Twilight's doorbell was, naturally, a work of utter genius.
The button itself was a simple bronze nub set in a decorative latticework of elegant curves and angles. Pressing the button depressed a plunger into a network of sealed pipes containing an oily fluid. This oily fluid would then, through conservation of force, open miniature valves throughout Twilight's residence. These valves were connected to the main steam supply – a boon in winter and a bane to its owners in summer – which let through a trickle of their not-insurmountable force through small, modified steam whistles, filling each with silver-toned piping and trilling.
Though rarely used, the engineering marvel that cost a very hefty sum of bits and brainpower to implement would alert Twilight Sparkle or her assistant Spike that somepony was at the door with the blissful ring of silver chimes, as if through a spring breeze.
You can imagine the expression on Twilight's face, then, when she heard three loud, hammered knocks at the door.
The unicorn kicked back, rolling the board beneath her out from under the Telescope, face and apron alike covered in grease stains and scorch marks. She let out a world-weary sigh.
"Spike!" her shout echoed down the cavernous library below her, the echo muffled by the impromptu soundproofing that thousands of books will provide, "would you kindly get the door?"
A head with spines covered in black tar and face covered in brass dust popped up over the other side of the Telescope. "Sorry, what was that?"
"Nevermind," Twilight grumbled, "I forgot you were in there. I'll get it, you just try and tear out the bearings that snapped."
There was a grubby little salute before the head popped back down.
The ladders were useful, certainly, but constantly scurrying machine parts and heavy tools up and down six flights had rapidly gotten tiresome, to quite an alarming degree. An elevator had been installed out of necessity: a simple iron cage on a long, greased piston filled with hydraulic fluid – much like her doorbell system! Just... moreso. A lot moreso. Using it was a simple matter of pulling a lever in the cage: holding it down pooled the fluid from the piston into a holding tank below the floorboards, in what was now an exceedingly cramped basement.
To think, the prior owner had wasted the space with an expansive wine cellar! Twilight couldn't get rid of the nasty stuff fast enough to make room for the boilers and tanks it now held.
Her magic gripped the lever in the elevating cage and, with all the force she could muster, jerked the lever down. The ability to manipulate almost as much force with her magic as she could with her own physical body made her one of the most powerful mages to ever live!
It would have been easier to simply lean on the lever, of course, but she appreciated the practice.
She was still a bit more than two bookshelves high from the ground when that insistent hammering repeated itself. Twilight's poor door was probably splintering from the abuse.
Two pony heights off the ground. Twilight threw open the simple lattice door of the cage.
A pony and a half height. The elevator was moving too slowly, Twilight could sense that imprudent hoof hovering over her door. She jumped, landing on the floor with a sharp protest from her legs and a sharp rap from hooves connecting with wood.
"Use the doorbell!" She shouted, desperately, as she navigated a maze of haphazardly placed bookshelves, all but galloping to the front door.
"Ah, beg'n your pardon?"
Now, that's a voice she didn't recognize. The voice was so... ignorant sounding.
Well, of course they were unencumbered by erudition. They knocked.
Twilight twisted herself around the last of the bookshelves between her and the entry foyer, a warm box-like room jutting from the side of her otherwise cylindrical home. No bookshelves here, just a plush velvet couch, for guests, and a small cappuccino machine of her own design. Colonization of the Zebra lands had brought the miracle of coffee, and the application of steam had made it even more wonderful again.
She turned the valve on the machine as she passed. If not for her guest, the coffee might help Twilight herself cope.
Twilight slid back the deadbolt, removed the chain, unhooked the latch, kicked away the chock and unlocked the padlock – something especially tricky if you didn't have magic, or a dragon's nimble hands – all in the space of ten seconds, desperate not to let that dreadful hammering hoof come into contact with her poor door again.
She pulled the door open, panting furiously, leaning against the doorframe a little for support. Her head was lowered, staring pointedly at the ground until she could catch her breath, so all she saw of her new stallion acquaintance was that their orange fetlocks were ridiculously unkempt.
"The... doorbell... ring... the... doorbell..."
"Ah... okay, valued customer, Ah'll do just that. Whatever it takes."
One of those unshorn fetlocks raised above her head and pressed the little button recessed in the frame of the door, where she was leaning.
"Must be broken, Ah don't hear nothin'."
"Patience! Give it a moment. Let the steam build up."
The moment she finished, the tinkling of silver chimes, as if caught in a gentle spring breeze, drifted from the home behind her. Twilight sighed in pure bliss.
