Sunset revved her engine and shot down the empty highway, whooping at the top of her lungs.
She loved these sensations: the wind whipping through her hair, the rumble of the engine’s roar, the pull of the bike when she leaned into corners. The sheer rush of adrenaline that came with knowing her death was all but guaranteed if she were to slip up and lose control.
This was freedom—this was ecstasy. This was a temporary reprieve from all her stress and fears and worries where she could just lose herself in the moment.
And, for bonus points, it was one of the few edges the human world had over Equestria. This must have been what pegasi felt like when they flew.
She didn’t come here just to ride, though. Sunset slowed down and pulled onto a rough gravel road. Whereas back home the outskirts of Canterlot quickly gave into idyllic wilderness, here Canterlot had expanded into a sprawl of suburbs and, beyond that, into miles upon miles of farmland, ripe and ready for harvest.
After a considerably slower, meandering drive into the backwoods, Sunset reached her destination. Her wheels crunched on the gravel just outside the gate to Sweet Apple Acres.
The sweet scent of apple trees wafted in over the fields, underscored by piles of manure and... other odors. Sunset had been out to the farm more than a few times since befriending the girls, but the stench was never quite something she had gotten used to.
Sunset stretched, leaned backwards, and cracked her neck. She shielded her eyes from the sun as she looked around for—
“Howdy,” Applejack called out as she rounded the corner of the barn. “Glad you could make it. I’d give you a hug, but, well…”
Sunset grinned. Applejack wore a loose set of denim overalls, and they were already covered in what she hoped was mud. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I’m sure we can make up for it later. Anyway, yeah. I’m glad to help. Sorry it’s just me.”
Applejack shrugged, then leaned against the fence and wiped her hands on her overalls. “Can’t be helped. Harvest season is rough every year, and everyone but you had a good excuse to get out of it.”
“Maybe I should’ve tried harder.” Sunset stuck her tongue out and crossed her arms over her chest. “Let’s see, what was it again? It’s playoff season for Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy is out of town visiting family, Pinkie Pie is stuck working and babysitting, Twilight is studying for some sort of pre-pre-placement exam, Princess Twilight is busy being a princess, and Rarity wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something like that.”
Applejack snorted, doubling over as she shook with silent laughter. “You say that, but I reckon you might be surprised.”
Sunset raised an eyebrow. There was a story she was missing, apparently.
“I’ll tell you later,” Applejack said, wiping at her eye. “Anyway, I’m serious, thanks for coming. You’re a good friend, Sunset.”
Sunset shrugged and rubbed at the back of her head. “I’m also a bored friend. Honestly, I don’t have anything else to do.”
“Well, bunking here and working as a farm hand for the next two weeks ain’t most people’s idea of fun, but we’ll take what we can get. You might be singing a different tune soon enough though; this ain’t easy work.”
“Well, right now I’m chock full of early morning pep and adrenaline from the bike ride. We’d better get started before the soul crushing reality of hard manual labor sucks all of the joy from life,” Sunset said, resting a hand on her hip.
Applejack laughed again and shook her head. “Well, if you’re ready, there’s plenty that needs to be done. Let’s get you changed into some duds like mine, then I’ll show you what needs doing.”
Sunset stabbed her pitchfork into the pile of dirty hay. She leaned her weight on it and stopped to catch her breath, sweat pouring down her face.
Only a few hours had passed, and already Sunset’s whole body ached with exhaustion. Just how did Applejack do this on a regular basis?
“Looking good, Sug,” Applejack called out as she entered the barn carrying a small cooler. “Now’s as good a time as any to break for lunch.”
“Oh, thank Celestia,” Sunset breathed. She let the pitchfork clatter to the ground and made her way over to Applejack, opened the cooler, and pulled out a bottle of water. “You know, I was kind of expecting more apple picking.”
Applejack raised a brow. “Harvesting ain’t for amateurs. We take pride in our crop at every step, and the quality of the product matters. Gettin’ every apple just right takes a keen eye. Anywho, Mac and I are super busy with all that, so what we need help with is doing all the rest of the chores that keep this place running.”
“Uh huh,” Sunset murmured. She sat down, grabbed one of the sandwiches, partially unwrapped it, and took a bite. A whinny sounded from nearby, and Sunset turned to glance over at the horse—Penelope?—that occupied the stall. “I get that, but did you have to throw me in here? This whole horse thing still makes me really uncomfortable, for a variety of reasons.”
“Sorry,” Applejack mumbled with her mouth full. “It has to be done, though. If you can’t handle it, we can put you somewhere else, I guess.”
“Eh, I’ll manage. It’s just… weird.”
The two ate in silence for several minutes until the water bottles were empty and nothing more than crumbs remained of the sandwiches. A cool breeze blew in through the barn. Sunset let out a sigh as the pleasant endorphins that come after a strenuous workout flowed through her body.
“Don’t get too comfy now,” Applejack said, standing up and stretching. “Break time’s almost over.”
