Overhead, a pair of winged unicorns flew through the clear skies. Behind then a brilliant red hawk-like bird followed, trailing glowing motes. As they passed over the hilltop, the smaller of the two flying ponies pointed with a hoof, then the fliers began to spiral downwards toward the tree.
The light thumps of the landing ponies startled the picnickers. "Incomin' royalty!" one of them yelled, and all three were quickly on their feet, then in a deep bow.
"Applejack! Rarity! Fluttershy! Fancy meeting you here!"
The three looked up, all smiling. "Your Majesty! Majesties, that is..." Rarity dipped her horn to Princess Celestia, then again to Princess Luna. "Such a surprise and honor!" There was an indignant, small squawk. "It's good to see you also, Philomena." The phoenix preened, content that she had been acknowledged.
Celestia smiled and shook her flowing mane from her eyes. "No need to stand upon ceremony, my little ponies. We were merely out for some sunshine and exercise. May we join you?"
There were immediate, enthusiastic assents. One thing which Celestia had always enjoyed about her six subjects who bore the Elements of Harmony was that once the formalities were over, they were at ease with her, would chatter happily as if she were just one of the girls. It was refreshing, so utterly unlike the stuffy Canterlot court and its guarded flattery.
Celestia looked at the Monopony game board. The player with the apple token was about to take a decisive win. "Someone is doing well," she commented.
Applejack beamed proudly. "Well, thankie, yer Majesty. I guess I just got a mind fer business. Course, a little luck with the dice don't hurt none either." She glanced over at Rarity, who with Luna and Fluttershy was gossiping happily over the latest fashion trends of Canterlot and Manehattan. "Mind you, that one over there, she's the entree-- enturp-- um, th' sole proprietor of th' day."
"So I have heard. Canterlot's fashion-mavens are all abuzz over the 'brash newcomer'. And I must admit, seeing my sister taking an interest in such things makes me feel young again." Though Celestia hadn't said as much, Applejack knew what she was referring to, having seen it in her friend Twilight. Some fillies, even royal ones, needed a little nudge to come out of their shells once in a while, and Luna had a millennium of catching up to do.
Celestia's ears swiveled to the other conversation. Fluttershy was commenting upon recent trends towards filly formalwear covering cutie marks, and not even including the marks in the clothing itself; the marks were only to be alluded to in color and theme. Rarity held that this was part of a periodic emphasis-deemphasis cycle, like the length of skirts. Luna was fascinated; in older days, the marks were always shown through cutaways in a gown's train. Luna began relating conversations with her sister concerning Celestia's refusal to wear clothing even on formal occasions, drawing giggles from Fluttershy and Rarity.
The phoenix, bored by the baffling talk of clothing, nudged the shiny game pieces back and forth. After a moment, she flitted over to Fluttershy, peeping a greeting. She remembered the one who had needlessly but nobly tried to help her at the end of her previous life-cycle.
Fluttershy laughed as the phoenix looped about her head, then landed on her back. "I'm so very happy that Philomena is okay. I was so scared that I had done something to hurt her." Philomena tugged at one of Fluttershy's ears for a moment. Fluttershy approached Celestia, "And I am so glad you didn't send me away, or put me in a dungeon."
Luna giggled. "I don't think Canterlot even has a dungeon, unless you count that dank cave where we store cheese."
Celestia lifted a golden-shod hoof and touched it to Fluttershy's forehead. "Oh, you know I would never do such a thing to you! Are you still worrying about that? Really, I must know. What have I done that would warrant such a suspicion?" She tilted her head to one side, lowering it a little to be less imposing to the smaller pony before her.
Fluttershy suddenly backed away, head low. Philomena leaped into the air with a flap of crimson wings, then circled overhead. Celestia's gaze was compelling, albeit not threatening, and Fluttershy's behavior clearly expressed to the princess that yes, there was something unspoken. Celestia was genuinely curious and concerned, and clearly did not want her subjects fearing her. Yet Fluttershy could not respond; her voice had left her, as it always did when she felt pressured.
Luna leaned forward towards Fluttershy. "You can tell her. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's not real."
Fluttershy closed her eyes, still backing, until she bumped up against Applejack's forelegs. She squeaked, but then felt Applejack nudging her ear with her muzzle. "Go on, honey-girl," Applejack encouraged. "If there's somethin' troublin' you, fess up. You know th' Princess ain't a-gonna be mad."
