As two hooves were technically even, it was decided that Lucky Chance would stay with Applejack for the time being. As they were walking over the terrain of Sweet Apple Acres towards the farmhouse, his eyes grew wider with each step he took. He had seen Sweet Apple Acres before on television, but despite the best efforts of greeting card companies, humanity had not found a way to properly fit such an enormous scale on a flat surface. Much like a picture of Mount Everest could never aspire to do the real thing justice, seeing this waving sea of apple trees from the leisurely comfort of your couch was nothing like actually walking there and smelling the impossible combination of blossom and ripened apples. A city boy by birth, Chance enjoyed every second of this new experience.
“What're yah slowing down for?” Applejack asked, slightly irritated.
Chance answered without looking at her. “Just admiring your beautiful orchard.”
Applejack's chest swelled with pride. She still didn't trust this stranger, and was determined to take everything he said with a grain of salt. However, even she couldn't possibly keep her emotions under control after hearing such a compliment on her life's work. “Well, we didn't steal our reputation. There's a good reason why we get to ship our goods all over Equestria,” she bragged.
“Keeping this place running must be an awful lot of work.”
“Oh, it sure is.” Applejack quietly laughed to herself as they approached the farmhouse.
“So, what do I tell your family?” Chance asked.
“Just play along with what I say, and make something up when they ask questions. You're good at that, aren't yah?” said Applejack.
Chance didn't protest as they entered the house. He wasn't particularly proud of the fact, but years of not doing homework had provided him with an uncanny ability to generate excuses on the spot.
The two ponies entered the living room, where they found a large, red-coated stallion reading a newspaper, and an elderly lady with striking horn-rimmed reading glasses that reminded Chance of a particularly garish butterfly, working on what appeared to be a crossword puzzle.
“Afternoon everypony! Ah brought a guest today!" Applejack announced. "This here is Lucky Chance. He came to Ponyville under weird circumstances, and he'll be staying with us for a while.” Chance, who as a child usually had to argue for hours with his mother to let a friend sleep over, was a little shocked by the ease at which she just made such a matter-of-fact statement out of his arrival.
The big stallion looked up from his newspaper and walked up to Chance, offering his hoof in a friendly gesture.
“This is mah brother, Big Macintosh,” said Applejack.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Chance in response to this introduction, while awkwardly shaking the huge hoof in front of him.
“Eeyup,” Macintosh agreed with a nod and smile, and then returned to his newspaper.
“Granny, did yah hear what I just said?”
Granny, who up to that point hadn't moved yet, looked up from her puzzle and took off her glasses. “Eh? Oh, welcome back, Applejack. Did yah have fun with your friends? Who's this lad?”
“This here is Lucky Chance. He'll be staying with us for a while.”
“Making a fuss? Well, tell him to do that outside!”
“No, Granny. Not making a fuss. He's staying! With! Us!"
“Ooooh, why didn't you say so? Hullo, boy, I'm Granny Smith. We don't entertain guests often, but you probably won't get bored much,” Granny said, weakly shaking Chance's hoof.
“Thank you very much, ma'am. I'm sure it won't be a problem,” Chance replied in full honesty, charmed as he was by this warm welcome.
“Oh, it sure won't," Applejack cut in, "'cause he'll be earning his keep, won't yah, Chance?”
“Wait, what?" Chance was surprised at the way she phrased that. He had, of course, intended to make himself useful while waiting for Midnight Watch and Twilight Sparkle to sort out his current mess, but he hadn't expected Applejack to make such a formal transaction out of it.
But then he remembered what she had said about playing along. "I mean, yes, yes I will.”
“Oh, good. A few days of honest farm work, that's what makes stallions out of colts," said Granny with an approving nod. "Why don't yah show our guest his room? After that, yah can get back to work.”
“Will do, Granny. C'mon now, Chance!” Applejack turned around and beckoned for him to follow her.
Chance followed Applejack upstairs, where he found a narrow hallway with doors on both sides, like you'd find in a farmhouse in an ancient Spaghetti Western. Applejack walked all the way to the end and indicated the last door. “This here will be your room. Go on and have a look.”
Chance obeyed and, after unlocking the handle, gave the door a gentle push. His bones shook as a screeching noise filled what seemed to be the entire world, as if a particularly touchy soprano singer had stubbed her toe. He'd never heard the wail of a banshee before, but now he knew exactly what it would sound like.
“That door could use a drip of oil,” he noted.
“Yah think? Ah suppose,” said Applejack while inspecting her hoof.