“Five more minutes.” Sunset stood up and wandered out of the barn to enjoy more of the breeze. She stopped to lean on a fence post, looking across the rolling orchards of Sweet Apple Acres.
“Sure is something, ain’t it?” Applejack asked, joining her.
Sunset thought about the scenic vistas she’d come across in her lifetime so far. As a student of Princess Celestia, she had often travelled Equestria doing field work, but she had never really stopped to appreciate the world around her.
She missed it. But even though this was by all accounts just a regular farm, it held a quality to it she couldn’t place that made it all seem more alive and real than any of her memories.
Sunset turned to Applejack and flashed her a wide grin. “Sure is. Come on, let’s get back to work. What are you lazing about for?”
Scalding water blasted away a day's worth of sweat and grime, loosening aching muscles and clearing out sinuses full of all the worst kinds of dusts and pollens.
Truly, she had found paradise.
Sunset stepped out of the shower, toweled off, then leaned over the sink to splash some cold water on her face. Her skin felt raw, and she was probably going to have a killer tan by the time this was all said and done.
With a muffled curse, she realized that she had forgotten to bring her change of clothes with her into the bathroom, and had left her bag in Applejack’s room.
Well, it didn’t matter much. Sunset wrapped the towel around herself then opened the door, only to find herself face to chest with Big McIntosh.
“Uhh…” the broad shouldered boy muttered, his face even redder than normal.
Sunset blinked, then smirked. Nudity didn’t bother her in the slightest, but humans were all so skittish about it. A part of her thought about letting her towel slip just to tease the poor guy, but she hardly knew him, and suspected he wouldn’t handle it well.
“OuttamywayIgottapee!” Apple Bloom shrieked. She tore around the corner and shoved past both of them into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
“Sorry,” Big Mac stuttered, breaking the silence as he turned around and hurried down the hall.
Sunset sighed, then made her way through the old wooden house to Applejack’s room, where she got dressed in her spare clothes. She took the chance to run a brush through her hair and apply some lotion. While she wasn’t nearly as meticulous about skincare as Rarity, working on a farm called for some extra effort.
“Soup’s on everybody!” she heard Applejack call from downstairs, along with the ringing of a bell.
By the time Sunset made it to the dining room the rest of the family was already seated, food piled up high on their plates. Sunset took the empty seat next to Applejack. Big Mac refused to make eye contact.
“Already got your plate ready for you,” Applejack said, leaning over. “Don’t worry, no meat on yours.”
“I appreciate it,” Sunset said with a sigh of relief.
Granny Smith stared at Sunset from across the table, her eyes narrowed. “Now tell me again, AJ, who’s this one?”
Applejack grimaced. “That’s Sunset Shimmer, Granny. She goes to our school. You serve her lunch all the time.”
“I knew that, don’t patronize me,” Granny Smith snapped. “Ain’t she the bully who was always making you cry and you wanted to teach a lesson to someday?”
Applejack and Sunset both caught each other’s eyes, then looked away, their faces burning.
“It ain’t like that anymore, Granny,” Apple Bloom said through a mouthful of food. She swallowed, then continued, “Sunset’s all reformed and nice now and stuff. She’s pretty cool.”
“We already talked about this Granny, remember?” Applejack said, rubbing at her temples.
“Is that right? Hmm.”
Sunset gave Apple Bloom a wink and whispered, “Thanks for sticking up for me.”
Apple Bloom grinned widely and returned a thumbs up before turning her attention back to her food.
Sunset took a bite of green beans and mashed potatoes, her mouth watering. The exhaustion of the day’s work had left her ravenous, and a meal like this was a rare treat for her.
“I know that look.” Applejack rested her chin on her elbow and gave a wide grin. “Tell me, when was the last time you got to enjoy a meal this good? Cooked her up myself.”
“Hey, I helped!” Apple Bloom snapped.
Sunset thought on it, scratching at her chin. “Back on Hearth's Warming, when I ate here with you and the girls. Then again before that, on Thanksgiving. Also here. I think that’s about it though.”
Applejack beamed at the praise, but then frowned. “Wait, don’t tell me you didn’t ever had food like this before you met me?”
Sunset shrugged, swallowing, then took a drink from her glass of water. “Where would I have? Throughout high school I was living off of pawned Equestrian goods, school lunches, and what I could extort from the students. As Celestia’s student, I had access to the palace kitchens, but honestly they weren’t as lavish as you might expect. Celestia was never one for decadence. And before that, well…” Sunset let out a sigh and looked away.
“I see. Sorry, guess I take this sort of thing for granted.” Applejack bit her lip. She grabbed a nearby spoon and dumped some more mashed potatoes onto Sunset’s plate. “Come on now, in that case, as long as you’re here, the Apple Family will be sure to stuff you until you’re ready to burst.”
Sunset opened her mouth and held up a finger, about to say something like ‘phrasing,’ but when she saw the four beaming faces at the table across from her, she felt the genuine warmth and kindness of their family and decided against it.
