Celestia’s arrival on the horizon proved uneventful this morning. The sun was a constant, unchanging event in everypony’s life. Ponies rest. Ponies dream. Ponies rise. These cycles of repetition tend to go unnoticed, except by those select few that govern these events.
Twilight Sparkle was slow to rise this morning. A good night’s rest had eluded her thus far during her time in Ponyville. Long nights, loud noises, and lost memories had haunted her every chance for a comfy rest in a warm bed, and now she was taking advantage of the opportunity. She had no silly dreams or crazy interruptions, and while most ponies would consider it a boring night of rest, boring was all she craved at this point.
The antithesis of boring was waking up just outside Twilight’s abode to a rude surprise, and Twilight was sure to hear about it. That is, if during her collapse into unconsciousness, Pinkie hadn’t fallen muzzle first into the pool of adhesive beneath her. Pinkie groaned for attention to her plight, only to have her sounds drowned out for the first time in ages.
Twilight reached out, still trapped in slumber, for an alarm clock that wasn’t going off, nor was it even there. As her hoof came down with a hard knock against the wood of the end table a few times, she pried her eyelids apart. So used to hard work and short nights, her instinct told her that a loud ringing was going to call her to her duties in Canterlot, but as her current setting registered against her retinas, she realized she was a far way from her chambers in Canterlot.
Rising from the bed with the speed and grace of a tortoise, Twilight found the note that had accompanied her midnight snack. The memories of the previous night came rushing back, and Twilight made a mad dash for the window. The window flew open with such force it cracked the middle as it smacked against the side of the tree. Twilight peered down at the pink mess lying face-first in a pile of her spell’s byproduct and feared the worst. “Pinkie,” she yelled out at the motionless heap, “are you ok?”
Pinkie’s curly mane twitched wildly with her response. “Mmmm mmmff mmmmmmmmm MMMMMM!” was the response that made it through the thick glue to Twilight’s ears. Twilight loosely translated it to, “Do I LOOK like I’m ok?” and galloped as fast as her hooves could carry her out of the library and to her friend’s side, levitating a book on magical solvents with her as she ran past the shelves.
Twilight was too busy searching the book for the right remedy to this situation to realize she was running right into the puddle herself. Her front hooves were immediately halted by the magical bond her creation held, and her forward momentum sent the rest of her body forcefully into the muck. Pinkie could only roll her eyes in disapproval as she now found her former captor and current savior in the same situation.
The two exchanged exaggerated groans of frustrated laughter as Twilight regained her composure. Her horn let off a soft light as the book floated back towards her and flipped pages seemingly of its own free will. After a couple of disappointed moans, Twilight’s muffled voice turned positive and her horn glowed brighter. The mess beneath them began to diffuse into the earth beneath them. Pinkie pushed against the ground for freedom, and as the last of the glue let go of its hold on her, her body somersaulted backwards several feet.
Twilight arose with a bit more care and approached Pinkie to apologize for her selfishness the night before. “Are you alright Pinkie?” she sheepishly asked.
Pinkie rebounded like the invincible pony she had always been, simply happy to be bouncing again. “Okie dokie lokie!” she responded, Twilight’s indiscretions seemingly banished from her mind already. Instead, Pinkie’s attention turned to the blunt weapon that Twilight had bruised her with the previous night. “Say, is that what I think it is?” she curiously questioned as she approached the stripped bare fruit.
Twilight found most of Pinkie’s actions curious and odd, but she couldn’t imagine why Pinkie would take such an interest in the leftover remnants of the snack. “Um, it’s just an apple,” she said as she recalled the fruit’s delicious and complex flavors that had danced on her tongue the night before.
“No! This isn’t just any apple silly,” Pinkie corrected the lavender unicorn as she inspected the core from every angle. “The bright sheen of the skin! The rich, juicy flesh! The aromas of earth and ripe age!” she rambled as she held the scrap in her hoof. She peered at it closely with one eye and gave a deep inhale to verify her suspicions. Needing more proof, she gave a long, carefully slow lick up the remains of flesh that clung onto the core.
Twilight could only cringe as she played audience to the spectacle before her. Pinkie was never the epitome of table manners, but the sight of this was beginning to make her queasy. Fairly certain that the fruit tasted better going down than coming up, she tried to bring a halt to Pinkie’s actions before the latter became reality. “Pinkie seriously, do you absolutely have to do that?”
Pinkie made a sharp glance towards Twilight, apple still in hoof and her tongue still clinging to the fruit as she spoke. “But it’s a crime not to appreciate an apple of this quality. I should know, I wrote the law.” Pinkie got uncomfortably close to Twilight as she questioned her. “Do you truly not know what this is?”
