• Published 20th Jan 2013
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The Irony of Applejack - Mister Friendly



Applejack has never told a lie. Merely... omitted some details about herself...

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Chapter 3: The Plans We Make

Chapter 3: The Plans We Make

Vigil sat at his desk, his head resting leisurely on one hoof.

All of the windows to his inn room had been drawn, blocking out the fading light of the waning day. Only a single lit candle provided flickering, ghostly illumination, leaving vast quantities of his surroundings drowned in darkness.

If anypony were to lay eyes on the stallion, they might’ve assumed that he was daydreaming, or at the very least lost in thought.

But inside, his mind was working at a million miles an hour.

Again and again he saw that changeling in the cottage flash across his mind’s eye. It’d only been fleeting, and only come about due to a shot in the dark hunch, but…

He’d seen her. He’d seen her amber-gold mane, and more importantly, he’d seen her golden eyes. No normal changeling had eyes like that, and most were lucky to have more than a tattered fringe in their natural forms.

Only one thing had eyes and a mane like that. But therein lay the heart of the problem. Just why was there a queen in Ponyville? And an unknown queen at that…

Vigil continued to stare into space, struggling to crunch his thoughts into some semblance of organization. He knew he had to capitalize on this, and as soon as possible. But how…?

A staccato beat on the front door very nearly made him jump. He did, however, snap back to reality and turn his head towards the offending noise.

But rather than speak up immediately, he waited in silence. Exactly six seconds later, a single rap reached his ears.

“Come in.”

The door shifted, hissing over the carpet as it was pushed open.

A second later, it was being ushered shut again by a lime green earth pony. She was laden down with saddlebags fit to burst, yet the weight didn’t seem to bother her.

“What took you so long,” Vigil inquired, hiding his impatience behind a wall of indifference.

The mare seemed to catch on, though, and flinched a little. “I’m sorry, sir, but the materials you requested aren’t exactly easy to get short notice.”

She approached, casting a careful eye around the room – in particular, towards each and every window as if expecting to find it occupied by unwanted viewers. “Gathering information on an Element of Harmony isn’t exactly easy to do without leaving a hoofprint somewhere.”

“Did you?” Vigil asked, his voice gaining an almost imperceptible edge to it.

“The most we’ll have to worry about are some confused accountants at city hall,” the mare responded. “Nothing will trace back to us.”

“Good. Now, what did you find?”

The mare nodded, then carefully pulled the fat saddlebags from her back and placed them at the edge of Vigil’s desk.
No sooner had she let it go did an acidic green aura envelope it.

Guided by invisible hands, the bags were pried open, and out floated over a dozen manila folders and an ancient tome or two. All arranged themselves before the mustard stallion, who cast his eyes critically over them.

Once he’d gotten everything situated, the mare spoke again.

“For the most part, we didn’t find much of interest. She was raised by the Apple family, who practically founded this city. She’s friends with Twilight Sparkle - personal student to Princess Celestia herself - and the bearer of the Element of Honesty.”

Vigil exhaled a little too hard, coming dangerously close to a chuckle. “Ironic.”

“Indeed,” the mare responded before waving a hoof over the pilfered documents. “But nothing stood out, at least officially.”

Vigil nodded. That made sense, after all; changelings take the places of ponies all the time, and without a paper trail as consequence. This was nothing groundbreaking, and yet his associate clearly had something else to offer, or else she wouldn’t have come to him with useless information.

And after a moment, the mare delivered.

“But there was one thing that raised some questions.”

Vigil cocked an eyebrow quizzically and turned an eye towards her. "Such as…?”

She took the prompt to step forward and pull out a single, worn piece of official-looking paper from a non-descript folder bearing only a single word on the side.

Applejack.

“It’s… well, it’s this,” she said, presenting the document for Vigil to go over.

Upon laying eyes on the ornately bordered paper, however, his intrigue only grew. “A birth certificate?”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s very well done – almost flawless, in fact – but… it’s fake.”

Seeing Vigil’s brow quirk up further, she pointed with a hoof. “See the physician? We did a background check, and while there was a Doctor Loboto in Ponyville at the time, he was most certainly not qualified to be delivering foals.”

“Is that so…?” Vigil said, eyes narrowing.

Once more, his curiosity was hitting him full force.

A changeling taking the place of a pony was believable, even expected. A queen doing the same was likewise understandable. Shocking, but not revolutionary .

But the birth certificate in front of him seemed to be pointing to something else entirely…

“Um… sir?”

Once more, Vigil set aside his thoughts to regard the pony still standing beside him.

For the first time, she had a frown on her face, one that betrayed just a touch of unease. “Are we really going to look into an Element of Harmony? We could jeopardize the whole operation if we’re not careful.”

“That’s what you’re all here for,” Vigil responded, sounding almost disinterested. “But we cannot pass up something like this. The possibilities are far too promising.”

The mare bit her lip, but said nothing.

Vigil turned away from her, once more casting his eyes over the possible treasure trove of information at his hooves.
“If there is even the slightest possibility of a hive existing that we do not know about, Her Highness will want to know of it.”

