Rarity sat huddled on the dressing room floor, sniffling as she beheld the task before her. On one side of her were the shoulder pads with their frayed tassels, the diamond-studded buttons and a single, chipped ruby. With them were over two dozen pieces of torn fabric, sewed together and arranged in a way that they were beginning to resemble a sleeve. Rarity found some solace in the fact the gold thread helped her know where to start, like the round edges of a jigsaw puzzle.
But it was of little comfort, as the other side of her showed; there lay the rest of the suit, haphazardly piled. She levitated two pieces from the pile and brought them in front of her, bringing them together. She looked at them intently (or as well as she could, given her eyes would water still), swapping their positions, rotating them in place, going through every possible combination. When it became clear they didn't fit with one another, she groaned in a small, miserable voice, and threw one of the pieces back into the pile, before choosing another torn fabric that might fit.
It had been half-an-hour since Mort had come and gone from the boutique, leaving behind an absolutely crushed spirit. Rarity could handle clients who were disappointed with her designs. Even when her friends had a lukewarm reaction to their Gala dresses, she was able to take it mostly in stride, and work on "improving" them. While that had almost been a career-killing disaster, the point was she could handle criticism. And even if the clients didn't like a dress, she could; she had yet to sew anything she did not absolutely adore. (Five, particular dresses aside, that she wished everyday would disappear into the pages of fashion history and become little more than an urban myth.)
What she couldn't handle, though, was the sight of her worka product of much study, effort and heartbeing torn to utter shreds, and mere minutes after being displayed for the first time. Seeing Mort encircled in the remains of the suit was like watching her heart get torn our and stomped on, over and over again. Looking at the remains once everypony left, she couldn't bear to throw it all away, and instead went about trying to restore it.
A small, rational voice in the back of her mind was telling her that she should stop. That even if she could manage to find the exact location that each shred would need to be, and somehow sew it all back together, the result would never be satisfactory, nor worth all the time and effort required. But every time she even thought of stopping, she would remember how pristine the suit looked, how proud and sure she was of it, and then go right back to trying to repair it, unable to part with something she had worked so hard on.
Making matters worse, she couldn't stop thinking about why it happened, and it lead to her getting distracted from her current task constantly. Sneaking in like she did was cheeky and, she admitted, rude of her, but did it really call for doing this? Wrinkling it, maybe ripping a sleeve to get it off...but destroying it so utterly? Part of her couldn't stop thinking that it wasn't an accident from hiding his appearance; that instead, he had felt so disgusted by the suit he couldn't even bear to look at it, much less be seen in it. Or that it was some sort of punishment for trying to get a peek at him.
It would be incredibly cruel, if true, but it wasn't an image she could reconcile with what she knew of Mort, as little as it was. And Celestia certainly couldn't be friends with a pony of such brutish behavior. But how could such destruction possibly be anything but intentional...?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the dressing room door. "Uh, Rarity? Are ya doin' okay in there?" a voice drawled.
Rarity sighed, and took a moment to collect herself, wiping away fresh moisture from her eyes. Putting the fabrics down, she got up and strode towards the dressing room door. She stopped just in front of it, and used her horn to crack it open. She was met with Applejack's green eyes, staring leveling at her.
"Well?" the orange mare asked, arching a brow.
Rarity hmphed. "I am just fine, Applejack, just as I've told you every, other time you asked! I must insist that you leave me in peace."
Applejack rolled her eyes. "Rarity, you gone and locked yerself up for nearly an hour now! You ain't plannin' on stayin' inside all day, now are you?"
"No! Well, maybe...I-I just don't know!" she admitted lamely. "It...just depends on how long this will take."
"How long what will take?" Applejack's eyes glanced away from Rarity, trying to look behind the unicorn. Rarity slid to block her view, and continued to maneuver herself to keep the apple farmer from looking in.
After a minute of this, Applejack groaned and facehoofed. "Rarity, what in tarnations are ya doin' in there?"
"It's none of your business!" Rarity said, curtly, flipping her mane with a wave of her head. "And I doubt you'd understand, anyway."
Without taking her eyes off her, the farmer deadpanned, "Yer stitchin' that suit back together, ain't ya?"
Rarity let out a tight, little gasp. "How did you know?!"
"Ah know ya a bit better then ya might think, missy." Applejack shrugged, and with a smirk said, "Not to mention ya just told me, anyway."
Rarity bristled slightly, her face flushing with embarrassment. Utterly foalish, and she fell for it.
"Now can Ah come in?" the earth pony asked, sounding exasperated.
Rarity thought of shooing her back outside, but she didn't see the point. If she kept her out, Applejack would just keep pounding on the door while berating about what she was doing, and the farmer could easily be heard from behind the door if she wanted to. If she let her in, though, Applejack wouldn't have to keep raising her voice, she wouldn't have a door to pound on, and she might give Rarity a little silence if she saw how concentrated the fashionista was.
She sighed tiredly, and stood back, opening the door the rest of the way. Applejack gave her a courteous nod, and wasted no time trotting in, making a beeline for where the remains of the suit were. Rarity felt her fur stand on end as Applejack got closer to her work, and in an instant was across the room, barring the earth pony from going any further.
"Ah ah ah! Not one step further, Applejack!" she admonished. "You're going to disturb some very delicate work here!"
Applejack glanced down at the work area, and shook her head. "As it is, Rarity, Ah don't I could do much more to that get up than what's been done already." She sighed, and Rarity couldn't help but feel a little irritated by it. "For pity's sake, Rarity, yer goin' to be in here forever trying to make somethin' from all that! You barely got a sleeve!"
"For your information, I'm confident I'll be piecing a shoulder together very soon!" It took a moment for her rash reply to sink in, and Rarity's face turned even redder than before. Seething between her teeth, she said, "Just let me do this, Applejack! The act of dress makingor in this case, suit making," she said, under her breath, "is an art! How could I so callously abandon something I've put my very heart and soul into?" She couldn't help but add the theatrical flare at the end.
