The efforts of everypony involved were valiant, but the battle was short. Filled with so much fabric, with so many paints, dyes, and glues, Carousel Boutique had been perhaps the biggest firetrap in all of Ponyville, excluding the library. All things considered, Rarity was lucky to have escaped it at all, let alone with little more than a singed coat; but that the insult outclassed the injury didn’t make it any easier to watch her life’s work, the symbol of everything she had ever striven to be, her home, burn to the ground in a matter of hours while she could only stand helplessly by.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Certainly she’d assisted in the efforts to contain the blaze, helping the other unicorns float buckets of water from nearby houses and places of business. The pegasi, led with commendable haste by Rainbow Dash, had quickly organized a focused deluge over the shop, and the earth ponies had all taken a cue from Pinkie Pie and pelted the flames with enough water balloons to fill a swimming pool; but even as she’d raced with the others to save her home, Rarity had known in the pit of her stomach that it would all be for naught. The fire had simply burned too hot, too fast, and by the time the last flame had been licked out, the only thing that remained of her beloved boutique was a smoldering pile of charred wood, ash, and broken water balloons.
Gone, she thought, as if merely testing the idea, too stunned to feel anything but numb at the notion. Everything is gone.
“Oh, Rarity!” Pinkie Pie’s face popped up in front of hers. The earth pony looked to be on the verge of tears, an expression so foreign to her cheerful features that Rarity, in her dazed state, almost didn’t recognize her. “All your beautiful dresses! And your designs! And your jewels and your material and your bed and your shoes and your glasses and your china and your silverware and your—”
“Pinkie!” snapped a country drawl to Rarity’s right. “Shush!”
Rarity distantly felt somepony’s hoof come to rest on her shoulder. Slowly, she turned to look at a somber, hatless Applejack, whose freckles were obscured by smudges of soot.
“I’m powerful sorry, sugarcube,” Applejack said softly.
“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, her wings smelling strongly of smoke as she fluttered to the ground. "We did the best we could to stop it." She glared at the remains of Carousel Boutique as though they were an opponent that had beaten her in a race, which wasn’t too far from the truth.
“It’s…it’s all right,” Rarity heard herself reassure them.
“All right?!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “Whoa, whoa, whoa – who dethroned the drama queen? Your house looks like a dragon had a sneezing fit all over it!”
“Rainbow!” scolded Applejack.
“What? It’s true! Why isn’t she rollin’ around on the floor with a hoof pressed against her head, crying about how this is THE. WORST. POSSIBLE. THING?”
“Landsakes, Rainbow Dash, the poor thing’s in shock, it ain’t sunk in yet!”
The argument passed back and forth over Rarity’s head like a verbal game of keep-away. Like flies buzzing over something no longer alive.
Rarity shuddered and shook the macabre image from her mind, disgust finally clearing some of the fog from her mind.
“It’s not,” she said.
The warring voices ceased, startled at her sudden recovery.
“Huh?” said Rainbow Dash.
“What’s not, sugarcube?” asked Applejack.
Rarity took a composing breath, then turned her back on the scorched debris to properly address her friends.
“It is not the worst possible thing,” she asserted, and while her voice was brittle, her tone was firm. “I’m alive, and I’m well, and Opalescence is alive and...somewhere—” Rarity’s magical deathgrip on the scruff of the feline’s neck had understandably loosed once they were safely out-of-doors and distracted by the pressing matter of attempting to ensure they would continue to have said doors to return through. “—and thank goodness Sweetie Belle chose to accompany Mother and Father to Chicoltgo to visit Uncle Blitz and Aunt Pom-Pon instead of remaining behind with me. It could have been worse. It could have been much, much worse, and I want to thank everypony here for their quick action, bravery, and assistance in my time of need.”
Applejack forced an optimistic smile. “That’s the spirit! Don’t you worry none, Rarity, we’ll all lend a hoof to get this place back to rights again, even fussier and more gussied up than before.” She looked over her shoulder at the crowd and raised her voice, “Right, everypony?”
A chorus of “Right!” and “You bet’cha!” and “Of course!” resounded from all sides, and Rarity bowed her head in gratitude.
“And in the meantime,” Pinkie Pie piped up, “you can stay with me at Sugarcube Corner!”
Rarity’s carefully collected poise quavered. “O-oh,” she stammered. “That’s...that’s very generous of you, Pinkie darling, but—”
“But I’ve already asked her to stay with me,” Applejack interrupted. Rarity looked at her, surprised, and was answered with a bright green wink. “Celestia knows we got enough room, and you know the Apple family motto: the more, the merrier!”
The corners of Rarity’s mouth tucked into a little smile. “...All the same, thank you very much for the offer, Pinkie Pie. It means a lot.”
