All of a Fluttershy
When Applejack discovers that a thief has been stealing her prized apples, she looks for help in capturing the culprit. Fluttershy is eager to step in, but she's been acting very oddly of late...
It was a gloriously sunny day on Sweet Apple Acres, which just goes to show what a pegasus can do when somepony gets her out of bed on time and makes sure she does her weather duties for a change. The sun shone sweetly on the swollen red apples, casting on them a sheen that would make even the finest rubies at the Carousel Boutique green with envy.
Balanced on top of a shaky ladder, hind hooves locked around the topmost rungs, and front hooves held poised with the care and attention only a practised pony could pull off, Big Macintosh wiped the last apple on the tree and gave the polished surface a quick inspection.
"Eeyup," he said to his reflection, flashing his eyebrows.
The ladder clattered to the ground. Big Macintosh landed heavily on top of it. The cloth slapped over his eyes, followed by the pail and its contents.
A gallop of hooves announced the arrival of a second pony, smaller than Big Macintosh but apparently in far more distress. He lifted up the pail and shook his mane, sending the cloth flying, as the second pony skidded to a halt next to him.
"Yer – yer gotta come see this! It's horrible! Ah was apple-buckin' and a-collectin' in the south field, like Ah said Ah would. An' Ah was just headin' down the middle aisle to do a bit o' buckin' on the prize Golden Delicious tree, yer know, our pride an' joy? The one Apple Bloom worked so hard ter grow? Her fav'rite tree?" She began rearing up in distress. "The firs' one she ever watered, when she was jus' a li'l newborn filly?"
Big Macintosh looked at her impassively.
"Eeyup," he said.
"Well, somethin' horrible's happened to it. It's against nature, Ah tell yer. Nopony should ever have to endure that…"
"Maybe it'll help some if Ah came an' actually saw what's wrong," Big Macintosh said, coming up onto his hooves. Applejack nodded, and led him through the orchard.
Finally, they arrived at the Golden Delicious tree Applejack had mentioned. There were no apples in its branches.
"Ah ain't bucked it yet," Applejack said. "An' you know what that means?"
Big Macintosh made a noise that's hard to describe if you're not a pony, but it largely indicated sudden outrage.
"Somepony's been a-thievin'," he said, "in our orchard."
"An' it gets worse. It ain't no pony what took them apples." When he gave her a sceptical eyebrow, she walked forwards and, as gently as she could, tapped the bark with the tip of her hoof. There was a heavy thump, and the entire tree collapsed into a pile of dead dust. They coughed and spluttered until the last motes had settled, and then gazed in horror at the ruins.
"Don't tell Apple Bloom," said Applejack.
Things were heating up on the cloud city of Cloudsdale. A lone pair of wings zoomed out of the city and through the skies, leaving a white-hot contrail behind each wingtip. A while later, three smaller shapes shot after it. The middle one left a rainbow streak in its wake.
The owner of the first pair of wings, which were larger and more bat-like, peered over its shoulder. It licked its lips and bared its pointed teeth. The three pegasi behind it strained to go faster. Their quarry returned its horned head to position and strained to outdo them – they were rapidly catching up to it.
"ALRIGHT," shouted the middle one, while her rainbow-streaming mane flapped around her flattened ears, "PINCER!"
The other two dived down, leaving her to shoot upwards. The wyvern watched them out of the corner of its eye, while it adjusted slightly so that it veered a smidgen to the left.
Two streaks, one of beige, one of grey, shot upwards at the precise moment it folded in its wings. Both shot past either side of it, and as the third pony shot downwards, it gave a flap and dodged backwards out of reach. Rainbow Dash just missed the forked tail. She didn't miss the chuckle.
It zoomed ahead. All three pegasi resumed their positions.
They began circling around a central point, spacing themselves out into a corkscrew formation and accelerating as they did so.
A while later, the wyvern decided to peek. A spiralling multicoloured whirlwind was closing in like a gigantic drill behind its tail. The wyvern humphed, then gagged and coughed and, with perfect precision, regurgitated an anvil at them before it did a 90 and shot straight down.
The whirlwind shifted aside and they just missed the heavy metal, but continued forwards on their twister's own momentum. It was a while before they spotted the wyvern, diving down towards the Everfree Forest.
Curving gracefully out of its dive, the wyvern zoomed through a long clearing between the trees. It laughed as it went between two rows of trees, even taking time to admire the scenery.
Streaks of grey, beige and rainbow zipped from the trees right and left. Squawks met those that nearly took the now rapidly-dodging beast out of the air. It gave a brief burst of speed.
"Ooh, he's good," Rainbow Dash said, aligning herself behind it as before. She vanished in a burst of colour. The other two went for a straight pursuit.
On the edge of the forest, surrounded by animal pens and homely trees and custom-made little houses, a little thatched cottage stood quiet and alone. The door opened gently and a small yellow pony peeked out to greet the warm sun. She glanced around with an expectant smile, half of her face obscured by a long pink mane that seemed to curve apologetically in case it got too close to the ground.
"Oh, Angel Bunny," she sighed, as a small white rabbit hopped out of the cottage, carrying one of her books and a pair of sunglasses. "It looks like it's just the two of us again today. No one's come to visit me for so long."
Fluttershy disappeared back inside and came out with a small watering can held up in her mouth, but as she was trotting over to the flowerbeds, she heard a growing sound coming from the forest, and stopped.
A wyvern soared overhead, its turbulence snatching at her hair as it passed. A few seconds later, two streaks of colour zoomed after it. She stared after them in alarm, taking in the scene.
The last trees finally gave way to open field, and out from between the trunks zoomed first the wyvern and then the other two ponies. Up ahead loomed the town of Ponyville. The wyvern made a beeline for it, but as it did so, it ever so carefully lowered its tail tip towards the ground feet below.
One of the ponies streaming behind did a double-take and shot upwards. The other continued cheerfully on until a spray of churned mud started splattering her in the face. She managed several feet of this punishment before a regurgitated mud pie from the wyvern sent her crashing into an explosion of bog water.
She was left sitting forlornly and somewhat boggle-eyed amid the wreck of the swamp. She licked the brown stuff off her nose, smacked her lips thoughtfully, and beamed.
Snickering, the wyvern cruised smugly on, swiping over the bridge and its little brook before a splashing sound made it look down, and a ball of furious wings cannoned into its chest. Both pegasus and wyvern tumbled in mid-air before the rainbow streak shot out of the ball and the wyvern smashed and skidded along the main road, headfirst into the Ponyville square fountain.
"But not good enough," Rainbow Dash finished, landing with aplomb alongside it.
The triumphant conclusion was ruined by its tail splashing water into her face. The wyvern lost no time in scrambling to both feet and fleeing. Rainbow Dash spat.
"Oh, so that's the way you want to play, huh? Well two can play that game, but only one of us can win and it won't be you!" When the beige pegasus zoomed past her, she galloped after it.
Over walls, through pony windows (causing one or two screams) and out the other side, over rooftops and down chimneys, bursting out of front doors just as their owners were about to come in, the wyvern hurried with its curious half-hop, half-gallop, wings tucked in as it zigzagged between crowds of alarmed and astonished ponies, pursued closely by the two ponies until with a squeal it leapt over a high brick wall and crouched down the other side to duck a barrage of bricks. It looked back. There was a pony-shaped hole in the wall, occupied by one very stunned beige pony. The wyvern snorted at it with contempt, and ran on.
It had just turned the corner of the alleyway when four hooves slammed into the ground right in front of it and it stopped dead.
