Applejack cantered slowly, yet steadily, through the dirt road surrounded by apple trees, her speed was caused by both the fatigue that plagued her body and her caution to avoid any jolt of pain from her bandaged hind legs; while the blond mare only wished to lay on her bed for some much needed rest, she knew that going faster would only leave her even more exhausted, so she continued on with her lagging walk.
When the cowmare reached the fence surrounding the large wooden house, the sky was already darkening and she let out a sigh of relief; as much as Applejack had wanted to get work done in the farm, that desire had gradually vanished during the long walk back home.
The farmer pushed the fence gate gently, careful not to make any noise; she prefered if her arrival was left unnoticed, at least for the moment, a desire that was, however, denied as a friendly yellow pegasus walked out of the house’s front door, closing it as gently as she could.
Fluttershy...Ah had forgot’n about her Applejack thought, fetching the memory of the animal taker walking to her home alongside Applebloom and Big Macintosh. The pegasus noticed her friend just as she turned around to go back to the cottage; Fluttershy showed a caring smile, but also let out a hint of worry in her face.
“Applejack...” the shy pony greeted hesitantly as the farmer swung the door open “A-are you ok? Did you talk to Winter?”
“Ah did...” Applejack answered, somewhat surprised by how quickly her friend got to the point.
“I’m sorry, Applejack. I’m so sorry.” a tiny sob escaped the pegasus’ mouth “All this time you were so sad, an-and I didn’t even realise it. I’m so sorry.” she said again, salty tears flowing down her cheeks and chin before dropping to the dirt bellow.
“Fluttershy, it wasn’t yer fault.” the farmer tried to comfort the yellow mare; Her attempt did little effect, as Fluttershy’s quiet but painful sobbing showed only a short halt.
“Can you forgive me?” the soft voice pled, striking at Applejack’s heart. Fluttershy hung her head low in shame and sorrow. Suddently, she felt a weight on her shoulders, and threw her head back in surprise; her spirit calmed when she realised her dear friend had wrapped her hooves around her neck and was now holding her in a tight embrace.
A warm drip touched the pegasus’ shoulder, only then did she realise that her friend’s eyes were also watering.
“No, Fluttershy. I can’t forgive ya ‘cause there ain’t nothin’ ta forgive.” Applejack said in a lowly tone, her voice almost shivering.
Fluttershy instantly held the orange mare with a strong hug of her own; the two ponies stood there for a few seconds before breaking the embrace, quickly wiping their tears away.
“Sorry...” the shy pony repeated, this time between sheepish giggles “I’m such a cry-baby.”
“And Ah’m guessing yer worried ‘bout Winter too, huh?” Applejack guessed.
“Hum...well it’s just that...”
“Go on. Ah know ya wanna talk ta him. He’s still at yer place.” the blond pony said, pointing to the dirt road she had just come from with a small smile in her face.
Filled with another wave of relief, Fluttershy gave her friend another quick hug and said her goodbyes before heading back home; Everything was starting to get better, Applejack would start recovering, Winter had been accepted.
Everything is going to be allright she thought; No more fights, no more hidden sadness, it would take a while, but everything would be back to the way it was, except for their new friend.
Applejack resumed her slow cantering to her home’s front door; as she gently opened it, she could hear a low conversation from inside, but couldn’t quite understand what was being said. Once her hoof steps began to echo across the rooms, the mysterious chatter came to a full stop, leaving the house in complete silence, followed by the sound of several hooves tapping the wooden floor of the living room.
The farmer entered the room to find her best friends standing next to a small coffee table with many empty teacups on it. The group glared at Applejack with the same hidden sadness in their eyes. The silence was unsettling, as even Pinkie Pie couldn’t muster a word to the blond mare; Twilight opened her mouth to talk, but closed it again when she realised she had no idea of what to say.
The quiet ambient remained the same for a few seconds until Big Macintosh walked in through the kitchen, carrying a large teapot in his mouth that released a sweet aroma into the air; the stallion didn’t even change his pace when he noticed his sister in the room, and quickly set the teapot on the low table and took a deep breath before opening his mouth to speak.
“Wait.” Applejack interrupted before the red pony could let out a single word “Where’s Applebloom?”
“She went to my house with Sweetie Belle, darling.” Rarity answered in Big Mac’s place, seizing her chance to break the agonizing silence between them ”It took quite a bit of convincing, I must say.”