“Awwwww! Okeydokey, Loki! Just remember, my door’s always open! Unless I’m not there, then it’s closed. Or it might be open then, too – I mean, how am I supposed to know what a door gets up to when I’m not there to watch it? Not that I spend a lot of time watching doors, anyway, but if I did...” Her train of thought continued on its paisley tracks as she passively allowed Rainbow Dash to drag her away by the tail.
Realizing there was nothing more that could be done for the time being, the other residents of Ponyville began to trickle back to their homes, either to return to their beds or get an early start on the day, and it wasn’t long before Rarity, Applejack, and Big Macintosh were the only three left in the square.
Rarity’s gaze returned to the rubble, while Applejack pawed awkwardly at the ground with one of her forehooves.
“I know the farm might not be your first choice of lodgings,” the blonde pony began, “but I thought you might like some peace an’ quiet for the time bein’, and seein’ as Twilight and Fluttershy are away visiting their folks in Canterlot an’ Cloudsdale, and can’t nopony who ain’t a pegasus even get to Rainbow’s place—”
The unicorn held up a hoof to hush her. Rarity shook her head, a few bits of ash falling like silver snowflakes from her mane.
“Applejack, thank you, honestly. Peace and quiet sound like the best possible things right now. All of a sudden I feel very, very tired.” She took a step in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres, then hesitated, her weary blue eyes widening with renewed panic. “Opal! Oh, Applejack, I simply must find her! She’s never been outside on her own before!” She glanced around frantically, calling out, “Opal? Opal!”
“Rarity, sweetheart, I’m sure Opalescence is fine, wherever she is.”
“How can you know that?! What if she’s lost, or, or stuck up a tree?”
“What if she sought shelter in a cave and is currently fighting for her life against a ferocious, slavering bear?”
“Or worse? Oh, hold on, Opal! Mommy’s coming!”
“Rarity Grace Unicorn!”
Rarity was halted by one of Applejack’s hooves against her muzzle.
“It has been one hay of a night. You’re exhausted an’ then some. You just lost...well, a lot. So you just head on up to Sweet Apple Acres with Big Macintosh an’ he’ll get you set up in one o’ the guest rooms. Get’cherself cleaned up, try to get some sleep, and I’ll look for the da– for Opalescence. Okay?”
“O-okay...” Rarity’s voice was as small as Applejack had ever heard it, and the earth pony bit back a sympathetic wince. “Please find her, Applejack! I just don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to her!”
“Don’t you worry your pretty head over it, sugarcube. They ain’t made a critter yet that ol’ Applejack can’t round up.”
Rarity nodded. “I know. I trust you. Thank you, Applejack – for everything. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay—”
“Hey now, none o’ that! That’s what friends are for, to help each other get through hard times.”
“Just like you welcomed Twilight Sparkle’s help during applebucking season, when Big Macintosh was injured?”
Green eyes narrowed in a glare. “Do you wanna look me in the mouth, or do ya want me to find your dang cat?”
“The latter, please.”
“Then hush, and get goin’. Big Mac, tell Apple Bloom she’ll hafta take care o’ the cows this mornin’, and make sure Granny Smith knows there’ll be a fifth pony joinin’ us for meals for the foreseeable future.”
Big Macintosh nodded, a mute “Eeyup,” and started for the farm with Rarity obediently in tow.
The silence that spanned the gap between Rarity and Big Macintosh was less awkward than it might have been, had Rarity not already known the scarlet stallion to be a pony of few words.
It felt good to walk next to him. Safe. Like walking next to (an admittedly oversized) Applejack herself. For all the golden mare was uncouth in her mannerisms, her manners themselves (in terms of respect for a fellow pony’s privacy, at least) had never fallen short of even Rarity’s extremely high standards. Applejack would not pry. She would not try to cheer Rarity up with a houseburning party (And oh, sweet Celestia, somepony please head Pinkie off at the pass on that idea…). She would not try to psychoanalyze Rarity’s mental state and lecture her on the five known stages of grief and draw up a timetable by which those stages might be followed and gotten over and done with just in the nick of time to pen a letter to the sun princess on the importance of attentive friendship in finding closure after a sudden, traumatic loss. She would not make Rarity hold baby animals until she smiled again. She would not crack well-meaning jokes until Rarity herself cracked into what would be undoubtedly hysterical sobs.
What Applejack would do, was listen.
When Rarity was ready.
For the moment, that seemed a long time away.
More immediate was the front gate of Sweet Apple Acres, and the clear pink dawn rising just behind it that bathed the orchard in the warm honey glow of Celestia’s light – and turned, in Rarity’s mind, each and every apple into a lambent ember, as if in mockery of recent events.