"Finally," Rainbow Dash said. "I've got you. I tried being reasonable with you, but you force me to take extreme measures." She reached sideways and pulled in something pink. "Sick 'em, boy!"
The wyvern blinked.
"Hi, I'm Pinkie Pie," said the pink pony. "I'm an attack dog! See? Grrrr! RRRah! RRRRAAHH RRRRAHH!"
The pink pony stared at the wyvern for a very long time. It rolled its green eyes.
Then it regurgitated a balloon at her.
"COOOOL!" she shrieked. "I love balloons! WHEEE!" She leapt up and grabbed the rising balloon by the string.
They watched her rise above the rooftops with astonishment. Then, the wyvern smirked at Rainbow Dash and blew a raspberry before fleeing.
"Shoot! Oh no you don't!" Hooves pounded after it. There was a pop overhead, then a while later a "wheee" and a thump somewhere behind her.
Rainbow Dash was closing in. Nothing could stop her, nothing could –
"I-i-i-inco-o-o-o-ommmmmi-i-i-i-i-i-ing!" shouted Pinkie Pie, her tail twitching. Dash looked up.
It is pretty difficult to make being set upon by a falling bucket-load of regurgitated custard look awesome, but Dash tried, for many days after the retelling, to do so, initially by not mentioning it and later by rewriting the ending so that the contents were at least a little less embarrassing.
The wyvern wiped its mouth, looking back, and chuckled, then looked forwards and put on an extra spurt of speed. The end of the alleyway was approaching.
A pegasus pony appeared, standing in its way. Two eyes pinned the wyvern with a highly concentrated Stare.
By the time Rainbow Dash had pulled her head out of the bucket, gasping and wincing, there was a thump of a body falling onto the floor. Occasionally, a wing twitched.
Fluttershy trotted over to it and reared onto her hind legs, hooves on hips, one eye raised, and tapping her rear hoof impatiently. The wyvern gave her the worried grin of a monster trying to pretend that this had all been a ghastly mistake, and of course nothing suspicious was afoot, or ahoof, whatsoever.
There was some retching. A birthday cake landed on the street before her, slightly covered in drool. It said: "Happ Birthda Ditz Doo."
Yet the questioning eyebrow refused to move. A little more retching produced a small pony, his conjuror's hat now crumpled and a goofy grin playing on his buck-toothed face, and a pack of cards next to him.
The pegasus showed more white in the now far-too-painfully wide questioning eye. Sweat was starting to condense on the beast's scaly flanks.
Eventually it regurgitated a buffet table, heavily laden with baked goods, a pile of streamers, several party hats, a donkey's tail with a pin in it, several gift-wrapped presents, a trampoline, a dartboard, several banners, and a pogo stick.
Fluttershy shook her head disappointedly. At least the wyvern had the grace to look dejected, but to its surprise the pegasus held out something papery in its hoof. The wyvern took it and opened it. It was a birthday card.
Its dejected look blossomed and little hearts popped over its head. It gave Fluttershy one of the scaliest hugs she must ever have received and licked her cheek, to which she simply giggled and smiled approvingly.
It cheerfully picked up all the items in its wings, staggered under their weight, and began the long trek back to Cloudsdale, like it had been meaning to do from the start, honestly it had. Pinkie Pie hopped after it, goggling at the party goods.
Fluttershy's beaming smile at the philanthropy of all monsters everywhere turned to a look of concern when she saw Dash groaning and clutching her head in her hooves.
She was no longer groaning and clutching her head when they found her a bed in the Ponyville town hospital an hour later, but it was hard to say that her arm-crossed sulkiness was much better as a replacement. Fluttershy and the white pony nurse let the screen fall back.
"She's going to be alright, isn't she?" said Fluttershy.
"Not for several days yet. That was a nasty knock on the head she took, going at such speeds. I'm afraid it's rest and relaxation for her until she gets better."
They slipped through the screen around her bed.
"I'll die in here!" Rainbow Dash moaned, cradling her bandaged heads in her hooves. "Death by boredom, and a total lack of non-boring things to do."
"Oh, that's not true," said Fluttershy kindly. "There's Old Chess King in the next bed along from you. He's interesting to talk to."
There was a beeping noise from the next bed along, followed by a flatline. The nurse gasped, and threw back the screen. They all looked across at the grey pony.
"I said no animals in here!" said the nurse.
The bedside bat closed its mouth, stopping the flatline noise. It looked sheepish, and flew away down the corridor. As it passed them by, Rainbow Dash waved sadly after it. The nurse folded her arms.
"What?" said Dash. "Without him, the awesome content in this room goes from ten point six to one point five three. On a five point scale."
"You can't make that move," Old Chess King said into the pillow. "Pawnies only go one square at a time. One square at a time." He snored.
"I've got to get out of this madhouse," Rainbow Dash said. "These wings were meant for flying!"
"Is there anything I can do?" Fluttershy put her hooves together on the side of Dash's bed. "Perhaps I could help cover your job for you while you're gone?"
"Pff. You? No offence intended, but I need someone who can float like a butterfly, sting like a bee to do my job. You just float."
"Aw, please, Rainbow Dash? It's been such a long time since I've helped another pony, and I really like helping."
"Just face it, Fluttershy. You can't do half the stuff that makes things interesting. Like Pinkie Pie does. Why do you think we get asked to do the most work? Besides, you're not a patch on the Dash catch. You can't even look at a cloud without fainting."
"Oh, please, Dash. Can't I do anything for you?"
Dash pondered for a moment.
"Yeah, could you fluff up my pillow? The nurses don't have the gentle hooves for the job."
The nurse scowled at her, but Fluttershy's face fell. Morosely, she fluffed up Dash's pillow.
"Ah, yeah, that's the ticket," said Rainbow Dash. She sank deeper into the bed.
Beside her, Fluttershy looked like a kicked dog. Rainbow Dash noticed, and growled an annoyed growl.
"Oh, fine, then. If anyone calls after me, just take a message."
"And you want me to help them if they ask for help?"
"No, just take a message. Write it down somewhere. And maybe send it to me, so I know what I'm doing when I come out. Oh, and perhaps tell them I'm not available. They'll understand."
Fluttershy's ears drooped.
Big Macintosh stared with drooping ears over the remains of the young tree, then turned his back on his sister to overlook the rest of Sweet Apple Acres.
"Apple thieves will chase a thing till they think they've chased it enough. Then they quit. Same way when they run. But it seems like they never learn there's such a thing as a pony that'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, Ah promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as a turnin' of the earth."
"Whoa, Big Macintosh! Settle down there, buckaroo!" Applejack poked him in the ribs, and he looked around. "This is clearly one crafty critter if he can git past us. An' y'all know what Ah say?"
"Eeyup. Set a thief ter catch a thief."
"Whut, are you crazy? We don't want two thieves runnin' aroun' here! Naw, I mean, maybe we could ask someone fer help in catchin' this here varmint. We could call in one o' them pet control ponies. An animal-catcher."
"If you can find one. Ah never heard of no pony around here whose job is to catch animals."
"Aw, Big Macintosh, you have ter think laterally. Don't you worry. Ah know the perfect pony fer the job. She's fearless, she's as stubborn as a mule with a cartload of empires, an' she lives right close ter the farm. Ah guarantee you'll be im-per-ressed."
"I just have to be more interesting. Dash said she gets all the favours all the time. So I just have to be more interesting, like her. And like Pinkie Pie."
Fluttershy trotted up to the front door of the Sweet Apple Acres household. She pawed the ground nervously. She reached for the doorbell, paused, muttered some hasty self-encouragement to herself, then walked forwards and pressed the doorbell with her hoof. There was a loud noise.