“What did ya tell her, Big Mac?” the orange pony questioned her brother again, she had to know just how much Applebloom had discovered that day.
“Tha truth.” the stallion answered plainly. Applejack’s eyes widened with terror, and Big Mac quickly explained before his sister could start to yell at him “Not ‘bout that night, so don’t worry. Ah only told her that ya got hurt on the forest and Winter helped ya. Now sit down with us, tea’s gettin’ cold.” with this the orange mare let out a sigh of relief, mentally scolding her older brother for scaring her like that.
The large pony took a sit on a large sofa at the edge of the coffee table, and began to pour tea into the porcelain cups; the group of mares followed his lead, taking their seats on the soft couch. Another silence threatened to invade the saddened bunch again but to everypony’s fortune, Twilight managed to gather the courage to talk.
“Aplebloom isn’t the only one who learned about something today.” she said, looking down at the steaming teacup “I’m so sorry Applejack.”
“We all are, Twilight.” Rarity added, before turning to the orange mare, who was glaring at her friends with a look of shame “As your friends we should have paid more attention to your feelings. All this time you have been carrying this burden alone, hiding your pain.”
“Rarity, Ah wasn’t hid...” Applejack began but was interrupted by Rarity’s raised hoof, signaling her to stop.
“Don’t say it!” she commanded “You’re the Element of Honesty, Applejack. So please do not lie to us. You know you can always count on us to help you. Friends are supposed to carry each other’s pain.”
The blond pony felt warm tears on her cheeks for the third time that day. “Ah know...Ah should have been honest. Ah’m so sorry.”
“No!” Pinkie Pie yelled, almost making Big Mac spill his tea “No more crying! I don’t want to see anypony sad ever again.” she pled loudly, while her own tears fell from her large blue eyes.
“No excuses! You have to promise you’ll never hide anything from us ever again.” Pinkie demanded, pushing Applejack back against the couch and looking straight at the farmer’s eyes, showing that the answer would have to be immediate.
“Ah...” the orange mare said hesitantly “Ah’ll never lie to ya’ll again”
“You pinkie promise?”
“Ah pinkie promise.” she assured, as she began to make the critical gestures of Pinkie’s special oath. However, the party pony didn’t let her finish, embracing her in a tight hug.
“Thank you, Applejack.” she whispered, as the cowmare returned the hug, in which Twilight and Rarity quickly joined. The group of friends felt a great weight being lifted from their hearts, but at the same time they couldn’t help but to sense something was missing.
“Now wait a damn minute!” Rainbow Dash’s voice broke the endearing moment, leaving everypony’s eyes locked in her angry face “That’s it? She lies to us for two years and you all just let it go with a promise and a hug?”
“Rainbow Dash, calm down.” Rarity asked.
“No! I want an explanation. Heck, I need an explanation. I’m not forgiving you until you tell me why you lied to us!”
“Rainbow!” Big Mac yelled in a tone he almost never used, or liked to use, as he stood on all fours and looked down at the blue pegasus “Don’t talk to her like that! If ya want to blame somepony, blame me. I knew somethin’ was wrong with her, and Ah...”
“Ah was scared.” Applejack interrupted with a sad tone, all eyes turning to her once again “Ah was scared cause Ah let Granny die, and there was nothin’ Ah could do. Ah thought that if Ah showed just how sad and fragile Ah really am, then Ah would never be able to protect mah family and friends.”
Even after the revelation, the angry expression on the weather pony didn’t disappear, in fact, it grew slightly as Applejack spoke “And what about Winter?” she asked “You hated him guts and you opened up to him, didn’t you? What so special about him?”
The faces of her friends were ones of shock, they had expect the wolf to be brought into the conversation, but not so suddently. As much as they hated to see Rainbow Dash so angry, they too wondered what Winter had that made Applejack’s attitude change.
Said mare took a deep breath before speaking. “He’s jist like me. He knows exactly how it feels.” she said, looking into the blue pony’s eyes, silently begging for her to understand “Ah’m sorry Rainbow, Ah really am. But please don’t take it out on him, Ah’ve already made that mistake.”
The pegasus’ angry faced faded into one of confusion and curiosity, just like the rest of the present mares.
“What do you mean, darling? how could he possibly know what you’ve be...” Rarity halted her question as they all put two and two together “Oh dear...”.
“Man...him too?” Rainbow Dash said, scratching the back of her head in shame “I-I didn’t mean to get angry at him. He’s actually pretty amazing. I mean, he saved you.”
