++ Twilight ++
The moment I step hoof in the kitchen, Granny Smith drafts me into helping with warm soup and cider. I love that she so naturally treats me as one of family now, bossing me about. By the smell, there is pie in the oven, making my mouth water. Oh how I love it here, the chaos of the big family and an endless array of tasks that need to be done. Granny doesn't object to my using magic to carefully float over the mass of mugs to the massive farmhouse table for the damp, chilled masses. The soup I take in jaw and walk it carefully over. The Apples have taught me the value in doing things without magic unless my arcane gifts can truly make a task easier or safer.
Applejack steps into the kitchen with a bemused smile on her face, shaking her head at my questioning look. Quickly, she gathers bowls and carries them over in a tray tightly gripped in strong teeth. Spike will be disappointed that he's missing all of this, but he'd been adamant about staying in the library to keep it open for the public. He's so responsible, my number one assistant!
A familiar nuzzle behind my ear makes me giggle and turn away from my thoughts. That almost arrogant smirk on AJ's face would be faintly annoying were it not completely justified. After all, she can turn me to goo with a caress, and I couldn't hide the reaction even if I wanted to. Aware of our audience, I press a quick kiss to her forehead and squeeze in between the Crusader's bench and Rarity's body. Pinkie is spastically gesturing along to some insane story she's telling, somehow not knocking over a single cup, bowl, or lighting fixture. Sometimes I still can't help but wonder how a supposedly mundane earth pony manages the feats that she does. For the most part, I've just learned to accept it or lose my sanity to the inexplicable nature of it all.
It's not just the hovering Fluttershy that freezes in shock when the front door suddenly bashes open, sending a gust of cold wind blasting through the kitchen. "Tarnation! I ain't missed this blasted weather," bellows a familiar voice. "Dang it, foals, get yer rumps out here and lend a hoof!"
The Apple children only gawk for a moment before scrambling for the door. "Pa?" Apple Bloom yells joyously as a very bedraggled Apple Cider clomps into the kitchen. "Pa! Yer home!"
Smiling sweetly at his youngest, the old stallion sweeps her up in a foreleg and cuddles her close. Plucking a towel off of Rarity, I approach and toss it over the green back and withers, noting the saddle sores. What in Equestria has he been up to?
"Mama!" Apple Bloom squeals deafening as an equally wet and bedraggled Pink Lady steps in. She looks as tired as, if not more so, than her husband. Instantly, Granny is fussing over them both and my friends approach with their towels to get the Apple parents dried off. Pink Lady seems a bit taken aback by the attention, but is clearly too tired to do more than stand there wearily. Though she neck-hugs Apple Bloom, kissing the filly warmly. "You grow so fast, Sugar."
"Are you home?"
This should be a private conversation between mother and child and we all discretely fade back, but I still hear Pink Lady's reply. "Yes, my sweet girl. Ah'm afraid that your grandsire passed on a few days ago and your father and I just had to get home. That storm caught us by surprise."
Well, that certainly is a mix of good and bad news. I head for the open front door where I can see and hear that the older Apple siblings are struggling with crates and bulky objects. This seems like a good opportunity for magic and I concentrating on stabilizing their efforts in the whipping wind. Not to mention doing my best to hold down the laden wagon at the door. "Thanks, Love." Applejack grins at me briefly before she returns to her task. Soon, the mud room is so full of things that Mac has difficulty picking his way back to the kitchen. Now the family reunion can truly warm up. I note the rest of the gang has discretely vanished, off to the living room no doubt, and I follow them.
In the living room, the gang has found a board game and are setting up for a game. Dash and Scoot are setting up logs in the fireplace and the former grins at me. "Too bad Spike isn't here!"
"I've been thinking the same thing. Let me pop over to the library and see if he'd like to join us." It's a spell that I need to keep honed anyway. Concentrating, I feel the magic flood through me, filling me like water in a vessel. With a pop, I've gone from here to there in a flash of energy. The dark quiet of the library is a shock after the chaos of the Apple house and I blink to adjust my eyes. "Spike?"
A bright shaft of light from the kitchen door opening makes me shy away as my eyes have begun adjusting to the dark. "Twilight? What are you doing here?"
"Hi there. The gang is having so much fun that I wanted to know if you'd like to join us."
For a moment, Spike eyes his snack before shrugging. "Sure! Let me put this away and I'll come along."
In a few moments his familiar weight is on my back and I can concentrate to teleport back the way I just came. "Now it's a party!" Dash crows and plucks Spike from my back where she hovers overhead. "Come help with the fire, buddy."
