggering. “You have scened with me at last, darlings! You were glorious filthy amateurs without a shred of decent practice, not so much as a damn safeword, and I survived your worst, do you hear me? Ahnnn! I came buckets under your trampling hooves, whether you like it or not! Treasure that thought, you miserable hypocrites, you’ll never get another chance with me! And I s… I s… I saved…”
Rarity’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed. Derpy had been staring in uncomprehending horror at her tirade, but screamed and rushed to her as she went over. So did Sweetie Belle, without hesitation.
“Get her inside!” commanded Twilight. “Trixie! With me!”
They concentrated and lifted limp Rarity off the ground, out of the little clearing the townsponies had made as they backed away from her outrageous performance. Sweetie Belle was right by their sides, helping, her little horn alight. Derpy followed them, trotting and flapping anxiously, without a glance for anypony else, and Twilight and Trixie let her. Sweetie reared and gave Derpy a big hug without breaking her own concentration, then turned and glared at the townsponies and squeaked, “So there!”
As they entered the library, there was another stir, for the townsponies saw Gilda in the doorway.
“Applejack!” called Twilight as she pushed past Gilda. “I saw you hugging the griffin. Sort this out, okay?”
Applejack turned to the townsponies, and gulped. They were pressing forward again, not in trampling panicking mode but with a certain tension all the same. She stood between Gilda and the townsponies, and faced Granny Smith.
“Y’ain’t dead,” said Granny Smith.
“What the hell happened, girl?”
“Uhh,” said Applejack, “nothin’ you need to worry about. Go on home.”
She lifted a forehoof, shying away, for Apple Bloom had pushed through the crowd and was inspecting her belly wounds. “Din’t you say she done this to ya?”
“That’s my own business, Apple Bloom, you lay off!”
Granny bridled. “Like hell, girl! What about all that blood? We still lost Big Macintosh to this critter! Maybe it’s his blood on that sheet, and that crazy Rarity unicorn can’t tell one Apple from another?”
“A sheet?” snapped Applejack. “Bedsheet? Dash’s bed, up in them clouds? That were mine, my damn blood thank you, and here I am! Don’t you muddy the issue!”
“But Big Macintosh,” began Granny Smith, but Applejack cut her off.
“Big Macintosh ain’t dead! He run off to be with Braeburn, I reckon. Oh, don’t you make that face, Granny! Ah know it must be true! Gilda wouldn’t harm a hair on his hoof, y’all drove him off with your un-acceptin’ ways, an’ I can’t break you of it!”
Apple Bloom’s eyes were wide, and she was bouncing up and down. “Ya mean it? Is he really okay?”
“Consarn it,” cursed Granny, “some mis’rable kind of okay that is…”
Apple Bloom whirled to face her. “Stop that! When we thought Applejack was dead, Ah was th’ boss mare. Well, Ah’m still boss enough fer this! If we kin get Big Macintosh back, we GITTIN’ him back no matter what he do with his bottom, y’hear me? Ain’t that right, Applejack?”
“You expect me to go along with that?” demanded Granny Smith.
“Eyup,” came a new but familiar voice behind the crowd.
The herd of ponies parted, revealing Braeburn, Scootaloo, Rainbow Dash, and Big Macintosh standing there. Scootaloo stood proudly on Braeburn’s back and raked the crowd with her eyes. Big Macintosh was in front, between Dash and Braeburn. He held his head high, though his legs were shaking so badly it seemed like he might fall right over.
“Big Macintosh!” shrieked Apple Bloom, and ran to tackle him in an exuberant hug. He reared, hugging her back, his lip quivering and his eyes tearing up.
Rainbow Dash grinned, posing with flared wings and kicking the air in triumph, to Scootaloo’s obvious admiration. “Applejack! I got him! I answered your note, and I got him! I haven’t even slept, I was searching all this time! How’s that, huh? Pretty awesome? Also, I found a Braeburn, can we keep him?” She galloped over and seized Applejack, hugging her gleefully.
Applejack couldn’t help but cry out in pain, and Rainbow Dash froze.
“Wh… what’s wrong, Boss? I got him back, just like you s…”
She spotted the edge of a scar, looking down along Applejack’s body. She looked up into Applejack’s face, seeing the marks of pain, the tears. Slowly, Rainbow Dash stepped back, lowered her head, looked underneath Applejack at what had happened to her belly, seeing it for the first time.
Rainbow trembled. She turned. She looked behind Applejack, and Gilda backed up a step when she saw Rainbow’s eyes.
“I can explain…” stammered Gilda.
“No!” yelled Applejack, and intercepted Dash as she charged, wrestling with the maddened pegasus in spite of her own injuries. “Ow! Consarn it, OW, QUIT IT! Dashie! Stop, you are makin’ me worse!”
“Let me go!” raged Dash. “Those are claw wounds! She did this to you!”
“Tole you!” cried Granny Smith. “Ah tole you!”