Sunset leaned back on the cot Applejack had laid out for her, idly flipping through the pages of a book.
Applejack opened the bedroom door, hair wet from the shower and wearing her pajamas. She promptly leapt onto her own bed, bouncing once before turning to Sunset and grinning. “So. You ready for another two weeks of this?”
Sunset dog-eared the book and set it aside. “I hurt in places I didn’t even know could hurt. Although I guess that’s not too surprising; I’m still not super clear on human anatomy.”
“And?” Sunset grinned. “Heck yeah I’m ready.”
Applejack laughed, then flopped backwards on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. “Glad to hear it. Really though, we need the help, and we’re all super grateful you’re volunteering your time like this.”
Sunset raised an eyebrow. “Volunteer? With what you're paying me, I might as well be. I should report you to the labor bureau.”
“Tons of farms stay afloat by exploiting illegal aliens,” Applejack said, her eyes twinkling. “Just not usually ones from other dimensions.”
They both burst into a fit of giggles, though Sunset’s quickly turned into a yawn.
“Yeah, I figure it’s about time for lights out. These days have a way of taking it out of ya,” Applejack said, leaning over and turning off the bedside lamp.
Sunset let out a sigh, closing her eyes and snuggling up under her covers. “Say, we’ve never done a sleepover with just the two of us, have we?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Huh. Well, a sleepover is a sleepover, right? Weren’t you going to share some juicy gossip about Rarity? Something about overalls?”
Applejack snorted, once again shaking with silent laughter. “Right, almost forgot. A while back, we was all helping with a town social. Some froo-froo boy from Crystal Prep, Trenderhoof, was going to attend, and Rarity starts to go all gaga over him. I guess he ran some sort of blog or something that she was a big fan of? Anyway, she’s all gussied up, ramping herself to her ten outta ten stuff, but guess what happens when she finally meets the guy?”
“It turns out he’s gay?”
“Hah, I wish. Woulda been a much shorter story.” Applejack sat up in bed in a cross legged position. “Rarity’s there putting on her best moves, and normally they’re hard to resist, but this guy just wasn’t biting. Then I’m haulin a crate of something or another, he takes one look at me, and thinks I’m the hottest thing since apple pie. Comes over and starts chatting me up, telling me how much he loves my ‘rustic charm’ and admires my ‘work ethic.’”
Sunset winced. “Sounds like a real piece of work. And Rarity… well, that must have hurt her pretty bad.”
“Yeah,” Applejack mumbled, rubbing the back of her head. “Long story short, Rarity got it in her head that she should try to be more country if she wanted to attract this guy. I didn’t care one whit about the feller, but she starts running around in overalls, trying to do farmwork, using a terrible accent, and just making a fool of herself. I set her straight by doing the same thing she was doing, but better.”
Applejack placed her hand over her chest, affecting a svelte pose. “It turns out,” she cooed, her accent shifting to a higher, lilting drawl that gave an impression of sophistication, “That I am much more adept at imitating the mannerisms of a different social class than she is.”
Sunset stared at Applejack for several moments, then burst out laughing. “Wow, that must’ve all been quite a sight. Did everything work out in the end?”
“Yeah,” Applejack said, smiling. “Rarity got the point, I told Trenderhoof he wasn’t my type, and she realized she didn’t like him that much neither. Anyway, don’t go blabbing about this. Rarity’s still pretty embarrassed about the whole thing.”
“I won’t, I promise.” They sat in silence for awhile, before a thought occurred to Sunset and she grinned wickedly. “Though I have to wonder now… what is your type?”
Applejack blinked, then rolled her eyes. “I ain’t really much for romance. I got too much else to worry about.”
Sunset steepled her fingers, and rested them under her chin. “Come on. Who said anything about romance? I’m just curious about your type. What gets your apples ripe?”
Even in the dark, Sunset could see Applejack’s furious blush.
“I don’t see why I should answer that question,” Applejack mumbled, holding up a pillow and hiding her face behind it.
Sunset shrugged. “You don’t have to. I won’t push you either way, just know that I won’t judge, and your secret is safe with me.”
Applejack sighed. “Of course you have to be all reasonable about it. Fine. It’s girls, alright? I like pretty girls.”
Sunset blinked, then raised an eyebrow. “You’re a lesbian?”
“I guess so. Honestly, I’ve kind of had a crush on Rarity for as long as I’ve known her, but she’s straight as an arrow.”
“Ouch. Sorry Applejack, that’s gotta be rough.”
Applejack shook her head. “Nah, it’s not like I’m some love sick puppy or nothing. Like I said, not really interested in romance.”
“Throwing incompatible sexualities into the mix always makes things trickier. Personally, I’ve never considered gender to be much of a factor when it comes to love or lust, but you humans get awfully bent up about it.” Sunset paused, then flashed her teeth at Applejack in a wicked grin. “Though I have a pretty finely tuned gaydar. Let me know if you need me to play wingwoman, set you up with some ladies who are into ladies.”