Fluttershy looked up into Celestia's face. She saw only a maternal worry. Celestia leaned down, almost face-to-face. "Tell me... why do you think I would banish or imprison you?"
There was no answer from Fluttershy, but she turned slowly, and looked directly at Luna for a long moment, then once again lowered her gaze. Luna's eyes widened in realization, and Celestia drew in a sharp breath. Time seemed to hang for long, uncomfortable seconds.
Celestia stepped back, a stricken expression on her face. "Of course," she whispered. "Of course. I'm a fool to have not seen..." She turned her head to Luna, and saw self-loathing there, a trembling in the smaller princess' forelimbs, her ashen-colored wings drooping all the way to the ground.
"There's no end to the harm I've done..." Luna whispered. Tears welled up and spilled from her eyes, leaving silvery, shining paths on her cheeks.
Rarity stepped forward, extending a hoof to touch Luna's. "No, no, it's not like that at all, your Majesty. That was another time. Another pony."
Celestia too approached Luna, nosing her at the base of her slender horn. "She knows," Celestia quietly told Rarity, "she knows." Luna nonetheless remained visibly shaken, and Celestia draped a white-feathered wing comfortingly over her back. "May we... have a moment alone, please?"
Fluttershy, Rarity and Applejack all bowed, forehooves forward as they touched foreheads to turf, then backed well away to give the sisters their privacy. They watched as Celestia spoke quietly at length to Luna. The younger princess only nodded forlornly in response, then they both took wing and flew off northwards, towards Canterlot. The phoenix followed. They did not look back.
"Well," said Applejack. "That there's a can of worms, an' no mistake." She turned to Rarity and Fluttershy. "What do y'all think will--"
With a sudden sob, Fluttershy cried "It, it's all my fault, my stupid stupid fears, I've hurt them both, I've hurt them!" She turned a tear-stained face to her friends, her jaw quivering. "I... I hate how weak I am." Without another word she leapt into the sky, fleeing in the opposite direction from the two royal sisters.
Applejack watched Fluttershy disappear into the distance. She was quiet for a long moment, then she turned to Rarity.
"We gotta do something. This ain't right, Fluttershy feelin' like that. It ain't her fault, it's what everyone's thinkin', and she didn't even up and say it. Fact is we all know th' princess Celestia has to make th' hard decisions. That don't make her bad."
"But you know that Fluttershy will blame herself. You know how she adores Celestia. And, for that matter, Luna," Rarity replied. "She becomes star-struck so easily."
Applejack snorted, recalling Rarity's behavior whenever she was in the presence of famed fashionistas. Pot, kettle. Applejack let it pass, though, concentrating on the immediate problem. "Still. Rarity, she's gonna think every bit o' pain, every tear is laid on her doorstep. She's gonna be kickin' herself harder'n anyone else ever could."
Rarity nodded. For once, she and Applejack were in full agreement. Fluttershy's enormous compassion brought with it an equally-great vulnerability and self-doubt.
Applejack sighed... "She carries th' weight of th' world on her shoulders. She's gonna be sufferin' something fierce. And that ain't right."
"I... yes. I concur. What should we do, do you think?"
Applejack paced back and forth, kicking at pebbles in agitation. "That girl can't never forgive herself... that's how come she don't really believe that others would ever forgive her neither. It don't matter that she ain't done nothin' that needs forgivin', cause she thinks she has." She stomped the ground in frustration, leaving a deep hoofprint in the grass. "I reckon she don't like herself much sometimes." Then she paused, for a long, long moment, deep in thought. Rarity kept her silence, sensing that Applejack was forming an idea.
Applejack looked up at Rarity, a sudden intensity in her eyes.
"This is gonna take some doing... and some mighty deep trust for everyone what's gonna be a part of it. We've got work to do, and everypony involved gonna have to do it just right, an' follow th' rules. Ain't gonna be nobody allowed ta talk 'bout it after. Not one word, ever!"
Rarity looked puzzled, but Applejack was already trotting purposefully down the road towards Ponyville. Rarity hastily magicked the picnic paraphernalia into the basket, then had to run to catch up to Applejack. It did indeed take a while for Applejack to explain her plans. When she had heard it through, Rarity was astonished, particularly that such thoughts could come from Applejack of all ponies. Once again, Rarity had severely underestimated Applejack's depth and capacity to reach the root of a problem.
"Do you really think you can convince everyone to..."