Dash turned to look Applejack right in the eye. “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t kick her fucking ass, right now!”
“Ah WANTED her to do it!” yelled Applejack, and everypony went totally silent in shock.
Rainbow gulped. “Uh… you mind running that by me again, AJ?”
Applejack looked around at a sea of dismay. Her ears laid back. “You heard me,” she muttered. “Ah’m telling you, Ah made her do it. Weren’t her fault.”
Rainbow’s ears were back too, and she looked gutted. “But that c… can’t be true. What are you talking about, Applejack?” Applejack didn’t answer. Dash looked like she was falling from a very high place, without wings. “Applejack?”
Scootaloo had jumped down from Braeburn’s back to hug Apple Bloom, but now she looked up at Applejack’s obvious distress and her face fell. “Oh boy, this isn’t good.”
“You know how it is,” mumbled Applejack. “Did it yourself, got carried away once, din’cha? Playin’ rough. It were like that. I guess kinda… more. Seemed like th’ thing to do. At th’ time.”
“What the hell you sayin’, child?” demanded Granny Smith, and then froze at a sharp, bitter look from Applejack.
“You hold your peace,” said Applejack. “You’re a lot of it. Ah jes’ wanted to… it were jes’ a moment. A moment of weakness! Well, I can’t have weakness, can I? Ain’t for such as me! You can’t blame me, dammit, with all y’all carryin’ on and fightin’ and it’s always my job ta’ make everythin’ better an’ ah cain’t an’ I jes’ wanted to…”
She trailed off, looking sulky and hurt. Dash licked her lips. “Applejack? What are you saying?”
“Die,” muttered Applejack, looking away. “Jes’ for a moment! A moment of weakness on account of ah couldn’t help nopony nohow, Ah was losin’ my family this way an’ that, Ah always gotta be th’ strong one…”
“You are strong,” said Granny Smith, in a thin and shaky voice. “You are th’ strong one, ever since you was a filly. We all look up to you, Applejack.”
“A fat lot of good that did me when you was banishin’ my brother from your world!” retorted Applejack, eyes filling with tears. “How could you? Our family don’t mean nothin’ to ya unless it’s old school. Then you gave up on yourself, and that was worse! Nothin’ I said helped! When did I become so useless?”
“Y—you’re not useless, Applejack,” stammered Rainbow Dash.
“I watched my family die,” said Applejack bitterly, “all despairin’ an’ hatin’ an’ turnin’ away from each other. Even you, Rainbow. Without them, jes’ kill me on account of Ah’m dead inside anyways. Ah’m useless, I tell ya! I helped nothin’ an’ nopony.”
“Oh, my,” said Granny Smith. She’d gone pale. All of Ponyville was staring at the Apple boss mare as she stood, at bay, horribly wounded in the belly and, it seemed, in the heart.
A voice from the back of the herd called, “But you went and got us money to fix Town Hall!”
Applejack’s head snapped up. “They ain’t tole you? Ah failed! Ah couldn’t face y’all on account of you expected me to bring back that prize money! You mean to tell me they gave me credit for that? I have to do so much an’ now you tell me Ah ain’t even allowed t’ FAIL around here?”
From the back of the crowd, Mayor Mare stepped forward, looking bedraggled. “I… we thought it would keep pony spirits up, you’re quite the symbol to us. Yes, it was Bon Bon and I who provided the money. When they assumed it was you, we didn’t want to argue the point. Nopony cares so much about the generosity of some old mares, we were happy to do it. Please don’t talk this way, it’s distressing! We need you, Applejack. You’re a symbol of strength and courage to us all. You are the one pony everypony can always depend on!”
Applejack couldn’t speak for a moment. She gazed around at the crowd, as stricken as they were. Her hind legs shook as if she was moments from collapsing to the ground right in front of them, and when she spoke, it was with a wrenching earnestness. “Ah’m sorry… Ah’m so sorry… din’t realize how bad it would hurt y’all… ah was jes’ tryin’ to get… to get… to get OUT…” She began to cry, and dozens of ponies just stared helplessly, completely at a loss.
All but one.
“Applejack!” cried Apple Bloom. “You serious, big sister? I thought you wanted to be boss mare!”
Applejack shook her head in despair. “Nopony asked me! There was no choice, was there? Ah was jes’ a filly, an’ I got so good at it, and things jes’ went along…”
“Do you like it?” demanded Apple Bloom. “I thought you liked it! Tell me now, do you like it?”
“Hell no!” wailed Applejack. “Ah jes’ wanna be Dashie’s filly and not worry no more!”
The next thing she felt was small hooves leaping onto her back. Applejack twisted her neck, staring in astonishment, for Apple Bloom had jumped onto her, and instinctively she began to yell, “Hey!”
Filly teeth clamped down on her ear. Ponyville gasped.
Applejack shook her head. “What the hell, Apple Bloom? What’s th’ matter with you?”
Apple Bloom’s eyes were determined. “Y’ give?”