"Thank you very much, Mr...?" She lifted her head slowly, taking one last, gulping breath. She jumped back at the very amused look on the face of the mare she had just greeted.
"Didn't think my voice was that deep."
"It was your hooves. They're very solid, for a mare." Wait, was that offensive? "For anypony, really." Wait, was that offensive?
Twilight sighed in relief when she was rewarded with a brief chuckle rather than a door slammed in her face. Well, actually, the door opened inward, and Twilight was in the way of a door being slammed... The mare didn’t storm off, then, upon finding a lack of door to slam in Twilight’s face, and that was the important thing.
"Why, thank'n you kindly. I'll take that as the compliment it was intended, if'n you don't mind."
Twilight just nodded, taking a moment to study the mare. Clean, washed, but obviously not with soap. Water alone only did so much. She smelled strongly of apples, as well – natural apples, not a perfume. The mare didn't seem the type, regardless. She was wearing a ratty flat cap, too, a style the urchin paper boys seemed insistent on. The cap held down simple braided, golden-blonde hair, which looked not only the same colour as fresh hay, but apparently had the same coarse texture.
Twilight had the sneaking suspicion that if she were to brush that hair, it would be for the first time this week.
Green eyes. Excited, but there was a trace of something behind it. Nervousness, perhaps? Fear? That didn't make sense. Certainly the bright smile seemed genuine, pulling at heavily freckled cheeks that screamed aw-shucks, salt-of-the-earth charm.
Twilight was feeling rather smug about her deduction that this mare must have been an apple farmer. Well, was. Then she noticed that the mare had been pulling an elaborate cart half-again her size, filled with apples, and felt rather silly for not noticing that first. The cart was more dressed up than a performing pony's, with all the bunting and brightness of a gypsy pony's but the stern, serious decorum of a business mare's. A serious salespony wagon.
"You're here to sell apples, aren't you? Well, I'm dreadfully sorry, but I already have a supplier–"
"Yes, that's uh, that's me. Was me I should say. You haven't made any more orders." The orange mare's smile turned rather sheepish.
The unicorn did mental inventory. She still had another month left, didn't she? If she... no... oh dear. She had utterly forgotten. If this mare hadn't reminded her, she'd have starved. "Oh."
"Ah was hopin' I could convince you to remain a loyal Apple family customer."
Twilight smiled in relief."I'm sorry, I just–"
"No! Don't be sorry!" the mare cried, her fragile smile cracking almost audibly, "Just... Ah'm Applejack, you see, of the Apple family, and we're some of the last ponies left in all of the Equestrian Empire to still grow our produce the old fashioned way. No machines, nothin', and whilst our produce might be a mite bit more expensive, you can really taste the difference." Even through the desperation, the mare’s... Applejack's voice was filled with a deep sense of pride.
Twilight didn't quite understand it; it was kind of weird to be proud of being technologically backward, really. She wasn't inclined to change her provider, though. The Apples were the most reliable weekly delivery service she had used, which Twilight counted on... lest she be forced to leave the house and go shopping.
"I'm aware, which is why–"
"No! No lettin' me down gently. Here just... okay, so, ah got here a leadin' competitor's apple," here Applejack plucked an apple by the stem from a side compartment of the wagon she was carting around – or was it the cart she had been wagoning around? – and presented it to Twilight, somewhat furtively. As if Twilight held Applejack's life in her hooves. "On the house. Demonstrative purposes and such."
Twilight took a bite. It tasted like an apple, sort of. More like the ghost, or an echo, of an apple. The crunch was kind of soggy, the flesh was almost powdery... Was this what everypony else always ate?
"Right. Now, try one of your good ol' Apple Family apples!"
One of the apples from the cart itself was plucked and tossed to Twilight, who caught it effortlessly with her magic.
"Woo-wee! Caught a whole apple, there, tossed and all? You must be one heckuva powerful unicorn."
Twilight blushed faintly at the praise, attempting to hide her embarrassment with a crunch of the apple.
Succulent juices burst forth as teeth sank into an apple of just the right texture; hard, but relenting. It was sweet, but not sickly so, with just a hint of bite left over from its greener days.
It was everything she had come to expect from an Apple Family apple.
"See? Now that's – woah, there, slow down, don't choke on it!" Applejack chuckled, smile genuine again, no hint of trepidation in her voice. And it turned out all she had to do was offer Twilight Sparkle a good apple to remind her she had forgotten breakfast.