She knew the princess would do no such thing, of course. The alicorn’s noble nature aside, with Twilight and Spike already in Canterlot, news of the fire was unlikely to travel beyond Cloudsdale, which was probably more annoyed at having to clean up whatever parts of the aerial city might have been sullied by the smoke than sympathetic toward the owner of its origin.
The farmhouse was quiet when they entered, or nearly so: Granny Smith sat snoring in a squashy-looking pink rocker in the far corner of the parlor, and curled up on the bench built into the recess of one of the front windows, where she had tenably spent the dark hours of the morning worrying, watching, and awaiting her elder siblings’ return, was Apple Bloom. Big Mac signaled Rarity to keep quiet with a hoof pressed to his mouth, and Rarity used her magic to close the front door silently behind them before following Big Mac up the staircase.
The bulky earth pony was surprisingly light on his hooves – or, more likely, there wasn’t a creaky floorboard in the entire house with which he was unfamiliar and unable to avoid. Rarity made sure to step precisely where he did, and conjured up a little spell to muffle the sound of her hooves on the wood, just in case.
The room to which he showed her was sparer than the rest of the house, which was filled with five generations’ worth of sundry knick-knacks, heirlooms, hoof-me-downs and keepsakes. Here, a simple pine bed stood against one wall, opposite a matching dresser. The bedding and curtains were coordinated with what Rarity referred to as “shabby-chic finesse” in colors of biscuit, cinnamon, and soft sage green, and the lattice pattern of the quilt on the bed echoed the appearance of the crusts of the endless pies that were baked downstairs.
“AJ’s room is right next door,” Big Mac explained, gesturing with one hoof to a door a short way down the hall. “That’s Apple Bloom, that’s me, and Granny Smith’s downstairs, across from the kitchen. The water closet’s at the end o’ the hall. Just give a holler if’n ya need anything.”
The unicorn smiled weakly. “Thank you, I shall.”
Big Mac bobbed his head and proceeded back downstairs.
Rarity took a step toward the bed, which looked terribly inviting, but stopped short when she glanced down and took note of the dreadful state of her coat and hooves. Her not insignificant sense of vanity aside – and, truly, it was at present about the uttermost aside it had ever been, the Sisterhooves Social included – to dirty her dear friend’s sheets when they had been so generously offered her would be unthinkably rude, even if said dear friend wasn’t the tidiest of ponies to begin with. Indeed, that made it all the more important for Rarity, as the Element of Generosity, to be conscientious of Applejack’s possessions, as a show of respect for the farmpony’s charitableness and goodwill.
She left the room and made her way toward the end of the hall, hearing as she did the groggy interrogation of Big Macintosh by a newly wakened Apple Bloom from the parlor below. Eeyup, he, Applejack, and Rarity were fine; nnnope, Applejack wasn’t home yet, she was still out looking for Rarity’s cat; nope, Apple Bloom could not trade jobs with Applejack instead of tending the cows…
The linen shelf in the washroom yielded a stack of fluffy, cream-colored towels, and Rarity floated one to the lid of the toilet while she inspected the various bottles occupying the metal basket stretched over the foot of the bathtub. Surprisingly, there was not a single apple-scented item in the mix, but myriad warm, energizing flavors: lily and jasmine, sugared pear, pomelo, grapefruit, ginger and clove…
Rarity sniffed each one in turn, but all were scarcely detectable above the lingering odor of smoke in her nose. She chose the jasmine, and hoped for the best.
The bath itself certainly felt divine. Closing her eyes, Rarity sank supine into the tub, and allowed the heat of the water to draw out the fiery tension that had been accumulating in her muscles since she had choked awake earlier that morning. She rotated her head and carefully popped the stiff joints in her neck, and sighed in relief as the stress ebbed from her body and was replaced with the duller, deeper ache of exhaustion. A trip to the spa in the very near future was most definitely in order – only…
Rarity’s eyes snapped open as her thoughts, and her blood, froze at the realization: she could not go to the spa.
She could not go shopping, or to the theatre, or out to eat.
She could always find jewels, yes, but what value did they hold without sumptuous fabrics in which to set them? And what good were bolts of fabric without tools to reshape them into creations of sartorial splendor? It had taken her years to furnish Carousel Boutique to her satisfaction, and in ways infinitely more important than the trim on the walls and the chromatic synchronicity of her kitchen appliances to her tableware.
Her dressmaker’s shears, embroidery scissors, and thread-nippers; her ponyforms, cutting mats and rotary blades; her sketchbooks and patterns, buttons, hooks, eyelets, zippers threads flosses laces sequins beads pins and needles; and worst of all, her most prized possession, her top-of-the-line Cornhusqvarna Sleipnir Limited Edition Diamond Designer Deluxe sewing machine.
