• Published 15th Jan 2013
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The Combinatorics Project - Ringcaat



In this story spanning five parallel universes, the Mane Six get shipped in every possible way. That's fifteen combinations! It's not just romance, though - there's actual substance and story behind these pairings.

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Chapter 5: Windows and Wonders

CHAPTER 5:

WINDOWS AND WONDERS

or

GOOD THINGS COME IN FIVES

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#13: AT—Seriously Happy

Farm life. It wasn't for folks with poor attention spans, that was for sure. If you were the sort who needed constant stimulation, surprises around every corner—well, you'd never make it walking down endless rows, treading the same old paths under beloved trees day after day, spreading and raking mulch in familiar patterns all so things could keep on being the way they ought to be. On a farm, life was a cycle, and if you wanted something new, you had to bring it in from the outside.

Be that as it might, Applejack still relished those times when the day's work was gentle, and there was time for talk—talk that just might break new ground. Like today. It was early spring, and Mac had been breaking literal ground for hours, AJ planting in his wake. But even new land, exciting as it was, had the same tinge as the old. It was getting on toward dusk, and she was glad to be returning to the farmhouse, where Spike had been making baskets since noon and Granny had a pot of leek-artichoke soup on whose aroma AJ could detect through the window. "Smells right tasty, don't it?" she greeted.

The dragon, lazy thing he was, popped right up from one of the baskets he'd made, caught napping. "Whoa! Wha? Huh?"

"Spike! Couldn't wait 'til sundown t'getcher winks?"

"Sorry, Applejack! I'm back to work!" He leapt to it, grabbing two fresh handfuls of straw. AJ couldn't be upset—she could see he'd made three and a half baskets that day—a good afternoon's work by any measure, especially considering that they were bigger than he was.

"No worries, Spike—I see you've been keepin' busy. Shouldn't be long 'til supper. You seen Twilight around?"

He pointed toward the old hay barn they'd reworked for Twilight's science experiments. "Yep! She's in the lab."

That morning, Twilight had been collecting scions from promising trees, so AJ wasn't too surprised to find her at work with them now. Sure enough, they were bound in packets on the bench nearby, while the unicorn hunched in concentration over a vat filled with a sparkling purple solution. "Heya, Twi! Don't reckon I've seen that around here before." So much for nothing new ever appearing on a farm—but then, that was Twilight for you!

Twilight spun around, grinning. "You're back early! How's the planting going?"

"Well, ah'm back early, so you tell me! The soil's better this year. Ah reckon you were right about leavin' that snow cover to melt, instead o' the pegasi whiskin' it all off like they normally do. That much moisture makes the tillin' easy for mah brother."

"Glad to hear it!" replied Twilight, her tail swishing with excitement. "As for this, it's a work in progress. But if it pans out the way I hope it will, we won't have to worry about cleft or side-veneer grafting after all! We'll be able to use a whole new technique I'm calling 'injection grafting'. Just sharpen the scion, dip it in, and pierce the bark down to the vascular cambium! Apply grafting wax, no wrapping required! We won't even have to saw off the rootstock—we can create new branches wherever we like!"

AJ blinked. Twilight could just be too much sometimes. "You sayin' we could make trees that grow multiple varieties of apple at the same time??"

"Well, I wasn't thinking of applying it like that, but it's possible! I don't know enough about the different nutritional needs of the various cultivars to say whether that would work—I was just trying to streamline the process! Think how much time we'll save if you and Mac can perform grafts with all four hooves on the ground! We'll pre-sharpen them each morning, and you'll just dip, aim, and pierce!"

"I dunno, Twi. Ah mean, we got by 'till now without any graftin' whatsoever. An' you say this'll save us time?"

"Well it'll save money, and time is money! Like I told you, this way we can abbreviate the trees' juvenile stages, so they'll flower after two years instead of five! And it should result in smaller trees, meaning more yield per acre and less bruising due to bucking. And then there's the potential for hybridization…"

"Lemme stop you right there, Twilight." AJ ambled over and took in a deep whiff of the sparkly purple stuff. It smelled pretty decent, if a bit woozy, which was good—AJ wouldn't have let Twilight subject the trees to anything she couldn't handle herself. "So this stuff is our next big meal ticket?"

"If I manage to perfect it!" confirmed Twilight. "And I'm getting close."

"In that case, let's have a toast." AJ swished her hoof through the solution and raised it, dripping slimy and purple.

"Applejack! What are you doing?"

"I didn't ruin it none, did I? My hooves may be a mite dirty, but the trees can handle dirt."

"Well, no, it should be fine, but…." Twilight laughed and repeated herself: "What are you doing?"

"If this is the next break for Sweet Apple Acres, that just reaffirms you're the best thing that ever happened t'the place." Applejack gestured to the tub indicating that Twilight should scoop up a batch herself. "Or, to me, fer that matter," she added softly.

Twilight tentatively rimmed her own hoof with the solution and held it up. "Now what?"

"Now we whoop it up, Miss Sparkle!" AJ brought back her hoof, Twilight did the same, and Applejack let out a heartfelt whoop as they clapped them together in mid-air. Droplets of purple slime exploded outward; they laughed merrily. "To Sweet Apple Acres!" cried AJ.

"To farm life!" echoed Twilight. And, tail quivering, she returned her hoof to the tub for a double dip. AJ gladly did the same.

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The news came that evening. Not with the mail—all Derpy brought was correspondence from out of town wholesalers and the latest issue of Tarpan Magazine. She managed to arrive during supper, as always, so AJ gave her an artichoke muffin out of gratitude. Aside from the soup, there was chard, and orchard grass hay, and peach preserve toast for dessert—they couldn't skip dessert on a night when Twilight was so close to a breakthrough.

And it didn't come right away after dinner. They had some time to relax. Big Mac took Spike out back to practice some football passes before the sun disappeared, and AJ lounged with Twilight in the living room, savoring the relationship quizzes in the magazine as per their longstanding tradition. It was an issue of Tarpan that had brought them together the previous spring—"Finding Your Ideal Mate," the quiz had been called. They'd given similar answers, of course, but what had really sealed the deal was how much fun they'd had just taking the quiz together. Applejack was overjoyed she'd finally found someone able to approach romance with as much maturity as herself, yet without being a dullard about it. Since then, they hadn't skipped a month, and even when they didn't agree on all the answers, there wasn't a quiz they took that didn't convince AJ anew just how right she and Twilight were for each other.

Tonight, Twilight was on the rug by the fireplace while AJ lay on the sofa, and Granny was listening in from her rocker, which didn't bother the girls one bit. They had nothing to hide.

"Number five," said Twilight. "Would you trust your mate to make a major decision concerning your livelihood?"

AJ chortled. "Well, if ah didn't, I sure wouldn't be so lackadaisical about this whole graftin' business. I'll tell ya, if anypony else came to me with these ideas, I'd ask 'em just who they thought they were t'think they could tell me how to run my farm."

"But me?" asked Twilight innocently.

"But you, ah trust." AJ settled into her cushions comfortably. "I gotta say, Twilight, I hain't never felt so safe 'n' secure 'bout my livelihood as ah do now. Yer mah beautiful lilac-colored safety net."

Of course, Twilight was beautiful when she was blushing, too. "Well, I feel the same way."

"You do, huh?" AJ let her voice grow sly. "So, if I were to poke my nose into your magical research, and tell you I knew better than you, a unicorn trained by royalty, how to do your spells, you'd take mah word for it?"

Twilight turned back to look at AJ and smiled. "I doubt you'd ever tell me that, but if you did…" She shrugged. "How could I not believe you? You wouldn't lie to me."

This earned a shriek of laughter from Granny Smith. "There's a big passel o' difference 'atween telling the truth an' knowin' yer own limits!" she pointed out, rocking briskly.

AJ saw what she meant and resented it. "Now hold on, Granny! You kin be plumb sure I wouldn't go meddlin' in Twilight's affairs unless'n I had a rock solid reason for it!"

"Oh, ah realize that," croaked Granny Smith. "But jus' how solid is rock solid? You've got moods, Applejack. Always have, always will. Twahlight Sparkle may trust you at yer best—but if she trusts you at your worst, ah feel sorry fer the poor girl!"

"Oh, Granny," said Twilight, still smiling, "aren't you being a little harsh?"

AJ was about to defend herself, but that's when the knock came. And the barks of the farmdog. And the screams.

She and Twilight were up in an instant. "It's Apple Bloom," AJ uttered.

Twilight's horn glowed and the door slammed open. Sure enough, AJ's little sister was there, Spike and Big Mac looking worried behind her. "SIS!!" she wailed.

AJ's reaction was instinctive: She crouched to eye level with her sister. "Git a hold o' yerself…please! What is it, Apple Bloom?"

The filly's coat was coarse and her eyes were wild. "It's Rarity! We were harvestin' gems out in the badlands and one of 'em up an' EXPLODED! It hit her right in the face! She fell down and moaned for a while, an' I thought she were gonna die! But then I got her up and she managed to walk back with me an' she fell down again outside of town, so I ran an' got Sweetie Belle t'stay with her, an' I got Nurse Redheart to come an' came a look, and then I came straight here!!"

Twilight was at the door beside AJ. "Rarity is hurt?"

"She's hurt bad, Twilight!"

AJ exchanged looks with Twilight and Granny Smith. "We better hurry," she said. "Mac, you give Apple Bloom a ride. Sorry Granny, you're on your own fer evenin' chores."

"I'll be fine," said the old mare. "You go tend what needs tendin'."

Twilight plopped Spike onto her back and the five of them were off, Winona's agitated barking echoed behind them as they galloped.

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They'd managed to get Rarity to the open-air clinic, explained Sweetie Belle, who was waiting frantically for them. The group hurried there and found the clinic's entire staff huddled around a bed, murmuring to each other and occasionally running for some piece of equipment. AJ couldn't even see Rarity in the midst of it all.

One of the staffers told them that they'd sent for a doctor from Hoofington, as Ponyville had nopony rated higher than Nurse Practitioner. Mac seemed contented by that, but AJ wasn't. "Don't you folks realize who this is? It's Rarity, one of the heroes who saved Equestria from eternal night and endless chaos!! Get us a doctor from Canterlot! Get us two doctors!"

She saw that she was making the staff uncomfortable, but she was in the right, wasn't she? If her good friend Rarity, an upstanding and important citizen, was dying, why couldn't they get quicker help? Fortunately, Twilight took control. No need to contact Canterlot, she told the staff. She'd write personally to Princess Celestia.

It was a long evening that stretched into a long night. Applejack didn't remember it getting dark. She didn't remember precisely what happened when. She knew that Celestia had written back; that Rarity had regained consciousness, and then gone to sleep on her own accord; that the nurses had given her pills and powders to help her sleep and to ease the pain; that Rainbow Dash had arrived, and Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie; that two doctors had arrived, one from Hoofington and one from Canterlot; that the two had argued and that Applejack had argued with them, though now she didn't remember what about; that Mac had gone with Apple Bloom and Twilight to see if they could locate any remnants of the gem that caused it all; and that the doctors had given Rarity something to suppress unconscious use of her magic, which was a problem for some reason.

Applejack found herself munching on fescue hay from a tub someone had brought, drowsy and aching in the middle of the night, unclear on just what was happening. Rarity was sleeping in a bed with white sheets, watched by a nurse; in the next room, the two doctors conferred out of earshot. Rainbow was standing to the side, wings tensed and eyes hurting; it looked like she'd been there a long time. Fluttershy was lying on the ground near Rarity, barely awake; Sweetie Belle and Spike were asleep against her flank.

To her shame, AJ realized she didn't remember whether they'd even discovered the cause of the explosion. Apple Bloom had been going on gem-finding trips with Rarity ever since signing on as her apprentice last summer, and AJ had been okay with it, so long as they kept out of Diamond Dog territory. Now it turned out there were other dangers, too? Was it really a gem that had done this, or was it a bomb, or something even more sinister? And what exactly was wrong with Rarity? She knew the doctors had theories, and suspected they were both probably wrong. She thought about going over to Rainbow and chatting, but she didn't want to. All she wanted to do was stay there and wait for something, anything to happen.

There was suddenly a strange scent, maybe even a raw feeling in the air. Applejack turned around, and Zecora was before her.

"Greetings," said the mysterious zebra in full cloak, a pouch dangling within. "I have come to see what I might do for Rarity."

"It don’t look good," remarked Applejack.

"At least she's stable," snapped Rainbow Dash. "Come on in, Zecora. Show these quacks how it's done."

The doctors were willing to give the herbalist access, albeit reluctantly, when Rainbow vouched aggressively for her. So Zecora raised the sheet covering Rarity and peered hotly at her.

"The color from her eyes is leeched. And nowhere has her skin been breached," she declared.

The Canterlot doctor confirmed this. "There's no sign of an impact wound, either. We're dealing with a magical effect."

"Didja hear how it happened?" AJ asked.

Zecora nodded soberly. "It seems this was a boobytrap—receptive to the slightest tap! Pre-cast by someone loathe to let another touch her amulet."

"It was an amulet?" asked Rainbow.

"So Twilight said, when she returned and let us know what she had learned." Zecora was now conducting further investigations.

"An' where is Twilight now?"

"I'm here." AJ jerked as her soulmate shambled in, clearly worn out from the trip. But at least she wasn't blown to smithereens. Spike had made some speculative remarks about the gem in question exploding twice that'd gotten AJ nervous against all reason.

"Twi, what'd ya find?"

"This." From her neck, Twilight levitated a cord attached to an empty casing made from brass and some darker metal that had once presumably held a gem. "This amulet was buried near an underground tomb, inside a black box that had rotted mostly away. Rarity found it with her spell. According to Applebloom, the two of them cooperated to dig it up, and when Rarity levitated it to get a better look—the gem went off in her face." She glared at the zebra. "And now I know better than to say there's no such thing as a curse."

"Boobytrap!" countered Zecora. "It's not a curse—it may be worse!"

"How much worse?" yelled AJ. "What is Rarity in for?"

