by Antiquarian


It’s a few hours before the other girls eventually tire of all the shooting and decide to call it a day. I say ‘tire of the shooting,’ but for the three actual combatants in our merry band it’s more a case of ‘ran out of ammunition.’ I suspect that if somepony had materialized with a truckload of bullets they would have merrily plugged away until the cows came home.

‘Until the cows came home.’ My oh my, it seems I’ve picked up some of dear Applejack’s countryisms. How long the years have been.

At any rate, as Celestia begins to set the sun we make our way to the gate. There we find three stallions waiting for us. Or, more specifically, waiting for three of us. They greet their mares more or less simultaneously, but I pride myself on being detail-oriented, especially where romance is concerned, so I don’t miss a thing.

Bud is a rather unassuming stallion, with a pale cream coat, short brown mane and tail, and black-rimmed glasses. He’s clean-shaven, a little shorter than Pinkie Pie, and a little thick about the middle. Glancing at him, one could be forgiven for assuming that he’s a clerk or perhaps a supervisor for a construction site and not a highly-decorated Marine lieutenant with two Bronze Stars and the Imperial Bloodstripe.

“Hiya, hubby!” exclaims Pinkie, crossing the distance between them in what would be a short sprint for most ponies but is really quite sedate where Pinkie is concerned. She gives him a nuzzle. “Miss me?”

“Always, sugarplum,” he says warmly. “The house is just eerily quiet without you around.”

That I readily believe.

He reaches for her rifle case. “Why don’t you let me get—”

She smacks his hoof away. “No! Bad hubby! I’m perfectly capable of carrying Gretchen myself!” Bud looks hurt and she plants a kiss on his snout to show him it’s no hard feelings. “If I make your favorite casserole tonight, will you promise to hover a little less?”

Bud smiles. “Only if you let me help you make it.”

“It’s a deal. Seeya, girls!” After acknowledging the others’ goodbyes, the two of them trot off.

Thunderlane, hovering a few feet off the ground, looks much the same as he always has, though his mohawk is just a touch shorter than it used to be and his physique is that of a soldier recently back from active duty rather than a pre-war reservist. He’s maintained that physique despite the many moons that have passed since the war’s end, and I suspect that being married to Rainbow Dash might have something to do with that.

Before he can even get a greeting off, she zips up to plant an energetic kiss on his lips. When she releases him, he’s just dazed enough to yield the first word to her. “Race you home, Thunder?”

The stallion smirks knowingly. “Oh, yes, and we all know that will be a fair race.” He flaps around to her flank and swats at her stump leg with his tail. “I couldn’t beat you even before you lost a few pounds.”

She swipes at him with one hoof and he only barely manages to dodge. “Jerk!” she laughs. “Howsabout I carry all my guns as a handicap?”

“Or we could just fly back like normal ponies,” he replies mildly.

Rainbow appears to give this due consideration, then says, “Naw! See ya all later!” and zips off. Thunderlane sighs, waves to the others, then follows the blue dot rapidly disappearing into the distance.

Big Mac… Big Mac stands out. He always has, really. Polite, deferential, square-jawed, honest, and with a body many stallions would kill for, he’s always made quite an impression on the mares of Ponyville. Applejack used to joke, not without merit, that if a group of mares was around she could always tell when Big Mac came to town because the conversation petered out and the ambient temperature rose.

In a lot of ways, it’s only gotten worse since the war. His already impressive musculature is now so sculped that he looks like the subject of a Roanan statue. He’s grown his coat out a little to cover the web of scars crisscrossing his body (burns, bullet holes, the cuts of talons and blades), which gives him a sort of ‘rugged adventurer’ look. It’s menacing, but in a reassuring ‘if anyone insults my marefriend I’ll break him in half’ sort of way. And, as if that weren’t all enough to make him a heartthrob, he had the absolute gall to grow out a perfectly masculine beard.

Honestly, if I were the sort of base, pathetic, classless mare who couldn’t control her affections and went after other mares’ special someponies, the only thing that would keep Big Mac safe from my advances would be the fear of reprisal from our friends. Fortunately, I’m a big girl who learned long ago how to be able to admire beauty without lusting after it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of certain other mares in Ponyville, and I don’t envy the stick that Big Mac must need to lug around to fend them all off.

