Applejack did not want to be away from the farm, but Starlight had insisted it was important. Ever since Trixie’s wagon had been teleported back to town, the mare had seemed almost wary of Twilight. Add to that the aerial scrap she had with Rainbow, and even Applejack had to admit the bookish mare was not acting so bookish.
She readjusted the basket of apples on her back before pushing the door open to the castle's kitchen. She was greeting but the sound of Spike busy at work.
“Heya AJ,” Spike greeted her.
“Morning,” Applejack said, walking over and with a title of her body let the basket slide onto a work surface. “Any sign of Twi?”
Spike answered without looking up from his work. “No, not heard anything from her or Little Star yet. I guess they are sleeping in again.”
“Good, so I hope Rarity does not keep us all waiting too long with her ‘fashionably late’ arrival times.” Applejack said as she set to helping Spike with his preparations.
It was not long before Rainbow Dash made her appearance, bursting into the room as if the world was ending. She still smelled of storm-clouds and honest hard work. Clearly, she had rushed straight here and not even stopped to ‘freshen’ up as Rarity would put it. Applejack did not mind, but she wondered how the fashionista would try to subtly point that fact out, or would she just have some fancy cleaning spell to get around the problem.
Rainbow waved and perched on a chair, rocking it back and forth while reading the latest Daring Do adventure, again. While Applejack might complain about Rainbow being lazy, in this case, it was far safer to avoid her ‘help’ as they were putting together a nice sit-down meal and not just a health drink.
Applejack did not know how or when Pinkie had arrived, but suddenly she was there putting a tray of cupcakes in the oven. Pinkie started singing a little song about baking. Shaking her head, Applejack just kept working, not being able to stop her hoof tapping along to the music.
There was very little conversation, just a relaxing sense of peace in each other’s presence. It felt a little like working on the farm with Big Mac, just with a happy song as backing.
Time passed, the scent of the food started to become more appealing. They had an hour before the food would be ready and only a few minutes until the arranged meeting.
A crack of magic announced the arrival of a unicorn by teleportation. Applejack glanced over, as expected, it was Starlight. “Good morning.” The mare trotted up the table, taking her place.
“Howdy,” Applejack responded.
Rainbow just waved a wing not looking up from her book. Who would have thought, back when Rainbow moved to Ponyville, that she would ever sit down and read a book. Yet another example of the good Twilight had caused.
Pinkie placed a cupcake on the table before Starlight, and they got back to work. Starlight looked at the cupcake for a moment.
Turning back to her own work, Applejack smiled at the cupcake Pinkie has somehow put in front of her from the other side of the room. It smelled of apples and had her cutie mark on top.
Starlight looked like she had something to say but was holding her tongue. Likely waiting till they were all there. After about ten minutes, Starlight got up and started walking around the room, checking everything was ready.
She walked with purpose towards Applejack.
“Sit back down, we got this.”
“I was only going to offer to help.” Starlight looked a little like a kicked puppy.
“I know and thank you sugarcube," Applejack said in her best friendly tone. She might not fully trust the mare to know right from wrong all the time, but at least her heart was in the right places these days, "but unless you found a way to fit some cooking lessons in between all the magic and friendship practice…”
“I can take a hint.” Starlight laughed as she headed back to her seat and waited.
Finally, the door to the kitchen opened again. Revealing Rarity and Fluttershy animately talking.
Fluttershy seemed to be hiding behind her mane more than normal, but she had an uncharacteristic bounce in her step as she happily trotted in.
Rarity looked like she had gossiped again, the sort of gossip that would have her gushing about it for days.
Applejack shook her head, she would never get how them two could have so much fun talking about all that nonsense. She put the thought aside and waved in greeting. It was always good to see one’s friends happy, even if it made no sense.
All the girls took their places. Rainbow even put her book down and Pinkie was sitting perfectly still. Rarity subtly sitting as far from Rainbow as good manners would allow. If there was a group hug today, she would rush off to the spa as soon as this little get together was done.
Starlight looked around the room at the gathered ponies meeting each one’s gaze. “I suppose you are all wondering why I called you here.”
“Not really.” Applejack interrupted. “You said there was something we needed to know about Twilight, now would you kindly get to the point? Some of us do have a living we need to make.”
Starlight looked momentary offended before nodding. “Fine, fine. Well… the situation with Twilight is complicated… she is in a delicate place…” Starlight started.
“No kidding,” Rainbow Dash added, her wings flaring a little as if she was finding it hard to keep them under control.
