Act III, Part 3 - Assignments
For Applejack, the first few days were a blur.
It sounded cliché, but that really was the only way to describe it. The memories, at least the ones she could recall with any sort of clarity, had no starting or ending points, simply fading into one another, occasionally separated by the calm darkness of sleep. Everything was hazy until she tried to focus her eyes, at which point the sudden sharpness of it nearly blinded her. Voices were stretched out and distorted, and she couldn't tell who was speaking to her, other than that the voice was uncannily familiar.
Eventually, she began to feel good enough to make sense of what was going on around her. She was lying in a bed in a barren room. Wherever she was, she wasn't in the mountains anymore. Vaguely she recalled her conversation with this world's Fluttershy. The pegasus had mentioned taking her to Sweet Apple Acres, but this didn't look like the farm to her. The room had no windows, either. She could be anywhere.
Deciding that lying on her back wasn't going to get her any closer to figuring out where she was, Applejack attempted to sit up, and instantly regretted it as her body tensed from a sudden, intense, and nearly universal pain.
Okay, so moving was right out. Suddenly lying on her back didn't seem like such a bad idea. Left alone with her thoughts, Applejack tried to sleep but couldn't. She wasn't calm, and she had far too many questions.
Where were her friends? Was Rarity safe? And Rainbow Dash, of course. But what about the others? Did they find the help they were looking for?
Applejack heard a door open behind her, but she couldn't turn her head to look. She called out to the pony, whoever it was. The pony made her way around the bed, and Applejack's eyes bulged in surprise.
Or almost Rarity, at least. Her hair was short enough to be kept out of her eyes without any assistance, and her horn was covered by a hat suspiciously similar to the one Applejack wore. Self-consciously, Applejack realized she couldn't feel the weight of her own hat, and she gingerly raised a hoof to check on it. It wasn't there.
Continuing at her head and moving down, Applejack couldn't help but notice more changes. Rarity's shoulders were broad, and her chest was firm. She wasn't the delicate figure Applejack remembered, and the change made Applejack pause, although she wasn't certain why. Shaking her head and moving on, she saw Rarity's cutie mark, a perfectly polished apple. Her tail was cropped too, and straightened.
The biggest change, which had somehow eluded Applejack until now, struck her at last. Rarity wasn't clean. Her coat was dusty, but it didn't seem to bother her. Her entire appearance all worked to embody practicality, but despite this, she still somehow managed to be beautiful. It wasn't a word that Applejack liked to use, and she never would have admitted it if her own Rarity ever asked her about it, but the truth was the unicorn was beautiful, even in this state. Especially in this state. The fact that Rarity looked like she had been exerting herself all day made her natural gracefulness appear more real, more justified.
"Are you feeling alright?" Rarity asked, a small but noticeable hint of irritation in her voice. Applejack shook herself again as she realized she'd zoned out.
"Yer kidding, right?" Applejack answered. "Ah feel like I've been hit by a train."
"Fortunately for you, the damage is mostly superficial. Bruises and scrapes. Except for your broken leg, but that was broken before if the cast is a clue. Think you can get up?" Applejack shook her head. "Pity. But I won't push you. You really do look like you've been through Hell." Rarity went to a dresser in the back of the room, where a tray of food had been set out. "You must be hungry, though."
Applejack hadn't thought about it, but she was. She hadn't eaten since they'd crossed over to rescue Twilight. How long had that been, she wondered.
"You've been here for a day and a half," said Rarity, anticipating and answering her question. "I wouldn't be surprised if you're famished." She placed the tray within Applejack's easy reach, and the earth pony saw how scant it was: half a squash and some hay.
"Don't give that look," said Rarity, even though Applejack thought she had kept expression neutral. "I think we're really lucky to have this much. There's a lot of ponies out there that have it worse than us."
Applejack, fearful of offending her caretaker, reached to take a bite of the food, but she paused halfway, confused.
