A deer with cyan-colored eyes stood in front of the fruit stand in Equestria's market. He was staring intently at the raspberries in the stalls behind him, and when a brown pegasus with a five o' clock shadow noticed him, the deer cleared his throat. “I'd like two bundles of raspberries, please,” said the deer.
The unshaven pony grinned. “That'll be thirty bits.”
“Thirty? Oh my,” said the deer. His antlers shimmered, and the bag of coins he had received from the Royal Treasury floated in front of him. “I believe that's all I have.”
“Well, good!” said the unshaven pony. “Then you've got just enough.”
The deer was about to pour the money on the counter when he noticed the glint in the unshaven pony's eye. The deer's own eyes narrowed. His antlers shimmered, not white, but orange, and a flicker passed over his face. “You are lying to me,” said the deer.
“What?” the unshaven pony said, suddenly appearing nervous. “Am not!”
“These raspberry bunches do not cost fifteen bits each,” said the deer. “You are lying to me and attempting to cheat me.”
“Are you callin' me a cheat, you freak?” the pony growled.
“Did you just call him a freak?” one of the nearby deer said, and she with two other deer quickly trotted over to the fruit stall.
“Uh, uh,” the unshaven pony began to back away as the deer glared at him.
“Hey, what's going on over here?” a silver pegasus said, fluttering over to the commotion. “What are you all trying to do to Crafty Crate?”
“He is trying to cheat me,” said the original deer, antlers shimmering.
“Or maybe he's just trying to make a living,” said the silver pegasus. “You know, Crafty Crate is a perfectly respectable businesspony who works two jobs to support his family.”
“What has that to do with a fair price for the raspberries?” said one of the deer.
“I'm saying my buddy Crafty Crate is a hard-working guy who would never stoop to cheating,” said the silver pegasus.
“Are you accusing us of lying?” one of the other deer, with green eyes, growled.
“Maybe,” said Crafty Crate.
“I say that you are the liar, and I demand you give my friend Armon a better price for those raspberries,” said the green-eyed deer.
“The price is fine!”
“It is not.”
The silver pegasus began to beat his wings, causing the air to swirl. The deer's antlers shimmered with magic. Heads across the marketplace turned toward the spectacle.
“Whoa now, folks!” Applejack said, rapidly dashing between the two groups. “Ain't no reason to get upset here. What seems to be the trouble?”
“These pegasuses are trying to cheat us,” said one of the white-tails.
“Are not!” Crafty Crate said.
“Now Crafty,” said Applejack with a glare, “y'all know you don't have the best reputation here.”
“I swear I'm not cheating them,” Crafty Crate said.
Applejack's cutie mark flickered. The ponies did not notice it, but the deer did. Her green eyese narrowed. “You sure as shootin' are,” she said. “And it stops right now. How much those raspberries cost, really?”
“I...” Crafty Crate lost his bravado. Applejack's glare intensified, and a slight pulse of light emanated from her cutie mark. Crafty Crate crumpled. “Two bits each.”
“Much better,” Armon said, using his magic to lay four bits on the counter. He then levitated the raspberry bunches into his saddlebag. He narrowed his eyes at Crafty Crate; his antlers glinted. “Do not attempt to deceive us again,” he said.
“Now hold up there, mister,” said Applejack, stepping between the counter of the stall and the white-tails. “Y'all ain't got no business threatenin' anypony. If y'all ever have any sort o' problem again, come to me or one o' the other Bearers of the Elements. No need to cause any trouble.” Her voice was gentle, yet at its base it was hard.
Armon glanced to the side. “Very well, Bearer of Honesty. We shall put our faith in you six. Thank you again.” Thus he turned and trotted away, his kin succeeding him.
Applejack sighed. The movement in the stall behind her tripped her focus, and she turned to Crafty Crate glaring. “What in tarnation was that, Crafty? Y'all should have known better than to try cheatin' them.”
“I just thought...” Crafty Crate would not look her in the eye. “I thought I'd have a chance to make more money. They don't know how we do things here, and they've got all that money from the princesses.”
“Crafty, you know if word got out that the deer were bein' cheated, Ponyville'd be in a whole heap o' trouble,” Applejack said. “And if you really need more money, there's always work for you at the farm- provided you don't mind some honest sweat,” Applejack responded.
“Yeah, yeah,” Crafty Crate said. “Thanks for the offer, AJ, like always.”
“It's always there, Crafty,” Applejack said brightly. “You just gotta be willin' to take it.” She turned and left at that, and only when she was some distance off did she loose a relieved sigh. “Whew. Don't know if I can take many more o' those.”