“My apple from last night?”
Pinkie’s eyes lit up with a fire of jealousy. “So you do know? Aren’t these just great? I mean, I’ve only had a few of them myself, but they’re absolutely fantastic!”
“You’ve had dozens of apples Pinkie. I’ve seen you consume bushels in a single gulp.” Twilight recalled several times when she was convinced that Pinkie was more than just a pony, but a parasprite in disguise slowly draining Ponyville of its natural resources.
“Nuh-uh, this is different. This came from Applejack’s private orchard!” Pinkie stared deeply at the core as she spoke, “Even I don’t know her secret, but these are thousands of times better than anything that comes from the Sweet Apple Acres harvest.” Pinkie uncharacteristically turned her head slowly towards Twilight. “Say, how did you get your hooves on one of these?” she said accusingly.
Twilight could feel sweat pouring down her brow as Pinkie suspected her of some nefarious deed. “It was here when I got home last night. Applejack left it with a note about coming to visit her,” she replied nervously, hoping Pinkie would see she was telling the truth.
“Oh,” Pinkie backed away slowly as she spoke, “I guess that’s plausible.” Her attention returned to the remarkable remnant of apple in her hoof. “Say, if she gives you anymore of these, can you save one for me? I’d come with you, but I’ve got my hooves full with Party Party business all day. Don’t tell her it’s for me though. She’s real protective of these and she’s tired of me asking for more. I don’t see what the big deal is, she’s gotta’ have hundreds of them, but she says it’s a secret, and I’d never intrude on a secret.” Pinkie’s eyes grew serious as she repeated, “Never.”
“I’ll see what I can do Pinkie, but I’m just going over to catch up with her, not to freeload on apples.”
“Okie dokie! Thanks Twilight!” Pinkie bounced away as she spoke, and after a couple steps, collided with the covered attraction she had built a couple nights before. Pinkie waved away some imaginary birds tweeting around her head and steadied her stance. “Now who would leave something this big just sitting in the middle of the road?”
Twilight provided some insight from afar, “You did!”
“Oh right, that totally sounds like something I’d do,” Pinkie giggled and resumed her bouncing exit.
Twilight held a hoof to her face and shook her head. She imagined how a pony with pudding for brains could run this town, and an image crossed her thoughts of what Equestria would be like if Celestia had the misfortune to have her crown handed down to Princess Pinkamena. She shook her head violently to clear herself of the thought, and resolved to never imagine such a thing again.
The sun sowed blessings down upon Sweet Apple Acres, and the trees and grass waved approvingly as a thankful gesture. The breeze flowed down the path to the farm to welcome a visitor, and Twilight’s mane gently flowed with the gentle push. The view from the top of the hill leading down to the orchards was breathtaking. A full prism of colors that protruded from the farm. Each leaf on the trees was vividly alive and prosperous. The farmhouse displayed a steadfast grace from all the long-endured years of harsh winters and coats of paint that didn’t quite match the original firehouse red shade, which peered through in some areas.
It was the start of the harvest season, and the apples hung from the trees proud of this fact. Months of hard work had been put into each and every fruit, and they appeared eager to be enjoyed by everypony in town. One by one, the trees awaited a strong buck from one of the two hardest workers in Ponyville. As Twilight sauntered down the hill towards the farm, she came across the first of the two. Big Mac was hard at work in the fields, his strength hardly contained by a single tree. Most of his kicks were so strong that fruit would fall from trees nearby his intended target. Apple Bushel and a couple of her schoolyard chums were competing to see who would catch the most apples in their basket as a torrent fell from each tree.
Apple Bushel was the first to notice Twilight approaching the farm and dropped her basket as she trotted over towards the fence. “Hiya’ Twilight!” She motioned her friends over and proudly showed off Twilight to them. “Hey girls this is the famous Twilight Sparkle my Auntie A.J. is always talking about.”
The foals both replied in unison, “No way!”
Twilight knew a barrage of questions about the Elements of Harmony couldn’t be far off, and was hoping to avoid such a situation. “Have you seen Applejack today?” she asked.
“Eeeeyup!” the massive stallion responded as he adjusted the wheat sprig in his teeth. He motioned a hoof towards the barn.
Twilight thanked him and excused herself, reminding the foals to not give Big Mac too much trouble. They simultaneously promised they wouldn’t, then proceeded to run in circles around the stallion while he returned to work. Big Mac barely seemed bothered by the foals’ antics. He was a steady worker, not a fast worker, so having Apple Bushel around was more encouraging than it was disruptive.
