Applejack flipped through an atlas with one hoof, using the other to carefully crease down the corner of a page in a second book that also laid open on the cherry wood desk. The sunlight pouring in from the window above her head made it easy to read in what would otherwise be a dim room, but the heat that accompanied it was nearly unbearable. The dreaded dog days of summer had fallen upon all of Equestria, including the tiny library in Ponyville, causing a trickle of perspiration to run down the Earth pony's forehead and drip unceremoniously from her brow. Applejack paused to wipe away the offending sweat and a loose strand of hair that had managed to escape from her untidy mane and into her view.
“Confound it, this awful weather's got me sweatin' like a pig!” Applejack groaned. “Twi, could ya do me a huge favor and open up that other window to let in some air?” She turned around to see that the studious unicorn was still fumbling about at the bookshelf, engrossed in some kind of self-assigned research as usual. Twilight Sparkle looked up, slightly startled as her horn stopped glowing and a floating book that had captured her interest fell to the floor.
“Sure thing, Applejack.” The horn's familiar, lavender luminescence returned and the window unlocked itself to lift and make way for a gentle but muggy breeze. “I'm sorry it's so hot in here, by the way. You can blame the strikers for that one,” Twilight added with the tiniest hint of animosity before magically levitating and carrying the book back to her own study area.
“The strikers? Ha,” Applejack said, followed by a derisive snort. “My heart goes out to those poor Pegasus ponies, just tryin' to make a livin' like the rest of us. It's not their fault the weather factory owner's too cheap to pay 'em what they're worth, hirin' those trainwreck scabs an' whatnot.” She was secretly hoping all day that the subject would come up between the two, since her other friends appeared to be far from interested in the workers' strike in Cloudsdale. Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy claimed neutrality, the former only expressing desire to throw a wild party upon the issue's resolve. Rarity characterized the disgruntled workers as “lazy ruffians” with little else to say on the matter, while Rainbow Dash spoke kindly of the strikers, many of whom she had grown up with, though the situation ultimately made her job exceedingly dull with so few clouds being produced.
“Scabs?” Twilight said, pulling the other pony out of her internal monologue. “AJ, that's a little harsh, don't you think?”
“If you reckon so. I just call 'em like I see 'em, an' what I see is a bunch of untrained scabs who don't know rainclouds from cotton candy. Can you believe we ain't even had one measly inch of rain this whole month?” Applejack picked up a pencil, biting down much harder than necessary out of agitation.
“Well,” Twilight said hesitantly, drawling out the word in a pointed manner, “maybe the strikebreakers aren't doing the greatest job, but I'm sure they're trying their best. What I don't understand is how you can support the union when Sweet Apple Acres is obviously bearing the brunt of this drought.” Applejack had scarcely begun to write anything down before she dropped the pencil from her teeth to respond.
“You just don't get it, Twilight, do ya? Bein' an indoors type an' such. Factory work ain't exactly a picnic—long shifts, few breaks, hardly any benefits to speak of, if that. An' when somepony finally gathers up the guts to ask that they be appreciated a bit more, the whole world's suddenly lookin' down on 'em.” The tawny pony turned around again to face Twilight, tossing a foreleg over the back of her chair for comfort. “Everypony in Equestria wants to be recognized for what they do, even if they ain't lucky enough to own a farm or be Princess Celestia's most talented student.” Twilight glanced down at her hooves sheepishly, attempting to hide the smile that resulted from an unexpected compliment out of modesty.
“Wow,” she said. “I've never heard it put so...poignantly. Maybe we're both wrong, maybe nopony's to blame and this is just an unfortunate circumstance for all of Ponyville and Cloudsdale, then. All I know is this—the union and the factory owners need to set aside their differences and come to some kind of agreement soon, because I wouldn't count on Celestia rushing to our aid for the time being. Not that she isn't dependable!” Twilight was hasty to add. “It's just...well, she's been very busy lately with something rather serious.” Applejack felt an unpleasant sinking sensation in her gut upon hearing those words.
“Serious?” she repeated. “How serious are we talkin'?”
“I'm not even sure I should be telling you about this,” the unicorn started in a hushed voice, “but since I can trust you to keep it under the radar, allow me to read you the last letter I received from the princess almost two weeks ago.” Twilight's horn lit up and the drawer at her desk opened. After a few seconds of shuffling through a neatly organized folder, she plucked a single, somewhat crinkled piece of parchment from the stack before stuffing everything else back into its proper place. She cleared her throat and began to read.
“'To my faithful student Twilight Sparkle, I apologize for the lack of correspondence during the past week. I am currently away from Canterlot on business, due in part to a devastating outbreak of avian flu that has swept Manehattan. You may continue to send your reports, but I feel it is imperative that you understand why I will not be able to respond as quickly as we would both prefer. As you have learned through your studies on friendship, not all of life's problems can be waved away with magic. Your mentor, Princess Celestia.' As of tomorrow, two whole weeks have passed, and still...that's it.” Twilight let out an exasperated sigh and returned the letter to its drawer.
“Gosh, I'm sorry to hear that,” Applejack said. “Fluttershy an' Rainbow Dash mentioned somethin' about some folks from the area bein' real sick, but I had no idea it was so terrible. Celestia's right about one thing: you can't use fancy magic to cure ills or change a hardened heart. If you ask me, I say Equestria's headin' for hay in a hoofbasket at this rate.”
“Oh, don't say that. I'm sure in a month or two we'll all look back on this drama and laugh at ourselves for being so down about it. Have a little more faith.”
The Earth pony, now facing away from Twilight to scrutinize the atlas once again, rolled her eyes at the frivolous retort and quietly mumbled something about her unicorn friend spending too much time with Pinkie. Twilight pretended not to notice and rested her cheek against her hoof as she drifted away, slowly submitting to the charm of the heavy book sitting in front of her.
The wind that soothingly rolled in through the windows, offering reprieve from the harsh heat, made Applejack wish she could stay in the library all day and forget about the problems that plagued her livelihood. Ironically, those same troubles were the very reason she found herself in said establishment in the first place. Applejack enjoyed a good read as much as the next pony but rarely visited the library due to time constraints, and this particular day was proving to be no less lengthy or laborious than any of its predecessors.
The orange pony tried in vain to relax as she worked, finding it impossible to do so while turning pages every few minutes, desperate to revive memories of what she had learned about water tables and topography in school as a filly. Occasionally she would scribble something in her notes, only to mark it with a big angry 'x' immediately afterwards and spit out the pencil in frustration.
Being the literal workhorse among her group of friends was steadily taking its toll, especially when it looked as if no other pony was affected by the town's difficult times even half as much as they ached her. The days felt like an eternity, and the nights ended in the blink of an eye; Applejack's mind was so numb with worry that she had become oblivious to her body's outward signs of fatigue. How she longed to forget about priorities like applebucking and drilling the well that would provide water to the next generation of orchards, and how her attention frequently fleeted to thoughts of a more tranquil nature, perhaps too often to shamelessly idle and indulgent thoughts of a certain somepony....
Applejack was rudely dragged back into reality by two simultaneous and painful spasms in her neck and tail, reminding her vaguely of her sleep-deprived attempt to harvest Sweet Apple Acres singlehoofedly more than a year ago.
“Hey, Twilight?” she finally said after nearly twenty minutes of mutual silence had passed.
“I hate to keep botherin' ya, but would it be alright if I borrowed a map?”
“Of course,” Twilight answered. She searched the shelf above her desk and found a sophisticated poster of Equestria mapped out to scale, complete with legends identifying prominent municipalities and landmarks, as well as a small decorative compass in the bottom right corner. “And you're not bothering me,” she said as she carried the map to the other pony's crowded table. “I've already read this book, anyway. It just happens to be my favorite anthology of tales from prehistoric Equestria. Did you know that before the three common pony races formed an alliance, the world was almost destroyed by their constant fighting?”
