Applejack had barely dodged Rainbow before making it back to the farmhouse. Once she'd reached her porch, she took a deep breath while removing her omnipresent hat and wiping the sweat from her brow. "Celestia have mercy, Ah can't avoid RD forever..."
With one last glance at the moonlight illuminating her orchard, Applejack carefully stepped inside. With great care, she opened the creaky screen door slowly, and the front door as well, closing them both without so much as the tiniest protest from a rusty hinge. She made her way over every creaky floorboard, reaching the bottom of the stairs before the sound of a stallion's throat clearing nearly startled her out of her coat.
"Who's there?! Ah've got a knife!" Applejack snapped. Her big brother lit a match and fired the lantern beside him, his forelegs crossed.
"You've got a what?" he asked.
"Uh... nothin'." Applejack caught her breath. How'd he get back so soon? "What in tarnation are you doin' here?"
Mac spoke calmly. "Braeburn and Ah finished the plantin' early. After we had a night on the town, Ah figured it was time for me to head back to the homestead." He shifted in his seat. "Now, you wanna tell me what kept you out s'late when we got work in the mornin'?"
"Ah... Ah was out drinkin' with Rainbow!" she lied. If there was one pony in this world Applejack simply couldn't lie to, it was Macintosh. He raised his chin, looking down his muzzle at her.
"We were! I found a nice stallion and everythin'!" He lowered his chin to his chest, not saying a word, simply using his bright green eyes to bore into her soul.
"A-and we tag teamed him! Me and Rainbow! He loved it!" Mac raised an eyebrow, an unflattering frown etched across his face.
Applejack sighed. She couldn't lie to her brother. Not only did she find it morally repugnant, but he knew her far too well to think she'd gone out and bedded a random stallion. Much less at the same time as her best friend.
"Alright, fine," She huffed, tossing her hat onto the couch and letting her saddlebags slide down her back onto the floor. "Ah wasn't out drinkin'..."
Mac hummed in response, as though he inherently knew she hadn't been with Rainbow at Carrot Top's bonfire.
"Went ta Twilight's with some of Apple Bloom's books, did ya?" he asked in a paternal tone. Applejack was dumbstruck. Was he psychic, too?
"How... how'd you know where Ah—" A gesture toward the contents spilling out of her unclasped saddlebag gave her the answer. "Heh... well... Ah thought she'd borrowed them, ya see, and Ah was... just, uhm..."
Mac stood from the chair and moved to the couch, patting the seat beside him with a hoof. Applejack sat down without hesitation. For a moment, they sat next to each other, the silence enveloping them in the early morning hours. Mac had always been comfortable with silence, but his sister had never quite attained his level of appreciation for quiet moments.
"Readin's hard, Applejack."
She gasped. How on earth had he figured out her secret? Had he always known? "Bu—well... Ah bet it is for foals..." she whimpered. She felt a large foreleg reach across her shoulder, pulling her closer to the mass of red muscle seated next to her. Though he was toned from farm work, he was also surprisingly soft.
"Even harder if ya ain't a foal no more," he completed. Though those words were supposed to comfort her, they had the opposite effect.
"You mean ta tell me you knew Ah couldn't read this whole time?" she asked, her voice rising in anger as she leaned away from her brother.
"A brother knows when his sister's keepin' a secret," he admitted softly, trying not to wake the other ponies in the house. Applejack had nearly abandoned all volume control at this point, unfortunately.
"And you just let me fake it?" she snapped. "For ten years?!" She had thrown his hoof from around her and shot up from the couch, squaring off with him.
"What was Ah supposed to do?" he whispered back harshly. "Was Ah supposed ta forget my chores just so Ah could teach you ta read?"
Tears shone in Applejack's eyes as she took a step backward. "You were supposed to be a good big brother!" That comment caused Mac to rise from the couch. Though Applejack was the more headstrong of the Apple family, Big Macintosh still towered over her.
"S'at right?" he growled. "Would that have been before or after Ah had been taken out of school after Ma and Pa died? Or when Ah let you sleep in my bed every night for a year afterwards? Or how about the time—"
"Just shut up, Mac!" She sniffed, walking swiftly toward the stairs to her bedroom. Mac tried to put a hoof out to stop her, but all he caught was the cold night air. In the blink of an eye, Applejack had slammed her door. Mac sighed. He had only waited up for his sister because he was worried about her. Instead of a simple explanation and goodnight nuzzle, his homecoming had devolved into an argument.
"Gosh darnit..." he whispered to himself, taking the lantern in his teeth and making his way up the stairs. He found Apple Bloom standing bleary eyed in the hallway, her mane disheveled without her bow to hold it in place.
"Macintosh? Ah thought you were helpin' cousin Braeburn?" He set the lantern down beside her and scooped her into a hug. He'd taken the red-eye train, so he had only been home an hour or so.