"Well, it's mighty easy, actually!" Applejack responded, simply. She walked around the bewildered beauty and took the sewn sleeve into her mouth. "All ya godda do is-"
"Applejack, you spit that sleeve out right this minute!" In a flash Rarity bit down on the frayed end, trying to pull it away from the earth pony, but Applejack simply tugged in the opposite direction. Rarity responded in kind, and soon the two of them were involved in a tug-of-war using a tattered sleeve.
"'Et go 'is insan!" Rarity mumbled through the fabric, glaring daggers at the farmer. She should have known Applejack would pull something something like this.
"Es a 'aste o' 'ime!" Applejack responded in kind, almost dragging the unicorn with each tug.
The two of them kept at it, rotating in circles as they tried to get the upper hoof. Applejack may have been one of the strongest ponies in the town, but Rarity wasn't a pushover by any means, and she wasn't about to let Applejack get her way. For every gain Applejack got from sheer force, Rarity got it back by pulling in a direction that almost made the earth pony stumble.
She wasn't going to find out which of them would give, though, because the sleeve gave first.
With a mighty rip the stitches finally gave out, and the two of them went rolling in opposite directions. Applejack collided with a rack of dresses, tipping it over on top of herself and bringing with it nearly a dozen hat boxes that were stacked on top.
Rarity didn't have time to feel mortified about what happened to those dresses. She was too preoccupied with the lancing pain she felt when her flank landed right on top of her pin cushion. She squealed in pain, and sat up quickly, shooting a smoldering look at the pin cushion that clung to her like a prickly seed. Her horn flared and she pried it off, gritting her teeth as she did so. She dropped it on the ground, and rubbed her sore flank.
Her eyes fell on the sleeve that was now how it was when she started: torn to pieces. She barely suppressed a growl as she floated the remains to her eyes. She shot a withering glare at the topsized clothes rack.
"Well, I hope you're happy!" she snapped, marching towards it. "Now I have to start all over again! You could be be so...so uncouth, Applejack!"
She stood there, waiting for the apple farmer to rise from the now wrinkled and maybe torn dresses, offering a similar retort. Instead the pile of clothes remained motionless, with not the faintest hint of movement going on underneath.
"Applejack?" Rarity bit her lip, feeling her earlier anger drain. Now that she thought about it, those racks could be awful heavy sometimes, and as many dresses as there were, they all weren't too thick. They wouldn't offer too much protection from something heavy falling down.
"A-Applejack?" Concern made its way into her voice, and she got closer to the pile, getting more anxious as time went by with no sound from the farmer. "Are you okay, dear?" She reached out tentative hoof. "C-come now, say something al-"
She scooted back in fright as the clothes suddenly erupted upward, sending dresses every which way. Something crawled out from the garment pile, and the sight of it made Rarity's jaw drop.
It was Applejack, but it was Applejack in one of Rarity's most bombastically frilly, jewel encrusted, ribbon covered, flowery and yellow gowns. It hid nearly every aspect of Applejack, save her forelegs and her head, the latter of which that was also sporting a large, wide brimmed hat that was practically overrun with flowers on top.
The earth pony wobbled on her hooves in a daze, before clearing the stars out of her head with a shake. Her eyes rolled up, finally taking notice of the hat's rim that nearly shadowed her face, and was soon discovering what else she wore. She let out a little yelp in shock, staring at the frilly dress in utter bafflement, before turning to look at Rarity.
The sight of Applejack in the dress, and her reaction to it, had an immediate effect. Rarity's earlier shock was quickly replaced by an uncontrollable mirth. A snort grew into a snicker, which then grew into full blow laughter as the unicorn collapsed on her knees, barely able to catch her breath.
"A-A-Applejack," she gasped out, barely able to get a word out, "o-oh my goodness! You're s-so...so..." Rarity tried to suppress another round of laughter, but only succeeded in holding back a moment longer before succumbing again, tears beginning to trickle down her cheeks.
She caught sight of the farmer glaring daggers at her, and for a moment she felt a pang of guilt about the earlier guffaw. But a moment later Applejack's face softened, and she smiled back.
"Heh." Applejack smiled in embarrassment. "Ah guess I look a little ridiculous, huh...?"
"A l-little," Rarity replied, finally bringing herself back up under control as she got back on her hooves. Yellow just wasn't a good color with that fur, and there plenty of other styles that worked so much better with her.
Applejack whipped the large hat off, and scrounged through the pile of clothing until she found her farmer's hat, which she put on with evident relief. She looked down at where she had dug it up, and her eyes caught something. She reached down and used a hoof to scoop up one half of the torn sleeve.
"Welp, Ah guess that makes two of us, huh?" she retorted, slyly.
Rarity felt a momentary flare of indignation, but the earlier mirth she felt had cleared her mind and wafted away the bit of misery she had been feeling until then. Looking at the torn cloth made her reevaluate just what she had been doing until now.
"I guess it does," she conceded with a sigh, and returned her own embarrassed smile. "I'm so sorry about all that, Applejack. When it comes to my work I tend to...well, lose my head."
"Happens to the best of us, Rarity," Applejack said, with a dismissive hoof wave. "Ah'm just glad we didn't have to get Opal in a tree this time."
Rarity giggled at the memory. Her horn lit up as she lifted the torn sleeve off of Applejack's hoof, and threw it behind her, towards where the rest lay. Watching it flutter to the ground, she again felt a longing to see the suit back to its pristine state, but it wasn't as strong as before.
"So," she started, trotting up to where the torn fabric was, "what am I to do with you now?"
"Only thing you can do." Applejack moved towards the corner of the room, her teeth grasping something that had been leaning against it. She came back to Rarity, pushing across the floor a small trashcan, with a brush and dustpan held in her mouth. She stopped in front of Rarity, dropped the cleaning supplies in front of the unicorn, then nudged them forward with her snout. She stood back up to give Rarity a knowing look.
Rarity bit her lip, her eyes switching between the trash can and the remains of the suit. With reluctance, she levitated the brush and dustpan over to where the scraps of cloth were, and begun to sweep the remains up, each stroke of the brush carrying the same hesitation she felt when digging in the diamond dog mines.
A few, agonizing moments later, everything save the diamonds and jewels were piled high in the dustpan. She hovered it near the trashcan, and couldn't help but look pleadingly at Applejack, hoping perhaps the earth pony would change her mind, or encourage her to do something else. The farmer simply gave a firm shake of her head.