Twilight found Applejack on the south side of the barn, sorting through an endless pile of apples. The earth pony heard her approaching and let out a large smile as she came into view. “Hey sugah’cube. Guess you got my note,” she said as she dropped her work to give Twilight a strong hug. Applejack could feel Twilight’s stomach rumbling, and handed her one of the apples from her approved stack. “Care fer’ one? Y’all look right famished.”
Twilight resisted the urge to drool as she took the humble offering. “Yes, please!” she devoured the apple in two bites as she spoke. “Why aren’t you out in the fields? Big Mac is a strong worker, but he’s never been able to handle all the harvesting on his own.”
Applejack pulled her Stetson forward on her head and motioned to the to-do pile behind her. “Ah still get out in the fields when ah can, but there’s more to be done on the farm than jus’ harvestin’ right now. Care tah’ help Twi?”
Twilight wasn’t about to let her friend down. “Sure, if you don’t think I’ll get in the way.”
“Aw, horsefeathers. Ah ain’t no foolish foal no more. Ah’ll take all the help ah can get.” The pair sorted through the pile, removing the unhealthy apples as they continued their conversation. “So ah heard Pinkie was giving y’all some trouble the other day.”
Twilight recalled Pinkie’s construction project that had kept her up a couple nights prior. “I just don’t think I understand that pony. We may be friends and all, and I love her to death, but I don’t know why she does the things she does.”
“Best tah’ not try and understand, sugah’cube. That’s likely tah' drive the likes of anypony crazy.”
“You should have seen her this morning. She went practically bonkers over that apple you left for me.”
Applejack’s eared suddenly perked up, nearly knocking her hat right off her head. “Please tell me she didn’t eat it.”
“No, I ate it last night. She just,” Twilight cringed as she recalled how Pinkie practically molested the leftover apple, “admired it a little too closely.”
Applejack cringed as well, and Twilight made the assumption that Applejack had seen a similar situation in the past. “That darn mare. Twice as good at clearing a room than she is at fillin’ it sometimes.”
Twilight could only laugh in agreement. As she continued to assist with Applejack’s sorting duties, she again became inclined to ask why Applejack wasn’t in the fields. “So why isn’t Granny Smith out here doing this? She was always the best at finding the bad apples.”
Applejack didn’t even flinch or take her eyes off her work as she responded. “Gran’s been gone goin’ on seven years Twilight,” she said with a small attitude of disdain towards the deceased mare.
Twilight stopped working and felt ashamed at her faux pas. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She wanted to say more, but found herself at a loss for words.
Applejack sighed heavily as she urged her friend that it wasn’t a big deal. “It ain’t nothin’ Twi. Gran and I weren’t really seeing eye-tah’-eye near the end anyhow. I wish she could've seen Apple Bloom’s bakery before she passed, and she would’ve been so happy to meet Apple Bushel.” Applejack turned her attention back towards the work at hoof. “Ah don’t have her discernin’ eye, but I still know a bad apple when ah sees one.”
Twilight could tell it was a sore subject for Applejack, but her curiosity couldn’t be contained. “Did she go peacefully?”
Applejack spoke with an unusual lack of emotion. “She was old. Old ponies jus’ go to sleep and then don’t wake up. Happens to all of us.” It was difficult to discern if Applejack’s attitude was just her not wanting to talk about it, or if her soured relationship with Granny Smith was to blame. “The old mare knew it too. That’s why she was actin’ the way she did.”
Twilight had read through whole libraries in her years, but could never come across a tome that could define death in a way that satisfied her thirst for knowledge. She remembered asking Celestia about it as a filly, only to get some poetic response about ‘The Great Unknown’, which only aggravated her curiosity. Twilight never had any personal experience in dealing with a loss like Applejack had gone through. It had been several years, but something in Applejack’s attitude told Twilight she still needed comforting. “Whatever happened between you two, I hope you made peace before she passed.”
Twilight’s choice of words was poor, but it did emit a response from Applejack. “Ah tried,” she said as she pushed back her hat and looked up towards the peak of the pile of apples, “Ah really, truly did.” She turned to Twilight, her face marked with shame and tears forming in her eyes, “But for the first time in my life, ah jus’ couldn’t be honest with her.”
Twilight tried to calm Applejack’s loathing, but still wanted a straight answer from her. She wrapped a hoof around Applejack and her horn glowed as a nearby bandana hovered over and dried Applejack’s tears. “That’s not like you Applejack, I’m sure you could have told her anything, and she’d still love you. You’re family.”