"Ah decided Ah missed you too much, darlin. So Ah came home early." She gripped his neck tightly as he set her on his back. "C'mon now, fillies need their sleep." Macintosh carried her back to her room and tucked her in before blowing out the lantern. After he'd put his youngest sibling to bed, he turned his attention to his other sister. He stepped carefully to her door, listening for any signs of life. A gentle sniffling echoed faintly beyond the door. He knocked gently, hoping she would at least give him the chance to apologize, even though he wasn't the one who'd allowed his temper to start an argument.
"Applejack?" he whispered. Not a sound came from the room beyond. He sighed. "Ah'm sorry for snappin' at ya." He waited patiently for a response, but none came. As he was about to give up and head back to his room for the night, the soft click of an unlocking door drew his attention. Ears forward, he pushed the handle and nudged his way inside.
Applejack's bed was near the door, so she had no problem locking and unlocking it from there. Inside, a sliver of moonlight streaked through her flannel curtains. She lay with her back towards the door, her mane laying haphazardly across her pillow without its red rubber band to tame it. Mac took a seat on the side of her bed. When in a foul mood, Applejack was as stubborn as they come. Ironically, he knew he'd have to do most of the talking.
"Ah'm sorry for gettin' upset with you, Applejack."
Mac leaned over the bed ever so slightly. Though he couldn't see her face, he recognized the dark spot staining her pillow. "Ah know you may not think this is true, but Ah'm glad you finally asked Twilight ta help you."
A single sniffle was all the response he received, though in Applejack language, that meant she was at least listening. "Believe it or not, Ah hated not bein' able to teach you how to read when Ah first put two and two together," he exhaled deeply, eyes shifting back and forth between the dresser with a seldom used vanity mirror on it and his sister. "Ta see you have to shoulder such a burden, then have to deceive your friends and family just to keep it hidden... it... well, it was just plain awful."
On that note, he noticed her shoulders relax as she flicked an ear in his direction. "It was hard, ya know." he began. "It was hard seein' ya love school and learnin' so much, just to have to be taken out of it to work on a patch a dirt with me ta keep us from bein' homeless... Ah hated our situation just as much."
She finally rolled all the way over, her eyes dry, but still puffy from earlier.
"Ah'm sorry too, Macintosh," she sighed. "It ain't your fault you couldn't teach me how ta read."
Mac smiled at his sister. "Ah didn't even realize you couldn't till a few years ago. You were pretty crafty at gettin' by without bein' able to." Though she wasn't sure if that was a compliment or not, she nodded all the same.
"Thanks, but how come you never said nothin'?" she asked.
"Would you have admitted it if Ah had?" Applejack opened her mouth to reply, only to find nothing but night air on her tongue. "That's what Ah thought."
She sighed. "Ah'm sorry for yellin' at ya earlier. It's just been slow goin' since it was my first night and all..."
"Ya think Ah figured out how ta run the farm's finances 'n such in one night?" he asked.
"No, but a foal can't do taxes. Foals sure as shoot can read..."
"Hush now, you'll be readin' soon enough," he assured her. "If anypony can teach a stubborn hard-head like you anything, it's Twilight." The lighthearted ribbing earned the first smile he'd given her brother since she'd arrived home.
"Thanks, Ah guess,"
"No problem," he said, standing from her bed to retire to his own.
"Mac, do ya think you could keep my lessons a secret? Least till Ah can actually get the hang of it?"
"Sure. G'night Applejack."
"Goodnight Macintosh. Ah love you."
"Love you too."
"... I mean, what other reason could she possibly have for sneaking over to her house in the middle of the night, and then lying to me about it?" Rainbow asked, pacing around her room as Tank watched his master wear holes in her cloudy floor. She glanced at her pet tortoise.
"You're a better listener than a talker." She lifted him from the floor and laid on her bed, resting him on her belly as he withdrew into his shell, only his eyes visible inside the his bony home.
"You know, for being the pet of the best flier in Equestria, you sure don't like movement," she said.
Dash sighed. Rarity wasn't very receptive to her admittedly soap-opera-ish theory, but Rainbow could see no other reason for Applejack to be hanging out with Twilight of all ponies at such an ungodly hour.
"Ugh, I can't believe I'm losing sleep over this!" she moaned, tossing Tank beside her as she rested her forelegs behind her head.
"It'd be one thing if they actually liked each other, I'd be stoked for them!" Unable to simply lay with her restless thoughts, she resumed walking laps around her bedroom. "Why would they try to be a sneaky about it? Ugh, we're supposed to be friends!"
She continued until she finally decided on a course of action. "Fine, if AJ won't tell me the truth, I know I can get it out of Twilight."
With her schedule now full of sleuthing, Rainbow finally put her tired mind to rest, if only for the few hours remaining in Luna's realm.
