by KitsuneRisu

The Middle

Chapter 2

Each drop fell onto the wooden roof, creating a rhythm like a hundred drums beating the same song.

On their own, they were each a tiny voice starved for attention, but together, they surged, a raging mass of applause, roaring out in unison for the same single purpose.

The thunder came next, drowning out even the cacophonic rain for just a second, each explosion accompanied by a flash of light that lit up the interior of the room.

Small droplets that leaked from the rickety, old ceiling fell, escaping the crowd of their brothers, and dripped upon the straw and dust that lay beneath; each tiny ball of water kicked up a billowing flurry of particles that scattered around the air like a dandelion blown free.

Echoes of drips and drops surrendered themselves to the walls, as the constant cry of a waterfall blanketed down from above.

The rays of the waning sun crawling through holes in the walls was the only constant light afforded to the room.

Applejack opened her eyes, and all she could hear was the rain.

She had time now to cool off, but the traces of her indignation were like a shackle that held her back. It had been hard to walk around, both physically and mentally, thanks to an injured ankle and a disquieted heart.

Rarity was left alone, by herself, at the edge of the pond. Applejack hadn't the faintest idea what she had been doing for all this time, but she knew that Rarity hadn't moved for the entire period that she had been exploring the houses and trying to find the one that bore the fewest holes in the roof.

It was this one – the second from the left coming in, that remained in decent condition despite the ages. It had four steady walls and only a couple of fractures in the slats above. It didn't matter that the rain was coming in, anyway; there were plenty of holes in the floorboards for the water to drain out through. All in all, the house remained rather self-contained.

The little farming pony had taken to one of the corners, where she lay on her back with her front legs placed firmly behind her head. Her old, worn Stetson was lowered across her face to block out the low flicker of the candle, and there was not much else for her to do.

And so she lay, in the corner, back in the dust, listening to the rainfall.

The cloud had been drawing closer over the past hour, and it had finally reached their little section of the world. Although it had only been a few minutes since it arrived, Applejack felt that too many minutes had passed. She was about to appear any second now.

The broken door to the ramshackle shack slid aside, revealing a mountain of salvage. Dripping wet from the rain, the luggage hovered in above Rarity's head on a bed of white glitter, protecting her from the elements. With a wave of her horn and a flash of light, she deposited the detritus into the nearest corner.

Right on cue.

The luggage formed a heap that took up nearly a quarter of the entire room, which Rarity started shifting to different areas of the room in a strange method of sorting, all the while with a vapid smile on her face.

The wind brought chills, and dots of ice-cold water started pelting Applejack in the back, almost as if it were a cry for attention.

Don't forget about us, the weather said. We're always here!

"…th' door," Applejack mumbled, under her breath.

"Hmmm?" Rarity sang merrily, deep in her game of sort-the-box. "What was that, dear?"

"Close th' door!" Applejack yelled, her voice bouncing off the walls.

"Oh, of course, dear!" Rarity trilled suddenly, sliding it shut with the bare minimum of effort.

It didn't take her much work to perform the task, not at all. The only thing that prevented her from doing it in the first place was the fact that her mind was off wandering somewhere else.

She returned her focus to the luggage almost instantly, once again making stacks out of them in a pattern that only she knew about.

As the smaller boxes peeled away, they revealed a much larger trunk which she set down and started to open. A shackle and bolt kept it tightly locked – it was one of those trick ones where you had to be a Unicorn to open. The locks were enchanted to respond to certain frequencies of magic, and only by zapping it with the same bolt would it slide away and allow entry.

Rarity pried open the lid a crack, like an explorer coming across some ancient buried treasure.

Peeking out through a hole in her hat, Applejack couldn't help but watch.

She casually noticed that this particular trunk was also completely dry, just like Rarity. It seemed to be the only one that was sheltered from the rain. She wondered if that meant anything.

But it was only a scant observation.

Just before Applejack could raise herself up enough to peek into the box, she found herself quickly laying flat once more, shifting her hat back to its original position. Rarity had started to turn around, and Applejack didn't want to be caught snooping.

Not right now, anyway.

There was pride on the line.

"Applejack, dear," Rarity trilled, pulling out an old, leathery set of bags with the Apple Family emblem stamped on the sides. "I kept your saddlebags nice and dry in my chest!"

Applejack's hat slid off her face, landing and flopping onto her chest.

"Y'wut now?" she asked, propping herself up to take a closer look.