“Now what are you talkin’ about? Gimme a minute,” said Applejack, fighting to regain her composure. “Ah got this, Ah’m good…”
She squealed. Apple Bloom had bitten down, hard. Applejack reared, but her little sister clung to her neck, hanging onto her ear like a bulldog.
“Y’ GIVE?” repeated Apple Bloom, through her clenched teeth.
“What th’…” began Applejack, and then she looked around.
The whole town was watching in silence, and right in the front was Rainbow Dash, and Dash looked crushed, helpless. Applejack had never seen Dashie so hurt, and all the fight went out of her as she cast her mind over what she’d just done and said. As Apple Bloom bore down harder, Applejack realized the truth: the one thing she wanted most of all was for Dash to feel okay again. She also wanted her whole family to be well, and was obliged to fight for that, at any cost. The cost had been getting higher and higher. It didn’t matter, she cared nothing for herself and would throw her very life away trying to keep her family and her loved ones together, and she’d already gone that direction until she had no more self to sacrifice and her will to live was nothing but a black hole begging for respite.
And this was her reward: Rainbow Dash, the pony she loved above all else, looking into her eyes and seeing that void where love belonged.
She could not turn to Dash and say, “But I did it for you.” She had nothing left to say at all.
Applejack sagged. Apple Bloom’s hair bow had come completely undone. It fell, draping across her big sister’s mane, and she didn’t even care. Instead, she bit down harder and twisted her head, forcing another squeal out of Applejack as shards of pain rocked her tormented mind.
“Y’ GIVE?” demanded Apple Bloom.
Sweetie Belle had appeared at Twilight’s door. She ran over to Scootaloo, and they clung together, staring up at their friend as she dominated her elder.
“Yeah!” wailed Applejack. “Ah give, Ah give!” She burst into tears, trembling, her face twisting in dismay.
Apple Bloom stared into the distance. She ceremoniously released Applejack’s ear, and gave it a little kiss.
“Ah am boss mare now, folks! Lay the fuck off mah sister, or y’all kin answer to me!”
Applejack collapsed to the ground, head in her hooves, her sister jumping off her back with a flourish of her tail, to gasps of awe from the crowd. Sweetie, then Scootaloo, shrieked.
Rainbow rushed forward to embrace her love. “It’s gonna be okay, Applejack, it’s gonna be okay…”
“Ah gotta… ah gotta straighten her out… she cain’t do this… oh Celestia, I’m so tired, it hurts so much but I jes’ GOT ta…”
“Applejack.” There was a strange tone in Dash’s voice.
“Maybe you should look at this,” said Rainbow Dash.
Applejack blinked away tears, and followed Dash’s gaze, to the object of all Ponyville’s attention, Apple Bloom’s flank.
She’d never seen a cutie mark of three hearts sheltered within a big red apple before—an apple, she saw, that was also in the shape of a heart.
Then, Sweetie and Scootaloo were bowling Apple Bloom over, squealing with delight. “You did it! You did it!” they kept screaming. The crowd began to cheer.
Applejack trembled, going pale. “Aw, hell,” she said. She glanced at Granny Smith, and Granny looked stunned but not displeased. Applejack felt something slither across her back and she whinnied and kicked out with a cry of alarm, but Rainbow Dash was right there to hold and steady her.
“Easy, there, easy, baby! It’s only Apple Bloom’s ribbon.”
It was. It had slipped off her mane where it had fallen, and slid across her withers like a snake. Applejack gazed around, terrified, her lip quivering, surrounded by what seemed like strangers. It made no sense that they would look so deferentially to her little sister, that they would glance embarrassedly at her and look away. Then, Applejack realized she was weeping, trembling, and being comforted by Rainbow Dash in the middle of the street—and their behavior made a little more sense.
“It’s okay, Applejack,” soothed Dash, “it’s all gonna be okay.”
“Aw, hell…” quavered Applejack.
“It’s gonna be okay.”
Twilight had appeared at her door, staring out in astonishment. “What the heck just happened here? Why are they cheering? Whoa! Applejack, are you all right? You look like somepony just died!”
Rainbow fixed her with a glare. “Have a little respect, Twilight!”
“But what happened?”
“Well, she… HOLY CRAP!” squeaked Rainbow. Twilight had stepped forward, and her wings unfolded and spread.
“Oh! Um… there’s a new Princess in town, okay? I swear I’m totally normal in every way other than being immortal and the freaky powers and stuff. And these wings feel extremely weird, just saying!”
Dash twitched, looking stunned all over again. “Wow. Okay. Yeah. Right. Well, there’s a new boss Apple mare in town. Small but fierce, maybe you’ve met her…”
“TWILIGHT!” cried Apple Bloom, galloping up. “Hi! Lookit me!” She pirouetted, the Cutie Mark Crusaders frisking around her.
“You?” gasped Twilight Sparkle.
“It was time!” said Apple Bloom. “I seen my duty an’ I done it! T’was a mercy thing, now Ah’m the big cheese!”