Twilight's ears perked up as a rhythmic knocking at her door stirred her from her favorite dream; the one where she wrote a bestselling book about the time she read every book in existence. Peculiar to some, certainly, but dreams didn't have to make sense.
She looked to the window; the hues of the sunrise were still at their peak. The library wouldn't be officially open for another hour or so. She glanced at Spike, who lifted his head from his basket to gaze wearily back at her.
"Do you wanna—" Spike asked, before Twilight interrupted.
"Yeah..." she yawned, figuring she'd let Spike sleep in a bit for once. Throwing her hind legs over the edge of the bed she made her way to the stairs, levitating a brush through her mane as she went. She silently swore that whoever needed a book at this hour better have a medical emergency. Otherwise, they may end up with one.
She opened the door slowly.
"... Rainbow?" Unable to form a coherent sentence at this hour, she was only able to ask as to the nature of the intrusion in the simplest terms. "Why?"
"What, I can't stop by my friends place for some tea?" Twilight stuck her head outside and squinted, the sun just beginning its climb into the sky. She glanced at the sundial in front of her house.
"One, you hate tea. Two, it's six thirty in the morning."
"Uh, did I say tea? I meant... scones! I love a good... scone in the morning." The cheesy smile should have raised red flags, but Twilight was still too tired to care.
"C'mon in..." she yawned, letting her friend inside.
"You look pretty tired Twi, what's the matter?" Rainbow asked, feigning innocence.
"Nothing... just early, I guess," she replied, rubbing her eyes with a hoof before setting a kettle on the stove.
"Really? If I didn't know any better, I'd say you stayed up all night."
Twilight was now awake enough to recognize Dash's tone. She turned slowly, narrowing her eyes. "Just a bit of late night studying."
Of what, anatomy? Mare anatomy? Applejack's mare anatomy?! Rainbow thought, but she held her tongue.
Twilight turned back to her kitchen and searched through her cupboards. She noticed that she had both a box of blueberry scones and an unopened box of crumpets. Smiling deviously, she devised a plan to expose the real reason Rainbow had stopped by so early. Placing a crumpet on a plate, she warmed it with her magic.
She brought the snack out to where Rainbow had sat, placing it on the coffee table in front of her. "Enjoy your... scone," she said, careful not to let her inflection raise suspicions.
"Thanks Twi, it looks great—"
"Aha! That's not a scone, it's a crumpet!" Twilight snapped victoriously. "What are you really doing here?"
Rainbow's face began to run red. "Uh.. I... screw this!" she said to Twilight, bolting up from the couch. "What were you doing here with AJ last night?"
"That is none of your business!" Twilight shot back. "Why does it matter to you what Applejack does?"
"She bailed on drinking with me and watching stuff burn! That's our thing!" Rainbow countered. Twilight was wide awake by now, and mindful of her promise to keep her friend's secret.
"I'm sorry she didn't want to go do... that with you, but I'm sure she had a good reason."
Rainbow's eyes narrowed. "You would know, wouldn't you?"
"Like I said before," Twilight began through gritted teeth. "It's none of your concern."
"What's the matter? Afraid somepony will find out the town librarian and the farmer have been going at it?"
Twilight blushed furiously. "That's not what's been happening!"
"Then what has?" Rainbow demanded. Twilight paused, the break in the conversation seeming to fill the room. She broke eye contact with Dash.
"N-nothing, but certainly not that!"
Undeterred, Rainbow fluttered over to Twilight's numerous bookshelves, scanning the spines for a particular book. After a few seconds, she retrieved a book titled: The Elements of Harmony and You: Getting to know your god-like powers.
Rainbow flipped through the book and stopped about a third of the way in. "You've read this book before?" she asked.
"Three times, cover to cover." Twilight replied proudly, a smug smile across her lips.
"Then you know what it says on page eighty-six, paragraph three, line four?" Twilight thought for a moment before she realized what Dash was referring to, and gasped. "That's right! According to this, the bearers of the Elements of Harmony have to be in harmony with each other for them to work."
"Well, secrets don't make for harmony, now spill!" Rainbow demanded once again.
A scowl across her face, Twilight brought Rainbow down to her level with her magic. "I'm not going to let you blackmail me into breaking a promise!" she growled. "Especially not using the Elements of Harmony!"
Rainbow set the book back on the shelf. "Fine." Rainbow huffed. "If you two want to be best friends and keep secrets, then go ahead." Twilight released her from her grip. "But this isn't over," she said sincerely, nose to nose with Twilight.
"Goodbye, Rainbow!" Twilight insisted, opening the door for her. Dash instead flew through an open window.
"Ugh!" Twilight slammed the door and stomped back upstairs, all the commotion having already woken Spike.
"You just fight somepony down there?" he asked.
"I don't want to talk about it," she replied, flopping down on her bed to get what little sleep she could salvage.