When Big Macintosh answered the door, he found her cowering under the welcome mat. He looked down on her in complete confusion, and then looked over his shoulder back into the house.
"AJ, I think she's arrived." Applejack peeked over his shoulder.
"Aw hayseed, Ah din't mean Fluttershy. Ah was talkin' about Rainbow Dash."
Fluttershy looked up in surprise.
"Oh, didn't she tell you? I should have told you. I am so, so sorry, Applejack. Rainbow Dash is in Ponyville hospital. So she asked me to take any messages for her while she's gone."
"Well, then, where's Granny Smith? We sent her out to find 'er."
"Hold yer horses, Ah've jus' got back!" shouted a wizened old pony from behind Fluttershy. She'd just come through the front gate and, with her creaking joints, was now ambling like a broken musical box up to the front door and past all three of them. "And Ah tell yer, Ah'm pooped. If anypony needs me, I'll be upstairs, hittin' the hay!"
They watched her go. The wings on Fluttershy's back fluttered nervously.
"Why don't yer come inside, Miss, um," Big Macintosh began, but then faltered.
"Well, come on in, Miss Fluttershy. Make yerself at home."
But as she walked through the door, Applejack extended a hoof. She pointed to Fluttershy's hair. The welcome mat was still on top. Fluttershy blushed.
Behind her, Angel Bunny was just walking up to the first step when he found himself smothered by a thrown welcome mat, and the door was shut in his face.
"Oh, hello, Mister Rooster. How are you today?"
"COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO!" was the reply.
"Really? That good? Well, a COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO to you, too, good friend."
The other two ponies watched Fluttershy in fascination.
"You thinkin' whut Ah'm thinkin'?" Applejack said to her brother, who was seated next to her on a stool.
"Eeyup. She does a mighty fine rooster impression. Ah honestly couldn't tell 'em apart."
"No, Big Macintosh. Ah'm thinking her ways with animals could still be useful."
"Well, why don't we ask her if she can help?"
At this, Fluttershy turned around and her forelegs got down from the sink. The rooster, taking this as his cue to end their conversation, bowed to her and fluttered off the windowsill and out the window.
"Did you say you needed my help? I don't want to be presumptuous, but I must have misheard. I thought you wanted Rainbow Dash. I did get the message right, didn't I? I'd hate to think I was mistaken."
"We do need some help," said Applejack. "There's a thief a-comin' into our orchard and stealing our apples."
"An' killin' off the poor apple trees into the bargain."
"But why do you need my help?" Fluttershy sat down at the table next to Applejack. It was a wonderfully cosy kitchen, she thought, probably because of the timber design. The stool was nice and cosy, too.
"We need you 'cos the thief is an animal," said Applejack. "And you're good with animals. It sure as heck ain't no ponies. It got past all the traps we set around the orchard."
"Yeah. Bear traps, cat traps, rat traps, bat traps, pressure pads, revolving blades, arrows in the wall, swinging nets, pitfalls, spitfalls, falling cages, bottomless pits, spikes, and a carrot under a box wedged open by a stick. Oh, and Granny Smith's used horseshoes nailed to the barn door." Both she and Big Macintosh shivered at this last item.
"Isn't that a little… harsh?" Fluttershy said.
"To an Apple pony, losin' apples to thieves is as serious a crime as you can imagine," said Big Macintosh.
"It means that much to you?"
"Eeyup," said Big Macintosh.
"And you want…" Fluttershy began to turn pink. Delight seemed to leap out of her eyes. "You want m-my help?"
"Hold up there, Big Macintosh. Since we're gonna hire her at all, we might as well do the hirin' properly. With this newfangled paperwork thing they keep usin' these days. Twilight tol' me about it," she added to Fluttershy, with a wink.
The larger pony sighed. He got up, walked over to a drawer and pulled it out gently with his teeth.
Applejack watched cheerfully as a clipboard and a pencil were both dumped with as little ceremony onto the table as her brother felt they deserved. Nobody spoke until Applejack had laid out the clipboard neatly in front of her and placed the pencil on top of it.
Then she placed her hoof over the lot and pushed it in front of Big Macintosh.
"Big Macintosh, scribe."
"Ah don't really think –"
"Yer not paid ter think, brother, yer paid ter scribe, so start scribin'."
Big Macintosh gave Fluttershy a resigned look and picked up the pencil with his teeth. While he scratched out some words, Applejack announced herself to be job interview pony and announced Fluttershy to be job applicant, though it sounded like "job apple cant."
Oh no, Fluttershy thought, they might not want me to help after all. Maybe Dash was right. Maybe I'm just not interesting enough, or a catch on the Rainbow patch.
"Well, now, Miss Fluttershy," Applejack said, and Fluttershy hid her blush behind a curtain of hair from her mane, "what'r yer qualifations, er, qualica, quafa – uh, what're yer good at?"
"Oh, that's easy. Singing, caring for animals, talking to animals, and singing."
"Yer said singin' twice."
"I really like singing." Fluttershy beamed like a proud puppy.
"Well, it seems clear to me y'are the pony fer the job. If y'all can find out what's been picking at mah apple trees before sundown today, Ah'll be mighty grateful."
Fluttershy took off from the stool and began hovering over their heads in joy.
"Oh thank you, thank you so much! I'll get right on it," said Fluttershy, saluting. They think I'm interesting. Like Pinkie Pie, she thought. Now what would Pinkie Pie do if she were here? Idea!
She zipped out of the room, reappearing moments later on the ground. To Applejack's amazement, she was now wearing a trench coat, a fedora, and was pressing a magnifying glass up against her eye.
"Inspector Fluttershy! Here to, uh, help?"
She tried a weak grin, slightly embarrassed. Applejack spluttered in confusion.
"Inspector? Fluttershy, mah apples are in tip-top shape. Ah jus' need someone who can gather clues and look at 'em and find out who's been stealin' 'em, is all."
"Don't worry. I'll have all the answers before sundown, Applejack. It won't be easy. But that's why I'm going to fail where others succeeded! I mean, where others failed… I mean… You'll see. I won't let you down."
With that, she cantered past Applejack, then paused, looked down at her hooves, and tried a hop or two. She saw their expressions, and decided against it for the rest of the way.
Angel Bunny hopped after her, holding a pencil and notebook.
"What in the world?" Applejack said, once they were both gone. She looked at Big Macintosh, and at the clipboard. "You can stop scribin' now."
He put the pencil down.
"Can't yer at least let me finish mah picture?"
Outside, the pony and the bunny were now under the apple trees, examining the remains of what a few hours ago had been a proud bearer of fruit.
"We can't let Applejack down," she was saying to herself. "We have to take it seriously. Oh, but I need to be more interesting, too."
Angel Bunny gave her a puzzled look. She coughed theatrically.
"You know my methods, Angel Bunny," Fluttershy said, striking a pose which she probably would have described as "inspectorly." "Now use them."
Angel Bunny rolled his eyes. Then he let his ears flop over his eye, and pretended to clop over a patch of leaves like a pony. At the sight of a falling leaf, he leapt up in pantomime fright and fell onto his back, legs stiff in the air. Then he shot up, and pretended to be cradling some leaves in his hands, trying to hold back great tears and stifling a sob. Then he leapt up onto Fluttershy's snout, walked right up to her eyes, gave her an angry look, and then pretended to be mouthing off at her. He hopped down.
He folded his arms and summarised his case with a contemptuous look. Fluttershy sighed.
"Not those methods," she mumbled.
He raised a hand, waving it to prompt her. She looked at him apologetically.