He paused as he casually lifted an old photo from amid the turmoil in front of him – a little orange filly with freckles splashed across her face, standing amid what he assumed to be family members.

“Continue your operations as before, Hyacinth, but be prepared. We may be pulling out sooner than expected…”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Hyacinth.”

The mare halted, already halfway towards the door, before turning to meet Vigil’s calm gaze.

“Keep an eye on the farm,” Vigil said distractedly, already casting an eye back to the field of papers on the desk. “I’d rather not let opportunity pass us by.”

“As you say.”

With that, his associate quietly exited the room, and promptly left Vigil’s thoughts.

Still holding the photo in his magical grip, he gazed at the smiling filly thoughtfully, his mind already alive with possibilities.

He had plans to make.

~~***~~

The sun was hardly more than a bloody red ball on the very edge of the horizon, bathing Sweet Apple Acres in a fiery crimson light.

Crows cawed in the distance, signaling the end of the day for many. Crickets sang to the fading day, echoing from far and wide in an almost endless drone of chirping. In the distance, rogue clouds began to make their stealthy reconnoiter from the Everfree, carrying with them a stormy omen.

Applejack quietly trudged through the orchards, taking her time to enjoy the crisp air blowing through her orange coat.

Now with her headache nothing but a distant memory, she casually strolled along at an easy canter. Dinner would be served soon, and she was more than ready to get back to her routine.

With Winona darting ahead, probably hot on the tail of some innocent squirrel, she could feel the weight on her heart shifting – not falling away, but certainly moving to a better position to be carried.

She smiled to herself, her thoughts already filling with what her agenda would be for the following day.

So many trees still stubbornly clung to their leaves – she’d have to take care of that, before they fell and froze to the ground. Oh, and she’d need to apologize to Twilight for snapping at her. And Rainbow, too, but mostly Twilight. She didn’t deserve—

SKRAAAG!!

Applejack nearly jumped halfway out of her skin at what she could’ve sworn was the mating call of a wild Ursa Major. It was certainly loud enough.

“Landsakes, what in tarnation…?”

She fell short, however, when she spotted the culprit, and it most certainly wasn’t a beast of epic proportions.

All she needed to see was a prismatic tuft of tail hair dangling from a nearby tree to know exactly what she was dealing with.

Peering up into the branches only confirmed her suspicions; Rainbow Dash was sound asleep in the crook of a bough, snoring loud enough to wake the dead.

Applejack could only shake her head in bemusement. A part of her had half a mind to just leave the dang pony where she lay. She probably deserved the soreness she’d get in the morning.

But the better part of her won out.

“Hey, Rainbow,” she called up into the tree, not even bothering to hide her grin.

The Pegasus snorted, flailed her limbs, and rolled over.

“Rainbow, if ya don’t wake up right now, I’m gonna buck ya right outta that there tree.”

This time, the Pegasus snorted, flailed her limbs, then cracked open a bleary eye. “Whowazzat…?”

Applejack couldn’t help but chuckle at the dazed look on her friend’s face. It was obvious that she wasn’t long for this world.

“Git yer lazy flank down here, sugarcube,” she ordered.

“Whadahuh…?”

Applejack’s face scrunched up, her patience starting to fade.

In the Apple family household, dinner waited for nopony, and she was not losing another piece of apple cobbler to Big Mac’s accursed hollow leg on account of a sleepy weather pony crashing in her orchard.

“That’s it. Don’t say Ah didn’t warn ya,” Applejack declared with a wicked grin.

“That’s nice…”

“Oh, ya have no idea, sugarcube,” Applejack all-but cackled under her breath as she turned around.

And a moment later, she gave Rainbow ‘nice’.

With a mighty ‘ka-THWACK’, she bucked the apple tree with all her might. As one, every single aged leaf dropped in a singular mass from the branches, crashing onto the ground below.

And amid the chaos, a sleeping pegasus was dislodged from her makeshift bed.

By the time the leaves settled around Applejack’s hooves, Rainbow was laid out squarely across her back – exactly on target.

To her utter disbelief, however, Dash only clambered with consciousness for a few brief seconds.

“I swear, it was the one-armed mare…”

“What in the world are you—”

A deafening snore cut her short.

Sweet merciful Celestia, she’s still sleepin’? That mare ain't natural.

Applejack had been hoping a little bit of free fall would rouse her friend. It hadn’t failed her before.

Throwing a glance over her shoulder, she saw the heavy circles under Rainbow’s eyes. Sleeping sideways across her back couldn’t have been comfortable, but there she was, out like a light.

The farm pony could only let out a good-humored sigh as she headed off, extra weight and all.

As she started to leave, she cast one more glance over her shoulder; this time to the tree she’d retrieved her friend from.

Not a leaf remained on its branches, a fact that brought a satisfied grin to her face.

Gettin’ better every time…

~~***~~

“Is she dead?”

That was the first thing Applejack heard when she pushed open the front door to the Apple family house. There stood Apple Bloom, looking way too innocent and curious for what’d just come out of her mouth.

“Uh… beg pardon?”

The little filly glanced from her sister to the apparent corpse lying across her back. When Applejack realized what her sister was getting at, she was understandably aghast.

