Rainbow dropped Twilight about a foot and a half from the ground, unceremoniously depositing the unicorn on her rump. The pegasus herself landed heavily on all fours, stretching her back out until Twilight heard a large cracking sound.
“Ah, that’s heaven!” Rainbow said, a look of relief on her face. “It’s been a long time since I actually flew somepony around.”
While her friend was stretching, Twilight took a panicked look around. She had not expected to be on Apple property today, and she knew full well she wasn’t likely to receive a warm welcome. They’d landed near the barn, and grabbing Rainbow by the hoof Twilight half-dragged her inside.
“Sweet Apple Acres?” she hissed. “You had to find somewhere to land and you picked Sweet Apple Acres?”
“Hey, I told you not to be angry,” said Rainbow. “Look, it’s not the best situation. For you. But I think that elixir took something out of me. I’m beat, I’m thirsty, and I needed to put down. It was this or drop you, Twilight.”
“I guess it’s not the end of the world. I can just teleport home-” Twilight was cut off by Rainbow pushing her behind a hay bale.
“Hey there, Big Mac! How’s it going? I was just on my rounds, looking for stray clouds, you know how it is, and I thought I’d take a quick break!” Rainbow said, loudly. Twilight rubbed her side where she’d fallen onto it and bit her lip in worry. She could hear heavy hoofbeats entering the barn, and if Big Mac knew she was here-
“Ah’m okay, Rainbow. But y’shoved Twilight pretty hard. You alright back there, Twilight?” Big Mac drawled, his expression as stoic as ever.
“Twilight? What gave you that idea, she’s nowhere around! Hey, you wanna, um, race or something?”
Rainbow’s voice was far too high pitched. Besides, Big Mac wasn’t easy to turn round on an idea, especially when he was right. Twilight knew that much at least. She stood up, dusted herself off, and walked round the hay bale to see Big Mac properly.
“I’m fine. Rainbow was giving me a lift and she had to put down here. I don’t mean to trespass- if you give me a minute to catch my breath I can teleport home.” she admitted sheepishly.
“You look tired,” Big Mac observed. “Come to the kitchen. Y’all can grab a cider and cool off for a few.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a great idea, Macintosh. If your sister knew I was here she’d be pretty mad.”
“Eeyup,” said Big Mac, already starting towards the big farmhouse. Rainbow and Twilight didn’t really have much of an option except to follow him. As they did, Twilight couldn’t help but notice the changes that had been made to the farmhouse since the summer she’d spent living here. The gutters were black painted iron now instead of wood, and there were little frescas of ponies carved into the beam above the front door, but there was so much that was mended. The shutters looked like they’d been broken and repaired many times over, and the front porch seat now sat on wooden blocks instead of hanging from chains. Twilight could see holes in beams patched up, planks out of place where a temporarily cheaper stopgap had been used instead of a more comprehensive repair.
“The place looks different,” Twilight said, and immediately regretted it, trying to focus on the few improved qualities the farmhouse had. “The new guttering must be a boon.”
She winced at herself and Rainbow raised an eyebrow at her. The guttering must be a boon? Had she forgotten how to speak to Big Mac completely?
“It’s solid, sure enough,” Big Mac said quietly. “Spike’s real good with m-metalwork and since we had the forge put in he’s been bringing in a steady flow of business. That old salamander might pay for himself yet.”
Big Mac and Rainbow carried on into the house, not noticing that Twilight was standing absolutely still. The unicorn was looking at the house with new eyes, searching for every scrap of ironwork, and suddenly it was everywhere- black iron hinges on the doors, on the shutters, a new grate covering the drop to the cellar. Twilight walked up to the house and looked carefully at the hinges- the work really was excellent quality. Is this really what Spike had been doing with his free time?
Twilight walked into the kitchen to see a relaxed Rainbow Dash practically salivating as Big Mac pushed a mug of cider across the table towards her. He filled another and Twilight accepted it gratefully, holding it with her magic and taking a small, refreshing sip before picking a question to ask from the swarming multitude that had filled her mind.
“Does Spike spend a lot of time at the farm?”
“Eeyup. Most days. He’s near as strong as Ah am now, and he’s good company for Applebloom. We’ve been having to work pretty hard recently. Ah think it’s helped her out some being able to talk to somepony goin’ through the same sort of things she is, even if that pony is a dragon.”