Applejack scowled. “Ain’t so fine it could detect me, apparently.”
Sunset winked. “The accent throws it off.”
Sunset tripped and fell to the ground, the crate of milk bottles clanging as it landed with her. She sat there, propped up on her arms as sweat poured off of her face and her breaths came in ragged gasps.
“Hey!” came Applejack’s voice from afar. “You alright?”
“Damnit,” Sunset muttered once Applejack had reached her. “I’m in good shape, I run pretty regularly. Why is this kicking my ass so hard?”
Applejack’s rough hands wrapped around her and pulled Sunset to her feet. “Hard work takes a toll on your body. You don’t have to push yourself too hard now. Taking a break every now and then is fine.”
Sunset sighed, and looked up at Applejack. “You say that, but…” It stung a bit that she couldn’t keep up with the farm girl. From her conversations with Princess Twilight, she knew that back home, the Equestrian Applejack was an earth pony, and were that the case here, she could have blamed it on their inherent magical differences.
“It’s fine, I mean it,” Applejack said, handing her a water bottle. “Hard work is all about repetition. If it gets to be too much, just take half crates or something for a while.”
Sunset hissed as the sting of disinfectant shot through the long scratch that ran across her arm.
“Told ya,” Applejack said as she pulled out a roll of bandages from the first aid kit. “Boco is the meanest cock I ever had the privilege of knowing. You’ll wanna keep your distance.”
Sunset snorted with laughter, which threw Applejack off balance. “Meanest cock, really? That’s what you’re going to go with?”
Applejack nodded and puffed out her chest. “Biggest, meanest, fluffiest cock I ever knew.” Her eyes were alight as she tied the bandage around Sunset’s arm. “What’s the matter? Not seeing what’s so funny here. I mean, I know I’m not a fan, but I thought you said you didn’t mind cocks so much.”
Sunset wished she could give an honest answer to that question, but that would require her to stop laughing.
Sunset pushed two more chips onto the table, wearing a cocky smile. “Raise.”
Apple Bloom bit her lip. She looked at the cards in her hand, the cards on the table, then back again before she finally hung her head in defeat. “I’m out.”
“Me too,” Sweetie Belle mumbled.
“Ugh, we can’t just let her win!” Scootaloo growled. The rapidly dwindling pile of chips in front of her was a testament to her lack of success. “She can’t keep getting lucky forever. What I’ve got now has to beat her!”
Sunset rested her hand on her chin, idly spinning a poker chip on the table. “Awfully bold claim there, Scoots. Every hand is random, after all. How many more chances do you think you have?”
Sweetie Belle fidgeted in her seat. “You should probably just back out while you’re ahead.”
“No way!” Scoots pushed two more chips of her own, then flipped over the last card. “Hah, a king! There’s no way she can beat me.”
Sunset pushed two more chips onto the table. “If you really think that, you need to get a lot better at counting cards.”
“What? No way, that’s just some movie thing, ain’t it?” Apple Bloom asked, craning her neck as if it would help see into Sunset’s hand.
“Sunset is crazy smart,” Sweetie Belle said, her eyes wide. “If anyone could pull it off, it’d be her.”
Scootaloo wiped the sweat from her brow. She grumbled under her breath, then matched the bet. “There. Three kings. Got anything that can beat that?”
Sunset’s eyes twinkled, and she delayed her reveal on purpose, letting the three girls hold their breaths. “Nope! A two and a seven. Good job, Scoots.” She pushed the pot towards the stunned Scootaloo, though Sunset was still ahead by a wide margin. “Now you just have to do that a dozen more times.”
“Hold on,” Sweetie Belle said, her head tilted to the side. “You were just lying the whole time?”
“What do you think makes this game so much fun?” Sunset asked. She gathered up the cards on the table and began shuffling them. “Other than the part where I win a ton of money.”
“It don’t seem right,” Apple Bloom muttered. “Applejack always says that honesty is one of the most important virtues.”
“And Applejack,” Sunset said with a grin, “is terrible at poker. It’s a game of manipulation, of lies, of knowing your opponents and knowing yourself. And also luck. It’s easy to see those as skills that can be used to hurt others, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have benevolent uses as well.”
“Huh. I never thought of it like that before,” Sweetie Belle said.
“Yeah yeah, whatever. Come on, you’re going down this time!”
“Come on now, Sunset, hold her steady,” Applejack said, her arms wrapped around Sunset’s waist.
The feelings Sunset experienced at that moment were hard for her to parse: fear, apprehension, trepidation, but also a strange exhilarating excitement as they lurched forward.
It reminded of the time way back when, when Flash had first taught her how to ride a motorcycle.
Though in this case, instead of a twisted and powerful machine, it was a thousand pounds of living creature, the non-sapient cousin to her own equinity.
Maybe ‘weird’ was a good word for it.