Instantly, the chest slammed shut.

"Ah… your- your bags." Rarity grinned, eyelids sloped sideways, as she floated them toward the pony in the corner.

"That why you were late?" Applejack asked with a tiny modicum of suspicion, watching them land gently at her lower hooves.

"Ah… yes. If you must know, I was at the pond, just thinking over… some things, and that beastly cloud flew straight at me! Why, it caught me by surprise, and… and I just had to make sure some… your things were dry, so I had to do a little bit of emergency repacking."

"Thinkin' over some things, huh?" Applejack repeated. Hard to believe that a mere thought could distract Rarity from something as big as that cloud. You know, the one that Applejack had warned Rarity about?

Applejack unbuckled one of the two bags, pulling out a small candle and a flint lighter. She always came prepared. The light from the candle was a welcome addition to the room; the darkness drew larger as time went by.

"Why would those dreadful weather Pegasi push thunderclouds all the way out here, anyway?" Rarity complained, continuing to throw random boxes into the walls. Their space was slowly dwindling.

"It's just a stray," Applejack explained distractedly, grabbing her bag and pulling it toward her head. In a pinch, it made do for a pillow, even though it was filled with some rather hard objects. It was more about support than comfort. "I mean, seems t' me that this one ain't bein' controlled by the Pegasi."

"Oh, is that why it's so large?"

"Well, yeah." Applejack rolled her eyes as she lowered herself onto the pillow stand-in. "D'ya even have t' ask?"

"I was… only trying to make conversation, dear." Rarity sniffed, moving some crates to the very middle of the room.

In the wake of the events of earlier that day, Applejack found her patience wearing thin, and any sort of interaction of this nature didn't help in the slightest.

It was one of those kinds of questions – one which Rarity already knew the answer to. Everypony knew that stray clouds didn't get this large unless left to their own devices. It was why the forests of Everfree were constantly blanketed in greys and blacks, and it was why that cloud looming above was both a good half-mile wide and thundering like an earthquake in the sky.

It threatened to rip apart everything below it with constant bolts of lightning and wash away the Earth with a deluge that came thick and fast.

Rarity was just doing what she always did, and started a line of conversation whose singular purpose was to have a conversation.

There was nothing wrong with small talk, of course, but not when it came at the expense of the mood. It was the surface of it. It was the airs put on. That was what Rarity was after.

It was the want to make small talk not so that it could lead into anything else, or to be courteous, or for any reason that it was for. It was just to fill a space that, at this moment, didn't need filling.

She'd never been interested in anything deeper than that.

And that's why it hurt ever so much.

"Stop it, you silly pony," the harsh whisper told herself.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" Rarity asked, looking over her shoulder at Applejack's reclined form.

Applejack placed her hat back on her face to obscure the grimace she had. "Nothin', Rarity. Just talkin' to myself. Keep doin' whatcha doin'."

Rarity scratched her head, but returned to her bags, prying them open to check if the rain had ruined any of their contents.

It was a noisy, messy ordeal, but at least it filled the space with the echoes of industry. Eventually, the even tempo of Rarity's work milled in with the pounding of the rain, and the emptiness in Applejack's head was crowded with raw sound.

She felt like she was floating on a giant leaf in a gentle river, the warm water lapping and licking at her back and hooves. It was comfortable, cooling, and the motions of the ebbs and flows pushed and pulled her in nature's very own cradle.

Mist and smoke filled her head, blocking out the troubles in her life.

All the worries about how she was going to get to Dodge, or who would come rescue them, or that ever-present dread of what might happen…

They were shrouded. They were blanketed and kept away.

And for that night, her mind had allowed her to rest, to sleep easily without the torment of another thought, letting her slip quietly into a light slumber while being carried away by a moonlit stream.

Rarity smiled as she watched Applejack start to breathe heavily from under her hat. The poor dear was so worn out and so tired. She was keeping so strong. And they were in a nasty old predicament indeed, but perhaps… perhaps it would be best to continue on with the plan. After all, by the time they were rescued, there would be no more time to be alone with her.

No time at all.

Rarity nodded. She'd make up for it all. She'd find a way to make it better tomorrow morning.

She'd make it happen.

A beam of light struck Applejack in the eye as it shot neatly through a gap in the wall and into the hole in Applejack's hat. It was a perfect, straight arrow, a narrow golden dart that jolted her into awakening.