Then again, I suspect he just ignores them. After all, he only has eyes for one mare.

“Big Mac!” cries Twilight in delight as she rolls towards him. She approaches him eagerly, but there is the barest hint of hesitation, and the wheels of her chair drag just a touch. Her eyes dance in excitement at his presence, but I know her well enough to detect a lingering fear in them; a disbelief that haunts her happiness, questioning how he could truly love her when, in her mind, he’s so perfect and she’s so broken.

But Big Mac doesn’t see a broken mare in a wheelchair. He sees Twilight, the mare he loves, who just happens to be differently-abled than the rest of us. When he looks at her, he sees the most beautiful thing in the world. “Hiya, sweetheart,” he says, his basso rumbling with warmth as he crosses the distance to kiss her gently on the forehead. “Ya have fun?”

“I did! I really do enjoy these outings. I’m surprised to see you, though. I thought Spike was going to pick me up.”

His smile turns teasing. “Ah told him Ah’d walk ya home. Not disappointed Ah hope.”

She nuzzles him. “Not at all.” The two of them depart together, the big warhorse walking at a gentle pace for her sake. Both forget to bid farewell, but I don’t mind. Truthfully, it almost brings a tear to my eye to see our precious little Twilight with the stallion she deserves.

“You did a good job helping them along,” whispers Fluttershy to me with a smile.

Once upon a time, I would have replied with false modesty. To Tartarus with that. Helping a stallion who’s not known for talking and a mare who didn’t know the first thing about romance to build a relationship via letter during a war was bloody difficult. “Yes, I did, didn’t I?” I reply, preening just a little.

Don’t look at me like that. I earned this!

I hear Applejack snort and I turn to see the farm mare staring up at the sky in mock accusation. “Okay, so where’s mah stallion?” she demands of the heavens.

Fluttershy and I giggle. “I’m sure Arinze is just caught up in his work, Applejack,” Fluttershy assures her.

I can’t resist. “That or he’s out drinking because he heard you were cheating on him with a rifle.”

The remark earns me a censorious glance from Fluttershy and a laugh from Applejack. “Heh! Yeah, Ah’ve brought this on mahself, Ah reckon.”

“Indeed. Such a tragedy.”

Not seeming impressed by the joke, Fluttershy checks her watch. “Well, I’d better get back to my animals. I’ll see you girls later.”

“Bye, Fluttershy.”

“Ta ta, darling!”

After she leaves, I cast a glance at Applejack. “Well, I’m hardly a dashing zebra stallion, but I’d be happy to walk back with you.”

“Mighty kind o’ ya.”

We amble in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres, not in any particular hurry. “Arinze really has taken well to the farm life, hasn’t he,” I observe.

“He sure as sugar has,” admits Applejack. “Honestly, Ah think he’s happier here than he ever was back in the palace.”

I elbow her. “I’m sure that has more to do with you than anything.”

She blushes. It’s a good shade on her. “Well, yer right about that, but Ah think he’d enjoy the farm life anyway. He loves his family and his country, but he never was much fer courtly living.”

“And what about Nkea?” I ask, referring to Arinze’s bodyguard and aide-de-camp. “Is he still frosty about the entire affair?”

Applejack chuckles. “Oh, he makes all sorts of hooded scathing remarks about the rustic life, but he’s secretly warmed up to it. Doesn’t hurt that he and Grannie get on like a house on fire. Not that you’d guess from all the insults.”

I can’t help but laugh at that. The thought of Nkea (dry, patrician, coldly refined) and Grannie Smith (boisterous, rustic, unrepentantly irreverent) verbally jousting with barbs and slights always brings a smile to my face.

In spite of my laughter, though, I feel an unwelcome pang of jealousy. It’s not right of me, and I know that, but I can’t help but think of Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Twilight, and even Rainbow Dash having special someponies while I—

No! That’s enough of that! My friends all deserve their happiness and, besides, I’m still a young mare. Plenty of time for me to find somepony. Fluttershy is single and she seems perfectly happy that way. I don’t need a stallion in my life.