"This trap was set so long ago," Zecora replied, "I fear that we may never know." She paused, gulping. "So far, all I have divined…is that she now is colorblind."

"Colorblind?" asked Fluttershy, speaking for the first time in at least an hour. "Oh, no. Poor Rarity."

"Heck, it could be worse," retorted AJ. "Being colorblind ain't so bad."

"It is for her," Fluttershy said. She rose to stand near Rarity, letting Sweetie and Spike gently fall to the ground in her wake. "She does so much with colors…."

"This is what I've been trying to impress on my colleague all night," said the weary Canterlot doctor. "The discoloration of the eyes is symbolic. But this curse—or trap, if you prefer—is a creeping effect. Clearly there's more than colorblindness going on."

"Give me some time," said Zecora, "and I will strive to keep poor Rarity alive. Some smelling salts will help her rise, and pearlwort balm will guard her eyes."

"We don't want her to rise," objected the Hoofington doctor. "She's recuperating well as is, but she already overexerted herself in getting here."

The three medical professionals started to have it out with each other, and AJ couldn't take it. She crept over to where Twilight was collapsed on the ground and lay next to her. It felt better than she'd expected to feel the unicorn's warmth against her, even if she was a mite filthy and not as warm as one would've liked.

For a while, they just breathed. Then Twilight closed her eyes and nosed AJ on the shoulderblade. AJ met her there with her own nose.

After a while, she had to know. "You were away for a while, Twi. You have time to poke your nose into any books?"

Twilight nodded sadly.

"Any way of workin' out what sort of whammy Rarity got herself hit with?"

The unicorn's voice was very tired. "Like Zecora says, we don't know what it does. But it's almost sure to be a gem curse. I saw them mentioned in Hazards of Pre-History and then found a more comprehensive treatment in Zark's Guide to Magical Warfare."

"A gem curse? Did you look up the cure?"

"Yes."

"And…?"

Twilight settled her head down to the ground. "There is none."

AJ felt like she'd been hit. She'd been hoping for something easy but expecting something hard—she'd been ready to go on a quest across Equestria to find the ingredients or whatnot it'd take to save Rarity. But—"No cure?" she echoed.

"That's what the book said. Believe me, I'll read more books tomorrow. And the next day. But Applejack…" She could hear the tears in Twilight's voice. "Right now, I just want to go to sleep…!"

AJ flicked her tail against Twi's thighs and nuzzled her softly. "That's fine. We'll sleep right here. You kin just lay your head against mine, and we'll be fine. Take it easy, Twi." Her voice trailed to a whisper, and while she wanted to follow Twilight into slumber, she knew she couldn't—not just yet. What was going to happen to Rarity?

Fluttershy and Rainbow were talking to the doctors now, and they didn't sound calm. AJ couldn't make out anything anypony was saying, save for one line intoned by Zecora: "Though this ailment may be slowed, there is but one end to this road."

No. That was all she could take. AJ set down her head and let herself drift away into a tumbleweed field of the mind that eventually settled down to resemble sleep.

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#14: FR—A Tender Respite

Farm life. It could feel like a prison, at times. There just wasn't any getting away from the land, and no matter how much you loved it, you couldn't help but feel now and then like something, somewhere was more important. And there was no getting away from routine, either, it sometimes seemed like.

"AJ?"

"Yeh, Big Mac?"

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't we gonna start grafting on them scions while our trees were still dormant?"

"That was the plan, yeah."

Big Macintosh sniffed at a little green bud. "Well, seems to me they ain't dormant no more."

"Nope, they sure ain't, Big Mac."

"Hmmp."

Applejack let her big brother mull that one over. She didn't want to get into it. She didn't want to explain that Twilight had dumped out her purple injection grafting fluid and given up on the whole project, in favor of some wackadoodle invention that was supposed to help Rarity somehow, if she could ever get it working. Twilight didn't even help in the fields anymore. She spent all her time in the lab, at the old library, or in Canterlot, chatting up magical theorists she'd studied with way back when. Spike still did a little work here and there, but if he wasn't accompanying Twilight on one of her trips, he was off visiting Rarity half the time.

AJ wasn't angry. Why would she be angry? What kind of a pony would put the welfare of her farm above the health of a dear, talented friend? Even if that friend did happen to be frou-frou, well connected, beautiful enough to attract new friends if need be…

No. That was enough of that. This was why AJ tried not to think about Rarity. It was too easy to get spiteful. Things had just been unlucky, that was all. They'd planted a whole new three acre strip of Cortlands and two acres of Red Delicious, using up precious pruning time to do it, on the assumption that Twilight and Spike would be pitching in to make up the difference. Now, AJ and Mac had more trees than ever to mulch and monitor for pests, and less time to do it in. Which meant they were falling behind, which meant the equipment was falling apart, which meant Applejack never even got to go see Rarity—

"Consarn it," she swore. "Ah just can't get that unicorn off my mind."

Mac was silent, falling still. "Which unicorn would that be?" he asked.

AJ was embarrassed. "Rarity. Ah keep worryin' about her."

The big red stallion nodded thoughtfully. "Reckon y'oughtta go see her, then."

AJ shook her head, dislodging mulch from the cart she was strapped to. "Ah wish ah could, Mac, but we're drowning in work, here! We'll never get to the wheat at this rate, an' we'll have to buy extra flour for pies an' fritters, and we won't have no profits come fall…"

"Then we'll let the Cortlands go," rumbled Mac, and take care of the wheat accordin' to schedule. There ain't no shame in lettin' th'aphids have a few acres in times of sorrow. But you've gotta keep up with your friends…or you'll never keep up here."

He gestured to where AJ had dropped more mulch by the path, a product of her constant fretting. She sighed and turned around. "You're right, Macintosh. I'm gonna go see Rarity. I'll be back when I've got my head on my shoulders."

He watched her haul the cart back toward the barn, and just before she was out of earshot, AJ heard him mutter, "That's more like it."

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So now AJ found herself treading a less familiar woodland road. She had no personal connection to these trees, but they reassured her nonetheless. When it came to tending the sickly, there was no beating Fluttershy, so that's where Rarity was staying these days. Of course, Fluttershy's patients were normally animals, but she'd cared for convalescent ponies before, and seemed to relish doing so.

As Applejack hadn't had much occasion to visit the pegasus at home before, the wind chimes took her off guard. They were tinkly little things, giving the cottage clearing an air of natural magic. Two or three different tones would sound at once when a breeze came up, and when it fell away, there'd be just a distant tinkle from over the hill, letting you know the breeze was still alive somewhere. AJ realized she was feeling calmer already.

Her next surprise was when it was Rarity who met her at the door. The fashionista was wearing her designer glasses, but showed no sign of injury aside from a general lack of pep. "Applejack!" she exclaimed affectionately. "You've come to visit!"

"Sure have, sugarcube. Land sakes, Rarity, you're looking great! Compared to the last time ah saw you, that is."

Rarity stood aside, her legs a bit weak, and motioned for AJ to come in. "Thank you—that means a lot to me. I have to say, Fluttershy has been an amazing caretaker. And such a friend, besides!"

AJ's third surprise came when she stepped inside and found cloth, shears, sewing tapes, threads, ironing boards, pincushions, and other sewing supplies scattered everywhere. "Whoa, nelly! Looks like you been keepin' busy down here."

"I could hardly neglect my business, could I?"

"Well, ah reckon not. So you still got customers?"

"I am so fortunate, yes." Rarity set herself down before a half pieced-together yellow garment of some sort and commenced folding it carefully in her hooves, straightening the ends with her teeth. "Your sister has been a wonderful apprentice, but she's not nearly up to the task of designing sophisticated couture on her own—not yet, anyway! So she's been referring customers to me, and I've been doing my best to put together preliminary designs and sketches…which I then send back to Applebloom for completion—pending my final approval, of course."

It still amazed AJ that her little sister, with no less country spirit than herself, had turned out to be such a virtuoso with a sewing machine. In retrospect, the way she'd fixed up that old clubhouse had been a sign. But the girl seemingly hadn't known her own gift until she'd spent an unexpected all-nighter with Rarity, staying on after a Cutie Mark Crusaders meeting to help with a huge last-minute order. Rarity had been beside herself with gratitude in the morning, but she couldn't possibly have been happier about the ordeal than Apple Bloom herself, who'd come out of it with a shiny new thread and needle on her flank. From that day forth, she'd been gung ho about seamstressing with a verve even AJ admired.

"She's findin' her place so fast," reflected AJ. "It's still hard to believe."

"She's finding hers, and I'm losing mine," said Rarity. "Or rather, endlessly sliding. Ever forced to find new places, unsure where I'll end up."

"Ah beg your pardon?"

Rarity looked apologetic. "I'm sorry, Applejack. I don't mean to gripe. It's just…well, I wish I knew the full extent of this curse! I feel like I'll never know when it's finished with me."

"No, I'm sorry, Rarity. Ah should've asked sooner. How're ya doin'? You're up 'n' about, which is terrific, but you're not outta the woods?"

"Oh, darling. I'm not sure there is any way out of the woods." Rarity glanced briefly out a window through which trees were visible. "I've recovered from the initial shock, but things are getting worse again." She paused to carefully insert a pin through the cloth's edge, keeping it folded while she used both forehooves to flip it over.

Applejack felt a chill invade her heart. "You're not usin' your magic."

"Zecora and the doctor from Canterlot agreed that I mustn't. My head aches when I use any substantial amount—they believe it fuels the curse."

"So the curse is still…in you?"

Rarity gave Applejack a very weary look. "There's no way to make it leave. I dearly wish there were."

"So it's makin' your head hurt and sappin' yer magic?"

"Among other things," said Rarity. "But please, make yourself comfortable."

"Is someone there?" called a thin voice from the round window to the backyard.

"Fluttershy!" answered AJ. "Yeah, it's me!"

The pale pegasus fluttered in, landing with a delighted expression. "Applejack, it's so good that you could come! I understand you've been busy on the farm."

"That's why it's good to get out now an' then." AJ stretched, planting herself Lyra-style on the loveseat. "And if it's all right, I wouldn't mind spendin' the day…though it sure is disturbin' t'hear about how Rarity's magic may be hurtin' her."

While Rarity resumed her painstaking work, Fluttershy nodded. "She's had so much to get used to. And yes, Applejack, please stay. I'll feel so much better about going out to restock the preening oil dispensers if I know you're here to help out Rarity, in case she needs it."

"Just say the word," affirmed AJ.

"Actually," said Rarity, "I could use your help, Fluttershy, if you aren't too busy. Might you identify a few more scraps for me?"

"Oh…of course!" The pegasus came over to the workbench a little nervously. AJ was baffled as to what they were doing.

Rarity drew out a long blue scrap of cotton cloth. She started to lift it magically; her horn shimmered briefly, but Rarity winced and let it fall. "Silly me. Could you tell me what this is?" She draped it over a forehoof and lifted it to the light.

"It's a scrap of cloth," muttered AJ to herself.

"Blue…" said Fluttershy tentatively. "Chalk blue?"

"Any silver?" asked Rarity.

"Maybe…maybe just a smidge."

AJ felt like hoofing herself in the face. How could she forget? Rarity's eyes were still gray—she was colorblind, on top of everything else.

Rarity pulled out a piece of what might have been linen. "And this?"

"Oh, um…" Fluttershy clenched her teeth and focused her eyes in concentration. "Mauve?"

"Mauve? Are you sure? It seems darker."

Fluttershy's wings wriggled in what must have been anxiety. "Or…or aubergine, maybe?"

Rarity sighed pleasantly. "Flutter, dear, mauve isn't anything like aubergine."

Fluttershy lowered her wings. "I'm sorry."

"Not at all! Let's go to the books." Now Rarity rose, with some effort, and walked across the room, where AJ found a number of books laid out on a credenza, each depicting dresses, hats, tablecloths or other textiles, some with text on the facing page. Fluttershy joined them.

Rarity selected a book and turned the pages with a hoof, and at one point AJ noticed a tiny spark of magic used to get one page unstuck from another. "There," said the unicorn at last, pointing at a set of impressive, deep purple curtains. "Now that is aubergine! I remember them well—these curtains frame the proscenium of Destrier Hall, in Upper Fillydelphia." She looked fondly into Fluttershy's eyes. "I was assistant to the backstage manager at a fashion show there for my graduate tour—did you know that?" The pegasus shook her head meekly. "Oh, yes—Strawberry Sizzler was her name, and a more forceful manager I never met! She was kind to her staff, mind, and in a sense she was kind to everypony: it was fate she railed against, more than anything. But the models feared her, and I did too, even though she took me and the other graduate assistants out for daiquiris after the show. I still remember hearing her voice over the sharp taste of strawberries…."

Rarity closed her eyes, and AJ saw that Fluttershy was transfixed, unwilling to interrupt. Savoring the story. She was a heck of a caretaker, that was for sure.

"…So that's what aubergine is," concluded Rarity. "Almost royal, but darker. Whereas…" She blinked herself out of her reverie. "…Whereas mauve…mauve is more like Derpy's daughter, if you know who I mean."

"Oh, yes. Now I understand," breathed Fluttershy. "Thank you so much for clearing that up. I think the cloth may be more of a dark violet, actually."

Rarity smiled, her gray eyes twinkling, and AJ thought she saw something passing between the two mares. "Dark violet, you say? Well, then! That should do nicely."

For the next few hours of her visit, AJ tried to stay out of the way. Even when Fluttershy went to resume her chores in the yard, AJ and Rarity didn't end up talking much. At one point, Rarity pulled out a skein of yarn and said, "Applejack, could you be a dear and tell me what color this is?"

"Uhm…gee, I dunno. Green?"

"Yes, but what shade of green? I'd hate to use up the yarn only to learn it doesn't match the vest."

"Well, uh…pickle green?" AJ tried.

"Pickle green," said Rarity thoughtfully. Then she smiled. "Dill, or sweet?"

Was there a difference? "Ah'd say pretty dill."