“Can't imagine that,” came Applejack's brief and sardonic reply.
“I know, it's crazy!” Twilight squealed with an energetic stomp of her hooves, failing to pick up on the farmer's candid sarcasm. “There are loads of historically unconfirmed stories about the dangers of old Equestria, but the most exciting by far are the fables of Equus and the unicorns.”
“Equus? What's that?” The Earth pony remained focused on her task as she slid the map to the center of the desk, but couldn't help her piquing interest in Twilight's beloved mythology.
“Equus was only the most amazing and terrifying thing created by ponykind, Applejack! I mean...if it ever really existed,” she said with a nervous chuckle. “Like I said, Equus is probably nothing more than an imaginative work of fiction, but according to the old legend, it was an enormous piece of machinery standing one hundred feet tall and enchanted with dark magic. Equus was supposedly created by the ancient unicorns who lived in central Equestria as protection from warring enemy tribes, and—more importantly—as a figure of worship.”
“Now wait a minute, you're tellin' me the ponies who lived here thousands of years ago worshipped a giant robot?” Applejack said, incredulous.
“Not just any old robot, AJ. Equus was made in the image of the ancestral unicorns, so it had a stout, powerful body with long limbs, and an incredibly large horn encased in the finest silver by the tribe's most renowned blacksmith. Equus wasn't just meant to be a god...it was designed for war.” Applejack let out a small laugh that she had been holding back for the entirety of Twilight's spiel.
“C'mon, Twi. Give your ancestors a little more credit; I doubt they spent their days prayin' to a hundred-foot tall, bloodthirsty automaton with a cheesy silver horn. I reckon that detail was to keep the werewolves away?” she jibed playfully.
“But they had every reason to hold Equus in such high honor! The unicorns back then hated the Earth ponies, and they despised the Pegasi. Their great respect for this idol was a given, because its strength was directly connected to the savage practice of blood sacrifice.” The other pony, who had just finished deciding upon the specific coordinates in the Everfree Forest for her excavation, couldn't believe her ears.
“What?” she gasped out, swiveling in her seat and pressing all of her upper body's weight against the back of the pitifully worn-out old chair. Under the peaceful and determined rule of Celestia, it wasn't an everyday occurrence to hear of such dramatically violent events, fictional or not. “You mean they murdered the other ponies in the name of a made-up god!? What were they, crazy or somethin'?”
“Yes, if that's how you choose to interpret it. Prehistoric Equestria was pretty much defined by chaos and turmoil. As I was saying, the unicorns wanted to grant their new lord indomitable power, so after months of victorious battles they gathered every prisoner of war and marched past the mountains to the western coast. They lined up the captured enemies on the shore, where the waves came up barely above their hooves, and began the execution. When it was all over, the waters were stained a deep crimson, and Equus came to life as the high priests cast their sinister magic over the metal unicorn.”
Applejack's expression served as testament to Twilight Sparkle's oratory skill—she sat backwards in her seat with one hind leg on each side, her mouth slightly open in shock, forelegs gripping the back of the creaky chair in suspense. The purple pony took her friend's growing intrigue as her cue to continue on with the story.
“The tribe's enchanted idol served them well for the next several years; to say that they conquered many neighboring lands would be an understatement. However, the unicorns eventually grew bored with monotheism and added new gods to their repertoire. Equus was...less than pleased with this, as you can imagine. It was created for the sole purpose of being worshipped, its very lifeblood fueled by pony sacrifices. When the unicorns confronted Equus with the idea of sharing the fruits of their labor with inferior gods, it became enraged and turned against its makers.”
“How'd they stop 'im?” Applejack blurted out impatiently.
“Hold your horses, I'm getting to that,” Twilight said, still wearing the same intent face as she paced around the apple farmer's desk. “So Equus rampaged upon the realization that it was no longer the favored idol in central Equestria, and the very cornerstone of unicorn civilization was destroyed before the next morning's break of light. Equus' rage went on untempered as it flew into the skies to lay siege on the Pegasus capital in the north.”
“Equus could fly!? I thought you said he was a unicorn?”
“Not necessarily. Equus was built in the image of unicorns, but had magical attributes like levitation due to the powerful nature of the curse that gave it artificial life. Remember, one of the reasons they made the monster in the first place was to defend themselves against the winged Pegasi.”
“Right. Go on.”
“Well, after a few days had passed, most of the major pony cities were reduced to nothing more than smoldering rubble. The inhabitants of those places found themselves hiding out in surrounding rural areas and wilderness, praying desperately to whatever gods they believed in to save them from the madness. But the unicorn leader, now homeless with countless loved ones missing or dead, commanded his few remaining supporters to scour the disheveled nation for the surviving kings in a pivotal moment of clarity.”
Twilight paused for a full five seconds to take a deep breath, drawing out the dramatic apex of the myth in classic fashion.
“Nopony knows exactly how long it took to find the others since they were largely believed to be killed in the massacre, but eventually the Pegasus ruler descended when the food supply was cut short, and the Earth pony king was discovered taking refuge in the mountains. Both were sorely disappointed in their efforts to subvert Equus alone; the Earth ponies' weapons bounced off the machine's impenetrable hide, and the haphazardly-thrown lightning bolts from the strongholds of the Pegasi couldn't stun Equus for longer than a couple milliseconds. Unicorn magic, too, proved ineffective against a beast driven by the blood of one hundred thousand slain ponies.”
The storyteller took another brief hiatus from her narration to scan the map on Applejack's desk. She gestured her hoof to the mountain range that encircled modern day Canterlot.
“This is where they met for an informal conference, at the easternmost summit. When the unicorn leader arrived, he asked his two guards to vacate the area. They pleaded with him to remain present for his own safety, but he ordered them away curtly, threatening charges of treason if they did otherwise. When they left, he dropped all pretenses of glory and dignity, falling to his knees in front of the two noble stallions and their officers. He bowed his head, and almost immediately the other leaders ordered their own subordinates to return to their respective bases. The unicorn's eyes filled with tears and he began to weep without shame for his fallen comrades, for his children crushed in their gentle youth under the collapse of their own home, for his wife who had been snatched away in the dead of night never to be seen again, for the impending desolation and misery that faced every living creature in the world.”
Applejack bit her hoof, her brow knitted in a quiet display of discomfort from being able to sympathize so easily with the sorrow of the disgraced lord.
“Hours passed and soon even the burly Earth stallion's face was streaked with tears as he recounted the tragedies that war had delivered to his tribe. The three shared their most intimate secrets almost wordlessly as the night passed—crying, laughing, reveling in the simplicity of each other's fellowship, feeling the untamed strength of every emotion possible together as the end of their universe drew nigh. When the sun rose over Equestria on that fateful morning, they looked down the mountain and could only marvel at the beauty of this land, the land that they were destined to share forever. Equus' roar suddenly rang out in the thin, high-altitude air, and the decision was made to—ahh!”
Twilight jumped as she felt a tug at her rear end. She glanced back to see a tiny, sleepy dragon standing behind her flank and loosely gripping her tail.
“Spike!” she shouted, annoyed by the blatant interruption of her story. “What are you doing down here? You're supposed to be taking a nap.”
“Jeez, Twilight, I'm sorry if I scared you,” he said, chuckling at the flustered unicorn's reaction. “Anyway, I was hoping you'd be gracious enough to help me make lunch today.” Applejack slumped lazily against the chair and bit back a defeated sigh. 'So much for story time,' she thought childishly.