"How much is a month's worth of deliveries, remind me?"
"For customer loyalty? Twelve bits for the month."
"Alright, so I nearly made a dreadful mistake here. A year's worth should be... one hundred and forty four bits, then? Round up to hundred fifty... no. No, one hundred and sixty bits, as my sincerest apologies, and my sincerest gratitude for not letting me make that mistake."
Twilight checked the credenza near the front door. Opening it revealed a glimmering pile of unspent gold pieces, just waiting for a book fair. A pity they would be spent on necessities instead, but that was why she kept them so close to the front door. The cap floated off of Applejack's head – who scowled and tried to paw at it before Twilight could jerk it away – and dipped into the credenza. Twilight counted gold chunks into it and sent the hat back to the very-wide-eyed delivery girl.
"Woah, nelly, Ah don't think Ah've ever seen a customer this grateful to be talked out of switchin'."
"Why would I even consider changing supplier?" Twilight asked in genuine confusion, pouring a fresh, steaming cup of coffee to offer the delivery mare.
"Y'er darn tootin'!" Applejack whooped, dumping the bits into a little recessed compartment of her wagon, where they disappeared beneath the pile of apples. Must have a false bottom. "Ah'll be honest with ya, miss, we couldn't afford to lose another customer."
"Hmm? Why's that?" Twilight idly asked, stirring sugar into the drink.
"Well, ever since the colonies spread out to Zebra and Saddle Arabian lands, we just can't compete. Land prices shot up and we can't grow coffee or sugar in these climes, and that's all ponies seem to be paying the good bits for."
Twilight hurriedly downed the coffee in a single gulp, trying to ignore the painful burning as it went down. She stared down the mug: No, no hint of evidence left of her unintentional sin. It would not do to offer the mare a bright, steaming cup of life ruin.
Tea would have been better.
"Sorry, I was going to offer you a drink," Twilight wheezed, mouth red and raw, "but it appears I just ran out of things to offer you."
"That's plenty fine, I got a tank of the finest apple juice in the empire right here," Applejack smiled, tapping her wagon with a rear hoof. "Better mosey on anyway. Got a lot of ponies to sway into stickin' with us."
Applejack started hitching herself back up to her wagon, pulling at leads and buckles, more like mountain-climber’s gear than farm equipment.
Twilight nodded ruefully, glancing up and behind her to where the Telescope approximately lay, dead and broken. "Probably for the best. As much as I appreciate the bare essentials of continued living – and I do – what I really need right now is a blacksmith."
The harness stopped clicking, and fell to the ground with a whump, and the clatter of steel clips on stone. The earth pony's smile deepened more than it widened.
"A blacksmith, huh?"
The mare walked around the side of her wagon again, rapping its back sharply with a hind hoof. Twilight watched silently as the mare bobbed down and metal clanged out of the unicorn's sight. The apple farmer popped back up wearing a custom, faded-green welding mask, an elaborate welding torch held by what Twilight sincerely hoped was an imitation leather strap to her hoof.
"Even metal can burn if you know what you're doin', and that's the honest truth. Just point me to the problem and Ah'll have it fixed up before you can say 'good, hard work'."
"Why... why do you have all this welding equipment on you?"
"Cart might break." Applejack shrugged, voice muffled by the mask between them. "Way I see it, you paid me a month more than you bought. Figure this might make us even. I got the mix on this set for brass’ melting point, that good for your purposes?"
"Well, yes, but this is an incredibly delicate scientific instrument I'm working with. Are you sure you can... what are you doing?"
Applejack had pulled a pile of warped brass from the same rear compartment the tools had come from, and hefted it like a baseball to Twilight. It was about the same relative size of a baseball, so catching it like one was a relatively simple matter for a unicorn of Twilight's abilities... another one might not have been so lucky.
"Just makin' sure the apple wasn't a fluke," the mask chuckled, "now, since you're a unicorn and all, this is going to make it a mite easier. Just keep it held steady for me, would ya kindly?"
"Oh, and you might want to look away. Got that?"
Twilight closed her eyes and averted her gaze, letting her magic tell her where the ball of brass stayed. Her horn tingled as she felt the bristled flames lick against her magic grip, like warm cats' tongues.
She began to grow impatient after humming a full chorus of Schaden Freude's latest composition. She was about to hum it to herself again when the tingling in her horn stopped, fading to a dull tickle as the heat dissipated.