Swallowing hard, she moved it the final, few inches needed to get it over the can's mouth, and with a little whinny, she tilted it, the torn rags tumbling out and into the trashcan.
Releasing a shaky breath, Rarity returned the cleaning utensils and trashcan to where they were, and offered a weak smile to Applejack. The farmed nodded approvingly.
"Feelin' better?" she asked.
Rarity considered telling her she wasn't, but as she looked at the now clean floor, and the corner of the room where she put everything away, she realized that a weight she didn't realize she had wasn't there anymore.
"I...actually do," she said, somewhat astonished, and very relieved.
Applejack winked at her. "There, ya see? Ah know how ya are with yer dresses and everythin', Rarity, but they ain't nothin' to get so worked up over. Heck, you could probably sew something twice as good in half the time from scratch, now that ya got a stab at makin' them in the first place."
"Hmm..." Rarity tapped her chin in thought. "Well, to be honest I did have a couple of ideas-"
"That can wait until after today," Applejack interjected, quickly. "We still gotta be helpin' Twilight show Mort 'round, remember?"
Rarity gasped, suddenly remembering what had started the whole chain of event. "Oh my goodness, don't tell me they've all been waiting this entire time?"
"Nah, nah, don' worry, Ah had them go on ahead of us." She fidgeted in the gown, looking at it uncomfortably. "A good thing too, Ah think."
"Yes, I'd hate for these self-pity sessions of mine to put a halt to everyone's fun. We should..." She stopped herself, the image of Mort, surrounded by tatters, stuck in her head. "Uh...that is, you should go on ahead. I can just stay here and tidy up. Don't wait on my account."
Applejack tilted her head quizzically. "What about you?"
"Oh, well...I mean..." She tried to think of a good excuse, but the way Applejack bore into her made such a thing nearly impossible to do. Even the smallest fib would sound utterly weak under those eyes. She sighed in defeat, her head slumping forward. "I'm sorry, Applejack. I'm afraid my presence would only give rise to some...tension, with our guest."
"What, ya mean Mort?" Rarity nodded, and Applejack gave a little pfft in response. "You kiddin' me? That feller looked sorrier than Winoa when I catch her in my duds. He actually wanted to stick around 'cause of what happened."
"Really?" she said, in disbelieve. "But...I mean, after what I did, and after what he did to my suit, I would think..."
"Come on, now, Ah hardly think he meant to do anything like that. Ah just think ya just spooked the poor guy when ya came bargin' in. Unicorn magic can be a might crazy, after all."
Rarity stomped one hoof indignantly, feeling a little insulted. "Really, Applejack! We unicorns do have more than a modicum control over our magic! It's hardly 'crazy,' as you put it!"
"Now, now, Ah didn't mean anything by it!" Applejack said hastily, trying to simmer the unicorn. "Ah'm just sayin' it can sometimes be a bit, well, unpredictable. You 'member Twi' and Spike just poppin' out of thin air that one time in the library, right? After bein' chased all over town?"
"So you think it was just an accident?" Rarity considered the possibility briefly. Unicorn magic was usually at its most uncontrollable in early foalhood, and as unicorns grew older, their magic begun to stabilize more and more, and by then even the most frightening situations would barely elicit a spark.
Still, Applejack had a point: even Twilight Sparkle had exhibited uncontrolled spurts of magic at least a couple times, gifted as she was, and Mort seemed to be a rather panicky sort. He had so many issues to start with, poor horn control wouldn't be that hard to believe.
"I...suppose that makes sense," she said, finally. "Well, if that is the case, the best thing to do would be to apologize, wouldn't it? Staying here certainly wouldn't help."
"Now that's what Ah'm talkin' about!" Applejack got beside her and pattered her shoulder lightly. "So, how 'bout we head on out o' here and try to catch up? Ah think Fluttershy was goin' to take him over to her cottage later."
"Absolutely!" she said, getting ready to march on, but she was given pause as her eyes caught the rack that was still laying on the ground, along with a pile of dresses and a number of boxes and hats. "Uh, but first...I think we should clean up." She looked at Applejack, and barely stifled a giggle before adding, "And get you out of that gown!"
Applejack's eyes widened in realization, her hooves traveling over the gown to reaffirm its existence. Her cheeks went red, and she proceeded to take the gown off as Rarity started to hang the other dresses back up.
It had taken a while, if only because Rarity had to make sure the dresses and hats were properly organized by size and style, but eventually all had been put away. Rarity's attempts to have Applejack try on a sleeveless, blue dress she had found was met with strong, though not unexpected, resistance.
"We don't got time to be playin' dress up, Rarity," Applejack huffed as she walked out the front door of the boutique.
"Oh, but it wouldn't even take ten minutes, dear!" she called ahead, closing the boutique door behind her before chasing after Applejack. "It's quite a simple dress, not really all that 'frou-frou,' and I really think you could pull it off nicely. Orange and blue do make for a rather striking contrast."
"Contrast schmontrast, far as Ah'm concerned that get up I had filled out my dress quota for the month."
"I'm being serious, Applejack, you could really turn some-"
The two of them turned to the source, and heeded the warning just in time as a lavender pegasus with a golden yellow mane swooped over them, missing by a wingspan. The sudden gust took off Applejack's hat and disheveled Rarity's mane. The two of them shot a dirty look at the pegasus, and Rarity spotted the partially clouded sun that adorned the perpetrator's flank.
"Cloud Kicker!" she yelled up at her, bristling, "you should know better than to fly so close! Just look what you did to me!" Her horn flared, and she attempted to straighten her mane and tail back out as best she could. She would need to run back inside for a comb if she couldn't get it untangled.
"I'm sorry, Rarity!" the weatherpony replied regretfully, descending towards them and lowering her voice as she did so. "I was just in a hurry. Swoops like that help you go places, you know? I, uh, kinda overdid it this time and almost flew into that big tree over there. You're not hurt, are you?"
"Just a little frazzled, Kicker," Applejack told her, a hint of annoyance in her voice. She picked her hat back up, giving it a quick dust off before putting it back on. "Why you in such a rush, anyway?"
"Oh, well, I'm always in a rush when it comes to Pinkie Pie's parties," the pegasus replied with a smile.