“If your last attempt at cooking is any indication of what to expect, then I probably should lend a hoof,” Twilight said to Spike. “Unless Applejack wants to hear the rest of the Equus myth first.” The Earth pony's ears perked up for an instant, until she remembered that Big Macintosh needed her help back on the farm that afternoon, leaving only an hour or so for lunch and other miscellaneous tasks. As usual, Applejack had given the older sibling her inexhaustible word, and representing the Element of Honesty came with its costs.
“I'd love to, but unfortunately I've got other business to take care of. I appreciate the hospitality, though. You go ahead an' fix this hungry little fella somethin' to eat, an' I'll see to it that I can come visit again real soon.” She picked up her loaded saddlebag with her teeth, tossing it over her shoulder before wiping away more pesky sweat and adjusting her hat. “I'm sorry I ain't been much for social get-togethers lately, but I can guarantee ya that when the Cloudsdale strike's over I'll be up for anything.”
“Well, okay then. Come on, Sp...Spike?” The dragon had already climbed on Twilight's back and was digging his heels into her barrel anxiously.
“To the kitchen! Hi-yo, Twilight, away!” he shouted, bouncing merrily as he indulged in his imaginative adventure. The unicorn shot him an unamused glare. He laughed nervously but remained firmly seated. “I mean, thank you for offering to help me, of course. Heh heh.” Spike patted his librarian friend's mane reassuringly.
Applejack couldn't help but crack a smile as she walked out of the library. That adorable little firedrake and his coltish antics helped her to forget about the well for a while in pursuit of more urgent matters...like lunch. She had felt some rumbling in her gut since halfway through Twilight's myth retelling, and it would probably do the Earth pony wonders just to sit down and relax at the local outdoor diner.
She made her way through town square, saying a quick “howdy” or “hey there” to ponies who recognized her and gave a half-nod, though she kept a steady trot to avoid being stopped for impromptu conversations about the skyrocketing prices of vegetables or—Celestia forbid—the weather. There was nothing more boring in anypony's mind than forced chit-chat about the weather, even though everypony was guilty of this at some point or another, and with the current strike it seemed to be a very popular thing to talk about. Either way, Applejack wasn't having any of it. All she wanted was to rest and grab a bite, and she'd be darned if small talk about politics and the economy was going to get in the way.
At last she reached the diner, and it wasn't seconds later that she plopped down on a makeshift straw seat at an open table, happy to be sitting down once again instead of on her hooves as she had grown accustomed. It wouldn't be long until she was served, since business appeared to be rather slow that day. Applejack looked around to see who else was dining out for lunch. Mostly strange Pegasi who she'd never seen in town, perhaps members of the infamous union taking a vacation from Cloudsdale.
On the other side of the restaurant she spotted a white unicorn sitting alone. The pony was too far away for Applejack to make out any distinct features, but judging from the decorative folding fan she used to cool herself and the quilt brought from home to keep her delicate rump from touching the abrasive straw bale, it could have only been—
“Rarity!” Applejack called across the field. “Hey, Rarity, it's me!” The alabaster figure peered up from her menu to take a look at the boisterous “me” who was interrupting her from making a selection. Her face lit up when she matched the voice with the suntanned Earth pony on the opposite side of the diner. She waved a hoof for Applejack to come over, preferring a more personal conversation to yelling across tables like a hooligan.
“Good afternoon, dear,” she said as her friend approached and sat down on the other end of the booth. “I can't believe it's been so long since I've last seen you, Applejack. How are things at the farm?”
“The usual,” the country filly said with a sigh. “Workin' our flanks off to make sure everything stays afloat, with the poor apple trees sufferin' the worst in this heat. I reckon we're ready for an early harvest, though the produce is lookin' awful. There's only so much water we can carry from the reservoir at once. An' that's beginnin' to dry up pretty quick too, ya know?”
“Oh, absolutely, darling. It's just dreadful!” Rarity added dramatically as she put away her fan in the bag that sat comfortably below the table on its own piece of quilt. “If you haven't noticed, the scourge of Cloudsdale is among us as we speak,” she whispered, eyeing a nearby group of Pegasi workers distastefully. Applejack ignored the comment since the waiter was coming.
Their server was an Earth pony with a sepia coat and heavily-oiled black mane, somewhat frazzled in appearance with a vague look of lunacy in his wide eyes.
“Hey. My name's Sunshine Ray—you can call me Ray if you like—and I'll be your attendant for this afternoon. So what I can get you ladies?” Rarity spoke up first.
“I'll have a bean burger, hold the cilantro on that, and a fruit salad with raspberry vinaigrette.”
“Anything to drink?”
“Coffee, please. Oh, and,” she said, holding up a hoof, “shouldn't you be writing this down?” The waiter smirked and took a proud look at the cutie mark gracing his haunches, a small pi symbol.
“As you can clearly see, memorization is my forte, ma'am. And you?” he said to Applejack.
“Cherry soda an' two plates o' hay fries.”
“Alright. I'll be back in a jiffy.”
“Wait,” Rarity said as he had nearly walked off. “Do remember to hold the—”
“Lady, I've worked in food service for four years. I could recite every order at every place that's hired me,” he said huffily. “I think I can remember that you don't like cilantro.” Applejack laughed as the waiter hurried back inside to the kitchen.
“Oh, please,” Rarity griped. “You're far too forgiving of blue-collar rudeness, Applejack,” she said, thinking of her friend's unabashedly favorable disposition towards the strikers. “How arrogant of that colt, too. Just because his cutie mark is pi doesn't mean that he shouldn't write down orders for the comfort of patrons.” Applejack cocked an eyebrow in confusion.
“What in tarnation does rememberin' your order have to do with pie? We didn't even ask for pie!” Rarity covered her mouth daintily with her hoof to hold back a renegade snicker.
“Pi is a number, dear. Didn't you pay attention in math class when you were a filly?”
“I suppose not.” Applejack rested her foreleg on the table and tilted her hat a little to provide some shade from the sun. “In fact, if you wanna know the truth, math was my designated sleepin' class.” Rarity found herself smiling rather cheekily at the thought.
“How very quaint,” the unicorn commented, keeping her tone playful to show that she meant no disrespect. Applejack merely shrugged.
“Say what you will, but everypony had a designated sleepin' class. Maybe yer just the goody-four-shoes type who's the exception to the rule, Rar'.” The waiter returned with their drinks and picked up the menus on his way back. Another minute or two of silence passed.
“Equestrian lit,” Rarity finally said before taking a sip of the black coffee.
“What?” Applejack said, startled by the unexpected response.
“I said Equestrian literature was my designated sleeping class.” The Earth pony laughed at the surprisingly honest admission as she toyed with the straw in her cup.
“Well, that's a darn shame. I imagine you wouldn't know the legend of Equus then.”
“Oh, I know that one, but not from any boring old literature class.” Applejack looked up from her drink, hoping she might get to hear the end of the epic tale. “I have a whole series of romance novels about that myth back at the boutique, you know.” The farmer made an exaggerated face of disgust.
“Equus may be an old pony's tale, but I'm a hundred percent certain the world wasn't ever saved by a bunch of...smoochin'...an' whatnot.”
“Hmph. I can't say I didn't expect such a reaction, from you of all ponies,” Rarity said, stating the obvious. “I think you'd like these books, however, were you to give them a proper chance. Who wouldn't? All of unicornkind comes to their senses and stops the dastardly fighting when they witness the true love shared by a dashing Pegasus stallion and his beautiful Earth mare companion!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Applejack interjected, waving a hoof dismissively at the starry-eyed description of a corny love story. “Skip past the harlequin frou-frou stuff and get to the part where they defeat Equus. That's what Twilight was tellin' me about earlier, only I didn't get to catch the end of it.”
“Fine, if that's what you want.” A mildly dejected Rarity caught herself in the middle of a fake pout. “Of course Twilight would choose to focus on the drab political parts of the tale instead of the saucy romantic ones. Anyway, basically Equus destroyed every city, minus the ones that provided sacrifices.”