Applejack sniffled as she spoke, “It wasn’t ‘bout family, it was ‘bout the farm.” Applejack tried to regain her composure. She pulled Twilight’s hoof off her gently, cleared her throat and adjusted her hat. Applejack let out a harsh and loud whistle, and within seconds, Apple Bushel and her friends appeared.
“You called, Auntie A.J.?”
“Can you fillies take care of the rest of the sorting today? Twilight and I need to go inside and catch up.”
“Sure thing Auntie A.J., you can count on us!” The little leader directed her friends to their stations, and the fillies laughed and sang as they worked.
Applejack motioned towards the farmhouse and beckoned Twilight. “C’mon. Y’all ain’t gonna be happy ‘til yah’ hear the whole story, right?”
Applejack returned from the kitchen with a couple plates and one of Apple Bloom’s pies. She needed something sweet to calm her down so she could tell Twilight what had happened. Her hooves were shaking as she cut a slice for herself and her guest.
Twilight ignored the treat and continued to sip her tea. Applejack’s lack of enthusiasm was concerning her, and she wasn’t sure how to deal with it. Her eyes were fixed on Applejack, and she wasn’t going to let the pony weasel her way out of this conversation. “So you still owe me some explanations,” she rashly said. The hot tea trickled down her throat, fueling the fire inside her that burned for the rest of the story.
“Ah know Twi, its jus’ been a long time. I try not tah’ think ‘bout it, but I invited you o’er with the intention of telling you.” She took a slow bite of the pie, and swallowed it along with her pride. “Gran was a proud mare, not jus’ proud of her family, but the farm. It was her legacy.”
Applejack carefully contemplated her words, a rare action for the pony. “She was growin’ older, and so were we. Apple Bloom had just gotten her cutie mark, and we all knew she wouldn’t be on the farm forever. She still does her part for this family, but her calling was in the kitchen, not the fields. Big Mac, well he ne’er changes, so ah did my part and set him up with Fluttershy.”
Applejack stabbed into the pie fiercely with her fork. “Ah was honest, but ah was also stubborn. Ah got that trait from Gran. She had it worse than ah did.” Applejack tried to laugh at her comment, but it only brought forth more tears. “She was getting worried about what would happen to the farm without her, and she was worried about me. Big Mac was workin’ hard, but courtin’ Fluttershy at the same time. So ah was spendin’ more and more time on the farm pickin’ up the slack, but ah wasn’t ‘bout to come ‘tween them.” She forced a chuckle and crumbs fell from her mouth, “Ah got ‘em together in the first place anyway.”
Twilight was engrossed by Applejack’s words, and hated seeing how painful it was for Applejack to recall. Applejack had a different attitude towards life, and it showed in her storytelling, but Twilight couldn’t determine Applejack’s true feelings. She forced herself to eat the generous offering of pie before her, but her attention was solely focused on Applejack.
“Gran knew how much time ah was spendin’ in the fields, and she kept urging me to turn my attention elsewhere. She wanted me to find a special somepony and have a foal who could carry on the farm when ah grew old. Never said so outright, but ah knew that’s what she meant.” She rested her hooves on the table and tried to imitate Granny Smith’s nagging, “’Love don’t grow on trees you know’ she kept saying, and ah ignored her. Ah jus’ kept pushin’ myself and workin’ harder, because I couldn’t tell her.” She pulled her hooves back off the table and silently stared at the half-eaten slice of pie in front of her, recalling when Granny Smith used to make it.
“Couldn’t tell her?” Twilight refused to accept Applejack’s explanation. She was supposed to be the element of honesty. Twilight could remember at least a dozen occasions where Applejack’s brutal honesty had gotten their group of friends into the kind of trouble that the slightest lie could have avoided.
“Ah didn’t wanna lie to her, and ah did no such thing. Ah jus’ couldn’t tell her the whole truth. She couldn’t know,” she paused with embarrassment, her cheeks turning bright red as she pushed out the truth, “that ah already found love. Ah was madly in love an’ everypony could see it but her.”
There was a loud shatter and Applejack looked down to see a mess of tea and ceramic shards painting the floor. Twilight had dropped her cup from the shock of Applejack’s revelation. Twilight sat frozen, the sound of the cup breaking doing nothing to call her attention back to reality. Applejack sighed, then rushed to the kitchen and returned with a dustpan and a mop, and cleaned up the mess while Twilight attempted to get a grip on the situation.