Rarity smirked a little under her breath. "Thank you, AJ."

AJ shook her head. She had a question to ask, and considered being subtle, but decided after a while to try the direct tack instead. "Rarity, forgive me if ah'm outta line, but…are you an' Fluttershy fallin' fer each other?"

Rarity met her eyes, growing very serious, and AJ regretted asking. There was a long silence.

At last, the unicorn sighed. "Well, I certainly hope so! I can't think of a better silver lining."

AJ blinked. "Ev'ry dark cloud, huh?"

"Yes. Every dark cloud." And with that, Rarity returned to her work.

[+][+][+][+][+]

For supper, Applejack was glad to be put to work. Fluttershy had her at the stove making crepes, and while her crepes might not have been the neatest or the petitest around, they were chock full of good ingredients, and that's what counted in her estimation. The doorbell rang while she was cooking, and in poured the kids—Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Spike. Fluttershy welcomed them all in, of course, and for maybe fifteen minutes they were very well behaved, but then they started paging through Rarity's books and fooling with her fabrics. Rarity tried to keep them in check, but soon shrugged and gave up on doing any more work that day. AJ roped her sister in to set the table, and Spike made conversation with Rarity, and Fluttershy came in from feeding the mice and chipmunks and lit candles all along the upper walls. They all took their seats, Rarity said grace to Celestia, and AJ loaded up everypony's plates.

"How come we never have crepes back at the farm?" asked Apple Bloom. She'd been spending most of her nights back on the Acres ever since Rarity's accident, and AJ knew she resented it. "These are good!"

"Crepes have eggs in 'em," explained Applejack. "Fluttershy gets fresh eggs every mornin' from the coop, so I guess they've got plenty to spare."

"We should get chickens for the farm!"

"As if we ain't got enough work t'do," grunted AJ. She bit into a carrot and celery crepe with fresh black pepper, and found she agreed with her sister's assessment, even if half the contents did squirt out of one side.

There was hot spicy tea poured, and carrot juice, and Rarity gave Spike a small tourmaline on condition that he save it for dessert. (AJ thought she saw him pocket it instead.) It was a good atmosphere. Not quite festive, but bright and merry—enough to forget certain troubles for a while. Sweetie Belle sat next to her big sister and shared whispers with her throughout the meal, and more than once Applejack happened to notice Sweetie cutting up Rarity's crepes with knife and fork, a faint pink glow surrounding them as she moved the utensils with her nascent magic. Fluttershy complimented her on her control, given that her magic had only come in three weeks before, and for a while little Sweetie Belle was the center of attention.

Rarity seemed to be having trouble staying at the table by the end of the meal, so she excused herself early and went to rest on a pad by the door, which they left ajar to let in a cool draft. Apple Bloom finished one last gulp of juice and joined her to talk shop, and soon was excitedly looking over the prototypes Rarity had pinned together during the day. Spike went to go play cards with Sweetie Belle, which left AJ and Fluttershy to clear the table and wash up.

"I'll say this for ya, Fluttershy. Ah like the way you keep a home."

Fluttershy blushed as she moved to fill the sink with soapy water. "It normally isn't so crowded. Not that I'm complaining, of course. It's the inhabitants that make a home."

"Everypony's grateful to you. You know that, don'tcha?"

She turned in confusion. "Grateful?"

"For takin' in Rarity?"

The pegasus took a deep, calming breath. "Oh…but it isn't any problem at all. I like having Rarity here. She's so…so fascinating. And she's taught me so much I never knew about sewing! She's even trying to bring in a photographer from Fillydelphia so that we can have a photoshoot the way it ought to be done. Or at least," she finished shyly, "the way she thinks it ought to be done."

"Ah thought you were through modelin'."

"If I model," declared Fluttershy, "I'll only do it on Rarity's terms."

AJ dropped the last of the dishes in the sink. "Level with me, Fluttershy. Ah want th'honest truth."

She blanched at that, but looked AJ in the eyes. "Yes?"

It had to be asked. "Do you like Rarity better now that she's an invalid?"

Maybe that was going too far. Fluttershy looked like she might break down. "I like her the same as ever," she stammered. "It's just that now…she's slower than she was. …I can keep up with her now."

Applejack took a deep breath. "Maybe it ain't none o' my business, but…do ya love her?"

It was a while before Fluttershy replied. "I love making her happy," she admitted.

Well, of course she did! Applejack finished clearing the table and sat at one end. "You should tell her that," she advised. "She'd want to hear it."
Fluttershy lowered her head and turned away. "Actually, I think she already knows."
Of course she did. Applejack sometimes had trouble remembering that not everypony was like her and Twilight. There were some, like them, who preferred to talk out every detail, take quizzes together, and use their love to speed up the pace of an otherwise workaday life.
But then, on the other side of the fence…there were those struggling to slow things down. For them, words just might not be necessary.

[+][+][+][+][+]

Lightning. And it wasn't a stormy night.

Wait. Had it been lightning? AJ was about seventy percent sure she'd been asleep. But something had woken her, and it'd been something loud, and crackly, and she'd heard it through the window.

She roused herself from bed and went to peek out that very window. But suddenly, there was a big, smiling, almost electric face blocking her view.

"Pinkie Pie?!? What in tarnation—"

"Hi, Applejack! Nice night, huh? It was so nice I thought I'd come over for a sleepover! Are you sleeping?"

AJ hesitated to let her wits catch up with her, but they weren't coming. "Uh—no…"

"No? Aw, that's too bad! Well, some other time, I guess! Seeya!"

With that, the bizarrely energetic earth pony went hopping along down the dirt road, and AJ blearily watched her go.

Then AJ's wits finally showed up for duty, and she noticed a bluish white glow emanating from the 'lab', sparking with electricity. There was her lightning. But what did Pinkie Pie have to do with it?

Pulling on her hat, AJ stormed out into the charged night and banged on the lab door. Twilight opened it a crack and peeked out wearing her sheepish face. The one that meant she was hiding something.

"All right, Twi. Time to fess up. What've you been doing in here, how's it going to help Rarity, and what in Equestria was Pinkie Pie doing here at this hour?"

There were flashes of light and color shifting within. Twilight squirmed, holding the door mostly shut. "Pinkie Pie has certain…skills."

"Skills, has she? You two throwin' a party in there?"

"Not exactly…"

AJ's heart was pounding. "Come on Twi, put yerself in my place. How does this look? You're holed up with one of our craziest friends in the middle of the night, an' you won't tell me what it was all about?" She fought to control her tone. "What happened to that trust we had?"

Twilight's ears fell, and she nodded. "You're right, Applejack. I'm sorry. You probably think I'm cheating on you with Pinkie Pie."

"If you just tell me you ain't, I'll believe you!"

"Twilight smiled bashfully. "I'm not! I would never. I wanted this to be a surprise for everyone, but…" She let the door swing open. "C'mon in."

What on Celestia's green earth had Twilight done with this place? Whatever'd been filling the lab previously was gone. The old barn had been built with one diagonal wall—five in all—and right now, four out of the five walls were flowing with activity. Bluish white lights in scrambled patterns, muffled sounds, even faint smells in almost every direction. "Ah don't even…what is this, Twi??"

Twilight's pride was manifest. "It's nothing less than the greatest invention since magic itself! Or at least, it may be, if I ever get it working right." She gestured to a five-sided lump made of black stone, sitting on a low slab of lighter stone and tethered by vibrating cords to pegs drilled into the slab's five corners. The lump was broken by five windows, each filled by a gleaming gem of a different color and cut. When Applejack looked closely at the gems, they too were filled with swimming images like those on the walls.

"I ain't never seen anything like it!" she admitted.

Twilight's voice fell to an awed hush. "Let me ask you something. I know we don't get out to the theater much—just the one time in Hoofington, really—but have you ever seen a play, or a puppet show, or anything like that, where the characters suddenly turn to the audience and speak to them, or acknowledge them, like they knew they were there all along?"

AJ couldn't see what this could possibly have to do with anything, but she nodded. "I reckon I seen a show or two like that."

"There's a name for that," Twilight confided. "It's called 'the fourth wall'. Typically, the stage has three walls, and the audience is visible through the invisible fourth one. On those rare occasions when the characters notice that the wall isn't really there, we call that 'breaking the fourth wall'."

"Ah think I follow you, Twi…an as much's ah 'preciate the theatrics lesson, ah don't see what you're getting' at."

Abruptly, one of the walls went blank, the formerly blank one was suddenly filled with bleary images, and the other three seemed to blink into different states, interrupting what little continuity they had.

"Are you aware, Applejack, that for centuries, thaumaturges and cosmologists have been aware of the existence of an actual 'fourth wall', right here in reality?"

AJ wasn't even aware of what a thaumaturge was. " I ain't never heard anythin' like that," she said.

"Well, it's firmly established in magical theory. The location of the fourth wall is constantly shifting, and it varies depending on the locale. Now, there's no way to know whether anyone is actually watching us from behind the fourth wall…but some ponies have been found to have a preternatural, instinctive ability to detect it."

"Don't tell me. Pinkie Pie."

Twilight smiled broadly. "Exactly. I took her in for testing over the winter, when I brought her to see Canterlot. She was easily over the eightieth percentile for metafictional clairvoyance."

"So she's been helping ya out somehow?"

"Oh, her help has been invaluable! Look around you, Applejack! These images are almost clear—you can see consistent forms moving! I'm so close!"

It was true—they almost looked like living creatures. Another wall blinked out, replaced by the one most recently blank. "But Twilight, you got five walls goin' here."

"I'm glad you noticed! The fourth wall was known even before Luna's banishment, and she helped lay the theoretical groundwork…but in more recent years, the concept of the fifth wall has come to light! It's been tragically under-researched, but now!" Twilight cackled with glee. "Now I've proven the skeptics wrong!"

This was getting heavy. "Ya have? What's the fifth wall, then?"

Twilight faced Applejack with a naughty grin. "It's the wall between one universe and another! Imagine, Applejack, that the world as we know it were a work of fiction. The story it tells might vary in any number of ways, depending on the author's whim, or factors even more subtle! Small changes add up to big ones, which means that there's an theoretically infinite multiverse of different worlds out there, all stemming from an original depiction of reality, and all accessible through the fifth wall!"

"Slow down, Twi. You're starting t'scare me."

"Sorry, Applejack. But now do you see why I'm so excited?"

AJ stared at one of the walls, watching its blobs until they blinked abruptly into a new configuration. "Ah think so. An' I'm proud o' you. But ah still don't see how any o' this is gonna help Rarity!"

"You don't? Applejack, if I can get this working, with Pinkie's help, we'll be able to view other worlds where magical medicine is more advanced! We'll find places where they have established cures for gem curses—just examine the gem's casing and cast a simple spell! Or something else—who knows? Applejack, don't you get it? This isn't just going to help Rarity. It'll help everypony suffering from an incurable ailment. It'll help in so many other ways, too! It'll set technology and magical studies ahead immeasurably! We'll be able to see what would have happened if world leaders had made different decisions. Maybe even how the world would have developed differently if—I don't know, if sea ponies had become the dominant race! If the ancient cataclysms had never happened! If the legendary Rainbow of Light had never been destroyed!" She fell to a crouch, her voice much quieter. "Applejack…those who have lost loved ones could see them again. Hear their voices…smell them. They could find peace…say goodbye."

Applejack was enticed, she had to admit it, but she was spooked, too. "Would they really be sayin' goodbye? Would the loved ones actually hear it??"

"Well, I don’t know yet! I'm just hoping to manage one-way projection…but if we could actually talk to other worlds…or even travel to them…"

"…then we'd sure as sugar be muckin' everything up before you could say 'Crabapples!' Think about it, Twilight!! There'd be two of you if you went to another world, and that other you would wanna know how to bust down that fifth wall too, and pretty soon every world'd have it, and it'd be a huge frog strangler of a mess, nopony knowin' who their real friends are, everypony always headin' for someplace else they figger things're better, no stability nowhere. Does that sound t'you like any way to live?!"

Twilight sat down, cowed by AJ's scolding. "I…I guess not. I don't know, AJ. But don't worry…for now, it's one-way viewing only. All we're going to do is learn. And there's nothing wrong with learning, is there?"

AJ sighed. "Ah reckon not. But ah still don't feel good about all this."

"If it helps Rarity recover, will you feel good about it then?" rebutted Twilight.

"Ah dunno," admitted Applejack, slipping from the lab back toward the house. "I gotta sleep on it. At least one night. Ah recommend you do the same."

Twilight stayed behind, and AJ realized she'd left her frowning. She stood out in the open, under the moon, feeling boxed in despite being in the wide outdoors—boxed in by possibilities, by fourth and fifth and sixth walls, by imaginary Raritys that could've been, by worlds where she'd stayed with Aunt and Uncle Orange in Manehattan, or with Ma and Pa on the Trottingham farm. Eventually, she sighed a deep sigh and peeked back into the lab, where Twilight was sitting in silence.

"Come to bed, won'tcha, Twi? Ah'll be cold withoutcha."

Slowly, Twilight rose and turned, smiling sadly, and followed AJ into the farmhouse. They could be together in body tonight, anyway, if not quite in spirit.

[+][+][+][+][+]

As spring settled in, Pinkie became a frequent guest at the Acres. AJ was nice to her, of course, and tried not to think too much about her and Twilight's project. On those rare occasions when Pinkie got into the kitchen, she left the place smelling nice and overflowing with strudels and popovers.

AJ got into the habit of occasionally asking Pinkie which way the fourth wall was oriented. More than half the time, Pinkie said she couldn't tell, or that there wasn't one just then. Sometimes she'd point in a given direction (often slanted upwards, not level), and sometimes she'd spin to face the supposed wall, grinning and waving with her hair bouncing. Once she even released a barrel of exploding confetti into the 'wall', explaining that her 'friends' on the other side would like it.

AJ tried to keep it all out of her thoughts while she turned from mulching and pest control to the wheat harvest. But she couldn't. She couldn't dismiss it all as a wacky hobby because of the news she got whenever she went to town. Rarity was slowly going blind now. No amount of magic was safe for her anymore, not even a spark. She was having trouble getting out of bed, and often slept half the day. Intense concentration was beyond her.