“More sacrificin'? Wow.”
“Well, these were young, beautiful mares, usually offered up unwillingly by the cities' leaders to quell the beast's appetite. Quite barbaric, if you ask me. It doesn't matter, because he probably would have returned to finish the job later, had he been allowed to go on that long. The Earth ponies distracted him by running him through forests and mountains, and when he was finally cornered in a canyon the Pegasi brought down the greatest storm in history, striking him with a bolt of lightning so incredibly bright it could be seen from the griffon homeland! As for the unicorns such as myself, they subdued Equus with a monumental spell that froze him in time.”
“But...they didn't blow 'im to smithereens?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Aww, horsefeathers. What a gyp,” Applejack complained. “Wait, doesn't that mean he could still be hidden away somewhere in Equestria? What if somepony finds him an' breaks the spell?”
“I think you're forgetting that it's a made-up story, darling. Also, who could possibly be so foolish and careless enough to do such a thing?”
“Point taken. So, what happened next? Did the three pony tribes set aside their differences for good? I remember that play we put on sometime back, an' I figured this story was another variation or somethin'.” The waiter showed up again, this time with a large tray balanced on his back. He slid it gracefully across the table and trotted away before either of the two could say a word of thanks.
“Actually, no,” Rarity replied to the Earth pony's question. “I wouldn't call it a variation because after a few generations they were all back at each other's throats.” Her horn illuminated with its characteristic blue glow as she used a butter knife to slice her burger into small square pieces.
“That's so...stupid. Talk about a meaningless myth.” Applejack cut the discussion short by stuffing her mouth with a generous helping of hay fries. Rarity nodded in agreement with her sentiments.
The sun started to retreat in such a way that the closest tree began providing shade over the diner, much to the two ponies' pleasure. Applejack tried to pace herself on the fries, imagining Rarity's disapproving voice if she were to shove her muzzle in the basket as she was so tempted to do. 'How unbecoming, dear, really! Were you raised in a barn?' she could practically hear the unicorn tut-tutting.
Despite those fears, Applejack was pleasantly surprised by the lack of arguing that usually dominated their interactions. The duo appeared to be as fundamentally different as day and night to all onlookers, but both held a deep and unspoken understanding that their true natures were essentially indistinguishable. In fact, it was that shared element of passion and determination—more than occasionally guising itself as brute stubbornness—which led them to clash so frequently.
According to physics, ions with opposite charges attract, while those of like charges repel, and this was generally accepted by every reasonable scientific mind in Equestria. Even Applejack, with her noted lack of interest in “fancy mathematics,” could perceive this universal truth. However, she contemplated in all seriousness—particularly when she was in the presence of Carousel Boutique's sole proprietor—if two fiercely similar entities could ever become drawn together in the circumstance that they were neither atoms nor molecules, but beings of sentience.
The grating noise that indicated the last sip of cherry soda in Applejack's glass brought her out of her reverie in a most fitting fashion. Such idealistic fantasies were for the birds, as useless as old hayseed in the desert. Rarity spoke warmly of a life filled with ritz and luxury, and impossibly handsome stallions decked out to the nines in all the glory that money could buy.
Applejack was painfully aware of her brash subversion of tradition whenever she glanced in a mirror, seeing somepony looking back who was often glazed in the sweat of a hard day's labor and marred by sunburn, hooves caked with dried mud and manure. Then there was the minor detail of being a mare and not a stallion, which she was certain automatically exempted her from the unicorn's list of potential dates. Pretending to fiddle with the chipped edge of the table, she stole a shy peek at the only pony she'd ever known who could make eating a greasy burger look remotely classy. Rarity picked up on the false disinterest and put her fork down.
“Is something wrong? You seem awfully quiet, Applejack.” The Earth pony's ears stood to attention at the sound of her own name spoken softly in legitimate concern.
“Course not. I just didn't wanna talk with my mouth full. 'Cause honestly, Rar', I know how much you hate that,” she said with a weak smile.
“Hate is such a strong and savage word to use. I would only go as far as to say that I severely dislike it,” Rarity clarified. The quirky waiter strolled by, pausing a brief moment to drop a billfold on their table as he stormed off, with another customer's tray on his back wobbling and dangerously close to collapsing.
Applejack had ordered the same small meal enough to know its precise cost, a modest six bits. She rummaged in her saddlebag to collect the loose coins and promptly stuffed the billfold with said sum.
“Think you can cover a tip?”
“Of course; what kind of obnoxious misfit would I be if I didn't leave tips for the restaurant's waitstaff?” the prim pony asked rhetorically as she used her magic to multitask, searching through her bag for an elusive coin purse while sweeping stray specks of dirt from the hem of her quilt. “What!? I know I brought more money than this,” Applejack could hear the unicorn grumbling under her breath as her temper swiftly rose.
“Uh, Rarity, if you're comin' up short, I could lend you a few bits for today....” The farmer tread carefully with her words, knowing from past experience how easy it was to trip the fashionista's notoriously short fuse. Rarity dropped the floating bag on the table and her bottom lip quivered ever so slightly in distress.
“I...I don't have it. There's only two bits in here, because I had to pay back Fluttershy for covering our last spa visit—I mean, it's not like I couldn't afford it or anything, it was just a little favor she did me—dear Celestia, how embarrassing...” she trailed off, staring past her friend at nothing in particular. Applejack felt a pang of worry for her.
“Is everything alright at the shop, sugarcube? I know things've been rough for everypony, so I understand if you're havin' problems with money. Shoot, me an' Big Macintosh an' Granny Smith are goin' through the same ordeal ourselves.”
“Please, really, it's nothing like that! I just miscalculated somewhere along the line and didn't bring enough bits to foot the bill. I'm sure I can have a word with the manager and he'll hold the tab until my next visit.”
“He'll do no such thing, now, I said I've got you covered.” Applejack spilled the contents of her bag on the table and then pushed everything back in that was irrelevant, including the rolled-up map of Everfree Forest, a sack of old trail mix that had gone stale, an oversized lint ball that looked like something Opalescence would cough up on a bad day, and several coin wrappers full of even more bits. Rarity seemed surprised that the humble pony had so much cash, let alone that she apparently carried it around with her on a regular basis.
“This should do it, an' don't you go worryin' about payin' it back, neither.” She slid the loose gold pieces across the booth to Rarity, who tallied up their total.
“Fifteen bits? The meal was only eleven,” she pointed out.
“Leave those four on the table, then. Consider it a generous somethin' extra for that crazy-lookin' fella who waited on us.”
“Oh, no, I couldn't—”
“I ain't askin' you to take the money, I'm tellin' you,” the Earth pony said with a firm resolve.
“If you insist,” Rarity said hesitantly as she filled the billfold and closed it. “I can't properly thank you enough for this, Applejack...it's so terribly kind of you. Also, for the record, could we keep this little situation between us? I'd prefer that other ponies didn't get ideas in their heads that I've gone bankrupt.”
“What a presumptuous question, darling! My business is doing perfectly fine, if you must know,” the unicorn stated matter-of-factly. “I've even been blessed with the task of providing attire for the socialites attending the grand opening of a new theatre in Canterlot. I'll admit it's kept me up all hours of the night for the past two weeks, but it's a responsibility I bear with pride nonetheless.”
“Maybe all that work is what's got you so consarned uptight to begin with,” Applejack said in a light-hearted tone. She smiled as she formulated a solution to Rarity's problem. “You said you wanted to thank me, right? I've got somethin' I wouldn't mind some help with, but you'll have to come by the farm first thing tomorrow mornin'.” Amused by the way the mare's self-assured expression had morphed into a more timid one, she leaned in closer before continuing.
