Cool, musty air wafted out of the tomes and scrolls as Twilight brought the volume up to her eye level; just one of many books she had rescued from the ruins of the ancient castle in the hope of finding answers about the mysterious casket the Tree of Harmony had borne. So far, no luck.
Twilight flinched in surprise. She was suddenly aware that she was hovering ten feet in the air near the shelves of her library home. Her wings, jarred from their coordination, decided all on their own that Twilight would be better off on the ground as soon as possible. Twilight realized, not for the first time, that solid wooden floors aren't the most forgiving to crash into.
She waved her hooves about her face to clear off the scrolls and cobwebs, giving a small dusty cough before rolling over to glare at the intruder.
Rainbow Dash smirked as she tried not to laugh, "Heheh... sorry?"
"Hello to you too, Rainbow- Ugh," Twilight pulled the cobweb from her cheek before continuing, "Sorry, how can I help you?"
Rainbow Dash landed at one of the writing tables and casually examined the diagrams of the 'Harmony Box' scattered about. "Wow, you've been busy huh? Actually, I just wanted to know if you've seen Applejack in town today. I've been looking for her to ask when she wants her next scheduled rainshower over the farm."
Twilight paused. "...No, I'm sorry, Rainbow, the last I saw Applejack was earlier this week."
"Heya Twi, Ah was just wonderin' if ya would like ta come down and help Mac and me get a new roof on the Crusaders clubhouse this Thursday? That magic o' yours could sure be useful!"
"Oh, I'm sorry Applejack, I've just started on this research, and I think I'm onto something! I'm sure Rarity can help you if you need a unicorn, though?"
"Uh...s-sure thing, Twi, thanks anyway..."
That research had dead-ended that very afternoon.
"Well, this was a bust," Rainbow Dash chuckled, turning to the door with spread wings, "Kinda like your balcony window. But anyway, I gotta blast. Maybe Pinkie has seen AJ around the bakery."
"Did you ask Rarity?" Twilight offered..
"Uh, yeah, said she hasn't seen AJ since that whole scary castle thing." Rainbow frowned, turning back, "Why, you think Rarity's lying?"
"I'm actually pretty sure she isn't," Twilight muttered. She walked over to a window and looked out at the orchard visible in the distance, "and that's exactly what worries me."
Rainbow Dash stood awkwardly, waiting for Twilight to continue. When the alicorn failed to do so, she slowly began to back towards the door. "Riiiiight...well, I'll just go ask Pinkie so I can get this cloud out of the sky..."
"Actually," Twilight interrupted. She turned around and smiled, a look of determination in her eyes. "could you do me a favour?"
* * * *
Apple trees are simple things. Just give them some water every now and again, some good soil to grow in, with a gentle application of blunt force at picking time, and they would give up their bounty easy as pie. It was a simple, fulfilling task, to look after apple trees, routine, relaxing.
Applejack had never found it so frustrating.
As the farmpony picked up the last basket around the tree, she caught a glimpse out over the endless orchard she had worked, day in, day out, for most of her life. A few years ago it had been enough, maintaining and making a success of her family’s namesake, but that had changed lately. Over the last three years, she’d felt something more.
With a tired groan through the basket handle in her mouth, she turned back to her cart and placed apples alongside the dozens of others and shook herself into the yolk before heading towards the farmhouse. She dully noted it wasn’t even quite midday.
She pulled the cart up to the back of the barn for sorting later, then made her way around to the front porch. What she should have seen was Grannie Smith in her rocking chair, with that new sweater she’d been trying to knit rolled in her lap while she snoozed. What she did see was Twilight Sparkle.
“Oh, there you are Applejack!” Twilight chirped happily, turning from the door.
“Uh...hiya Princess,” Applejack greeted slowly. She tipped her hat and jumped up onto the porch. “What brings ya round the ol’ Acres? Want some apples?”
Twilight chuckled and shook her head, “Oh come on Applejack, are you really still calling me that? Actually, I just came by to see you, and if you still needed help fixing the clubhouse today...being Thursday and all.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow, as she opened the front door for Twilight, “Ah thought you had somethin’ real important study up on?”