Twilight gaped at her, but then a voice silenced everypony present.
It was Applejack, and the voice trembled in terrible distress. Apple Bloom turned, to face her sister.
“Apple Bloom, d…” began Applejack, and choked up, unable to continue. Her face twisted while Dash hugged her comfortingly, and then she drove herself onwards as though she, too, was doing an awful duty that she could not put off any longer.
“…do I got to give you my hat?”
Apple Bloom looked at Applejack, startled, and Applejack gazed back in pitiful submission: not so much to the bold young mare who still wasn’t really her physical match, but submission to her own idea of what was fitting and proper, the same ideas that had haunted her for so many years and bound her in unyielding expectations. She’d blown it, given up the boss mare’s authority, and it was plain from Applejack’s eyes that she was also prepared to give up this token of her identity, and that it hurt her dreadfully even to consider it. Her lip quivered, her eyes were tearful, but she didn’t flinch.
Apple Bloom stared back, and the corner of her mouth turned up.
“Y’ don’t say,” she said quietly. “Wearin’ the hat, huh? Our mother’s hat? That there a symbol or somethin’, big sister?”
Applejack didn’t speak, but her gaze spoke for her.
“Funny thing about that,” said Apple Bloom thoughtfully. “Kinda important too, if ya ask me. Tells me a lot, that does. Ah guess you feel like you don’t deserve it no more?”
“Hey!” objected Rainbow Dash, angrily.
“Hush, you!” snapped Apple Bloom fiercely. “This is Apple family business! About the wonderful boss mare hat! Well, now, Applejack, listen up. Do you know th’ difference between you and me?”
Applejack blinked. “Huh?”
“Tole you, it’s important! Do you know the big difference between you and me, about that wonderful boss mare hat?”
“Uhhh… whut?” said Applejack, weakly.
Apple Bloom winked.
“AH don’t NEED one.”
She twirled around with a flounce of her tail, her untied mane flying free in the night breeze, and trotted off, accompanied by Sweetie and Scootaloo.
Applejack’s jaw dangled as the implications sank in. She saw the townsponies beginning to filter off, sleepy and tired after all their excitement. She saw Granny Smith gawping helplessly after the headstrong filly, plainly in no position to complain about her mane-style or anything else. She felt the familiar weight of her hat on her head, but it no longer carried the responsibility of being Boss Mare to Ponyville’s Apple Family. It was just her hat, now. Her very own. They were both retired, just like Granny—the pressure had moved on, as it always did.
She’d been the anomaly, taking leadership through tragedy and necessity. The old pattern had re-emerged, and a new mare had seized the reins by force of her own indomitable personality, and cast down her predecessor against her will, asserting her own rule. Applejack blinked away a tear that wasn’t sure whether it was grief or grateful.
Apple Bloom sure looked happy. She trotted off into the distance, followed by the townsponies, and they could hear her whinny in delight, prancing down the road.
Applejack’s ears quirked sideways in total befuddlement… and then she began to laugh.
Rainbow was still hugging her fiercely, and gave her a curious look. “What?” She glanced around, and saw a tiny green form. Northern Spy had made it out from Sweet Apple Acres, stayed out of trouble, and joined them. “Heya, Spy!” The foal snuggled up, nosing at Dash’s belly. “Yeah, gimme a minute, kiddo, I’ll be right with you. What’s so funny, Applejack?”
Applejack shook her head, as if to clear it. Her eyes, so recently tearful, showed a deep, wondrous, astonishment.
“Ah reckon… maybe things really are gonna be–”
“—okay,” said Spy in her wee, foalish voice.
Applejack reached out and snuggled Spy against her.
They looked up, startled, at a pitiful squawk. Gilda was scrabbling at the ground, trying to resist as Trixie Lulamoon used her magic to forcibly push her out the door. A streamer of magic extended deeper into the library, some sort of power line leading to Twilight Sparkle. Trixie grunted, “Out you go! Trixie saw you hugging the earth pony, you don’t need to hide in our house, scat!”
Gilda tumbled over, and sprawled on the street as the door closed firmly behind her.
Rainbow snorted. “Graceful! Oh, stop looking at me like that, Gilda, Applejack explained what happened.”
Gilda pressed low to the ground. “Are they gone? The ponies?”
“Yep,” confirmed Applejack. “Aw, c’mere. I reckon I still got enough boss mare in me to keep you safe. And if Dashie ain’t gonna hurt you…”
Dash was studying Gilda, giving her a hard look. “First, I want you to tell me something, honestly. That time when I got mad and bucked the crap out of you, I wasn’t shy about giving you some good thumps to your insides and I paid a price for doing that. You hurt me, but not anywhere near as bad as what you did to Applejack. She’s hurt worse. I want to know why. Exactly what did she do to you, Gilda? Was it more crazy griffin fucking? Or maybe she’s the one that bucked you in the head? Did you fight? What really happened?”