Applejack grew tired of waiting and jabbed Twilight in the flank with her dessert fork. Twilight looked around and realized the mess she had made. “I’m sorry, let me help you,” she said and the two picked up the remaining chips of ceramic that stood out amongst the floorboards.
Twilight was about to inquire further as to Applejack’s last statement, but was interrupted by the sound of several hooves approaching the doorstep. The front door of the house flew open and Apple Bushel and her friends chased each other inside, engrossed in some sort of game. They were soon followed by Big Mac, who was accompanied by Fluttershy.
Fluttershy spoke in her usual quiet manner when she saw Twilight, “Oh, hi Twilight.” She turned to greet Applejack, “Sorry to intrude Applejack. I just came to check on Big Mac and the girls, and then she showed up and insisted we all go inside for dinner.”
Twilight was halfway through asking what Fluttershy meant by ‘she’ when Apple Bloom walked through the door with a large pot in her hooves.
“Soup’s on everypony!” Apple Bloom proudly proclaimed as she marched toward the kitchen and placed the pot on the stove to reheat.
Applejack seemed to object to Apple Bloom’s cooking more than the prospect of guests. “Oh no, Apple Bloom. Please don’t tell me that’s what ah thinks it is.”
Apple Bloom peeked around the frame of the opening towards the kitchen with a large smile, “But I really got it this time, I promise.”
“I wouldn’t mind giving it a try,” Fluttershy said softly, only to be drowned out by the bickering sisters.
“Try what?” Twilight asked.
Applejack ignored both her friends and continued to ridicule her sister, “Ah dun told y’all a million times, Apple Bloom. Apples are versatile, but there ain’t no such thing as apple soup. Jus’ ain’t natural.”
Twilight had a sudden recollection of the fire that was raging in Apple Bloom’s bakery the other day, and part of her began to consider excusing herself and running as far as her hooves could carry her. She knew she’d never get the rest of the story from Applejack if she left now though, and prepared herself for the fate that befell her.
Apple Bloom continued to defend her cooking to her sibling, “I know what y’all said sis. That’s why I took another look at the recipe and realized the problem. I shouldn’t be trying to make soup; it’s supposed to be stew!”
Apple Bushel and her companions wrestled and played make-believe in the living room, ignoring the adults completely as they became lost in their world. Applejack insisted that Apple Bloom didn’t know what she was talking about. “Is there a difference?”
Apple Bloom laughed sarcastically, “Oh ha, ha, ha, A.J. When you get your cooking cutie mark you can mock me all you want, but until then, y’all don’t got much of a choice.” Apple Bloom looked to her brother for reassurance. “You’ll have some, won’t you big brother?”
All four mares turned their eyes to Big Mac. He wasn’t comfortable with so much attention, and said, “Eeeeyup,” before he could think of anything else. This was far from the first time Apple Bloom had used him as a guinea pig for her experiments, and he wasn’t sure how much more his stomach could take.
“Atta’ boy, Big Mac. Knew I could count on you,” the chef said as she returned to her duties in the kitchen.
Big Mac heaved a heavy sigh, and Fluttershy tried to comfort her beloved. “Oh Mackie, you don’t have to keep doing this you know. Are you sure you want to keep putting yourself through this?"
Big Mac knew that it was better Apple Bloom test her abominations on him than the girls or, Celestia forbid, Apple Bushel. He gave a powerless “Eeeyup,” as he weakly stomped his hooves against the ground to reinforce his resolve. The mares laughed as they each debated to themselves whether Big Mac was brave, or just stupid.
Dinner was quite a spectacle to behold. Everypony at the table had their eyes on the stallion in the room as he took the first sample of Apple Bloom’s proposed entrée. He tried so hard to force a smile as he swallowed, and as a result, the wheat sprig that hung from his mouth snapped in half. The remaining ponies pushed their bowls towards the center of the table in unison, not wanting to befall the same fate.
All that is, except Twilight Sparkle.
Not having experienced the honor of being one of Apple Bloom’s taste testers, she was unsure what was in store for her. As everypony else at the table rejected the meal before them, she stood at eye level with the bowl of “stew” before her. The clouds of steam that rose from the bowl seemed to form a skull and crossbones symbol in the air around the container. Twilight inched closer and took a whiff of the concoction. The scent stung her nostrils like a swarm of hornets. It was unlike anything she had ever seen in all her travels, and Twilight began to wonder if Apple Bloom’s cutie mark was some sort of bizarre prank she had been keeping up for several years. How could a pony that makes such delicious desserts create the abomination that lay before her?