Apple Bloom still ran the Carousel Boutique, and still visited Rarity in the afternoons to split the workload. Sweetie Belle kept shop, and Spike had moved in with them as an administrative assistant. AJ missed him, to say nothing of the baskets and other handiwork she now had to do without. She knew she had to visit Rarity again—before it was too late—but it just weighed on her too heavily, and her workload was a handy excuse. She shared her breakfasts with Twilight and talked about lighthearted things—the way things used to be, mostly.

When the news came that Rarity and Fluttershy had tied the knot, and were now officially soulmates, there was a sense of acceptance and a strange relief, but no real excitement. It had simply had to happen sooner or later.

AJ was on her way to market one morning when she crossed paths with them, headed for the spa. Rarity had her head high, a pair of huge blue-rimmed glasses on that AJ hadn't seen before. Fluttershy was walking beside her, providing physical and emotional support.

Rarity's nose flared, and she turned AJ's way. "Applejack!" she murmured, as if speaking to a memory from another world.

"Yep, 't's me. Oh, Rarity. I been meaning ta visit you, ah really have. Ah just—I been so busy…"

"I forgive you!" blurted Rarity, and though her voice was weak, her spirit was abundant. "Oh, Applejack! How is the farm? How are sales?"

"Well, it's mostly just jellies 'n' tarts 'til the apples start ripenin'…and things could be better, seein' as how we overexpanded this year. But we'll get by."

Fluttershy looked over hopefully. "Would you like to come to the spa with us, Applejack?"

Well, the truth was…"Yes. Yes, ah would. I can do my shoppin' some other day. Is it all right if I tag along, Rarity?"

Rarity winked, giving her mane a delicate toss. "It would be an absolute pleasure!" she declared.

The funny thing is, it was. AJ told herself she'd be willing to put up with the fancypants spa treatment in order to be with her friends again…but as the steams and salts started to flow, she found herself genuinely relaxing, not to mention chatting. She especially enjoyed the pedicure, but it was during the peat pulp bath they finally opened up to each other.

"…and it makes me want to cry," said Fluttershy, "that we never discovered this affection for each other sooner. All those weekly spa days, and we never once kissed…"

"But darling, kissing isn't the problem!" added Rarity. "We can kiss as much as we like—a dozen times for each day we missed. The problem is all the things I can't do so well anymore. Sometimes it seems like there's a new impediment every day…."

Fluttershy gave Rarity a heartfelt kiss on the lips as if to quiet her, followed by a tender touch just beneath her ear. "What I can't stand," she complained, "is when ponies like Bonbon say I only love her because she's feeble now! I suppose Bonbon thinks that I'm feeble, too. Well, I may be, but that's not why I love Rarity! I wish so much she could be better again! I'd even take the curse onto myself, if it would make her better."

AJ found her heart touched. "Fluttershy, I think you're mighty brave, an' strong, too. Ah would never call ya feeble."

"I wish I could be strong for her, too," whispered Rarity. "She needs a strong mate."

"She has one," insisted Applejack. "How many ponies do you think would still be workin' every day in your condition? Yet Apple Bloom tells me she couldn't keep the shop runnin' without your help."

"Well I must do something to pass my days. I miss the glitz and glamor…the stream of customers…the out of town trips…even the all-nighters."

"She's thinking of going in to the boutique one day a week," said Fluttershy, "which I think should be okay so long as I come along."

"But you have your animals to tend!" objected Rarity.

"They can get along without me for a day here and there," Fluttershy insisted.

Applejack wanted dearly to tell them about the project. But she knew Twilight wasn't ready to unveil it yet, and besides, she didn't want to get anypony's hopes up. Instead, she agreed to come back to their place after their final body wrap.

Those wind chimes seemed so mournful now. AJ knew there was a good chance the curse would never abate—Twilight had told her that gem curses often didn't stop until their victims were in the grave. Her mind kept imagining tombstones along the road—would that rise in the path be better, or that clear spot beside the willow tree? "Here Lies Rarity—She Stitched It All Together."
No! AJ shook her head in frustration. There was no point taking her thoughts down that road. She had to enjoy her friends while she still had them.

There was a camera sitting in the grassy yard when they drew near. When AJ mentioned it, Rarity laughed with a hint of frustration. "We thought we'd be getting the Fillydelphian photographer in today—to do a photoshoot, you know. But yesterday morning, we got a letter canceling the appointment—no explanation. Just a few terse words."

Fluttershy was glowering. "It's like they don't care about her anymore. Like she doesn't matter!"

AJ could hardly think of anything more sad than her friend Rarity not mattering anymore. "Well shucks, that's terrible. You'd think they'd have the decency to be honest about why they're not comin'. Rarity, Fluttershy…I may not be too handy with a camera, but if you want a photoshoot, ah'll give you one."

They both turned to her with tremulous hope. "You'd put in the work, Applejack?" Rarity asked.

"Ah'll do anything y'all tell me to."

"Then let's do it!" Fluttershy exclaimed. "I may not be a model at heart, but…now I've got something to prove."

"That's the spirit!" said Rarity, opening the door gingerly. "Let's get that wardrobe together!"

Applejack, it turned out, was mainly needed for her eyes, and secondarily for her steadiness behind the shutters. She kept describing what she saw—the way the parts of the ensemble worked together, the lie of the light, even the emotions she got from Fluttershy's expressions. She struggled to articulate herself at times, but Rarity was patient. She suggested words for Applejack, and talked her through what each individual outfit was meant to convey, and Fluttershy tried out dozens of poses, searching for the perfect way to depict the soul of the clothing. It took the rest of the day…but when they'd finished, they had five rolls of negatives they were all proud of, and Applejack felt like she'd learned a lot.

They all lay together by the stream, listening to the frogs croaking and watching the sun set. Applejack felt a weight welling inside her and knew it was hopeless to contain it.

"Listen, you two. I got somethin' to tell ya."

"Oh?" Rarity asked.

"Twilight'll be mad if she knows ah said anythin'…and I don't want you to get your hopes too far up, but…"

They were both gazing at her, mouths slightly open.

"…well, she's been workin' on somethin' that just might be able t'help you out, Rarity."

"Help me out? In what fashion?"

"In that…well, if all goes accordin' to plan, it just might cure you. But this thing she's doing, it's big, an' it's ambitious, and it might very well come to nothin'. And I can't tell you no more than that. But I wanted…Rarity, I just wanted to let you know that there's hope out there. A reason to keep on fightin', in case you ever feel like givin' up."

Rarity stared through those big blue glasses, and AJ wondered just how much vision she had left. "Thank you, Applejack," she eventually whispered. "Hope is exactly what I need." She sniffed and turned away, and Fluttershy helped her wipe away her tears.

AJ went home as the sun went down. A flickering old five-sided barn was waiting for her.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

#15: DP—Anything Is Possible

Farm life. It was the most beautiful thing in the world…and it sure did pass the time.

Late spring turned to midsummer. With the wheat threshed and winnowed, Mac spent his days grinding flour, while AJ started setting out buckets for the apple harvest. She thought of faraway times to keep her mind off the present—games she'd played with cousins as a filly, adolescent hijinks and harvest festivals. Eventually, all her imaginary trails led back to Twilight's contraption and her damnable ambition. No matter what AJ recalled from her past—her first visit to Appleoosa, her last tug-of-war with her Pa before leaving home, the thrills and embarrassments of her summer in Manehattan—she could imagine that terrifying invention doing her one better. Would she peer into those magic walls one day and see herself as a big-city socialite? As an Appleoosan settler? All grown up and still working for her parents in Trottingham? Or worse—herself as a pegasus? A unicorn? A zebra? As someone somehow recognizable as herself, but with an entirely different life?

Applejack still loved Twilight, but she hated that invention for invading her imagination. She wanted to labor for hours under those wide blue skies and know that whatever she fancied up in her mind wasn't real, and never would be. That way, it belonged to just her.

Apple Bloom spent her days in town or at Fluttershy's place, but she came ambling back most nights to sleep in her old bed—AJ didn't know quite why, and didn't feel the need to ask. Maybe her kid sister just wasn't ready to sleep in a home without adults. Maybe she cherished the smell and feel of the farm in her bones, and couldn't part with it for long. Maybe she just needed the support of knowing that for some of her day, she was around family. She said good night when she got in and good morning when she left after breakfast, and in between she would either talk about her doings, ask advice, sniffle on a sympathetic shoulder, or else say nothing at all. AJ was proud of her sister. She also missed her during the long summer days. And sometimes, she had to admit, she even envied her.

Then one evening, she showed up with Spike on her heels. It wasn't unknown for Spike to visit Twilight during the day, but he and Applebloom never showed up together.

"Howdy do!" AJ greeted. "To what do ah owe the pleasure?"

Apple Bloom hurried up to ask in a sheepish tone, "You reckon we can put some blankets in one o' the crates for Spike, and push it on into my room? He's gotten too big fer baskets, but I figure you won't want us sleepin' in the same bed." While Spike, if anything, looked more sheepish still.

"An apple crate? In yer room? You mean Spike is sleepin' over?"

"Sure he's sleepin' over!" announced Apple Bloom. "Didn'tja hear? He an' Sweetie broke up, an' now we're goin' steady!"

That was a shock, all right. AJ hadn't even known Spike and Sweetie had been a couple in the first place. "Goin' steady? Sugarcube, ya do realize he's technically an infant?"

Spike looked briefly embarrassed, but he spoke up proudly. "Twilight says I'm very mature for my age. Besides, I keep the books for the boutique all on my own!"

"An' he's a year older'n me, anyhow," added Apple Bloom. "In any case, it ain't too serious yet. We're just havin' fun."

"Riiight. Have you writ to Ma and Pa about it yet?"

Her sister was a little abashed. "Naw, I mean we just got together this week, and I don't know what they'll say."

Applejack figured she could guess what they'd say. A dragon?! Our little girl's hooked up with a dragon?? To which one might reply that a dragon who's grown up among ponies is practically a pony himself, and who else is he gonna find to hook up with? Well be that as it may, she imagined Ma saying, how come it's gotta be one of us?

AJ sighed and smiled to the breeze. It's gotta be someone—why not one of us?

"Shucks, Spike. I already thought o' you as family…now you're just doubly so, I figure."

Spike grinned and ran forward for a hug, and AJ stooped and gave it.

They didn't need to sacrifice a crate—it turned out one of the biggest baskets suited the dragon fine, and so he went back to sleeping under the Apple family roof on those nights it suited him to accompany Apple Bloom home.

Twilight was tickled by the idea. "I guess he finally got over Rarity!" she observed one morning.

"More like he wanted a version of her his own age," AJ retorted. "I'm not surprised he started with Sweetie. She may have her sister's looks, but Apple Bloom's got her love for the craft, and ah guess as you grow up, you realize how much that matters."

To that, Twilight only turned aside with a sniffle and a tear in her eye. "Oh, Spike."

[+][+][+][+][+]

Applebuck season. The feel of a kick placed just so. The rumble of plump apples finding their buckets, falling along the natural ley lines of the tree. The satisfaction of seeing a red-spotted field go green, tree by tree and buck by buck.

This was the time of year a farmer could really lose herself. When it all came together. When everything in the world was rich and juicy and made sense, and it was time for the big payoff.

Each day, AJ spent hours letting her body do the work for her, dreaming about applebuck seasons past and present, about making those light, firm fruits into sauce and pies and dumplings and selling them at market. The rest of her fantasies might be tainted, but that darn machine Twilight could never get working would never touch harvest time. This was the one time of year when AJ didn't need anything more than the here and now. Apples were her mark, her talent, even her name, and aside from being her livelihood…they were an end in themselves.

Was applebucking supposed to be work? The truth was, AJ would've have been happy to buck apples dawn to dusk even if—

"AJ! AJ!!!"

The farmer had to shake off her reverie and reorient, the echo of the most recent buck rolling in her mind. "What is it, Pinkie?"

"It's working! It's working!! Quick, before it changes—you have got to come see this!"

What? Oh no. Oh no! Oh, yes! AJ glanced to and fro in a tizzy before deciding to drop her saddlebags and dash off toward the lab. This was it!

She cantered in a few moments behind Pinkie, her brother wandering in behind her, having heard the early afternoon fuss. As she entered, the walls lit up as they had many times before, but now the pictures were clear. And the sounds. And the smells. It was hard to make out the voices with four different stories unfolding at once, four different walls aglow with images, but the images made things clear….

They were seeing other ways that could have been.

"It's back!" shouted Twilight. She glanced over to AJ and Mac. "You're here! Just in time! Look and see, look and see!!" Her voice was an overexcited squeal.

AJ was breathless. The old barn was like a gazebo with four other worlds in its windows, the fifth wall solid and blank. The perspectives through those 'windows' varied greatly. Here was a view into another room, intimate and close, while here was an aerial view, or a panorama of Ponyville, or a glimpse of a huge room from eye level, the ceiling or the floor. There were ponies everywhere, some of whom were familiar—most of whom were familiar, once AJ paid proper attention. She turned to one wall in particular—and there they were. All six of them, wending their way through Discord's maze, being turned from their basic natures one by one. AJ wondered if that was the most important thing happening in that world at that moment, or just the most important thing for them.

"We have to get the others," murmured Twilight.

Pinkie Pie nodded enthusiastically, but didn’t tear her eyes away. She intermittently leapt into a new position, raptly focused on a new wall, her ears directed elsewhere. "They've gotta be here, but I don't want to miss a minute!"

"I'll go," said Mac.

Twilight smiled gratefully. "Thanks so much. Hurry!"

Macintosh took off, and the stories intensified. They didn't follow a fixed timeframe, but jumped erratically…no, dramatically, whenever the narrative called for it. AJ saw Rainbow flying her first show as a Wonderbolt…Fluttershy excitedly fawning over her first model train…Pinkie spending a night at Carousel Boutique to play dress-up with Rarity and Sweetie Belle…

…And then, in all four windows, something bizarre and disturbing happened.