Gilda cowered. Northern Spy got up, frisked over, and licked one of the long feathers that formed an overhanging crest from Gilda’s battered brow. When Gilda didn’t resist, Spy grabbed it in her mouth and yanked.
Northern Spy trotted happily back to present Dash with the griffin feather, as Gilda frantically preened her head with a talon. “Goddammit, Dash…”
“She ain’t holdin’ out on ya,” said Applejack. “I, uh, well… Ah’m feelin’ much better now, but… two words. Full strength.”
Dash’s eyes widened. “Holy crap. From you? Have you even done me that hard?”
“Heck no!” protested Applejack. “Why would Ah do that? Dashie!”
“Damn,” said Dash. “Yeah, all right, Gilda, you’re forgiven. I know what that can do to you and I can’t even imagine what it must have been like. Don’t ever fucking do it again.”
“I was pretty worked up. I tried to control myself,” said Gilda. “She had her neck right against my beak and I was going, don’t bite, don’t bite. Well, I didn’t bite, at least.” Her face-feathers ruffled in an avian blush.
“What was that noise?” said Applejack, looking around.
Dash gave her a look. “That came from inside the library. Twilight and Trixie are in there, so I’ll give you one guess what they’re up to. If it was me guessing, I’d say Twilight is learning how to use wings. No, let me rephrase that. I’d say Trixie is learning how to use wings.” She smirked, licking her lips.
“Well, why not, I guess,” said Applejack. “You okay, Gilda?”
“I’m sorry,” said Gilda. Spy frisked up to her again. She shrank back warily, and then reached out a talon to scritch the foal’s mane. Spy reared up, shoving against the scritching talon with a little whinny of pleasure, and began prancing around, presenting her blue-maned nape for more scritches.
“Wow,” said Dash, her ears quirked. “Look at Spy go. She’s not scared at all.”
“She din’t grow up scared,” said Applejack. “Hey! Squirt! Go easy on her!”
Spy was rearing up, clambering onto Gilda. Applejack snapped at her tail and dragged her, protesting, off. “Hmph! Well, now what, Gilda Griffin? I guess you ain’t gettin’ thrown in no jail, huh?”
Gilda looked at her. “I’m going back.”
Gilda sighed. “I used to think ponies were some sort of grass-eating miracle creatures. Us griffins, we were monsters, but you guys had a purity we could never have.” She gazed steadily at Applejack, then Rainbow Dash. “Maybe it’s just some ponies which are the grass-eating miracle creatures. I love you guys. Seriously. You stuck with me through all this. Except for Dash wanting to beat the crap out of me, but hey, honorary griffin, right? And you, too, Applejack. Honorary griffin. And probably this kid! Hey, one was enough!” she squawked at Spy, who was trying to get another headfeather.
“Awww,” said Applejack, blushing. “But you ain’t gonna stay with us?”
“No. I’ll visit you. I swear I will,” said Gilda. “I just… look, put it this way. I saw those ponies trample right over other fucking ponies, all right? A grey pegasus, and then this white unicorn dove in, and then they were just gone, dude. Imagine what they’d have done to me. I’m gonna be having nightmares for a while.”
Applejack made a face. “Oh yeah. Rarity. Huh.”
“Let’s jes’ say we ain’t the most perverted ponies in th’ pasture an’ leave it at that?” She shook her head. “Dang. I kin jes’ about keep up with you, Gilda, but that mare kin scare me at times.”
Dash turned. “Oh boy. Rarity again? What did she do?”
“Ya missed it, Dashie. But it were pretty spectacular.”
“She got trampled by ponies,” offered Gilda. “They brought her into the library, along with that other pegasus, the grey one. That one was fine, though. That makes no fucking sense, what did Rarity do, shield her with her body? They trampled the shit out of her and the grey one didn’t have a scratch!”
Dash began to smile. “Wow. Who’d have thought that when I brought Derpy over to meet Twilight… wait a minute, though. That’s twice now you said trampled, Gilda, and you look like you took a real stomping. Did the townsponies really stampede on us? It sounds like they were pretty out of control. I didn’t see any of that.”
Applejack nodded, wincing. She looked bleak, for a moment, then shook herself and said, “Aw, well, critters is critters.”
Rainbow frowned. “Ponies shouldn’t act that way, though, it’s…”
“No!” interrupted Applejack. “Listen. Critters is critters!”
Both Gilda and Rainbow stared at her, and she went on.
“Everypony’s lookin’ for that perfect lover, or th’ perfect town to live in—you, Gilda, you thought you found the perfect species to be like on account of you were ashamed of bein’ a griffin. Well, ain’t no such thing. It’s jes’ us. Everywhere, far as you kin see, it’s jes’ ponies like us doin’ their best, which sometimes ain’t too hot. Try to forgive ‘em. Try to love th’ best in ‘em an’ be patient with th’ worst, because it might be your one chance at it.” She shook her head. “Looks like Ah survived my worst. Guess we all survived it.”