“They’re going through the same stuff?” Rainbow interrupted, licking her lips. “What, is the library failing?”
Big Mac silenced her with a steady gaze, and Rainbow retreated back into her mug of cider.
“Ah meant neither of them have their parents around, and their big sisters haven’t got the same time for them they used to have. Nor her big brother, in Applebloom’s case. Applejack and Ah work every hour Celestia sends on this farm and everypony knows Twilight’s real busy even when she’s not at some Canterlot conference. Applebloom puts in more work than we could ask of her to keep this place afloat, and Spike does too. It’s good for them to be able to talk about it to somepony they don’t feel like they owe.”
“What do you mean by that? Spike doesn’t owe me anything. He knows that,” said Twilight, almost snorting the last few words.
“Ah don’t mean nothin’ bad. Look, come with me. Ah can show you what Ah mean better than Ah can say it,” said Big Mac. Putting his mug down on the table, the stallion set off up the stairs, not looking to see if Twilight was following.
Twilight sat down at the table and sullenly sipped her cider. This was turning out to be another round of “let’s tell Twilight how she’s letting everypony down”, and she was tired of them. If she got back to the library now, she realised, she could start a full cycle of tests and have them done by 3 am. Twilight tested her magic for a second, and she felt perfectly capable of teleporting. She pulled her magic together and was about to flash back to the library when she felt a hoof under her chin. She opened her eyes to see Rainbow leaning across the table, glaring at her.
“For Luna’s sake- just go with him, okay? This is exactly what you did wrong in the first place. How many times did I come in to your science room and tell you we were doing something cool and that you should come?”
“Well- a lot, I suppose, but I usually happened to be busy,” dismissed Twilight.
“You’re always busy! I was asking you to make time! You always promised to come as soon as you’re finished and you never did!”
“It’s not work that really finishes-” Twilight protested. Rainbow cut her off with a snort.
“I don’t care about your work! I’m saying that you don’t engage. I even had plans for making you hang out with us, but Rarity always- my work isn’t my life, okay? Yours is. Rarity’s is too. I’ve been with her long enough that I get that, I understand her. So I understand you better than I used to, maybe. But I let you have too much space because- I dunno. She’s smarter than I am. She always talks me round. I should have just dragged you out of there.”
Rainbow slumped back in her seat and took a long pull of her cider. She looked calm, tired even, but Twilight could see a tiny quiver in her wings that belied how genuinely angry the pegasus was.
“You need to understand that you’re making a mistake right now. You wanna be my friend, you go follow Big Mac and you talk with him about Spike.”
Twilight started to respond and then stopped herself. Very carefully, she took a mouthful of cider. Without saying anything, she stood from the table and walked up the stairs after Big Mac.
“Atta girl,” said Rainbow, smiling to herself.
Neither she nor Twilight noticed that on the unicorn’s flank, one of the little greying stars in her cutie mark flickered for a moment before settling on a pure, steady white.
Twilight topped the stairs and saw that the door of their old room- just Big Mac’s room, now, she corrected herself- was ajar. She pushed it open and walked in; the room was almost exactly as it had been when she’d moved out. There was still the dreamcatcher over the bed that Zecora had made for her as a moving-in gift, and that she’d not had the heart to take. There was still the carefully framed array of charcoal sketches Applebloom had made of almost everypony she knew when she’d started taking her art seriously. Big Mac had made sure none of them ever got thrown away, crafting a new frame for each one. With an unfamiliar wrenching feeling, Twilight noticed that the dresser only had Big Mac’s things on the left hand side- the right side, her side, was bare. As she walked up to the window to look at whatever Big Mac wanted to show her, she saw that the picture frame on his bedside table had been carefully put on its face, hiding away the subject.
“There,” said Big Mac, indicating the yard out below. Twilight could see Spike and Applebloom both walking around what a vast number of long, metal rods, all stuck into a big wooden base at one end. Most of the rods were bent in quite a few places. There was certainly a sinuous sort of pattern to it, Twilight could see, but she wasn’t quite sure what it was.
Applebloom and Spike were talking, but the window was closed and they’d be too far away to hear what they were saying in any case. Twilight concentrated for a second and pressed her horn to the window- it rippled outwards from where she touched it as though the glass was water. After a second, the window started to vibrate as Spike and Applebloom talked, projecting their voices- with a faintly tinny quality- into the room. Big Mac raised an eyebrow.