The little pony shook her head, blinking the sleep from her eyes and shuffling out of the way of the beam. She didn't know what time she fell asleep last night, but by the position of the sun, it seemed to be around eight in the morning.

She usually awoke to the crowing of the cockerels back on the farm at the break of dawn, and so she felt uneasily heavy-headed from having far more sleep than she was used to. She cranked her neck left and right, giving it a quick pop as she worked out the kinks and stretched her muscles.

The conditions were far from adequate for what she would consider a comfortable rest.

But yet, she had managed to sleep right through the torrents.

The rain had gone away – the cloud had floated on sometime during the night. And at some point during that same night, the candle must have been put out, for it was set aside on one of the many crates where it sat alone and un-melted.

But rogue weather was very tricky – there was no way to tell if it wouldn't just decide to come back again.

It would be best to make use of the current span of clear weather to do the things that needed doing.

Giving herself one final stretch, she clambered to her hooves and stared at the room.

She found that she was alone.

There was a small patch on the opposite side of the room where Rarity had clearly been sleeping, if that could be the right word to describe it. All the dirt in the area where she had lain was spread aside with her continuous contortion, and there was clear evidence that she, as well, had a night just as uncomfortable as Applejack's.

It was a curious thing, for it had meant that Rarity certainly was feeling as out of place as she normally would in this situation, but at the same time, not a single peep did she make during their sleeping hours. There wasn't a cry, a call, a whine or a complaint. She had even kept her movements so still that Applejack couldn't hear them over the pattering rain.

And like a fort, the luggage remained placed in rather odd locations. There was the cubical construction in the middle of the room, and the two lengths on either side. It appeared that Rarity had intended to leave them where they now sat.

The thought of helping Rarity pack up crossed Applejack's mind, but…

Oh Rarity, Applejack thought.

Don't do this to me.

Her eyes trailed down, down to her hoof, where there was a small lace kerchief tied to her ankle. It was the one she had sprained yesterday, and she barely felt the cloth through the numbness of the area. It was light and wispy, made out of the most delicate silk and embroidered along the edges with what Applejack easily recognized as Rarity's hoof-work.

It was as white and clear as she was.

But yet, there were those extravagant stitches along the border, ruining function with flagrance.

With the finesse of a pony used to working with tools, she untied the cloth – which wasn't tied on too tightly in the first place – and held it in her upturned hoof, the piece of cloth resting there like a fish on a platter.

Applejack felt a tingling in her head, and a little jolt of electricity passed behind her eyes as she stared at the item, as she swallowed the dryness out of her throat.

Her hoof jerked a fraction of an inch toward her face.

And she stopped, hesitating.

But then, as if she were merely an impartial outside observer, she could do nothing but stare in fear and apprehension as the hoof jerked, ever closer in small movements, until the cloth rested upon her nose.

It wasn't a deep breath. It wasn't even anything stronger than how she normally breathed, but she drew in some of the sweet, flowery air through her nose, her eyes riveting open at the crassness of the idea of what she was doing. But yet… she was doing it, if only to grasp at a single, fleeting, ephemeral moment.

"Auh!" Applejack cried out suddenly, throwing the kerchief off her face and onto the boxes in front of her.

She stood there, embarrassed at nothing, blushing at herself. Ultimately, she closed her eyes, and bowed her head low in shame.

She was slipping.

Slipping back to that time long ago.


She promised. She had made a promise to herself.

And she intended to keep it.

But the smell… it was undiluted. It was fresh and clean. It was exactly what she wanted. It wasn't bombarded by perfumes and scents and colognes of all kinds – it was just a piece of cloth that had been with Rarity, and upon it was nothing else.


Her chest tightened.

She needed some air. She needed to leave. She had to get out. This was a horrible place to be.

It was stuffy and full of her things.


Let's just go.

Applejack turned, pushing past the building blocks and stopping short of the door.

Standing right in front of her, as silent as she had been the entire night, was the source of her frustrations, her curls bobbing as she flicked her head demurely. Not a hair on her mane was out of place, and not a single fleck of mascara strayed out of line.

She'd probably woken up early just to do this. She'd woken up, tied that thing to her hoof, and went to do something flippant and fanciful.

Behind her she pulled along a floating miasma of various objects, all bobbing along through the air, wrapped in a shroud of magical energy.

Applejack looked from Rarity's happy face to the mess.

"Oooh, look what I found," Rarity chittered joyously. "Lovely things, wonderful things!"