I find myself squished in beside Pinkie and Sweetie Belle to play the game. I haven't played 'Pony Life' in years, so this should be fun. At some point, I feel a warm nose nudging my rear and glance back to see Applejack there, looking melancholy and yet happy. Since Sweetie Belle is mostly asleep against my shoulder anyway, I nudge the filly. "Sweetie Belle, honey, would you please climb up on my back to snooze so that Applejack can squeeze in?" Nodding drunkenly, she does as asked, clumsily rasping little hooves into my sensitive hide until AJ gives her a gentle nudge. That sends Belle rolling into the warm valley where Pinkie and I are pressed together, snoozing away in uncaring abandon that her hooves are pointing at the ceiling. Scoot has sprawled atop Dash and the larger pegasus looks a little squished when Apple Bloom joins her. So cute.
"You okay, AJ?" Rainbow Dash asks quietly and instantly the game is forgotten.
"Yeah, I guess. Been a long time a comin', grandsire passin' on. Ah'm sure glad to have my folks home, though."
"Ah-yep," Big Mac agrees quietly where he's made himself comfortable on one of the big couches. We play quietly for a bit longer, but even Pinkie's normally inexhaustible energy winds down and we're all ready for sleep.
"Hey, bro," Dash calls out pointedly at Mac, who raises his big head. "Give a pony a hand? I'm too bird-boned to be a mattress."
Chuckling, Mac nods, but before he can move, I concentrate and his little sister rises up in a purple cloud of unicorn magic. She weighs even less than Spike and is easy to maneuver over to curl up between her brother's big body and the back of the couch. Scootaloo is even lighter and soon joins her, followed by Sweetie Belle's little body. The thick, soft rug and a few pillows provided by Applejack will suffice the rest of us. With the promise of sleep, I find myself drooping with exhaustion suddenly. That must be how I find myself unaccountably curled up against Rarity's ribs, her head tucked up around my front hooves. Pinkie and Fluttershy mimic the pose, Pinkie's rump warm against my hind feet. I smile sleepily when I feel Spike's familiar weight settle onto my ribs, the book he'd been looking at still half open where it falls against his hip. After perching on the back of the couch to check on the fillies, Dash flutters over to settle with a pegasi's weightless effort against Spike and the book, hooves in the air and Pinkie's poofy tail warming her belly. I share a smile with my lover where she stands for a moment, watching the mass of us, before shrugging and imperiously wedging her strong body under Dash's rear end.
There was a time, not so long ago, that this sort of easy familiarity with ponies, even considered friends, would have unnerved me at best. Now, even with my lover out of my reach in the pony pile, I'm completely comfortable. Nestling down into Rarity's soft, lightly perfumed coat, I sigh deeply and relax. Sleep comes easily, despite the angry storm outside.
Small sounds chase back the darkness and I blink awake with a yawn. After a bleary moment I note that I'm wrapped around Spike's scaly body and Pinkie's mane is seriously tickling my nose. When I shift my right foreleg to stand, Rarity mumbles a protest from behind me and I move more carefully. When I shift my rump to stand, I manage to wake Dash, who blinks sleepy fuchsia eyes at me. "Sorry, Dash, go back to sleep." Nodding, the party-colored pegasus wiggles over Spike's little body and takes my place as I step away. Good, now everypony will stay warm. Applejack isn't in the pile anymore, though Mac hasn't moved, one green eye tracking my movement across the room.
"Well, good mornin' there, Sugar," Pink Lady greets me as I step into the dimly lit kitchen. To my embarrassment, I yawn at her, though she only chuckles lightly. "Would you care for some tea?"
"Oh, that sounds lovely, thank you. Are you feeling rested today?"
With the same effortless dexterity she passed on to her children, the elegant pink pony has prepared a steaming mug and delivers it under my nose. "Oh, I'll be needin' a nap once we can take stock of the storm damage, but ah'm fine for now. Thank you for helpin' out yesterday, you and the others."
"Our pleasure. This farm gets in your blood." It sounds so pretentious when I say it like that and my loose tongue makes me cringe. "If you know what I mean."
Pink Lady only smiles gently and her eyes flicker over my head. "Yes, Twilight, ah know exactly what you mean."
The deep-voiced 'hurumph' from behind me makes me jump up and whirl around in surprise, only to find myself snout to snout with Apple Cider. "Can't love an Apple without lovin' Sweet Apple Acres," he grumbles, but I swear I can see a glint of what seems like humor in his eye. Wait, what did he just say? Could the old stallion finally be giving me some slack?
"Yes, sir, that is so very true."