Chance then inspected the actual room. Granny did not lie when she said they didn't get many guests. By the light of a small window, he saw all kinds of random junk, from broken ironing boards to old flower pots that someone had bought on a whim and then stored here as soon as they had realised that it didn't match their curtains. The bed was hardly visible, and Chance wondered whether the blanket was actually grey, or if he should be using that carpet beater in the corner. “You know, you really don't have to go through all this trouble. I'm a man of few needs. I could sleep on the couch. Or the barn. Or the patio.”
“Not gonna happen. You're a proper guest, so you'll be getting a proper room, right? Now come on; we've got a lot of work to do.”
As Applejack walked back down the hall, Chance had to fight an inexplicable urge to run away as far as he could.
“So, what did you call yourself again? Hugh-noms? How do I picture such a creature?” Twilight walked alongside Midnight Watch towards the library. Her step seemed to be a little more energetic than usual, betraying her excitement over possibly learning something new about the way the universe -no, the multiverse- works. The magic of friendship had so far been a most interesting subject but, every now and then, she felt like exploring the more traditional fields of science.
“It's 'humans'. Picture a tall, naked ape that walks on two legs, and you're pretty close,” said Midnight after realising that Twilight probably wouldn't appreciate "a miserable pile of secrets" as an answer.
“Naked ape? You mean like... a bald gorilla?"
“More like a chimpanzee. And not completely bald. It's just that most of the hair that we do have is in embarrassing places, so we prefer to ignore it.”
“Oh, okay.” Having hair all over her body, Twilight didn't really understand what could be considered an embarrassing place to have hair, but she decided that she'd rather not know. “So, what do you think of Equestria? Is it very different from the human world?”
Midnight carefully considered his answer. “You know, now that I think of it, it's not that different at all,” he lied. Of course, he could think of many, many things that were different, but he'd rather not introduce Twilight to concepts like AIDS, world hunger or reality television. “I think that the main differences are the local dominant species and the fact that there is no magic.”
Twilight slowed to a halt as she heard this, and gave Midnight a shocked look as she tried to imagine a world without magic. One could hardly blame her: It was as if someone had told a young Einstein to imagine a universe in which physics somehow didn't work. Of course, to make this comparison work, one must imagine Einstein before he became aware of quantum mechanics, because otherwise, he'd know that physics doesn't make any sense in our world either.
“No magic? At all?”
“Well, it is of course impossible to prove a negative, but let's just say that those on the 'no magic' side of the fence have made a pretty compelling case,” Midnight flatly said.
Twilight still couldn't quite picture it. “But... then... how do you people live? Magic is involved in almost every aspect of life that I can think of."
“We found other ways to adjust our environment to suit our needs, usually with the aid of machines,” Midnight said, remembering his high-school philosophy course, in which his teacher explained to him what distinguishes a human from animals. Strangely enough, taking a course in philosophy had involved a lot of listening to the ideas of others, rather than doing his own thinking. The only good idea Midnight had come up with in that class was to agree with whatever the teacher said.
“We have machines as well, but those are all powered by magic.”
“Well, ours are powered by either some sort of fuel or electricity.”
Twilight gave this some thought. She'd heard the term "electricity" before, but no pony actually used it like that. “You mean lightning?” she asked, using the term she was more familiar with.
“Yeah, sort of like that. We learned how to generate lightning using magnets and copper or something. And we use that energy to power our devices.” Midnight was starting to have trouble explaining the concept of a magic-less world to Twilight, as he was neither an engineer nor a physicist. In one way or another, he used electronics every second of his life, but he'd never bothered to figure out how they'd worked. As far as he knew, all of it might as well have been magic.
Thankfully, after giving up on the physics of this strange world, Twilight decided she wanted to know more about the implications for day-to-day life. “So, what is it you do? Do you have a profession?”
“No, not really. I'm a student."
Twilight's eyes grew large, and she grinned as if she had just won the lottery. “Really? What do you study?”
Midnight proudly puffed up his chest. “Dentistry!”
“Oh,” was all Twilight had to say in response.
Subconsciously, Midnight added "disappointment" to the list of reactions he got when he told people about his course. Other items on the list included "ridicule", "complete disinterest" and "pity". “Yes, I know, it's not the most exciting way of life ever, but everyone will always need dentists. Once I get my practice going, I'll be set for life. Is there anything wrong with that?”
“No, no, of course not. Did I say anything?” Twilight answered, flustered by her own rudeness.
“You were thinking it.”
“Can you read minds?” Twilight asked hopefully.
“No, I read faces,” Midnight snapped.
“Oh, right. Hey, looks like we're here already!” Twilight laughed nervously as she walked towards the tree that did double duty as the public library. She was glad that they no longer needed to talk about this, as it seemed to be a touchy subject.