Not a single trace of last night's events was to be found on Rarity's face, or in her actions, or reflected upon her mood.

Applejack couldn't help but feel a bit of chagrin for that, the most shallow of reasons.

But it was the way she just waved everything off. To her, things, problems, issues… they all slid off her like water off a duck's back. She never carried any guilt, any apologies, and never took it to heart.

"What is all… all this?" Applejack asked, starkly, looking at the junk.

"Oh, just some things that I thought could… freshen up the place," Rarity stated, floating the items down to the floor, while she looked around and considered where each item might go.

There were bits of wood and old hollow baby tree stumps. There were brush flowers and stray metal wires. There were slices of log and pieces of rock. Out of all the junk there were only two things that might have been of practical use.

"Rarity, those…" Applejack pointed out with a weary voice, approaching the bright red berries that Rarity had gathered.

Rarity brought them forward at Applejack's attention, settling them on the ground as they nestled in a bed of leaves.

"Oh, yes! I see you noticed. I found some berries, and I have some fresh water too. I'm sure they'll make for an absolutely scrumptious breakfa–"

"Rarity, these berries are poisonous," Applejack said, cutting her off just in case. She hadn't meant to be rude, but there was a dire need to be curt at this point.

With a quick move of her hoof, she stepped on them, releasing a cloud of red spray into the air. Almost instantly, a foul odour filled the hut, and the spray turned black before it even had time to settle. The plump red flesh of the tiny little fruits shrivelled and darkened, and their skin wrinkled and dried before dropping off like rotten skin.

"Shadeberries," Applejack continued, wiping her hoof on the floor. "Look good, up until ya put one in yer mouth, and then... well, that happens."

"How did you…" Rarity muttered in astonishment, "I- I thought they were currants…"

"They sure look like it. It's the leaves, Rarity. Shadeberries have leaves that darken a little at th' tip."

Rarity's mouth hung slightly open, but she said nothing more; instead, she flew a small bundle of leaves and twigs over to Applejack. It had been weaved together nearly expertly into a water-tight bowl, and such it was, for it carried a small portion of water within. She nodded with a guilty expression, as if seeking approval.

"Where'd you get th' water, Rarity?" Applejack intoned, once again dreading the answer.

"From the pond. The water was so clear, like a mirror and–"

"Did'ja drink any of it?" Applejack asked with alarm, raising her head to look Rarity in the eyes.

"Why I… there were fish in the water an-"

"Rarity!" Applejack snapped. "It's a simple question. Did'ja drink any of it?"

"N- no," Rarity replied. "But why…"

Applejack breathed a heavy sigh of relief, her heart calming down.

Another hoof shot out, kicking over the bowl and destroying the frame. The water mixed with the remnants of the berries, creating a black sludge that slowly crept towards a crack in the floor.

"Water's no good. It's stagnant. Means t'say that no matter how clear it looks, if you'd drank that, you'd be throwin' up all over y'self within th' hour. Probably full'a insect eggs and th' like."

"In- insect eggs?" Rarity squeaked.

"Don't matter that there were fish in it. They can live in things we can't. We're just humble ponies, after all."

"Oh, I just- I just… I mean…" Rarity sighed, looking at the remnants of her efforts drip into the crevasse.

"Listen…" Applejack swept back to her sleeping corner, where she'd left her saddlebags. "I have some supplies in my packs here. Some tack; a canteen of fresh water. You go ahead and take it. Y'all don't know the second thing about livin' off the land. Besides, I'm sure you won't be happy with anything but the best. I'll go out and scour for somethin' t' eat. You can have what I brought."


"Just do it, Rarity. Please. Just for once, listen t' me and do it, alright?" Applejack plucked the bags up in her teeth, throwing it to the center of the room, where it landed on the luggage with a thunk.

"But what about you, Applejack?"

"I know what t'look for. I know what fruit you can eat around here. I spotted some bushes yesterday when I was… when I was lookin' for ya." She grimaced, reminding herself of the terse event.

"And what of water? If there isn't any other source…"


"I'm sorry, what?" Rarity raised two eyebrows.

"Cacti, Rarity. They got water in 'em. Sorta like a sponge. In a pinch you could just milk out th' juice and drink it."

"That doesn't sound rather appetizing…"

"Listen," Applejack started turning over the bags, emptying its contents all over the platform, "we probably got a few days before help comes. I know how t' take care of myself. You don't. Take my supplies."