“You have been busy,” he said, with the slightest hint of reproach.
“Oh, shush, it’s not permanent. I wanted to hear what they were saying,” Twilight said, and they both listened as Spike and Applebloom got to work.
“Alright, Spike, here and here,” Applebloom said, pointing to two places on one of the metal rods. Spike nodded, and carefully blew a short, intense flame at the sites Applebloom had indicated- as soon as he’d finished, Applebloom grabbed the rod and started twisting it into shape, using the hotter, softer parts as joints.
“Have you even decided what it is yet?” asked Spike, amused at Applebloom’s efforts.
“Ah decided ages ago, little brother. Ah just didn’t tell you, ‘cause if Ah did you’d heat it where you thought it should be heated instead of where Ah wanted it heated.”
Applebloom stepped back and wiped her brow, eyeing her latest change critically.
“Hmm. That’s good for now. Alright, this one next, here and here,” she said, stepping towards the half-finished sculpture, and Spike just folded his arms.
“I’m not just a portable blowtorch, y’know,” he said. “If you tell me what it is I’ll still do what you ask for. You’re the artist.”
“Yeah, and don’t you forget it!” Applebloom said, bumping her flank- complete with an apple-flower cutie mark- into the dragon. “Alright, that ain’t the reason Ah’m not telling you. But Ah ain’t telling you the real reason yet, alright? Trust me on this one.”
Spike levelled a stare at Applebloom, who glared right back at him until Spike snorted a giggle.
“Little sister, you have the worst serious face I ever saw on a pony.”
“Hey! Where d’you get off calling me your little sister?” Applebloom shouted in mock anger, stamping the ground for emphasis.
“I dunno, maybe because you’re younger than me?” Spike said, rolling his eyes. Twilight could sense there was a sort of ritual to this little fake argument. They must have had it hundreds of times.
“Well, that don’t matter none. Ah was in the family first, you came in second. So you’re my little brother and that’s the end of it.”
“Okay, sure. Little sis.” Spike grinned, waiting for Applebloom to rise to the bait, and the young mare turned to face him with an extremely serious look on her face. Slowly, without changing her expression, Applebloom stuck her tongue out at Spike as far as it would go. Spike tried to keep a straight face as she did, but soon burst out into loud peals of laughter. Since when did Spike laugh that loudly? Twilight wondered to herself, and with mounting guilt realised she couldn’t actually pinpoint the last time she’d made the dragon laugh.
“Okay, you win. I’m your little brother today,” he snorted, sitting down in front of the statue.
“Darn straight!” Applebloom grinned and sat by the dragon. “You looking forward to your party? It's getting to be pretty soon.” she asked, and even through the glass Twilight could tell Applebloom was picking her words.
“Yeah, the day after tomorrow! It should be a blast. Everypony’s been invited. Pinkie’s even making me an emerald crumble, whatever that is,” Spike said happily. Twilight thought about the books she’d got for Spike’s birthday this year, wrapped in a ribbon back at the library. She hadn’t planned anything else.
“Did you invite Twilight?” Applebloom asked quietly, and Twilight could see Spike stiffen up slightly.
“Yep. I put it in her social calendar a month ago. She knows when it is.” There was something brittle in the dragon’s voice, and Twilight hated to admit it to herself but it was with good reason- Twilight hadn’t checked her social calendar in about six weeks, and the last time she had it was just to send out apology notes in advance. She’d had no idea about the party until now.
“Just make sure you don’t get your hopes up too much, Spike. It’s not about you- Twilight doesn’t come to any parties. Ah don’t think this one is gonna be any different,” said Applebloom gently.
“Well she’s invited anyway. If she can’t make it it’ll be because she’s too busy. Her work is really important, Applebloom! Some of the stuff she’s working on could save lives. She’s my big sister. She raised me. I’m not going to stop inviting her to things just because she can never make it,” Spike said, but there wasn’t much enthusiasm in his voice. He ran his hands through his spikes and stood up, exhaling loudly and turning to Applebloom.
“Can we talk about something else? This is the only argument I keep having with Scootaloo. I don’t want to have it with you too. I’m not quitting on Twilight, okay? I know she’ll find time. Eventually.”
Applebloom stood up and pulled Spike into an awkward hug.
“Alright, little brother. Whatever you say.”
Twilight turned to Big Mac for a moment, looking up at him with unsure eyes.