“Apple Bloom! Why would ya go and say somethin’ like that?”

“Well,” she started, now fidgeting a little. “She ain't movin’, and well… Ah ain't tried Cutie Mark Crusaders Undertaker yet.”

“Apple Bloom, ya’ll are not buryin’ Rainbow. Again.”

The little filly bowed her head in a show of remorse. “Ah said Ah was sorry…”

Applejack sighed, and was about to give Apple Bloom a lecture when the air was split by the sound of what could only be described as a hundred trees splitting.

“Oh! She’s alive after all,” Apple Bloom cheered.

Then immediately got very still as a thought occurred to her.

“Does that mean Ah can be a Cutie Mark Crusader Zombie Apocalypse Survivor?”

“Where in the – who told ya – Go to yer room!”

Whining her complaint, Apple Bloom did as she was told, dragging her hooves as she went.

Her departure only cleared the way for another family member to fill the void she left. Of course, Big Macintosh wasn’t quite so nosy. He just stepped into the doorway and cast an inquisitive eye towards the pony-laden mare.

“Howdy. Macintosh,” Applejack greeted with a smile. “Did Ah miss much?”

“Nope,” he responded, though his eyes were resting not on her, but the pegasus on her back.

Seeing this, AJ couldn’t help but cock an eyebrow curiosly. “Somethin’—”

She was drowned out once again by the mother of all snores, one so powerful that she herself could feel it rattling her teeth. There was a beat of silence as the two siblings just stared wide eyed at each other.

“She ain't sleepin’ in the house, is she?”

“Nope.”

“Thought not. Alright, the barn it is.”

When she turned and headed outside, however, she was surprised to hear the thuds of heavy hooves keeping pace behind her.

“Ya don’t have ta come with,” Applejack said bemusedly without turning around. Big Mac was silent as ever, so Applejack didn’t feel like objecting to the company further.

The two walked in silence all the way out into the fading daylight, the only sound between them being the serenade of crickets in the yellowing grass. And, of course, the ungodly snoring of Rainbow.

And they kept that silence right up until AJ pushed open the barn door.

“Got somethin’ on yer mind, Macintosh?”

The big red stallion hesitated mid-step, then decided he’d come far enough and planted his hooves.

“Eeyup.”

“Well—”

Another ear-splitting snore ripped through the chilly air.

“Well get it off yer chest,” she finished as she headed for a mound of hay.

While she worked at situating her friend, Big Mac considered just what to say. All day, Rainbow’s plea had embedded itself into his thoughts. He just couldn’t get rid of the possibility that maybe… just maybe…

“She came ‘round while you were restin’,” Big Mac told her.

Applejack grew still for a moment, pausing in her efforts to lower the sleeping mare onto her new bed. “That so?” she asked, trying very hard to sound nonchalant.

“Eeyup. Seemed ta me like she thought somethin’ was buggin’ ya somethin’ fierce.”

Applejack’s response was to sigh in irritation. “Ah already told her and Twi’; Ah’m fine. I ain't gonna let somethin’ like that invasion get ta me.”

“But it did,” Big Mac pointed out.

Once more, Applejack hesitated, this time turning to look at her brother. In the gloom of the barn, all he saw was the ruby glint off her eyes cast from the setting sun at his back.

“Big Mac… We’ve been over this, and it ain't up fer discussion no more,” she said softly, but firmly.

“Yer friends seem ta think otherwise,” he stated.

For a moment, Applejack turned to look at Rainbow’s sleeping form, her expression unreadable.

She let out another deafening snore and flopped onto her back, abandoning all feminine pretenses whatsoever and very nearly tossing aside the blanket AJ had drapped over her. The odds of it staying in place through the night were slim, at best.

She kept her expression intentionally neutral before turning away to walk towards her brother. “What do ya want me ta do?” she asked him quietly. “Ya know I can’t tell ‘em.”

“And ya can’t lie ‘bout it, neither,” Mac pointed out evenly.

Applejack shot him a sour look. “It ain't lyin’ if they never think ta ask about it.”

Her brother was silent for a moment, his eyes once more drifting towards the slumbering form of Rainbow.

What he said next was exactly what Applejack didn’t want to hear.

“They’re askin’, Applejack.”

She felt a cold wave run through her chest, one she wasn’t accustomed to feeling.

Fear.

“Sooner or later, yer gonna have ta confide in somepony,” Big Mac pointed out. “Granny Smith ain't gonna be ‘round forever, and sooner or later Apple Bloom is gonna want ta go chase her dreams like you did.”

He once more returned his eyes to his sister, an oddly barren look contained within. “Ah love ya, sis, but ya know Ah can’t keep ya strong forever.”

Applejack could no longer hold her brother’s gaze, and instead turned to look at the Apple family household; towards the bright and inviting windows and the gently puffing chimney.

The thought of all that disappearing was… brutal.

“What do ya want me ta do,” she repeated, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Friendship ain't gonna fill that hole, and who in their right mind would love a changelin’, huh?”

She started moving then – anything to shake off the chill creeping under her skin.