“You don’t have to be so tense, Sug. Penelope can sense when you’re all worked up. Just relax and enjoy the ride. Honestly, she’s walked these trails hundreds of times before. You hardly need to do anything.”
Sunset took a deep breath, trying to let herself relax. Applejack was right. There was a certain tranquility to all of this. After a week full of backbreaking labor, it was finally the weekend, and even Apples took days off. Which apparently involved horseback rides across rolling fields and through shaded groves.
“Hey,” Sunset said, mostly changing the topic to try and distract herself. “There’s still going to be a party here next week, yeah? Your big celebration for the end of the harvest?”
Applejack chuckled. “Of course. Have one every year. Darn near half the town shows up, though I suspect it's mostly ‘cause of the free food.
Sunset nodded. “Alright, sure, but I haven’t exactly seen you running around planning for a party what with all the other work you’ve been doing. Doesn’t a big event like that require a lot of prep?”
“PInkie Pie’s handling the whole thing, of course. In fact, she’s the reason the whole tradition exists in the first place. Threw us a party after harvest one year, it was a big hit, and she decided to keep at it.”
“Oh. Duh,” Sunset muttered. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.”
“It’s a nice way to unwind after everything. Speaking of unwinding, you’re gonna wanna take a left up here. Just ease up on her reins a little, tilt to the left, shift your body weight a bit and she’ll get the message.”
Sunset directed the horse as instructed, and they soon found themselves plodding down a winding, wooded gully. After rounding a corner, the path opened up into a well lit grotto, a small waterfall cascading down a short cliff from above.
“Woah. I had no idea we were going to a place like this. It’s beautiful,” Sunset said, her mouth hanging open.
“Eyup. This here’s our swimming hole. Perfect place to spend the afternoon after a long week of work.” Applejack climbed down off the horse, then, after helping Sunset down, tied Penelope to a tree and began pulling off her saddlebags.
Sunset made her way over to the edge of the pond and crouched down, staring at her own reflection in the clear water. Her body still ached, but it had dulled a bit as she got more used to it. Though, admittedly, that horseback ride hadn’t done her any favors.
“You ever bring the girls out here?” Sunset asked as Applejack joined her next to the bank.
“Occasionally, but not as often as you’d think. It’s a bit of a hike, and we only have the one horse.”
“Fair enough.” Sunset swirled her fingers through the water, tiny fish and insects flitting about as the ripples disturbed them. The water was cool, but not icy. Perfect for a summer’s day like this one.
The rustling of clothing caught her attention and Sunset turned to see Applejack already disrobing. Sunset raised an eyebrow.
Applejack grinned, her chest already exposed as she started to work on her belt buckle. “What, don’t tell me you’re shy? This far out in the woods, you don’t need a swimsuit for no swimming hole.”
Sunset rested one hand on her hip, looking the farm girl up and down. “Shy? Nah, I’m just enjoying the view,” she said, flashing her teeth. Though she meant to tease, it wasn’t all that far from the truth. Applejack’s body was well-muscled, in the way that came from hard work rather than deliberate exercise.
Not unlike, well, an earth pony.
Applejack kicked off her pants and boots, hung up her hat on a nearby branch, and stretched. A playful grin adorned her face as she continued to make eye contact with Sunset. “If you like that, than perhaps you’ll appreciate this.”
Without further warning, Applejack took off running. She sprinted up a slope, grabbed a rope from a large tree at the top and swung out over the pond. She whooped and hollered as she hit the apex of her swing, let go, tumbled in mid air, and cannonballed into the pond, impacting with a tremendous splash.
“Yahoo!” Applejack cried out as she surfaced moments later, “Damn, that’s always a rush. Come on, Sunset, waiting on you!”
“Gee, I don’t know if I can top that,” Sunset said, sticking her tongue out. She set about disrobing, taking her sweet time, carefully folding her clothes and setting them aside as Applejack hollered at her to hurry up. When she was done, she made her way up the slope Applejack had jumped from, found the rope, and, after testing the weight, got a running start and hurled herself off the edge into the icy depths below.
“Fuck that’s cold!” Sunset shrieked as her head broke the water, her body suddenly numb from the shock.
Applejack laughed, splashing some water into Sunset’s face and swimming backwards. “It’s how natural springs work, Sug. Ground water seeps up from below. The shallows ain’t a good mark for temperature.”
“Why couldn’t the portal have dumped me in a volcanic region instead?” Sunset spat through chattering teeth. As Applejack swam away, Sunset growled and paddled after her. “You’re gonna pay for that! Get back here!” she shouted, unable to keep the laughter out of her voice.
Sunset shivered and pulled her towel closer around her shoulders as she reclined on a picnic blanket that Applejack had set out. Every so often she muttered a low curse and smacked at one of the bugs buzzing around her bare flesh. Sunset watched with envy as Penelope munched away at some grass. The horse lived in blissful ignorance, her tail flicking back and forth as an effective insect repellent. Sunset missed her tail.