“Yeah...he did save me.” Applejack repeated “It’s still hard fer me to believe he risked his life to save mine. Especially after treating him like Ah did. Rainbow?” she called “Ya think you can forgive me too? With time, Ah mean.”
“Well...I’m still a little mad that you lied to us. But yeah, you’re my friend, so I can let this go.” the pegasus responded, wearing an assuring smile on her face.”
Applejack sighed, relieved to see that no more grudges would be held.
Big Macintosh returned to his spot on the large sofa, and took a sip of tea, which sent a cold stream down his throat.
“Great.” he said, annoyed “The tea got cold.”
Unlike Applejack, Fluttershy decided to walk back home in a fast paced trot, passing through the apple orchard. As harmless as the trees were, the night’s darkness created an uncomfortable ambient. The pony’s timid nature didn’t make it much better; it was as if someone, or something, would jump from behind the apple trees and do something terrible to her.
Fluttershy sighed with relief as she reached her house’s clearing and looked around for Winter. The wolf was not in the front yard, so the pegasus flew gently to the front door and pushed it open. No one was inside the dark room, which she quickly lit with a few candles.
With the house empty, the only place he could be was the backyard; peeking through the window, she saw Winter sitting in the middle of the grassy hill, turned away from her and looking up in the night sky.
“Winter?” the shy pegasus called quietly from inside the house, receiving no answer; she walked up to him slowly until she was standing right behind him and lifted a hoof to poke his shoulder
“Hello Winter.” she called again, this time successfully.
“Huh?” Winter snapped out of his trance, in which he had been trapped while gazing into the night sky “Oh, Fluttershy. I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you coming”
“Oh no, that’s all right.” Fluttershy said, taking a seat beside him “I should sneak up on anyone like that, anyway. So...what were you doing?”
“Nothing, just...watching the stars.” he answered, pointing his snout to the dark blue sky filled with thousands of white shining dots “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a sky like this.”
“Really? Why?” the yellow pony asked reluctantly.
“Truth is...I’ve been away from home for a long time.” Winter’s face began to become saddened, but he didn’t want to upset Fluttershy, so his frown turned to a light smile and he tried to remember only the good in his old life “You should see the sky from where I’m from. It’s even better than here.”
“That sounds wonderful.” the pony noted “I wish I could see it.”
The two continued to look up in silence for a few moments, Winter heard a tiny sob; looking to his side he saw Fluttershy smiling at him, a tear sliding on her face.
“Thank you for helping Applejack.” she said quietly “You’re a good friend.”
“Winter was shocked at first to see her crying, but her words assured him it was okay and the smile was returned.
“I thought I told you I don’t like to see a girl cry.” the wolf said playfully.
“Sorry. Sorry. I really am a cry baby.” She giggled.
Winter’s eyes turned away from the mare to the edge of the Everfree Forest; something was contrasting with the darkness of the trees, two yellow dots, blinking and moving slightly.
Fireflies? No, they’re too big. he thought. Winter narrowed his own eyes, trying to get a better look; it seemed to be a pair of eyes, and they were looking right at him. Another pair appeared close to it, then another one followed by two more.
His words were cut off; as soon as Fluttershy turned around to look at what he was staring at, the group of dots started to move swiftly. Five shadows jumped from inside the forest, the moonlight revealing their true form, bobcats. They dashed at the pair and Winter jumped in front of Fluttershy to protect her.
The large cats circled them, the vicious yellow eyes glowing and devilish grins on their faces. Winter’s shock doubled at the sight of familiar wounds on two of the creatures. They were the same that had attacked Applejack the day before.
“Go away!” He growled “Don’t risk your companions just to take revenge!”
This only made the cats burst into laughter; Winter’s mind was full of confusion, bobcats couldn’t talk, let alone laugh. And the laughter itself was very strange. It wasn’t like the sound of a crowd, in which each voice could be told apart from the others; the bobcats’ voices were identical and completely synchronized, echoing on top of each other; it was familiar to the wolf.
“It’s not so much as revenge as it is punishment, Winter.” the cats said in unison.
Winter’s confused expression turned to one of pure shock at the voice. He felt his body petrify and his mind raced as he instantly recognized the evil tone.
“No...” he muttered, pale as a ghost “It can’t be...”
To this, the cats answered by widening their terrifying grins.