It’s just… I would like a stallion in my life.

“Gunneh!” calls out a voice behind us. “Gunneh!”

We turn to see a lanky mail-carrier stallion flapping towards us. Applejack pulls a wry face and glances up at the sky. “Okay, one, yer too late, an’ two, that’s the wrong stallion.”

I pat her on the withers. “It’s a step in the right direction, darling.”

The stallion lands in front of us, dipping his cap to me and throwing Applejack a salute. “Glad Ah caught ya, Gunneh,” he says in a Atlantail drawl so thick that I can barely make out that he’s calling her ‘Gunny.’ He reaches into his mailbag and pulls out an envelope. “Got a lettah for yah, Gunneh. A telegrahm ta be precise.”

“Thanks, Buckeye,” she replies, returning his salute before taking the telegram. “How’s the ole thumper treatin’ ya?”

“Oh, Ah get bah, Gunneh, thanks fah askin’,” he replies with a laconic smile. “Naw if you fine mares will excuse me, Ah gotta finish mah rounds if Ah wanna be home fah suppah.” Saluting and doffing his cap once more, he flaps off.

Once he’s out of earshot, I turn to Applejack, one eyebrow raised. “The ‘ole thumper?’” I ask.

“His heart,” replies Applejack with a deliberate shrug, her voice a touch forced. “War souvenir.”

She doesn’t elaborate, and I get the impression there’s more to it than that, but I don’t feel inclined to pry in case it’s a sensitive topic. Instead I ask, “He called you ‘Gunny.’ Was he a member of your old unit?”

“Naw, he just happened ta settle in Ponyville,” answers the farm mare, ripping open the envelope with her teeth. “He ain’t even a Marine, though he’s a nice enough feller for an Army puke.”

I roll my eyes. Her tone is good-natured, but it would appear that the inter-branch ‘slagging’ persists even when the other party isn’t present. “How do you know him then?”

Applejack starts to skim the letter. “A group Ah run down at the Ponyville Veterans…” she trails off with a frown, her eyes becoming more intent as the skim of the letter turns into a thorough read. The longer she spends on it, the deeper her frown becomes. My concern mounts when a curse escapes her lips. Applejack may have picked up some uncouth habits in the Service, but swearing has never been one of them. By the time she’s done reading, she’s muttering half-formed expletives to herself and stomping one hoof to the ground repeatedly. I’m about to ask what’s gotten her so angry, but then I see the pain and frustration in her eyes and I realize that she’s not angry.

She’s upset.

“Darling,” I interject gently, “what’s wrong?”

“It’s Shoddy!” she half-shouts, half-cries, almost crushing the letter in the crook of her hoof. “It’s always Shoddy!

What’s shoddy, darling?” What could possibly have been so shoddily made as to make Applejack of all ponies visibly upset?

“Not what, Rares, who,” she explains, stuffing the letter in her jacket before she can damage it any further. “Corporal Iron Shod. ‘Shoddy.’ He’s a stallion from my old unit.”

Immediately I fear the worst. “Oh dear, has something happened to him?”

“You could say that!” snaps Applejack. “He got fired. Again.” She sits with a heavy sigh, running a hoof back over her head and half-pushing her hat off. More quietly, she adds, “An’ Ah really thought this job was gonna take, too.”

Ordinarily I’d enjoy sussing out what exactly she meant clue by clue in the style of Shadow Spade, but, given the obviously serious nature of the matter at hoof, I elect to take the more direct approach. Sitting next to her I lay a hoof across her back. “Why don’t you start at the beginning, darling,” I suggest in a calming tone.

My Marine friend hesitates, never being one for gossip. But this is different. Really, it is. Whatever has transpired with the unfortunately nicknamed Shoddy is no small matter, else she’d never get so worked up, and, as her friend, I want to help her. “Applejack, you know I’ll get the truth out of you eventually,” I remark, a touch stern. “And, besides, I only want to help, even if it’s simply to provide a shoulder to cry on.” She hesitates, then gives a reluctant nod. “Come, then. What’s the matter?”