“Nopony has to know, Big Mac, and since it’s worked fer me so far, nopony will. Whatever comes, Ah’ll make due – just you see.”

Her brother didn’t move. He only turned his head to watch her progress back to the farm.

“Don’t ya even want to try?”

Applejack froze mid-step. She didn’t turn to face her brother, but the ice in her voice was clear enough for anypony to hear.

“Ah had that chance taken from me already. Now drop it – Ah ain't talkin’ ‘bout this no more, ya hear?”

“Applejack…”

“Ya hear?”

“… Eeyup.”

Applejack sighed, slumping her shoulders slightly as she bowed her head. “Thanks, Macintosh. Now let’s get movin’ before dinner gets cold.”

~~***~~

From her vantage point, Hyacinth watched the Stetson-wearing earth pony and the towering red stallion head up towards the farmhouse.

The stallion knows? Hm…

She stroked her chin in thought while she mulled over the situation.

When her quarry slipped into the house and out of sight, she continued to dwell in her tree, motionless. Even as the last rays of sunlight bled from the sky, she stayed put. When the sounds of ponies talking and laughing inside the house started to die down, she stayed put.

Only when the last light in the house went off did she move.

As silent as a bat, she spread her wings and soared out from cover, ghosting across the moonlit yard in only a second or two.

Then she inserted herself into a new tree – one with an unerring view into a darkened bedroom. She couldn’t see the occupant – it was too dark for that – but she could easily make out the Stetson hanging from the bedpost by the window.

There she settled, and there she would remain.

Just like the other dozen pairs of icy eyes glimmering in the dark.

~~***~~

Fire raged all around her, swallowing entire orchards in a hellish inferno. Rainbow stared around helplessly, watching as the familiar farm was reduced to nothing but ash.

And before her stood Applejack, her face set in a stubborn scowl, her back turned to her. “Ah said Ah can handle this, Rainbow! This don’t concern you!”

No sooner did she finish speaking did the farmhouse detonate with enough force to send Rainbow skittering back a step or two. Every window and door burst open with a seething oven of flames. The roof blew itself clean off, exploding in a terrific fireball over the burning farm.

“Come on, AJ!” Rainbow pleaded, desperate. “Let me help!”

Hardly ten feet over her head was a fat, dark rain cloud. One buck, and it’d end this catastrophe in easily ten seconds.
But Applejack just shook her head angrily. “Ah told ya Ah don’t need yer help, and I stand by it! I don’t need nopony’s help!”

The barn let out a horrible groaning sound louder than the roar of flames.

Just as Rainbow snapped her eyes onto it, the old structure buckled to one side, and with an almighty crash of splintering wood and raging fire, it came down with all the fanfare of a bomb detonating.

“This is crazy, Applejack!” Rainbow pleaded, taking a step towards her friend. “Just let me help you already!”

She froze in her tracks, however, when Applejack turned her head to glare at her out of the corner of one eye.
Her emerald eyes seemed to glow, brighter than even the blaze around them.

“Ya can’t,” she stated flatly, just as the wall of crimson flames reached them…

~~***~~

Rainbow sat bolt upright out of bed, a cry just barely getting past her lips.

“Appleja—”

Her voice withered before it’d even finished, reality setting in. With a groan, she flopped back onto her bed, feeling somehow less rested than ever before.

Just a dream… of course it was just a dream…

She pressed one foreleg over her eyes and bit her lip.

Stupid dream…

For several minutes, she just laid there, waiting for her heart to calm down. But as she laid there, she started to notice some… inconsistencies with her surroundings.

For one thing, the air around her smelled off. The nice thing about cloud homes was that any other aroma besides rain and ionization just didn’t have anything to cling to. So, finding the scent of hay, dirt and sweat invading her nostrils was downright bizarre.

Secondly, she knew for a fact that her bed was not this scratchy. She was intimately aware of this detail, after all.

So, despite the drive to just pass it off and get some more shut eye, Rainbow went against her better judgment and cracked open an eye.

She was immediately met with the sight of wooden planks and beams over her head – all painted in familiar red splashes with white borders. Just like…

And with that, realizations hit her like a rapid fire series of slaps to the face.

Holy crabapples! I’m not home – Apple Family Barn – Applejack – Problems!

The next thing she knew, she was standing out in the light of a mid-afternoon sun.

Or morning, by Rainbow’s timetable.

She quickly glanced this way and that, looking for any sign of a Stetson or its owner.

Nothing.

The Apple household sat not far away, looking practically vacant and abandoned. The only occupant remaining seemed to be ancient old Granny Smith, who was sound asleep on the porch, and nothing short of a miracle was going to change that.

The small garden on the side of the house was barren, its harvest already cleaned out for the season. No reason for anypony to hang around there.

That left only one place for her friend to be.

Rainbow squared her shoulders. This time, this time, she was bound and determined to get to the bottom of things.

She was not going to let that dream turn to reality!

~~***~~

Applejack straightened up from her work, letting out a breath. A chilled breeze played with her mane and coat, a welcome relief after hours of work.

For a moment, she leaned back to take it all in. All around her, open barrels sat waiting to be filled. Dozens more were already jam packed with leaves and the general detritus of the orchard, waiting patiently to be carted off.