"Ah don't get it," she confessed. "You can barely feed yourselves, and you want to just give this to me? That's awfully..." Generous. Of course. "Ah'm afraid Ah can't do that to ya."
Rarity smirked, as if Applejack had just told a punchline before the joke was even told. Then her expression straightened out. "You're not going to eat?"
"Are you kidding me? 'Course I'm gonna eat. I'm just not gonna take it from ya, is all. If you're so insistent on taking care of me, least ah can do is scratch your back in return."
"Not in your current state, you aren't."
"True. But I'm made of tough stuff. The moment I'm on my feet again, you can expect to see me out there working those fields with you. I'll earn back everything I take, and then some."
Rarity beamed. "And I was planning to ask that of you anyway. I look forward to that. Goodness, right now you sound just like our last surprise drop in."
"Last drop in?" asked Applejack.
"Just a couple days ago, we had the privilege of playing host to one Twilight Sparkle. She looked like she'd been in a terrible fight." She paused as she made a connection. "A pony of admittedly poor reputation, who's made her home in the same mountain range Fluttershy found you in. You wouldn't happen to know anything about her, would you?"
Applejack bit her lip, not sure which answer Rarity was looking for. Not confident in her ability to lie, she fell back on the truth. "Ah was looking for her. She's my friend, and she's in trouble."
"She's safe now, I promise you. But it's interesting that you know her. She made it seem like she was on her own. Who are you?"
The earth pony froze. It hadn't occurred to her that she might have to answer this question. Based on what Moonlight had told her of her alternate self, she really wasn't sure she wanted to go around telling the ponies of this world that she was Applejack. Instead, she frantically tried to come up with an alias.
She wasn't sure what reaction to expect, but Rarity convulsing in laughter and tears was not one of them.
"I doubt it," Rarity said when she calmed down. "Trixie, the Great and Powerful?"
Applejack panicked. "What?" she cried, defending herself. "There can't be more than one Trixie?"
"Two years ago, perhaps, but not today. Nopony wants to share a name with someone as infamous as her."
Applejack's face showed nothing but complete incomprehension. Her jaw hung slack, as if she couldn't remember that it was good manners to pick it up. "Bwuh-huh?" she muttered, not sure what sound she should be making.
Rarity was equally speechless, although she had enough wits to not look stupid. What was it about Twilight Sparkle and the ponies close to her that made them seem so incredibly incompetent, clueless, and danger-prone?
"Is there a problem, miss Trixie?"
Applejack shook her head. "Nah. Forget it."
"Good. Get some more rest. I have work to do, and I don't want to keep Big Macintosh waiting any longer. He might get jealous." Her voice had a self-assured mirth to it, the kind of voice that Applejack often associated with skipping or winning a game of chess. And as Rarity sauntered out of the room, the hint of a grin on her face and that faintest bit of a spring in her step, Applejack could only stutter as she tried to make sense of Rarity's last sentence.
Rarity found Big Macintosh waiting at the entrance to the barn.
"Well?" he asked her as she approached. He didn't need to clarify, so he didn't. The stallion had always been one for brevity, and Rarity had found that succinctness, which was effectively verbal efficiency, quite charming.
"It's not her," she concluded. "I don't see how it can be."
Big Macintosh looked crestfallen. She tried to sympathize, but it was difficult. He saw something in Applejack, something Rarity couldn't. She had promised Macintosh she'd try, and Celestia knew she'd tried, but she had only become more and more convinced that whatever goodness he had seen was an illusion, wishful thinking.
"She isn't coming back, Big Mac," she murmured, wrapping the larger stallion into a hug.
"That mare isn't her. I would recognize her attitude anywhere."
"Then who is she?"
"I don't know. There's something funny going on here, and I intend to figure out what. But I don't think she's a threat. And she needs our help." They embraced tighter. "Besides. Whatever happens, you may not have your sister, but you still got me. I'm yours." She craned her neck upward and kissed Big Mac. "I won't leave you. I'm not going to abandon my fiancé."