“Alright, that should do it.” Applejack stomped out of the woods, already fully dressed and with a bundle of sticks and branches in her arms. She dumped them into the makeshift fire pit, and then rummaged through her bag and pulled out some newspapers, which she wadded up and stuck under the wood.
“Geez, you really came prepared for this,” Sunset said as she watched Applejack pull out a lighter and get the fire going.
Applejack shrugged, maneuvering the burning tinder around so that it caught properly. “Figured you don’t get to do stuff like this very often. Might as well go all out, right?”
Sunset grinned. “You’d be right. I was a city girl, born and raised. But I like it out here. It’s nice.”
“And that ain’t all.” Applejack rummaged through her bag. “Brought food for us too: some soup that should heat up nicely over the fire, and more importantly, this.” Applejack pulled a long and bulky case out of the saddle bags, then set it aside.
“Is that a…?”
Applejack undid the clasps, then held up the mandolin. “Eyup. You ever play one of these things?”
Sunset shook her head. “Nope. Is it anything like a guitar?”
“A little. I’ll show you when I’m done with the fire and food.” Applejack paused, smirking slightly as she looked Sunset up and down. “And as nice as a pair of legs that you’ve got there, you might wanna go put your clothes back on before the bugs eat ‘em alive.”
Sunset cursed as she smacked another mosquito, then turned to return Applejack’s smirk. “I was just thinking the same thing,” she said, standing up. Deciding to play it a little further, she looked over her shoulder, met Applejack’s eyes, winked, let the towel fall from her shoulders and sashayed her way over to where she had stashed her clothes.
Sunset stared up into the night sky, the fire burning low and the stars extending to infinity above her. “Hey, Applejack.”
“Tell me all your secrets.”
Applejack looked up from the fire, which she had been poking with a stick. “Say what now?”
“Tell me all your secrets.“ Sunset grinned and forward, resting a hand on her chin. “It’s a game I used to play with my dad when I was little. I ask you to tell me a secret, and you do. Doesn’t have to be anything major, just something you might not normally tell other people.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of a game.” Applejack frowned and crossed her arms over her chest.
Sunset shrugged. “Looking back, my dad probably just wanted to know what was going on in my life. But also to help build communication skills, I guess? When we ran out of secrets to tell each other, we got creative instead. I’d make up characters, assign them all sorts of deep truths that needed to be uncovered. It’s probably a part of the reason why I eventually got so good at manipulating people.”
Applejack sighed, and turned back to the fire. “Great thing to say if you want me to start spilling the beans. Heck, I already told you I’m gay, and I’m pretty sure you’re doing your damndest to drive me crazy.”
Sunset bit her lip, trying not to giggle. “Well, I’ll neither confirm nor deny that. But seriously. If you don’t want to say anything, that’s fine. My dad just always told me I should play it when I made new friends, as a way of getting to know them better. Never really had a chance to be this direct about it before.”
“Uh-huh. Even when you’re sincere about it, you’re really good at getting people to do what you want them to, aren’t you?”
“Everyone’s got their talents. I’m just not using mine maliciously anymore.”
“Mmm.” Applejack continued to stare into the fire for several long, silent minutes, before she finally let out a long sigh and pulled her hat down over her face. “I ever tell you about my parents?”
Sunset shook her head. “No, I only know bits and pieces from what I’ve heard secondhand. I never really wanted to pry.”
Applejack looked up slightly, one eye poking out from underneath the brim. “Really? Even back when prying and digging up dirt was all you did?”
“I had standards, okay?” Sunset muttered, rubbing at the back of her head. “Mostly in regards towards stuff that touched too close to home.”
“I see. Sorry.” Applejack looked back down again. “Anyway, they were good folks. Bright Mac and Buttercup. Raised Mac and I right, taught us the value of hard work, the importance of family. What more can I say, really? I loved ‘em both and miss ‘em dearly.”
Sunset moved over to sit on the log next to Applejack.
Applejack looked up, gave her a brief smile, and leaned onto Sunset’s shoulder. “Pa passed away in a tractor accident. Weren't pretty. Mom was just about due with Apple Bloom at the time. She didn’t make it through the delivery.”
“I’m sorry,” Sunset said, wrapping an arm around Applejack’s shoulders. It was a meaningless platitude, but one she felt compelled to give regardless.
“Everything so happened so fast… I was only eight, didn’t handle it so great. Couldn’t stand to be around the farm, around the new baby. It was all too much. So I packed my bags and headed out to live with the Oranges up in Manehattan for awhile.”
“I think I heard some of this from Pinkie Pie once, but never really got the details.”
Applejack looked up, a strained smile on her face as she tried to adopt a posh pose, “That, of course, is where I learned how to affect all the mannerisms of a proper young lady,” her accent switching once more to that of a sophisticated southern belle.
“It was miserable, all in all,” Applejack said, switching back to her regular drawl. “Eventually, I came to a big realization about my family and where I belonged. They needed me, but more importantly, I needed them. What you’ve seen working here this past week, Sunset… that’s more true to me than anything I could ever put into words. My heart belongs in this homestead.”
