A World Without Rainbows - Part 3 - Stowaway
"You were right, Applejack," said Rarity.
She was standing over the magnifying sheet she used to inspect jewels. Two pieces of paper lay next to each other on a table. Applejack peered anxiously over her shoulder, curious to see what the other pony had seen, but also desperate to avert her eyes from anything else in the room. There was something about the Carousel Boutique that always put Applejack on edge. As far as the earth pony was concerned, the frilly outfits that decorated the back room were no different than shackles, and just looking at them made Applejack feel trapped.
"I don't see it," admitted Applejack. "Both of them look the same."
The first slip was the note Twilight had left. The second was a star chart Twilight had left with Rarity for reference during the fashion show incident. Notes were scrawled in the margins, labeling the constellations.
"The strokes in the note are more angular," explained Rarity. "You can clearly see where each line begins and ends. And they're a lot darker, like she was pressing into the paper a lot harder."
"So?" As far as Applejack was concerned, hoofwriting was hoofwriting.
"They're similar, I'll give them that. The letters are mostly drawn the same way. But Twilight has a distinctive style; it's constant everywhere on the chart. Light, elegant curves. Beautiful really, and certainly not the brutish markings on the note. She didn't write it. Somepony else did. Somepony trying to imitate her, perhaps, but not succeeding. In other words, a forgery."
Applejack smirked, looking vindictive but slightly surprised at their success. "You sure about this?" she asked.
"Not really," Rarity admitted. "We're making quite magnificent assumptions. Have you considered just asking her what's wrong?"
Applejack hadn't. "Like that would work," she said quickly, trying to defend herself. "If it was something she wanted us to know, don't you think she would tell us on her own?"
At this, something inside Rarity seemed to snap. "And if she doesn't want anypony to know, then why are you prying into her personal space like this? You know, for a pony obsessed with honesty, you can be quite untrusting."
Applejack felt like she had attacked. "Are you calling me a bad friend?" she hissed. "At least I care about Twilight enough to notice when something's wrong. And what do you do? Oh, right, you force her into dresses she really doesn't want to wear. You insult my character."
"And you insult my dresses," screeched Rarity in response. "I would never make Twilight do anything she's not comfortable with, unlike you. Why do you always have to be in everypony's business, Applejack? Who crowned you leader of Equestria?"
Out of breath, Rarity stopped talking and began panting. Applejack opened her mouth to speak, but she never got the chance.
"You know what?" shouted Rarity, levitating Twilight's note and tossing it in Applejack's face. "I regret ever helping you with this scheme of yours, and I want no more to do with it. Find your own reasons not to trust Twilight, but I certainly don't need any." She turned her tail to Applejack. "Get out," she said. "I don't want you in my shop anymore."
From another room, the two ponies heard a sound like glass shattering. "Oops," came the voice of Apple Bloom.
"Think big sis can fix that?" asked Sweetie Belle.
"So much for Cutie Mark Crusader Acrobats," muttered Scootaloo grimly.
Rarity scowled, trying to keep her breathing normal. "And take the girls with you, alright? If it's not too much trouble. Please?" Then she remembered that when she was angry, she was supposed to say angry things. "I mean, take them with you, Applejack. Out. Now."
Applejack turned and started toward the door. "Fine," she said. "I don't need your help. I'll solve this without you, and when I do, you can be the one to tell Twilight you didn't care about her enough to even look up from your silly dress-making to help her." Applejack raised her head, trying and failing to look dignified, and left the room.
Rarity hurriedly folded up the map, set it in the corner, and retrieved the dress she had been working on the day before. "Who needs a mess like her," Rarity wondered aloud as she worked. "That nose of hers is going to get her into trouble, one way or the other. And she better not come crying to me afterward, because I won't hear it." As she prepared to begin stitching the dress, she stopped and thought. "Well, maybe I will hear it, just so I can rub it in. She does try to have a good heart, after all."
Applejack searched the rooms of the Carousel Boutique until she found the Cutie Mark Crusaders, trying to glue together a shattered ceramic unicorn.
"Guess we're not Cutie Mark Crusader Repairponies, either," said Sweetie Belle, pouting.
Applejack remembered the unicorn. It was a hideous distorted figure that Rarity rather optimistically referred to as "Art."
"That's what you broke?" Applejack asked, amused.
Apple Bloom looked up at her big sister with fear in her large eyes. "Ya aren't mad, are ya?" she asked quietly.
Unable to control herself, Applejack began laughing. "Of course not," she said. "That's the best thing I've seen all day. Come on girls, you get to hang with auntie Applejack for a while."
The crusaders looked at each other nervously, and then, one at a time, a grin broke out on each of their faces. "All right!" shouted Scootaloo as she pumped one of her hooves into the air.
Applejack left the Boutique, and the crusaders followed, all four of them giggling. "Yeah," sighed Applejack as they walked. "I'm not mad. But Rarity'll kill you." Sweetie Belle shivered. "Although, nice job helping Rarity and me find the star chart."
"It's fine," said Apple Bloom. "We thought we could be Cutie Mark Crusader Treasure Seekers."
"I've got a question", said Scootaloo. "If you wanted something Twilight wrote down, why didn't you just search the library? You could swipe one of her journals or something."
Applejack stopped walking and looked at Scootaloo critically. "Okay Scoots. First thing, I think you need to spend less time with Rainbow Dash. Second thing, I'm not going to steal stuff from Twilight. It wouldn't be right or honest. 'Sides, Twilight locks the back rooms of the library when she's out. You don't know anypony who can pick locks, can you?"
Apple Bloom looked at the ground, shamed.
Scootaloo's eyes darted back and forth until they found Sweetie Belle, who was shaking her head.