She still had a long day ahead of her. She broke away from her future husband and trotted back toward the house, preparing to help Pinkamena weed the fields and fend off Pumpkin's questions about whether Twilight would come to the wedding. The foal had taken quite a shining to their former guest. Maybe she would like their new one too.
First Twilight. And now "Trixie". This wasn't the Great and Powerful Trixie, heavens no. But weren't there rumors that the two were related? And this "Trixie" and Twilight had a connection, Rarity was sure of it. They had both turned up out of the blue, grievously injured. They both seemed very confused about their surroundings. They both lacked common knowledge that anyone who hadn't been living under a rock for the past two years should know.
And they both recognized her, even though she had never seen either of them before.
Rarity laughed and dismissed the idea immediately. It was too silly to contemplate. But still, it was fun to imagine.
What if the mare in the bed was Applejack, but a different Applejack? One that knew a different Rarity?
"Are you sure it was her? This is a hell of a detour to make."
Rainbow Dash slowed down to allow the pegasus guard to catch up to her again. In her anxiousness to track down Applejack, she kept forgetting that he couldn't fly as fast as she could. But each time she let him overtake her, she felt as if she was straining. He was holding her back. She wanted to fly, needed to fly, as quickly as she could. Anything less than that was as bad as sitting on her flank and doing nothing.
The spire of the Ponyville Town Hall was taking shape in the distance. For two days, Orange's guard had been searching for Applejack while Rainbow Dash had been forced to rest. Not that spending the day chatting and playing games with Pinkie Pie wasn't pleasant. If anything, it almost made things seem normal. But it was hardly saving the world. Rainbow Dash had signed up for adventure and delivering a fierce butt-kicking to anypony that stood in her way. Her entire body itched for action, and her concern for Applejack was always in the back of her mind. She wanted to be out there, helping.
When the guards returned and claimed they had spotted her, she had declared that she was going back with them. After all, Applejack would want to see a friendly face, and not some stone-faced stallion stranger. Finally, things felt like they were moving again. But they still weren't moving quickly enough.
Figuring the guard knew where he was going, Rainbow Dash let herself speed ahead, clearing the remaining distance to Sweet Apple Acres.
The farm wasn't at all how she remembered it. The whole place just seemed... dilapidated. Walls were worn and in need of repair, and the corn fields didn't appear to be doing that much better. Half a dozen ponies were working in the fields, pulling the stalks that had grown anything edible, and they looked up at her as she sped past. Her arrival wasn't exactly subtle. She spotted the Cutie Mark Crusaders as they ran down the dirt path toward town, carrying with them three large croquet mallets.
Even across universes, some things didn't change. But what had changed had not changed for the better.
She spotted Applejack sitting in a pumpkin patch, examining one of the large fruits. The pegasus touched down lightly behind her friend.
"You want some help with that?"
Applejack jerked upward and spun around, forgetting about her injured hoof. As she struck the ground with her cast she winced and nearly fell over. "Rainbow!" she cried. "Sure! I mean, hello! Nice to meet ya! I'm Trixie!" she extended a nervous hoof. Rainbow Dash just stared.
"Are you okay? You didn't take a blow to the head recently, did you?"
"I'm fine!" Applejack stammered quickly. "And don't you worry none about a stranger like me. 'Cause ya got no reason to be attached to me and we never met before. My name's Trixie." She continued to hold her hoof out in the hopes that Rainbow Dash would shake it.
"So you said already. Look, Applejack, is there a reason you're pretending not to know me? And pretending to be a jerk? And actually kind of being a jerk?"
Applejack sighed, relieved, and lowered her hoof. "Sorry, Rainbow. But Ah thought that maybe ya might be, you know, the other Rainbow."
"I might not have another me," muttered Rainbow Dash before she realized what she was saying. "I think she might be dead."