Rainbow hugged her. “Where you go, I go,” she said, which got her a concerned look from Applejack.
“Then Ah will have to go a lil’ more gently. What’s that noise?” said Applejack, glancing at the library.
“Wing lessons,” said Dash with a straight face.
“Yes,” Twilight had said. “Absolutely. Stay with her, right there. Can I get you a pillow?”
Derpy beamed up at Twilight and the adjacent wall. “Thank you, Twilight Sparkle!”
“No more of that ‘Dusk Shine’ business, huh?”
That wiped the smile off the pegasus’s face. “Please don’t be mean to me, Twilight Sparkle.”
“I didn’t mean to… rghhhh!”
“I’m sorry!” squeaked Derpy, her wings rustling agitatedly.
Trixie had seized Twilight’s tail in her teeth, and pulled. “M’stress! Give her the p’llow and leave her alone.”
“She’s not alone, she’s with Rarity!” objected Twilight.
Twilight had followed Trixie’s lead. Sure enough, Derpy snuggled up to Rarity without hesitation, allowing the two unicorns—or the unicorn and the former unicorn—to head upstairs for some relative privacy.
“I still can’t quite believe it,” said Twilight. “Rarity’s so sophisticated. What do they see in each other?”
At that, Trixie hesitated. “Mistress—Trixie is not sure they see anything, yet. They feel, that is plain. You will remember that you’d ordered Girl to take this Derpy in hoof? Perhaps they are simply fast friends.”
“Rarity let herself be trampled by rampaging ponies for her!” objected Twilight.
“She enjoyed it. Good luck explaining that part to the pegasus!” said Trixie, wryly.
Twilight frowned. “Ooooh! That’s so frustrating, I was hoping at least something was going to come out right from all this!”
“But you’re here with me,” said Trixie. “You’re back.” She gulped. “If that is not enough, Trixie is sorry. But it is enough for Trixie.”
Twilight’s lip quivered, and then she’d rushed impulsively forward, met halfway, and she and Trixie were hugging like disaster victims.
“I’m so glad!” sobbed Twilight. “What must you have thought? When you saw me again, you looked awful!”
Trixie snorted in amusement. “Oh, Mistress! Always the soul of tact.”
“No, I mean… rrghhh!”
“Settle down,” said Trixie firmly. “You are all ruffled. These new wings you have are a mess, does it reflect your mood?”
“I don’t know,” said Twilight, as Trixie began firmly stroking her body with her hooves. “Mmmm…”
“Mistress is very tense, also. So many tight muscles… oh! These are new muscles, Twilight! Do they belong to your wings?”
“Ow! I guess they have to, huh? I should be grateful that I can fly at all, I guess the magic told me how. Too bad it didn’t give me better wing muscles to do it with!”
“Will you tell Trixie how it happened?”
“Absolutely. The first thing I noticed was that aaah!”
Trixie continued massaging the rigid tendons and wing muscles she’d found, and shushed Twilight. “Trixie did not mean right now. Lie still. Do I need to dominate you to make you relax?”
Twilight blinked. “Um. I’m not sure you can. Can you dominate an alicorn?”
Trixie smiled. “We’ll find out, won’t we? But for now, Mistress, let us address these wings of yours. Trixie has seen pegasi do this. Let’s see. This feather is clearly askew…”
Trixie froze, glancing sideways at Twilight. All she’d done was grasp one feather in her teeth, and tug it into its correct position. Twilight stared back at her, eyes shocked, lips parted in a gasp.
Trixie began to grin a beautiful, wicked grin, the feather still held in her teeth.
“Lie still,” she ordered. “Th’s might t’ke a while.”
They were halfway back to Sweet Apple Acres, ambling along the road, when Gilda squawked and jumped back several feet, startling Spy. Gilda took cover behind Applejack, who turned and blinked at her. “Th’ hay, sugarcube?”
Gilda just cowered and stared, and Applejack and Rainbow Dash followed her gaze down the road, to see the last thing they expected to see: a matching, cringing posture from a butter-yellow pegasus, backed up by her unaccountably stern mate and bouncing baby foal.
“Fluttershy?” said Dash. “What are you doing, what’s the matter?”
“I’m sorry!” sobbed Fluttershy, pressing low to the ground, her wings trailing miserably. “I’m so sorry, Gilda!”
Gilda’s head popped up over Applejack’s rump. “Don’t let her get near me, okay?”
“You crazy or somethin’?” barked Applejack. “That there’s Fluttershy! Look at her! Now, why are you…” She trailed off, eyes widening.
Rainbow Dash was glancing back and forth between Gilda and Fluttershy, ears splayed in complete astonishment. “Wait a minute. I know there was a big crowd of ponies, and everypony was acting like they’d stampeded you. That’s what I thought happened. Are you seriously telling me that…”
“I’m sorry, okay?” wailed Fluttershy. “It was wrong of me and makes me just as bad as you! Which is very bad indeed! I could have killed you, I almost did!”
