Don't worry,” Sweetie Belle chirped for the third time as she scowled at the pie. “I can fix this.”
Somehow, Applejack very much doubted that was true. The earth pony had managed to rescue the ill-fated tart as smoke had begun to billow from the oven, but not before the pastry had blackened and the apple filling began to smell like something very un-applelike. She watched with a raised brow and half a grin as the young unicorn poked at the thing with a hoof, as if she were trying to determine where best to begin.
“Honestly, Sweetie Belle.” Rarity wrinkled her nose as she looked up from her sketches and designs that were strewn across the kitchen table. She smirked. “If even Applejack can't teach you how not to burn a pie, you may want to rethink a career in baking.”
“Now, now, Rares,” Applejack said, ducking the magically-brandished pie knife that sailed over her head as Sweetie Belle whirled around to voice an unkind retort. “Actually, this here's quite a improvement over... last time.” She glanced pointedly at the counter and floor, where the gruesome remains of Sweetie Belle's previous attempts lay scattered. “Heck, even the mess ain't half as bad as the last time Apple Bloom got it in her head to try her hoof at cookin'. Keep at it, Sweetie,” Applejack encouraged, ruffling the young pony's mane with a hoof. “You'll, uh, you'll get it eventually.”
The filly positively beamed.
Rarity returned to her work with a wry smile. “Just try to not use up all of the Apples' ingredients while you're at it.”
“Ah, it ain't a bother. There's plenty where that came from, and we'll soon have even more.” Applejack turned to Sweetie Belle, eyeing the knife the young unicorn still held in her magical clutches. “Do ya wanna give it another go?”
“Nah, I promised Scootaloo I'd meet her and help her with her homework.” Sweetie began to carefully carve the burned-yet-intact pie with determined delicacy. “And yes, it is actually homework, and not Crusading,” she added upon seeing Rarity's upturned eyebrow.
“Ah.” The older unicorn seemed unconvinced.
“Well, I suppose in that case we'd better get all this cleaned up,” Applejack said. “I'll start scrubbin' down the counter if you wanna—”
“Oh, don't worry about it.” Sweetie Belle looked up at her with a smile, magic already coursing through her horn as she began shepherding dirtied utensils into the large sink. “I'll take care of it.”
“Uh, are ya sure?” Applejack asked as a knife and platter zipped through the air.
“Absolutely. I made the mess, so I'll clean it up. Just relax, it won't take long.”
“Alright, if ya say so.” Applejack leaned against the table, catching Rarity's eye. The mare returned her bemused glance with a slight shrug.
The two watched with widening eyes as Sweetie Belle soaped, scrubbed, and scoured every inch of the workspace. She hummed while she worked, even wrestling the grime off a particularly troublesome pan with her hooves as her magic dried the rest and organized everything neatly into its appropriate cupboard, shelf, and pantry. It took less than five minutes before the Apples' kitchen was sparkling and Sweetie was again smiling at the two elder ponies, trying her best not to appear too pleased with herself.
“Huh,” Applejack said, mouth open slightly. “This place hasn't looked this good in...” She trailed off, scratching her head.
“That was... impressive, Sweetie.” Rarity looked at her sibling with pride. “I think those lessons with Twilight have been going better than you've lead on.”
Sweetie Belle placed a hoof on her breast in a display of mock astonishment. “Praise?” she said, adopting an exaggeratedly cultivated accent. “From mine own sister? Why, I do declare!”
Rarity opened her mouth to respond, but the filly laughed and quickly bounced to her side and gave her a light peck on the cheek. “I'll stop by the boutique tomorrow after school, sis. You promised you'd help me with that brooch, remember?” And then she was out the door, the tart trundling through the air behind her as she called, “Oh, and I'll save you a nice, big slice of pie!”
“Oh, oh, how thoughtful of you...”
“An' you're sure you don't gotta get back home?”