“I usually prefer to do it alone, but I'm willin' to let you join in if you're not afraid of gettin' your hooves messy. An' I understand that you ain't too experienced, so I can go through the mechanics real slow if that's what you'd like.”
The unicorn stared blankly at the farmer in shock, a deep blush adorning her cheeks quite visibly even in the shade.
“I-I'm sorry, what exactly are you referring to?” she managed to stammer. Applejack suddenly realized how strange and perverted her innocent request sounded and felt extremely embarrassed.
“Um...ah...applebuckin', what else?” she said with a grin, attempting to conceal the blunder by feigning ignorance.
“Oh! Okay,” Rarity said, catching her breath in relief. The actual suggestion, though much less unusual than what was implied through Applejack's poor choice of words, was still odd enough to elicit confusion. “But why? I'm certain that I wouldn't be any good at it and only get in your way in the process.”
“Nonsense. Why, it's easy as pie once you get the hang of it. I might be startin' on diggin' the well tomorrow, too, so you could lend a hoof with that instead if it's more your style.”
“Digging? In dirt? Uh, no thanks,” she declined, trying to maintain some semblance of politeness. “I wasn't even aware you were building a well in the first place.”
“Yeah, I wasn't either,” the orange pony admitted. “Big Macintosh came to me one evenin' an' he said, 'Applejack, yer gonna be helpin' me drill a well in the Everfree Forest,'” she said in a spot-on imitation of her older brother's baritone voice. “'I've already got the okay from Zecora, an' the equipment's on its way, so I don't wanna hear no if-an's-or-buts about it, now.' Can't argue with that, I reckon. Anyway, I promise it wouldn't be as dirty or gross as you think. You could even operate the drill if you want,” she offered. “Just think of it as a real huge sewin' machine.”
“Hmm. I suppose that would be better than kicking trees all day.”
“You always have a such a knack for makin' my life's work sound glamorous, Rar',” the farmer said sarcastically, followed by a contrastingly genuine laugh.
“I didn't mean anything negative by it, dear,” the unicorn said in her own defense. “I was simply saying that I'd rather not engage in any...”
“Gruelin' physical labor?”
“Got'cha. Like I said, if you'd be willin' to take a break from those dresses for one day, I bet you'd enjoy it. Early harvest is the most important time of the season, an' it'd mean an awful lot to me if you volunteered to at least show up.”
“Well, then, I'll do more than just show up—I'll make it my utmost priority to be a productive assistant!” she said with a bright air of confidence. “That is, on one condition.”
“You have to help me around the shop the day after tomorrow.”
“What!?” Applejack blurted out. She didn't consciously intend to display such strong aversion to the idea, and certainly not out of work ethic—if Rarity proved useful enough at the farm, she could afford to take the next day off with only minimal bickering from a grudging Big Macintosh—however, the thought of being forced to model in frilly skirts and receiving unwanted fashion advice made her recoil in horror. She could easily see Rarity trying to style her untamed mane into a retro beehive or something equally ridiculous.
“Oh, Applejack, you act like I'm asking you to walk through the fires of Tartarus!” the white pony said, flippantly regarding her friend's renowned distaste for anything overtly posh. “I simply need somepony to assist with sprucing up the place before the journalists from The Canterlot Times arrive. They've shown an interest in publishing an article about my most recent gig, and of course I agreed to be interviewed. Oh, and there may be some light catering, which I'm sure you can handle.” The Earth pony was silent for a few seconds as she allowed the information to sink in.
“Caterin', huh? I do a little bakin' from time to time with Granny Smith, but I'm not much of a cook. Why don't you get...I dunno, Pinkie Pie for a job like that?”
“Well, why didn't you have Rainbow Dash help you?” Rarity asked, effectively turning the question around. “The point is, I'm not asking Pinkie Pie, I'm asking you. If you don't want to spend one short day in an air-conditioned boutique instead of kicking the crud out of apple trees, then just say so.”
“Lighten up, sugarcube. I didn't say I wouldn't do it. I will. I just don't wanna be dressed up in any crazy costumes or have my mane dyed some unnatural color. If you can promise me that, I'll see to it that Big Mac don't set you up with somethin' too stressful at Sweet Apple Acres. But I reckon that wouldn't be a problem anyhow; he's pretty shy around anypony outside of the family, especially a good-lookin' mare.” Applejack found herself picking at the chip in the table again as her nerves set in.
'For Celestia's sake,' she thought to herself, 'why in the hay did that come outta my mouth? Never mind, get a grip, AJ. You were talkin' about Big Macintosh. She ain't got no reason to think otherwise, so stop messin' with this table an' finish the conversation before you make a total fool of yourself.' She finally looked up at Rarity, who appeared as if she wasn't paying much attention at that point either.
“Are ya in or what?”
“I just said I'd be there. Weren't you listening?” Applejack was baffled, wondering how she could have possibly missed that, but nodded anyway. “Is there anything in particular I should bring?”
“Just yourself, an' a pair of work boots if you have 'em.” The rust-colored pony reached for her saddlebag, which was considerably dirty since it didn't have the luxury of resting on a neatly folded little quilt. “I'd better go on an' get headed back now; Big Macintosh hates to be kept waitin', an' Granny Smith...well, she just falls asleep an' loses track of the time, for the most part,” she said with a forced smile.
“Very well, I won't keep you from your duties, dear. Say hi to the family for me.”
“Yep, okay—I mean, alright. I'll see ya tomorrow, then.” She turned about-face rather awkwardly and began the short trek home, walking at a moderate pace instead of running full-gallop to provide herself with additional time to think. 'All in all, not a bad day. But, jeez, why'd I have to go messin' up around the last parts, soundin' stupid as all get-out....' The Earth pony proceeded to nag herself over the details of what she perceived to be humiliating Freudian slips, blocking out the sights and sounds of nature as she trailed the dirt road leading home.
“Are you buckin' serious!?” Applejack hollered indignantly. Late evening had set in and the sun was almost completely vanished from the sky, but Big Macintosh had only walked through the front door minutes ago and was already being yelled at for something or another. His red ears flattened in exasperation.
“Applejack, I ain't gonna tell ya but this twice. Harvest comes first, then you can go to Everfree Forest. Until then, you'd best be forgettin' about well-constructin'.” The younger sibling looked like she would explode in fury. She stomped up the stairs, fighting the conspicuous knowledge that her behavior was so immature it made even Apple Bloom embarrassed to be a witness.
She couldn't care less about that at the moment, though. She'd spent all morning and most of the previous day planning a location for the future well, making sure to pick a spot that would be convenient and yielding, but not too close to Zecora's hut. The zebra was kind enough to allow an excavation on her property, so it was only right to ensure she wouldn't be troubled by loud noises and a trashed yard in the process.
Big Macintosh hadn't been home when Applejack arrived that afternoon, but she carried on with the usual chores in his absence, half-expecting him to pull up to the farm in the magnificent rig they'd rented from Braeburn. Instead he came in late, exhausted from far too much haggling with uncooperative employees at the Ponyville post office. He explained to the middle child that a package containing a crucial component of the drill bit had gone missing, along with the mail carrier delivering it. With such an important shipment possibly weeks behind, the well would have to be dug the old-fashioned way, and furthermore, the magnitude of the job's difficulty and duration meant it would need to be postponed to make sufficient time for harvest.
Applejack hated waiting for anything, and scheduling seemed like an unnecessary trifle favored only by bookish ponies like Twilight Sparkle. On some level, she also doubted her ability to handle the new task, but she'd never admit that to Big Mac.
She kicked her bedroom door shut, perhaps a tad too forcefully since she could hear the walls shake slightly for a moment afterwards. She walked to her bed and sat on the end closest to the windowsill, gazing at the small potted plant that resided there. It was just a sapling, somewhat brown and wilted, its growth stunted for reasons Applejack could never figure out in spite of her agricultural prowess, but the most interesting thing was its shape. The foliage was trimmed so that the tree resembled a tiny Earth pony in the midst of a gallant trot.