Heaving a deep sigh, Applejack begins. “War changes ponies, Rares. You know that. Course, life changes ponies in general, so change don’t mean ya can’t come home and pick yer life back up. It won’t ever be the same as when you left, but then that ain’t always a bad thing.” She digs one hoof into the soil of the acreage. “Most ponies are like me or Dash or Pinkie. We come home and get on with our lives. We get married, raise kids, have jobs, yap with our neighbors… normal stuff, ya know?” She’s not looking at me when she talks; more just looking past me. “Ah ain’t gonna act like it ain’t an adjustment comin’ home. It is.” She chuckles. “It sure as sugar is. Goin’ from gettin’ shot at day-in and day-out an’ having ta trust yer life to the ponies around you every second o’ the day, ta comin’ home an’ just,” she gestures down the road, “walkin’ down the street without a care in the world?” She shakes her head. “Ain’t no good way to describe what that feels like to ponies what ain’t experienced it. They can never understand.”

I know she doesn’t mean to, but the statement still hurts. I want to understand, I want to share this with my friends, but… I keep a straight face and hide it, because I shouldn’t be feeling sorry for myself right now. Fortunately, she’s too intent on her story to notice.

“But, for all that, it’s possible ta get back into the civilian swing of things. It’s hard, sure, but for most it ain’t so bad, and, like Ah said, fer some it’s an improvement. They’ve grown up thanks to the war; gotten a confidence and maturity and gratitude they ain’t never had before.”

I nod, feeling that I at least partially understand. Observing my friends these many moons they’ve been back… things are different to be sure, but it’s still… them. Applejack is still a farmer at heart, Dash is still an exuberant hotshot, Fluttershy is still gentle and quiet, and Pinkie Pie is still, well, Pinkie Pie. Even if she does have a much darker sense of humor than she used to.

What differences there are would mostly fall under the heading of ‘positive changes,’ I should think. Pinkie matured in ways I never would have expected, and Fluttershy no longer has any trace of her old timidity; she’s still shy with other ponies, yes, but no longer frightened of little things. They’ve all grown in some way; all have this sort of sober wisdom that must come from seeing death laid bare before you daily.

It’s easy upon reflection to see how they were able to adjust to civilian life once more. But, given the nature of the telegram, it sounds as though this is not the case with Shoddy. “And the other soldiers?” I prompt. “The ones for whom it is not an easy adjustment?”

Applejack sighs deeply and takes off her stetson, holding it to her barrel with one hoof. “Some guys… some guys can’t leave the battle behind, and if they don’t stay in the Service it eats ‘em up inside. Some guys, they come back with the battle still stuck in their heads, and they’re scared o’ the world, or angry at it, or just… confused. Shattered. Cracked. They got this look in their eyes, this thousand-yard stare, where they ain’t lookin’ at the world in front of ‘em; they’re lookin’ at the war.” She glances off into the trees. “Easy to see why, after what we saw over there,” she adds quietly.

Shaking her head, she resumes. “Others well, they come home to an Equestria they don’t recognize and that don’t recognize them. Nothin’ makes sense anymore, nopony understands them, and nopony’s giving ‘em directions what to do anymore. They go off as colts and fillies ta fight fer their country, an’ when they get back as stallions and mares they find their country’s got nothin’ waiting for ‘em. They’ve got a stack of combat ribbons, a few scars, a lifetime o’ killin’ under their belts, and no jobs.”

I feel a chill go down my spine. In hindsight, it’s obvious that returning home would be a trying experience for many, but it never occurred to me just how difficult it must be for thousands of young soldiers. I can’t help but give a guilty wince as I realize how blind to their struggles I’ve been. “And I take it this Shoddy is one such stallion?”

“Sure shootin’,” nods Applejack, who now looks more tired than upset. “His home town’s tinier even than Appaloosa; he had no job prospects there, so he went to Manehatten. Ah had a vague idea he was tryin’ for factory work, but it wasn’t till a few months ago when Ah got a letter from one o’ my other devil dogs that Ah found out he was couch-surfing on account o’ bein’ homeless.”

“My word!”