The pair traipsed down the narrow, winding path that lead into the heart of Sweet Apple Acres. Most of the early apple blossoms were in full bloom. A warm breeze blew through the boughs, occasionally showering the two ponies with petals. The spring had been dry thus far—not worrisomely so, but enough that their hooves kicked up a thin line of dust as they padded along the trail. There had been a time not long ago when Rarity would have been aghast at the sight, but now Applejack was convinced the unicorn looked forward to their quiet excursions as much as she did. It was a simple thing, but it warmed the earth pony's heart more than she could say.
“Darling, my work will keep, believe me. Sometimes, it's nice to take time for the things that really matter.” Rarity threw her a shrewd smile. “What about you? It seems to me that you're the one who never takes a break from her work.”
That was true, Applejack admitted. There were half a dozen chores she could be doing: the barn needed a new coat of paint, the roof above her room had sprung a leak, some of the rain gutters were misaligned, and so on. There was no shortage of things to be done, but, well...
“Point taken,” Applejack chuckled. Granny Smith, Big Mac, and Apple Bloom had all gone down to Appleloosa for the spring festival, so she had decided to stay and look after the farm while they were away. Plus, it gave her some time for other things.
“By the way,” Rarity said. “I wanted to thank you again for all the time you've spent helping Sweetie Belle with her cooking. Hopeless as she is, I know she adores spending time with you.”
“Aw, don't mention it.” Applejack shifted the small rucksack that carried their provisions as a way to hide her embarrassment. “At this point she's almost a second sister to me. It's so nice seein' how much the two of you care 'bout each other, even when ya are always pokin' fun at one another.”
“Yes.” Rarity smiled. “I suppose we do have a rather... unique relationship. And I am proud of her. Her magic has come such a long way since Twilight began giving her lessons.”
They continued in silence for a time, enjoying each other's company and the smells and sounds of spring that were ubiquitous in the orchard. After a moment, Applejack cleared her throat. “So, have ya told her?”
“Sweetie Belle. Have ya told her? 'Bout us, I mean.”
“Oh.” The unicorn blushed, her mane falling into her eyes as she glanced away. She brushed it aside with a hoof. “I haven't. No need to give her something else to tease me about. Not yet, anyway.”
“Right.” Applejack laughed. “Ah, I'm sure she wouldn't give ya that hard a time.”
“Clearly, you don't know my sister,” Rarity replied with a sly grin. “She can be a true enfant terrible when she so chooses.”
“Heh, suppose you're right.” Applejack stared at her hooves for the next few paces. She swallowed. “You don't... you don't think she'll find it strange, do ya? Me bein' a earth pony an' all.”
“Darling, whatever do you mean?”
Applejack shuffled her hooves. “I know it ain't unheard of for a unicorn an' a earth pony to be together, I just—”
Rarity stopped, an outstretched hoof placed on her companion's shoulder. “Applejack, is that what's been bothering you?”
The pony sat down, crossing her front legs bashfully. “Not botherin', just... I'm anxious, I guess. I don't want Sweetie Belle to think of me differently.”
Rarity's look of concern gave way to a knowing smile. “Oh, Applejack.” The unicorn sat down beside her and brushed her head against the rough coat of Applejack's chest. “She already does think of you differently. She loves you. As do I.” She licked the earth pony's cheek. “Come on, now, over there. See?” she said, motioning to a large tree resting upon the hill just in front of them. “A perfect place to eat.”
And it was, at that. In the shade beneath the great apple tree, the two ponies lay amidst a thin carpet of soft white petals. The grass was cool, tickling their bellies as they talked and laughed and ate. The picnic Rarity had prepared was light but delicious: small cucumber sandwiches, fresh spring rolls wrapped in crisp cabbage, and one cinnamon scone apiece, straight from the Apples' stores. To drink she had brought a pitcher of chilled tea that she had made that morning—“jasmine, brewed with lavender petals,” Rarity explained.