Sweet Apple Acres stretched untold miles in all directions, and nearly every green hill was taken up by apple trees in full flower. The sweet scent of the blossoms drifted lazily in the summer air, drawing insect and pony alike into its dreamlike hold. Big Macintosh even paused at his plow to take a sniff, his long, steady face drawing into a smile at the rush of delight he felt.
“Howdy, sis,” he said as Applejack trotted down the path. “Where y'all goin'?”
“Just to the barn,” said Applejack. “Gotta check on somethin'.”
“You been doin' a lot o' checkin' the past few weeks,” said Big Mac. “What you got goin' that's so interesting?”
“Private stuff,” Applejack said, a wince barely hidden on her features. “I hope you can... understand, Mac.”
Big Macintosh was slow by nature. This did not mean he was ignorant, nor did it mean he was dim. He was, above all things, patient, prone to allowing his thoughts to grow in their own time. He had been turning over his sister's behavior in the last half-month for some time now, and he thought he had settled on the nature of her solitude. So he nodded. “All right.”
“Yep,” Applejack said with a slightly unsettled smile. She backed away from the fence, and with a final glance over her shoulder continued down toward the barn.
Once there, she bounced up the ladder to the loft where the hay sat in huge, musky bales. She breathed in the smell, one of honest labor and purifying toil. She had loved it since she was a girl, and now it had the added benefit of hiding her store of treasures. She pushed one bale aside to reveal her collection. There was a gilt hoof-axe, its bit shining even in the dull light. A clay bowl sat beside it, solid, sturdy; she'd been told to use it for cooking but she never had. There was a charcoal drawing of Applejack herself in profile, strikingly done to accentuate her best features. A lasso braided from the finest flax sat coiled near the back. And behind it all was one of Rarity's ponyquins, generously lent from the Carousel Boutique. Upon this replica pony, meant to hold the latest fashions, was placed a full set of leather battle armor. It was deep red in color, knitted with golden thread, and on the champron a gleaming emerald was set.
Applejack reached beneath her hat and took out the polished onyx stone, which she set in the midst of her other gifts. She laid down beside them, basking in their presence, and in the hints of presence from the pony who had given them all to her. “Ashtail...” she whispered. The barn was silent and still. The mingled smells of farm life were a comfort to her, because they were all she had known as a foal. They were part of her, built into her bone and blood. Looking at these gifts now, though, Applejack's hairs stood up. She imagined other sensations: the wind blowing across the endless golden fields, the heat of the sun blazing down like the glare of the creator, running free and wild as far as her legs could take her, in the company of stout ponies who did not tire or waste. “What am I gonna do?” she said.
“Eep!” Applejack jumped. Upon settling her nerves, she trotted to the edge of the loft and glanced down. “What's up, Mac?”
“Fluttershy's at the house, waitin' for you,” said Big Mac. “Should I tell her to come back?”
“No, no that's fine,” Applejack said. “I'd be happy to talk with her.” Anything to take my mind off this.
So she followed Big Macintosh to the old farmhouse, and found Fluttershy being entertained by Apple Bloom on the front porch. Though perhaps 'entertained' was the wrong word. Apple Bloom was showing off the miniature fireworks she had made at Twilight's library as part of 'Twilight Time,' while Fluttershy winced and grimaced at every bang, trying her very hardest not to flee the premises. She looked up at the sound of hoofbeats, and was visibly relieved when Applejack and her brother came into view. “Oh, Applejack, there you are,” she said. She looked uneasy. “Um... I can come back later...”
“Nah,” said Applejack happily. “I'm glad to see you, Fluttershy. What's on your mind?”
“Well,” Fluttershy said gently, “I was going to go on an errand today, something related to the Shimmerwood deer. Since you know them better than I do, I was hoping you might be able to come along and help. Unless of course you don't want to, and that would be okay too.”
“I'd be happy to come,” said Applejack. “Only, Rarity knows the Shimmerwood deer a lot better than even me. Maybe you should ask her?”
“Oh,” said Fluttershy, her face falling. “Yes, I guess she does; I didn't think of that. Um... if you don't want to go...”
“No, no, I do!” said Applejack. “Just wondered if you'd be really happy with me instead o' Rarity.”
“I would, yes,” said Fluttershy.
“Then let's get goin',” said Applejack. “I got all my chores done for the day. Lead on.”
Applejack rather enjoyed traveling with Fluttershy, all things considered. Despite being a pegasus, she was loathe to fly anywhere, preferring the ground, so it was easy to keep up with her, quite different from Rainbow Dash. Indeed, Fluttershy's pace could be described as leisurely, so Applejack had time to think as she trotted, and she could not stop her mind from sweeping across golden grass.
“Huh?” Applejack shook herself. “What? What's up?”
“Oh! Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you,” Fluttershy said softly.
“Nah, you... y'all were all right, Fluttershy,” Applejack said. “What's up?”