"Sorry, Angel Bunny. I mean, um, could you, please, help me find some clues?"
When he responded by kicking her leg, she moved back, revealing the shred of skin she'd been standing on. Up came the magnifying glass, until Angel Bunny snatched it off her and threw it aside. Instead, he picked up the bit of skin and waved it under her nose.
"What's that, Angel Bunny? You want to know what I can make of it?"
Angel sighed and nodded, as if communicating with Fluttershy was something akin to rolling a boulder up a hill, or to holding up the world. Fluttershy looked quizzically at the bit of skin, then leaned forwards and gave it a sniff.
"Let's see. Um, it's scaly, and um, it's been shed, and um…"
Angel Bunny yawned, loudly and intrusively and – here's the key word – deliberately. Fluttershy began to sweat, and she took another sniff.
"OK, uh, it's about thirteen hours old. Um, the animal it belonged to… um… it's at least fifteen feet long and two feet at its widest; weighs about five hundred pounds; hasn't washed recently; is covered with the smell of apples – Pink Lady, I think." She paused to give it a lick. "No, Golden Delicious. Has atrocious bad breath; sleeps in a wet cave – I smelled a whiff of guano, so it must be a bat cave, with a hint of grassland dew, so it possibly entered near Sweet Apple Acres' south field; has an itchy left shoulder, possibly reptile rash; lives alone; clearly hasn't seen enough sunlight; likes sugary food; has an aching third bone in its spine; doesn't seem to have heard of moisturiser; and at a guess it's entire body is a light emerald green with a dash of darker hue around its flanks." She gave Angel a winning smile.
He did not return it. He did, however, throw the notebook at her, which bounced off her forehead. After shaking it off, she blushed at his meaningful scowl. He tapped his foot impatiently.
"And… it's… also a snake."
He slapped his face in relieved annoyance and wiped downwards.
"Angel, we did it! We found out everything we can about the apple thief, and we have so much to tell Applejack! She'll be so pleased!"
Applejack slipped and fell off her stool in the kitchen. Fluttershy and Angel, both further along the table from her, exchanged glances, though in this case Fluttershy's was both disappointed at this reception, and worried. At least she'd ditched the inspector garb now.
"Well, paint my pastern paisley pink!" Applejack said, picking herself up. "Of all the orchards in all o' the lands of all o' Equestria, why d'it have to come into mine? This is not good, not good a-t'all."
"Huh?" said Fluttershy, while Angel hopped off the tabletop to raid the cupboards.
"Aw, c'mon, Fluttershy, you know how this goes. The farmer and the snake."
A sidelong glance told her that Fluttershy was still lost. She got up on her hind hooves.
"Faarmer. Snaake. Faarmer. Snaake."
Another sidelong glance. Another blank stare. Applejack sighed, this time pointing vigorously at her own chest.
"Farmer, hint hint." She made a motion to indicate something long. "Snake, hint hint."
Fluttershy's stare of incomprehension could have won prizes. Applejack fell back on her hooves.
"Yer don't know that story, do yer?"
"It's not a grown-up's story, is it?" Fluttershy looked anxious.
"Well, I wouldn't tell it ter Apple Bloom. It's the story we Apple farmers know. It was a long an' hard winter on the Sweet Apple Acres farm, a long time ago, when ol' Jonagold had it. He was out a-roughin' and a-toughin' it in the snow, when one day… he found an' old snake, freezin' ter death in the grass. So he took pity on it, and brought it inside this here house, and gave it a nice refreshin' drink of special Brown Snout's apple juice. Then he left that there snake in front of the fire, while he went upstairs ter sleep. Remember, he's got kin in this same house. The nex' mornin', at the crowin' of the rooster, he got up specially to make some apple pie fer his guest, he went downstairs ter the barn, an' you know what he found?"
The room seemed to grow darker. Fluttershy's wings began to quiver. When she noticed, she forced them to keep still. It seemed to work.
"A-a-and th-then wh-what?" she asked, and then blushed because her teeth were chattering. Applejack eyed her suspiciously, which made her knees chatter as well.
"Ah'll tell yer what he found. He found… all the apples were missin'! That thievin' snake, he'd made off with them in crates, been pilin' 'em up all night on Jonagold's ol' delivery van, an' then he drove them away, jus' as Jonagold came rushin' round the barn ter stop 'im! The res' o' the family was devastated! We ain't never trusted no snakes nor creepin' crawlin' things never, not since!"
Applejack raised her nose in the air in disgust at the memory. Fluttershy's wings drooped.
"And then what happened?" she asked.
Eventually, Applejack's spluttering became coherent.
"What happened? What d'yer mean, what happened? He stole them apples, Fluttershy! It was the biggest apple heist ever in pony history!"
"But I don't understand," Fluttershy said. "Maybe it wasn't what it looked like. Maybe… uh… maybe the snake was just trying to feed his family, back home?"
"You don't have a bad bone in yer body, do yer? But there's some folks th't do, and then there's some folks who got nothin' but bad bones in 'em. Niceness is jus' wasted on 'em."
Despite herself, Fluttershy was starting to feel annoyed at her friend's behaviour. She swallowed it down.
"Well, if snakes are involved, then it might be one of mine. I keep lots of snake friends at home."
"Yuck. The words 'snakes' and 'friends' should never meet in the same sentence, unless you also add a 'not', a 'never', a 'no way no how' and a 'nuh uh' in there, too."
"Oh no, Applejack. You're going to love them."
She grinned. It was a little wider than usual.
All the snakes had curled up on Fluttershy's pink sofa, which was one strong reason why Applejack wasn't sitting on it.
Applejack was on edge anyway. This was the interior of Fluttershy's thatched cottage, and it was usually sprawling with all kinds of chew toys and feeding bowls and other animal bric-a-brac. It wasn't usually clean and sparkling to perfection. This was the sort of high-polish, keen-eyed, pick-every-bit-of-lint-off-the-floor cleanliness that signalled a mind with too much time on its hooves.
Fluttershy was sitting up to the coffee table on a cushion placed over the floorboards, filling up cups from the teapot and passing them along. Applejack remained standing.
"Now pay attention, Mr. Slide-belly," Fluttershy said gently to the crimson snake, which was sipping tea out of the china cup it had wrapped its tail around. "My friend Applejack doesn't want to bother you. She just wishes to know if you snuck into her orchard last night, ate all the apples on her prized tree, and turned the rest of it into dust. Don't you, Applejack?" One snake signalled for the sugar tongs.
"We are wastin' mah time here. Ah ain't gonna talk to no snake."
"But they're surely not all bad. I've known my pretties since they hatched out of their eggs, and they've been nothing but scaly angels all their lives."
All the snakes put their heads together and little haloes flashed briefly above each one. It didn't encourage Applejack to come any closer to the table. Fluttershy picked up a plate of cookies and offered them to Applejack behind her, to which she shook her head, and made a brave attempt at a smile.
"Fluttershy, when are yer gonna git it into yer head? Yer might as well lock 'em all up now and make sure yer do it properly this time, so's they don't sneak out after dark. Problem solved."
"Applejack, that's an awful thing to say," said Fluttershy, giggling nervously. "What's wrong, Applejack? Are you not feeling comfortable?"
There was a twitch in the left eyelid. Applejack began to feel the hairs stand up on her flank.
"It's nothin' that don't concern no pony, but Ah'm gonna step outside jus' the same…"
Alarm bells rang in Fluttershy's head. She's leaving?
"All these creepy-crawlies and scaly thingies. This place is givin' me the heebie-jeebies." Applejack reached for the cottage door, but to her surprise found Fluttershy suddenly blocking the way.