“I believe you,” Sunset said. “And thanks for sharing, it means a lot.”
“Yeah yeah.” The fire popped, and Applejack pulled out of the embrace to rearrange some of the logs with her fire poker. “So what about you?”
“What about me?” Sunset asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Applejack rolled her eyes. “Tell me all your secrets.”
Sunset laughed, then leaned backwards on the log, staring up at the sky again. “I dunno. Telling all my secrets feels like it just might end up being a confession of all the terrible things I’ve ever done, and who wants to wallow in that all night?”
“Fair is fair, ain’t it?” Applejack paused, grinding the coals on her stick into the dirt. “You mentioning that game is probably the first I’ve ever heard you say anything about your family.”
“That’s probably because it’s something I never talk about,” Sunset said pretty much immediately.
Applejack met her gaze, a silent expectation of something more passing between them.
Sunset sighed, twiddling her fingers together. “There’s not all that much to say, I guess. My mother left me when I was just a foal. I’ve never met her, and don’t really care to. My father—Starburst Shimmer—was a decent guy, I guess. Worked two jobs just to make ends meet, and we still ended up pretty poor. He tried his best to be there for me, but I dunno. He was too tired a lot of the time, and left me to my own devices.
“Getting accepted into Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns was my—our lucky break, a chance to bring good fortune to the family. I was already a bitter, power hungry little twit back then, but I was determined to succeed. When I got my cutie mark and became Princess Celestia’s personal student, even better. Then when I was about twelve, I got a letter saying my dad had taken his own life. Never knew why. I suspect he figured I could handle myself on my own, and his job was done with. Idiot.”
“Oh Sug,” Applejack breathed, and wrapped her arm around Sunset’s shoulder, repeating the gesture from earlier.
Sunset took a deep breath, carefully keeping her emotions in check, not allowing the dredged up memories to make her cry. “That’s that, I guess. I don’t want to blame the person I was on a tragic backstory or anything like that. I mean it, I was terrible even before... but I guess it didn’t help much.”
“Family don’t ever leave our hearts, whether it's good or bad.” Applejack said, squeezing Sunset a little tighter. “Sounds like he left you with some good.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. I try not to think about it too much. It’s been so long since then, but... there were some good times,” Sunset said, voice wavering.
“Always the little memories that stick with you,” Applejack mumbled, her eyes misty. “I got this real distinct one, of me running down the stairs, smelling the fresh soup Ma was cooking, only to get scooped up and swung around by Pa.”
“From what I’ve seen in the past week, not too much has changed. You Apples are a lively bunch,” Sunset said, grinning.
Applejack chuckled. “Well, you fit right in. And I mean it when I say you’re welcome in our family any time. I mean, shoot, anyone that helps us with harvest season is basically an honorary Apple anyway.”
“I…” Sunset felt a weight in her chest, and she had to fight to keep her voice steady. “That means a lot to me. Thanks, Applejack. You’re a good friend.”
“You too, sug. Although truth be told, this ain’t exactly my first choice of topics to be bonding over.”
“Sorry.” Sunset wracked her brain for a subject change, but nothing came to her. Silence fell between them, punctuated by crackling of the fire.
After a few minutes, Sunset leaned back and lay down in the cool earth. Her gaze fell into the expanse of the night sky. It was so much clearer out here away from the city. “Wanna hear another secret? This one's less maudlin, I promise.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. She joined Sunset on the ground, and they stared up at the stars together, side by side. “I'm listening.”
“I have no idea what the constellations are in this world.” Sunset turned to face Applejack and smiled softly.
“Dunno why you're telling me. I ain't no astronomer.” Applejack raised her hand up pointing towards a round grouping of stars. “All I know is the Big Apple and the Little Apple. Otherwise you're better off asking Twilight.”
“Looks a bit like your cutie mark,” Sunset murmured. She shifted about, twisting around in the ground to get comfortable. The fire popped and sent a few sparks in their direction.
“My what now?” Applejack stretched, then let her arms call back down to her sides. Her hand came to rest on Sunsets.
Something passed between them, like a jolt of electricity from their fingertips. Applejack scooted her hand away, her face bright red. “Sorry.”
Sunset licked her lips. She hesitated briefly, then returned her hand to Applejacks’s and stared into her eyes.
Applejack swallowed, but didn't look away.
Their lips met under the starry sky.
Sunset leaned against the kitchen door and yawned. “Morning.”
“Heya Sunset!” Apple Bloom called from the table.
Applejack stood at the stove making pancakes. She grunted something that might have been a greeting.
Sunset smiled, eyeing the farm girl up and down. The kiss last night had gotten pretty intense. The second kiss even more so. Which only led to…
She realized she was blushing, and shook her head.
