There was a white streak of paint drawn upon a brown canvas. Like a painter careless with his brush, a scattering of dark Laurel greens and light Celadon yellows provided the variety of colour needed in this otherwise bleak landscape.
Along the plains the train rumbled on, chugging huge billowing clouds into the air as it drew down the track, painting the brown earth with a white line that cut through the scene.
There was no point in looking out the window – every cactus and every shrub was the same, and the mountains in the distance offered no variety in shape, size or feature. The rocks zoomed by far too fast to be captured by the naked eye, which was unfortunate as only the rocks managed to distinguish themselves in their differences.
The futility of it all didn't stop Applejack from watching anyway.
A small wooden ledge by the window provided the platform upon which Applejack rested her legs, one of which propped up her chin as she sat deep in thought, watching the scenery blur and mix with the things running through her head.
The steady, rhythmic grinding of the train’s wheels upon the tracks drowned out the stereotypically mellow music that was being piped in through a speaker in the ceiling.
Her eye flicked to the side.
Sitting across from her, silently, in the private train compartment that they shared was Rarity, who lay reclined, demurely, on her bed, four legs folded neatly underneath her as she looked back at Applejack with a faint smile.
She sat there with a regal exuberance, glowing with spirit and vigour. Her naturally glossy coat shined more than usual, and even in the darkness of the car did she glow like a beacon in the middle of the ocean at night.
Applejack looked down for a moment, her mind suddenly racing, before returning to the window.
It wasn't dark in the car due to any lack of light outside. It was late afternoon and the evening sun was pounding in from the distance. Boxes, trunks and carrying cases of all shapes and sizes littered the compartment, stacked up against the windows opposite of Applejack and blocking the passage of light.
Applejack subconsciously nudged her own tiny set of saddlebags – the only thing in the entire car that she had brought – with a stray leg just to make sure it was still there and not lost among the forest.
Her gaze found itself falling upon Rarity once again.
She was still looking back with that strangely blissful smile.
Ever since the train had departed from Ponyville a good three quarters of an hour ago, she had not made a single noise; had not said a single word. She hadn't coughed or grumbled or commented on the state of the place. She had not fidgeted or struggled or flailed. The very most she did was ask a passing train attendant for a refreshment.
And Applejack found herself burdened by Rarity's compliant behaviour.
She cleared her throat.
"Y- yes?" Rarity responded almost instantly. She was definitely waiting for the opportunity to finally be able to speak, which was some rather odd behaviour from the one who was usually first in line to hand out an opinion.
Applejack suppressed a sigh and licked her lips before engaging in a slow response.
"Rarity," she said, trying to put it as lightly as she could, "ya didn't have t' come, y'know."
"Oh, nonsense, darling," Rarity responded with a dismissive wave of her hoof. "It is my pleasure, surely."
"Except that… except that it really ain't yer pleasure, is it? Are ya sure ya even know where we're goin'?"
"Dodge Junction. Yes, you'd mentioned that about thirty times before we left."
"And until now I still don't think ya really know what Dodge Junction is."
"Oh, Applejack," Rarity said in that way that sounded like she had a small sliver of pity for the one whom she was addressing, "why ever would you think that?"
"Because… ya wanted t’ come along?"
"Oh, but I am familiar with Dodge Junction. Of course I am. It was that place you… went to that one time. We all came to get you, remember? And I was… stuck in the area with Pinkie? Thanks to…" Rarity suddenly found it necessary to cough. "It is not a place I am soon to forget."
"Ya could've just went with the others in a few days," Applejack pointed out, "after all my stuff's wrapped up."
"What, and let you go all alone? By yourself?"
"I'm goin' for business, Rarity. It's borin' stuff. That's why I told all of ya to join me in Dodge a couple days after in th' first place."
Rarity drummed her hoof on the bed, each pat sinking into the soft cushiony down with a 'thump'.
"I just wanted to come," she sang.
"Suit yerself," Applejack said, coming to the end of that discussion. She knew there was no point in continuing when Rarity was going to give that kind of answer. It just meant that she had nothing left to say.