Applejack worked her jaw a couple times trying to come up with a suitable response. "Oh." And then she returned to inspecting the crop. Rainbow Dash pawed at the ground awkwardly.
"What are you doing, anyway?" the pegasus asked at last. She saw the guard pony pass by overhead, and she hoped he had enough common sense to leave them alone. Rainbow Dash wasn't quite ready to introduce the whole living-with-your-alternate-self angle just yet.
Applejack looked up and smiled. "Checkin' these pumpkins for rot. Rarity says ah'm not fit for bucking in my condition. Ah can do it fine, but shoot, it ain't worth the trouble arguin', after everything she's done so far. So here I am."
"Rarity works here too? Really?"
"She's getting hitched with Big Mac, no less."
Rainbow Dash tried to imagine Rarity working on a farm. "Does she have to put on a hazmat suit before can enter the barn?" She asked, amused. "Does she wheel everywhere on Apple Bloom's scooter so she won't get her hoofs dirty?" She started laughing at her jokes, not noticing that Applejack wasn't smiling.
"Well ain't that pretty inconsiderate o' you," she said, and Rainbow stopped laughing. "She ain't shallow, Rainbow, not like that. Rarity works hard, especially on this side of things. There ain't a thing wrong with wanting to be presentable, 'specially when you can still put your priorities in order and come through when others need ya to."
"Woah," cried Rainbow Dash, raising her hooves in an exaggerated motion of surprise. "Back up. Since when have you been one to stick up for Rarity? I thought she was always Miss Frou-frou?"
"Hold on there, pardner," panicked Applejack. "I'm talking about this Rarity. They're two different ponies, far as I'm concerned."
"Sure," laughed Rainbow Dash. "I'll be sure to let our Rarity know that you think so highly of her." She leaned forward and winked maliciously. "You aren't jealous of Big Macintosh, are you?"
Applejack stopped breathing, from either horror or embarrassment. Dash couldn't tell, and so she pressed onward. "Pack up, cowgirl, because you're coming back with us."
"I ain't goin'," said Applejack, and she turned away rudely to look at the next pumpkin on the vine, trying to hide the look of embarrassment on her face.
Rainbow worried that she had gone too far. "Look, I'm sorry if I said something. But the rest of us are staying up in Manehattan, with the other you. We're planning to free this world, and we can't do it without you. So please."
"It's not that," interjected Applejack. "I'm not leaving because ah owe it to the ponies here. They're not just my family; they saved a pony they thought was a stranger. They can barely get by on their own, and they helped me. And I'll be damned if I can't repay their kindness and generosity."
"Oh." Now Rainbow Dash felt like a fool for trying to bring Applejack back to a land of high-rises and plush bedrooms. "That's... admirable."
"Besides," continued Applejack, "you want to heal this world, and so do I. And I can't think of a better place to do it than here."
"I've been thinking a lot. There's not much to do when you're bedridden. Ah don't know if the Elements over here will work for us. Maybe they will, because they chose us before, and they'll choose us again, and not our counterparts, 'cause they aren't the same, personality-wise. Or maybe they won't, because we don't belong here. Maybe they'll only work for the other versions of us. Or maybe it's a whole new clean slate, and we just need to find six new ponies from this world that can embody the virtues. But none of that changes the fact that the other Rarity and Pinkie Pie live here. And they know Fluttershy. Even if they can't wield the Elements themselves, they can help us. And they deserve to know what's going on, considering that there's copies of them running around wreaking havoc. I've been talking a bit about it with Rarity. Turns out when you're stuck in bed, the two things you do best are talk and listen, and Rarity was kind enough to keep me company when she could manage it. We're not too far away from the old castle. Rarity said if there's something there that can bring the sun back, she'd be all for it."
Out of everything in Applejack's monologue, Rainbow Dash kept fixating on the same point. "You told the other Rarity about the Elements of Harmony?"
Applejack looked confused. "Why not? You told the other me, I'm gathering."