"Oh no, you can't just go," she said, sweat spitting from the crown of her head. "I haven't introduced you to Mr. Greenscales. Please, let me make you some herbal tea. That would be the kind thing to do for my friend."
"Fluttershy, you're a very hospitable pony an' all, but all Ah wanna do is go outside fer a bit."
Fluttershy trembled and her ears seemed to seethe, but that sound was only the kettle in the kitchen.
"No you don't!" she said firmly. "You want to come and stay here and relax on my sofa. We could talk about the weather. Or the lack of it. Or the lack of talk about the weather."
A trumpet call seemed to sound in each pony's mind. Frowns solidified on both faces.
They butted heads, trying to push each other back, locked in a deadly glaring match.
"Fluttershy, Ah sensed there was somethin' wrong as soon as Ah stepped into this place. What's goin' on?"
"Nothing! It's just that I haven't introduced you to Cutesy Green Tree yet."
"You crazy pony. What d'you think Ah'm gonna do? Run away when yer not lookin'?"
Fluttershy's eyes flashed wide.
"How could you, AJ! If you'd just give Cutesy Green Tree a chance…"
"Ah tol' you, no. And now y'are wastin' my time. Ah need that apple-thief caught lickety split, an' you ain't helpin' me, not one cotton-pickin' bit."
Fluttershy had been boiling faster and faster with each word; long after the kettle had given out, the sound of her seething ears was still climbing. Then with a whistle, steam erupted from them.
She leapt up with her wings thrashing furiously, causing Applejack to fall forwards, and screamed in a voice that would've made dogs clutch their ears in pain.
"You want me to help you catch an apple-thief, do you? I'll catch you an apple-thief!" she shrieked, and she zoomed past Applejack, unknowingly breaking the all-time Equestria record, set by Rainbow Dash, of fastest acceleration from a stationary position. She seized one of her alarmed snakes in her hooves, pulled him off the sofa (the other snakes dived for cover under the coffee table) and screamed: "It was you, wasn't it, Mr. Boa Constrictor! Just admit it! We have the evidence! We can rebuild your cage with double locks! Triple locks! Do you have anything to say in your defence?"
"Fluttershy, Ah really don't think…" said Applejack, picking herself up.
Fluttershy hissed at the boa in a frenzy of spit. It looked like it wanted to crawl out of its own head.
"Why Fluttershy! Of all the things, ah never would'a thought –"
"Oh no! It's OK. I'm using SNAKE LANGUAGE!" Fluttershy hissed some more, making the boa constrictor whimper. Her left eye began to twitch more violently.
Applejack braced her legs.
"Now, look, Fluttershy, Ah ain't one to look a gift horse in the mouth, an' all, but if I didn't know better, Ah'd say…"
The full screaming rage of an unleashed Stare swung round in a blaze of exploding scattered china cups and pieces of a shattered and overturned table.
Applejack tackled her in midair, sending Mr. Boa Constrictor flying, and pinned her down to the ground. Fluttershy instantly began wriggling under her hooves.
"Ah ain't seen you like this since yer flipped out at the Grand Gallopin' Gala," Applejack said up to her face. "An' that weren't a pretty scene neither. Ah din't wanna have ter do this, sugarcube, but Granny Smith taught me how to do it to unruly foals, an' Ah bet my time in Manehattan could only have improved mah technique." She cleared her throat.
She continued singing in an astonishingly lovely voice. Soon, Fluttershy's squirming, which had intensified just as the song began, became less heartfelt, and she soon settled. It was a long while, following the flows and contours of her voice, before Applejack finally came to a close.
"I know that song," Fluttershy said in an awed hush.
"Every pony under Celestia's kingdom knows that song. All the grannies know it and sing it to their foals to remind 'em we're at peace. Granny Smith, Granny Pie, and Granny D…"
"Granny Flutter?" Fluttershy said suddenly. Tears were welling up in her eyes and, somehow, choking her voice too.
Applejack stepped off Fluttershy, who just lay on the carpet and rolled to one side, covering her eyes with her hoof. Fluttershy's squeaky sobbing gushed out onto the carpet, and she hung her head, an impressive feat for a pony lying partly on her back.
"Oh Applejack, I've been alone in this cottage for so long. I thought that it was the end of our beautiful friendship, that you and the others didn't think I was… interesting enough anymore."
"Whatever gave yer that idea?"
"Rainbow Dash said ponies didn't ask me to do favours for them, because I wasn't interesting like she was. She also said I wasn't a dash on a rain patch, though I'm not sure I remembered that right."
"Rainbow Dash thinks anythin' that's not Rainbow Dash isn't interestin'," Applejack said in an annoyed voice. "We love yer fer bein' who y'are; jus' a sweet, innocent little pony who's always kind to everypony else who ever meets her."
Fluttershy picked herself up. She looked dejectedly at the ground.
"I let my fear get to me. I'm so sorry," she squeaked, her eyes trying to keep back more tears. "It's like that awful, awful dream all over again."
"Oh, sugarcube," Applejack said in a voice layered with feeling. "Yer coulda jus' called for a friendly visit. Yer didn't have ter stay cooped up in this place, waitin' fer us to come to you for a favour."
She gave a meaningful look around the squeaky-clean interior of the cottage.
"Will you get mad if I say sorry again?" Fluttershy asked, wiping her eyes.
"Not at all. How about we shake and make up, Apple family way?" She extended her hoof. Fluttershy took it, and they shook.
To Fluttershy's surprise, Applejack yanked her closer and caught her in an affectionate embrace with both forelegs, holding her tightly. Eventually, she returned it. The snakes on the sofa blubbered and wiped each others' eyes with hankies as they watched.
They noticed that the lighting seemed remarkably dimmer. When the two ponies went to the window, they saw that the sun was approaching the horizon.
"Oh no," Fluttershy said. "It'll be night time soon. The thief might come back again this night. I'd better set up a stakeout if I'm going to catch him."
"No hurry. Hey, why doncha come and have somethin' ter eat with us?"
"Oh, I wouldn't want to impose."
"No imposition at all. We'd love ter have you round as our guest. Tonight's Granny Smith's Apple Pie night. It's a secret recipe. Nopony knows it 'cept Granny Smith an' me. You don't never want to miss that."
"It sounds great. But who'll look after all my little animals while I'm gone?"
"No sweat, Fluttershy. Ah know the perfect pony."
"So y'all sayin' Miss Fluttershy wishes fer me to take custody o' her animals while she's away from her home?" Big Macintosh asked, chewing a piece of hay. Fluttershy giggled.
"He called me Miss Fluttershy," she whispered to Applejack, who nudged her in the ribs.
"You'll have ter excuse her, Big Macintosh, she's jus' a li'l excited about tonight. You think you can handle it, big brother?"
"Eeyup. Ah'm always ready to help out a neighbour in need."
"OK," said Fluttershy, handing him a list she'd just picked up in her mouth, which she now put on the sideboard to the right of him, "it's really very easy. Here's a list of all the animals and what they eat. Make sure they all go to bed on time. Oh, and if any of them start misbehaving, I find giving them the Stare always works."
"Ur, what's this here stare y'all keep on talkin' about?"
"Like this." She demonstrated to him.
After a while, she and Applejack found him outside the cottage in a nearby tree, wide-eyed and quivering. A quick buck of the tree trunk from Applejack and he thudded back to earth. He shook his head.
"Oh my goodness, I am so sorry, Big Macintosh." Fluttershy hovered over him.