Unbeknownst to Granny Smith and the few others who had commented on it, the plant was once part of an enormous tree that had crashed through Twilight's window last year during a storm. Applejack vividly recalled her urgent, fruitless attempts to push it back outside, but the gargantuan trunk was simply too heavy for any single pony to budge. It was Rarity's magic that saved the day, transforming the fallen tree into an assorted collection of decorative bonsai shrubs. She had performed the feat with such grace and so little effort that it astounded the Earth pony, whose eyes even now filled with joy at the thought alone. She sighed and lay down to rest her head against an inviting pillow, her body aching and weary though her mind continued to race.
“Land sakes,” she muttered quietly, still staring intently at the little tree. “How long...how long am I gonna suffer? One more month...a year? Two? Maybe...my...whole entire life....” Her incoherent, hushed whisper trailed off as she tightly closed her eyes and tried to forget about the unrequited emotion causing her so much grief, yet she could already feel herself drifting to another very relevant place in time. Several months ago, to be exact, in the town of Dodge Junction.
The train whistled sharply as its engine revved up, beginning its journey back to the west. Applejack hung her head from an open window to shout farewell to her friends outside, or at least the three of them: Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy. Pinkie Pie and Rarity, on the other hoof, were the reason she remained on the train while the aforementioned trio had already unboarded. In a move of abject foolishness, they had departed from Dodge Junction without giving a second thought to the Earth pony and unicorn who were essentially stranded in the desert, in Applejack's own words.
During the ride home Dash brushed it off, saying that they could just walk into town and take the next train back to Ponyville by themselves. Fluttershy mumbled an excuse about the necessity of giving Angel Bunny his weekly bath, which made Twilight want to roll her eyes even more than Dash's brazen confession that she didn't “feel like it.”
“I can go with you,” the purple pony said, giving the other two a shaming look.
“No, it's alright. Y'all go on home an' I'll stay on the train,” Applejack said.
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. It was her fault that Pinkie and Rarity were out there, because if she hadn't tried to cover up the disgrace of losing at the rodeo by moving to Dodge in the first place, there would be no need for returning to the dinky frontier town. Rainbow Dash was probably correct in her assumption that they would head to the nearest train station with no trouble, but one could never be sure in a land like the so-called Mild West.
Applejack, now on the train without anypony familiar to keep her company, looked out from the rear window to see Ponyville gradually becoming smaller and smaller, until its buildings appeared to be little more than an insignificant blip on the horizon. She amused herself by finding imagery in the overhead clouds, which were starting to fade as the evening passed and night drew closer. It would only be another hour or so until the sky turned from bright azure to dark and dusty.
Meanwhile, Rarity and Pinkie Pie were making themselves comfortable—or trying to, anyway—in one of Dodge's famed watering holes, as the locals would likely refer to the dingy bar that occupied an ugly plot of land next to the train station. Rarity was less than thrilled by the idea of sitting in the disgusting establishment, which stunk heavily of stagnant smoke and musk, but Pinkie seemed to enjoy the environment and its animated inhabitants so she held her tongue.
Mere hours ago she had made the mistake of bluntly telling Pinkie to shut up, her poor brain practically fried to a crisp after hearing the energetic filly rant and rave about chimicherries and cherrychangas for Celestia knows how long. This resulted in an emotional breakdown on the pink pony's part, complete with whining, crying, screaming, and hair deflation. Rarity managed to calm her down with nothing short of profuse apologizing, as well as convincing her friend that the name cherrychanga was far superior to chimicherry.
Pinkie Pie's mane bounced back to its usual curly style in the blink of an eye, but the unicorn was sure to be exceedingly careful with her language in the future to prevent another “Pinkamena” catastrophe, the likes of which made her own dramatic moments look entirely rational by comparison. If visiting a stinky, dirty bar would please the other pony, then who was Rarity to judge?
At the very least, it gave her a much needed opportunity to unwind and rest her legs, sore and tender from operating that blasted pushcart under the unforgiving desert sun. They had hoped the weather-beaten track would lead to Ponyville or some form of civilization, but it came to an abrupt dead end at a defunct mine shaft, ensuring that the remainder of their day would be a long, tiring walk back to dull Dodge Junction.
The bartender, a moss-colored unicorn stallion with a moustache, appearing to be roughly middle-aged, leaned across the counter in Rarity's direction.
“Hey there, sugar. I've never seen you here before. New in town?” he said with a voice that rivaled his facial hair in terms of coarseness.
“Not quite, just visiting.” The stallion laughed at the idea of tourism in his humble hometown.
“Nothin' like a mare with a sense of humor. What can I get'cha? Sex on the Beach, or perhaps somethin' to drink?” Rarity forced a wry smile at the terrible joke.
“How about a beer, sweetheart? Whatever's new on tap; surprise me.”
“Chocolate milk and rum!” Pinkie shouted, slamming her hoof on the countertop for emphasis. The bartender almost jumped as the Earth pony seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
“Choc—what? Where in Equestria did you just come from!?” he asked.
“Oh, don't worry about that,” Rarity told him. “She does this all the time, defying basic physical laws of the universe and whatnot. You'll drive yourself insane trying to figure it out, believe me.” He stared and blinked once or twice before getting to work on those drinks.
The next couple of hours passed at a dreadfully slow pace for the white unicorn, who had grown bored since Pinkie Pie had proven herself able to annoy the bartender enough to be asked to leave, mostly because she kept making messes on the table by blowing bubbles in her drink with a straw.
As random and confusing as her friend's non sequiturs could be, Rarity still would have preferred such company to that of the unpleasant brutes who approached every so often to flirt shamelessly with her. Prior to leaving the bar, Pinkie had her fair share of male attention as well, not even counting the female griffon who sauntered up from behind with a bold “Hey, baby...what d'you say we ditch these losers and hit up a high-class joint?” before the two recognized each other.
“Gilda!?” Pinkie gasped, almost choking on a sip of the chocolatey rum-cola mix.
“You! Ugh,” the griffon said, marching angrily back to her friends, a group of buffalo who burst out in laughter despite not knowing half as much of the bad blood between the two. It was the last legitimately entertaining thing that had happened since Pinkie was forced outside by the owner, and that was nearly thirty minutes ago. Rarity had just purchased her third glass of ale, enjoying the bitter taste of its extra-hopped flavor, when she heard an accented voice call out from the entrance of the building.
“'Cuse me, have any of you fellas seen two mares around here, a unicorn an'—hey!” The golden figure wearing a cowboy hat galloped to the counter.
“Applejack! Why are you still in Dodge? I thought you would have left hours ago with the others,” Rarity said.
“I did,” she replied, “but I took to the train back to make sure y'all were safe. Where's Pinkie Pie?”
“She's outside on the deck. Didn't you see her when you came in?”
“Nope,” Applejack said, shaking her head. “C'mon, we'd better go find 'er. The train's leavin' real soon an' I'd hate to be stuck in this dump for any longer than we have to.” Rarity got up and followed her to the door, where they were met by a rather hideous buffalo smoking a cigarette and a heavyset Earth pony with a bandana on his head, both idly blocking the exit with their large frames.
“A dump, huh?” the pony said, looming into Rarity's personal space. “What do you think? Is your friend right, is this place a dump?” She stared at the stranger with a glint of anger reflecting in her blue eyes.
“I'm sorry, you're kinda holdin' up traffic,” Applejack said, attempting to be polite. “We've got somepony we're lookin' for—”
“We've got some ponies we're lookin' for, too. What a coincidence!” the buffalo grunted, eyeing the Earth mare in a way that put her on edge. “Why don't you stay a while?”