Starlight paused, looking to Rainbow with interest. She waited a few seconds. Rainbow said nothing more, so she continued. “Twilight is a little to free with destructive magic now if anything startles her or threatens anything she cares about. Watch for that, we don't want her levelling half of Ponyville because she sees a ladybug or something.” Starlight said, her eyes focusing back on Rainbow.
Rainbow’s cheeks gained just the slightest hint of red. “Also… she may try and… come on to you… since she… nearly died, she has been… a little too eager to enjoy life.”
“What do you mean she nearly died?” Applejack interjected in disbelief, focusing on that part. She did see how relieved Rainbow looked that she was not asking about that other matter. She also noticed Rarity sharing a sly wink with Fluttershy.
“You saw how injured she was, hurting an alicorn is hard.” Starlight admitted with perhaps a little too much knowledge on the subject.
Applejack wanted to ask just how exactly did she find that out.
“Enough doom and gloom, how are we going to make Twilight happy?” Pinking exploded into the conversation.
“Pinkie the problem is not that she is not happy. The problem is she is in denial, she is ignoring what happened to her. She will never get over it if she keeps doing that.” Starlight said.
The party mare seemed to deflate, a sadness building in her eyes.
“I’m not sure anypony could get over what she went through.” Starlight murmured and Applejack only just caught it, more by lip-reading that actually hearing the words.
Applejack’s hard stare at Starlight demanded more. The focused attention also caused all the other mares in the room to turn their eyes to Twilight’s student.
Starlight shook her head, glancing around the room to the rest of the mares. “Luna has enough work with me and Trixie I don't want to add to her workload.”
“Darling, how could anything truly be that bad?” Rarity asked.
Starlight did something fancy looking with her horn. It almost seemed to be rippling in a pattern. Was that a spell or some supper secret unicorn code?
Rarity's eyes shot wide, “And that's quite enough for me,” She hurriedly said, nearly falling from her chair.
Starlight’s horn dimed and she looked apologetically at Rarity.
“That… that was… the poor dear.” Rarity trembled using a hoof to hide the expression of horror on her face. “I think I might be seeing Luna as well...” She said to herself.
Applejack did not like where this was going. First the mess with the princess and now this. When was there next going to be a normal day in Ponyville?
Fluttershy pulled Rarity into a wing hug. “What are we going to do?” She asked, looking to everypony else.
Rarity sheltered under Fluttershy’s wing, trying to hide the tears from her eyes.
Starlight rose from her seat and joined in the embrace. Her expression full of regret and concern.
“I don’t know, but whatever happened to her, it turned Twi into a Bad Flank,” Rainbow added an edge of pride in her voice.
“What y'all mean?” Applejack asked.
Dash sat up tall in her chair, gesturing with both hooves and wings. “Did you see how much her flying has improved overnight?” Rainbow slowly looked around the whole group. “She's like another mare. She can now trounce most Wonderbolts in one-on-one air combat.” Waving her hoof about, she shrugged. “Yea her stamina sucks, but how do you go from book worm to a professional combatant with no training?”
“That’s a surprisingly good question,” Starlight stated.
“Hey!” Rainbow shot back. “I can ask good questions.”
“We know darling, Starlight was just being her usual too-blunt self.” Rarity tried to mediate.
“Yep, that's exactly right,” Starlight answered. Applejack could tell it was at least slightly a lie, she was likely really surprised that Rainbow had a good useful question. At least Starlight was a better pony these days even if she was not an honest one all the time.
“Perhaps she is getting super-secret ninja training now that she’s an Alicorn to go with all of their super-secret powers?” Pinkie asked.
“If it’s super-secret, why would she make the training arena in plain sight?” Rainbow asked.
“Is that what that eye-sore is?” Rarity asked.
Rainbow nodded, grinning eagerly. “It's similar to what the mages in the guard train in, only Twi’s is bigger and better.”
“And I know when a pony is having fun… Dashy here really, really liked playing air tag with Twilight.” Pinkie said practically vibrating in her seat.
Rainbow blushed, “Ha, ha. You know how much I like to fly. Having one of you girls even make me break a sweat is awesome!”
The door was surrounded with a green glow. Everypony turned to look, conversation dying. It slowly creeped open, revealing an elegant black coated mare with a distinctive flowing green mane. It was the fancy mare that moved to town not that long ago.
“Emerald Shade?” Rarity asked.
Emerald looked around the room, warily. It seemed like she was intimidated by the whole group of them. She let her eyes fix on Rarity. “Good morning, Rarity.” She smiled before bowing formally. “Good morning, Element Bearers.”
Rarity and Fluttershy shared a look. Fluttershy looked embarrassed and Rarity's eyes almost glowed. All thoughts of what had happened to Twilight vanished from her mind, Rarity now was in full digging for gossip mode.