She remembered pinching bits on groceries for months in order to afford it, to the point where Pinkie Pie had begun to drop in every morning with a basket of muffins and ohmygosh the most funnest idea ever that they be best breakfast buddies, and every week at the market, Applejack had insisted Rarity take a bucketful of suspiciously pristine “bruised” apples off her hooves. Even Fluttershy had invented a few of the most ridiculous excuses Rarity had ever been ashamed to accept as to why something had suddenly come up and the pegasus would be unable to attend their get-together at the spa that week – and thus unable to see if Rarity skipped it herself and stored the spare coins safely away in an unassuming-looking hatbox on the top shelf of her wardrobe.
The hatbox and wardrobe were gone, now, too.
She sat up, gooseflesh prickling to life beneath her coat in the cool air. A gray film of ash and dirt skimmed the surface of the now tepid water: the residual filth of her once beautiful life.
Rarity felt the tenuous barrier of her traumatized stupor begin to give way. She pulled the drain plug loose and scrambled out of the tub, slipping once on the tiled floor as she wrenched open the cabinet under the sink and, thankfully, found what she needed.
Her concept of time disbanded, minutes and seconds scattering in all directions like pearls from a broken string. She didn’t know when precisely Applejack arrived; only that, suddenly, she was there, wrapping a towel around Rarity’s shoulders, hugging her close, rocking her gently, murmuring words that were muffled to Rarity’s ears, but clear in their soothing tone.
Rarity shut her eyes tightly, and buried her face in the warm crook of Applejack’s neck, and cried and cried and cried.
Applejack chewed the side of her cheek in thought, mouth pursed in a frown as she mulled over her friend’s sleeping, tear-stained countenance. They lay together in the guest bed, Applejack atop the covers and Rarity beneath them, face to face. At the foot of the bed, Opalescence imperiously bathed away the bits of foliage and dirt that had become caught in her snowy fur during her impromptu expedition to the wilds of Junebug’s garden.
Applejack glanced at the shallow scratches now ornamenting her forelegs from having had to pluck the haughty furball from a thorn bush, and she spared the beast an irritated glare. It had taken her a good hour to locate the animal, aided more by the gesturing paws of a groundhog whose slumber she’d disturbed with her calling of the cat’s name than any apparent desire by Opal herself to be found. Figures Rarity’d choose a pet even more finicky an’ difficult than she is…
But Applejack’s wry amusement quickly dwindled when her gaze returned to Rarity’s face, and her thoughts to the unicorn’s current difficulties.
Applejack hadn’t been fooled in the least by the couturier’s graceful acceptance of her abrupt shift in circumstances – that Rarity would experience some sort of emotional fallout was a question of “when,” not “if.” Thus, when Apple Bloom informed her that Rarity had “been in the WC for a real long time,” Applejack had expected a scene not unlike the hoo-hah that had ensued from their bungled first fashion show in front of that highfalutin Hoity Toity.
What had greeted her was...different.
“Rarity?” she’d asked, knocking on the washroom door. “You okay in there, sugarcube?”
When no response was forthcoming, Applejack pressed an ear to the door. The faint whimpers and sniffles that resonated from the other side of the wood told her what Rarity hadn’t. She took a breath, took hold of the knob with her hoof, and opened the door.
The sharp scents of cleansing powder and jasmine bubble bath did battle in the close, humid air of the room, and Applejack’s eyes watered reflexively at the sudden olfactory assault. She blinked them clear, and found Rarity crouched, still wet and dripping, over the empty bathtub. The unicorn was scrubbing furiously – with her hooves, no less – at the porcelain with the worn brown sponge Applejack kept under the sink for just such a job. It was when Rarity didn’t acknowledge the other mare’s entrance, nor did her single-minded scouring falter at Applejack’s repetition of her name, that a stone of real fear plunked heavily into the earth pony’s stomach.
Oh, Luna’s lung capacity, she inwardly swore, she’s lost it.
The fashion designer’s theatrics were always an awful sight, borderline embarrassing to behold, even though Applejack knew the feelings behind them never failed to be genuine; but the utter lack of them was somehow so much worse. So much more terribly – almost terrifyingly – real.
Applejack faltered for a moment out of downright surprise, and then reminded herself that “real” was something she could handle. She, like Twilight, was one of the best when it came to “real,” and so, falling back on her instinctual practicality, Applejack grasped a corner of the still-folded towel between her teeth and billowed it over Rarity’s back with a flick of her head.
“C’mon now, darlin’,” she said softly, joining her friend on the sodden floor and wrapping one strong foreleg around the unicorn’s shoulders to still her frantic motions. “Enough o’ that. Enough, now.”