Gilda peered over Applejack’s firm rump with wide, wide eyes, not daring to leave the shelter of that earth pony body as if she thought Fluttershy might suddenly and randomly explode. Spy blinked confusedly at the spectacle, trying to figure out whether to be alarmed. Rainbow Dash stared at Gilda, then stared back at Fluttershy’s sulky misery, and then Dash exploded—her way.
“BAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA! eeep! Ahahahaha, eep, eep!”
“It’s not funny!” yelled Fluttershy. “Don’t laugh at me! I did horrible bad things!”
Pinkie trotted over. “Dashie! I admit it’s kind of crazy, but please, stay with us, this is serious! Laughie time later, okay? Fluttershy needs to make a really big apology!”
“Oh my gosh! eeep! Fluttershy beat the living shit out of Gilda!” squeaked Dash, rolling around on the ground, Spy capering and whinnying with her. “Oof!” she added, as Rock Candy ran over and jumped on her, joining the rough-house.
“Easy there, honey,” said Applejack with some concern. Gilda was still hiding behind her butt, and she saw how upset Fluttershy seemed. “Take a deep breath, okay? Since when does Pinkie ask you not to laugh?”
“I did say later,” corrected Pinkie. “Laughing is good! But I’m gonna stick a cupcake in your eye if you don’t let Fluttershy make nice. She needs to say this and we all need to hear it.”
Applejack blinked. “So yer sayin’ it’s true? The one what beat up Gilda that bad, it was Fluttershy? Seriously?”
Rainbow Dash was getting control of herself. She bounced up, and fluttered over to Gilda, who cringed back slightly even from so friendly a pegasus. Dash studied Gilda’s face, the bruises and missing feathers that spoke of a horrible beating, and went on to inspect the powerful, predatory body, seeing evidence of further pummeling. She looked sharply over to Fluttershy, seeing for the first time that the gentle pegasus bore claw marks, cuts on her face and body.
Rainbow Dash’s jaw slowly dropped—before she reeled it in, gulped, and simply said, “HOW?”
“I said I was sorry,” said Fluttershy, looking away. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“They cornered me in your doorway,” said Gilda. “This cop pegasus, and some kind of fancy mare who wasn’t even a pegasus. I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t scared to be up on a cloud. I kinda thought if I knocked him out of the way, I could blow that joint. I did, too—I bodychecked him off the cloud, and his mare jumped back and took a big tumble, and sure enough he grabbed her. But then all of a sudden this monster is tearing me to fucking shreds…”
Rainbow squealed. “Eeeee! Bad ASS!”
“No! Just BAD!” cried Fluttershy.
“No,” corrected Pinkie, “just Flutterbutter BEING an ass…”
“But why would she do that?” said Applejack. “It ain’t like her nohow!”
Applejack and Rainbow looked at Fluttershy, who peered tearfully up at them.
“I thought she killed you,” she said to Applejack. Her face flashed into anger, unexpectedly. “And I know she killed a bunny!”
Gilda flinched, and squawked, “How do you know that? I went so far out of my way to hunt! I kept it strictly out around griffin country and inside Dash’s house where no ponies could ever see me!”
Applejack winced. “Ayep. There’s your problem, I reckon. Fluttershy, she’s good at seein’.”
“This is because she eats bunnies?” said Dash. “But Fluttershy, she’s a griffin! Would you rather she ate ponies? I don’t like it either but she’s just not made like you and me!”
Pinkie chimed in. “We need to have this conversation, Fluttiebuttie. Gilda can’t eat birdseed.” She gulped, and went on carefully. “In fact, you might find that some of our own pets would be happier and healthier if they didn’t just only eat birdseed. The hawk and the eagle, for instance, they’re definitely not getting their birdie vitamins on just birdseed.”
“Oh, but they couldn’t bear to go back to the way they were!” protested Fluttershy. “And what are they supposed to do, eat Angel? No way!”
“Oh, no no!” squeaked Pinkie. “No! I’m just saying, they are like Gilda. They can go somewhere far away from our home, like they already… um, just far away from Ponyville, okay? I think it won’t be that hard to convince ‘em. If we just explain that the reason they’re feeling sick and faint is that they are predator birds and they’ve been starving to death for years, never hunting for food like regular eagles and hawks…”
Fluttershy stared hard at Pinkie, who put on a determinedly innocent look.
“They’re feeling sick?”
“They’re afraid to tell you because they know what you’d think,” said Pinkie, trying to cross her hooves behind her back. “I think it’s really gross, too, but they’re your pets, flippylippy. You should care for them properly.”
“But I… ohh!” wailed Fluttershy. “I do everything wrong, I’m horrible!”
Pinkie quivered with sympathy, but held onto the stern look for dear life. “We’ll get to that, missy. Now, what have we learned?”
Gilda began to creep out from behind Applejack, watching, as Fluttershy grovelled in the dirt miserably.