Apple Cider nuzzles his wife's cheek before heading over to the tea pot. The moment of acceptance feels surreal, but I'm determined not to freak out and say or do something stupid. With that in mind, I decide that my hooves may not be steady and take a chance at magically raising my mug to drink. It's just so yummy that my nerves settle and I can't fight a smile. "You like that?" Pink Lady teases affectionately and my smile deepens blissfully. Whatever spices she added in make the tea and honey positively intoxicating. Then her elegant ears peak up and I instinctively do the same. "Sounds like Applejack is comin' back, Pa."
Sure enough, there is rhythmic, muffled clopping for a moment before the door opens. With a quick smile at the Apple parents, I gallop to my lover, who is a soaking wet mess. "Mornin', Sugar." She grins brightly from beneath a dripping hat and forelock. "Sleep well?"
"I slept fine. What a mess you are!" Chuckling evilly, she crouches a bit and I instinct tells me to back up. Sure enough, she braces all of those fine muscles and shakes out her sodden coat, flinging water droplets everywhere. I can't help my girlish squeak of outrage at the sprinkling and duck back into the kitchen for a moment until the indoor rain ends and I can affectionately pseudo-tackle her with a hug and kiss. I'm quite certain that I hear chuckling from the kitchen. "What in Equestria were you doing out in this?"
"Checkin' things out best ah'm able, a course! The damage is minimal, thank goodness," AJ happily explains as she rinses muddy hooves in the low sink in the mud room. When did all the boxes and crates get moved? "Sorry ta get ya wet."
The faint leer in her comment makes me blush girlishly and give her flank a playful nip. "Not in front of your parents, you beast."
Getting dry turns into a playful giggle fest, finally stopped with sweet kisses and a brief cuddle.
"I missed you last night," I whisper into one ear and kiss behind the stiff peak. "Having you so close and yet so far away."
"Me too, Love. Let's not let that happen again, huh?" Good smells coax us away from the questionable privacy of the mudroom and we join the Apple parents and a bleary-eyed Pinkie Pie and Sweetie Belle for leftovers from last night. There is also the usual assortment of delicious apple recipes, all of which I love. "Y'know," AJ muses, tapping her chin with a hoof. "This storm's gonna hang up our trip to Canterlot."
Rubbing my eyes, I sigh deeply. "That does keep happening. At this rate, I'm never going to get to tell my folks, much less Princess Celestia, about us. It feels so dishonest."
"Twilight," Apple Cider says gently and I look at him in surprise. This may very well be the very first time that he's used my name. "This relationship with mah daughter took some gettin' used to. Would it help if yer folks came ta visit and stayed with us? Neutral territory and all that. 'Sides, we kin talk to 'em as peers."
Yes, I'm gawking, but I can't help it. This is the recalcitrant pony I never thought would accept me. The tears aren't feigned and I can't help myself from rushing over to hug him, hard. After a stiff moment, he hugs me back. "Thank you, sir," is all I can get past the lump in my throat. When I do lean away, he shocks me further with a paternal hoof smoothing over my forelock, briefly touching my horn.
"Well, you sure ain't what ah ever expected fer my eldest girl, but yer family now. Come're, Applejack and giver yer stubborn old pa a hug."
We girls happily oblige him.
Once I've calmed down and finish my breakfast, I wake the rest of the pony pile to get some food in them before I recruit Spike's magical message sending abilities. I'm hoping that Princess Celestia will take the chariot here and can bring along my parents. Then they can visit after the storm. At least now the weather has subsided to mere rain and not the mess it was last night. As though reading my thoughts, Dash stretches mightily and flashes a grin. "Thanks for breakfast, Apple clan, but I gotta run and help out breakin' up this storm. Later, guys."
She's gone with a slammed door and Pink Lady eyes Fluttershy curiously. "Not you, Sugar?" Our shy pal cringes away and looks to a smiling Big Mac for support.
"I... I'm not a very good flier," she whispers, though her voice is heard because we've all habitually quieted.
"Like yer hooves on the ground, huh?" Apple Cider chuckles, looking between the shy pegasus and myself, shaking his head. So he sees it, too, the soppy way Mac looks at our demure pal and the way she shyly returns the gaze. The Apple family charm strikes again!
Only I can stay at the farm for clean up, as the other all have their own responsibilities to tend to. Luckily for me, Spike is more than capable of running the library without me. So, once the rain has reduced itself to slightly less than a downpour, we're out in it to check on the damage. Darkness falls both too quickly and not quickly enough. I'm so tired! I miss dinner completely, as a quick shower and AJ's warm bed do me in. Luckily, my early night and empty belly have me awake the moment Granny makes her small noises in the wee hours before dawn and I get an actual breakfast before the others wake, ready for more work.