As she sipped it, Applejack was reminded of the first time they had shared tea together, just the two of them. She could still picture, exactly, Rarity's eyebrows rising higher and higher as her eyes widened, her mouth open ever so slightly as Applejack regaled the astounded unicorn with a list of her favorite teas, the appropriate season in which they should be brewed, and the attending amount of tea leaves, per cup, that she found to be most satisfactory. The silence that followed lasted a full ten seconds, with each one seeing Applejack's grin growing broader. “I guess we ain't so different after all,” she had finally said. The expression of pure joy that had blossomed over Rarity's face at those words was, the earth pony knew then, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
“And what about your sister?” Rarity asked sometime later, after they had finished. The ponies lay with their backs against the old, textured bark of the tree. Even side by side, the steadfast trunk could cradle them both.
To the northeast, below the rolling hills of the orchard, Ponyville was enjoying the last of the spring afternoon as the sun slipped down the sky toward evening. Applejack watched the tiny figures going about their business in the distance, a slender blade of grass protruding from her mouth and her cherished hat on the ground beside her. She could feel the contented rise and fall of Rarity's breath as she rested her head against her shoulder, the purple coils of the unicorn's mane falling like silken ribbon against her own rustic coat. Beneath her, the century-old, stoic rumblings of the apple tree seemed to pulse reassuringly.
“I haven't told her yet, either,” Applejack said. “I just... can't seem to find the right time. An' the right words.”
She stopped to watch Rarity freeze a particularly fat bumblebee that had been idling hopefully toward the unicorn's teacup. The pony turned it around and shooed it in the opposite direction with a flicker of magic. Thwarted, the bee buzzed away mournfully. Rarity didn't press her to continue; Applejack knew the unicorn would wait for her to carry on of her own accord.
After a moment, she did. “The truth is, me an' Apple Bloom... well, we ain't been gettin' along. I guess you could say we've been distant. Like we're growin' apart.”
“She's been stubborn. Hardheaded an' hotblooded. I swear, sometimes it's like she does stuff just to get under my skin.”
“Hmm.” Rarity sat up, her eyes glinting. “I feel as though that reminds me of somepony...”
“I know, I know.” Applejack sighed. “Actually, that's the bit that really worries me. I'm startin' to be afraid that Apple Bloom is too much like me, like... like... ah, I dunno how to explain it.” She ground the strand of grass between her teeth. “I don't want her to think she has to be just like me when she's all grown. I just want, more than anythin', for her to find her own way. To not feel like she has to make the same decisions as me, do the same things I did.”
“Darling, your sister is her own pony,” Rarity said, a tender hoof placed against Applejack's chest. “She's proven that time and again. Have faith in her, and she'll find her way. Just like you did.”
Applejack was silent for a long time, listening to the soft spring wind as it rustled the leaves overhead. The sun had dipped to the tops of the trees, and the fields were slowly being painted with strokes of lavender, amber, and russet. “I spent nearly my whole life on this here farm, Rares,” she said at last. “This very spot. An' I haven't regretted a day of it: this is who I was meant to be, an' this is what I was meant to do. But lately, I... I've had this terrible feelin' come over me from time to time, like a... a yearning for somethin' that I can't really place. An' ev'ryday I'd get up and do my chores, work the same farm I'd been workin' my whole life, tryin' and tryin' to understand what it was that felt like it was missin'. 'Til one day, I suddenly realized... there's a whole world out there, Rarity, a whole world with places and ponies I'd never see, maybe not even know were there at all.”
Applejack tilted her head, looking wistfully at the swaying branches above her. “An' truly, I know I've seen more of Equestria than some ponies could ever dream of. We've had adventures with Twilight an' the others, seen all kinds of folk, been to all sorts of places. Maybe that's what did it, what made me start feelin' a... a kinda wanderlust, I guess.” She stopped and took one of Rarity's hooves in her own. Her voice was somewhat quieter when she continued. “But thinkin' of that reminds me just how much of life is left up to chance. What if something'd happened to the farm, an' our family had been forced to move away from Ponyville to a new town, a new home? What if I'd never seen Dash's Rainboom, all those years ago back in Manehattan? What if... what if I'd never met Twilight, an' you an' me never... never became anythin' but a passin' acquaintance?”