"Right, you can look now. Reckon that's about as good as I'm gunna get her."
Twilight peeked at the still-glowing brass blob hanging in the air between them. What had been a tangled mess of scrap metal was now a smooth orb, the size and shape of a small, smooth apple. A glistening stem, glowing gold from the heat, rose and fell delicately from the top and a single leaf, perhaps only a millimeter thick, grew from the stem and rested gently against the apple itself. A faint bead of still-molten metal trickled down its side, giving the illusion of morning dew.
Applejack tipped her welder's mask back and blew on the tip of her torch, like a gunfighter who was quicker on the draw than the poor sap who wasn't. "I can do delicate, if'n you'd have me."
Twilight opened and closed her mouth slowly a few times, utterly lost for words. She quickly decided to overcompensate.
"This is astounding! Beautiful! Prepossessing! Beguiling! Magnificently aesthetically exquisite!"
"Reckon it might be just that, if I knew what half those words meant," Applejack just shrugged again, smiling a little bashfully.
"The elevator is this way. Come! Come, come, come, quickly now."
Twilight had circled around the orange mare, her previous hesitation long-forgotten, shunted from her mind as she rapidly reclassified Applejack from 'salespony' to 'bringer of food' and now, most importantly, to 'vital resource'. The cranial filing cabinet with the gold gilt placard bearing 'friend' lay coated in mental cobwebs and neuron dust. Still, a vital resource was a tool to be used, and Twilight treated her new acquaintance as such. Namely, by pressing her horn into their backside until they navigated the correct bookshelves to the wrought iron cage with the scissor-doors.
"Is this what you need fixed up, good and proper?" Applejack asked, rubbing the apple cutie mark where Twilight had poked pointedly and repeatedly. "Shucks, must be keeping quite a lot of birds in this thing. Or just one really big 'un, I s'pose. Reckon you could fit the two of us in there."
"Oh, yes, that's the intention." Twilight smiled gently, circling back around and opening the scissor-doors with a clattering rattle. "The elevator is quite safe, I assure you, and very functional. What I need fixed is at the other end of this."
"What's it do?"
Twilight blinked at the question. "It's an elevator," she stated rather curtly. "It elevates."
"What's that mean?"
Oh, right. Simpleton. Simpleton savant, obviously, with a welding torch and with farm labour, but simpleton nonetheless.
"It means it goes up," Twilight explained with threadbare patience. She needed this Telescope fixed. She needed to find the Mare on the Moon again...
"Hold your horses, then, I reckon I need to try this," Applejack grinned as she skipped into the cage, pulling the door closed behind her. Twilight jerked the lever and...
"You have to wait for the steam to build up. See that little gauge here? When the needle hits the red... now."
The cage jerked from its resting position, lurching the pair upwards. Applejack's grin redoubled as she watched the bookshelves drift slowly down, a pony height, two pony heights. At three pony heights her grin faded a little. At four she started leaning into Twilight's side, not unlike a foal. At five she openly whimpered, and they were only a quarter of the way up!
"Ah, Twilight, this was fun and all, but there's no bottom on this thing."
"Yes there is. There's a grate, which you are clearly standing on."
"Yeah, yeah, I know, but you can see through it."
Twilight's brow furrowed as her patience wore as thin as one of the pages of the countless books they had passed. "Then don't look down if it bothers you so much."
"I can't help it! If the Mourning Princess had wanted me to get up this high, she'd have given me wings and left me a pegasus. This ain't natural!"
"Neither is agricultural science, and you seem perfectly content to live your life doing that."
"Wha–" Applejack finally ripped her eyes from the distant ground and stared, dumbfounded, at the exasperated unicorn pressed to her side.
"It means farming."
"No, no, I knew that," Applejack muttered, almost frustrated, definitely panicked, as they reached ten ponyheights off the ground – halfway – slowing down as the weight of the piston lifting them grew with each new gush of fluid being pumped into it, "I was just wonderin' how you knew I was happy farmin'. Most ponies look down on the Apples. Think 'cause we don't use machines, we're lesser, somethin's wrong with us."
"Well, I admit that I don't understand that at all." Twilight shrugged. "But, you were very convincing with the taste test, so you obviously know what you're doing. And you're also obviously proud of what you do, your face lit up like a Spark bulb when you talked about your produce. You can't fake that kind of passion. Well, you can, but not easily. And if you can weld like you showed me, it's not for lack of career options. The airshipyards would snap you up in a second, if you wanted. But you're here selling apples, not making ships. It's simple deduction that you're doing it because it makes you happy, which I find noble."