And to tell the truth, it struck a small nerve somewhere deep inside of her mind.
This sort of thing was exactly the kind of flagrance that Rarity had been showing more and more of lately – a lot of bad attitude; a lot of dismissals. It had always been difficult to get a straight answer out of her, but lately, you’d be lucky if you could get any sort of an answer at all.
It was part of the reason why Applejack hadn't wanted Rarity to tag along. It had been why she was trying her best to convince Rarity to come with the others at a later date, once she had completed what she had to do and was free to just have fun again.
The very last thing she needed was Rarity running around, making a fuss and getting in the way of some difficult trade proposal, and acting like that.
Even Pinkie Pie, consciously aware of her tendencies, made the decision to stay behind.
But Rarity was… here. No matter what Applejack had said, no matter how she had tried to convince her to stay, Rarity had insisted on coming.
And of course, her behaviour was only part of the reason. The other half was born out of a dread of the unwanted occurring, and Rarity’s presence only served as a reminder and an irritant.
There were too many feelings to be accounted for. Feelings of every nature and every type. Feelings that Applejack had worked hard to overcome and that were now threatening to rise again, thanks to these suspiciously convenient circumstances.
And so Rarity sat there, staring and smiling. Smiling at Applejack like Rainbow smiles at a new Daring Do book. Smiling at her and just…
And as Applejack stared back at Rarity, who shyly looked away, her mind started to drift to the ways she could end it before it began.
It was probably best to get it all out in the open now, before it started to work its way into the cracks later.
"Listen, Rarity…" Applejack muttered, "I gotta tell ya somethin'-"
But the world screeched in objection, and the grinding sound of metal tearing into metal pierced the air like a siren. The train shuddered, sending a few select boxes tumbling into the air with a quick jerk. Rarity caught them expertly with a blast of magic, and Applejack reached forward with her farm-trained reflexes to prop herself up against the movement of the train as it careened to a stop.
Outside, the white trail of paint mixed with black, and thick exhaust filled the air above in a diluted grey.
Applejack smacked the surface of her bunk bed hard, her frown turning into a grimace.
"Oh, y'all gotta be kiddin' me!" Applejack shouted, springing off the bed. "Naw, this can't be!"
"What… what is it?" Rarity asked worriedly, as she returned her boxes to their rightful places and clambered down to stand beside Applejack.
"Train must'a broken down! Oh, ain't this just what we need…"
"That's not good, is it?" Rarity asked, speaking for the sake of speaking.
"No, Rarity. It ain't." Applejack rolled her eyes, pushing her way past Rarity's things to the front of the cabin. "Listen. I'm gonna go talk to th' conductor and see what's goin' on, alright? You stay here and keep an eye on our stuff. Can I trust ya t' do that?"
"Yes, of course, Applejack." Rarity nodded happily. "Not a problem."
"Right," Applejack said, throwing the door aside. "Be back shortly."
Rarity nodded again, surveying the scene in front of her. Despite the slight topple, everything seemed to be present and undamaged. She lifted Applejack's saddlebags up to the top of one of her larger pieces of luggage, just to make sure she had, in fact, kept an eye on everything.
A small hoof-mirror floated out of a satchel – her beauty-bag, in which she kept all the essential pieces of gear. Her smile fluttered as she brought it up. There was something wonderful about to happen, something that required her to be on her absolute best and look her absolute best.
Her breathing stopped short.
It probably shouldn't have caused her the amount of panic that it did, but under the circumstances that she placed herself in, the simple crack in her mane was like a fissure that tore through the earth under her hooves, ready to swallow her up completely.
In the reflection of the tiny mirror, she saw that her mane had split in the crashing halt, and it parted ways out of place and made her look slightly south of perfect.
She caught herself looking anxiously at the door through which Applejack disappeared, as her breathing raced over a worried mind, and suddenly everything was thrown out of proportion.
The only thing she could focus on was getting this problem fixed, and everything else became a secondary consideration to how absolutely essential it was.
"Oh, oh," Rarity repeated softly, as she stroked her mane with a shaking hoof to try to repair the damage. But the mirror she carried was far too tiny, and even with her magic, she would need a wider view to undo this mess.