From where she stood, she could just make out the shape of Big Mac as he singlehandedly dragged a large, ungainly cart back towards her.

They still had hours of work left to do, cleaning up the farm for the coming winter, which was due to be brought in the coming month. Raking up fallen leaves, rotten apples, even discarded twigs and branches; anything that might freeze to the ground and decompose where it ought not to had to be removed. It was back-breaking work, but for Applejack, it was just another day on the farm.

And to Applejack’s pleasant surprise, they were ahead of schedule. She couldn’t help but smile at that. Maybe she’d get her chance to apologize to Twilight in person today after all.

She set aside her thoughts once Big Mac hauled the cart back to where they were working. He hadn’t even pulled to a halt when he started shaking his head in disbelief.

“Already filled ‘em?” he asked, casting his eyes around the many filled barrels arranged in front of him.

“Eeyup,” Applejack respond playfully, soliciting a chuckle from her brother.

“Well Ah’ll be darned.”

Applejack chuckled in satisfaction as she stepped towards the cart. “Ah guess Ah just got a little extra giddy-up today,” she mused.

Big Mac quirked a brow at her. “A little?”

Her smile turned a little playful. “Enough ta keep up with you, ya big galoot.”

He huffed out a breath, but there was no disguising his smile.

Inside, he was more than a little relieved to see his sister getting back to her old self again. The tone she’d used last night had haunted him all night long, but now it seemed like little more than a bad dream.

The two siblings worked in high spirits to unload a fresh set of empty barrels from the cart and load the filled ones back in their place.

Big Mac watched thoughtfully as his sister hefted barrel after barrel onto her back, and with a sharp buck, launched each one into the cart, one after another. She only paused two or three times to wipe the sweat from her brow and catch her breath, but only took a moment or two every time to do so.

Eeyup, Ah knew Ah wasn’t seein’ things, he thought to himself.

She’s gettin’ stronger.

With one last mighty heave, Applejack threw the last barrel into the back and shut the tailgate. “That’ll do ‘er,” she declared, only slightly out of breath.

Big Mac nodded, still rather surprised with how fast they’d gotten done, and headed for the front of the cart to bolt himself in.

But to his surprise, he found an orange hoof blocking his way. “Hold on a sec, Macintosh.”

The big stallion turned his gaze towards the unexpected blockade; Applejack.

She wore a small smile, something he hadn’t seen for a while. “Ah just wanted ta say thank you. Fer bein’ so understandin’. Ah know Ah haven’t been the most… agreeable pony lately, but… Ah just wanted you to know Ah appreciate all ya’ve done fer me.”

Big Mac paused, caught off guard by her words.

Applejack turned her gaze away, looking instead towards the cart, the empty barrels yet to be filled, and the work yet to be tackled. “So, Ah figure Ah owe ya somethin’.”

“Nope.”

“Now don’t be like that, Macintosh – Ah ain't takin’ no fer an answer,” she stated firmly.

He only sighed in exasperation. “Applejack, ya know ya don’t owe me nothin’.”

“Did ya not just hear me?” Applejack snapped.

Once more, he sighed. “Alright… what did ya have in mind?”

The frown disappeared from her face, once more fading into a smile. “Why don’t ya let me handle the chores fer a while – now hang on,” she added, cutting her brother off, “let me finish, dagnabit. The way Ah see it, ya’ve covered fer me plenty lately. It’s mah turn to return the favor.”

She then leaned in, a knowing smirk on her face. “And Ah bet Miss Cherilee would like the company on her day off.”

It was Sunday after all.

Fortunately for Macintosh, his coat was already red, or else Applejack would never stop teasing him. He turned away, pretending like his sister hadn’t just said that. And that he wasn’t as sorely tempted as he was.

Too bad Applejack knew him so well.

She just laughed and smacked him on the shoulder. “Git outta here, BM. The farm ain't gonna burn down without ya.”

Big Mac once more turned away, barely muttering an intelligible “Eeyup” before quickly departing, eager to escape his sister’s chucking.

And she continued right on chuckling as she watched him make a hasty escape. Within only a few seconds, he was gone, leaving her alone with her work and the chilly breeze.

She turned, already rolling her shoulders in preparation for the next task.

But what she found when she turned around was not an awaiting barrel.

“Good Afternoon.”

Applejack took half a step back, nostrils flaring in alarm at the sight of the figure standing just under a nearby apple tree.

“Uh… Can Ah help you?”

“Yes, I believe you can,” Vigil stated plainly.

~~***~~

Rainbow soared through the skies over Sweet Apple Acres, putting her aching wings to the test. Sure, she felt rested, but her muscles still felt stiff and uncooperative, much to her annoyance.

Come on! All I gotta do is find Applejack. How hard can that be?

The problem was that, no matter where she looked, she was coming up one earth pony shy of her objective. For nearly ten minutes she’d been whizzing around one orchard after another, checking row after row. But row after row, she came up empty. There wasn't even the familiar sight of barrels set under apple trees – they’d all been hauled in for the season.

Rainbow kept going deeper and deeper into the farmland, into areas of orchard she’d never seen before, and yet still she failed to yield results.