By now, everypony at the table had taken to notice to Twilight’s lack of rejection towards the food. Fluttershy and Big Mac were whispering to each other about whether or not she was foolhardy enough to try it. Applejack was giving her best effort to send every form of body language that would warn Twilight about the danger before her, while trying to avoid being caught by her little sister. The fillies at the table huddled close together and were agreeing that this is the greatest thing they’d ever seen in their short lives. Apple Bloom took no heed to her sister’s motions of a hoof slitting her throat, and her smile grew as Twilight inspected the food ever closer. As the smile grew, her face began to resemble that of Pinkie Pie more, which terrified Twilight.
In her head, Twilight recalled the tale of how sick Luna had got the last time Celestia made an attempt at cooking. Surely, this couldn’t be as bad. She compared the two, and decided that Apple Bloom cooks everyday, so it couldn’t be nearly as horrendous. She grasped the bowl in both hooves and pulled it to her mouth. Everypony in the room let out a shocked gasp as she tipped the bowl back to let the contents pour into her gullet.
The fluid sloshed around violently inside her mouth. It quickly turned to a sludge that implanted itself in every crevice, ensuring the taste would linger inside her for weeks on end. Despite Apple Bloom’s title of ‘Apple Stew’, it was impossible for her to have taken the entire flavor out of fruit and replace it with this. It was blacker than Luna’s tapestry, and viler than the swamps of Everfree. Twilight’s cheeks bulged outward as she tried to contain herself in a mad gallop towards the little filly’s room. The sounds that emerged through the door ensured everypony that Apple Bloom’s experiment was an utter failure.
“Aw shucks. Maybe next time,” Apple Bloom reassured herself, as every other pony in the room cringed at the thought of ‘next time’.
After the sixteenth gargle of mouthwash, Twilight gave up on her efforts to remove the bits of ‘stew’ from betwixt her gums. When she emerged, everypony was dining on an arrangement of fresh fruits from the farm, and vegetables that Fluttershy had brought in her saddlebag. Apple Bloom sadly pushed the food around her plate, upset about having to go back to the drawing board. Twilight joined the group at the table and attempted to eat, but every bite still had a lingering taste of Apple Bloom’s cooking clinging to her tongue.
Everypony felt sympathy for Twilight’s plight, but couldn’t help but have some internal laughter that began to leak out around the table. Even Fluttershy let out a snicker that she attempted to cover with a cough, hoping nopony would notice. Twilight pretended to not notice all the undue attention she was receiving. She shot a fierce glare at Applejack, who could only respond with a shrug that seemed to say ‘I warned you’. Apple Bushel and her friends could not take their eyes off of Twilight the whole meal. They had become infatuated with her foolishness, which they had mistaken for bravery, probably due to all the stories Applejack had told them about Twilight.
The sun had long since set, and the majesty of Luna hung high in the night sky. The fillies gathered around a bonfire in front of Apple Bloom, who was telling them ghostpony stories that scared Fluttershy more than the foals. The spooked pegasus cowered behind the fillies convinced that the ghost of some long deceased pony was going to attack her and shuddered with her hooves over her eyes. Big Mac was using the light from the fire to make a shadow play that reinforced the fear of Apple Bloom’s story. The fillies just become more entranced with the story, while Fluttershy would every few minutes peek out from under her hooves to catch a glimpse of Big Mac’s shadow and go cowering back and whispering to herself about going to a ‘happy place’.
Inside, Applejack and Twilight were cleaning up the mess Apple Bloom had created in the kitchen. Finally alone again, Twilight felt she needed to resume their conversation from before. “I’m kinda curious about your story from earlier,” she told Applejack. “Why didn’t you tell me before about your special somepony?”
Applejack didn’t even glance away from the cleaning as she replied, “It didn’t work out between us is all. Someponies have tah' learn the hard way that we’re not all meant to find love. Gran told me to find something that didn’t grow on the trees, and I did, but I’ve paid for it everyday since. I’ll never be able to tell her that my place is out there in the orchards, not raising foals and falling in love.”
Twilight pretended to keep scrubbing the pot Apple Bloom had used to create that horrid meal, but all she could think about was Applejack’s message. Twilight had become convinced during her studies that love was a concept that was defined by the pony feeling it, and no two definitions were the same. Hearing Applejack talk about what love meant to her was undeniably upsetting and pessimistic. Applejack was still hurting after all this time, and Twilight’s minimum knowledge in the laws of love made it impossible for her to comprehend why.
Twilight knew that she couldn’t gain any further understanding about the situation, and continuing to bring it up would only hurt Applejack further. She branched onto another topic, recalling the pictures in Pinkie’s records. “I noticed something yesterday when Pinkie was telling me about ‘partynomics’ and what not.”