She threw herself to a window, but the sun was too bright behind it for it to be used as a mirror.
The ghostly image of her own face, pale and all too transparent, diluted as her focus switched from the glass to what lay beyond it.
On the horizon was a small series of buildings, situated near a shiny gleaming circle. It was barely in focus, but with a bit of squinting, she made it out to be some sort of small pond.
It called to her, sparkling over the distance. Like a diamond in the rough, the pond would be absolutely perfect for her needs.
Perhaps she should…
But she glanced over the luggage. She'd promised to keep an eye on them for Applejack, and she couldn't break her promise, could she? That would be unbecoming for a lady, and certainly, she didn't want to upset Applejack on this most crucial of days.
And suddenly, the obvious became illogical, and the known became unknown.
Rarity had no clear idea why she suddenly hefted all her luggage up and floated them through the cars towards the exit.
She had no clue why she trotted down the steps of the carriage, with the clear intent of heading for that pond just to fix her mane.
And she hadn't the faintest notion of why, as her final leg left the final step of the train, she suddenly felt a wave of intense guilt pass by her heart, only to be washed away immediately after by a burning sense of single-minded determination.
It wasn't something she could control anymore.
It was just something she did.
At first, Applejack thought she had the wrong compartment. But after tracing her movements back and forth a few times, she had confirmed that this was definitely the one that she had left, and the huge empty space she now stood in once played home to a vast amount of luggage.
Not a single trace of them was left to be found. Not a bag, not a case, not a trunk nor purse. And Rarity, herself, had also mysteriously vanished.
She'd only been gone for ten minutes.
And this had to happen.
"Ugh!" Applejack let out a grunt of vexation, looking around for all the good that it would have done to locate her friend.
Where could she have gone? Why would she have left? There was no reason to, none whatsoever!
And to take everything along as well? Did she think that they'd reached their final stop?
The conductor had told Applejack that the steam engine was out of water; the pressure had dropped, and the engine had overheated. It was a very simple problem with a very simple solution. All that was required was a few minutes to let the engine cool, and to top it up with water, and they'd be on their merry way to Dodge. They might not even break schedule.
And this had to happen.
"Alright, Applejack," she said to herself, a hoof flying up to her temple, "why'd she leave? Why… why…"
Even her repetitious chants of 'why' got her nowhere, and ultimately, she could not think of a single reason that would adequately explain Rarity’s behaviour. But the why didn't matter; she still had to find Rarity regardless of what she knew.
Yeah, of course she had to.
Alright, she's not in the train, or else the luggage would still be there, right? That was the logical connection. Find the luggage, find Rarity.
Maybe she hadn't gone too far. After all, it had only been ten minutes, and she was lugging a great number of items with her. Applejack didn't really know how Unicorn magic worked, but she guessed that she might have been slowed down by the weight.
Well, in the end, it was just a guess. But just in case, Applejack threw herself to a window to see if she couldn't spot anything that would help.
Nothing. Just rocks and plains and dust and that strange black thing looming over the horizon.
Fine, the other window then.
And there it was.
About six brown boxes stood in no particular pattern near a shining circle of silver. They made up the settlement that overlooked the pond.
And one of those brown boxes happened to be a stack of luggage.
"Oh no…" Applejack grumbled, pushing herself off the ledge and rushing to the end of the car.
Already, the engine started churning up. The vibrations of the train echoed throughout all the cabins, foretelling its spring back to life in just a few minutes.
"Oh no, oh no," Applejack yelled at the cabin, "Oh no, Rarity, why'd you do that?"
She flung the door to the connecting platforms aside, revealing the small length of metal that bridged the area between train cars. Without even a second to think, she leapt the chains that prevented ponies from doing that in the first place, and landing roughly on her ankle, she shot off toward the settlement with a frenzy in her eyes.
She landed a bit too rough.
Wincing through the pain of the slightly twisted leg, she cantered jerkily on, stirring up the dust of the plains and throwing herself forward as far as she could in the little amount of time that she had.