Rarity continued, for a few moments, to stare blankly down at the bathtub, but the interruption of her rhythm gradually served its purpose, and at length she turned to meet Applejack’s concerned gaze.
Her eyes, so wide and lost-looking, reddened with fresh tears. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but managed only a shrill hiccup, and Applejack gathered her close before the first keen could escape her lips.
She didn’t know how long they’d stayed like that, holding tight to one another as though an invisible tornado were bearing down on the room and the only anchor either could depend upon was the other. More than once, Applejack had to bite down hard on her own bottom lip to keep from sobbing right along with the shattered unicorn in her arms. She’d remembered the last time she had been in that position, only she had been in Rarity’s place, and Big Mac in hers: it had been the evening following her momma and pappy’s funeral, and she’d cried so hard it had taken three days for her voice to fully recover. Now, she marveled anew at her brother’s strength, that the tears he’d shed himself that night had been so subdued, caught in silence by his wailing little sister’s tangled mane.
Eventually, when Rarity’s weeping had subsided into the occasional sniff, Applejack had helped her to her hooves and back to the guest room. It was a testament to the unicorn’s upset and exhaustion that she made no comment when Applejack unceremoniously threw back a corner of the bedclothes; she only crawled between them, allowing herself to be tucked in like AJ still did for Apple Bloom more nights than not, and the earth pony only just managed to stop herself leaning over to give her miserable friend a goodnight kiss on the head.
Blushing slightly at her lapse in sense, she’d somewhat gruffly told Rarity to get some rest, and had been turning to go when the tip of a hoof brushed against her shoulder.
It was the first real word the unicorn had said since Applejack had found her on the washroom floor, and it filled the earth pony with an almost unreasonable amount of relief to hear even that small indication of the return of the other mare’s mental lucidity.
“Please,” Rarity repeated, eyes half-lidded with fatigue, cheeks and nose still pink from crying. “Stay. Just a little while longer?”
Applejack hesitated, a dozen images – memories, really – flashing through her mind, and she briefly considered her share of the chores she had begged off on Apple Bloom and Big Mac before she shook herself, and her priorities, back into place.
“All right,” she agreed, and Rarity wriggled over to the other side of the bed.
Applejack rested her cheek against an already damp and jasmine-scented pillow, and kept her eyes open when Rarity closed her own.
The unicorn dropped off to sleep within seconds; Applejack remained far longer than she had to.
Rarity was pretty when she slept, Applejack noticed, even with her beloved complexion blotchy from tears, and her uncombed mane drying in a way similar to that funny, crinkly thing it did when she’d been sewing for hours on end, too focused on her work to bother with the upkeep of her “coiffure.” Hay, Rarity was pretty all the time, and every which way: fighting manticores or defeating Diamond Dogs; swathed horn to hoof in silks and satins, or mud, or even (especially) apple cake; but she was never so striking as when she was in her true element, “in the zone” of her art, with a pencil tucked behind one ear, tailor’s chalk smudged in random spots all over her coat, hair askew and blue eyes bright with passionate intensity behind those ridiculous little red spectacles.
Applejack hadn’t given herself many – make that any – opportunities to thoroughly examine her feelings for her fashion-conscious friend. Before Twilight had moved to town, and even for a spell after they’d all inherited the Elements of Harmony, Applejack had been sure the tightness that seized her stomach at every interaction with the proprietor of Carousel Boutique had been annoyance, and maybe the tiniest bit of jealousy – the cottonseed cake from the champagne kisses and Manehatten dreams of her fillyhood. Twilight’s sleepover had relaxed most of that, and Applejack had unconcernedly named the warmth that took its place “understanding.”
Appreciation, being a combination of excitement and gratitude, could make anypony’s heart beat a mite harder, and Applejack had greatly appreciated Rarity dressing up her duds for the Grand Galloping Gala – in fact, in the final moments of the gala itself, she’d nearly been overcome with appreciativeness as she’d watched Rarity use Applejack’s very own cake to demonstrate to that pompous Prince What’s-his-face the difference between lordliness and gentility.
From there, admiration had naturally followed, and later on, when it combined with the compromising lengths to which Rarity proved she would go sustain Sweetie Belle’s affection for her during the Sisterhooves Social, that admiration had gently tugged, on a short string behind it, something that looked an awful lot like hope.
Hope for what, exactly?
Hope that Rarity wasn’t so locked up in her immaculate white tower that a relationship with her ground-level little sister was forever out of her reach, of course.
It didn’t at all indicate that relationships with other earth-bound ponies might also be within grasping distance.