Applejack and her five closest friends…began getting even closer. Dates, courtships, and unexpected chemistry between them started to play out in the otherworldly theaters. Rainbow slipped in just in time to see herself taking Fluttershy on a romantic stroll through a liquid rainbow river field. Fluttershy stumbled in, gaping, and couldn't take her eyes from a giggly kissfest between herself and Twilight resulting from a word puzzle they did together at a juice bar. And Rarity came last of all, supported by Big Mac, dark glasses now covering her eyes and a stylish, supple cane in her mouth. She stood stock still and listened to a particularly posh version of herself at some big social event, proposing that she and Rainbow Dash "make something" of their fame together.

It was too much to take in at once. While Mac lingered at the door, the six friends muttered frantically to each other, speculating and explaining, squeeing and shuddering. Rarity settled herself on the floor, unable to stand for long, and Fluttershy settled beside her, whispering constantly into her ear. Was there anything left of Rarity's vision? Her soulmate must have been reporting everything she saw.

AJ wanted to take in her friends' expressions, but she was too engrossed in watching. It was everything she'd been afraid of, but it was also titillating. She was forming the bonds of love…but not with her true love, Twilight Sparkle! Applejack watched in fascination as…

After a particularly energizing Running of the Leaves, Rainbow Dash asked her sassily, "Hey AJ! You wanna fall in love?"

"In love?" replied her doppleganger. "You sure you can take it, Dash?"

"Take it? I'm gonna be dishing it out! I'm gonna love you like you won't believe."

"Oh yeah? You better shine up yer saddle, Dash, 'cause I'm gonna love the stuffing outta you!"

The real AJ exchanged nervous glances with Rainbow, teeth showing. But then another wall drew her attention.

The sun was beaming along the pebbled path as Pinkie Pie skipped along, AJ trotting behind. "Are you sure your family's gonna like me, Jackie?"

"Shore I'm sure! If there's one thing Trottin'ham folks adore, it's a proper shindig. An' from what ah can tell, you got more delights wedged into that bag o' yours than one o' Granny's New Years pies!"

"I just want to be prepaaared!!" Pinkie sang out, bells on springs trailing out of her bag and jingling as she hopped.

"Trust me, Pinkie, you'll be one o' the family before ya can say 'Swaller Dollar Cauliflower'."

"Why would I even want to say that?"

AJ chuckled. "Well, it's a challenge, ain't it?"

AJ turned to Pinkie, but she was engrossed with an image of herself helping Twilight with a hair growth spell, which led to them tumbling and tangling with yard-long hair all over the floor. So AJ examined another wall…

AJ stared in awe as a larger than life machine in pony shape started to churn, its tin hoof picking the strings of its tin banjo in perfect time, its tail moving evenly to and fro and its mouth opening to utter an artificial "Yeeee-haaw!" Rarity was at her side, watching her reaction.

"I had it shipped in especially for you," she confided. "Please tell me you like it?"

"Well, ah…" She looked around the rose-walled building, with all its racks and shelves of endless cloth and jangles. "It does liven up the atmosphere here, ah'll give ya that." She winked to Rarity. "But as ponies go, ah reckon ah still prefer the real thing."

"Ah, yes, well…" chuckled Rarity. "Don't we all."

Rarity had her head high, her ears spread in every direction, trying to catch everything. Her neck trembled like it was about to fail, but Fluttershy placed her own against it to keep it steady. AJ turned to the final wall…

"But I still don't think it's right to take the honey from the bees," objected Fluttershy, overlooking a variegated farmland featuring a stand of tree-based bee hives.

"Flutter, ah know you don't like it, but the group decided they wanted an apiary! We're part of a commune now—we ain't in charge anymore. Ain't that how you wanted it?"

Fluttershy rubbed her mane against AJ's side. "Yes, it is. I'm glad we make decisions all together…I just worry about the bees…"

"Aw, they'll get by! We won't take it all away…an' besides, even if we don't take any honey, they'll still be good fer the flowers. An' you do love the flowers, don’t'cha?"

"Yes," said Fluttershy softly, staring at AJ's face. "I do love the flowers."

"A commune?" said AJ aloud. "What kind o' dipstick alternate universe me goes an' changes the family farm into a commune?!"

Everyone looked at her in surprise.

"Well ah mean…" AJ gestured to the wall, which suddenly went blank, another one taking its place. "Huh. …Look, this is crazy. It's just crazy. Are you girls seein' what I'm seein'?"

"It's amazing," intoned Twilight.

"It's incredible," murmured Fluttershy.

"Yeah, it's pretty crazy, all right," said Dash. "But it's awesome!! Look, AJ, over here you're making a wicked good angel costume! I never saw that side of you before."

"We ain't never seen any of these sides before!" pressed AJ. "These ponies ain't us! They're in love with all the wrong sweethearts! Have you been watchin'? Everypony's fallin' in love with everypony else, except for me an' Twilight!"

"And me and Rarity," said Fluttershy, cuddling all the closer to her soulmate.

"I think I saw myself fall in love with everyone but Dashie!" exclaimed Pinkie, grinning.

"Yyup, it's crazy, all right," drawled Big Mac. "But the question is…where does it get us?"

"At the very least," said Rarity, "it gives us something to dream of. Can we do nothing but watch, Twilight? Or can we…interact…somehow…with these other sheets of existence?"

Twilight had to tear herself away from the bizarre sight of herself as a stallion, providing background effects for a Wonderbolts show. "It…well, the device is calibrated to the walls of the barn, so that they block us from slipping through. But if we wanted to, I could recalibrate it…" Alarm grew on her face. "The problem is, so far as I can tell, the only way to interact with these other worlds is to go through to them! And that would be incredibly risky. So far, I haven't worked out a way back!"

"Is that the only problem?" challenged Dash.

"Well…no. I mean , we're talking about something that so far as I know, has never been successfully done. We really should write to the princess, and she'll probably tell us to take it nice and slow… she might even send her own corps of magicians to take over the project."

"What?!" exclaimed Dash. "But then what about Rarity?"

"Well, um…that's another problem. So far as Pinkie and I can tell, these four universes are the only ones adjacent to our own! I was hoping we'd have more choices, but…"

"There's a reason they call it the fifth wall," said Pinkie, "and not the three hundred seventy-ninth wall!"

"But then…can we ever find a cure for her?" asked Fluttershy.

"I don't know… Have any of you seen any sign of advanced magical medicine in any of these worlds?" Twilight asked.

The gang had to admit that they hadn't.

Twilight sighed profoundly. "It doesn’t look good, then. I was hoping to open up so many more doors…but as fascinating as this is, I…I'm sorry, Rarity. I just don't see a cure for you here."

Dash snorted and scraped the floor. "Well, we can't just give up on her!"

"We won't," said Twilight firmly. "We'll write to the princess and put things in her hooves. If anyone will know what to do, she will."

Fluttershy looked up nervously. "But…but she has a whole realm to look after. What if she puts the safety of Equestria ahead of Rarity?"

Twilight drew in a sharp breath. "Shouldn't we all be doing that?"

"But—"

"It's all right," said Rarity, not managing to purge all the sorrow from her voice. "This is, after all, an invention of major import…and I would not want to bring disastrous consequences to an entire…an entire world of worlds, just in an attempt to restore my health."

"But it's not just your health," squeaked Fluttershy very quietly. "You could…you could die!"

There was a weighty pause when Fluttershy broached the subject. "Nevertheless," said Rarity, nuzzling her on the cheek. "Twilight is right. I trust Celestia to do what is best."

Pinkie sputtered. "But…but…!"

Twilight looked to AJ. "It's our home. Are you all right with the royal palace getting involved?"

This was a tough one, all right. AJ never dreamed of royal magicians overrunning her farm for any reason…but she hoped the princess wouldn't let it come to that unless it was necessary. She nodded. "We gotta let her know."

"Then it's decided," said Twilight. "I'll send the letter tomorrow."

Pinkie and Dash looked crestfallen, but AJ was confident she'd made the right decision. Hadn't she?

"Twilight?" asked Rarity. "May I…may we spend the night?"

"Here? In the barn? Oh, but Rarity…you need your bed, your home…peace and quiet!"

"Twilight!" exhorted the desperate unicorn. "There's so little left for me there! I can't see a thing, my horn is useless, my head aches almost all the time, my joints don't work the way they used to, and I can hardly sleep these days in any case! Rarity…the Rarity of this world, anyhow, is almost gone. I'm not a fashion designer anymore. I can't find gems. I can't make anyone beautiful." She broke down then, sniffling and sobbing, and Fluttershy wrapped herself around her head like a pillow. "But here!" Rarity continued. "Here, at least, I can listen to other Raritys living their lives. Successful. Busy. Maybe not all of them are happy…especially the one who used to love you, Twilight…but they're living life! They're what I could have been…they're me, more than I am now! Please, just give me one night and one day with them. That's all I ask."

AJ was about ready to break down herself. "Course you can stay, Rarity. You too, Fluttershy. I'll bring a bed out here for you, if ya like. You can have every pillow in the house. An' I'll bring you a carafe o' hot cider, an' a compress for your head, an' if you want me to run over to your cottage, Fluttershy, an' take care of the animals, I can do that too. Just lemme know what ya need."

AJ wasn't the only one with her sentiments. The others all offered to stay or go or help however they could, and while Rarity was grateful, she didn't ask for much. A few blankets and pillows…a little food and drink…and silence.

She and Fluttershy were still staring at the walls when AJ checked in on them in the middle of the night. But from the way they were slumped over each other, their bodies relaxed and motionless, she figured they'd finally fallen asleep. Rarity's dark glasses had been tossed into a corner.

[+][+][+][+][+]

Twilight sent the letter, and the princess wrote back saying she'd consult her best magicians about the subject. Applejack didn't feel like bucking apples that day. She repaired a broken cart instead, and fixed a fence, and looked in on the five-sided barn more times than she cared to admit. Twilight, Pinkie, Spike and Applebloom kept coming and going, as did a few townsfolk who'd heard something remarkable was happening. Rainbow asked to see Twilight's blueprints, and Twilight was glad to show her, though AJ couldn't imagine the flight jockey comprehending them. Even the mayor showed up around sundown and shook Twilight's hoof, lingering for an hour or so.

Rarity stayed well into the evening until, with a final sigh as though she were saying her last goodbye to life, she let Fluttershy slowly lead her home. AJ stood and watched from the road, wondering if she'd ever see her again.

The next morning, a representative from Canterlot showed up. She was a diminutive tawny mage with loosely combed green hair, her cutie mark an open box full of light. She studied Twilight's invention and watched the walls for half an hour, during which time she cast a half dozen tiny spells, none of which disturbed the projections for more than an instant. She then announced that Princess Celestia would send a team to take over study of this discovery the following morning. Twilight would be handsomely rewarded and her invention would be treated with the utmost reverence and delicacy. If possible, it would be moved to Canterlot, and Twilight would be paid a stipend to act as consultant if necessary. Rarity's condition would be taken into account, as 'part of the broad picture of things.'

There was no saying no to any of this, even if they'd wanted to. This was bigger than Twilight and Pinkie now—bigger than all six of them, and they all knew it.

Applejack felt cold in bed that night, even with Twilight huddled up against her under the covers. Twilight was quaking in her sleep, and Applejack…well, she couldn't sleep at all.

This feeling she had in her—she recognized it. She'd had it before. It was like something about to tumble, quietness about to get loud. With a pang, it came back to her. There'd been a summer back in Trottingham—she'd been thirteen or fourteen—when the trees had all taken sick, but no one had realized it at the time. They called it 'discoloration of the bark', but they blamed it on the kooky weather team the town was training in and dismissed it. That summer, the trees had all gone bad, the harvest was ruined, and they'd just barely made it through the year…. Applejack recognized the feeling in her stomach from that summer, when things had just started to go rotten.

She rolled out of bed, tucked an extra pillow in beside Twilight, and wandered out into the field. It was a partly cloudy night. The moon lit up the clouds on one side—like they had something to say, secrets to share. AJ fantasized about a pegasus bucking the sides of those clouds and a rain of apple-sized hail tumbling down, wrecking the orchard…or maybe it'd be some new, exciting fruit they could can and bake and sell. Maybe both. She was having crazy waking dreams, and she didn't blame herself, because it still wasn't half as weird as what was going on in that old barn.

AJ stood in the autumn chill, staring at the morphing light just visible through the distant window. She felt the need to go where it was warm, the need to get back to bucking apples, the need to cry. But she didn't. She just stood and stared, and kept it all in.

There was no telling how long she'd been standing when she heard a voice. "Pssst!"

AJ jerked, nerves tensing. "Who's there?" Then she spotted Pinkie behind a tree, her body covered with a dark poncho.

"Jackie! Thank goodness you're up! I was worried I was gonna have to sneak in and wake you!"

"What'd you call me?"

"Jackie! That's what one of my other me's calls you, and I thought it was cute!"

"Please don't call me that, Pinkie. That one o' you's in love with me, and that's just wrong."

Pinkie looked a little hurt. "Oh…okay." She seemed to accept this with a far-off look.

"Why were you lookin' for me?" AJ pressed.

"Oh! Well." Pinkie looked to and fro furtively. "I don't want you to take this the wrong way…but I think you're the viewpoint character."

Oh dear Celestia. "I'm the what?"

"Twilight told you all about how the fifth wall works, didn't she? In order to find it, you need to know where the fourth wall is, and for that, you need to know whose eyes the 'audience'—" Here she winked and nudged her head against the air. "—is seeing through!"

"Ah don't follow, an' I'm not sure I want to."

Pinkie strolled with AJ, leading her back toward the lab. "Look at it this way. When you read a story, a lot of the time it's from some point of view or another. It's like you're sharing someone else's life! You know what I mean?"

"I'm with ya."