“Oh, that...didn’t work out,” Twilight shrugged it off lightly, waiting to follow Applejack into the farmhouse, while Applejack stood awkwardly waiting for Twilight to go in herself. The alicorn looked slightly bemused as she added, “I thought since I had time I would come, you know, help a friend out. So here I am!”
‘Oh, well…” Applejack cast a nervous glance back over the fields, “A-Ah managed. Me an’ Mac finished it this mornin’.”
She looked back at Twilight, only to see a disappointed look in her lavender eyes. Applejack felt a twinge as Twilight spoke, “You’re waiting for me to go in first, aren’t you?”
Applejack’s response died as Twilight sighed and walked in anyway. Applejack, a confused frown on her face, followed.
Twilight was standing in the middle of the living room when Applejack saw her next. She was looking at the few of Applejack’s hearth photographs, specifically, one of their group of friends enjoying a picnic down by the lake. Twilight smiled and tapped the picture with a hoof, “That was a really great day, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Applejack smiled, standing beside Twilight to look at it, “Rainbow was back from that Wonderbolt Acadamy thing, Rarity had ‘er new dresses on sale...guess we were all havin’ a good day back then.”
“Implying we aren’t now,” Twilight turned around and walked away, but suddenly turned back, determined, “Applejack, I know you don’t like other ponies prying, but I need to know, what’s bothering you so much?”
“Well...that was sudden.” Applejack monotoned, bowing her head, “And there ain’t nuthin’ wrong. I\m just havin’ an off day all.”
“Well, I’d be happy to lend an ear if you need to talk about it,” Twilight chirped, a little too hopefully, “Maybe we can talk over lunch? There’s a special on apple pie over at-”
“I got plenny good apple pies here at home, thank ya very much.” Applejack interrupted tersely. She didn’t feel like being on the receiving end a mental evaluation today, “Now if you don’t mind Princess, Me an’ mah family were gonna have lunch...alone.”
Twilight stood in shock for a moment, wings half spread, one hoof frozen in a rising objection. Twilight snorted and dropped the hoof back to the floorboards. “I really hoped you wouldn’t feel this way about my silly title. You think I like being treated differently by everypony, right when I was starting to fit in? And now, one of my closest friends...Of anypony, I expected this from you least, Applejack.” Twilight spun on her hooves and paced away. As Applejack took a step to follow, Twilight cut in, “I can open a door just fine, thank you.”
Applejack was still sitting there in surprise ten minutes later when Big Mac came to find her.
* * * *
Twilight growled softly in frustration and kicked a pebble off the lakeside path. Seeing it wasn't going to make it to the water’s edge, she teleported the small rock into the centre of the lake, and smiled thinly as it made a small impotent splash.
Applejack could be so frustrating! Twilight had expected to be treated differently, she really had, but she’d found strength in her friends; they had promised that, to them, she would be Twilight, the bookish student...no, she wasn’t a student anymore. She wasn’t a unicorn either, and Rainbow Dash wasn’t meant to call her an egghead in public anymore, since it could be construed as an affront to the Crown.
Twilight felt like screaming.
But even there, on the outskirts of town far away from any prying ears, Twilight still kept the emotion in. She breathed slowly, deeply, calming herself down until she opened her eyes and smiled.
“Oh, what a coincidence, Twilight dear!” Rarity’s voice cheerfully called, in a tone that suggested it wasn’t. The white unicorn trotted up into Twilight field of view, smiling pleasantly, “I was hoping I’d be able to talk to you today.”
“Hello Rarity,” Twilight smiled back, “Sorry if you missed me at the library, I was attending to something.”
“Oh, of course,” Rarity purred, sitting beside her friend on the lakeside, “Rainbow Dash told me of your...irregular request this morning.”
Twilight flinched slightly, and quickly changed the topic; “You and Rainbow Dash seem to be spending a lot of time together lately.”
Rarity froze, mouth open, for half a second, then looked away, “Yes, I suppose we are.”
Both ponies sat quietly for a while, looking into the waters, thinking. Finally, Twilight, spoke up, “...Rarity, what’s happening to us? Our friends? Is it all changing, or is it just me?”
“Well…” Rarity tilted her head in thought and following the flight of a songbird with her eyes, “The nature of friendships change all the time, dear. Things are a little different now of course. You are a Princess, and that is important. But in this case, I’m pretty sure it’s you,” Rarity looked over at Twilight with a knowing smile, “You and a certain farm mare, I’m certain.”