A pony choosing to follow passion over money, in this day and age? It warmed the cold cockles of Twilight's frigid heart. Well, that and the mare had given Twilight a hearty breakfast apple, so all technologically-backward related sins could be forgiven for the length of its digestion.
"Huh. Well, don't that beat all. A high-class, educated, ivory-tower–"
"Well, brass and glass tower."
"–high-falootin' mare that don't look down on me. When all the rest are happy enough to leave their food in the hooves of zebras and diamond dogs who don't want to be growin' it, I got one right here telling me that what I'm doin' isn't a complete waste of a mare. Don't that honestly just beat all?"
"You already said that. At the start of your musing."
Twilight considered the mare beside her. Was it so hard to believe that Twilight wouldn't look down on her for doing what she loved, even if... no, that frown, those eyes, it really was that hard for her to believe. She wasn't just saying that to keep Twilight as a customer. This was no false flattery.
The realization stunned her.
She nudged Applejack beside her, who gave her a confused glance.
"You know, I built this elevator myself. Designed it, too. Spike helped, of course."
Applejack looked her up and down, as if sizing her up. That might have even been the case. "You? Seriously? You uh, don't look the engineerin' type. Look like too much of a thinker."
"Well, I am the Mourning Princess's personal philosopher-in-residence," Twilight beamed with pride, "but I like to get really hooves-on with my inventions. It just feels so much more... invigorating... when you reap the fruits of your own labour. I suppose you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?"
"Shucks, 'course I do, them being literal fruits and all," Applejack smirked, taking a deep breath and separating herself from Twilight's side. Just four more ponyheights left until they reached the top platform. "But I never figured an educated mare like yourself would. Reckon they always seem to know better."
"Oh, so you're saying what I should do is stop buying my groceries from you and grow them all myself?" Twilight surprised herself when she said that. Was she being... playful? How uncharacteristic of her.
"Wouldn't say a wet-brained thing like that," Applejack shot right back, pointedly looking up and not down, "but I reckon if all those purse-clutching society mares took to good honest labour, I'd be run out of business faster than even the zebra colonies are doin' it."
"Thankfully, those purse-clutching society mares appear to be allergic to hard work, or thinking of any kind. Which makes mares like us a rarity."
"Mares like us, huh?" Applejack's smirk faded, warmed, baked itself into a sweet little affectionate smile. Twilight's eyes bulged, like she'd swallowed an entire apple without chewing and it had caught in her throat. Had she really said that? She had nothing in common with a mare so... so blasé, so uneducated, so... pedestrian.
And yet... she did.
The elevator stopped with a jarring clunk, felt as much as it was heard by its passengers. The two passengers shared a meaningful look, not daring to move first. As soon as they left the elevator, the spell might be broken. This conversation might as well have not even happened.
They might go back to being a farmer and a philosopher, not so much worlds apart as entire solar systems, a distance she couldn’t even see with the aid of her working Telescope.
It was Spike who finally opened the door, breaking the stalemate.
"Hey, Twilight, you're back! I managed to get it all cleaned out for you, now we just need to weld it all back together. I think I worked out what went wrong, too!" He paused, his eager little tail practically wagging, as he stared dumbfounded at the mare standing beside Twilight.
"Hey, who's this?"
Applejack? True, but meaningless to Spike. Help? Also true, but so much less than who she was. An accomplice? Sounded too criminal. What was she, to Twilight?
Applejack got her answer out whilst Twilight was still considering all these options. "A friend, I reckon," she drawled, flashing the unicorn a questioning look, "ain't that right?"
Twilight nodded before her brain caught up with the reflex, jarring her neck uncomfortably like a handbrake on a speeding hansom. It was enough for Applejack, though, who snapped the faded green welder's mask down into position and stepped out.
"Right, now, you're a dragon, huh? Young'un at that. Should bring Apple Bloom 'round next time, betcha she'd love to see a real live, walkin' talkin' lizard boy. Now, show me what I gotta fix, and I'll have it done lickety split."
Spike bounded beside her, talking all about the Telescope, and the fittings, and all the technical details that Twilight would have been talking about, too, if she weren't so... distracted.
Inside Twilight's head, a dusty, cobweb-covered filing cabinet creaked open. Inside it she placed an orange file with a single word on it: Applejack.
There were no other files beside it. And for some strange reason, that made Twilight sad.