It was times like this that she was thankful for her trusty hat. Although worn, it kept the dust from her eyes and the sun at bay.
"Rarity!" she yelled, as she pulled up closer and closer to the settlement.
She kept yelling her name in the futile chance that it would make a difference.
But that too was drowned out by a much more dire sound. The train's whistle had signalled, which meant that time had cut short far too soon. It didn't even allow for a last-minute reprieve or a sudden turnabout.
There really wasn't any chance that she could have made it back in time.
Running no longer carried any point.
"Damnit, Rarity!" Applejack shouted, with finality, turning around and watching the train chug off into the distance. It was leaving.
And it wouldn't be back for a very long time.
A small boiling spark lit in Applejack's chest. It was the kind of feeling that comes when you focus on one single thought – be it an insult to you or the rudeness of a fellow pony, but it was a single action that enraged you to the point of shaking in an effort to calm yourself.
It was the kind of feeling that causes you to suddenly think of terrible things, things that you would never do in real life, but they existed in that realm between madness and just being mad. And just for particles of seconds did they flash through Applejack's mind, which she ignored instantly after.
She sighed to herself, watching the train as it disappeared off into the horizon, leaving only its trail of smoke as any evidence that it was ever there.
The canvas, flecked with dots of green, was now joined by a speck of orange and a speck of white.
They were now part of the landscape.
They were now part of the terrain.
They were stuck.
What now, Applejack? What now?
At least her surroundings served to distract her, as she trudged wearily into the center of the cluster of houses. Trying to understand where she was gave some reprieve to her emotional state.
It certainly was some sort of settlement from a long time ago. From ages past, it had once played home to some trailblazers who forged through these very fields in order to find a place to eke out a living.
In fact, it would not have been surprising to learn that these very buildings might have once housed the ancestors of Dodge. But it had been long since left to the elements, and dilapidated wooden squares were all that remained now.
It wasn't even clear what each building was meant to be, but they all shared similarities in shape and size. Each was a single room, built to house two ponies at max. There seemed to be only enough space for a scattering of things in the corner, space for a couple of roll-up haversacks along the walls…
It wouldn't take longer than five seconds to walk completely around each building. That was the extent of their luxury.
There were five of them placed in a rather wide circle, or at least the best approximation of one. All of the doors faced toward a central point, which bore evidence of once being the home of an oversized sand pit. It was probably the location of a great bonfire, and a place to park the caravans.
Nothing else remained.
The reason for setting up camp here was obvious. Coming in, Applejack noticed a few fruit bushes and other wild plants, and there was a source of water nearby – the pond.
It wasn't fresh, but it served to water the caravans and to wash dirty laundry or other things.
And at that very pond was Rarity, standing at its edge, shoulders slumped low and face carrying the shock of the realisation of what had just happened.
It was that pond that Applejack now limped to, wearing a face of her own that was as dark as thunder.
As she hobbled toward her companion, Applejack felt her anger rising. While she wasn’t one to normally jump to fury, there was little other emotion left in her heart. It was the whole situation combined with the expectations of what was about to happen that created a volatile cocktail which rested neatly in Applejack’s chest.
Each step toward Rarity returned the thoughts to Applejack's mind. Each moment that she locked her eyes upon Rarity's face did she feel those enraged spirits rise up, and at the point where she stood just in front of her could she hold it in no longer.
At first she did not speak, and only sufficed herself to glare at Rarity, who suddenly cast her eyes down. She played with the dirt under her hooves, her lower lip curled in with discomfort and unease, which she chewed nervously.
But hey, at least her mane looked great!
"Rarity!" Applejack fumed. "What in th' blue blazes were ya even thinkin'?"
And then came The Rarity Answer.
The same sort of answer that Applejack hated so much. They were the kind of responses that sought to remove their speaker from all blame. They were the kind of statements meant to distract and throw the subject away, and Applejack knew that this entire conversation was going to be full of them.
But in her anger, in her frustration, and the pain that shot through her leg, she found herself unable to abandon the conversation regardless.
"It- it appears we've missed the train," Rarity stated.