“She just doesn’t understand..." Twilight growled, kneading a hoof into the soil. Rarity noticed with a slight chuckle.
“Well maybe, darling, you should take some of your own advice: A good friend is always there for a friend when that friend needs it most, correct?”
“Applejack seems to think she’s fine on her own.” Twilight hissed quietly.
Rarity raised an eyebrow as Twilight failed to make eye contact. “Oh does she? Of course I wouldn’t know, would I, since I and Applejack haven’t so much as crossed paths all week. Now I know Applejack and I were never the closest of our circle of friends, but we made time to have a few words every day at the market. Twilight,” Rarity tapped Twilight’s shoulder, calling the alicorn’s eyes up to her own, “Even if Applejack doesn’t want the help, she does need it. She certainly needs something. And Twilight, you are the mare to help her, in more ways than I think either of you know.”
Twilight blinked, frozen for a moment, confused. Then she took a slow breath, and nodded.
* * * *
“Consarnit, Rainbow Dash!” Applejack shouted at the heavy raincloud passing over the Acres, “Don’t you dare rain on mah east field! Ah still need ta…”
The cloud rumbled, and rain began to fall.
“...buck those...trees.” Applejack snorted in frustration. The day had not gone as she had hoped. Neither had any day in the last two weeks, really. Applejack refused to let it affect her; she put her head down, grabbed her baskets and trudged into the downpour with an ear flicking in annoyance.
“That airhead coulda at least come an’ found me ta ask where the rain was needed…” She muttered as she squinted water from her eyes and looked malevolently at the tree in front of her. “Right, let’s jus’ get this over with, ya hear?” One fell buck later, and apple went flying every which way but into Applejack’s baskets.
With nothing but a small huff, Applejack pulled her hat lower and began gathering the fallen fruit.
“Oh, hey AJ! Now I find you, how about that?” Rainbow Dash laughed as she flittered through the warm rain to a branch in the tree, “I was looking for you all morning!”
“Ah was on the farm, like Ah always am.” Applejack deadpanned back. She bent to pick up another apple.
“Yeah, well, it isn’t called Sweet Apple Acres for nothing, this place is huge! When I spoke to Big Mac he said you were harvesting the east field today, but I couldn’t find you.”
“Yeah,” Applejack muttered, “I accidentally went to the south field instead…”
“You what?” Rainbow gawked, “You accidentally harvested the wrong field?…How do you even…”
“Yeah yeah, laugh it up,” Applejack rolled her eyes and flicked another apple into the basket, “Couldja just tell me what gave ya the idea to bring rain here, now?”
“Err…” Rainbow suddenly clammed up, “You know, I have charts an’ stuff and…oh, look! You have a visitor! I better get out of your way, bye!”
“Wait, RD-! What in the name of…”
“Wha’?” Applejack spun around to see Twilight trotting along the orchard path, a large basket on her back, a larger smile on her face, and a small ward spell keeping the rain at bay. “T-Twilight?”
“I know you said you didn’t want company at lunch, so I thought a picnic would fit your schedule better. See?” As Twilight trotted closer, Applejack could see the strain behind her smile. Twilight put the basket down and pulled aside the blanket tucked over the top, “Lots of different things, whatever you might feel like.”
Applejack looked closer, reading a tag on the side of the basket, “One o’ Pinkie Pie’s anypony picnic packs, huh?”
Twilight’s smile shrank slightly, “Um, yes. But I threw in some of Spike’s vanilla cookies a jar of lemonade.”
“Well thank ya kindly Twilight, but Ah gotta harvest this here whole field ‘for supper, so if ya don’t mind-“
“I can help!” Twilight took an eager step forward, holding one of her wings over the basket as she dropped her magical umbrella, “I won’t even use magic.”
Applejack was taken aback by the eager offer, retreating a step herself, “Well, thanks again, but Ah really can manage this by meself.”
“I know you can, this is what you do, but that doesn’t mean a friend can’t help you anyway, right?”