Ah had some words ta say at the time, Ah’ll tell you what,” she says with a bitter chuckle. “Arinze got an ejication in old-fashioned Apple cussin’ that day.” Standing, she stretches, her hindlegs popping in a way that always makes me gag. “Sorry, Ah need to be walking; get stiff bein’ one place too long these days.” Once I’ve risen, we resume our journey to the Acres. “Anyway, Ah looked into it an’ found out Shoddy’d taken and lost a string of jobs. Couldn’t seem to hold anything, and that don’t look good on no fancy résumé. So, Ah called in some favors, even got a hold o’ the Manehatten Oranges to see if they could find anythin’ for him.”

I blink in shock. “And with all that you couldn’t find anything?”

“Oh, we found plenty of gigs,” she clarifies, “just nothin’ he could hold down. He always says or does something that gets ‘im fired, an’ then we’re back to square one.” She pats her breast pocket where the letter is stowed. “This last job was the last lead we found for ‘im.” Letting out a long breath, she shakes her head. “Ah don’t know what else ta do, if Ah’m honest,” she admits. “Ah don’t believe in lost causes, but Ah don’t see a way out of this.”

It’s frankly disturbing to see Applejack so dejected and fatalistic. She’s never been one to back down from a fight, not on any of the adventures we used to share in, not with any professional hardship, and not in any personal crisis. For her to feel this way, even unwillingly is just… unnatural.

Fortunately for her, I happen to have a knack for business, so perhaps I can see something that she and her family have missed.

First, though, I need a little more context. “Well, what’s he good at?”

Applejack gives a snide laugh. “Well, he’s darn good at knockin’ heads together, at doin’ fancy mathematics in ‘is head ta pull off a running shot on a flying target at three hundred yards with ironsights, at clearin’ pillboxes and snapping necks and crushin’ skulls.” Her voice rises in volume and bitter intensity. “He’s good at bein’ a brave son of a mule, and at picking out enemy patrols in dense fog by their wingbeats alone, and at dragging wounded kids through the mud ta safety under heavy fire, and generally at being a scary bucking Marine, but unfortunately, that ain’t exactly a skillset that lends itself to reputable work in the civilian bucking workforce, is it?!

“Applejack!” I exclaim, horrified at the fire in her eyes.

The fire cools and she rubs her eyes with one hoof. “Sorry, Rares. Ah’m just a mite sick o’ seein’ all these good soldiers getting’ screwed because they’re good at soldiering and nothin’ else. There’s no shame in flippin’ hayburgers, but a guy with two Wound Badges and a Bronze Star shouldn’t have to flip burgers because he’s got no other options, an’ he darn well shouldn’t be unable ta do even that.”

“Well,” I prod, “surely he must have some marketable skill.”

She shakes her head. “Not as near as Ah’ve found. He ain’t got no ejication like Big Mac, so any job takin’ book learnin’ is out. He ain’t got any trainin’ fer somethin’ like sales, and Manehatten’s too cutthroat for him to have time to learn. He’s not even a skilled laborer.” The farmer glances sidelong at me. “Turn me loose on a farm, ranch, construction site, plumbin’ job, anythin’ that involves working with my hooves, an’ Ah can git ’er done. Shoddy can’t do none of that.”

I’m beginning to see how the situation has become so apparently hopeless. “Well there must be something. What of his special talent?”

Applejack shrugs. “No idea. His mark’s an iron horseshoe, but he swears up an’ down he ain’t no cobbler or blacksmith. He never told me what his talent is, and if he told any of his buddies it never got back to me.”

Why she can’t simply ask them now is a mystery to me, but Applejack is a smart mare, so I assume there’s a valid reason. I must say, though, I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the length of the walk from the shooting range to Sweet Apple Acres more than this very moment. It gives me time to try and put a positive spin on the whole debacle. “So, essentially, we have a stout young stallion who’s devoted, knows how to follow orders well, and is willing to put his nose to the grindstone, making him ideal for being—”

“—a blunt instrument,” finishes Applejack. I stammer in shock at the harsh pronouncement, but the retired Marine is unfazed. “That ain’t an insult, Rarity, it’s a fact. In fact, in our line of work it’s a compliment. He’s an uncomplicated and reliable stallion who gets the job done. We needed good blunt instruments, and he’s a darn fine blunt instrument.”