The two friends looked at each other, sharing the same, anxious look. "Uh, Cloud Kicker," Rarity begun, trying to keep her voice level, "did you find out, er, why Pinkie Pie's throwing a party now?"
"Like she ever needed a real reason? Although..." The pegasus scratched her chin, her eyes looking upward in thought. "I'm pretty sure it had something to do with a new pony in town. I think it was something like...Wort? Tort? Port?"
"Mort," the two of them said, dejectedly.
"Oh, yeah! That's it!" Cloud Kicker exclaimed. "Anyway, Pinkie Pie's 'Welcome' parties are always the best! You two should swing by! See ya there!" Without another word, the pegasus took off, leaving the two of them in a heavy silence.
"She's...throwing the party?" she said finally in disbelief. "Now?"
"Er, Rarity?" Applejack asked, slowly. "Correct me if Ah'm wrong, but...weren't that party supposed to be later? Say, much later? To give the feller time to get used to everypony an' all that?"
"Oh, this is terrible!" Rarity exclaimed, clopping her cheeks. "Something must have gone terribly wrong for Pinkie Pie to do it now! I...I don't even want to think about what could've moved things up so quickly!" After Rarity, the schedule was to have Fluttershy introduce her animals, have lunch at Applejack's farm, let Rainbow Dash perform her aerial stunts, and then throw a party to finish it off. Applejack's part obviously couldn't be done with her at the boutique, but that still left Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. Something had to have happened with the two of them, but she couldn't imagine what in such a short time frame.
And that wasn't all. If Mort's magic had a tendency to destroy objects within his vicinity in a panic, she didn't want to think what sort of chaos might occur with dozens of ponies, tables, presents and foodstuffs surrounding him.
Applejack stomped her hoofs, frustration hanging on her every word. "Great! So Pinkie Pie's throwin' a party fer a pony that'll probably panic and go plum loco in the place! That's just perfect!"
Rarity's thoughts about the consequences were momentarily derailed, and she cocked an eyebrow at the earth pony. "I never knew you were one for alliteration, Applejack."
Rainbow Dash strained her eyes as she looked at the winding trails and green foliage below. She was flying at a pace that was, for her, agonizingly slow, but she had little choice in the matter. What she was searching for wasn't easy to find when moving at breakneck speeds. (Breakneck for non-pegasi, anyway.) And she definitely wasn't going to return to Fluttershy empty hoofed.
Fluttershy's mood had undergone a major shift between when Rainbow Dash talked to Twilight Sparkle, and when she caught up to the caretaker. She had thought the other pegasus was upset, but by the time they got to the cottage, that had been replaced by something bordering on anger and fear.
When Fluttershy had returned to her cottage with her decidedly less antagonistic, furry orchestra in tow, she had ordered them all to march inside. (Rainbow Dash could only remember a couple times Fluttershy had ordered anything. Even the red dragon from what seemed to be so long ago had received what was more of a severe scolding than actual commands.) After that she had proceeded, for some reason, to gather up all the animals she could, even the ones that had their own, little homes or pins outside, and place them indoors.
Fluttershy then told Rainbow Dash to go around and gather some of the further strays, and though Rainbow Dash was confused as to why she wanted to do so, the hard, almost desperate look she got from the pegasus had squashed any notion of questioning. Like a machine, she had zoomed across the woods, finding each and every critter Fluttershy requested, and depositing them on the cottage doorstep, where Fluttershy would usher them inside. Rainbow Dash had found each woodlander in the span of a few seconds.
Save one. And considering what it was, she was starting to get very irritated at her inability to find it.
Rather conveniently, her expository, mental recap of events had ended just as she found her quarry, racing across the dirt path below at a speed of 0.2 miles per hour. Smirking in triumph, she dropped out of the sky like a stone, and landed on all fours directly in front of her target, wanting to make an impression.
"Got ya!" she brayed loudly, smirking triumphantly at the creature.
The freshwater turtle stopped, one foot hovering off the ground, and took a moment to regard her with a blank, almost bored, expression. It blinked both eyes at her once, then went back to walking, this time altering course just enough that it would take him around the pegasus with the least amount of effort.
Rainbow Dash was a little taken back by the lukewarm response, and furrowing her brows, she leaped again in front of the turtle. "I said got ya!" she exclaimed again, a little louder.
After she came down, it inched itself a little to the right. The turtle didn't look at her, nor did it even pause. She frowned, feeling indignant that she was being ignored, though a moment later it turned into a little grin. She snickered, and inched to her left, bringing her head down low enough to be almost level with the turtle.
"You think you're hot stuff, huh?" she said, and with a hoof gently twirled the turtle until it was facing the opposite direction. It craned it's neck around to give her what might have been a disgruntled look. It surprised her, and she grinned apologetically at him.
"Aw, don't be like that," she cooed, then used both hoofs to lift the turtle up. She laid on her back, adjusting her wings to be comfortable, and held the turtle up above her. The turtle gave a cursory look around, and begun to move its legs like it was trying to walk. Or fly.
Rainbow Dash's grin grew wider. When she was looking for the hard shelled reptile, she kept imagining what it'd be like to be so slow, not to mention flightless. It would be a dull existence, and anything that lived like that would have to be pretty dull too, or so she thought. Watching the turtle persist in walking while hanging in the air was probably one of the cutest and most endearing things she had ever seen.
"Yer alright, squirt," she said, affectionately. Sitting back up, she carefully balanced the turtle on top of her rainbow-colored head, until it was laying flat against her skull. "Hey, how 'bout I give you a ride back to Fluttershy's? Just don't, y'know, pee on me."
The turtle, of course, didn't respond. Getting back on all four hooves, Rainbow Dash trotted leisurely back to Fluttershy's cottage, making sure to keep her head steady so the turtle wouldn't fall. One day, though, she wanted to show it real speed.
Fluttershy's cottage was quiet. Although far from a noisy place, given its curator, on any other day, one could still hear the chirping of its birds, or the squeaks of its smaller animals. At the very least one could hear the sound of splashing water from the occasional, bathing woodlander, or the rustling of leaves or bushes as some creature moved through them.