"No need to bow on our account, were just regular ponies," Applejack said.
“What the hay are you doing here?” Rainbow asked now hoving in the air uncomfortably close to Emerald. Applejack could tell Rainbow just wanted to know, but to anypony that did not know her, they might think she was about to attack them.
The fancy-looking mare fearfully took a step back. “I… I was looking for the way out,” Emerald said telling the truth.
Applejack was about to pull Rainbow back, but Rarity let out a friendly giggle.
“Rainbow Dash, do leave the dear alone.” Rarity trotted over a happy grin on her face. “Emerald, darling so good to see you again.”
“You know her?” Rainbow asked, looking between the two of them.
Rarity nodded to Rainbow but kept her attention on Emerald. “You have to tell me everything, did the outfit have the intended effect?”
“I… well I am not sure any Princess would be happy having things like that discussed,” Emerald answered.
The sly satisfied smile on Rarity's face spoke of either trouble or a whole host of dresses being made in the near future.“You know if I had known my work was for a royal performance I would have made something truly fit for a princess's…”
Emerald’s horn lit and a green glow lightly grasping Rarity’s muzzle closed for a second. “Please keep this to yourself,” She said so quietly Applejack had to read her lips.
“What you trying to keep secret there?” Rainbow asked.
“It’s not the sort of thing a Lady reveals.” Rarity replied with a toss of her mane looking to Rainbow.
“Why not?” Rainbow demanded.
“Rainbow, Rainbow, Rainbow… if only you read some books with some actual culture to them.” Rarity shook her well-groomed head.
Applejack turned her attention to the rest of the ponies in the room. Fluttershy was completely hiding behind her mane. So apparently she was not the only one that noticed Rarity’s implications. Applejack didn't quite know what to think about this. Twilight was meant to be getting married to Luna, not playing with this new mare. This all just seemed a little off.
Emerald tried to back away from Rarity. Carefully hoof step by hoof step, she moved away. A sensible course of action for anypony that did not want to spend hours being measured and fussed over. Applejack watched her go out of the corner of her eyes, this mare moved well. She wondered if she might be some sort of thief. Perhaps it could be a dancer’s grace.
Starlight was also watching Emerald, she seemed just as unsure what to make of the mare. At least the puzzle was distracting her from the annoyance of having this meeting interrupted. Applejack did not want to see what Starlight might do if she got it into her horn to try and use magic to get the meeting back on track.
Pinkie had bounced back to the oven and was working on something or another. Likely some sort of cake. It was hard, but Applejack avoided tapping her hooves to the rhythm of Pinkies earlier song.
Spike was munching on some crystals as he was stirring a pot of something on the stove. By the scents coming from it, the meal would be worth the wait. Naturally, it would not be as good as Granny Smith’s home cooking.
By this point, Emerald had half crossed the room. As her freedom got closer and closer, the mare seemed to grow more confident with her motions.
Rarity turned to comment to Emerald and noticed she was trying to leave. “Ah, AH, Ah, You’re not going anywhere until we talk.” Rarity's magic effortlessly gathered the needed ingredients, the water and tea service and began the age-old ritual of brewing a good cup. “Come sit with us,” she offered.
Rarity floated an extra chair over next to where she and Fluttershy were sitting.
Emerald’s confidence seemed to evaporate. She obeyed, still watching Rainbow warily.
Rarity first made sure that Emerald was seated and had a steaming cup of tea before her. Leaning forward with almost predatory intensity, she spoke. "So… what first made you interested in Twilight?"
"Well… I first heard about her from my mother," Emerald said, in total honesty. Something was a little off with the way she said ‘mother’ but nothing Applejack could put her hoof on.
“Oh, so she painted such a glowing image you just had to come and see her for yourself?” Rarity’s sweet tone seemed dangerous to Applejack.
“Yes… I just could not stop my self, I just had to see her with my own eyes,” Emerald answered, offering a little content smile. Again the mare was telling the truth, every word of it correct. Applejack narrowed her eyes, she could almost smell the hint of dishonesty behind her words even if no lie had been uttered.
Rainbow was looking a mix of confused, annoyed, suspicious and a little betrayed. That was a mix that made no sense given the current situation. Has something happened between Rainbow and this mare or was this all about Twilight trying to hit on her?
Fluttershy whispered something to Rarity. A moment later, Rarity pulled both her and Emerald closer and began a hushed conversation. The words were too quiet for Applejack to hear and as much as she wanted to know more about this strange mare, she was not going to invade their privacy.
Rainbow started to get bored and went back to her book, peering over the top of it to ‘stealthy’ spy on the conversation.