“Well,” I reply, trying to banish my annoyance at the blunt terminology, “surely there are civilian professions where such virtues are equally valued.”

“Oh, there are,” agrees Applejack. “Only problem is, Shoddy has a tendency ta say the wrong thing in front of the wrong pony. That and he… fergets himself sometimes, and, well,” she bites her lip and shoots me a sidelong glance, back to her ‘not-wanting-to-gossip-but-needing-to-talk’ stage. I patiently wait for her to resume. “Remember how I said that some guys don’t really understand civilian life when they get back?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Well, Shoddy’s one o’ those. He just…” she waves a hoof in the air, as though trying to grab the right words from the ether. “He just says stuff, does stuff that wouldn’t be that weird in the Service, but makes him look crazy anywhere else. Makes ponies uncomfortable. And, when ponies see something that makes ‘em uncomfortable, they tend to…” she trails off meaningfully.

“I see,” I say soberly.

“Look, it’s not that he’s a bad guy. He ain’t. He’s even kind of a sweetheart once you get to know him.”

I nod. “But nopony gets to know him because they push him away before they can get used to his…quirks.”

Applejack smirks. “Got it in one.”

“Well,” I sigh, “that is quite a pickle, isn’t it?”

In a remarkable impersonation of her brother, she gives a rumbling “Eeyup.”

Our walk lapses into silence after that as we both turn over the problem in our heads. I now understand why Applejack was so upset by the letter. It’s enough to move a pony to tears to consider the plight of such a brave servicepony. I feel my guilt afresh as I consider all the privations he endured for my country, for me and my family, while I sat safe at home, miles from bloodshed and death. I ran shops and lived in a castle and helped a princess write love letters while he got shot at, wounded, and starved, saw the most horrific things and doubtless lost friends, and when he returned he was treated as so much surplus—

That’s it!” I exclaim, seizing Applejack with excitement and shaking her as inspiration strikes me with the force of a lightning bolt. “That’s it that’s it that’s it!

Wha~a~aa~a~aat’s~i~i~it?” she manages, her voice distorted by the vigorous shaking.

Too caught up in the moment to stop myself, I cease shaking her only to grasp the sides of her head, pulling her snout-to-snout so that I can see the reflection of my sparkling eyes in hers. “He can work for me!”

Applejack extricates herself from my grip, seeming much less taken with the idea than me. “Rarity, aincha been listenin’ to what Ah been saying? The boy ain’t got no talent fer the finer things. Ah think if you had him makin’ dresses for you he’d manage ta burn down the shop.”

“Oh, pshaw, darling! I don’t mean dresses!” As though I’d trust an untrained stallion with that! What a laugh! “I mean with the Quill and Sofa!

“The Quill and Sofa?” she asks, raising one eyebrow in confusion. “Ah thought you were done closin’ that place out.”

My smile is prim. “Not quite. There’s still a lot of surplus inventory left from repairs and returns, and I’ve been opening the store two days a week to sell it off.”

Davenport, the original proprietor of the Quill and Sofa, joined the Army the first year of the war, one of scores of Ponyville residents to do so after what happened to dear Twilight. I agreed to help his wife run the shop while he was gone; it seemed to be the least I could do. Tragically, Davenport was killed in action four months before the war ended. His widow elected to sell the place off, and I, in my assumed role as the surrogate proprietress, have been managing the entire affair.

Applejack scratches her head. “Ah don’t think he’d exactly help ya sell furniture, Rares. He ain’t the salespony type.”

“Oh, pish tosh, darling. I don’t mean as a salespony, I mean as a movingpony. I have plenty of clients who aren’t quite strong enough to move furniture on their own, and I can’t do it and run the store at the same time. On top of which, I have to rearrange inventory every time something sells.” Strictly speaking I don’t need to, but an artist has her principles, and a good floor plan helps shift merchandise. “True, I can move things with levitation but,” I tap my horn, “my magic is not infinite.”

“Ain’t Sweetie Belle helping?”