The earth pony closed her eyes, breathing deep of the scents around her: the apple blossoms, petals thieved by the wind; the grass beneath her hooves, earthy with loam; and Rarity's perfume, which smelled lightly of lilacs. “I guess what I'm tryin' to say is that part of me hopes my little sister wants nothin' to do with the farm when she grows up, 'cause I want her to get to see what else is out there. An' should she decide to come back, I don't want her to spend her life wonderin'... wonderin' why home don't seem to be quite where she left it.”
A calm breeze blew through the orchard. Rarity was still, studying the mare beside her. She nuzzled Applejack's shoulder, pressing her nose into the pony's thick, flaxen mane as her horn shimmered comfortingly. “Apples,” she murmured after a moment.
“You smell like apples.”
Applejack blinked. “Uh, pardon?”
The unicorn leaned back against the tree, wrapping her hooves around the earth pony's neck and gently pulling her into her lap. Applejack looked up at her, watching the wind tugging gently at her mane as it swirled and mixed the deep violet against the faded white of the apple blossoms and the dusky evening sky. Rarity stroked Applejack's coat absentmindedly, her gaze seeking Ponyville and beyond.
“I was born here,” she began, “but when I was a filly, even younger than my sister is now, our family was always on the move. My parents' businesses took them all over Equestria, and naturally, I was swept along with them. We never stayed in one place for long. I remember endless hotel rooms, apartments that blurred together a month or three at a time, and dinners, social gatherings, tutors—on and on. What I remember most of all, though, are the train rides.” She smiled ruefully. “Days, weeks, months of my life spent in one car or another, staring out the window at a field, a forest, occasionally a station. It was, well, less than exciting, but each one of them was tinged with a bit of anticipation, as I never knew just where we would end up next.”
Rarity paused as a firefly alighted on the tip of her nose, and she giggled. “It's funny,” she said. “Ponies say that if you've seen one little country town you've seen them all, but the same is true for even the grandest of cities like Manehattan and Fillydelphia. Of course they have their charms, their luxuries and distractions. But even the pomp and décor of high society becomes wearisome if there isn't something else, something to give meaning to all those days and nights. If there was one thing I learned, Applejack, it's that if you go to enough places, you'll soon realize that those places are the same as any other. The only thing that really changes is where you are, and how you got there.”
Rarity smiled at the earth pony lying against her, and she touched a hoof to her soft, freckled cheek. “Eventually I came back to Ponyville. I grew up here. I received my cutie mark here, and simultaneously discovered the career I would choose to pursue. It may have been chance that brought me back, but it was something far more that convinced me to stay.” She leaned down and lightly kissed Applejack's forehead. “Home is the one true place,” she whispered. “Because it's not really a place at all. It's a feeling. It's the memories you've made, the experiences you've shared with the one's closest to you. You smell like apples. You smell like summer nights, like the great bales of hay stacked upon the hills, like the excitement of the harvest, and cider, bread baked fresh in the morning, and the warmth of the hearth in the dead of winter. You smell... like home.”
Applejack looked away, trying to hide the wetness that was stinging her eyes. “Rarity. I... I don't...”
Rarity placed a hoof over Applejack's mouth as she brought another up to her own. “Hush, it's alright,” she soothed. “You needn't worry about Apple Bloom. No matter where her life takes her, she'll always have a sister who loves her. She'll always have a home to come back to. And so will you.”
The earth pony nodded. For a few quiet moments she did nothing but listen to Rarity's steady breathing, to the beat of her heart as it gently passed the time. As Applejack settled her head against the velvet coat of her companion, she smiled. “It's a strange thing. Time was when we could barely stand each other. An' now...”
The unicorn hummed. “Yes. Time has a way of changing us, doesn't it?”
Tails entwined, the two ponies lay together beneath the tree as the moon began to rise. One by one the lights flickered on in the little town below, the town they knew as home, looking for all the world like the fireflies that hovered above them, dancing amongst the apple blossoms.