"Well, it's like that! If someone were watching us, whose life would they be sharing? That's what I had to figure out! The more I watched those four other worlds, the clearer it became who their point of view characters have to be! Rarity is the point of view character in that world where she and Dash got all famous for that 'Rainboom' clothing line, because she's the one who came back to visit the rest of us! Rainbow's got to be it in that weird world where they think it's shady for a mare to be into stallions, because she's the one with all the problems! And you remember the world where we gave up the Elements of Harmony? There was this whole bit where Fluttershy was wrestling with what to do, so I'm pretty sure she was the point of view character for some of that, but I know the bit at Celestia's birthday party where Twilight explained to me what 'stochastic' means was important too, so the point of view there had to be either me or Twilight! I'm figuring each of us gets one turn, because that's more fair."

AJ's head was swimming, but she ignored it. "Ah s'pose so?"

"And then there's the world with that masquerade, and that could be from almost anypony's point of view! But chances are it was either me or Twilight, so that leaves you! You're most likely to be the point of view character for this world! And that totally makes sense, because a bunch of times the machine suddenly stopped working as soon as you left, or started when you showed up!"

"How exactly does that make sense?"

"Well, there needs to be a fourth wall for it to work, but if the story is skipping ahead from one scene to another, there isn't a fourth wall in the meantime! While you're in the room, there's no way we're skipping scenes, but when you're off bucking apples or whatever, there's no way of knowing! What's more, the machine is working again, and Twilight's completely asleep, isn't she?"

"So?"

"So unless she's having a really important dream, she's not the viewpoint character! It's got to be you!"

With that, they arrived at the barn and stepped inside. The tales were still playing themselves out on the walls, and to AJ's surprise, Rainbow Dash was in the barn, dressed in a Wonderbolts outfit and carrying a loaded pair of saddlebags. She didn't look comfortable.

"Rainbow, what in the name of brown sugar are you doin' here?"

The pegasus glanced uneasily to Pinkie. "This would've been so much easier if we didn't need her here."

"Ah beg yer pardon?" demanded AJ. This was her home, after all!

Pinkie shook off her hood and perked up as if saving face. "But now that you are here, we've got a rock-solid scene! There's no way the walls'll conk out on us when we're partway through and slice us in half! Applejack, we couldn't do this without you! All you have to do is sit back and rest—but don't fall asleep!—and everything'll be okay."

In the shifting light, AJ saw that Pinkie was shaking with excitement—or was it fear? Dash didn't look much better. "Just what half-baked stunt do you two think you're pullin'?"

Dash swung a pair of goggles over her eyes. "We're heading out!"

"You're WHAT!?"

"Sorry AJ, but we can't wait for Canterlot to deal with this! If we let them take over, Rarity'll never get saved!"

"They'll seal this gizmo up and test it for ages before they ever use it!" implored Pinkie, her tail whirling. "And I know it's all for the best, it's all for safety and Equestria and the common good…but this is for Rarity! She's one of us…and I'm really sorry, and maybe it makes me a horrible terrible pony, but I care more about my best friends than I do about the common good."

"As do I," said Rainbow proudly.

It was too much to mull all at once. "But why are you goin' in the middle of the night? Why didn't you tell Twilight or me?"

"Because in the morning," said Dash, "Celestia's wizards are coming and we won't get another crack at it! If we'd told Twilight, she would've just tried to talk us out of it."

"You'd better believe she would! And so would I! Do you two loonies even have a plan for gettin' back? 'Cause there ain't no return trips with this thing!"

"Eh, we'll find a way," said Dash. "I totally copied Twilight's blueprints yesterday, even if I don't understand a lick of 'em. And there are other Twilight Sparkles out there! We'll show 'em the plans and see what they can whip up."

AJ wanted to groan and collapse. "That's your plan?! What if they refuse?"

"Well, I'm hoping a good burst of speed'll be enough to take me through three or four dimensional walls, at least," said Dash. "Maybe we'll leave holes behind as we go! Or maybe some other powerful unicorn'll help us, if Twilight won't. All I know is, our friend's life is on the line. We can't just let her die!"

"Aside from which," said Pinkie, "this'll be the most awesome, amazing, transcendentalistic adventure ever!! Sometimes you've just gotta let loose, rear back, and do something crazy, you know?!"

"But this ain't just crazy," pled AJ. "It's insanity heaped on top of insanity!"

Pinkie grinned. "That makes it sound like a sundae!"

AJ slumped onto one of the leftover pillows. What now? "So you two planned this together?"

"Pretty much!" Pinkie grinned to Dash, and for a moment the pair looked less nervous. "Rainbow and I were watching the windows together and we gradually realized that every single other combination of the six of us was already coupled up, either in real life or in one of these new ones! We're the only pair who hasn't been done yet!"

Dash gulped. "So Pinkie thinks we've got to fall in love! Like it's our destiny or something."

"And we decided the best way to fall in love is to throw ourselves into it, like a swimming pool full of ice cream!! So, since we both agreed that someone has to go out there, shake things up, and find a cure for Rarity…"

"We figured we might as well go together!" concluded Dash.

AJ had to catch her breath. "That is the most absurd, ridiculous, cockamamie reason for fallin' in love I ever heard of!!"

"I know!" said Dash. "I mean…I'm not really the romantic type! I'm more about thrills and spills and pushing the limit!"

"And I feel like I've got a lot more growing up to do before I get involved with anyone," added Pinkie. "But that doesn't matter! Destiny is destiny, and time is running out!"

"But you could be gone forever, both of you!" moaned AJ. "And Rarity'll die…and they'll take the machine away, and I'll get in trouble for lettin' you go in, and Twilight might end up takin' the blame…"

"Look on the bright side, Applejack," said Pinkie, her overconfident voice undercut by a tremor of terror. "With all these other realities out there, anything is possible! Maybe another Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash or another Rarity'll come visit you someday! …And if they do, will you make them feel welcome? I won't be around to throw any welcome parties 'til we get back."

AJ surged forward. "If you get back!"

"…So you're gonna have to pick up the slack with your country charm," continued Pinkie. "Promise you'll do it? You can be mad if you want, but please…promise me if anyone new comes to town, especially from beyond the fifth wall…you'll make 'em feel welcome."

AJ sighed. "All right, I promise. I'll do ya proud, Pinkie Pie. An' I'll tell everypony goodbye for you both. Ah wish you wouldn't do this, though."

"We've all got wishes," said Pinkie. "Those of us who're lucky get rainbows to make them on! And the way I see it, this is like the quest for the end of a rainbow! If we follow the trail long enough, we're sure to find a pot of gold at the end!"

"And I keep telling her, that's hogwash!" countered Dash. "We weather pegasi make rainbows, and there's nothing in the manual about including a pot of gold."

"Well you don't have to put it there, silly!" retorted Pinkie. "It just shows up! Besides, I'm talking about a metaphor, not a real pot of gold, even if that'd be nice to have. I mean, the gold would be pretty valuable—it'd keep us fed for a while, especially since I hear you can put gold flakes on sundaes and eat them! But mainly? I just want to find it! I'd just like to have a pot I can keep at the foot of my bed and put laundry and stuff in…a pot I can say I found at the end of a rainbow!"

Dash gave Pinkie a nervous little peck on the neck AJ couldn't help but find adorable. "You know, I heard one of my other selves—the angsty one—saying how for all she knew, love was totally random. Anypony could end up with anypony, all on account of the slightest little thing." She smiled coyly. "Well, if that's true, this should be more than enough to bring me and Pinkie together!"

Pinkie leaned her head against Rainbow's neck. "If love is a random tree, I'm its funny little seed!"

"Ah reckon that makes you stochastic," quipped AJ. "Maybe you two are made for each other. Y'sure do seem to share a love for breakin' the rules."

"Whether it's the rules of society or the laws of physics," agreed Pinkie.

"So you're okay with this?" asked Dash, and AJ could see her quaking in her flightsuit. "You won't stop us from going?"

AJ squinched her eyes shut. It was now or never. "No, ah won't stop you. But ah am gonna miss you somethin' fierce!"

"Wouldn't have it any other way," said Rainbow Dash, turning toward the blank wall and gearing up. "Hope you won't miss the barn, though."

"Miss the barn? What're you talking a—"

Dash powered forward, bursting through the old wall like a knife through a pie crust. The barn started to teeter, and AJ scurried out. She and Pinkie watched as Dash rose high in the air, reoriented herself straight downward, and plunged into the barn at full speed, splintering it with a rainbow-colored mushroom cloud.

Well, that'd wake the household, if anything would. The poor old five-sided barn was destroyed, but Twilight's machine was still pumping—the images stayed right where they had been, only now there were no walls behind them.

"Wooo-hooo!" shouted Dash. Pinkie echoed her cry, speeding over. She leapt onto Rainbow's back, waving her poncho above her like a banner. "To adventure!!"

"Ah hope you two know what yer doin'!" cried AJ, tears in her eyes.

"Be seeing you, AJ!" shouted Dash, sparing her a soulful glance before she revved up. "All right, Pinkie! Let's do this!!"

And with that, dust still swirling from the barn's destruction, Rainbow Dash sprinted away from the barn until her hooves were off the ground. With Pinkie holding tight, she swung around, soared forward, gathered speed, and zoomed headlong into one of the otherworldly windows.

With a loud CRACK, the ground shook and the windows all flickered out. Pinkie and Rainbow were gone. The machine buzzed, sputtered, and went dead.

Applejack stumbled over to the machine, bile rising in her throat along with everything she'd wanted to say. She strained to gather her senses while the dust settled.

"Y'all come back soon now, y'hear?" she whimpered mournfully into the empty air.

[+][+][+][+][+]

"This is a prank, right?" asked Twilight, panic rising in her voice and eyes. "Tell me this is a prank!"

"If those two were prankin' us, they fooled me too," said AJ. She couldn't look away from the place where the barn had stood.

"They wrecked all my calibration!" moaned Twilight, stooping to examine her device. "They wrecked the machine!! I don't know if I can fix it, and Celestia's staff is coming in a matter of hours! And Pinkie…Rainbow…oh goodness…Pinkie! Rainbow!!"

AJ found herself with her legs wrapped around Twilight, soaking up tears. "Ah dunno what to tell ya, Twi. Ya still got me, an' you'll always have me. No matter what may come."

"They'll be lost," sobbed Twilight.

"Uh, well…maybe it ain't the best time to mention it, but Dash said she nicked a copy of your invention's plans."

Twilight went stiff in AJ's grip. "Oh, gosh!" she wailed. "We'll be lost!"

"You worried about interdimensional traffic, Twi?"

She nodded numbly. "This could be the end of spatio-temporal coherence through the multiverse, and it's all my fault!"

AJ hugged her all the harder. "Now hush, Twilight. Maybe that's so, but I don't feel it in mah bones. Maybe if we do get visitors, they won't be all that bad. And the Apple family'll be on hand to welcome 'em."

Twilight closed her eyes and hugged back, which was just what AJ needed.

[+][+][+][+][+]

It was weird, and then some.

The magic team from Canterlot showed up fresh and sharp that morning. There was no point keeping them away. But there also wasn't much left for them to see, and AJ saw no reason not to tell the honest truth, so she did, even though it made Twilight squirm. The magicians questioned them for hours, and then they took away the machine, and that was the end of it. No one came to take AJ or Twilight away, but there was no 'handsome compensation', either. When Twilight wrote to Celestia about it, the sagacious princess simply said that regarding the future of fifth wall technology, they would have to "wait and see".

So they did. AJ went back to applebucking, and the mayor held a little reception at Town Hall in honor of Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash, the 'interdimensional pioneers'. It was somber and there weren't enough sweets. AJ went to visit Rarity and Fluttershy whenever she had a spare afternoon, but there weren't going to be any more photoshoots. Rarity was simply too weak. There wasn't anything to do but murmur, help Fluttershy with chores, and leave when the silences had gotten too long. Applejack was glad to visit just the same, but there weren't words for how much she missed the old days.

But then came the first Scootaloo.

It was mid-morning, late in autumn, and AJ was making applesauce in the yard while the scent of Granny Smith's dumplings wafted out from the kitchen. It wasn't all that surprising to see Scootaloo wander up as though drawn by the scent, though it had been a long time since the pegasus filly had been by to play with Apple Bloom. When Apple Bloom got her cutie mark, AJ reflected, she and Scootaloo had drifted apart, even while she was growing closer to Sweetie Belle. Still, the kid was an orphan, and if she wanted a free dumpling or two, how could AJ say no?

But this filly wasn't after food. "Hey, Applejack? I know this may seem like the weirdest question you ever heard, but…does your world still have its Rainbow Dash?"

Uh oh. "Ah beg your pardon?"

"Rainbow Dash! Is she still here? I'm kind of on a quest."

This was bad…wasn't it? "Somethin' tells me you ain't the Scootaloo we know and love, are ya?"

The filly's face lit up. "You mean you still have your Scootaloo? Awesome. I'm gonna have to recruit her!"

"Recruit her?"

"For the council!"

The council?!

Well, AJ laid the facts out for the kid as plainly as she could, and was given a befuddling tale in return. This Scootaloo was in possession of a world traveling technology that worked only for Scootaloos. She didn't know who'd invented it first—she'd been issued hers by a roving band of Scootaloos who were traveling from world to world, recruiting promising young Scootaloos and sending them to promising nearby worlds in order to find Rainbow Dashes, Pinkie Pies, and other Scootaloos, in that order of importance. Their mission: to restore every Rainbow and every Pinkie to her proper home. Apparently things had gotten very messy early on, and some brave young Scootaloo—possibly more than one—had set out after her idol Rainbow through the fifth wall, trying to protect her, rescue her, follow in her hoofsteps, warn her about something—nopony knew. All this filly knew was that dozens, maybe hundreds of worlds' worth of Rainbow Dashes and Pinkie Pies had gotten infected with the ability and desire to go jumping from world to world, for every reason under the sun, and they were causing endless—some said wonderful—chaos everywhere they went.