"Sugar, they just gonna have to believe me."
There was a hoof-knock at the door. Fluttershy did not answer it at first, and remain morosely sprawled on the pony-sized pillow in her front room, but whoever it was was not going to go away. At the third knocking, Fluttershy reluctantly stood and went to the the door, opening only its top half.
"Oh. Um, hello, Applejack..."
"Hello yourself, sugar-cube." Applejack stood in the glow of the porch-light, fidgeting a little. She had a small pair of saddlebags, and surprisingly, her Element necklace, but uncharacteristically wasn't wearing her western hat. This probably was contributing to her nervousness; Applejack had once commented that she felt unnaturally exposed unless she had her hat. Fluttershy nonetheless thought that Applejack looked very nice without it, though she would never say so.
Fluttershy mumbled something, then looked away. Applejack cocked her head to one side. "This is the part where ya say 'Wouldja like to come in outta th' night?'"
"Oh! I, I'm sorry, please, would you like to come in out of the night?"
Fluttershy opened the lower half of the door then stood aside. Applejack entered, then glanced back over her shoulder for a moment to the outside. Fluttershy thought she saw movement at the edge of the light, but Applejack pushed the door closed.
There was a long, awkward moment of silence. Applejack coughed self-consciously, then glanced around and realized that the usual menagerie in Fluttershy's home was missing. "Um, iffen ya don't mind me askin', where's all yer critters at?"
Fluttershy sighed and looked away. "They... when I don't feel well, they allow me time to myself. I think it upsets them, when I'm upset." She returned to her pillow, flopping onto it, facing away from Applejack.
"Well, this time, I think I unnerstand." Applejack stepped around her despondent friend, then sat down on her haunches in front of Fluttershy. "What happened t'day... that was awkward. But it's water under th' bridge, ain't nobody mad at you or blamin' you."
Fluttershy shook her head, "No, it was my fault. I embarrassed you all, and I made the Princesses feel bad! Everyone has a right to be mad at me. I'm always messing up like that!" She looked down at her hooves, her pink hair hanging before her eyes. "Sometimes... sometimes I hate myself, when I let you all down."
A long, tense moment passed. Slowly, Applejack said "I don't ever wanna hear you say that. I mean it. Nobody'd ever be right to hate on you, 'specially not yourself!" Applejack's voice carried absolute, unshakable conviction. The Element of Honesty was at work in her words, and Fluttershy felt a pang of remorse.
Applejack took a deep breath, then committed herself. "I want you to believe me when I say we all care about you more'n you'll ever know. I wanna do somethin' for you, to show you what I mean. Nothin' untoward, nothin' to feel bad about, but more'n a little personal."
Fluttershy blushed deeply. "What, what do you..."
Applejack took Fluttershy's forehooves in her own. "You're gonna have to trust me, darlin'. I can't say up front, and you can't be allowed to see. It'd just..." Her voice trailed off as Applejack found herself at a loss for words, unable to explain without terrifying Fluttershy. "Please, let me... let us do this for you." She looked imploringly into Fluttershy's eyes, and Fluttershy realized that Applejack was on the verge of tears.
Fluttershy's heart almost broke at the sight. She lowered her gaze, the 'us' lost in the sudden rush of emotion. She could not refuse Applejack, could not permit herself to compound her guilt by allowing Applejack to cry. "I... yes, yes, of course."
Applejack sighed in relief, wiping at her eyes with the back of a forehoof. She glanced over Fluttershy's shoulder at the window, and nodded. Behind Fluttershy, the front door opened, sparkles on the doorknob and hinges. "You're such a sweetheart. Now close your eyes, that's it, good girl..."
Applejack's saddlebags opened, and cloth was levitated from them. A silken deep blue blindfold was placed across Fluttershy's eyes, lowered into place by what had to be unicorn-magic. The blindfold was not uncomfortable, though being unable to see had always frightened Fluttershy. She let out a little squeak, but a light touch to the side of her neck calmed her even as the blindfold was tied into place.
Applejack's voice came to her, quietly from near one ear. "Shush now, sugarcube, just give yourself over to it. You don't gotta do a thing but be here. Ain't nothin' bad gonna happen, I promise."
Fluttershy nodded, and in a barely-audible whisper said "I trust you, Applejack... I'll try to not be afraid."
Applejack didn't reply, but simply nuzzled Fluttershy's ear.