Applejack rejoined the conversation with a bit more comfort after being drained of talking about her failure of a love life. “What’s that sugah’cube?”
“You ponies all stopped showing up eventually. I mean I see you’re all still friends and don’t hate each other, but something happened.” Applejack felt uneasy with the conversation. Twilight took no notice as her head was deep in the pot she was cleaning as she spoke. “I mean, I can’t say I approve of Rainbow Dash’s actions, but after talking to her I understand why she stopped showing up, and Fluttershy has been busy raising a filly the last several years, so I guess I can overlook that too. But what’s the deal with you and Rarity? I’m sure her career took her away from Ponyville for a bit, but she stopped showing up completely, and she’s been avoiding me the whole time I’ve been in town.”
Applejack seemed confused by Twilight’s last statement. “She’s been,” Applejack paused before inquiring with a heavy inflection, “avoiding you?”
Twilight didn’t notice the emphasis in Applejack’s voice at all. “Yeah, I want to see her, but I’m beginning to feel like she doesn’t want me to,” Twilight said with a hint of fear in her voice.
Applejack sighed heavily as she placed the last dish on the rack to dry. The clock in the hall rang, signaling how late it was, and the back door burst open. A trio of young fillies clung to Applejack’s hooves with longing in their eyes.
Fluttershy hovered in the doorway trying her best to encourage the fillies to obey her. “C’mon girls, it’s late, you should all be getting home.”
Apple Bushel and her friends cried in protest, “We’re too scared! The Boogeypony is going to get us if we wander out this late!”
Apple Bloom could be seen rubbing the back of her head with a hoof. She tried to shrug off the embarrassment of causing trouble by scaring the young ponies a little too much. Big Mac stayed back, lest he be the victim of an angry glare from Applejack for his role in this.
“Y’all can stay here tonight,” Applejack’s gaze turned from the fillies to Fluttershy, “if that’s okay with you sugah’cube.”
“Oh, if you’re sure it’s not too much trouble,” Fluttershy accepted the offer as generously as her demeanor allowed. “You girls be nice to Miss Applejack, okay?”
“We will ma, right girls?” Apple Bushel smiled deceivingly.
“Yes, Mrs. Fluttershy,” said Apple Bushel’s accomplices in unison.
Fluttershy still felt unsure about burdening Applejack so suddenly. “Are you sure it’s okay with you?”
“Aw horseapples, will you and my brother get outta’ here already?” Applejack insisted. “Y’all should be takin’ any chance yah’ can get to be alone while y’all still young.”
Twilight saw it fit to excuse herself as well. “Well, if it’s alright, maybe we can resume this conversation later?” she said as she placed down the last of the clean dishes and made her way towards the door.
Applejack held a hoof in Twilight’s path. “Nonsense. It’s late enough as it is, and y’all don’t expect me to keep these fillies in line on mah’ own now, do yah’?” Applejack motioned to the fillies, whose boundless energy seemed to be letting itself out in a game of tag in the living room. “Y’all can stay in the guest room tonight, and I’ll take yah’ to the boutique in the morning and clear this whole darn mess up, kay?”
When Fluttershy heard Applejack’s plans, she couldn’t help but interject, “Applejack? Are you sure that’s a good idea? What about Sweetie Be… ”
“Hush up sugah’cube. Twi’s staying and we’ll take care of the rest in the mornin’,” Applejack insisted.
Twilight found herself in a position where she was unable to reject Applejack’s kind offer. “I’d be happy to stay. I’m sure the fillies would love to hear a few of our own tales,” Twilight said with a smile.
Fluttershy still felt like she had something to say to Applejack, but knew that once Applejack had made up her mind there was little the pegasus could do to change it. Big Mac came and stood beside her, and with a humble ‘good night’, the couple made their way back to their cottage.
Apple Bloom made her way into the kitchen to collect her cookware before leaving. Applejack felt the need to give her a harsh reminder. “Don’t yah’ come ‘round here with no more of your silly experiments, got it?” Applejack spoke fiercely, but calmed her tone as she reassured her younger sibling, “Y’all are great at what yah’ know, and there ain’t no need to go all crazy pushin’ the limits of what yah’ can and can’t do.”
Apple Bloom thanked her sister with a hug, and left without a word. Subconsciously, she knew Applejack was right, but in truth, she wasn’t listening. Her only thoughts were focused on what she would tweak to make her next recipe a success.