Twilight was simultaneously fascinated and inconsolable. She said she didn't know whether to be proud or terrified, nor whether she'd even been the first version of herself to invent fifth wall breaching technology. AJ, however, took it in stride. She arranged for the wayfaring Scootaloo to meet her local twin, which went much better than AJ had expected, and then happily put them both up at the farmhouse for a few days while they got their bearings before the two of them headed off again for places unseen.

AJ thought the weirdness was over, but then came a group of five Scootaloos, all dressed in different studded black costumes and each with her own customized interdimensional scooter. They were touring worlds recently added to the 'map' for leads, and while they were disappointed to hear that this world's Rainbow and Pinkie had already flown the coop, they were excited to hear Twilight's account of, from her perspective, being the first to invent interworld travel technology. "Awesome!" said one Scootaloo.

"Sweet," said a second.

"Bodacious!" exclaimed a third.

It wasn't long before a whole colony of Scootaloos got started. It was well into winter by then, not a good time for building, so the Sweet Apple Acres farmhouse got awfully crowded for a while, but it was all for the best. Big Mac knew how to keep the ruffians under control when they got infectiously unruly, and Princess Celestia, hearing about the situation, sent a pair of guards from the palace to help maintain order. Fluttershy was glad to take in a few of the quieter Scootaloos—including one who was, bizarrely, not a pony at all, but a talking chicken—for days or weeks at a time to keep things running at her place, and Rarity seemed generally glad for the youthful company, monotonous though it might be. There were times the horde got huge—at one point, over three dozen Scootaloos had made this world their headquarters—but at other times, it thinned out to only a scattering. They talked occasionally about relocating to worlds they'd heard were cooler, but AJ made sure they felt so welcome that these plans never came to fruition.

The funniest thing about it all was when AJ led a field trip to Trottingham for a winter rodeo, and five Scootaloos got their cutie marks simultaneously. They were all delighted and excited beyond belief, and interestingly, the marks were all different. There was a scooter with racing stripes, a scooter with painted wheels, a scooter with lightning coming from its handlebars, a silhouetted bull being roped to the ground, and, weirdest of all, a tray of nachos. When Twilight heard about the phenomenon, she threw herself into writing academic papers about cutie mark science—the discovery that one pony could have different marks in different worlds was highly significant. It meant that cutie marks were not destined from birth, but rather depended on circumstances—and if that were true of cutie marks, Applejack mused, surely it was true of love, too? Gradually, it didn't seem so weird that those other Applejacks had had their own tastes in sweethearts. She had Twi, and that was enough. Let Applejacks be Applejacks however they wished, wherever they might call home—she was herself, and she made her life the way she liked it.

Winter Wrap-Up brought a shock. The colony of Scootaloos announced that they'd arranged for a crew of thirty-one Pinkie Pies to drop by, score all the frozen lakes with ice skates, and leave by late morning in order to serve other worlds' Wrap-Ups. AJ fought to remain sane that night.

The next morning, when the thirty-one Pinkies arrived, she bid them howdy-do and passed out mulled hot cider. The horde of Pinkies drank gratefully, commented on how weirdly blue the sky was here or how the snow where they came from was hot, not cold, and generally just did a lot of babbling. Some of them did cartwheels in their ice skates or danced gracefully with each other.

Eventually, AJ blew a whistle to get their attention. All thirty-one Pinkie Pies skidded to a halt, standing stock silent. One of them turned and pointed at another with a grin. “You're silly!”

“Now, look,” said AJ. “You're all silly. But what I want to know is if any of you is native to this world. The Pinkie I know and love.”

There was a murmuring of skates. “How would we know?” asked one.

Applejack was dumbfounded. “I...well...ah s'pose you all have Applejacks more or less like me, huh? Well, lemme ask you this—did any of you leave on a cloudy night, ridin' on Rainbow Dash, by crashin' through a magic window where a barn used t'be?”

“No,” said some of the Pinkies sadly. “That sounds fun!” said others. Some of them resolved to hold Rainbow-riding, magic-window-crashing parties when they got home. But the native Pinkie turned out not to be among the group, so AJ could only watch with a certain solemnity as the mob of Pinkie Pies formed into a row and sped in perfect unison across the lakes...with the exception of two or three who were trying to trip the others up just for fun, one who was inexplicably clumsy, one who had forgotten her ice skates, and one who hurried off to Sugarcube Corner to throw a party for all the others when they were done.

As the year's ploughing began, it came to light that the Interdimensional Council of Scootaloos had begun phasing itself out, reportedly due to a well-inculcated lesson in several of their number from a particularly acute Princess Celestia many worlds away. They had been convinced that the multiverse was unready for interdimensional travel, and perhaps never would be; as such, they were working in tandem with the Twilight Sparkles and other magicians of the various worlds to send everyone home to where they originally came from, and to disable their travel devices once this was done. For some of the Scootaloos, this news was bittersweet; some fought it tooth and hoof, but were outvoted or talked down; others took it easily, their lark complete, while still others accepted it as a solemn duty.

Soon, the colony of Scootaloos was down to half a dozen, and procedures were in place to find a way home even for them, excepting the one native to this world. They stayed up late at night, playing cards and busting dance moves and reminiscing, knowing that their bawdy days of pure camaraderie would soon be over, and they would be forced to return to normal lives, though their bizarre youthful period was something AJ was sure none of them would ever, ever forget.

One morning in early spring, while AJ was still somewhat groggy from a short night's sleep, she answered a knock on the door to find Pinkie Pie standing before her. It took her several seconds to even work out how she ought to feel, which of course was confused—was this the authentic Pinkie, or just another visitor, albeit still worthy of love? It was the latter, it turned out. This Pinkie was a relatively sane, sober specimen of her kind, who explained that she was there to throw a regulation party for the last five rogue Scootaloos in this world before leading them away once and for all. Applejack was sad to hear it, but she nodded. What had to be done had to be done, and it would be nice to have a Pinkie there for the day, for old times' sake.

The day was cold and the party was pleasant, if tame—pin the tail on the pony and block stacking games featured heavily—and just before Pinkie left, with the gaggle of orange fillies gathered outside, she had an afterthought and set a couple of objects on the table—a white package and an orange envelope. "Oooh—I almost forgot! This package is for your Rarity, and the card's for you."

Applejack's heart skipped a beat.

"What's in the package?" she managed to ask.

"No idea! If I knew, though, I wouldn't tell…'cause that'd spoil the surprriii-iiise! I know what the card is, though! It's from the Council of Scootaloos, thanking you for all your hard work these last few months! It's been a weird time for the multiverse, and every little bit of help counts!"

Applejack felt tears coming to her eyes and adrenaline coursing through her legs. "The package! What's in the package?!?"

"I told you, I don't know!"

"Is it a cure?! Is it a cure for an ancient gem-based curse??"

"I don't know!! It could be! That's the sort of thing they send in these packages, so…maybe?"

Applejack clutched the package hard with both forehooves. "Can I open it now?" she demanded. "Or has it got to be in Rarity's presence?"

"I don't make the rules!" said Pinkie Pie. "If you're okay with spoiling what could be a fun surprise…FOREVER!!!…then go right ahead! Anyway, I've gotta be off. Thanks again for everything!"

Applejack nodded numbly and watched the Pinkie from another world lead the gaggle of Scootaloos away through a portal that blinked open just long enough for them to slip through. She took five shallow breaths, struggling to still her heart.

Then she tore open the box.

[+][+][+][+][+]

"RARITY! RARITY!!!"

Applejack hollered as she raced down the path, the grass-covered cottage finally coming into view after what seemed like twice the time it should have taken.

"RARITY!!!" she called again. Fluttershy was there on the grass already—that was quick! Had someone warned her? Applejack hurried up, ready to—oh no. Fluttershy was crying. Oh no, Celestia, no! She was bowing her head, her wings folded. Oh no!!

"Fluttershy?!" Applejack called.

Fluttershy looked up in surprise. "Applejack?" she whimpered.

Applejack stopped short before Fluttershy, peering at the yellow pegasus's ragged form, taking in her uneven breaths. "Oh no!" she cried. "Tell me it ain't!"

Fluttershy only lowered herself to the ground and wept.

"…Rarity?" asked Applejack, barely able to speak.

The pegasus nodded in silence.

"NOOOO!!" This wasn't fair! It wasn't fair!! NOW!? Those idiots, those interdimensional idiots, had the whole WINTER to deliver that damned package! But they'd taken their sweet time, hadn't they? Applejack collapsed, heaving thick tears on Fluttershy's lawn. "No-o…"

"Rarity's dying," whispered Fluttershy.

Applejack gasped. Her head shot up. "Come again? Dying? Not dead?! Dying??"

Fluttershy looked up, eyes round. "Yes," she said, soft as a feather. "The doctor was just here—she said it was irreversible…"

"Let me in!!" shouted Applejack. She leapt for the door and banged it open, not waiting for Fluttershy. "Where is she??"

But she was on the settee, where she always was. Applejack fumbled with her bag. "Rarity…" she rasped.

Fluttershy hurried in behind. "What's happening??"

Applejack pushed a diamond-tipped glass instrument something like a thermometer into Rarity's mouth. The unicorn was non-responsive, but the instrument whirred. Five tiny symbols appeared in the glass circle at its base, ornate forms in brown, blue and green. Applejack threw a book onto the floor in front of Fluttershy while putting her own eye to the instrument. "Look these up! First—a lizard with a crown!"

Fluttershy gaped, but started to flip through the book, filled as it was with symbols and descriptions. "What color lizard?"

"Blue!" shouted Applejack.

"Um…what shade of bl—"

"Blue like a—blue like the part of a blue jay that's mixed with black in the middle of a wing—blue like a poison frog—blue like the sky at the horizon at dusk in the spring—blue like a far-off mountain covered in mist—blue like the blue in Dash's mane, or like one of Pinkie's eyes, but in the middle, not the top!"

"…Azure?" hazarded Fluttershy.

"Yes, AZURE, AZURE!!" Applejack would never forget that word so long as she lived.

"It's…it says it's a cockatrice king who once ruled the Nibion Keys. Applejack, what is this book? What is it telling us?"

"It's telling us WHO the royal bastard was who set that boobytrap and HOW we can fix it!!"

Fluttershy gasped with hope. She didn't ask how. She didn't waste time cheering with joy. All she said was, "The next symbol, please?"

[+][+][+][+][+]

It was a trap, all right. A trap laid at the tomb of the king's spawn (cockatrices didn't have children, properly speaking), slain by a pony champion. The necklace was meant to slowly destroy the pony who would come looking to defile the tomb of this cockatrice prince and steal the riches buried with him. There was no telling how the box containing it had made it so far inland. Maybe it had been looted from the Keys long ago, taken many a league and lost again, and it was just Rarity's bad luck that she was the first pony to touch the thing, since the trap wouldn't have sprung for any other species. It didn't matter. All that mattered was getting their hooves on the gem's brass and nickel-iron casing—thank heavens they'd kept it—and chanting the words in the book while passing the big glimmering ring over it that had come in the kit—and curse it, they needed a unicorn, just a spark to consummate the spell! Why hadn't Applejack read the full instructions in advance??

"Rarity," said Fluttershy, shaking her soulmate's shoulders. "Rarity, I know you're almost gone, but we need one last favor from you before you can rest. Just one little spark for this magic ring. That's all we need."

Her voice was expertly pitched between cajoling and demanding. Applejack admired the way she spoke, the way she grasped the unicorn between her forelegs…but even so, Rarity was unconscious and wasn't waking up, and Applejack thought desperately of running off to find a unicorn, any unicorn, for help…

…and now Fluttershy had slipped the ring around Rarity's horn, and was leaning forward to kiss her…

-BZZLAHMM!- There was a sizzling explosion. Applejack felt her cheek and jaw being scorched, she saw Fluttershy's hair being burned off her face, she wondered how a pony as weak as Rarity would ever survive a blast like that…

But it was Rarity gasping that she heard next, and her moans were more powerful than Fluttershy's, her body stirring. Applejack rose to her hooves and watched. Rarity's face was charred black, a big chunk missing from the front of her mane, but she was moving…and the color was back in her eyes.

"What in the world?!" she moaned. "Whatever happened to me? Applejack? Flutter, dearest? Has something gone wrong?"

"No," said Fluttershy," her own face a mask of charcoal gray. "Something went very right."

Rarity raised her head and reflected; Applejack could see her thinking back. "I'm—you…" She smiled cautiously. "Am I cured?!"

"You tell us, sugarcube! Can you see all right?"

"Yes, yes! And I can think! And my joints are—and—" She concentrated, raising a compact mirror to her face with a shimmer of levitation magic, but dropped the mirror with a scream.

"…Your magic still hurts?" asked Fluttershy.

"My magic is fine," said Rarity. "But my face! And yours! What in Equestria? We need to get to the spa, stat!!"

"Ah reckon Zecora's place might be a better choice," remarked Applejack. Her lungs were liberated—her burden was lifted. She felt magical.

"Yes, I suppose that would be adequate," Rarity agreed. "Do you suppose the two of you might fill me in on the way?"

"Oh, Applejack was very strong," said Fluttershy. "She came racing over with a kit to lift your curse in the nick of time. But she still hasn't told me where she got it!"

"Pinkie's to thank, one way or another," pronounced Applejack. "Or maybe it was Rainbow, or Scootaloo. Or some other world's Twilight Sparkle. Who knows! All I know is, it came as a gift. The same Pinkie that took my last few Scootaloos away dropped it off like it was nothin'."

Rarity took in a huge, appreciative breath and walked out the still-open door. Applejack had the idea that if you didn't know who to thank, you thanked the whole, big, wonderful world at large. Well, that was plenty good enough for her.

Thank you.

[+][+][+][+][+]

Farm life. Made possible by the land, the sun, the rain, the good and growing things of the earth, and who or whatever originally created them, far or near, as well as by the good grace of society.

Applejack was grateful for it all these days. She'd had her taste of providence from afar, and it had driven home just how little in the grand scheme of things she was able to control. But that made her precious acreage all the sweeter.