Now, however, there wasn't a peep from anything. The animal haven had gone deathly silent, and it was beginning to give Rainbow Dash the creeps as she approached it. Not even the chickens had made a peep from their little hen house.
Approaching the front door cautiously, Rainbow Dash gave a few, quick knocks. "Fluttershy?" she called. She waited for a response, but heard nothing from the other side. She pressed an ear to the door, but could only make out an occasional chirp from some animal inside. Feeling more nervous than she thought she ought to be, she opened the door and walked in, but stopped in the doorway to stare at the scene before her.
Nearly every, square inch of Fluttershy's ground floor had been taken by one of the animals. A family of rabbits had taken to the couch, huddled together, sharing it with some ferrets, weasels and a couple skunks. Underneath the couch were some of the snakes, coiled around each other to make room for the porcupines. Birds were crowding around the birdhouses that hung from the ceilings, and the chipmunks and squirrels were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder along the tiny, flight of steps that spiraled towards their holes in the ceiling.
There were also chickens, racoons, possums, foxes, moles, mice, rats, a couple badgers and a plethora of other creatures that Rainbow Dash had no hope of picking out or distinguishing from their seemingly superficial cousins.
Most striking of all, of course, was the complete lack of Fluttershy.
She took the turtle from her head and lay him on the floor, never taking her eyes off the collection of animals all staring at her solemnly. The atmosphere of the room was subdued, and Rainbow Dash couldn't help but feel her own mood dampened at the same time.
"So, uh hey," she started, looking at the other occupants, "would any of you happen to know where Fluttershy is?"
There was silence. Then, a quiet, muffled sobbed was heard from above. Across the room, several dozen pairs of eyes glanced up towards the ceiling, where Fluttershy's bedroom would be.
"Yeah, I was afraid of that." Swallowing, Rainbow Dash made her way towards the staircase, the animals shuffling to the sides to form a makeshift path for her.
She went up the stairs, and at the top of the steps saw Angel. The was rabbit hiding behind one of the railings, peeking his head around to anxiously look at something in the room. Rainbow Dash had a good idea of whator rather, whoit was.
When the rabbit took notice of her, he immediately hopped to the center of the top step, holding his arms out in an attempt to bar any entry into the room. He shot Rainbow Dash a fierce look (or at least, fierce for a bunny), and pointed back down the stairs where she came from.
Rainbow Dash frowned. The rabbit was crazy if he thought he was going to order the pegasus around, especially when he was the cause of this whole mess in the first place. She narrowed her eyes and took on a more rigid posture, making it clear she wasn't going anywhere.
The stand off between the two was broken by another sob from the bedroom. Angel looked towards the source, then back to Rainbow Dash, who continued to stare at him patiently. Angel balled his little fists, trying to outstare the young flier, but his composure kept faltering as his eyes kept darting between Rainbow Dash and the bedroom.
There was another choked sob, and that was it: the rabbit sagged in defeat, his ears flopping over his face, and moved aside, gesturing for the other pegasus to come in. Rainbow Dash gave a curt nod and walked up the rest of the stairway.
Unlike the ground level, the bedroom was completely devoid of any animal, and that was most likely because of the room's owner. Fluttershy lay curled up on the bed, her head buried in a large pillow that was getting wet with tears. Occasionally there would be a wheeze and more crying, and the yellow pegasus would hug the pillow tighter, as if to silence the sound.
It was a hard to watch, and Rainbow Dash felt her insides twisting around as the pegasus kept crying. This was something that she would never get used to. Swallowing nervouslly, she slowly approached the bed, and made sure to keep her voice low as she tried to speak.
"Uh..." Rainbow Dash cleared her throat. "Fluttershy? Are you okay?" The weatherpony winced slightly at her own question, knowing her friend was obviously not "okay." "What's wrong?"
Fluttershy lifted her head from the pillow, and wailed, "She's going to take them awaaay..." She shoved her face back into the pillow, crying with even more vigor.
Rainbow Dash forced a smile, and asked, "What are you talking about?" She hopped on Fluttershy's bed, and carefully sat on the foot of the bed. "Who's going to take who away?"
There was some sniffling, and Fluttershy pushed herself up, still clutching the pillow tightly between her forelegs. Her wings were hanging limply on her back and her normally straight mane was in complete disarray. Her eyes were red and puffy, the surrounding fur matted with moisture.
Choking back some sobs, she said, "C-Celestia. W-when she finds out what happened, she'll...s-she'll move all the animals out of Ponyville, o-or lock them in cages, or maybe make them go into to the Ever...free..." A fresh batch of tears pooled in her eyes and she brought the pillow up to her face, unleashing another round of sobs. "S-she just can't, Rainbow!" the yellow pegasus cried. "C-Coils and Rattle get cold so easily, Jennifur has to take special vitamins every night, Poe still has a bad wing..."
Fluttershy continued on about why the animals couldn't leave, citing everything from medical complications to social awkwardness. The rainbow pegasus scratched the back of her head, feeling more uncomfortable and lost with every passing moment. She was used to making ponies feeling better with tricks, stunts or standing up to their would be oppressors. There were no bullies this time, though, and what happened wasn't going to be swept away by her aerial feats. Fluttershy needed somepony to cheer her up, and Rainbow Dash felt completely out of her element.
Didn't mean she couldn't try, though.
She tentatively raised one foreleg, and wrapped it around Fluttershy in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. She rubbed back and forth over Fluttershy's shoulders, and after a few moments of this, it seemed to have the intended effect of calming her. She started to lean on Rainbow Dash, her crying becoming softer until it was just a few sniffles.
She looked up from her pillow again, sniffled, and offered a weak smile. "Thank you," she wheezed.
"Hey, no sweat," Rainbow Dash boasted, feeling she was on firmer ground than before. "That's what friends are for, right?" She cleared her throat. "Uh, you...feeling better?"
"Um...not really," she admitted, shaking Rainbow Dash's earlier confidence. She wiped some tears from her puffy eyes. "I-I mean, I'm glad you're here, and I feel a teensy bit better but..." Her body quivered, and she choked out, "I'm just so scared."
"Hey, come on," she started, enforcing an assured tone, "you keep making it sound like it's the end of the world or something. Thing's will be okay. Really!"