At least, it hadn’t before Twilight’s brother’s wedding in Canterlot, and that had been dumb luck (or lack thereof) – dumb luck that Applejack had been standing next to Rarity when the combined power of Princess Cadence and Shining Armor’s devotion to each other thundered across the city like a Sonic Loveboom; dumb luck that their hooves had touched – a slight, startled misstep on whose part Applejack couldn’t recall – the instant that tenderhearted shockwave shot over and through them, causing a flicker of deep, undeniable fondness to crackle along the physical connection like a spark of pink, lovesome static electricity.
Applejack hadn’t given herself any opportunities to examine her feelings, because she really was a terrible liar, even to herself; but at the moment, alone with Rarity – in a bed, no less – and free to look upon the other mare as she wished, without fear of being caught and questioned, Applejack found it difficult to do anything but contemplate the lovely face so near her own, and to avoid the underlying reason for the immensity of her thankfulness at not having merely the memory of that face to ponder.
She wondered how hard she would have cried if Rarity hadn’t escaped the boutique in time.
The sudden flare of prickling heat behind her eyes at the notion alone told her that the answer was “very.” Probably harder than she or anypony else ever would have expected.
But reconciled as she was to the realization, it didn’t change a doggone thing – rather, something like that was the worst possible impulse she could have presently acted upon. Rarity was hurting, vulnerable, and Applejack wouldn’t have considered herself much of a pony, let alone much of a friend, if she further confounded the situation by spilling her guts and taxing the unicorn’s already overwrought mind with the responsibility for Applejack’s own heart.
For the moment, all that mattered was Rarity’s – her heart, and the restoration of her happiness.
With a silent sigh, Applejack gingerly brushed a violet spiral away from other mare’s cheek. Carefully, she eased herself from the bed, drew the pale curtains closed, and exited the room, leaving the door open a crack in case Opal needed out. She returned to the washroom, blotted up the water from the floor with the same towel she’d used to wring out Rarity’s hair, and rinsed the gritty gray mix of cleansing powder and ashes from the tub. Then she trotted downstairs, washed down a couple of cold biscuits in slightly congealed white gravy with a mug of lukewarm hazelnut coffee, and told Granny Smith she’d be in town until lunchtime.
When she reached the remains of Carousel Boutique, she wasn’t surprised to find Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie already there, the former scowling down at the blackened mess, the latter staring at it with the kind of heartbroken helplessness usually reserved for foals mourning scoops of ice cream that had fallen from their cones.
“Hey y’all,” Applejack greeted them, to a similarly enthusiastic response.
“How’s Rarity?” Pinkie immediately asked. “I’ve been so worried about her and so sad about what happened I even forgot to give Ditzy Doo the baker’s part of her every-other-daily baker’s dozen of muffins this morning!”
Applejack shrugged, and thought about how much Rarity might want her to tell them. They were all the best of friends, but complete emotional collapse was, in Applejack’s experience, generally a private matter.
She sidestepped the details.
“’bout what you’d expect, I suppose. She’s sleepin’ right now.”
Pinkie nodded emphatically. “We should totally visit her later. Ooh ooh, I could bring some of her favorite petit fours!”
Applejack smiled. “That’d be mighty good o’ you, Pinkie Pie. I reckon a little taste o’ luxury would go a long way towards liftin’ her spirits up a notch or two.” At least, she thought to herself, that’s what I’m hopin’ for…
“Yay!” Pinkie squealed, beaming. “Ohmygosh I should get started on them right now!”
The excitable pink pony bounced away in the direction of Sugarcube Corner, and Applejack shook her head in bemusement.
“That gal could make a mint if she ever figures out how to bottle that optimism o’ hers.”
“I dunno…” Rainbow scrubbed doubtfully at the back of her mane with one hoof. “Mainlining Pinkie Pie sounds like a rush even I would think twice about before trying.”
Applejack chuckled. “Ya got a point there, bless her heart.”
The pegasus fluttered to the ground to stand next to her best friend.
“What’re we even gonna do with all this junk?” she wondered aloud. “At least when I demolished your old barn, you guys had plenty of firewood for the winter. But this stuff’s already been firewood.”
Applejack sighed, surveying the mess much as she did the root cellar when it came time for its half-yearly overhaul – Which we should get to fairly soon, come to think of it… “Well,” she said, “it’ll be at least a couple o’ days before we can safely start goin’ through it all. Some places might still be hot. After that… I reckon Twilight should be back by then; she might could teleport it to a scrapyard or some such. Either that or we haul it, or have it hauled. The Mayor should have the regulations for that kinda thing on hoof.”
Rainbow chewed consideringly on her bottom lip. “Does Rarity know how it even started?”
Applejack shook her head. “I ain’t asked her yet. She, uh, wasn’t feelin’ too gabby this mornin’.”
Rainbow nodded. “It looks the worst over there,” she said, gesturing with her hoof to an area of particularly pitchy detritus, “from the air, anyway.”