"Take 'em, Rarity!" Applejack glared.

Rarity nodded, keeping up the smile. This time, though, the smile reflected nothingness. She didn't look happy anymore. She just looked like she was smiling.

"Alright, Applejack. I will."

"I'm gonna go out and try to gather some stuff for myself, alright?" Applejack swung the bags over her back. "I have a bad feelin' about this here cloud. I got it in my gut that it's gonna come swingin' in for a second pass tonight."

"Oh, but Applejack," Rarity interjected, stopping her from leaving. "Your hoof, why… you couldn't possibly.... oh."

Her gaze trailed from Applejack's naked hoof to the cloth on the table.

"Oh, I see… you- you're fine, then. I'm glad for you," she quavered.

"Listen. I'll be fine, okay? That bandage…" Applejack trailed off. There were a lot of things she could have said at that point, but nothing would have really been the truth. And with the way she was feeling right now, it would have been very clear she would just be trying to say something to make Rarity feel like what she had done wasn't entirely pointless.

"I'll be alright," Applejack said, turning away. At least she meant what she said.

"Alright, Applejack, but please be careful. It's terribly dusty out there."

Applejack opened her mouth to ask her what being careful had to do with dust, but decided against it. Instead, she shook her head free of cobwebs and brushed out the door into the bright morning sun.

The room was plunged into silence.

And it was for a while that Rarity stood there, playing with thoughts in her head.

Finally, she was alone.

Finally, she could be by herself.

She gasped, a sudden breath, as a sweeping cold flowed over her coat and all the way into the depths of her body. A hoof flew up to her mouth, which she bit into to prevent herself from vocalizing the sudden wash of chill that flooded her lungs.

Her heart beat strong as she looked toward the black swill that was seeping into the cracks; she had been close to making herself seriously ill.

But yet, this was not the cause of her racing pulse.

It was falling apart.

Yesterday had been… unfortunate.

And today might have been even more so.

It was only intervention of a truly divine spirit that allowed her to escape it. But the whole plan, the whole idea, like sand falling off a hoof, was coming down.

She would not let that happen. She had to finish this tonight.

She had promised herself that it would come to pass, and she would do whatever it took to make sure it did. She had to.

She had to.

Without it, there was nothing left.

But just as it was easier to change the subject when she was being accused by other ponies of wrongdoing, so did she find it easy to change the subject at her own hostile introspection.

Harsh emotions and pained reactions were swept under a smile, and she distracted herself fully in the tasks ahead. For there was no time to consider anything else, there was no time to muse on the ramifications of her actions, and there was no time to break herself over the possibility that she might fail.

What if she failed?

What if…

Rarity screamed out loud, shrill, squeaking in a sudden burst that flowed directly into laughter. She let out a few hearty titters that sounded as genuine as glass was to a diamond, attempting to force herself into happiness.

Quickly, she built up a pace and dove into her project. Why, this house was absolutely dreadful! It certainly could do with a bit of sprucing up! Thank goodness she had brought all that stuff in with her. It would take her no time at all to make this place actually feel habitable.

And she even had a few things in some of her cases to finally complete what she had intended with the placement of the luggage – she would have utilized them the previous night, but it would have been rude, and she had decided to sleep on the floor just so that Applejack and herself could be in the same scenario.

Oh, and of course, plugging all the holes in the roof and walls, and getting rid of that disgusting black gunk on the floor… there was nothing like a bit of housework and a bit of tidying up to get the blood flowing!

But first, Applejack's things!

Rarity trailed over to the small cluster of equipment that Applejack had left for her, which she started dividing into organized groups that went into different areas of the room for further sorting.

She neatly packed all the things away – a couple of travel-sized tools, bits and bobs, an apple seed sample packet, and other things that were probably used in the farming trade that Rarity had never laid eyes upon before.

But she kept three things upon the table.

The water bottle – a green, bulbous canteen full of fresh Ponyville well water; a small stack of hard tack – biscuits designed to satiate maximum hunger but were quite low on taste; and a small red and white chequered piece of cloth that Applejack brought along with her in case she ever needed to tie something to her forehead to keep the sweat out of her eyes.

The food she kept aside; but between her hooves she clutched the real treasure.

Bringing the fabric up to her face, she took in a big, deep breath, inhaling all the wonderful smells that raced through her head and ticked her fancy.

She loved this cloth.

It smelled just like Applejack.

Chapter 2 - End