"Ah don't know what was more horrifyin'," he managed to say; "that, or having to wear one of Granny Smith's girdles fer a bet. It's a mighty close one."
Applejack was trying to stifle bursts of laughter. Big Macintosh glared at her, but said nothing.
"Well," she said, still holding them back, "Ah think we'd best be goin'. See y'all later, Big Macintosh."
"Thank you ever so much," Fluttershy said. They left him be.
Still standing under the tree, Big Macintosh watched them go, chewing his piece of hay thoughtfully. Then he looked at a nearby boulder. There was a frog on top of it. He chewed some more.
Finally, he mustered up all his rage and violent instincts and concentrated it all into as fierce a stare as he could manage.
The frog blinked at him. He blinked back.
"Eenope," said the frog.
Big Macintosh hung his head and sighed.
"Now, who wants the firs' slice of the firs' Granny Smith Apple Pie of the night?"
The tray was placed lovingly in the middle of the table. Apple Bloom and Applejack, seated on one side of the table, drooled at the sight of the steaming crust on top. Granny Smith laughed at them in a cackling voice.
"Ain't she a beauty?" she said. She nudged Fluttershy, who was caught by surprise and flinched. "We been bakin' 'em since we set up the farm a thousan' years ago. The recipe's been passed down from mother ter daughter. Well, with one 'r two li'l changes here and there. Yer see, the firs' bit had ter be changed when we ran out of treacle, an' then they had ter change the middle bit, 'cos it weren't kind ter the chickens. An' then we had ter change the end 'cos the last of the old apples that were needed fer it got chopped down, an' there weren' no more left, see?"
"So it's not quite the same recipe anymore?" Fluttershy asked.
"It is in spirit, an' that's all Ah care about."
"Wanna swice?" Apple Bloom said, holding up a knife between her teeth.
"Apple Bloom! Gimme that!" Applejack said, snatching it from her.
"Uh, Applejack?" Fluttershy leaned forwards so that she could whisper, and Applejack leaned forwards too. "When you said tonight's Apple Smith's Granny Pie night…"
"Gwa'ie schish ah-oh high high," Applejack corrected.
"Um, yes, well, when you said that, I, uh, thought that meant, um, just you, Apple Bloom, and um, Granny Smith?"
"Dinnerai tehru?" Having cut a slice and guided it onto a plate, Applejack put down the knife and pushed the plate towards Fluttershy with her hoof. "It's a traditional Apple family get together."
"Y-yes. B-but I didn't think you'd invite the whole Apple family."
Behind her, the immense crowd of ponies cheered as another pie came out of the oven. One of the ponies was pressed up close to the back of Fluttershy's chair, and as he reared up to cheer, her stomach was squeezed against the tabletop.
"Sorry about that," Applejack said, her ears drooping. "It's always a big squeeze in here, and one extra makes it a bit difficult." She tried a grin, then looked over Fluttershy's shoulder. "Hey, Braeburn!"
"Applejack! Cousin!" The golden pony put down a plate to Fluttershy's right and another pony pulled up a chair for him. "Good ter see y'all agin! You wouldn't believe how our apple orchard's gettin' along! A new buffalo tribe jus' moved in west of Appleloosa, so me and Little Strongheart, we struck up a deal with them too, and, by Celestia, business is practically boomin' now!"
"Hoo doggies, Braeburn! Maybe one day, y'all be nearly as big as Sweet Apple Acres. Maybe."
"Well, you ain't seen it! Apples, apples, everywhere! We sure are livin' up ter our name now! Hi there," Braeburn said, noticing Fluttershy for the first time. "Applejack, how could you not introduce us! I din't know we had guests. Nice you could make it for Granny Smith's Apple Pie night!" He extended a hoof. Fluttershy, somewhat shyly, took it. "Ah recollect who y'are now. You helped bring us Bloomberg. Shutterfly, isn't it?"
"Oh. Beg pardon, ma'am." He tipped his hat to her, which made her blush.
"Fluttershy's helpin' me out with a little infestation problem," Applejack said, leaning forwards conspiratorially. Braeburn, somewhat confused, leaned forwards as well. Applejack gave a meaningful look at Apple Bloom, who looked sulky now.
"Ah know what y'all gonna talk about," Apple Bloom said.
"We had ter tell her in the end what happened to her tree," Applejack whispered, ignoring her. "There's a snake a-thievin' apples from the orchard."
To Fluttershy's surprise, Braeburn's eyes widened. The last time they'd done that, he'd received some exceptionally bad news.
"You mean they're…" he said, "they're… scrumpin'?" A whinny escaped from Braeburn. Applejack put a hoof in his mouth.
"I heard that!" Apple Bloom shouted.
"Keep your ears out, li'l sister! These ain't words you're s'posed to hear! Fluttershy's gonna go out and catch it tonight."
They both looked at Fluttershy. She nodded her head in agreement. When Braeburn looked back at Applejack, she gave him a confirmatory nod. He gaped at Fluttershy.
"Ah," he said, weakly, "Ah am so sorry. Ah didn't realise. Excuse me." He got down from the table. Fluttershy gave Applejack a look of concern.
"Did I do something wrong?"
Braeburn was flitting through the crowd, whispering, first into one pony's ear, then another's, each one looking horrified at his words.
It was late at night. Fluttershy was standing like a sentinel outside the barn, overlooking the orchard.
She heard a clop of hooves, and Braeburn was standing next to her.
"Braeburn? What are you doing here?" she said, completely surprised.
"Well, heavens to Betsy, I couldn't leave a young filly out on her own, a-huntin' that thing all by herself. Tain't the way we Apples like to leave it. Naw, I'm here to lend a hoof."
Two more Apple ponies stepped out from the barn, and took their places either side of Braeburn. They certainly held a strong family resemblance to Big Macintosh.
"What? N-No! This isn't right."
"It's OK. It's not just us three. There's more a-comin'."
More ponies streamed out of the barn. Soon, it seemed the whole Apple family had gathered behind Braeburn, all with the same uniform look of grim determination. Some of them carried pitchforks. Fluttershy checked each face, but Applejack, Apple Bloom and Granny Smith weren't there.
"You don't understand," she said, while her ears drooped. "I'm good with animals; it's what I earned my cutie mark for. Applejack trusted me to do this. I can handle snakes."
"Don't worry, Miss Fluttershy, we're not sendin' you back into the stable or anythin' like that," Braeburn said. "But where we come from, snakes and nasty crawlin' things ain't the prettiest of critters, and we sure don't want anythin' bad happenin' to you. We'll scatter around and search every acre. With the whole family behind us, we'll catch that varmint in no time."
"No! Wait!" Fluttershy called after them, as the whole family stampeded away. Soon they were lost among the orchard trees. She hurried after them.
A door opened behind her.
"Fluttershy?" said a sleepy pony. "What's goin' on ou' here?"
The Apple family spread out, with groups splitting up into pairs and pairs splitting up into lone patrols. They rustled through the undergrowth, looking left and right, brandishing their pitchforks at shadows. A few held torches as well.
One pony named Apple Fritter ventured near the Golden Delicious trees, and gasped. There was a hole in the fence. Two planks had been snapped in half, and lay scattered on the grass where something had forced its way through.
From the row of bushes to her right, something watched her as she yelled out to anypony nearby what she'd found.
It sniffed, and its muscles tightened like crushed leather.
With a flick, the pony's left hoof was seized and she was dragged backwards with a yelp.
A while later, elsewhere, Apple Bumpkin stuck close to the bushes, prodding them with the business end of her pitchfork. A few leaves fell onto her head. When she looked up, she found herself suddenly pulled up into the branches. Her scream was muffled. The pitchfork fell out.