Applejack’s brow furrowed in a frown as she tried to match the location on her mental map of the former boutique. “I reckon that was her dressing room. Prob’ly it just had the most combustibles – perfume and nail varnish and whatnot.”
“Yeah,” Rainbow echoed, “prob’ly.” A beat passed in silence before she heaved a dispirited sigh. “Well, I better get goin’. Those clouds we smashed out last night aren’t gonna refill themselves any more than they’ll rain on their own. I’ll see ya later, AJ. Give Rarity a chuck on the chin for me. Don’t let her pansy out just ‘cause she’s a frizzy-maned jobless hobo now.”
The prismatic pegasus’s good-tempered wink struck down the sting from her words, and Applejack grinned and tipped her hat in return. “Will do. See ya ‘round, RD.”
She watched her friend’s rainbow contrail fade into the distance, cast one last look at the remnants of Carousel Boutique, then turned and headed in the direction of Stirrup Street.
Applejack had never given her custom to The Mane Event, Ponyville’s most bustling beauty shop (Salon, Rarity would have corrected her). Oh, she liked her hair well enough to keep it long, despite its heat and heaviness during a summer day’s hard work, but she was perfectly capable of washing it herself, and she, Big Mac, and Apple Bloom had all inherited the task of trimming one another’s manes and tails when Granny Smith’s age had finally caught up with her cutting capabilities. What point was there to paying somepony else for a service a blank-flank filly could decently render free of charge? Not to mention that the place was probably chock-full of Rarities – Rarities as far as the eye could see, armed with scissors and sprays and Celestia only knew what else, lying in wait behind blow-dryers and styling chairs and scenting Applejack’s no-frills gumption like Twilight detecting a chance to lecture…
Applejack gazed at her rumpled reflection in the mirrored doors of the shop’s entrance.
She straightened her hat, and gulped.
Steady on, now, she told herself. You’re here for one Rarity and one Rarity alone.
If her brief meeting with Dash and Pinkie had accomplished nothing else, it had at least cemented the sureness of her reason for coming to town in the first place. It wouldn’t do the Apple family’s reputation one lick of good to be known as harborers of luxury-lacking, frizzy-maned jobless hobos, after all.
Steeling herself, the earth pony squared her shoulders, defiantly stuck out her chin, and stepped inside.
Rarity scaled the walls of consciousness in stages.
She was warm. Cozy, even. The sheets that cocooned her were remarkably soft – not the 600 thread count silkiness she was used to, but a well-worn, slightly nubby flannel. They smelled different, too: fresh, but a little woody, as if they had been stored in cedar for a time before they’d made their way onto the bed.
At the faint whiff of smoke she caught on the tail end of a breath, Rarity opened her eyes.
The room was golden with late afternoon sunlight. Dust motes sparkled in the thin rays that slanted between ivory curtains trimmed in eyelet lace.
She was at Applejack’s house, because her own no longer existed.
Rarity sat up, and winced at the soreness of…everything. Gingerly, she stretched, rolling her shoulders, arcing and bowing her back. She noticed the vaguely pony-shaped indentation on the bedspread beside her, and the one long, golden blonde hair occupying the shallow depression in the pillow she had not used.
Please, she remembered. Stay.
Rarity felt the color rise in her cheeks, and then, finally taking note of the fluffy white lump dozing at the foot of the bed, remembered the reason Applejack had been gone in the first place.
“Oh, my darling Opal-wopal!” she exclaimed, seizing the startled feline in a crushing hug. “Mommy was so worried about you! I’m so glad you’re all right!”
Opal blatted indignantly – at least, as well as she could for being trapped in chokehold of adoring relief.
She was saved by the sound of a throat being cleared, and seemed to scowl at the realization that the rough-cut farmpony had come to her rescue twice in the span of a single day.
Applejack stood somewhat awkwardly in the threshold. She carried a paper shopping bag in her mouth, which she set down inside the room; on her back was balanced a simple wooden box.
“How’d ya sleep?” she asked by way of a greeting.
Rarity conjured up a small smile. “Like the dead, if the kink in my neck is anything to go by.” Had she been a less detail-oriented pony, she might have missed the way Applejack’s smile wavered ever so slightly. She wondered what to make of that – the farmpony had never struck her as the type to frown upon gallows humor.
Then again, neither had Rarity ever suffered a loss of composure on quite the scale Applejack had borne witness to that morning, and embarrassment at the memory of it compelled her to reassure her friend further, “But aside from that, I am feeling much better.”
“Good!” Applejack nodded approvingly. “That’s good. I uh, I picked you up a few necessaries while I was in town – a toothbrush, some cat food for Opal, that sorta thing. And. Uh.” Applejack cleared her throat again, took a few steps forward and transferred the box from her back to the bed with a little buck of one hip. “This.”