“Uh... well, if you don't want to talk or anything, that's perfectly fine. I mean, I don't want to disturb you, you seem okay mostly...”
“Mostly? Seem? What are you talkin' about, Fluttershy?” Applejack said, stopping in the middle of the road.
“It's just...” Fluttershy took a deep breath and stood straight. “Are you all right?”
Applejack's heart fluttered. “Uh... yeah, course I am. Why do you ask?”
Fluttershy's cyan eyes blinked, and in that moment they sharpened. “I think you're not.”
“Nah!” Applejack said, her green eyes drifting sidelong. “Nah, course I am.”
“It's just...” Fluttershy willed herself to keep looking right at Applejack, “Lady Falalauria said that part of my gift, the Gift of Kindness, was being able to tell when somepony was in pain. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. I can tell when somepony, or some other creature, is hurting. I've always been able to tell. And now... I think I can tell you're hurting.” Fluttershy smiled gently. “Come on, Applejack. If something's wrong, please tell me.”
“I...” Applejack swallowed hard. “I...” She sat down in the road. “So y'all could tell, huh?”
“What is it?” Fluttershy asked.
“It's... it's Gildedale,” said Applejack.
“You spent the past two weeks there,” Fluttershy said.
“I know,” said Applejack, her throat constricting. “And I... I loved it, Fluttershy.”
“Was it just it you loved?” Fluttershy asked quietly, shaking a little but still keeping her eyes on Applejack.
“I... I...” Applejack laid down. All her bravado had fled her. “I do love Ashtail. I do! He's a big part o' why I love Gildedale so much. But he's not the only reason! I got so many friends there, and it's such a great sort of place for earth ponies, and...” she sighed. “And I do love him. A lot.”
“But that's wonderful!” Fluttershy said.
“No, it ain't!” Applejack cried. “I got my... my duty! I got my promises to the Apple Family and Ponyville and Equestria, and all five of y'all, too! I can't go runnin' off and stayin' in Gildedale all my li- for months and months.” Applejack, so often stoic, blinked her eyes hard. “Only I want to. Oh, Celestia, how I want to.”
Fluttershy sighed quietly. “Applejack, I'm glad you told me. I understand.”
“You... you do?”
“Well, sort of,” Fluttershy said. “I know what it's like to be caught between two worlds.”
“You... you do?”
Fluttershy nodded. “Come with me. My errand is related to exactly what I'm talking about.”
The two of them made their way out of Ponyville and toward the Everfree Forest. Applejack, even in her distress, was able to note the unusual calm in Fluttershy's demeanor. Typically she loathed going anywhere near the Everfree, den as it was of horrible creatures and monstrous things. But now she trotted toward the dark and shaded depths, unafraid. What was more, when she reached the fringes of the forest, she raised her head and sang, strong and lovely: “Hos mí taurë, ava tula!”
For a little while, there was silence, and Applejack had cause to wonder at her friend's behavior. From the depths of the trees, however, came the clear rising of voices. They sang long, high notes, not so much words as sounds, sounds of comfort, sounds of joy. Then one by one came forth deer. They were the same size as the deer of the Shimmerwood, but they were also distinct, for their tails were dark on the bottom. Their ears, moreover, were enormous; in some of the younger bucks and does, the ears were nearly the same size as their nascent antlers. Green paint adorned their bodies, not slathered on tribally but applied in elegant patterns of characters, letters in a language Applejack could not read.
One of the biggest of the large-eared deer stepped to the fore. Fluttershy, as happy as Applejack had ever seen her, trotted to meet him. “Mae Govannen, Javier!” And she nuzzled the side of his neck.
“Mae Govannen, Quildemal.” He saw Applejack next, and spoke in accented Equestrian. “And who is your friend here?”
“This is Applejack,” said Fluttershy. “She's one of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, just like me. Applejack, this is Javier, Magus of the mule deer of the Everfree Forest.”
Applejack swept her hat off her head. “Howdy, sir.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Javier said. “Any friend of Fluttershy's is a friend of mine.”
“Do y'all mind my askin' a question, sir?”
“Of course not,” said Javier.
“I just... how do y'all know Fluttershy? And for that matter, how come Fluttershy can speak deer tongue? Did y'all teach her?”
Javier and Fluttershy exchanged glances. “Perhaps you should tell her, Quildemal,” said Javier.
Fluttershy nodded; Applejack noted how happy she seemed. “Do you remember the story of how I got my cutie mark?”
“Yeah, course I do,” said Applejack. “You fell offa Cloudsdale and were rescued by a bunch o' critters, and you discovered your special talent was helpin' 'em.”