Red Gala nearby was tripped, then simply vanished.
Caramel Apple heard the muffled scream and came galloping over. She found only the dropped pitchfork. Golden Delicious came over to see as well. They looked at each other, suddenly anxious, which was made worse by a shuffle nearby. They both looked around, in opposite directions from each other. One gave a gasp of surprise. The other looked back, only to find that he was alone. Something snared him in turn.
Now screams were erupting out every few seconds as ponies kept vanishing left and right in the bushes. Slowly, the intruder made its way from the south of the orchard to the north, leaving behind it little trace of the ponies but a lot of trembling bushes. Ponies were snatched, tripped, dragged kicking and hollering into the shadows, blindfolded, pulled out of sight, yanked up into trees and simply vanishing before any other pony could rush to their rescue.
"Come out, come out, wherever y'are!" Braeburn shouted, hearing the last cry from somewhere to his left. There was a gasp cut short to his left, and a cry of help to his right. He turned around. Both the ponies that had been flanking him had suddenly vanished.
"Quit hidin' and runnin', you yellow-bellied, lily-livered, weak-kneed, pigeon-hearted snake! Show yer face!" He shouted even louder, picking up and swiping his pitchfork in the middle of an open area of the orchard. Bushes rustled behind him. He turned angrily, in time to see a tall, thin shadow rise up from below. The pitchfork dropped from his gaping jaw. He watched its ascent with horrified fascination.
"That…" he said. "That… is one… big… snake. W-well… at l-least Ah got y-yellow-b-b-bellied right."
Two yellow eyes opened. Braeburn's scream was the loudest yet.
Fluttershy heard the scream. Already she was galloping as fast as her legs could go, through the rows and rows of apple trees.
"How could I have let them do this? I should have been kinder, but firmer. Maybe I should have… no, that's going too far, Fluttershy. How could you even think such a horrible thing? They don't deserve that kind of horrible punishment. Shouting at them, indeed."
She fumbled into a canter, then into a trot, then a slow walk, then a stop. Nothing could be heard now. The screams seemed to have died away. There was now utter silence.
"Get a hold of yourself," she said, angrily hitting herself on the nose. "This is no time to panic."
Bushes rustled behind her. She leapt a foot in the air and cowered. The rustlings continued. When they didn't finish, she peeped out from under her hooves and stared. She could hear a slight whimpering. As she took a step closer, it sounded like a pony.
"Hello?" she said, rising on her wings and gliding over. "Is somepony there? It's me, Fluttershy. It's OK. I won't hurt you." She placed her hooves gingerly on the bush in case something happened. It seemed all clear. She parted the bush. "There's nothing to be –"
The gasp she let out was pure instinct. It was a pony, for sure, curled up into a tight foetal position and trembling and gibbering with the utmost terror. That wasn't the worst part. The worst part was the look on the pony's face.
It was twisted up in complete and utter fear, as if every muscle in the head was trying to stretch itself free. The eyes were unnaturally wide, and the pupils were fully concentrated with so much emotion they were weeping and bloodshot. The eyes had also been bleached of all colour.
Fluttershy had once heard Twilight say that the eyes were the windows to a pony's soul. If so, then this soul had been broken into, and whatever had done the breaking had vandalised the contents until nothing was left but pure terror.
The pony had literally been petrified with fear.
Fluttershy's scream filled the entire orchard. Her wings locked up, and she collapsed onto the ground. A second later she rolled back onto her hooves. Then she heard a shuffle, and looked round.
Something was coiled around a nearby apple tree, a recently-plucked apple held between its jaws. It began to unwind, disappearing into the shadows of the bush directly below it, until it was out of sight. The tree crumpled into dust.
Fluttershy knew it was still there. She heard a small swallowing sound as whatever it was swallowed the apple whole.
Then its head began to rise from the bushes, illuminated by the starry sky behind it. It had its back to her, and seemed to be hunched over as if the huge fangs prickling from its mouth were too heavy to lift. Slowly, laboriously, all fifteen feet of its tail began to uncoil and spill out in front of her. Her lips trembled.
"Large crown on the head… cobra's hood… zig-zag pattern on the back…" A tail rattled. "Rattlesnake's tail rattle…"
It rose almost to the low moon. Then its hiss rent like a strike of razors, scissors and knives through her ears, commanding her knees to quiver and almost making her kneel.
"You're… you're a B-B-B… B…"
Two yellow orbs glowed on its face; its eyes had opened. It swung its head round and she immediately covered her face.
She heard it slither towards her, and instinct took over. She whinnied, spun on her back hooves and fled back up the aisle of trees. She left her screams for the Basilisk to follow.
After crashing through a bush, down another aisle, and between two trunks, eyes still tightly clenched, she tripped on an exposed root and tumbled, rolling into another pony. A dust cloud smothered them.
When it cleared, Fluttershy and the other pony were sitting face-to-face, panting at each other.
"Fluttershy?" It was Applejack. In desperation, Fluttershy grabbed her shoulders and pulled her so that they were nearly eye-to-eye.
"Applejack! Run back to the house and don't come out. It's a B-B-B…"
"Fluttershy, what in tarnation is goin' on? The whole Apple family up and skedaddled in the middle of the night. I heard 'em clip-clopping past my bedroom door."
"They were trying to catch the snake, but they all went into the orchard and I told them not to do so, but they didn't listen, and so I came in after them, and…"
"Calm down, sugarcube. All of them? Ah can't find a single one o' 'em anywhere."
"Because the Basilisk found them first!"
"A basa-what, now?"
The Basilisk rasped somewhere nearby. Hearing the slither of its huge body made Fluttershy's heart leap up to her mouth. When Applejack tried to look over her shoulder, she pulled her head down so that they were eye-to-eye again.
"No! Whatever you do, don't look it in the eyes! It's not like the cockatrice. It's worse! Every stare is deadly, and I mean really, really deadly."
"Ah gotta stop it somehow."
"Applejack," Fluttershy spoke as firmly as she could, keeping all fear out of her voice. "Run to the house and lock all the doors and windows, close every curtain, and no matter what you hear, don't look back." Fluttershy gulped and galloped towards the sound, ignoring Applejack's protests from behind.
It turned and hissed as Fluttershy strode up to it and stood beneath its head, wings displayed. She wondered how effective her Stare was going to be with her eyes closed.
"What right do you have coming in here, stealing my friend's apples which she worked so hard to grow? You should be ashamed of yourself, a big healthy snake like you picking on poor defenceless ponies. How would you like it if we came stealing all your food and scaring you out of your wits? Only big mean cowards do that, and you're not a big mean coward, are you?"
The Basilisk chuckled, and for once a twinge of doubt crept into Fluttershy's thoughts.
"I'm warning you!" she said with extra vigour. "I've tamed the manticore, the dragon, the cockatrice and the wyvern. I've defeated Nightmare Moon and Discord, and I persuaded Rainbow Dash to adopt a tortoise for a pet. So you listen to me right now!"
It squeezed, and the coils it had been silently curling around her legs closed in tight, trapping her with a cry of surprise. As she struggled, it tightened its grip and continued to slowly encircle her, laying down loop after loop of coils. She very nearly peeped.
"No," she told herself. "I must keep my eyes shut. I must keep my eyes shut. I must keep my eyes shut!" She groaned with the effort of trying to keep them shut, despite all the unpleasant noises around her. Her eyes were now so tightly crushed they were leaking tears, not noticing the small form running up behind the snake.
"Get away from her, yer big varmint!"