"Because the other Twilight trusts her. Announcing you want to overthrow a tyrant to every pony you meet isn't exactly a good health strategy, Applejack. For all you know, she could be a sympathizer for Nightmare Moon, or a spy!"
"You don't know that. For all you know, she could be chatting her up right now. 'Hey, Nightmare Moon! You know what's better than ruling one Equestria? Ruling two!'"
"I didn't tell her where ah was from!" countered Applejack. "Ah don't even think she would believe me if I did. Just that Twilight and I are tryin' to make things right in this world, and we can't do it alone. Rarity's willin' to help us, even, and ah think we need it. We can't do it alone, Rainbow Dash. Rarity told me that Nightmare Moon has a small army. We're going to need all the help we can get. So ah'm sorry, Rainbow. I really am. But the reunion with the others will have to wait, because ah've got a lot of work to do."
On the other side of the pumpkin patch, a gray stallion watched as the rainbow maned pegasus returned to the skies to meet with her armed companion.
Something strange was going on, this much was obvious, and he was being kept out of the loop. Did Big Macintosh know that his guest was receiving strange visitors?
"Daddy?" A filly with a head of bright red hair peered over him, lowering her face upside-down in front of his. "What's going on?"
"None of our business," Pumpkin Custard told his daughter. In actuality, he planned to make it his business, but Celestia knew the little rascal got into enough trouble on her own. He was going to have to keep her as far away from something potentially dangerous like this. As far as he was concerned, ponies could do whatever they pleased. But as soon as they came anywhere near the farm, it was personal.
Nopony was ever going to harm his family.
Soarin and Spitfire followed behind the pegasus guard that guided them down the hallways of the palace toward the royal chambers. He stopped in front of a pair of large ornate golden doors, and turned, as if to address the guests. Instead he straightened himself and stood rigid, his eyes looking not at Soarin, but past him.
Spitfire blinked in surprise. She never quite got used to that.
Soarin smirked and stepped in front of the guard and stuck his tongue out. He wiggled it from side, checking for a response from the guard, but already knowing he wasn't going to receive one. He slowly leaned in, bringing his tongue closer to the guard's chin. One solid lick, that was all he wanted.
"Soarin!" Spitfire's eyes had narrowed into slits and her scowl was stretched wide across her face, making clear to Soarin that she was on her last straw. "Enough. Let's just get this over with."
Soarin made a point of performing an over-exaggerated eye roll. He already had one queen of gloom ruling his life, and he wasn't going to accept a second one. Still, he resumed his position and nodded to the guard, who pushed the door open. The pair stepped into the throne room, with the guard following closely behind them.
The room hadn't changed much since the new leadership had taken over. It was heavily adorned with gold and marble, although the eternal night prevented its true beauty from shining through. The biggest difference was that the stained glass windows had been smashed, and a strong breeze was blowing in through the gaps, ruffling Soarin's coat.
A throne was mounted on a platform at the far end of the room, although it was unoccupied. The mare beside the throne, however, hissed angrily from her perch as she saw the three approach.
"What is that thing doing here!" she cried, and the voice seemed to echo. "You know not to bring that thing in here. Make it leave!"
She seemed genuinely, almost physically distressed. In the time Soarin had been coerced into working for her, it was the only thing he had ever seen her get worked up about. He didn't understand exactly why, but he had the observation tucked away for future use in the event he needed leverage of some sort.
He gestured for the guard to leave, who did, turning stiffly and awkwardly before departing, closing the door behind him.
With the guard gone, the mare seemed to calm down a bit. She wasn't in the light, but Soarin had seen her enough that he could fill in the details. A short, portly unicorn, her pale blue coat almost completely black in the shadows, a constant fidgeting scowl on her face. She was never calm, always anxious. A black cloak was draped around her body, and it seemed to flutter, even when there was no wind. Soarin swore it was alive. She was seated on the back of her pet, a purple dragon too large for the platform. Each of its limbs ran off the edge, finding handholds on the back wall or the steep slope. The back of the platform was scarred with the many gouges made by the dragon's sharp and jagged claws.