Twilight placed a hoof on Applejack’s shoulder as she addressed her. “You know, I always wished I had a sister like you back home. They’re lucky to have you.”
“Well, I dun’ know what I’d do without them either. Lately, they’ve been there fer’ me more than I could fer’ them.” The sound of a solid thud against the wall that separated the kitchen and living room called the mare’s attention. Applejack adjusted her hat and escorted Twilight away from the sink, “We should probably go calm them foals down a tad, don’t ‘cha think?”
The rest of the night passed by rather quickly, particularly since the fillies could barely stay awake through more than a single story. They argued that they weren’t the least bit tired, but by the time Twilight had reached the climax of her story, the foals were fast asleep. Twilight seemed to be lost in the story and didn’t take notice. She waved her hooves emotionally as she spoke, “So I raised my horn and stood my ground. My friends standing at my side as I assured our foe ‘The Elements of Harmony are right here!’”
Applejack prodded her friend gently with a hoof. “I think y’all will have to finish the story anotha’ night sugah’cube,” she said as she pointed out the state of the audience. One by one, the mares carried the fillies upstairs, and placed all three together in Applejack’s bed.
“Where are you going to sleep Applejack?” Twilight questioned.
“This house used tah' hold a lot more ponies than this. I reckon it shouldn’t be a problem for the night.”
The two made their way back downstairs and laid down in front of the fireplace, talking of old times. Applejack ridiculed Twilight for stretching the truth a bit in the story she told the girls, and for emphasizing how stubborn she had used to be. Before long, Twilight could hardly finish a sentence without yawning between words. She rose from the warmth of the hearth, and Applejack motioned towards a door atop the stairs. “Big Mac’s old room is at the end of hall,” she said. “Bed’s mighty big, but yah’ shouldn’t have a problem gettin’ a good night’s sleep in there. We can talk more in the mornin’ Twi.”
Twilight stopped as she made her way past the second stair. “Aren’t you going to bed Applejack?”
Applejack turned her head towards the fireplace, still burning hard and casting a shadow of Applejack’s sullen form against the wall. “I ain’t tired yet. I’ll probably wait ‘til the fire dies down first.”
Twilight stood still on the stairway looking at Applejack’s form, encompassed by the light from the fire. Even with Applejack’s face turned away from her, Twilight could tell by the tone of her voice the expression she held. If anypony knew when a pony wanted to be alone, it was Twilight. She slowly made her way up the stairs, a bit of guilt weighing down her heart, as she felt that her visit had conjured up memories Applejack wished to forget.
As Twilight approached the top of the staircase, Applejack turned her head back in her direction. “Twilight?”
Twilight turned to face her friend, but only stared back in silence to hear what she had to say.
“It really means a lot that yah’ came back tah’ Ponyville tah’ visit us. Lot’s has happened since yah’ left, but nopony ever stopped thinkin’ ‘bout you.” Applejack turned her eyes to the floor as she continued, “And thanks fer listenin’. I forgot how important it is to have somepony tah’ talk to ‘bout anythin’.” Applejack rubbed a hoof against her eye to hide the tear that was forming around the edge. “Sleep well now, yah’ hear?” she said in an attempt to hide the emotions that welled up inside of her.
Twilight smiled softly and bowed her head slightly. “Thanks Applejack, but seeing you girls again has been just as important to me. I’ve learned a lot since I arrived,” she said as she spoke down from atop the staircase. “And I don’t just mean about you girls. Being around your family tonight reminded me that sometimes my priorities got in the way of what mattered. I’ve spent the last several years worried about all of Equestria, but being here is the first time I’ve thought about myself in ages.” Twilight let out a heavy yawn as she used the last of her energy to ease the bedroom door open with her magic. “I wouldn’t have that if it weren’t for all of you,” she said as she looked down at Applejack, and then turned towards her room for the night. “Thanks.”
Applejack pulled herself closer to the fire. A bit of smoke scratched her eyes as she adjusted the flue. No matter how close she sat, the warmth of the blaze seemed to evade her thick hide. She lay still for a long while, staring deep into the flickering hues of red and orange that danced before her. A log crumbled as the burning flames robbed it of its ability to support the pile of logs, and Applejack shielded her eyes from the cloud of ash that assaulted her. Still, she lay there, entranced by the fire and the memories that her conversation with Twilight had conjured up. She laid her head down against her crossed hooves and broke into a soft sob. The sound was muffled through her forelegs and drowned out by the crackling fire next to her, and remained undiscovered by the other ponies in the house. All Applejack could think of was the gentle hooves that used to hold her.