Fluttershy gave her a doubtful look, a frown permeating her face.
Not ready to give up yet, Rainbow Dash pushed on. "I mean, it's not like they hurt Mort all that much. He wasn't even limping the last time I saw him."
"It doesn't matter if he wasn't," Fluttershy mumbled miserably. "They attacked him, and it was just...awful. He didn't even do anything, Rainbow! Nothing I did was stopping them, and..." Fluttershy whimpered pitifully, and once again there seemed to be a fresh line of moisture building in her eyes.
Determined not to let Fluttershy become even more miserable, Rainbow Dash quickly tried to think of something else to say. Her mind reeled all the way back to the original attack, remembering how the rabbit had acted when he was brought close to Mort. Now that she thought about it, he looked...
"Um, hey!" she said, quickly. "I just had a thought! Maybe, uh...maybe they only attacked him because they were really...scared of him, or something!"
"Scared?" Fluttershy whispered, just short of crying again.
"Y-yeah, scared!" the flier answered, now just starting to see where she wanted to go. "Think about it! It's not like they went after him because they went mean or anything, they just got freaked out!"
"Well...I mean, it's kinda important if they were just scared," Rainbow Dash asked, hiding her own uncertainty. "You can't blame them if they did something because they got spooked or anything. The mayor didn't do anything to the rabbits that one time they stampeded, right?"
"Um, no," Fluttershy conceded, looking a little calmer than before. "I...I just told her that they got frightened by Applejack and Winona."
"Exactly!" Rainbow Dash interjected. "And...well, yeah, they were just baby rabbits, but they still ate a lot of food and tore up a bunch of gardens and the like. But they never came down on you at all for that."
"I...guess so," Fluttershy said, slowly.
"So what about Angel and the others? They were kinda scared too, right?"
"Um..." Fluttershy tilted forward to look around Rainbow Dash. The cyan pegasus leaned back and followed her eyes, seeing Angel standing by the stairway, keeping his own eyes locked on his feet. "I...did try to ask Angel what had happened, but I had a hard time understanding him. He did sound a little scared."
"Well, there you have it," Rainbow Dash confirmed.
"But I don't see why...?"
"Well, Mort just...comes off like that," Rainbow Dash said, after a pause. "Remember when he got here? I...er, I mean, you were kinda scared too, right?" she asked, hoping Fluttershy didn't notice her verbal slip.
"Uh...yes," Fluttershy said, embarrassed. Although she sounded meek as always, she at least didn't sound like she was on the verge of breaking down again. Rainbow Dash felt a little relief at the progress she was making. "But...he's really not that scary."
"Well, yeah, we know that because we've been hanging out with him." Not to mention watching him stumble around in his robe and with his words. He was as awkward as Fluttershy was all that time ago in flight camp. "But they've never seen him before. Maybe they were just nervous because of how he looked. Or because he was a colt."
"Why would that matter?" she asked, honestly curious.
"Well, y'know, maybe they thought he was gonna steal 'momma' Fluttershy away." She opened her mouth to explain, when a better idea sprung to mind. Something that might lighten the mood enough to break her out of this. Shooting Fluttershy a playful look, she dramatically cleared her throat, and begun to imitate Mort's scrawny voice.
"Ooh, I am Mort!" she started menacingly (or as menacingly as one could with a voice like that), drawing a small grin from the other pegasus. "I'm hear to take Fluttershy away from ALL you mangy animals and do all sorts of unspeakable things! Like, like..." She feigned uncertainty and begun to dig her hooves around her body in mid air, as if searching for something. "Oh, where did those cards go? I know I had them somewh-oof!" She lost her balance and fell forward on her chin, eliciting a startled gasp from Fluttershy. Thinking quickly, and trying to ignore the soreness in her own chin, Rainbow Dash quickly added, "Oh, dumb cloak! Why did I make you so long?"
Fluttershy looked at blankly, and Rainbow Dash feared she might have taken it too far, but then the yellow pegasus broke into a smile and begun to laugh, trying to muffle the sound with her pillow.
"R-Rainbow, that's just mean!" she said, before breaking into giggles. "Y-you shoudn't talk like that about ponies behind their b-back..."
"Aw, come on, it's just a bit of fun," Rainbow Dash said, getting back on her hooves. She glanced at Angel, and saw the rabbit giving her an incredibly sour look, obviously unamused. "And I couldn't help myself! Now imagine Mort doing that, but with a long, curly mustache."
Fluttershy broke into even bigger laughter, and Rainbow Dash followed suit shortly after, the image of Mort evilly twirling a long, black mustache taking up her imagination.
"W-with..." Fluttershy abandoned the pillow, trying to suppress the chuckles and giggles forcing their way out. "M-maybe, if he did it with a big, top hat..."
"Oh geeze, that's perfect!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed, losing control and rolling on the floor, her eyes tearing up. She begun to belt out laugh after laugh, and Fluttershy followed in her own, graceful manner.
It kept going like this for a few minutes, though to Rainbow Dash it felt much longer. By the time she became to breathless to laugh, she pulled herself up and looked expectantly at Fluttershy. Like she hoped, Fluttershy was looking much happier, and any tears she had were from the earlier, ludicrous images.
"So, like I was saying," she said, after taking a deep breath, "you shouldn't have to worry so much. I mean, okay, so what if Celestia did find out? She's pretty cool! Think of all the times we did something that we thought for sure was going to get us banished or thrown in some dingy, old dungeon. And every single time, we barely ruffled one feather on her!"
She walked over to a dresser, searching for and finding a lone hairbrush that she grabbed in her teeth and brought back over to the bed. "Inne'ay..." Rainbow Dash grumbled and spat the brush out next to Fluttershy. "Anyway, I bet the princess is a good judge of character. If she likes a pony, they have to be cool, right? So Mort's cool!" Though obviously not in the manner Rainbow Dash was most familiar with. "I bet he's over it already."
"I don't know," she said, uncertainly. Eying the hairbrush, Fluttershy grasped Rainbow Dash's intent and bent down grab it in her mouth, where she proceeded to brush her disheveled mane. "'E in't 'ook oo ha'y..."