Applejack dumped a pair of pancakes onto a plate, then pushed them over the counter towards Sunset. “Eat up. Lots of work to do today.” Her delivery was clipped and flat, rather than the homely warmth Sunset had been expecting.
Sunset blinked. She moved over to the counter, grabbed her plate, then turned to Applejack and raised an eyebrow. “Hey, you feeling alright?”
Applejack looked over at her, grimaced, then flipped off the stove and turned to go. “Lots of work to do today. Better focus.”
Sunset watched Applejack leave, a sinking emptiness growing in her heart. She sat down at the table and idly poked at her food.
Apple Bloom looked at Sunset and raised an eyebrow. “What was that all about? You do something to piss her off?”
“I’m… I’m not sure.”
“And that’s how Equestria was made! Or at least I assume so, because of course I’ve never actually been there and the only thing I know about Equestria is what you’ve told me and I pretty much made that entire story up, but at least it sounds like it could be true, right, Sunset?
Sunset snapped out of her reverie, shaking her head. “Sorry, Pinkie, what was that?”
Pinkie Pie giggled. “Gee, you’ve been staring at that apple tree for like five minutes straight! You’d think after all the work you did these past two weeks that apples would be the last thing on your mind.”
“Right. Sorry, I’m still a bit worn out. And there’s some things I need to think about, I guess.”
“Oki-doki-loki!” Pinkie Pie said, taking a step back. “I’ll leave you to it, there’s a bowl of pretzels I need to restock anyway.”
Sunset watched Pinkie Pie dash off, then turned her gaze to the rest of the party. The Harvest Festival was in full swing, cars parked all the way down the country road, lights and streamers set up, country twang booming from Vinyl’s speaker-car. Enough food and drink for everyone.
She could see all of her friends mingling and socializing. Even Princess Twilight had decided to stop by, and she seemed to be in cahoots with the human Twilight, explaining the genetics of crop breeding to a bored looking Apple Bloom and her friends.
She could see all of her friends except one, anyway.
Sunset grabbed two bottles of cider, then made her way into the barn. It was time she dealt with this.
“Figured you’d be up here,” Sunset said as she climbed to the top of the loft.
Applejack turned and nodded to her from where she sat, her legs dangling out the window.
Sunset sat next to her and handed her one of the bottles. They cracked them open, clinked them together, and took a drink.
“Good party,” Sunset said, wiping at her mouth.
Sunset stared down at the partygoers below for a minute in silence before saying, “We should probably talk.”
Applejack turned to face Sunset, her eyes distant. “Guess I can't avoid you forever.”
Sunset found her eyes drawn to Applejack’s surprisingly soft lips. She thought back to that night a week ago, where their youthful passions had brought them together in that moonlit grotto. It was fun and wonderful and sexy. Normally, Sunset wouldn't have regretted a thing.
But just like that first morning after, the whole week had been filled with lots of work, cold shoulders, and deliberate avoidance on Applejack’s part.
Sunset put a hand on Applejack’s shoulder. “Was it really that bad? If I pulled you into something you weren't ready for, then I'm sorry.“
Applejack sighed and shook her head. She took a swig of her drink before saying, “It ain't like that. I mean, the sex was fun and all, but casual ain't really my style. And I already told you I wasn’t all that interested in romance, didn’t I? This farm, this family, it’s all too important to me. I’d never leave them for nobody.”
Sunset nodded, taking a sip of her own beverage. “You did say that. And I can’t blame you. I don’t know exactly what my future holds, but I doubt I’ll stay in this world forever. Equestria will call me back sooner or later.”
“Shame,” Applejack muttered.
They sat in silence for a while longer, finishing their drinks. Someone set off a firework, and it streaked into the sky, exploding with a cascade of radiant reds and golds.
Sunset let her hand slip down to find Applejack’s and squeezed. “For what it's worth, I like you a lot, Applejack.”
Applejack blushed, and looked away. “I like you a bunch too, and that's the problem, ain't it? We try and make this a thing someone's just gonna get their heart broken.”
“Probably,” Sunset admitted. “Have you ever had your heart broken before? I mean, in the romantic sense?”
“Can't say I have.” Applejack rubbed at her eyes and spared a brief glance towards Sunset.
“Me neither.” Another firework burst outside, and Sunset took a deep breath. “But if I have to have my first heartbreak with someone, you're a pretty solid pick.”
Applejack blinked, her freckles vanishing into her blush. “I reckon that ain't exactly a good attitude to approach this with.”
Sunset twisted her lips into a wry grin. “I doubt it. Look, I had fun. If all you want to do is treat this as a brief summer fling than we can. No matter what, we'll still be friends. But the reckless part of me wants to give it a shot anyway.”
Applejack stared long and hard at the bottle in her hand. Music wafted in from the party below. With a growl, Applejack downed the rest of the bottle, tossed it over her shoulder, turned to Sunset, then leaned in for a kiss.
Sunset grinned when they came up for air. “I like this answer.”
Their lips pressed together once more as more fireworks thundered through the sky.