They weren't planting this year, and that gave them time for Twilight's new techniques. For the first time, AJ and Mac were grafting shoots from mature trees onto young ones, so that they could start producing faster. They'd stacked up the bales in the hay barn all the way to the ceiling so Twilight could use the other half for her 'lab'. A new barn was on the to-do list, but that could wait till budding season was over.

So far, AJ was picking up injection grafting pretty quickly, even if it did feel a little unkind to be tampering with the natural life cycle of her precious trees. Twilight was excited about it, and AJ didn't doubt she had good reason. She'd been tempted to rebuild her fifth wall viewer over the winter, but that was out of the picture now: According to Princess Celestia, there was a multiversal accord forming, and the conclusion its leaders were forming was that the walls between worlds should be respected once again…for now. She'd send word when it was okay for Twilight to publish—until then, it was back to life as normal.

Except that with a pony like Twilight as your mate, things were never normal for long. Even as AJ learned to dip, pierce and wax her grafts with speedy confidence, she knew the next adventure life threw at her wouldn't be far off.

She missed Pinkie and Dash, she really did. It gnawed at her heart sometimes to think of them. But they were happy, wherever they were—AJ knew that. They'd given up their home in order to save Rarity, and they'd stirred up a thousand messes in a thousand worlds and were no doubt living the adventure of a lifetime in some distant land. So long as they were getting what they deserved, AJ didn't feel like she'd really lost them.

Rarity's mane was growing back, and her and Fluttershy's faces were almost back to normal. Applejack couldn't keep herself from grinning whenever she saw them. They looked like members of a secret club, their singed facial hair telling the world they'd been through something together. If only it had been something as trivial as an explosion.

But they did seem happier for having gone through it all. Rarity was a mite less haughty these days…AJ figured she took her glamour and health less for granted. She still lived with Fluttershy in the cottage, but went up to the boutique most days, glad to work with customers again. Apple Bloom now occupied the bedroom that'd once been Rarity's, and AJ didn't doubt her resourceful little sister would be running the shop one day, if not opening her own somewhere.

For now, Spike was still at the farm, but he spent a good three days a week with Apple Bloom. AJ had helped her with the letter home about it. Ma and Pa hadn't been thrilled to hear who their little girl had taken up with, but they didn't object. They knew that youth went through phases and changes, anyhow, and there was no telling what the future held for this odd couple.

Dip, pierce, wax. Dip, pierce, wax. Make the future bright. Coax the apples into the sun. Feed the ponies, keep the town running. Work with the seasons, work with the spring.

A funny thought popped into her head. Was there an Applejack somewhere whose cutie mark wasn't a set of ripe apples? Heh. AJ could hardly conceive of such a thing.

[+][+][+][+][+]

"Question Ten. Does your mate question your business decisions?"

It was good, after a hard afternoon's work, to lie in the yard, lazily peeling and coring last year's surplus and munching liberally when the urge took you. The new issue of Tarpan was here, the scent of apple cake was in the air, the sun was bright, and life was sweet.

AJ lifted her head saucily. "You wouldn't be you if you didn't," she observed.

"Am I that bad?" asked Twilight.

"Twi, just last week you were givin' me grief over callin' my products 'applicious'. That ain't a reliable metric, you said. It ain't properly testable, you said."

"Well, it's true! Besides, I don't like the precedent it sets for a name like Owlicious."

"Well there's that, I s'pose. But on the whole, ah shouldn't complain. I mean this business is yours too, after all."

Twilight grinned. "You really mean that?"

"Course I do. The more involved you are, the better off we are as a family. That's why I look in on you at least twice a day—to make sure you don't get up to nothing too pernicious."

"Do you even know what pernicious means?" Twilight teased.

"Sure ah do." AJ tilted her head. "…It means perny an' delicious. Right?"

Twilight laughed. She was about to announce the next question when there was a sudden flash from the site of the former barn.

"Day one-nineteen, world fifty-six!" exclaimed a familiar, perky voice. "Your turn Dashie—what's wrong with this one?"

"Uh…let's see. Gimme a minute."

AJ was on her feet in a second. Gaping. Was it…could it really be…?

Sure enough! Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie were standing there, not a furlong away, their backs loaded with packs and their flanks and rumps gussied up with exotic equipment. But were these the Dash and Pinkie they knew, or just another pair of roving travelers?

Dash looked from the farmhouse to the sky to Twilight and AJ, taking them in like they were scene dressing. "I, uh…um…huh! I don't know. Everything kinda checks out."

"It does?" exclaimed Pinkie. "You're kidding." She sniffed the air and looked at the ground—and jumped. "Dashie! Look!"

"What?"

"The grass! See how it's not growing here? In this five-sided shape!?"

"Five-sid…The barn!!"

"Yes!! It's where the barn used to be!" Pinkie looked again at AJ, now seeing her anew with eyes full of wonder. "Applejack? Is that really you? Are we really back?!"

"Pinkie!" yelled Applejack, rushing over. "Sugarcube!!" Twilight was right behind her, calling Dash's name.

"Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh," babbled Dash. "Is this really home?? We've been to so many worlds…" Her eyes gained harsh focus. "Twilight. Do you remember the last thing I said to you?"

"Yes," said Twilight. "You said you hoped everypony would forgive you. But I didn't know then you were planning on destroying my invention and AJ's barn and disappearing!"

"Oh my gosh, that's right! You are the real Twilight. We are home!!"

"WOOO-HOOO!!!" shouted Pinkie, confetti and streamers exploding from her back. "We've missed you so much!!" She hesitated. "We destroyed your machine? I didn't know that would happen."

Twilight nodded. "The Princess took what was left of it."

"Didn't stop us from getting' company, though," said AJ. "Over the winter, this here farmhouse put up more Scootaloos'n you could shake a stick at."

Dash snerked. "Oh my gosh, really? That kid is so funny! You have not lived until you've woken at four in the morning surrounded by fifty identical fillies begging you to show them how to do a Super Speed Strut."

"Well, we've still got one, and I'm sure she'll be burstin' at the seams when she hears you're back. Oh, Dash!" AJ gave her a tight hug. "No more zippin' off through the fifth wall, alright?"

"You got it!" said Dash, throwing her packs to the ground. "We've been trying to find this place for over a month! There's so many places out there that're almost right, but not quite…I thought we'd never get back."

Pinkie stood tensely, hair quivering. "Oh no, I just remembered! Did you get your Rarity kit?"

"Our…Oh, you mean the cure! Yes, yes, we did! She's hale as porridge! Did you send it?"

"Ehh, not exactly. I mean, at some point someone realized there were, like, fifty-something Raritys who got zapped by gems in their world, and not all of them had the stuff they needed to fix it, so that got bundled into the standard fixer-upper package."

"Fixer-upper package?" asked Twilight.

"Yeah! To take care of all the problems that made all those Pinkies and Rainbows and Scootaloos go questing! You didn't think we were the only ones, did you?" Pinkie asked.

"No, but I kind of thought you were the first."

"Could be. There's like four other Pinkies and two Rainbows who think they were the first to spread the tech, so who knows? We're the only couple with that claim, though, as far as we know!"

"And that makes us the best!" Rainbow summed up. "So everything's doing great here?" She looked to Pinkie. "I think I know what this calls for!"

"A party?" squealed Pinkie. "Oh no! I just realized—I can't throw myself a welcome back party because I'm the one being welcomed back! And that just doesn't work!"

"Who says?" scoffed Rainbow. "If you want to throw your own welcome back party, go ahead and throw it! Who's gonna stop you?"

"Sure won't be me," said AJ. "For my part, I'll do my best t'make it one fer the ages." She raised her head and whooped through the window: "Granny Smith! Get them apple cakes ready for trav'lin', 'cause there's gonna be one bushwhacker of a party tonight!!"

[+][+][+][+][+]

And there was. Pinkie spent years trying to top that party, but she never quite managed it. There was magic in the way everypony came together, excited beyond mere words to have their town's prodigal daughters back. There were loaves of garlic bread, and carrot cake, and muffins, and punch, and root beer, and salt licks, and fancy crackers, and banana pudding, and strawberry shortcake, and do-it-yourself brownie sundaes, and tater tots, and pinatas, and hopscotch, and charades, and live music, and phonograph music, and Marco Polo, and regular polo, and competitive streamer wrapping, and non-competitive streamer dancing, and aerial gymnastics, and synchronized bouncing, and balloon volleyball, and one very, very happy Scootaloo.

It went on all through the night and well into the next day, and by the time many of the guests had gone home and everyone else was tired, Pinkie and Rainbow were holding forth. They were standing on the stairs, telling anypony who would listen about how they'd started out their journey with different visions of the multiverse—Pinkie had relished the idea of a world exploding and exploding again in every direction, buzzing with infinite possibilities, while Rainbow had favored the concept of destiny—identifying the best, fastest path at all times and zooming like an arrow through the tunnel of life. As their love for each other had grown, of course, they'd come together, and now settled for the idea of riding the winds of the infinite explosion wherever it seemed their personal destiny meant to take them.

"If we've learned anything from all this," pointed out a woozy Twilight, "it's that the whole soulmate concept isn't true at all. Not that we don't form deep and meaningful bonds with the ones most important to us…" She glanced with a flushed smile in AJ's direction. "…but clearly, there's no one special pony that we're meant to be with. With the right circumstances and the right effort, we could end up happy with any number of different partners."

"Exactly!" said Pinkie. "And if you focus too much on one particular life…the life you just happen to be really living…"

"…you end up neglecting all the totally awesome other lives you could be living," finished Rainbow.

"And even if we can't live them all," said Fluttershy, "it's good to know that they're there."

"Hear, hear!" cried a ribbon-festooned Rarity, levitating her wine glass for a toast. Everyone gladly joined in.

"So what's next for Dashie Pie?" asked a sleep-deprived Spike, nursing a virgin dragonberry mojito. "Can I call you that? Dashie Pie?"

"Well now you've got to!" giggled Pinkie. "It's just too cute not to! And I figure the next step is for me to get my own place, which I should totally be able to afford once I've sold all the completely amazingly awesome magical technology I brought back from my trip! I'm serious—we're talking self-baking gingerbread, here!"

"Whereas I'm gonna hit the lecture circuit," said Dash, "and tell everyone about my adventures! That way when I'm a Wonderbolt someday, they'll know who I am!"

"And by the time you get back, continued Pinkie, "I should have juuust about enough balloons to lift my house into the sky, and then we can live together!"

"Forever!" exclaimed Dash.

"FOREVVVEERRRR!!!" keened Pinkie, rubbing her face in her lover's multicolored mane.

"And then," said Dash, "we're gonna adopt about fifty kids. We'll have one house on the ground for the ones who can't fly, and a big aerial sportsyard for the ones who can!"

"Fifty!" cried AJ. She hailed from a big family, but still. "Ain't that a bit much?"

"Believe me," replied Rainbow, "after what we've been through? That'll be nothing."

"What about me?" cried Scootaloo, emerging from a pile of exhausted foals in a play area. "Can I be one of them? I could really use a home."

"Scoots," grinned Rainbow, "I want you to be the first. We can practice raising kids with you! Get really good at it before we hit the big leagues."

Scootaloo practically exploded up the stairs to give Rainbow a hug. "I promise it'll be worth it! I won't let you down!"

There was a general sigh of tenderness. "So that's gonna be your life, huh?" summarized AJ. "One big, rambunctious family in the clouds?"

"Yyyyep! But don't worry," said Pinkie Pie, whirling her tail. "If things ever get too boring, I'll whirr up the ol' randomizer I call my brain and come up with a new crazy idea! With so many possibilities out there, we'll never be bored!"

"Oh yeah?" challenged Dash swankily. "Prove it."

Pinkie grinned, gritting her teeth and puffing up her hair. Her eyes raced in their sockets and her tail spun with a rising hum, until—click! "I've got it! Toaster music!! We could be professional toaster musicians. We'd collect all the toasters we could find and figure out what sounds they all make, and time them so they all pop up in harmony, and we could break dry pieces of toast for percussion, and scrape knifes of jelly across them like a-schick-a-schick-a-schick-a-schick, and then we could pass out the toast to the audience afterward! We'd be breakfast sensations!!"

Dash first stared, then gaped happily, and finally nuzzled Pinkie with unbridled affection. "Pinkie Pie…you are so stochastic!"

"I know! And don't you just love me for it??"

Dash came up grinning brightly. "Are you kidding? It's the best thing about you!!"

Pinkie squealed with delight and threw herself at Dash.

It was all hugs and possibilities from there.

Six ponies. Fifteen combinations.

Five alternate universes.

Infinite potential.

*

Author's Note:

It's the gigantic finale!! I hoped you liked it. When I started the project, I had no plans of tying all the chapters together with an alternate universe exploration plot, but the idea grew and grew on me until it was the thing to do. It meant the last chapter had to be a lot longer than any of the others, but that just makes for more to love, right?

Look at that--I anticipated the carrot crepes from "One Bad Apple". Yum! I also totally anticipated "Too Many Pinkie Pies" with my horde of Pinkies scoring the lake! :D I liked that episode, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more if the duplicate Pinkies hadn't been hollow, one-dimensional versions of the original. The scene in this chapter, though brief, illustrates a little of what that might have been like. I'm especially tickled by the idea of one Pinkie Pie turning to another for no apparent reason and claiming, "You're silly!"

Oh! The alternate title for this chapter was "Good Things Come in Fives". Did you notice all the random fives I threw in? There's a bunch.

If you think I lost sight of the original shipping project in favor of more complex plots, you're right! Guilty as charged. :> That kind of drift happens sometimes, and I learned a thing or two from writing this. For example, some readers wanted to see more Dashie Pie, and I sympathize. Too bad--their courtship was a maelstrom of adventures I thought was better left unwritten! But I may yet write some of it as an appendix to The Combinatorics Project. I wrote a song about them to the tune of the end credits song in Portal 2, and if I do write that appendix, I'll include it at the end.

Comments please! What did you think? :=)