"Well," Rainbow Dash started, drawing the word out, "if he isn't happy, then somepony's gotta set the record straight about Angel and the others, right?"
"Oh, yes!" Fluttershy dropped the brush onto the bed and slid off. "I don't want him getting the wrong idea or anything! They're really sweet!"
"Right! It's just a little misunderstanding. I'm sure he'll understand. Especially if you're the one who explains it to him."
"I...yes, I think you're right!" Fluttershy said, excitedly. "So what are we waiting for? I have to get this all cleared up and make it up to him somehow!"
Rainbow Dash breathed a sigh of relief, the knots she felt inside finally loosening up. It was the same sort of relief she felt whenever she had completed any sort of high-stakes race or competition. It felt liberating, and cheering up Fluttershy gave it a pleasant tingling as well.
"Okay!" she said, a spring in her step as she trotted towards the stairs. "Let's find everypony and meet up with them. After that, you can talk to Mort and we can-"
There was a scrabbling of paws, and Rainbow Dash saw with some disdain that Angel had moved himself in front of the steps again, his arms spread wide in another attempt to bar them.
"Oh for crying out loud! Get out of the way, Angel!" She poked his stomach, but Angel stood firm, his steely gaze making it clear he wasn't going to move this time. "What's yer problem?!"
"Angel Bunny," Fluttershy said, coming up beside Rainbow Dash, her tone soft but firm, "I don't know what's gotten into you all of a sudden, but I have to leave and explain that it was all a misunderstanding. I'm doing it for all our sakes."
The rabbit shook his head fiercely, and to Rainbow Dash's shock, he got on its knees and shot a pleadingly, desperate look at Fluttershy, his black eyes wavering.
Fluttershy was taken back by the action. "Angel, I don't understand. Is it really that bad if I go?" The rabbit nodded quickly. "Are you still upset with Mort?" Another nod, even more intense than the last.
The cyan pegasus groaned, rolling her eyes. "Alright, let's hear it straight from the rabbit's mouth. Why shouldn't we go?"
Angel suddenly dashed from his spot, racing towards a desk on the other side of the room, where he begun to dig through its numerous drawers. Rainbow Dash had half a mind to take advantage of the distraction and head downstairs, but she was curious as to what had been driving the snowy animal so crazy the past hour.
When Angel came back, he was carrying a piece of paper and a pencil. Slapping the paper down, he begun to scribble, one eye winked close as the lead raced over the page. A moment later, he put the pencil down and lifted the paper up.
Rainbow Dash had to tilt her head and squint her eyes at the dark splotch, unable to decipher what the rabbit was trying to draw.
"Oh, is that supposed to Mort?" Fluttershy asked. Rainbow Dash blinked, and realized that, given the shape, the picture could be the cloaked pony, though incredibly simplified given the artist.
The rabbit nodded quickly, and brought the paper down to draw on it even more. Not long after he put the pencil down again and showed the same picture, but this time with a cartoonish, pony skull off to the side, and an arrow coming from it to the dark splotch that was Mort.
"Uh..." Rainbow Dash scratched her head, momentarily confused. "Mort's...bad?" Angel nodded his head, looking pleased. "Uh, okay, but why is he bad?"
Angel looked at her like she grew two heads, slapped his face, then brought the pencil out, drawing something quick. When he pulled the paper out, the cartoon skull had been amended with crude crossbones, and even more arrows.
"Uh...he's really bad?" Fluttershy ventured, doubtfully.
Angel gritted his teeth, steam almost coming out of his ears, and he drew several circles around the skull and crossbones, using the pencil to tap between the two drawings repeatedly.
"Ugh," Rainbow Dash muttered with a roll of her eyes, reaching the limit of what little patience she already had. "Just forget it, Fluttershy. He's just being paranoid now. Come on."
Angel threw and pencil and paper away, and once again held his tiny arms out in an attempt to stop her. Rainbow Dash circumvented him the way she should've done in the first place: by stepping over him. She shot a satisfied smirk at the stunned rabbit and proceeded down the stairs, with Fluttershy following her lead.
Once they were halfway down the steps, every pair of eyes in the room turned to look at Fluttershy. The yellow pegasus was startled for a moment, but then smiled bashfully, her cheeks turning pink.
"O-oh, I'm so sorry, everyone," she said. "I didn't mean to worry you all like that. Anyway, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. Everything's going to be okay now!"
No sooner had she said that, Angel suddenly bounded down the stairs underneath the pegasi, and once at the bottom, he begun to hop up and down, emitting a stream of panicked squeaks.
The effect was instantaneous: a cacophony of animal sounds erupted from across the room, and the once still animals suddenly rushed in, crowding all around and forming a fuzzy, impeding wall.
"What the hay!" Rainbow Dash shouted, ducking to avoid several birds who were chirping madly around Fluttershy's head. "What the heck did he say to them?!"
"I-I don't know! Oh, e-everyone please calm down. Ow! Elizabeak, I see you just fine! Hissy, you're squeezing my leg too tight, oh, ooh..." Fluttershy's words descended into indistinguishable mumbling, her eyes darting from one animal to the other.
Rainbow Dash couldn't help but take a few steps back, her wings beginning to unfurl out of anxiety. Subconscious instinct was telling her to fly out of there and take Fluttershy with her, but all the flying creatures had clouded up the airspace. As the noise grew, sweat begun to bead down her forehead, and the animals only came closer and closer...
Her head snapped towards Fluttershy, and she felt her blood go cold when she caught a glimpse of two wide and pitiless eyes. Even when one wasn't looking at them directly, Fluttershy's "Stare" had the power to make one feel like a little foal, whose hoof had just been caught in the cookie jar.
Every animal in the hut went dead silent, their eyes locked on Fluttershy's own. Anything that was flying quickly landed on any available furniture or animal body. Anything that had been clutching to Fluttershy had retreated back into the crowd, unable to look away from her.
"I am sorry," she said, sternly. "I hate to raise my voice like that, but I have to go now because you might have hurt a pony, and I need to make sure he's okay. I also need to explain what happened so he understands that you're not bad animals. So be good, and let me and Rainbow Dash leave."