“We were lookin' for a unicorn, actually,” the pony in the bandana said, licking his lips suggestively. “Ain't that right, bud?” he asked his companion with a hoarse laugh. Applejack tried to keep her cool but let a fearful whimper escape when the buffalo drunkenly slung his foreleg around her barrel as tightly as he could. Rarity turned around at the sound of her friend's discomfort, and her features quickly twisted into a telltale expression of rage at the sight she beheld.
“Speak for yourself,” the bison retorted, rubbing against Applejack's flank as she tried to shove him away, mortified and appalled by the base manner in which she was subdued. “I prefer an Earth mare. More meat on their bones, if you catch my drift.”
The strange pony was too busy gazing at Rarity's backside to notice her horn flashing furiously as an empty beer bottle floated behind the buffalo's head. Without hesitation, she smashed it over his skull.
He cried out in agony, the cigarette dropping from his mouth as some of the broken shards fell to the floor, others clearly embedded in his scalp with droplets of blood trickling from them. Needless to say, his grip loosened at the extreme pain and allowed Applejack to slip away. The bandana-wearing stallion didn't even have a chance to react before Rarity bucked and delivered a powerful kick to the side of his face, sending him stumbling backwards and crashing into a nearby table.
Drinks, playing cards, and poker chips hit the floor as the table was overturned, resulting in a very upset band of buffalo and their winged chimera pal.
“Hey!” the griffon screeched as she grabbed the stunned pony by his neck with one clawed hand, the other clenched into a fist. “You got any damn manners, or do I need to beat them into your puny head one by one?” She didn't have time to notice the unicorn responsible for shoving him into their table, because the two mares had already run out of the bar as fast as their legs would carry them.
“Are you crazy!?” Applejack shouted as Rarity clumsily pulled her behind the building. “You could've gotten us killed!” she continued, barely audible above the clamor rising from the bar as bottles were busted and the owner screamed at his unruly patrons.
“As opposed to what? Did you see the look in that buffalo's eyes!? He was ready to rut you in front of the whole bar, for Celestia's sake!” The unicorn's steely glare cast a wave of guilt over Applejack, who looked away in shame.
“I know...I'm sorry,” she murmured to little avail, since it was unlikely that her words could be heard over the noise. In the periphery of her vision, she saw something moving behind Rarity, a bush with...a fluffy, cotton candy-like tail?
“Pinkie Pie!” The shrub rattled and shook as Pinkie lifted her head in curiosity.
“Oh, hey, Applejack. What's going on in there? Did somepony start a fight?” she asked.
“Sort of,” Rarity said with the slightest hint of pride. Suddenly the three heard the unmistakable echo of a bellowing whistle and their ears immediately perked up.
“The train! C'mon, we gotta go, now!” Applejack yelled, not wasting a second as she darted off to the station with the others following suit. Pinkie glanced back as she ran and frowned.
“Aww...I was playing with a really cute little frog, too,” she whined.
“You can play with frogs in Ponyville!” Applejack shot back impatiently. “Pick up the pace, you two!” Rarity had to give it her all to keep up with the athletic farmer, feeling her stomach lurch with all the alcohol inside sloshing around so violently. The Earth pony trailing behind also struggled to match her friends' speeds, and the few extra pounds she carried from indulging on sweets like cupcakes and ice cream didn't help.
They ran as fast as they could past the station, following the tracks where the train started to increase speed. They were almost on its tail, save for Applejack, who was already flanking the side with ease.
“We're gonna have to jump! You ready?” she called back to the unicorn. Rarity gave a cursory nod and the orange pony slowed down so they could make the leap together. “Alright, now...one, two...three!” They sprang up and landed side by side on the end boxcar with a jarring thump. Applejack quickly shook herself off and looked back to see Pinkie Pie lagging further and further behind.
“It's going too fast!” Pinkie cried. The farmer's eyes flitted nervously between the boxcar's ledge and the pony outside who strenuously sought to climb aboard, gauging the distance between the two and their respective velocities. She bit her lip, realizing that there was no natural way she could jump that far.
“She's not gonna make it,” she breathed in horror.
“Oh yes she will,” Rarity said, utterly determined. “Pinkie Pie, jump!”
“Yes you can! Now jump!” Her horn lit up the moment Pinkie's hooves left the ground, shining most brilliantly as she reached the height of her leap to give the airborne pony a push. Applejack's mouth hung open in disbelief as her friend flew over the railing, perhaps bouncing too far as a result of Rarity's magic. She hit the side of the boxcar with considerable force, falling to the floor and shaking her head in pain.
“Pinkie!” The unicorn rushed to her aid. “Pinkie? Are you okay? I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to throw you over the rails that hard! Just...say something, please!” The party pony's eyes moved all around the room, seeing three Applejacks and a wavy, distorted version of Rarity staring back at her. As soon as she blinked everything returned to normal and she giggled.
“Do you really think cherrychanga is better than chimicherry?” The fashionista was speechless for a moment before sighing in relief and collapsing against the wall next to Applejack. Pinkie laughed again, sliding the door open to enter the main part of the train. “You're silly, Rarity. I'll go ask the other passengers what they think.” She hopped away merrily as if nothing remotely dramatic had just occurred, much to the others' bewilderment.
“That crazy filly...sometimes I really don't understand 'er. As for you,” the apple farmer said, looking accusingly at the remaining pony, “I don't know what the hay's gotten into you, kickin' in teeth an' crackin' skulls with beer bottles, but you shouldn't of done that!” Applejack wasn't finished, but Rarity cut her off with an unexpected hug.
“Don't you talk to me about what I shouldn't do,” she said, still provoked from earlier, though most of her anger had dissipated and what remained was muffled against Applejack's chest. “You're lucky I didn't start yelling at you the moment you walked in the bar.”
“Why would you do somethin' like that? An' why—”
“Because I missed you, you blockhead! I couldn't believe that you would actually run away from Ponyville—from all of your friends, from me—for this dreadful place.”
“C'mon now, sugarcube, it's not like that at all. I was embarrassed...I practiced so hard for that competition, an' I lost in every event. An' on top of that, I couldn't even pay for town hall to be repaired. Besides, why're you so upset? Half the time it seems you can hardly stand me,” she chuckled, attempting to brush off the awkwardness of being gripped around the middle for so long. Admittedly, though, it did feel much nicer than that nasty buffalo's suffocating hold.
“I can't stand you,” the unicorn mumbled. “That's why I'm not going to cry over you twice in the same week,” she said with a sniffle.
“Calm down, Rar', I ain't askin' anypony to go sheddin' tears over me in the first place,” she said, finally resting her forelegs around the other pony to complete the embrace. “You're kinda makin' me feel bad now.”
“Oh, be quiet,” Rarity said playfully, a hiccup escaping at the last word.
“Sounds like somepony's drunk,” Applejack teased.
“Please. You'd know if I was drunk, darling.” The train rolled along smoothly, and even though it was now traveling at its highest speed, the wind whipping harshly against the two ponies' bodies wasn't much of a bother. Applejack didn't feel cold at all, especially with the heat of the unicorn's breath against her coat keeping both of them warm.
She absentmindedly began stroking Rarity's back as she dozed off, not giving much thought to the ramifications of such an action until the train hit a bump, waking up the intoxicated pony in an instant. Yawning and stretching her hind legs, she wondered how long she'd been holding on to the other mare and blushed.
“What the...did I fall asleep?”
“Yeah, kinda,” Applejack said, suddenly realizing where her hooves were and replacing them by her sides at once. “It's...uh, pretty cold out here. By most ponies' standards,” she added, finding it as difficult as always to tell a lie.