“How long’s Spike been calling Applebloom his little sister?” she asked.
“A while,” Big Mac said. He couldn’t hold Twilight’s gaze, and they turned to look back out at the yard- Fluttershy had left the house and was walking towards Applebloom and Spike.
“Hi Fluttershy!” Applebloom said with glee. The reason for her joy was pretty obvious- the pegasus was carrying a basket with sandwiches and a little cake inside it. Fluttershy set it down beside Spike and Applebloom before speaking.
“Hello you two. I saw you were working on the sculpture again and I thought it’d be a good time for a lunch break. Spike, there are a few sapphires in the bottom for you,” said Fluttershy. The dragon’s eyes lit up as he fished out a handful of gems from the bottom of the basket and crunched into one noisily.
“Oh, before I forget, Big Mac left you both letters on the dresser in the dining room. I think they’re from Sweetie Belle, they've got the Canterlot postmark.”
“Really? Great!” Applebloom said, and Spike nodded his assent- his mouth was much too full to say anything. Swallowing, he glanced at Applebloom before asking Fluttershy a question.
“Er, Fluttershy, is it okay if I go visit Scootaloo this afternoon? I got all my chores done earlier today.” Twilight looked closer. Was Spike blushing?
“So long as you got your chores done, Spike. Thank you so much for helping out, and tell Scootaloo I said hello. I honestly don't know how we'd cope without you here,” Fluttershy said, smiling at Spike. He was grinning back the same way he used to when Twilight complimented him on a job well done. Not that he’d stopped doing a good job, Twilight thought to herself. It’s just that their paths didn’t cross as much as they used to. She made a mental note to herself to leave Spike an actual note thanking him for his hard work the next time she got the chance.
“That’s so unfair!” Applebloom pouted. “If Ah only slept two hours a night I could get all my chores done in the morning too.”
“Sure, Applebloom,” Spike said, rolling his eyes. “You’d totally use a three-in-the-morning start to-”
Spike glanced up at the house as he gesticulated, and then did a double-take at Big Mac’s window, cutting himself off and leaving his mouth open. He narrowed his eyes, focussing in on Twilight, and in a burst of panic she backed off into the bed, concentrated for a second and teleported back to the library.
When she arrived, Twilight looked around at the library and breathed a sigh of relief. She felt safe inside the old tree. Everything here was just how she wanted it, from the balcony window (kept two inches ajar) to the kitchen cabinets (coffee in the leftmost cupboard, right beside the mugs) to her writing desk (lit from behind in the afternoon at an angle, so sunlight hit the page but not the eyes).
Twilight shook her head at herself for teleporting out. Still, if Spike had seen her, he'd have mentioned it to Fluttershy, and she'd have told Applejack and Applebloom and then things could have really gone south. Trying to put it out of her mind, Twilight walked over to the crate on her table and fished around inside it for the second letter and elixir. She set the elixir down and opened the letter.
The second of your tutors is going to teach you about earth magic. Take the second elixir with you to the park at the centre of Ponyville and your tutor will meet you there at eight a.m. The elixir will enable you to understand their magic more clearly, and is attuned to your tutor, who is the most powerful font of earth magic in the realm. They will be accompanied by an experienced practitioner of earth magic, since it is poorly understood and has not been studied thoroughly. You will need, in effect, a translator to help you understand how the magic works.
Twilight lifted the elixir and studied it carefully. It was thick, swirling like cream when she tilted it, and it was a bright strawberry pink. Twilight looked at the elixir for a second and double-checked the letter.
most powerful font of earth magic in the realm
Twilight lifted the elixir again. There was no pony this could possibly belong to except Pinkie Pie, surely, but the most powerful earth pony in the realm? Pinkie Pie? Really? Twilight shook her head and started up the stairs to her bedroom. As she did, she caught sight of her writing desk, and an idea occurred to her. Before it had even formed fully, Twilight was sat in front of her desk, carefully rearranging various notes and ledgers.
The Starswirl bursary was an extremely generous gift of money as well as academic freedom, Twilight thought. Most of her experiments were theoretical rather than the expensive practical kind, and she’d been carefully investing and saving almost all of it. With a conservative estimate of the value of Sweet Apple Acres, if she could free up enough money she might be able to help out.
Twilight pulled up one of her investment contracts in front of her, and started carefully going over the clauses that allowed her to remove her money early.