While I start out relatively strong, it's backbreaking work and I have real trouble keeping up. I'm just not as sturdy as this stock! Nothing will ever change that. I can't be an earth pony any more than the Apples could be unicorns. After lunch, Pink Lady takes me in hoof to work as her partner and finds more appropriate tasks to my strengths. With a snort and a chuckle, Cider assures me that no one thinks any less of me for it.
Pleased by that reassurance, I do as I'm told and shadow Pink Lady. The cows are happy for our attention as we ensure their cozy barn is fine after the storm, fix what we can, and make a note of what we cannot. There isn't a lot of chatter with my pony companion, but that's okay with me. The quiet isn't awkward and that's all that matters. With practice, I've gotten adept enough with a broom that I can use one normally and a second one with magic, a skill I’m justifiably proud of, so I take that need on a lot while I'm here at the farm. Yes, it's busywork, but it's busywork that somepony else doesn't have to do if I make the effort. I've just about finished in the barn, slowly backing my way down the aisle between stalls, stepping once more into the seemingly endless mud, when I hear strange whinnying.
When I look around, both brooms fall to the ground in my shock.
Rearing and whinnying with frisky energy are two pegasi of the royal guard... harnessed to the royal chariot... with Princess Celestia... and Princess Luna... and a stranger who seems vaguely familiar... and my parents!
Apple Cider and his children are just straightening up from a bow to meet Celestia's gentle smile, before they pounce on the strange young stallion with noisy enthusiasm. Even as all of this registers to my mind, I find myself glancing at my filthy hide and cringing. I am a walking mud spatter literally from nose to tail, an extra layer of the sticky stuff splattered all the way up to my belly. Oh, this is not fair! Then I have to sigh and set vanity aside. My filth is legitimately earned and I refuse to be ashamed of that.
"Pink Lady?" I call out and her head pops out of a storage room at the far end of the barn. "The Princesses and my parents are here. I'll let them know that you'll be along in a moment." Turning away from her understandable shock, I shake out mane and tail as best I'm able and canter over. "Mom! Dad! Princesses! What a delightful surprise!" After sketching a quick bow to the royals, I rub noses with my folks and grin at them. "Welcome to Sweet Apple Acres! Have introductions been made yet?"
When Princess Celestia shakes her head, I quickly remedy the problem, including Apple Bloom who stares in awe from behind her brother's leg. It's Applejack that verifies the strange colt's identity as the missing brother, Jazz Apple, home from his fancy music school in Manehattan. He's a handsome devil with a deep orange coat and closely worn green mane and tail. When we're introduced I can't help but note his speculative appraisal. "Well hello, pretty lady. I am indeed pleased to meet you." His farm accent has faded quite a lot compared to his family, and his gaze is frank enough to make me a bit uncomfortable.
Even as a little, guilty part of me can't even help being warmed by the attention paid.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Jazz. Your sister has talked about you."
Refusing to look at Applejack to see if my unexpected draw to her brother was noticed, I turn to the Princesses. "Hello, Twilight Sparkle," Celestia smiles and I get a small hug from her, which I relish. "How has my favorite student been?"
"Busy," I tell her truthfully. "There's always something to learn, especially here at Sweet Apple Acres. I'm very glad that you could come see it in person."
"As am I. Ah, this must be your mother then, Jazz Apple. Won't you excuse us, Twilight?"
Demurring with something polite and inane, I turn my attention to the younger princess. Once my enemy, almost destroying the wonderful ponies who would become my friends, freed from a madness I have never really been able to comprehend, this is the pony who was once Nightmare Moon. There are changes in her, she has grown taller and slightly darker in coloring and her mane and tail have begun to look like a starscape, fluttering with magical movement like her sister's. The changes are striking, reflecting how she has been changed, freed from the evil that consumed her and reunited with her sister. Moonlit blue eyes watch me warily, tinged with respect and... fear?
Well, the Elements of Harmony did defeat her handily.
The blue eyes flicker over even as I become aware of my lover's presence at my shoulder. I watch the mysterious gaze move from Applejack's face, down to where I know the golden necklace of the Element of Honesty lies around her throat.
"Princess Luna," I find myself saying quietly and her eyes return to me. "We started off on the wrong hoof. Could we perhaps start again?" Surprise and humor lighten the dark face.
"Yes, I think I would like that."