Rarity blinked curiously at the nervous-looking earth pony; slowly, both the gift and the unicorn’s horn began to glow as Rarity magically lifted the box’s lid.
“Oh, Applejack…” she breathed.
“Mind, it weren’t the fanciest set they had to offer, but…hay, I dunno, I just thought it’d suit you – not that you ain’t extra fancy,” she quickly added, “but there’s fancy and then there’s flashy, an’ my Aunt Orange always said the secret to havin’ good taste is makin’ the most of what you got without makin’ a show of everything you have.”
The kaleidoscopic harlequin pattern of the comb and brush set’s mother-of-pearl inlay shimmered an iridescent pale blue as Rarity lifted the grooming tools reverently out of the box.
“You didn’t have to do this,” she said.
Applejack shrugged. “I wanted to. Unless you’re just tryin’ to be polite? ‘cause ya don’t hafta pretend to like ‘em if they ain’t your style. I was just guessin’, what with your affinity for diamonds an’ all…”
“Applejack,” Rarity scolded. “I may not be the Element of Honesty, but I still try not to make a habit of lying. They’re exquisite; you chose marvelously. Thank you.”
Applejack’s freckles stood out in stark relief against the bright spots of color that surfaced on her cheeks. She swallowed awkwardly. “It’s just, I know how much lookin’ nice means to you. If ya can’t have nothin’ else for the time bein’, you should at least have that.”
Rarity felt her eyes mist with tears.
Applejack’s took on a look of alarm.
“Hey now, don’t you start that again! If I’d known bein’ nice to you was like twistin’ on a faucet, I’d’ve let you go with Pinkie Pie!”
Rarity laughed, and dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hoof.
“I’m sorry, I just…never expected you to be so thoughtful!”
Applejack rolled her eyes. “Now there’s the kinda backhoofed complimentin’ I’ve come to know and love.”
“Oh, you know what I mean! You’ve gone above and beyond for me, Applejack, truly. I appreciate it more than I can say – without crying, at least.”
“Then I guess some things are better left unsaid.”
Rarity’s eyes narrowed slightly, puzzled at the sudden tightening of Applejack’s crooked, otherwise casual smile.
“Perhaps,” she agreed, then changed to a more cheerful tack, “I want to do something for you!”
Applejack blinked. “Rarity, darlin’, that ain’t necessary—”
“Oh, no, I insist! I may be your guest, but while I am here, I am determined to make myself useful. If Sweet Apple Acres is to be my home, even temporarily, then I wish to be given the responsibilities of any of its residents. I’m a decent cook, I’m excellent at keeping a tidy house, and I can…I-I can darn socks!”
Applejack glanced pointedly down at her bare hooves.
“Erm…patch overalls?” Rarity tried. “Sew curtains? Iron tablecloths?”
Applejack shook her head, chuckling.
Rarity despaired. “Oh, please don’t laugh! Surely there must be something I can do!”
“Whoa there, Nelly, simmer down now. If it means that much to you, then sure, there’s always somethin’ needs doin’ on a farm.”
“Good. Then I expect to be woken up at first light tomorrow morning, with everypony else.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow, skeptical. “You sure about that, sugarcube? Thought you were more of a night owl by habit.”
“Well, habits can be broken,” Rarity asserted. “I want to do this, Applejack. I need to do this. I can’t think about…” She trailed off, bit momentarily down on her bottom lip, then tried again, “Not now. Not yet. I need something else to occupy my mind, and my hooves.”
Doubtful seconds ticked by, and Rarity held her breath until the earth pony finally acquiesced, “Okay. But don’t feel like ya gotta exhaust yourself workin’ to be welcome here. You’re a guest, no strings attached. Ya got that?”
“I have.” The unicorn smiled.
“Good. And speakin’ o’ guests, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie talked about payin’ you a visit later on. Think you’ll be feelin’ up to that?”
Rarity scoffed airily. “I’m unfortunate, Applejack, not an invalid. Of course I’d be delighted to see our friends.”
“All right, all right, just makin’ sure.”
“Your concern is appreciated, darling, but I believe this situation is one best swept under the proverbial rug. For the time being, at least.”
Applejack shrugged, a little uneasily. “If’n you say so. But when the time comes to rip the bandage off, you let me – that is, you let all of us – know. Even if it’s somethin’ you’ll wanna do yourself, your friends’ll always be here to stick by you while ya do it.”
Rarity’s heart tightened in her chest. “You’ll be the first pony I run to,” she promised.
It was the furthest thing from a lie: an oath she had no intention of breaking.
Why, then, did she feel so suddenly, dreadfully guilty?