"Oh no, whatever gave ya that idea?" Applejack shot back.
"Are- are we… stuck here?" Rarity asked, looking around, and trying not to meet Applejack's steely gaze.
"What do you think?" Applejack hissed.
"I'm sure… the train will return, would it not? Perhaps we can-"
"Rarity!" Applejack yelled, cutting her off. "Have you ever tried to flag down a moving train? Yeah, doesn't really work that way! And ya see them tracks there in the distance? Wanna tell me how many sets ya see?"
"That's right. One. Full marks for ya! The tracks that go back to Ponyville are on the other side of that mountain behind us. Ya see the one that's blockin' our view? Ya see that giant thing sittin' there all purdy in the middle of the plains? Yeah, that one, Rarity!"
The little white Unicorn started to draw pictures in the ground, her hoof moving against her own volition.
"But… wouldn't the train attendants notice that we are no longer on board and perhaps, they could tell somepony…"
"You know what? Maybe. They might notice we're gone except somepony decided to erase all trace of us! All the luggage, Rarity! Why'd you drag it down?"
"I was taking care of it! You told me to keep an eye on it for us, Applejack, and I- I-"
"Oh no. You ain't turnin' this one around on me." Applejack defended her position. "Y'all up to your neck in this one. You were the one decided to leave the train, and you were the one landed us in this mess. What do ya have t' say for yerself?"
"I- I-" Rarity stuttered, placing a hoof upon her chest. It was a defensive posture. It was a 'please-don't-yell-at-me' posture. And in that moment, Rarity squeezed her eyes together tightly, as if she were torn between two answers.
It looked like Rarity was scared.
But in the end, she gave the kind of answer that she always gave.
"I'm sure we'll be rescued soon," Rarity assured. "We- we needn't worry…"
Applejack shook her head, sadly. It was entirely what she had expected to happen. Nothing changed. Nothing ever would. And that made Applejack entirely defeated, crushed, and a small throbbing pain started appearing in her chest again.
She couldn't even look at Rarity right now. No matter how sad she seemed, no matter how ashamed she might have been, she still carried herself as if taking the blame was the furthest thing from anypony's mind.
Was it too much to just expect a bit of humility? To expect an apology?
There was a time long ago when Rarity might have given it up with a bit of struggle, but in the months that passed it had disappeared without a trace, and Applejack honestly wanted to know why.
And to top it off, she wanted to know why it still affected her so darned much. After all, it was just Rarity being Rarity, wasn't it? Even if she was being more Rarity than usual, it was still… Rarity.
She'd come to that realisation long ago. On the day when everything turned black.
But this really wasn't the kind of thing she should be thinking about at the moment. It seemed, though, that every time she had to approach the subject of Rarity, her mind would irrevocably lead back to these lines of thoughts.
She shook her head free of the conundrum.
"Yeah, you know what?" Applejack told Rarity frankly, her voice lowering to a growl. "Yer right. We ain't gonna worry. We're stuck here. Once th' others take the train to Dodge they'll realise we ain't there and I'm sure they'll find us. At least we can count on them."
Rarity's eyes quavered and her breath shuddered at the words.
"You can come along whenever you feel like," Applejack declared, as she turned and started down the track back to the five buildings. "I'm gonna go find some place to set up camp before that there hits us."
It was the dark spot that she had seen out of the other window of the train. From where they were standing, it was clear that it was further away than she had originally justified, but it was also much, much larger.
The storm cloud, flying free, was crawling across the sky on a small sheet of wind, and it was casting down the faint roars of thunder in the distance. Flashes of light, so bright that they could be seen clearly in the relative brightness of evening, bounced around its insides. And although it didn't seem much of a threat in the context of the atmosphere, Applejack knew there was going to be trouble ahead.
She could feel it in the wind.
And so with far strides and frustrated hoofbeats, she left Rarity to her own devices as the Unicorn sank to her flanks at the edge of the pond.
"I'm sorry," Rarity whispered, as soon as she was sure Applejack couldn't hear her.
"I'm so, so sorry."
Chapter 1 - End