Everything was quiet for a few moments, save for the muffled shuffling of hooves on carpet. Fluttershy thought she heard several more ponies entering the room amid hushed, unintelligible whispers. She shivered, and covered her muzzle with her hooves. Despite her desire to be brave, she was nonetheless afraid. It wasn't that she felt threatened... she knew that nobody intended her harm, and that Applejack had only her very best at heart. However, the unknown always held terror lurking in wait for her.
It seemed like an eternity of darkness and subdued background noises, though in reality it could not have been more than a minute or two. Fluttershy began to fidget on the pillow, and was about to ask what was happening when music began to quietly play from Fluttershy's stereo. It was something new to her. A blend of symphonic melodies, and slow electronic beats; it was soothing and uplifting. It also served to mask the sounds of movement, so it came as a surprise when there was a touch on her flank. Fluttershy made a startled "Meep!" and almost jumped off the pillow, but a hoof rested on her shoulder. "Shhh," someone whispered in her ear, and Fluttershy relaxed a bit.
Moments later, a light, floral scent began to fill the air. Incense, perhaps? Without her sight, Fluttershy had little choice but to pay more attention to her other senses, and she found herself dwelling upon the aroma. She thought she could also make out one of the perfumes that Rarity sometimes wore, as well as something deeper, more subtle, that though familiar she could not quite place. There was another touch on Fluttershy's shoulder... then on her flank... then a forehoof. Her skin rippled and twitched under the touches, but less so each time.
Fluttershy let out another little squeak as someone began nibbling along her neck, from shoulder to just under her jawline, then back down. It was a wonderful sensation. She couldn't help but lift and tilt her head, baring her throat to the nibbles. Her pulse was rapid under the gentle teeth of her companion, both from nervousness and a certain lightheaded awareness. Whoever it was that was stroking her neckline placed their muzzle under Fluttershy's jaw and nuzzled upwards. Fluttershy thought for a moment she felt the smooth touch of a unicorn's horn brushing her cheek, but she wasn't sure.
Fluttershy began to feel overwhelmed. Too much was happening at once; she couldn't see; she was surrounded. But the urge to panic receded almost as quickly as it had come, displaced by trust. Applejack won't let anything bad happen, she reminded herself. Applejack is here. Her wings, which had been pressed tightly against her sides, relaxed and lifted a bit. They were lightly grasped and tugged until they were fully splayed. She felt the feathers being preened, hooves carefully moving between the large primaries, stroking the shorter, softer underfeathers.
Someone pulled Fluttershy's tail straight, then a rhythmic tugging along its length told her that her tail was being combed and brushed. A moment later, she felt the same sensation along her mane. Whoever was doing the brushing was very gentle and careful; there was never the discomfort of a tangle being yanked. A light tingle along the nape of her neck suggested unicorn-magic at work, but the way her skin was goose-pimpling, Fluttershy couldn't be certain.
Her forehooves were being held in others' hooves, and her forelegs were being lightly caressed, knee to ankle. There was a gentle touch to the soles of her hooves as their edges were stroked, their centers kneaded. Her hindhooves received the same treatment shortly thereafter, her hindlegs pulled straight then allowed to relax back into a natural position on the pillow. Fluttershy by this point had gone as limp as a rag-doll. There had to be at least five ponies attending her, but for once there was no fear of crowding.
Along her flanks there was the unmistakable feeling of pegasus-wings stroking, brushing, caressing. Front to back, shoulder to haunch, the touch of feather upon pony. Her skin again showed little tensing twitches for a moment, before giving in and accepting the touch.
Something brushed her lips, then was gone. Then again, lingering a few seconds before disappearing again. Then again, but this time Fluttershy felt warm breath, and knew it was another's lips. The kiss was lighter than any Fluttershy had experienced, but carried an intensity she hadn't known before. Her heart raced, and she felt the heat of a blush in her cheeks. A little "nnnf!" escaped her, and the kiss moved to a corner of her mouth, then along her jawline to her right ear. There was a whispered "shhh..." then a nibbling along the edge of her ear. Fluttershy let out a gasp, but at that moment another muzzle touched hers, another kiss, this time open-mouthed.
Every nerve in Fluttershy's body was alive. Every touch on her limbs, every comb-stroke of mane and tail, every nibble at her throat was the whole of the world to her. She surrendered herself to the kiss for moments of eternity, then panted as it ended. She felt the muzzle which had been at her own move to her left ear, and then a barely-audible whisper...