As the Basilisk hissed in Fluttershy's face, trying to force her to peep, something clanged on top of its head. Its eyes looked slightly out of focus. With a snarl, it turned to face the business end of the pitchfork, the other end of which was clamped between two sets of teeth. Applejack remembered to close her eyes just in time.
"That's fer mah family, you varmint! An' this one's fer our tree!"
To Fluttershy's surprise, the snake uncoiled itself and she fell onto her back. She dared a peek, and an electric shock seemed to surge through her body when she saw the Basilisk's tail crack like a whip.
"Applejack! Drop the pitchfork! It's going after you because you're carrying a weapon! Drop it!"
She chewed her lip. What did she know about Basilisks? What were their weaknesses?
Applejack swung the pitchfork, but the thrashing tail ducked and snatched up one of her back legs and pulled up so hard she fell onto her chin. She covered her eyes and tried to kick it off. Coils forced themselves around her front hooves and raised her into the air, while more twisted round her body and squeezed her so tightly that her eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. She held them closed for as long as she could, until she couldn't take it anymore.
The serpent opened its eyes too. Applejack stared. In each one was a flaming iris, and as she stared, terrible whisperings filled her ears. The colour drained from her eyes. She screamed in terror and the Basilisk uncoiled itself, leaving her to fall and collapse onto the ground in a nervous quivering wreck. The pitchfork rolled aside.
The Basilisk snorted down at her before it eyed the delicious apple trees with slobbering jaws.
Fluttershy rushed between them. She pawed the ground, and snorted. The Basilisk blinked incredulously, then gave its most enraged hiss yet. Applejack whimpered as the Basilisk zoomed like a torpedo past her. Even the fangs of the snake, when it bared them, made an ominous sliding sound, like sabres being unsheathed. Its rapid slithering gathered up to a point, preparing to spring. Fluttershy opened her mouth and inhaled as deeply and laboriously as possible. There was a rush of air on both sides.
Then she yelled, in a perfect and lung-busting imitation; "COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO!"
The slithering was replaced by skid marks. There was an "eep", then a thump. There were no further noises. She opened her eyes.
Right in front of her was the curled up form of the Basilisk. Its whole body was trembling in fright. The yellow glow in its eyes had shut down and died. Its stare now had no effect.
Fluttershy walked past it and over to Applejack, who was likewise still trembling with overwhelming fear and curled up in the leaves. She leaned close to Applejack's ear and closed her eyes.
"When you're prancing through the darkness,
"Hold your horse head up high,
"For Celestia's joy will shine down upon you.
"And don't be afraid of the mare in the moon,
"I'll be there, hoof on heart, to guide you through…"
As Fluttershy sang, her friend's quivering ceased, and now Applejack's stare was more relaxed, and her eyes were colourful again. She began blinking, and then her tensed legs settled onto the grass. When the song was coming to an end, Applejack shook the last vestiges of anxiety out of her head and looked up at two beams of light, which resolved themselves into two eyes.
"And you'll never face the darkness alone," Fluttershy finished.
"Fluttershy," Applejack managed to say. "That song… How… how did you know that would work?"
"The only way I could defeat the fear was with comfort and kindness."
Applejack got back onto her hooves. She was gazing at the Basilisk, then at her friend, in utter amazement.
"Cock a doodle doo?" she said. Fluttershy nodded.
"Basilisks are only frightened of one thing: roosters."
"The cry of the rooster is terrifying to them. I read about it in Bestiary: How to Best the Beasties."
"Yer gotta be pullin' mah leg. It's frightened o' a little ol' cock-a-doodle? Well, if that ain't the silliest thing Ah ever did hear." A grin blossomed on the freckled filly's face, and she hopped over to the Basilisk and leaned in close towards the shaking head.
"Brk brk brk BRK!"
It pulled its crowned head into its coils like a turtle into its shell, and continued trembling.
"Well. Ah don't know what to say. Ah can't thank you enough. Yer saved mah orchard! Now c'mon!" Applejack said, galloping off to the nearest quivering pony. "We gotta go help the rest of the family. Braeburn and the others still need us!"
Fluttershy galloped after her, as the first beams of dawn crept slowly over the horizon.
The last of the petrified Apple ponies were shaking themselves off as Fluttershy stood over them, helping them up. Behind her, the whole caravan of Apple ponies were carrying saddle bags out of the house and hitting the road. Granny Smith, Applejack, and Apple Bloom were standing outside the door, watching them go, saying their goodbyes to each passing relative.
A hoof tapped Fluttershy on the shoulder.
"Er, excuse me, Miss Fluttershy?"
It was Braeburn. Oddly, he'd taken his hat off and was laying it over his chest.
"Ah'm mighty sorry for not trustin' you earlier, Miss Fluttershy. It seems you would have done fine if we'd only let you get on with the job. No hard feelings?" He extended a hoof.
"No hard feelings," she said, taking his proffered hoof with her own. They shook.
"Thank you ever so much for being so understanding, Miss Fluttershy." He replaced his hat. "Ah hope you'll come visit next year for the next Apple family get-together. The next one's in Appleloosa. You could be an honorary Apple pony."
"Now, that's a mighty fine compliment," said Applejack, coming to join them. "If Ah do say so mahself."
"Well, goodbye now." Braeburn tipped his hat and cantered past them to join the caravan. "See y'all next year. An' thanks for the souvenir! It'll make a great decoration for the buffalo wigwams."
With his teeth, he picked up a stick, around the end of which the Basilisk was wrapped, still quivering and petrified. Then he cantered down the hill to catch up with his kin.
Once the last of the Apples had hit the road, Applejack turned to Fluttershy.
"I think we should write a letter to Princess Celestia about this. Apple Bloom?" There was a blur.
"Reh-hee, sish," said Apple Bloom, holding a pencil between her teeth. She placed a hoof on the paper in front of her, holding it down.
"Ah'll dictate," said Applejack, but Fluttershy shook her head. "Oh?"
"I think I've learned an important lesson today, Applejack."
"Really? Well, if you say so."
Fluttershy cleared her throat.
"Dearest Princess Celestia, I learned that my friends respect me for being me, and not somepony else. You should cherish the goodness you have, and not try to change that just because one pony thinks you're not interesting. And above all, you should come out and trust your friends, and respect the goodness that they have, too."
"Yer got all that, sis?"
"Shur dih," said Apple Bloom.
"Who wants some pie fer breakfast?" shouted Granny Smith from the kitchen window. "There's still some left over that hasn't got tooth marks or drool all over it."
"May I?" Fluttershy asked nervously. Applejack winked at her.
"Sure, but you'll have ter get there before me! Yeehaw!"
Fluttershy giggled and the two of them galloped towards the front door.
"Wait fer me! Applejack!" Apple Bloom shouted. Applejack went back to pick her up and carried her into the house.
And down at Fluttershy's cottage, a blue pony had just arrived and was knocking on her front door.
"Hello? Fluttershy? Are you in there? I can't believe it. I set you a simple task. Just take all the messages, I said. You don't have to do anything, just take the messages, and do nothing. Write them down. Do nothing and write them down. I can't even trust you to do that for one lousy day." She grumbled, and resumed knocking. "It's just lucky this sick pony got better sooner."
The door swung open, Big Macintosh rushed into view and delivered what he finally thought was the Stare.
Rainbow Dash screamed.
"Eeyup!" Big Macintosh reared up on his hind legs and beamed. "Ah've been practising that all night, and Ah finally got it."
He turned back into the cottage to celebrate, closing the door behind him, leaving Rainbow Dash quivering in the tree branches above.