“Well, I don't think I've ever told you what happened after I got it,” said Fluttershy. “I was happy, yes, because I'd discovered what I was meant to do in life. But... I still couldn't fly. And Cloudsdale had already drifted far away.” Her ears drooped. “My new animal friends comforted me, but I was still so far away from any other pony. And what was worse, there was a rainstorm scheduled for that night.”
“Aww, no,” Applejack whispered.
Fluttershy nodded. “I curled up under a tree with as many animal friends as I could, but the rains were so strong they even got between the branches. And eventually...” Fluttershy winced. Javier leaned his head closer to her. “Eventually the river nearby overflowed its banks. It caught me up and washed me into the current. I was so scared! More scared than I've ever been of anything in my life. I nearly drowned so many times. Finally, I washed up on a bank somewhere in the forest, and I blacked out.” She sighed, but suddenly it was a happy sigh. “Then the next thing I knew, the sun was shining, and I heard singing. Such beautiful singing. It's still the most beautiful thing I've ever heard. And when I looked up, there were kind faces all around me.”
“She was quite wet and miserable, at least on the outside,” said Javier.
“Wait, y'all found Fluttershy?” Applejack said.
Fluttershy nodded. “Mm-hmm. They kept trying to ask me about where I'd come from, but I didn't understand them, so they got one of the does who knew a little Equestrian, and they taught me their language. But even when I could speak Laewtil, I had no idea where I was, or how to get back to pony civilization. So the mule deer took me in.”
“She couldn't seem to tell us where she had come from,” said Javier. “She was lost and alone. We did what we felt was right.”
“I stayed with them a long while,” said Fluttershy. “I'm still not sure exactly how much time passed in the Everfree Forest, but it was longer than a year. The mule deer made me one of their tribe. They taught me everything they knew about handling creatures and nature. They taught me how to be polite and kind and courteous. I owe so much to them.”
“It was far longer than a single year, Quildemal,” said Javier. He turned to Applejack. “My tribe... we've kept to ourselves for many centuries. A pony in our midst was very strange. But we made do. I think she turned out all right.” Fluttershy smiled and leaned against him. “But she oversells what she learned from us. It was only basic aspects of wilderness survival and animal management that we imparted to her. She has become a far greater friend to wild things than any of us are, and she has learned far more on her own than we ever taught her.”
“But I wouldn't have come as far as I have if you all hadn't started me on the path,” said Fluttershy.
“So how did you get back to ponykind?” Applejack asked.
“One day we were on the edge of the forest, and some ponies- from Ponyville- saw me,” said Fluttershy. “The mule deer scattered, and so did I, but I couldn't resist hanging back to look at them. They called after me. I didn't come to them... but I looked.”
“And that is when we knew,” said Javier. “I realized then that Quildemal could live no longer as a deer. I saw the gentle yearning in her eyes; she wanted to be back with her own kind, to a greater degree than even she herself knew.”
“I didn't want to leave at first,” said Fluttershy. “I was so scared of other ponies, and I loved the mule deer so much. But they insisted. Javier insisted. He told me to walk into Ponyville and ask for help. So, even though I was scared, I did.” She sighed gently. “I probably would have run back into the forest if the mule deer hadn't all been standing on the outskirts.”
“We urged her on,” said Javier.
“Wasn't it hard for y'all to give her up?” Applejack asked.
“Very,” said Javier. “She was like one of our own fawns. But she needed to be with other ponies. How could we love her and not do what was best for her?”
“And it hasn't been so bad,” said Fluttershy. “I've been able to visit very often, since I live on the outskirts of town. I go to see my deer family at least every Mother's Day and Father's Day.”
Applejack looked at Fluttershy, standing in the midst of the mule deer. One of them said something to her in Laewtil; she laughed and began conversing. It was a level of comfort Applejack did not always see from her, certainly something very rare outside of Fluttershy's time with her friends. But in the end, she had to choose, Applejack thought. Now I gotta choose, too. But did she choose? Did she really? Here Fluttershy was with her deer family, yet she still interacted with ponydom. Maybe there was a way to have both things she wanted? No, she thought firmly. I can't keep goin' over the mountains every couple o' months. It took too long, took her too far away from her duties, and would never be permanent. She was going to have to settle on one side of the Drackenridge Mountains or the other. But which one?
“Oh, Javier,” said Fluttershy. “Did you get my letter?”
“I did,” said Javier. “Quite interesting- my heart goes out to our white-tail brethren. I should indeed like to meet them soon.”
“We can definitely set something up,” said Fluttershy. “Right, Applejack?” No response. Fluttershy turned to see her friend deep in thought. “Applejack?”
“Huh? Oh, right,” said Applejack. She looked at Fluttershy again. She seemed so happy, yet this was unlike anything most ponies experienced. And if she can be happy so far from what she grew up in, why can't I?