Nothing happened at first, but then with great reluctance, the animals begun to back away, forming a path not unlike the one they made for Rainbow Dash. Even then, Fluttershy kept her Stare going, making sure she had eye contact with as many animals as she could as she walked towards the door.
"Come on, Rainbow Dash," she said, and the young flier realized she had been crouched into a ball the entire time, too scared to move.
"Y-yes ma'am!" she squeaked, and quickly followed Fluttershy, watching the despaired looks she got from the other animals as she passed. It created an uneasy feeling in her in her gut, and she kept wondering what Angel had said to made them all so terrified.
As she neared the door with Fluttershy, Angel suddenly sprung forward, clutching his caretaker's tail in his paws, and tugged as if to pull her back in. Fluttershy turned the Stare on Angel, and while the rabbit flinched under it, his quaking paws were still wrapped in Fluttershy's tail.
"Angel Bunny," she said, in a soft voice that was edged with steel, "I'm glad you want to look out for me, but I'm a grown mare, and I'm free to make friends with who I want. I'm sorry you don't like Mort. I'd like you to be friends with him, but I can't force you. Just like you can't force me not to be friends with him."
Angel gulped audibly, his body shaking as he struggled to keep a hold on their tail, and to Rainbow Dash it looked as if he was close to tears.
"I'm only going to ask once," Fluttershy told him, and if it were possible, the Stare only intensified even further, to the point Rainbow Dash half-expected heat to leap our of her pupils. "Please. Let. Go."
The rabbit choked back a sob and, unable to resist any further, released the tail, his little body slumping over, looking absolutely pitiful. Fluttershy blinked once, and like that the Stare was gone, replaced with her usual, gentle eyes.
"That's a good bunny," she said, patting him on the head. The rabbit only moaned miserably in response. Fluttershy smiled sympathetically, and turned her eyes towards the rest of the defeated looking animals. "I'll back in a few hours, everyone. When you want to go back out, just ask Angel here."
With those last words, Fluttershy walked out the door, and Rainbow Dash followed, glancing one last time at the animals in the hut. Utter despair seemed to have claimed them, and more than a few seemed to be on the brink of tears. As if they thought this would be the last time they'd ever see them again.
Rainbow Dash had that uneasy feeling again, and for reason her mind went back to the skull that Angel drew. The more she thought about it, the more it bothered her. It felt like she was close to remembering something important, but it couldn't be anything more than a feeling.
Tired of the whole situation, she gave her head a good shake and focused again on the day ahead. They had lost time to make up for. She only hoped that Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie were fairing better than the others. In fact, so long as the two of them were together, they should be able to keep each other in balance without Mort getting too bored or terrified.
She closed the door behind her, stopping next to Fluttershy, who took a deep breath of the fresh air. She looked more and more like her old self again, practically emitting an aura of calm and gentleness.
Her smile broke briefly, and she asked, "You don't think I was too hard on them or anything, do you?"
"Nah, they'll be fine," Rainbow Dash assured her, confidently. "I'm sure they'll feel pretty silly when you come back safe and sound."
Fluttershy considered her words briefly, then nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I think you're right."
"Of course I'm right!" Rainbow Dash spread her wings, and with a single flap she was up in the air, looking down on a small-looking Fluttershy. "Come on! They shouldn't be that hard to find!"
In a few moments (that looked painfully slow to Rainbow Dash), Fluttershy was floating right next to her. Satisfied, Rainbow Dash took off towards Ponyville, making sure she moved just slow enough for Fluttershy to keep up.
It wasn't long before the bulk of Ponyville was beneath them, and Rainbow Dash begun to search for her friends, scanning the barren streets. "Huh."
"Oh, well, nothing. I just thought Mort would stand out like an ink stain or something," Rainbow Dash
answered. "And you'd think he'd be easy to spot without everypony being around."
"That's strange," Fluttershy commented. "It's almost noon, isn't it? Shouldn't everypony be going out for lunch?"
Rainbow Dash nodded in agreement, realizing her friend was right. The roads should be filled with ponies going to and from the various restaurants. But nearly everyplace she knew of was empty of everything, save the tables or bored waiters.
"Weird," she said, "usually it's only this quiet when..."She trailed off as something caught her ears. The sound was rhythmic, kinda catchy, and was coming from...
"Oh no!" The sound, actually music, was coming from Sugarcube Corner, where even now a few ponies were trotting over to its entrance. Confetti and streamers would fly out the door every time it was opened, and the music would briefly get louder before the door closed again.
"Pinkie Pie's throwing a party?" Fluttershy asked, confused. "But, wasn't she supposed to be with Mort?"
"That's just it!" Rainbow Dash said, dragging down on her mane (which was the closest a pony could come to pulling at their hair, considering a lack of fingers). "I think she's throwing the party for Mort!"
"Huh? But...o-oh dear, I thought we were saving that for last?"
"Something must have gone really, really wrong while we were gone," Rainbow Dash despaired, imagining several scenarios involving Twilight Sparkle and some sort of chaotic, magical mishap. And now Mort was in a small, doubtlessly packed building, when just this morning he was nervous about being in comparatively open and less populated streets.
She looked at the pegasus next to her. "Alright, Fluttershy," Rainbow Dash said seriously, barely hiding her own nervousness, "if you were Mort, and you suddenly found yourself surrounded by just about every pony in Ponyville, what would you do?"
Fluttershy's eyes shrunk, and her wings froze rigidly in place. She fell wordlessly, forcing the cyan pegasus to rush after her in a panic.
A moment later, Rainbow Dash was flying towards Sugarcube Corner, her passenger still in shock from the imagined scenario.
"S-sorry about that," the yellow pegasus whispered, draped across Rainbow Dash's back.
"Don't worry about it," she replied, resisting a quip about Fluttershy's weight. She needed to fly more. "Just hang tight and we'll be there in a jiffy!" She spread her wings and begun to glide towards the confectionery shop, careful to avoid any maneuvers that might dislodge the pegasus on her back.
"Y-you don't think anything bad will happen, do you?" Fluttershy asked worriedly.
Rainbow Dash bit her lip. She could think of a dozen ways that things could go wrong, because that seemed to be the norm for today.
"Hey, you never know," she said, more to reassure herself than her friend. "They say third time's the charm, right...?"