“Certainly,” Rarity agreed as she reclaimed her forelegs to stand up. “Let's go inside and make sure Pinkie isn't getting on anypony's nerves too badly.” Applejack got up and followed her through the door, trying to shake the strange feeling invading her mind by focusing on something else. She looked straight ahead, watching the violet tail in front of her sway from side to side as Rarity walked. 'It's kinda cute how it curls at the end like that,' she mused.
Applejack's eyes widened and she flinched at how frighteningly natural that detail was as it had unfurled inside her head. She regrouped her attention to something more neutral—the speckled tiles below seemed harmless enough—and frowned at the absurdity of her previous thought.
'Puppies are cute,' she told herself. 'Kittens are cute. Apple Bloom leavin' her toys all over the livin' room floor is cute. Annoyin', usually, but still cute. An' of course, a fine-lookin' stallion is always cute, among other things. But mares are not cute, and especially not hoity-toity, unofficial-queen-of-drama, afraid-to-chip-a-hoof-or-get-a-hair-out-of-place Rarity. Even if she does have an adorable curly tail. Consarn it, AJ, shut up before I have to—'
“Applejack!” Pinkie Pie nearly shouted as she popped up in front of her. The orange pony stopped and reared slightly in surprise, causing her hat to slide down and push part of her blonde mane into her face as her hooves returned to the ground.
“What?” she groaned while fixing the hat and tucking her hair back behind it.
“No need to be such a grumpy-pants! I was just gonna ask why you're walking into the conductor's room.” Applejack glanced back to see the only other passengers, Rarity and an elderly male mule, following her movements curiously.
“Um...maybe I was plannin' on askin' him about...somethin' or another.”
“Oh! Then go right ahead,” Pinkie said, stepping out of the way.
“Nah...I-I don't really need to, after all,” she sputtered, feeling incredibly stupid even with only three ponies, or technically two ponies and a mule, paying attention to her inept behavior. She wasted no time planting herself firmly in the closest seat, next to the old jack.
An indeterminate amount of time passed before she was able to relax again, and by then the atmosphere had grown very calm, all quiet except for the muted rumble of the train's engine. In and of itself, that sound was rather uncanny to anypony who hadn't been raised in the Mild West. The frontier folks often used primitive technology instead of magic or environmentally friendly horsepower, which struck Applejack as backwards and weird, despite the number of times she'd boarded such a vehicle to visit Braeburn and other relatives out west.
Other than herself, though, nopony seemed to give it much mind. The mule sitting on her right had fallen asleep, occasionally drooling or mumbling gibberish as he snoozed, while Pinkie Pie had found entertainment in making newspaper hats. Across the aisle on the other end of the train sat Rarity, with a newspaper between her hooves as if she were reading, but silently watching Applejack. Their eyes met for a moment and the unicorn quickly looked down again, confusing the Earth pony.
She sighed, wishing in futility for the desire to do anything besides indulge in Rarity's ridiculous game. When she attempted to avoid participation, the tipsy pony would stare for minutes at a time until it annoyed Applejack, who would swiftly try meet her gaze, only to find that it had been broken before it even started. It was unbelievably vexing, comparable to the aggravation caused by “floaters” in one's eye that can only be seen peripherally and disappear whenever directly looked at.
Eventually she wisened up and turned the tables after failing to catch Rarity's glances for the fourth or fifth time, and kept her eyes focused steadily on the unicorn pretending to read her newspaper. Applejack grinned wickedly. She would surely win this way.
Rarity looked up, but her expression had changed from uninterested to decidedly coquettish, and though the goal was to look away, Applejack could only stare back as her heart raced uncontrollably. The train's brakes screeched as the vehicle came to a stop, and Rarity returned to the paper for an extra minute of reading before the conductor brought the ride to an absolute halt. Applejack pulled herself up on shaky legs, wondering what in Tartarus had just happened, other than the one extremely obvious answer:
She lost the game.
The three ponies stepped off the train, collectively having little to say. Pinkie Pie bounced about gleefully, happy to be home in Ponyville where she could use a straw to blow bubbles in her alcoholic beverages without being yelled at.
“It's nice to have you back, Applejack,” Rarity said, breaking the silence before they parted. “Well...see you around, then....”
“Wait.” The unicorn paused mid-trot as she was about to start walking home in the same direction that Pinkie was already headed. Applejack took a deep breath, thinking her words over carefully. “I just wanted to say that I don't blame you for knockin' that buffoon over the noggin back there. As much as I hate to admit it, you literally saved my rear end today, and I actually thought it was...real nice of ya, Rarity.”
“I'm glad you think so,” she returned with a bashful smile. “And thank you. I don't normally have the intentions, nor will I ever, to harm anypony—or any buffalo either, for that matter. But something happened when that ruffian had the nerve to grab you...something inside of me snapped, and to be honest, I wanted to break his face from the minute he laid eyes on you.”
“I...I don't really know.” A chilly wind swept through the empty train station, causing them both to shiver a bit. It was surely well past midnight by now, but neither pony felt the usual fear that accompanied darkness sneaking up on them. They had already evoked that emotion in each other to a greater degree than manticores, hydras, or even dragons could ever hope to.
The Earth pony's vision was blurred with tears as she lay wide awake in bed, having given up on trying to sleep hours ago, and replayed the events of that night in her mind's eye for what must have been the thousandth time. She had known from that substantial moment that she was undeniably, unquestionably in love with the most frustrating, hotheaded unicorn she'd ever met, and despite how insane it would have sounded were she to explain it to anypony, it made more sense than anything else had in all her years yet. Then why, in the name of all that was holy, did it have to be so painful?
She had stopped asking herself that question a long time ago, knowing the answer and hating it with every bone in her body.
It was for no reason other than the fact that the pony she so deeply cared for was Rarity. Not Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, or any of the other ponies she interacted with on a daily basis, but Rarity—whose current relationship with Applejack ran hot and cold like no other. One day she could be the sweetest filly in the world, and the very next she'd fly off the handle and argue with the Earth pony for whatever excuse she felt like creating.
This often irritated Applejack beyond belief, though in a way she also adored it since the behavior was only mutual between the two.
Just as neither of them would want to curl up in the embrace of, say, Rainbow Dash or Fluttershy, they also wouldn't feel the urge to mercilessly bash those friends' less endearing traits or poke fun at them in general. But they could direct either of those desires at each other all day long, perhaps even both at the same time. Their friendship was most definitely a mixed bag, one that many ponies would be unwilling to deal with, but from Applejack's point of view it was beautifully surreal and immensely gratifying.
To potentially upset such an invigorating dynamic by introducing romance was out of the question, no matter how much she longed for this to occur. If she had been given the opportunity to go back in time and choose some other mare to be madly addicted to, it would have been anypony but Rarity. By chance or fate, however, her eyes fell upon the fashionista, and she was prepared to carry that secret to the grave. It was an easy enough task—all she needed to do was limit the amount of time they spent together, and the attraction would surely fade.
'Which means it was a fantastic idea to agree to spendin' the next two whole days together. Real smart, AJ, just genius,' she thought sourly as she reached to the bedside dresser for a sleeping pill. 'While we're at it, let's go ahead an' take one o' these too, since you've already broken one promise to yourself today. Breakin' two can't hurt.' She stared at the medication, which—like a certain somepony—she had become dangerously dependent upon.
It reminded her of how when she was a filly she'd fall down playing and get a scrape on her knee, and no matter how many times Pa told her not to pick at the scab, her impulsiveness got the better of her and she did it anyway.
Applejack popped the pill into her mouth, crushing it between her molars before swallowing in the hopes that it would make the drug take effect more quickly. It worked.
Two hours later she gripped the pillow under her head viciously as a dream appeared in her land of sleep—a nightmare in which she could hear her deceased father's disembodied voice speaking in tongues as she ran through an orchard of demonic trees, chased by a white unicorn with a curly, purple tail.