“Well of course, she is, darling, but the dear girl will be leaving for the Academy in a few months and then what shall I do?” Since Applejack doesn’t seem keen on the idea, I leave off mentioning that the Quill and Sofa will probably be sold out by the time Sweetie Belle leaves and, even if I did need movers after she left, Ponyville has no shortage of strapping young stallions looking to earn a few bits. I’ll have other options, but Applejack doesn’t need to know that. “Besides, I don’t want to take advantage of her, and she and Scootaloo and Applebloom need all the free time they can get before they ship off to OCS.” Yes. I brought up Applebloom to win my stubborn friend over. I’m not ashamed. It’s a legitimate tactic.

Applejack shakes her head. “Ah don’t know… it still sounds an awful lot like busy work to me.”

I roll my eyes. “It’s a job, Applejack. And it will give me ample time help him work on his interpersonal skills, as that seems to be his biggest problem anyway.”

We round the last bend of the path and see the homestead lying before us, nestled amidst the Acres. A long walk to ponder matters, and Applejack is still skeptical. “Ah don’t think you quite understand what a mess he is,” she protests. “It’s not just that his filter comes off when he’s drunk or something. He don’t have a filter to begin with! On top o’ which,” she taps the side of her head with a hoof, “Ah ain’t sure he’s got his head on straight after the war if’n ya take my meaning.”

“Well, all the more reason I should help him,” I declare, undeterred.

“Rarity, ya don’t know what yer gettin’ into!”

Oh that is it. I stop abruptly and turn, startling her with a glare. Applejack can be a stubborn nag, if you’ll pardon my Prench, but so can I! “Applejack, I am your friend, I am a loyal citizen of Equestria, I am a darned fine businessmare, and I am the blinking Element of Generosity!” I exclaim, jabbing a hoof against her chest. “When I tell you I can handle this, I can handle this.” While she stands blinking in shock, I put my usual charming smile back on and put a hoof to her shoulder. “You just have to trust me, darling. And, to be blunt,” I add with a half-hearted laugh, “what other prospects do you have?”

Applejack shuts her eyes and sucks in a double-lungful of air, holding it for several heartbeats before letting it out slowly. When she opens her eyes again, her expression is a mixture of resignation and gratitude. “Yer right. Ah trust ya. I’ve gotta.”

“Applejack!” calls out an accented voice from the homestead. We turn to see a muscular zebra stallion standing in the doorway waiting, a toothy grin on his lips. “Your supper is going to go into the dog if you do not come quickly!” He takes great care to enunciate each consonant and syllable, with ‘i’s becoming like ‘ee’s in the fashion of Zebras from his kingdom.

My friend glances up at the heavens. “So he don’t show up at the range, you send the wrong guy late, and now he’s threatenin’ to give my supper to ole Winona? Ain’t that a kick in the teeth!” Addressing the stallion she calls out something in his own tongue that I wouldn’t know how to transcribe into Ponish if I wanted to. He replies in the same manner and ducks inside, the sound of his merry laughter drifting across the open air.

Tilting my head in curiosity, I ask, “What did you two just say to each other, if I may ask?”

She shrugs. “Basically means ‘beloved’ or ‘dearest.’ Ah can’t manage anythin’ fancier.”

“So, you can’t learn Zwahili and you’re cheating on him with a rifle?” I tease. “My, you are a terrible wife.”

Applejack gives me a frosty look. “It ain’t my fault! Ah get all tongue-tied whenever Ah try to speak it, an’ then he just laughs and laughs and laughs—”

“—which you find quite attractive, as I recall.” I interject.

“Which makes it all that much more insufferable!” she retorts. I titter and she huffs. “Look, we were plannin’ on Big Mac eatin’ with us, so we got plenty o’ food, but he’ll probably have dinner at Twi’s tonight. You hungry?”

“If you’re still offering after all the teasing,” I joke.

Applejack gives me a solemn look. “Rarity, if you can really help Shoddy, Ah’ll make you dinner till we’re both greyer than Grannie Smith.”

“Deal!” I reply, starting down the path to the house. “Though only if your husband cooks.”

She sputters in outrage and hastens after me. “What for? Ah’m a great cook!”

“Of course you are, darling,” I assure her. Then I give a sly wink. “He’s just better.”