“I just ain’t sure if its proper fer a Princess ta be buckin’ apples, Twi…”
“If you insist on pulling the Princess Card on me every time, I could say you are legally required to accommodate me.” Twilight added lightly. Before Applejack could protest, Twilight placed the picnic basket in the dry shadow of a tree before spinning lithely and kicking the trunk just so. A solid tremor ran up the tree and into the boughs, and yet not a single apple fell. Twilight stared in shock, “What? B-but I studied and practiced and everything! How could that not-“
Applejack, even in her current mood, couldn’t help but chuckle as she coughed to get Twilight’s attention. As the wide-eyed alicorn looked over at her, Applejack tapped her basket full of apples with a hoof, “Ah think that tree’s given it’s fruit, Twi. Maybe try another.”
“Oh…” Twilight blushed and lowered her head. Applejack pulled her baskets together and threw them on her back, walking over to the next tree. Twilight fell in beside her.
“Gotta say though, Twi, that was a mighty impressive buck fer a uni- Ah mean, Ah thought only earth ponies could do that.” Applejack mentally kicked herself for the slip. She would have to get used to it eventually, things were just different now…
“Yes, I am a little…stronger than I used to be, now,” Twilight waggled her wings playfully, making light of it, “It’s kind of useful, really. For instance, I don’t need you to pick up that really heavy table in the back of the library anymore!” When she saw Applejack’s face fall suddenly, she quickly apologized, “Oh Applejack, I didn’t mean it like that…”
Applejack held up a hoof to silence her, “Ah know, Twi, Ah know Ah’m bein’ a silly pony. Let’s just get these apples down, okay?”
Twilight nodded slowly, giving her friend a curious look. Applejack ignored it, quickly passing the alicorn two baskets with a cursory warning about slippery bark before turning to her own tree.
Time passed in this manner, both ponies relatively quiet, only talking or querying about the task at hoof. Twilight found the work oddly relaxing, calming her while she focused on the motions. Applejack found that having another pony at her side, laughing at each other’s small mistakes and helping each other collecting the fallen fruit from the wet ground broke the monotony she’d been feeling over the last few days. By early evening, she found herself even enjoying the light rain.
As the lowering sun finally broke through the empty clouds, Twilight tiredly dragged her last basket towards the apple cart. Applejack looked back at the remaining trees in the orchard, breathing lightly, and gave a soft chuckle, “Ah think Ah can manage the rest in the mornin’, thanks Twi.”
“Oh…okay…” Twilight gasped. She shook her wet mane from her eyes, and flashed a smile, “I don’t mind finishing though. I mean, there’s a part of me that’s really enjoying this!”
“Yeh, about a third I reckon,” Applejack joked, then stiffened. Had she just…? “Ah’m sorry Twi, Ah didn’t-“
Twilight’s laughter cut her off, “Hah! That was pretty sharp Applejack! Though I guess the other two thirds of me could do with a rest after all that. And hey, the rain’s breaking!”
Applejack sighed in relief as she threw Twilight’s basket up onto the cart and wiggled into the yolk, “Heh, well, lets get these back Ah guess. Ah’ll get yah a towel at the farmhouse ta dry up.”
“Uh, Applejack?” Twilight was standing under that first tree, a hoof hovering over the not-quite-forgotten picnic basket. Applejack blinked, then nodded.
“Uh, sure Twi, since ya helped me an’ all…”
“Great, come on! I have a spot I think will be perfect!” Applejack found herself being hustled forward into the trees by Twilight’s wings and forehooves. Scant minutes later, Applejack found herself on a familiar hill in the middle of the east field. She often came here for quiet moments herself. The spot was blanketed in soft lush grasses, had a spectacular view out over the fields that always left her feeling proud of her accomplishments. She looked at Twilight askance; she couldn’t help but feel this wasn’t a coincidence.
“Absolutely beautiful, don’t you say?” Twilight asked, pulling out the blanket and spreading it out of the grass. Applejack stood still for a second.
“Twi, you know you’re allowed ta use yer magic, right?”
Twilight let the corner of the blanket fall from her mouth and stood up, “Well, of course, I just…”
“Yes tryina make me all comfortable by bringin’ me ta mah own favourite hilltop, laying out a nice comfy picnic and only doin’ things the way I’d want ‘em done so you can get me ta talk, ainnit?” Applejack asked tiredly. It wasn't anything Big Macintosh and Applebloom hadn’t tried already, “Well nothing doin’ Twi, I ain’t talkin’!”