She was just starting to grit her teeth in renewed frustration when, at last she caught a familiar sight through the trees.

“Hey Big Mac!”

The stallion turned to look her way, just as she came to a screeching halt only slightly over his head. “Have you seen Applejack? And if you give me more bull about her resting, I swear I’ll –”

“West Orchard.”

That brought RD up short, killing her threat in her throat. “Uh… what?”

“West Orchard. That’s where she is,” Big Mac responded casually. “Might want to hurry, though; don’t know how long she’ll be there.”

RD blinked, then nodded. “Okay, thanks Mac! Catch ya later!”

And with that, she zipped off without a backwards glance.

“Better hurry,” Big Mac said to the empty air she’d occupied as he turned away, an icy blue glint crossing his eyes for a fraction of a second.

~~***~~

Applejack stared at the strange mustard stallion, suspicion and confusion reigning in her mind. “Well, if it ain't important, Ah have work Ah need to get done,” she ventured.

“I assure you, it’s quite important,” Vigil responded evenly. “But first, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Vigil. I work for Her Highness in gathering… intelligence from across Equestria.”

“Intelligence, huh?” Applejack repeated, raising an eyebrow. “What kind of Intelligence?”

“Before I answer that,” he said, affixing Applejack with an unblinking stare. His emerald eyes were more than a little unsettling for her to look at. It was like he had all the facts and she didn’t. “I must ask you one question.”

“… Alright, shoot.”

Vigil took a couple steps forward. Applejack had to fight the urge to take a few in reverse.

“Nice weather we’re having,” he stated.

Applejack hesitated, flummoxed. “Ah’m fairly sure that ain't a question,” she said, her brow furrowing.

But to her surprise, a look of confirmation crossed Vigil’s face. “So, it’s like I thought after all.”

Applejack gave him a truly confused look. “Ah’m sorry, mister, But Ah get the feelin’ Ah’m missing something.”

“Apologies, perhaps I should explain myself,” Vigil stated. “See, I know what you’re hiding.”

Applejack blinked, still uncertain. “Ah don’t follow.”

Vigil glanced away, out towards some unseen location far in the interior of the orchard.

“Perhaps I wasn’t clear,” he said. “I saw something quite intriguing in these orchards. Something that, by rights, wasn’t supposed to be here.”

He then returned a knowing glance to the earth pony, who’d grown very still. “Something that perhaps you’re intimately familiar with?”

Applejack froze. Completely and utterly froze. Her expression, her muscles, everything.

Only her mouth worked.

“Ah-Ah don’t know what yer talkin’ about,” she lied.

Even for a pony with such little facial movement, she could tell he didn’t buy it. “Please don’t treat me like a fool. I have no intention of treating you as one, so please at least extend a common courtesy.”

Despite how cold the air around her felt, Applejack could feel the sweat beading under her hat and on her forehead.

“I saw, Applejack,” Vigil went on, his eyes boring into hers. “I’m going to be upfront with you. I saw you at the cottage yesterday. And I know what you are. And yet…”

He took a step forward. This time, Applejack felt no hesitation from backing away from him. “You have no idea what you are, do you?”

“What do ya want?”

It took Applejack a moment to realize it’d been her that’d spoken. Her mind felt so out of order at the moment. Panic. Yes, she grasped that. She was panicking.

“Why’re ya here? You here to bring me in?”

Vigil blinked, hesitating.

“Now why would I do that?”

For the second time in so many seconds, Applejack hesitated, confused. “What are ya talkin’ about?”

Vigil took another step forward, backing her up even further. “If I intended to arrest you, don’t you think I would’ve brought more than myself?”

He cast his eyes up and down her body, making Applejack shiver. “I know you’re strong. It would be beyond foolish for any one pony to hope to try to lay their hooves on you. And yet here I am.”

He cocked an eyebrow slightly, once more resting his eyes on Applejack’s face. “Why do you suppose that is?”

“Yer… not goin’ to arrest me?”

“Very good,” he said.

Yet, Applejack felt a chill running down her spine that had nothing to do with the breeze. “Then what do ya want with me?” she asked.

“To talk,” Vigil responded plainly. “And perhaps, come to an… understanding of sorts.”

“Ah don’t follow,” Applejack said, frowning. “None of what yer sayin’ is makin’ any sense.”

She was starting to recover now, and she was starting to understand one thing very clearly. She was in danger.

“I’m no threat to you,” Vigil stated, waving a hoof. “I’m here under a white flag, as it were.”

“Then ya better speak yer piece,” Applejack said bluntly.

“Of course. Then, I’ll be frank. Are there any more of you hidden around Ponyville?”

“Ah ain't got the foggiest,” Applejack stated flatly. “And even if Ah did, why would Ah tell somepony like you?”

“Because it’s my job to find changelings,” Vigil replied evenly.

“Why?”

“Because Her Highness needs them found,” he said like it were an obvious concept. “Every changeling out of place is a resource wasted.”

“Why in the hay would Princess Celestia ever think a changelin’ was a resource,” Applejack questioned. The very idea just would not mesh with any concept of the benevolent ruler of Equestria. It just seemed so… alien.