“I, I, I learned I should never be strong!” cried Fluttershy. “Because I’m terrible and it just ruins everything! Maybe I should let scary monsters eat Angel and be done with it!”
“Whoa there!” said Applejack. “Settle down!”
Pinkie faced her. “Wrong answer! Fluttershy, it’s okay to be strong. But when you think you are so weak and helpless, when you’re desperate, you use your strength wrongly. You don’t know your own strength! You should learn. And you can’t learn by pretending to be weak and awful. Are you listening, Fluttershy?”
She broke off, as she watched something amazing happen.
Gilda’s limbs were trembling, her leonine tail drooped low, but she was creeping up to where Fluttershy lay. The stricken pegasus gazed up out of self-pitying, tearful eyes, but didn’t flinch or try to defend herself in any way. Gilda slunk nearer, shaking like a leaf, until she was beak to nose with her tormentor.
“Uh… you. Honorary griffin… okay?”
Fluttershy blinked, then did a double-take. “Ew!” she said, frowning.
“Yeah, but still,” said Gilda stubbornly. “I mean it. You are one mother of a fighter. Seriously. Honorary griffin?”
Fluttershy made a face, her expression darkening. “I am a mother. I’m the mother to this foal. If you touch him I’ll kill you all over again, okay?”
Gilda flinched, and Applejack snapped, “Hey! Gilda’s not going to do that! She, uh, she understands sparing foals. It’s, uh… a pony thing. Which we got in common. Ain’t that right, Gilda?”
“Yeah,” said Gilda. “Yeah, we’ve got that in common. Can you please stop glaring at me, uh, Fluttershy? You’re scaring the crap out of me again.”
Fluttershy’s face fell. “I’m sorry!”
“Me too, kid, me too.”
Gilda then oofed, for Rock Candy had bounced off her rump. Fluttershy shrieked, and begged, “Please, Rock, don’t do that!” and with Pinkie herding her and Rock one way, and Applejack coaxing Gilda the other, a comfortable distance was once again imposed, and both griffin and pegasus breathed a little more easily.
“Now was that so hard?” teased Rainbow Dash, as Spy clambered onto Gilda and stood on her back.
Pinkie’s eyes bugged out. “Are you kidding, Dashie? It was super ultra impossible-mode hard! It was hardy mcHardersons hard! Fluttershy, I’m telling you, you are such an incredibly tough nut to crack…”
“And an incredibly tough fighter that any griffin would be terrified of,” added Gilda.
“And a cuddly-wuddly big softie fluffypony!” concluded Rainbow Dash, and the others stared at her. “What? It’s all true!”
“No,” said Fluttershy softly. “No, more than any of that—I’m grateful.”
“Eh?” said Gilda.
“I’ve been terrible,” said Fluttershy, looking her victim in the eyes, “but I’m so grateful you’re okay and that I didn’t hurt you too badly. And my friends believed in me and brought me back from a very bad place, and I’m grateful to them as well. And most of all, I’m grateful I can turn over a new leaf and work on learning how to live so I don’t hurt other creatures ever again. Do you know the moment when I knew it had all gone wrong?”
“When was that, Fluttershy?” said Applejack.
“It was when I felt Rock holding me back—Rock Candy, my beloved foal. He can’t even talk yet, but all the same he understood somehow,” said Fluttershy. “And he would not let me go further. I could see in his eyes, he knew I was doing wrong, and he just was not going to let me be a bad pony. H—he believed in me when I didn’t know to believe in myself. And more than anypony else, my foal Rock taught me the difference between right and wrong.”
They all stared at the little white foal, who looked back insouciantly. Then he let out a tiny oof, for Pinkie had grabbed him up in a big hug, and tossed him in the air, where he flipped and landed in a comical heap.
“Oh, Pinkie,” cried Fluttershy, “don’t! He’ll hurt himself!”
“Not likely!” said Pinkie. “I think he gets that from me! He’s a tough little guy, and smart as a whip!”
“I don’t understand what’s supposed to be smart about those,” objected Fluttershy.
Pinkie blinked. “Oh, you could use one as twine, or swing from it, or tie knots in it to remember things, there’s bound to be lots of smart things you could do with one! I should get one from Rarity. Maybe I could keep you in check then, juiceygoosey!”
Fluttershy hmphed, and gathered Rock Candy up in a tender snuggle. “Don’t you listen. Oh, Rock! You’ve done so much, and you’re such a clever little pony, and all without a single word! When will we finally hear you say your first words?”
“When it’s funny?”
Four sets of adult pony eyes, one set of foal eyes and one set of griffin eyes widened unexpectedly, looking around for the source of the new voice.
Pinkie looked down, and Rock Candy looked up at her with an expression of bland innocence—yet, with an irrepressible twinkle in his gaze that gave him away.
She smiled, then beamed, then began to giggle harder and harder, and at last there was no mistaking it: it was laughie time, and all was well.