Applejack stared at the trio incredulously. "You fillies are kidding me, right?" she asked.
"Well," began Apple Bloom nervously, "Do you really think we'd try something like Cutie Mark Crusader Treasure Seekers if we hadn't already tried all the fun ones."
"We wanted to try being Cutie Mark Crusader Phantom Thieves," said Scootaloo.
Applejack sighed. "I guess I shouldn't expect less from the three of you," admitted Applejack. "'Cept maybe Sweetie Belle; she should know better. But I promise to forget you ever said that, so long as you don't remind me."
Ahead, Applejack spotted Rainbow Dash clearing the clouds from the sky. Rainbow Dash, noticing the four ponies, took a break from her duties and flew down in front of Applejack. "Hey, slowpoke," she taunted, "enjoying the view from down there?"
"Rainbow Dash," shouted Applejack, excited to see her for once. "Tell these ponies that we are not breaking into Twilight's place."
"I can't believe we're breaking into Twilight's place," muttered Applejack.
"Neither can I," said Rainbow Dash, rubbing her front hooves together. "Man, this is going to be awesome!"
They were hiding in the overgrowth behind the Ponyville library, waiting for the Cutie Mark Crusaders to unlock the back door.
"This is ridiculous," said Applejack. "I came because I promised I'd look after the girls, and Scoots was dead-set on going with you. But you don't even believe there's anything wrong with Twilight!"
"That's what this is about?" said Rainbow Dash. "I thought we were pranking her. I mean, Pinkie Pie was getting a little too miss Uppity Pony with that exploding cake of hers, and now she's going around like she's queen of pranks. Somepony needs to put her in her place with something totally awesome."
Applejack was skeptical. "And what 'totally awesome something' were you planning here, exactly?"
Rainbow Dash's jaw hung open, as if she couldn't believe she was being questioned. Then she gave up the charade and closed it. "I don't know," she admitted. "But it's going to be something awesome. More awesome than anything you lame ponies would ever think of doing," she said, getting defensive.
"And done!" squealed Apple Bloom, descending from a tree branch overhead. "The doors are open!"
"I still just don't feel right about this," said Applejack.
"Relax," laughed Rainbow Dash. "She's probably asleep by now. So just don't make too much noise."
Zecora peered at the face, critical.
The face stared back at her silently, it's large empty black eyes chilling her. That was the problem, Zecora decided, and she grabbed the white brush from the pallet, adding a small circle in the middle of each eye.
She stepped back to admire her artwork. She had decided to recreate some of the art she remembered owning as a foal, and although she had spent the entire morning hiding away in the back of her home, she'd gotten a lot of work done. Maybe now it won't look so dead, she thought. But it was still a work in progress. The bottom half of the mask hadn't been painted at all yet. But she would get it done, eventually. She had spent the last couple of days stockpiling herbs, and so she had a lot of free time. Stepping back into the main room to check on her cooking, Zecora wished someone had warned her that being self sufficient could be so boring.
As she dipped a ladle into the soup, testing its consistency, she heard the door swing open. She released the ladle, regretting the action moments later when it sank beneath the surface of the soup, and turned to face the newcomer.
"Twilight Sparkle, my special guest," she said, excited for the company to break the monotony. "Do you need something? I'll do my best." The expression on the unicorns face seemed distant but deadly serious. Zecora quickly grabbed a rug from the corner and laid it out by the fire. "Here, sit," she said.
"Zecora?" said Twilight softly. The zebra looked at her friend, worried. Twilight swallowed and continued. "It's me, Zecora."
Zecora swore, and Twilight admired her ability to maintain the couplet. "After all this, you still came," she said bitterly.
"I know you must think I'm a coward," Twilight told Zecora. "But let's face it. I failed. I have nothing over there, and she had everything. Friends, the sun, how could you blame me?"
"In that case," accused Zecora, "who should I blame? Impersonating Twilight Sparkle is not a victimless crime. She has done nothing and is a close friend of mine."
"It's not all bad," said Twilight, attempting to quickly cover herself. "If I can only discover how the ponies here defeated Nightmare Moon, then I can go back. We can call this a success. We can save the world."
Zecora laughed and stepped toward Twilight, staring her down. "Is that really why you came, to save the day? Or are you just running and hiding away? Do you ever plan to go back home? Or are you too afraid of being alone?"
Twilight's breathing became unsteady, but she attempted to maintain a steady voice as she spoke. "And what do you know about being alone?" she said. After the words left her mouth, she knew she had said something wrong. Zecora eyed her in the same manner that she might eye an ant. Twilight suddenly felt small and insignificant.
"I know it hurts you, inside," said Zecora. "I couldn't count the tears you've cried. Young Twilight had things you never knew, so you did some things you never thought you'd do. But as you took her place and stole her fate, you left her lost; you left her filled with hate. And so, my friend, one answer, if you dare: If you are here, then Twilight Sparkle is, where?"
Twilight didn't answer. Instead, as the tears welled up in her eyes, she fled. She ran out the door and through the underbrush of the Everfree Forest until she saw the lights of Ponyville up ahead. She blindly galloped along the streets until she was finally safe in the library she called home.
And then, filled with emotions she didn't know how to place, Twilight Sparkle cried. She cried, not knowing why. The fight with Zecora had left her feeling shamed and guilty. Why shouldn't you tell everypony the truth, she asked herself.
Because you're not her, a voice answered. You're not the Twilight they know. And as soon as they figure that out, they'll leave you. They don't care about you at all; they care about Twilight. They'll make you tell them what you did with her, and then they'll leave you all alone. Again.
Through her blurry vision, Twilight looked up to see Applejack rifling through a bureau drawer.