Starlight got up, shaking her head and left the room. She clearly was not going to continue their little meeting now that Rarity was turning this into a chance to get more gossip.
“You have to tell me something?” Rarity said a little louder than she intended. Her pleading look changing to embarrassed as she noticed everypony was looking at her.
Rainbow snapped her book closed and flew over to the gossip group, landing on the table in front of them. “What makes you think you’re good enough for our Twilight?” Rainbow said dramatically pointing her hoof at Emerald
Rarity looked aghast, Fluttershy looked ready to defend Emerald. The mare in question shrunk back.
“Rainbow Dash! You can not talk to Emerald like that. Now apologize.” Rarity demanded.
“No, if she thinks she is good enough for Twilight, then she had better be ready to prove it.” Rainbow answered before turning back to Emerald. ”So, why are you worthy of her?”
Applejack was getting annoyed at Rainbow’s questioning, but the fact that she did not trust Emerald held her tongue.
“I don’t know.” Tears started to fall from Emerald eyes. Applejack could tell they were fake.
Why you manipulative little… Applejack thought in the privacy of her own head. Was she just some sort of gold digger from Canterlot here to get in with a Princess after all?
Fluttershy wrapped a wing around her shielding her from Rainbow. Over her wing, Fluttershy stared at Rainbow. Applejack was just glad it was only a stare and not ‘The Stare’.
“That's not very nice Rainbow.” Fluttershy’s calm and gentle tone was still an effective rebuke. “It isn’t our place to say who is worthy of our friend. It’s Twilight’s place.”
Rainbow looked to Fluttershy stuck between anger at being betrayed and shame that her friend was right. “Sorry,” she mumbled out before flying off, grabbing her book and flew out of one of the upper windows.
The room returned to calm, Fluttershy and Rarity comforting the manipulative Emerald. Applejack resolved to talk to Twilight about her new friend later.
Joining Pinkie and Spike in the food preparations, Applejack made sure they would have enough for a few guests. They already had one and things were never simple in good old Ponyville.
Everything had settled into a nice calm, the food was almost done. Spike had managed to convince everypony to play a card game to pass the time.
It would soon be time to send somepony to fetch Twilight. Applejack would finish this round and then excuse herself. Turned out she could not bluff to save her life, but she always knew when others were. This made the game rather dull for her.
A sudden boom erupted into the room as the doors were forced open, cracking the crystal walls with the force of their impact. A prismatic blur zipped over the table, its wake scattering all the cards.
Various sounds of alarm, panic and tumbling ponies filled the air.
Applejack’s earthpony strength allowed her to be unmoved by the shock wave. She looked around, the mares at the table had all fallen out of their chairs, apart from Fluttershy who was pressed against the surface of the table hiding under her wings. Emerald was just gone.
“What in Tarnations?” Applejack was the first of them to call out but was not the only one.
“What the BUCK did you do to Twilight?” Rainbow’s harsh voice shouted.
Applejack’s head snapped around. Rainbow held Emerald pinned halfway up the wall, her wings crackling with power. Rainbow looked ready to cause serious harm to the mare.
“Woah there sugercube, let's talk this out,” Applejack said, trying to calm things down.
Rainbow ignored her, “Tell us,” she demanded, threatening to smash Emerald into the wall again.
Applejack was stunned at the sight of one her friends being so violent to a defenceless pony. Yes, she might be a bit grabbing whorse, but that was no cause for acting like this until she was married.
“I did nothing that could be cause for this!” Emerald shouted back in an oddly specific defence. There was a fire of hate in her eyes.
“Then what were you doing? Tell us!” Rainbow demanded.
“I can't tell you,” Emerald Shade said, now only almost shouting.
“Why?” Rainbow pressed
“I can't tell you that either,” Emerald was shouting again, her words seething with frustration.
Applejack could tell that she was telling the truth, she had not told a single lie as Rainbow pressured the injured mare.
“Sugar cube, I think you should leave her be.” Applejack cautioned.
“She might have to try and kidnap Twilight or worse.” Rainbow insisted her expression grave.
“Please, you think I am trying to kidnap or kill her, Princess Twilight? Do you have any idea what she could do to me if I even made the attempt? She went one on one with bucking Tirek. What am I meant to be able to do to her?” Emerald said panting with anger.
Rainbow growled and pulled back a hoof. She opened her mouth to shout back.
A loud bang came from the center of the room as the air erupted with magenta sparks, each bursting like small fireworks. All eyes turned to the sound.
Applejack saw a stone-faced Twilight, her stoic looking Guard and an extremely proud Little Star standing chest puffed out on her mother’s back.
“Do I have your attention?” Twilight asked in a flat tone as the magical display faded.