Upon hearing her question, however, Vigil hesitated, an eyebrow quirking up ominously.

“Princess Celestia? Now why would you think that?”

For the second time that day, Applejack froze in place. Everything she’d heard, everything he’d said, played back through her mind… this time with a new filter.

“Yer a changeling.”

“How kind of you to notice,” Vigil stated blithely, just as unreadable as before, and for the briefest of moments, Applejack could’ve sworn she saw an icy blue sheen glaze over his eyes.

Applejack started to sweat even harder, her heart thundering in her chest as the revelation hit her like a sledgehammer. “B-but… Ya said yer workin for…”

“The royal court?” Vigil offered without inflection. “Yes. Yes I do. However… you failed to specify which one.”

Applejack’s blood ran cold. For one brief moment, her nightmare replayed itself before her eyes – a monster adorned with an obsidian crown, laughing maniacally in a trashed wedding hall.

“Get out.”

Vigil hesitated, drawing up short.

The look of dawning horror had faded from Applejack’s face. In its place was a singular, burning look of utter hate. “Get off my property.”

“There’s no need for hostility,” Vigil said, seemingly unmoved by Applejack’s rising fury. He even managed to make his backward step seem casual.

“Oh, Ah beg ta differ,” Applejack snarled. “If yer in league with that queen of yers, then we ain't got nothin’ to talk about. And if ya start runnin’ now, Ah may not catch ya.”

“And do what?” Vigil challenged.

“Off the top of my head?” Applejack said in a dark undertone. “Ah can think of a few ways ta deal with yer kind, and if yer lucky, Ah may only turn ya over to the guard.”

Yet, Vigil was unmoved. “I know you won’t do that.”

“And what’s ta stop me?” she spat.

“The same thing that prevents me from treating you in kind,” he replied coolly. “After all, all I’d need to do is point the hoof at you, too. Sooner or later, they’ll conduct a test on you… and that will get us both nowhere.”

Applejack bared her teeth. “Then Ah guess Ah better get ta plan B; cavin’ yer face in. Any objections?”

“How about hearing me out first,” Vigil said, still as casual as ever.

“Thirty seconds, then,” Applejack growled.

Vigil’s eyes grew heavy. “I don’t need to be your enemy, Applejack. In fact, I have no intention of doing so.”

“You and yer queen sure have a funny way of showin’ it,” Applejack said icily. “Twenty-five.”

“Very well, then,” Vigil said, his tone in danger of becoming short. “Let me cut to the chase. The changelings need you.”

“Me,” Applejack repeated, her voice dripping with skepticism. “Pardon me if Ah seem ta find that a might bit hard to swallow.”

“That’s because you don’t know who you are, Applejack,” Vigil pressed.

But AJ only glared harder, her temper flaring. “Ah understand who Ah am perfectly, Vigil, and don’t you forget it. Fifteen.”

“Allow me to correct myself,” he said. “You have no idea what you are.”

Before Applejack could speak up, eating into any more of his dwindling timeframe, Vigil took a step forward, pressing his luck further.

“You’re a queen, Applejack.”

The farmer’s mouth dropped open. “W-what?” she breathed, completely thrown off balance for a moment.

“Yes; you’re a changeling capable of far more than the rank and file. Haven’t you wondered why you looked so much different from a drone?”

He took another step forward, and with Applejack still reeling, she failed to back away this time. “That is why I have to ask you, Applejack; are there any more changelings in Ponyville?”

“Ah… Ah already told ya – Ah don’t know,” Applejack said. She was starting to recover, and the shock was once more fueling her anger. “And Ah ain't no queen like that monster,” she shot angrily.

“Being a queen isn’t a choice, Applejack,” Vigil informed her. “This is something you were born with. And that is why I’m here, talking to you.”

Applejack struggled to organize her thoughts, but they refused to resemble anything more than a wild hurricane in her head. “Ya’ll attack Canterlot, mess with a friend’s head, nearly make me turn mah back on one of my closest others, and just about enslave Equestria. And now ya want my help?”

“Yes,” Vigil said plainly. “Since the failed coup, our kind has slowly but surely been falling into chaos. Faith in Queen Chrysalis has been waning; infighting is threatening to tear our kingdom apart. And that is why we need you.”

He leveled another unsettling stare at Applejack, once more making her feel uncomfortable. “A new queen would stabilize the power struggle. And once the kingdom is unified again, we can turn our efforts to more pressing matters.”

A cold chill ran down Applejack’s spine. “As in takin’ over Equestria.”

For the first time, Vigil hesitated, clearly reevaluating his choice of words.

But the damage was done.

“Why would you care so much?” Vigil questioned. “You are a changeling, Applejack. Given half the chance, these ponies will clap you in irons and cast you aside.”

“And who’s fault do ya suppose that is,” Applejack snapped.

Vigil ignored her comment. “I understand your… attachment to your foster family, but –”

“No, Ah don’t think ya do,” Applejack cut across. “Ah’m gettin’ the feelin’ ya’ll don’t get the first thing ‘bout me. So allow me ta make myself clear.”