As they entered through the door, they were greeted by a voice that seemingly came out of nowhere. “Hey, Twilight! And welcome to the library, sir!”
It took Midnight a while before he found the familiar baby dragon on top of a ladder, dusting the bookshelves. Twilight didn't seem to have the same problem. “Hey Spike. Don't worry about formalities; he isn't a client. His name is Midnight Watch. He has a problem, and asked us for help,” she said. Midnight raised a hoof in a greeting gesture.
“Oh, okay. What kind of problem?” said Spike without interrupting his work.
“I'll explain it to you as well as the Princess. Take a note, Spike.”
Hearing his cue, Spike slid down the edge of his ladder and ran for the nearest parchment and quill. Once fully equipped, he gave Twilight the "go" sign, and Twilight started dictating. In a great show of penmanship, he wrote down her letter almost as quickly as she could speak, and in very nice handwriting.
Midnight was most impressed. His own notes usually suggested that somewhere in history, a rooster got ink on his legs and ran across the paper while being chased by a fox with particularly dirty paws. His mother referred to it as "doctor's handwriting", but his teachers preferred the term "illegible mess".
Once finished, Spike read what exactly he had been writing and looked up with a raised eyebrow. “That's his problem?”
Twilight smiled assuringly. “It's all right, Spike. Just send the letter.”
“Well, okay.” Spike shrugged as he walked up to the window. He thought it was a strange story, but had faith in Twilight's judgement. Besides, it wasn't the weirdest thing that had happened around her ever since he was born. In fact, it didn't even break the top five.
Only a moment after the letter was sent up in the sky by Spike's green flame, he burped, and a new letter with a fancy seal appeared.
“Well, that was fast,” Midnight noted.
“Yes, indeed. Let me read it,” said Twilight. The letter flew towards her and opened itself in front of her eyes. Her face seemed to darken a little with each word she read. Eventually, she sighed and faced Midnight. “It's not a reply. The princess must have send this letter at the same moment we send ours.”
Midnight braced himself for impact. “Okay, and what does this one say?”
“She and her sister, Luna, will be away for a month to the griffon lands, in order to celebrate five hundred years of good relations between our nations,” she summarised with some reluctance.
Midnight sat down at this news, and took a deep breath in and out. “Well, that sure messes with my schedule,” he finally said with a bitter smile.
“Will you be missing something important?”
“Not particularly, no. I had a big exam in two weeks, but I can retry it at a later date. Or next year, failing that. I'm more worried about how my family will react when they find out that I've disappeared without a trace.” Midnight didn't lose his smile, but his eyes showed that he wasn't taking this well.
“I'm sorry, but this is all I can do for you,” Twilight said, trying to make herself feel a bit better, but was interrupted by Spike suddenly coughing loudly. After a few seconds of nearly choking, he burped once more, and another letter appeared, along with about a dozen coins. Twilight immediately opened the letter and gasped.
“What? What does it say?” Midnight asked, as hope once again entered his heart.
“It says 'take care of them in my absence'!” Twilight exclaimed.
Midnight wondered what the big deal was. “Well, that's a nice sentiment, I guess.”
“Don't you get it? The princess is testing me! She wants to know if I'm capable of handling her duties, and asked me to solve your problem. Oh, I've been waiting for this chance for ages!” Twilight bounced around the room with excitement, striking Midnight speechless with this sudden display of energy.
Spike picked up the letter and gave it a quick read. “Ehm, Twilight? I don't think that's what she's saying.”
“Oh, Spike, you need to read between the lines to see it.”
“It's only one line,” Spike noted.
“Nevertheless, I'm going to take care of this. Spike, scratch all unessential entries on my schedule for this week. I'm going to buy some more quills and parchment. Be back in a minute.” Twilight galloped out of the door.
Peace made its re-entry into the library, and Midnight found his voice again. “I don't like where this is going.”
“Yeah, we're in for it now. Wanna play some checkers while we still can?”
Midnight shrugged. “Eh. Whatever.”
“Yah ever done farm work before?” Applejack asked her protégé.
Chance was right behind her, pulling a large cart filled with empty baskets. “I've harvested flowers as a kid, but I never been on an orchard before,” he answered, remembering just how much he hated tulips.
“Well, then let me give yah a quick explanation. What we do here is...”
Applejack started her summary of the Apple family business, but lost Chance somewhere along the way. His gaze wandered about, and was suddenly caught by something right in front of him. He knew he was not supposed to be staring at it, but he just couldn't help it. It was right in front of him, and beckoned him with each step they took. It swayed with a hypnotic rhythm to the left, then the right, left, right, left, right...
“Did you get all that?” Applejack suddenly asked.