"I love you, Fluttershy."
A thrill ran up Fluttershy's spine at the words. Such a whispered voice was hard to identify, but she wasn't allowed the time to think about it... another kiss, a little different somehow, was at her muzzle. The sensation burned in Fluttershy's mind, almost overwhelming, and she could not help but squirm on the pillow. Her attendants moved with her, the brushing, the holding of hooves, the touching of feathers never stopping. This kiss too seemed to last forever before it moved, this time to the right ear. Again there was a whisper, a little different than the first but still not quite recognizable.
"Love you, Fluttershy."
It seemed timeless. One after another, some of the kisses urgent, open-muzzled, breathtaking... others little more than a brushing of lips against lips. But each concluded in the same manner, a whispered "love you" in an ear, each slightly different, none which could be identified. From under the blindfold tears were freely flowing, but these were tears of simple unrestrained joy. Between the kisses, as she caught her breath between each and the next, Fluttershy made little shuddering sobs. There was a purity to the sounds, and nobody tried to hush her.
Some tears heal.
Fluttershy did indeed feel loved. Truly loved. She floated in an ocean of her friends' affection, carried and buoyed by it. She was dimly aware that from time to time one of the ponies next to her would move away, to be replaced by another. She did not mark the moment when the touches one by one began to recede, when the time between kisses lengthened, until they were no more. She knew only relaxation, exhaustion, surrender, a silken warmth over her. And when sleep came, her dreams were nebulous, indistinct, but filled with a radiance that no spring sun could match.
The dawn-light through her window brought Fluttershy to wakefulness slowly. She was still on the pillow, nestled deep into it, and tucked under a foreleg was her teddy-bear that somebody had thoughtfully brought to her. She was under a silken cream-colored sheet that was so heavy and soft that it could have almost been a blanket. As her eyes opened, she felt... reborn. New.
For a moment, Fluttershy wondered if she had dreamed the whole night, but... no. It had been real. The sheet covering her was real, and not her own. Yet she was in her own room, and... there, next to her, was the indigo scarf-like blindfold she had worn.
She stood, a little shakily, stepping out from under the sheet. On a low table next to her was a plate of the most perfect, flawless apples she had ever seen, along with a scattering of strawberries, a small, light loaf of honey-bread, and a single white lily laid next to the plate. A parchment note was rolled up next to the food, tied by a ribbon of the same pale silk as the sheet. With trembling hooves she opened the note, and read:
Thank you for trusting us. We've took care of your critter-friends, so it's okay for you to sleep in. We hope you enjoyed this as much as we did. Don't you concern yourself asking about who or why. It don't matter none, and nobody wants you, or us, to feel embarrassed about it. Let it be. 'The night belongs to itself', one of us done said, and she's right.
There's so many of us who love you. Don't you ever forget it, don't you ever doubt it.
Once again, the tears freely flowed. There were no doubts... none at all.
Fluttershy sang merrily as she collected her drying laundry which had been hanging it from a clothes-line under the sun. The past few days had been wonderful. Minor setbacks were forgotten, and though Fluttershy remained socially awkward and retiring, she did not feel so bad about it. She knew her friends remained true to her, and the time she spent with them was both fun and satisfying. There was always the mystery of who had been there on that night, but this was merely spice. She didn't need to know the answer, and part of her wanted never to find out.
As she spread the sheet she had found herself under on the morning after, she rubbed her muzzle against the heavy cloth. It was smooth and cool to the touch, soft and sensuous. Fluttershy understood without being told that the cloth, and the strip of darker silk that had served as her blindfold, were gifts.
Fluttershy moved back, slow wingbeats keeping her hovering. Under the sunlight, she now noticed that the weave of the silk on the sheet changed direction in some sort of pattern that occupied most of the area of the cloth. What was it--
With a sudden gasp Fluttershy drew back, covering her muzzle with her forehooves. The pattern in the blanket-like sheet... was a stylized sun, with eight wavy rays. She edged over to the scarf-like darker cloth, and found a similar weave-change pattern subtly worked into it: a crescent moon over a cloud extending to the cloth's borders. Were these simply gifts which had been sent to the others for the occasion, or did it mean that... that...
Fluttershy shook her head to clear it. No, she wouldn't ask, and wasn't sure she would get an answer anyway. The gift itself spoke enough.
She was content.