She suddenly leaned in, closing the distance so that they were mere inches apart, a cold glare in her eyes. “Ah’m a pony of Equestria, and an Apple before anythin’ else. And my answer is ‘no’.”

Vigil’s eyes grew just a little wider in surprise.

“And if Ah have ta repeat myself,” Applejack breathed menacingly, “Yer not gonna get the chance ta walk away under yer own power.”

She took a step back, glaring. “Now get off my farm.”

Vigil, however, was still for a moment, his eyes growing heavy once more. “You’re making a mistake, Applejack,” he said. “See, you seem to be missing something. I'm not asking.”


Applejack inhaled sharply, her nostrils flaring. “And yet here ya are, all by yerself,” she said, throwing his words right back at him. “And yer startin’ ta rub me the wrong way.”

Vigil had nothing to respond with. He merely pursed his lips, stalling.

“Now, Ah’m goin’ ta tell ya one last time,” Applejack said, lowering her voice even further. “Then Ah’m lettin’ my hooves do the talkin’. Get. Off. My. FARM!”

Vigil took an involuntary step back. He was so shocked at her outburst that he even couldn’t help but widen his eyes in surprise, his composure cracking.

But he didn’t comply. He stayed where he was. After all, Applejack had made one more mistake; she’d believed the word of a changeling. And if the faint buzzing in the trees was anything to go by, he wasn’t nearly as alone as he’d stated…

“Applejack!”

But that was not accounted for.

All eyes turned in surprise as, out of nowhere, a rainbow-hued blur blew into the clearing.

“Rainbow?!” Applejack gasped, stunned.

Dash, however, seemed completely oblivious to what was going on around her. That became clear when she leveled a glare her way. “There you are! Where the hay have you been?!”

“Uh…,” was Applejack’s eloquent response.

She had to struggle to squash her thought process back into familiar channels, and it nearly took her three whole seconds to do so – way longer than Rainbow had a tolerance for.

“I’ve been looking all over for you,” she declared, hovering in front of her friend’s nose. “Do you know how many acres you guys have in Sweet Apple Acres? A lot!”

“Uh… Ah was workin’?” Applejack finally offered. “Ya know… as always?”

“Oh.”

All the wind went out of Rainbow’s sails at that, and she dropped to the ground, a look of realization on her face as she stared at the ground. “Huh… Why didn’t I think of that?”

But then she caught something out of the corner of her eye and looked around. “Vigil? What’re you doing here?”

She failed to see the look of wide-eyed shock Applejack gave the back of her head.

The stallion in question, however, was standing stock still, completely at a loss. All around him, the nearly imperceptible buzzing in the trees had died out entirely. “I—”

“He was just leavin’,” Applejack shot, leveling a cold glare his way.

This time, Rainbow didn’t fail to miss that one. “Uh… Applejack?”

She just stared right on passed her, glaring at Vigil.

He hesitated for a moment longer, then sighed almost unnoticeably. “So it would seem.”

But as Vigil turned to leave, he met Applejack’s gaze with an unyielding look of his own. “But one way or another, you’re going to cooperate, Applejack. You have no choice.”

And with that, he turned tail and left.

Rainbow watched him go, an uneasy feeling in her chest. “What the hay was that all about?”

Applejack was silent for a moment, her brain still milling as fast as it could, her body just starting to cease shaking.

“… Never you mind, sugarcube. He just took me fer somepony Ah'm not.”

~~***~~

Vigil made his way through the apple trees at a brisk trot. Only once he was out of sight of the changeling and her unaware friend did he allow a scowl to cross his features.

“Sir?”

Vigil didn’t even look as a vermillion stallion appeared seemingly from nowhere, dropping out of a nearby tree to trot at his side.

“Are we going to –”

“Where’s Hyacinth?”

The stallion hesitated, pausing mid-sentence. “Keeping an eye out. Is everything alright?”

Vigil closed his eyes and exhaled. He had to force aside his irritation – it wasn’t doing him any good at the moment.

After taking a second to recompose himself, he once more opened his eyes, his expression blank. “Yes. Everything’s fine.”

“Then what are our orders?” his companion asked carefully. “Shall we continue to observe?”

“No,” Vigil stated flately.

“Gather everyone up. Every. Last. One.”

The vermillion stallion paused. “…Sir?”

“Our target has elected to do this the hard way.”

Author's Note:

This Chapter brought to you by the word "...Sh*t".

And a glass of Chardonnay, but that's a different story entirely :trollestia:

I actually considered ending this chapter a lot sooner at least twice (Hyacinth observing, Vigil's initial appearance) but thought that'd be too cruel, considering the next update will probably be on this coming weekend. Plus, I promised to remove some of the ambiguity to Vigil's motives, so I had to go at least that far.

Okay, down to serious business. School will be starting for me effective... today (1/22), so updates will likely come out at a slower pace. Perhaps not weekly, but around that kind of time table.

Again, I cannot thank you all for your continued support in this endeavor, and I will do everything in my power to live up to the expectation.
As always, continue to field your questions and comments - I read them all, and try to respond to what I can.

Now, to the sh*tstorm!

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