The mare smiled, not that it looked sincere or convincing in the slightest as she tried to recover from her previous explosion.
"The Great and Powerful Trixie welcomes you," she announced from her perch. "And under the orders of the Nightmare Herself, we have a job for you."
A thick fog descended, obscuring Soarin's vision. Neither he nor Spitfire reacted much. He'd freaked out the first time, so long ago, but after so many errands he'd gotten used to it. A light, long and thin and twisting, like a snake, appeared in the darkness. It coiled and random segments bulged and shrank as it took on the form of a unicorn.
"This is Twilight Sparkle," Trixie's voice echoed. "She's a powerful Magus, which for you bumbling pegasi means her special talent is magic itself. Like us. She's also a known enemy of the Nightmare. She attacked our Glorious Goddess when She first appeared, in an attempt to stop Her return before She was completely free of her bonds. Of course, underestimating the power of our Leader, she failed. Miserably. But she managed to escape. We've been keeping a close eye on her since, but she's been mostly quiet.
"However, we now believe that's she's on the move again, and possibly attempting to mount a resistance against our empire. A foolish aspiration, of course. She will not be successful, in any event. But she is still a poisonous flower that we would prefer to nip in its bud before it begins to spread lies and mischief. We want to eliminate this plague while it's easily containable. We want her dealt with, quietly and effectively. This is where you come in."
The image of Twilight dissolved, and a new image appeared, of an enormous ruins in a forest.
"This is the Castle of the Royal Sisters, the former home of our Bountiful Leader and her wicked sister. We have good reason to believe that Twilight or one of her allies may soon be there. I want you to be waiting for them. Your orders are clear. You will watch these ruins, and you will kill any pony who enters them."
As soon as Soarin' and Spitfire were gone, Trixie's stage presence dissipated. She had only recently realized that acting was such a necessary skill for politicians. But now that she was free from prying eyes, she could be as morose as she wanted.
"We never signed up for this," she muttered under her breath, thinking of the things she would have done differently if she had known, two years ago, where her path was going to lead her.
The dragon raised its head. "Seriously?" it asked. "You're getting all droopy but you're still going to use the royal 'we'?"
Trixie briefly debated whether or not to scowl at her friend but decided she didn't have the energy. "We've been over this, Spike. It helps things stay... solid." She climbed off of the dragon and collapsed in the throne. So what if it wasn't hers? What could the Nightmare do to her?
As soon as she left Spike's back, she felt herself pulled into a hug. She twisted her head and noticed that Spike had shrunk back down to his preferred size, just a bit shorter than her. He looked into her eyes and tried his best to smile.
"How are you feeling today?" he asked, already afraid of the answer.
"Rotten. Horrendous. We can't think a straight thought. And it's because of her. Stupid Twilight."
Spike let go. "You know that's not true, Trixie. This isn't her fault."
Trixie growled. "Yes, it is. She makes things difficult."
"That doesn't mean the best solution is to distance yourself from it. You need to face the things that are hurting you."
"We don't want to face her. We want her gone. Thinking about her makes things hard. We want things to be solid again. Easy again. And we can't have that while she's around. End of discussion. And that's an order."
Spike sighed. This was like her parents all over again. "Fine. But can I ask? How did you know that she's looking for the Elements of Harmony?"
"Information straight from the horse's mouth," replied Trixie with a smirk. "All thanks to our trustworthy source. They don't suspect a thing."
"They will when they discover the ambush you've set. Especially if, like you said, she's only sending some of her followers to the ruins."
"That won't be a problem," assured Trixie. "We already have plans in place for the rest of them. Mark my words, Spike. Twilight and all the members of her little band will be dead before the end of the week. And then everything will be perfect again."