“Plot! I mean, no, ma'am, sorry, ma'am!” Chance jumped up and tried very hard to look at some random point in the far distance, a little red in the face.
Applejack sighed. “Just drop the cart and do as Ah say. We're here.” They were now standing in front of one of the many trees of the orchard, and the branches on this one hung heavy with fruit. “This here's an apple tree,” she pointed out while spreading out some empty baskets around it. “Ah want you to get up there and shake down them apples.”
Chance wasn't sure how he was going to fulfil this mission. He was certainly willing, but he couldn't help but notice a distinct lack of low-hanging branches. “Erm, how am I supposed to climb up there?”
Applejack gave him a blank stare. “You're a pegasus. You can fly."
Chance turned his head for as far as he could, trying to discover the final surprise this new body had in mind for him. He had noticed his wings before, but had completely forgotten about them. Now that he was reminded of his extra limbs, a huge grin appeared on his face, showing all the teeth he had. While others might dream of telekinesis, immortality or lightning bolts from their fingertips, he was a man of simple tastes: His most coveted superpower was flight.
“Today, please.” Applejack impatiently tapped with her hind leg against the tree.
“Yeah, yeah, gimme a sec.” Chance's tongue crawled out of the corner of his mouth as his brain searched every synapse for the ones that would control his new toys. Up to now, all the muscles in his pony body were at least analogous to the ones in his human body, but this was something entirely new, though that would not be a problem. He had figured out how to wiggle his ears as a human, so he could figure out how to use his wings as a pony.
Finally, his left wing slowly unfolded. Soon after, the right wing followed its example. Chance tried three slow flaps. He could already feel himself being slightly lifted from the ground from just that. He braced himself against the ground like a sprinter for the hundred metre dash and gave a few more powerful flaps to prime himself for what he was about to do. His eyes widened. He leapt.
It was over in a flash. A horizontal bolt of green lightning hit the targeted tree right in the middle of its trunk. Around his unmoving body rained beautiful red apples, filling up the baskets.
The last thing he heard before losing consciousness was Applejack whistling a note of begrudging respect. “Not bad for a beginner, but yah might wanna use a helmet next time,” she said, as she turned to take a first-aid kit from the cart.
Twilight trotted through the busy streets of Ponyville with full saddlebags, humming a pleasant tune. The smell of fresh parchment got her in the perfect mood for her new project. She was about to learn more about life, the universe and everything and make Princess Celestia proud. She would also do those two guys a favour, of course. Thinking of her future accomplishments, she sped up her pace.
She approached her library, but as she was just about to open the door, she sighted something unusual. Ten metres from her house, there was a sign saying "R. Dash" attached to a long rope hanging from the sky. With her curiosity getting the better of her, Twilight temporarily abandoned her ambitions in order to investigate. Looking upwards towards to source of the rope, she discovered a cloud that looked surprisingly familiar.
Twilight groaned, and tugged on the rope. As expected, a high-pitched bell sounded from above, and soon enough, the face of the perpetrator revealed itself.
“Why, hello, new neighbour!" said the face while a hoof waved in a friendly gesture. "I'll stop by later with cookies, if you want!”
Twilight tried to look stern. “Rainbow Dash! Why is your house here?”
“I moved it!” Rainbow replied casually.
“Yes, I suspected as much. Why did you move it? When you showed me your house, you gave me a long list of reasons why your usual spot was the most 'totally awesome' spot in Ponyville.”
“Oh, I just felt like a change of scenery. And now that I'm closer to the library, it'll be easier for me to get my Daring Do books!”
“You've already read the entire series!”
“Well, I want to read them again. And after that, I feel like I should try writing some stories of my own! 'The Awesome Adventures of Rainbow Dash', I'll call it. And once I get to that, I'll need the library. You know, for research.”
“Right.” Twilight wasn't sure what surprised her more: her friend considering a career in creative writing, or the fact that she knew the meaning of the word "research". “And this wouldn't happen to have anything to do with my proj-, I mean, guest?” Twilight asked, despite knowing the answer.
“Guest? What guest? Oh, that guest. You're still on about that? I actually forgot,” said Rainbow as she looked at some birds in the distance.
Twilight had heard enough, and she turned around. “Yes, of course you did. Anyway, I'm a little busy, so if you don't mind, I'm going back inside.”
“Sure, no problem. I'll stop by later. Oh, by the way, how would you like it if I installed a bell connected to your house? Then, you can call me whenever you want without actually going outside. Neat, huh?”
“Yeah, sure, go ahead. Bye.” Twilight was not in the mood for pointless arguing; Rainbow wouldn't be so easily convinced with reason. She'd just sort it out later.
Besides, if she could solve this mystery soon enough, it won't matter anyway.