And with the traditional touching of hooves, we have sealed the deal. Applejack is a bit warier, but also offers peace to the younger princess and I can at last turn my attention to my bemused parents. Not every pony in Equestria looks so like a mix of dam and sire as I do. The spitting image of mother, that's me, excepting that I'm darker more like my father. They both chuckle and hug back when I throw both forelegs around them to squeeze as hard as I can. "I've missed you both so much! Thank you for coming. It really did seem like every time I tried to come see you, a storm would blow in and stop me! Even my pegasus friend, Rainbow Dash, commented on it."
"Oh, Kitten, we've missed you too. Ponyville is just so far away," Mom tells me, leaning away to fuss with my dirty forelock. "You are in quite a state, dear."
"The storm made a real mess; though it's much harder to tell now."
Dad hugs me tight, much less concerned about my dirty hide, and smiles affectionately. "Now didn't I always say that you could do anything? Now you've gone and become a farm pony! What brought this on?"
And here it is, my opening for the truth.
It shames me to admit that I freeze up in a blind panic. Strangely, I barely note my parent's puzzled expressions, but instead, I am caught up in the odd, thoughtful way that Luna regards me, head cocked off to one side. I cannot decipher her expression or whatever thoughts lie behind it. Because of that, I cannot look away. She seems both baffled and pleased by my panic for a long moment before shaking it off and resolutely stepping forward. Whatever she was going to do or say will forever remain a mystery as Apple Cider's voice suddenly comes from beside me.
"Welcome to Sweet Apple Acres, folks. Ah think y'all best come inside and take a sit down fer this. Ah know ah needed ta."
His heavy foreleg over my shoulders gives me the strength to nod weakly. With that somehow settled, I'm given a push in the direction of Applejack where she stands with her mother and Princess Celestia. Oh curses! I have to tell her, too! My hangdog face brings my lover to me, her head coiling under mine to give me a throttling neck hug. "That time, huh?"
Oh, those indescribably beautiful green eyes are so tender and full of adoration that I can't help choking up. Before Applejack can get concerned at my tears, I throw both forelegs around her shoulders and squeeze until she chuckles and calls uncle. "Princess," I try to say and my voice cracks like a teenage colt's. "If you'd join us inside, I'd really rather only go through this once."
Pink Lady's sympathy makes me want to cry again as she steps over to Princess Luna to extend the invitation. As we step into the mudroom, the scents of Granny's cooking is an intoxicating cloud that makes Princess Celestia inhale so deeply I'm almost surprised my mane doesn't flutter. "Oh," she breathes out with wonder. "That smells so heavenly. I can't remember the last time I had fresh baked apple pie."
"Then yer in the right place, yer highness," Applejack chuckles and leads the way in, me meekly at her tail. "Come have some tea and pie."
Much later, I will realize how deliberately calm and relaxed our hosts are. Unlike the Cakes, who were in fits over Celestia's visit last year, the Apples are deferential but not fawning. The princesses seem pleased by the relaxed treatment. Pink Lady's tea appears under my nose and Applejack urges me to drink. As it has before, the sweet and savory brew instantly calms me and I stare into the steaming liquid for a long moment.
"I've fallen in love."
Yes, that was my voice blurting that out like some barely articulate filly over the quiet murmur of conversations. And yes, every eye is now on me.
"Why, Kitten, that's wonderful," mother gushes. "Who's the lucky stallion?"
Big Mac freezes as mom's eyes slide slyly to him, though I admire his not choking on his pie. Applejack is making great effort not to facehoof in exasperation, but when she opens her mouth to speak, I find the courage to finish what I've started.
"Not a stallion, mom, but Applejack here."
Shocked silence descends; no surprise there. In a show of solidarity, AJ drapes a foreleg over my withers and straightens up her posture proudly.
"I've wanted to tell you for months, but I couldn't bear writing it down in a letter. It seemed so… impersonal. And I've been agonizing this whole time what I would say and worrying that you'd disown me or something horrible like that, or you wouldn't like AJ here or something equally as awful or…"
"You can do that?"
Luna's curious comment is so like Pinkie's all those months ago that I cannot stop bursting into slightly hysterical laughter.
Celestia smiles warmly at her sister before turning back to me and Applejack. "Ah, I think this explains why I have been feeling as though you have been holding something back in your letters. As you did not appear to be in any sort of jeopardy, I did not press. This is an unexpected twist in friendship, is it not?"
Looking deeply into my beloved's gaze, I nod. "Very." A quirk of the finely shaped mouth makes me fight a shiver of sensual reaction and force my attention back to my mentor and parents. "Unexpected and truly the most amazing feeling that I have ever had. I hope that you can be happy for me."
And, at least for now, that seems to be that.