Twilight frowned, but as quickly as it appeared, she let it melt away into a carefully neutral expression. “No, actually. I’m just giving you the opportunity to, if you feel like it. I wasn’t going to mention the fact there is obviously something bothering you. I just thought as a friend I could help make you afternoon a bit better, and if you wanted, listen.”
Applejack opened her mouth to argue, but Twilight raised a hoof suddenly, cutting her off; “Applejack, take a deep breath, and tell me what you smell.”
Applejack shut her eyes, resisting the request for a moment, then giving in. She breathed deeply, taking in the scents of the ground, of the grass, the apple orchard around her, and the warm scent of a hard day’s labour. Cutting through it all, sharpening and mellowing all the odours, was the soft fresh smell of fallen rain. Applejack opened her eyes in wonder, remembering days spent playing under summer thunderclouds, carefree and happy as the earth was reborn beneath her hooves.
Twilight saw the look on her friend’s face, and said softly, “I’m the one who asked Rainbow Dash to pull the rainclouds over here today.” Applejack blinked in surprise, looking on as Twilight spoke while the setting sun began to light the hilltop, “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk, but maybe you’ll listen rather? I know you’ve been having a conflict of faith over the last few days. It’s not because I’m nosey, or hyper-attentive, or using weird Princess magic on you, it’s because you aren’t the only one. Rarity has been having a hard time too, you know, and…so have I. For longer, even. It’s not easy, having everyone in a town I’ve only just started feeling like a real part of start looking at me so differently. I mean, I’m different, clearly. I’m a little bit stronger, faster, even a bit smarter, I think. It all sounds like a blessing, and it really is, but I feel like a guest in my own body sometimes, trying to work out what to do with myself. But I always knew I’d have me friends to support me. We were the Elements of Harmony! We could save the world! But then that changed too.
“Fluttershy came and asked me if that would make her less kind. She was terrified it would change who she was. Rarity was hung up on losing her first claim to fame. And you…you were instantly worried that we might drift apart without some magic holding us together. I told them what I told you; it wasn’t the Elements that made us what we are, it was us that made the Elements so powerful. We aren’t less without them, but they without us.
“But things have gone just like you said. I haven’t seen you in town all week. I know for a fact you haven’t spoken to Rarity since the Castle. And I’m worried, Applejack. I’m worried I’m losing the very first friend I made in Ponyville, even if I didn’t know how much at the time I’d come to rely on having your strength, your integrity to lean on. If it wasn’t for you, none of us would be half the mares we are today. And we can all see you pulling away, so afraid of losing us you’re making it happen anyway. I can’t watch you do that to yourself.”
Applejack stood still as stone for a full thirty seconds as Twilight looked at her sadly, then pulling something out of the picnic basket with her magic, “Lemonade?”
Applejack grasped the cup numbly, looking at the refreshing drink inside. Then she put it down and sat on the blanket beside Twilight. “Right, Twi, my turn. Take a look at the sunset.”
Twilight frowned in confusion, but did as she was bid. She looked out under the still-thick clouds at the band of bright golden light that poured in from the horizon like molten gold and lit the clouds every shade between red and orange and purple. As she looked on in wonder, Applejack spoke;
“Ya got it wrong, Twi. Yeah, Ah did worry that without the Elements, we’d drift apart. Ah worried you wouldn’t have time fer us, fer me, anymore. And that scared me. Truth be told, I kinda like kickin’ Dasha outta mah trees nowadays, Ah take tips from Fluttershy on how to corral the little critters without scarin’ ‘em into a tiz anymore, and Rarity an’ Ah have fun ribbin’ each other over the small stuff, but we both care about family and love our work…and then there’s you. You’re the glue that bound us all t’gether to start with, and taught us so much about each other and ourselves. Ah know in mah heart we’ll stay friends, Ah do, but…it’s still there, y’know?
“No, the bigger thing, is, well,” Applejacks’ face contorted with a look of pain, then she turned away, “Nah, ‘s selfish an’ silly…”
“And clearly important to you.” Twilight cut in, shuffling closer, “You can tell me Applejack.”
“Well…It’s just…Ah never liked change. Lotsa earth ponies are like that, an’ Ah I guess Ah got it from livin’ with Granny Smith so long. Times change slowly on a farm Twi. Everything was routine fer me way back when. Ah knew which field I was workin’ the next day, every day. Ah knew everythin’ in advance, so Ah never had ta worry. Ah had time to feel the rain fall. Ah knew mah place; Ah was Applejack the farmpony, and Ah was happy.
“Now don’t get the idea Ah disliked becomin’ one o’ the Elements, Ah loved it, Ah really did. It was like bein’ rewarded for all those years of hard work and time spent, stickin’ by my morals when it would have been easier to just slip a lie. Ah felt like Ah was part o’ something grand fer once, like Ah’d stepped outta mah place on life’s stage inta some old epic. Ah was – am friends with the fastest flyer ever, a high-society dressmaker, and ta cap it all, Celestia’s own prize pupil! Dreams of the high life Ah gave up when Ah left Manehattan, and Ah ended up livin’ it anyway.
“Now, though, the dream’s gone and left me again. Rainbow Dash is on the fast track to be a Wonderbolt, Rarity sells dresses to the most important ponies across the land, hell, Pinkie’s hosting a Gala, and you’re a Princess! But me… Ah’m not Applejack, the Element of Harmony, savior of Equestria anymore. Ah’m just Applejack the apple farmer. And Ah can’t help feel like Ah jus’ don’t belong.”
Twilight watched as the final ray of Celestia’s sun dipped below the horizon, and the last glow lit the clouds like fire. She looked over at Applejack, looking out over her fields with a pained expression as she took her hat off her wet mane and mopped her eyes with it, “Ah dunno Twi…Ah got a taste o’ something more, and then it got taken away.”
Twilight’s heart nearly broke at the thought, “Oh Applejack…”
Applejack snorted and shook her head, flicking her hat back on, “Like Ah said, it’s silly-“
“No, it isn’t.” Twilight pushed herself right up to Applejack’s side, speaking softly but intently, “I…I feel a little the same way, after all. Like you were used the way things were, and then suddenly this gulf opens up between you and your friends, your dreams, that you don’t know how to fill.”
Applejack swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded, looking down at her hooves, “Y-yeah…Ah guess so.”
“Well, I know how to fill the gap, Applejack. I know how to live with change, because I’ve had to as well. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it’s not as hard as it seems either.” Twilight tipped her friends chin up til their eyes met. Twilight shared a bright smile, “Change is always hard. But we can live with it if we accept it. I may have to be a Princess every now and again, and I might not like it sometimes; I never had aspirations this high, nowhere near. But I’ll do it. And I’ll do it happily because I know, specifically out of all our friends, that you will be by my side the whole way, helping me. You aren’t less now, Applejack, I’d say you’re more. You aren’t a weapon-wielder in times of crisis anymore, you’re an advisor to a Princess in times of peace, and I know which you’d prefer.”
Applejack blinked, feeling Twilights gentle breathing as they leant against one another. The crisp air felt so alive as she absorbed this new outlook, overtaken with a sense of relief.
“And Applejack, If you still think there’s a divide between us all, I can show you how to cross it,” Twilight raised a hoof and gestured to everything about them, grinning as she did, “With moments like this, and good friends to share them.”
As she spoke, a rainbow leapt across the sky, shining down on them from far up amidst the clouds. Applejack couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at Twilight as the alicorn pokerfaced. “I didn’t plan that.”
“Riiight,” Applejack smiled back. She could still feel that small well of turmoil in her stomach, but looking at the sky, the trees and her friend beside her, it all seemed so far away, so easy to manage when the time came to face it. She took one more deep breath and said, “Ah know you’re right, Twi. Ah guess Ah just needed somepony with the right words ta show me, and ain't nopony ever had the right words at the right time better 'n you... Tomorrow, how about Ah bring in mah apple cart full o’ goodies an’ we all head down to the lake fer a picnic? Ah need a new picture on mah mantle after all that’s happened lately.”
Twilight smiles and nodded. As Applejack started to get up though, Twilight stopped her. “And Applejack! I think I need to show you one of the serious plus sides of becoming a Princess…”
As Applejack turned back, a question on her lips, she was enveloped in a huge warm feathery hug.
As she gave a deep laugh at being tickled by so many feathers at once, she couldn’t help but feel that everything would certainly be fine.