The sand crunched under my hooves as I headed back towards my towel, its heat no longer uncomfortable. It was familiar now, expected and welcomed. After all, I had been walking across it for an hour off and on. The sun shone brightly in the sky, Celestia's gift to us all, it’s heat tempered by a cool sea breeze.
Sparking my horn, I pulled my sunglasses off and tucked them into my fiery mane. I cast my gaze forward and watched my friends frolic in the surf or build castles of sand further up the shore. I had been back five years now and not one day passed by where I wasn’t content.
And there was the problem. I was content with my life. But was I happy?
I caught a flash of orange and yellow dart across the sand, and I couldn’t stop my smile.
Applejack picked herself up from where she had landed trying to catch the ball batted by Rainbow Dash.
Yeah, I suppose I am, I thought.
When I first came back, AJ had given me a job to help get me back into the swing of pony life. But at some point, in-between all the farmyard chores, we'd grown closer. It had crept up on us, till one day, she voiced the question that changed our lives.
“You gonna kiss me or what?”
The voice was clear enough to snap me back to now, with a pair of grass green eyes staring deeply into my own. I grinned at Applejack, chuckling softly.
“Sorry, AJ,” I said. “I was daydreaming again.”
“That don’t answer my question, though,” the farmer retorted with a grin. She came up beside me, brushing her muscular barrel against mine. “What’s eating at you, sugar? You been distant for near a week now.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I just feel… restless, I guess.”
I stared out at the horizon, the ocean sparkling in the light. “I just feel like I’m missing something all of a sudden. But I don’t know what. I can’t quite put my hoof on it.”
Applejack pressed against me, her ears tilting back a little. “You ain’t regretting moving in, are ya?”
“No, that’s not it. I love staying here. It’s warm, and welcoming.” I gave her a small nuzzle. “And that’s no small thanks to you, of course.”
She brightened up, returning the nuzzle. “So how do we figure out what’s got your bridle in a twist?”
I sighed. “I don’t know, AJ. Maybe it just needs to tumble around a bit.”
“Well, then tumble it around. But you still didn’t answer my question.”
The farmer turned to face me and shook her honey blonde mane a little, the sun flashing off it as she tilted her head to the side. Her eyes took on a mischievous glint as she leaned forward.
“Are ya gonna kiss me or what?”
I smiled and leaned forward to met her lips. They tasted like the apples and honey from our lunch and her scent was that of hay, grass, and fertile earth.
I loved her. I loved the farm. I was home after years of exile. But as we separated, the thought clouded my thoughts once more.
Why do I feel like something’s missing, then?
Sleep eluded me that night.
For some reason, I kept thinking back to my time at CHS and my friends from there. And for each memory that made me smile, my mind would conjure an image of them being attacked by some twisted by-product of Equestrian magic. Something that they’d be unable to overcome as we had done so many times in the past.
Frustrated and worried, I got up and went to the bathroom, splashing water on my face. When I looked up, the face in the mirror seemed alien to me for a moment, due to all the changes a half-decade of life produced.
I was a little more muscular now, since not all farm work could be done with magic. I couldn’t compete with AJ or Mac, or even Apple Bloom, but I could easily pull my own weight. Literally and figuratively. But my body was familiar now. like a well worn hat or scarf.
It was my eyes, I think, looking back. Bleary and red from a lack of sleep, the teal irises softer and more compassionate than in my early exile. Back when they showed either disdain or closeted loneliness. Behind them now, though, where only I could see it, sat guilt and regret. It was a look that hadn’t been there since my reformation.
“You brood awful loud,” a voice whispered to my side.
A sleepy Applejack stood there, mane mussed from her sleep.
“I’m not brooding,” I whispered back. “Just thinking.”
She stepped forward and looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I love her dearly, but sometimes I wished I could at least to lie to myself.
“Did I do the right thing?” I asked.
This late in our relationship, she didn’t have to ask what I was referring to. She just stepped forward and wrapped her forelegs around me.
“You feel like you abandoned them, don’t ya?”
I nodded. “I mean, it had to be done. The magic was getting more and more dangerous. And closing the portal was the only way to keep it from leaking through.”
She rubbed my back as I spoke, not speaking.
“But what if I was wrong? I brought my geode with me when I left, which means they might not be able to defuse magic if it's running rampant there. They could be hurt.”
Applejack sighed and pulled away. “Why don’t you go check?”
I blinked, thrown for a moment. “I can’t. The portal isn’t open all the time any more.”
“But it’s coming up on sixty moons since you’ve been back. If Ah remember, don’t it open on its own every thirty?”
I’d forgotten the cycle, since it’d been opened permanently for so long. I had taken that for granted, expecting it to always be available when I lived on the other side.
“Come back to bed, sugar,” she whispered. “No good’ll come from fretting all night over it. Tomorrow’s a slack day, so we’ll go see it’ll ease that guilt a bit.”
Somehow, the prospect of going back made it easier to sleep.
Twilight pulled a shroud off the mirror, a small puff of dust floating up from the long unused artifact. Where it had once sat in one of the smaller studies, it was now tucked away in a basement corner. Various bits of machinery laid around it, the deconstructed device which had once used the journal to power the mirror.
“Today’s the first day it’s open,” Twilight said, folding the shroud in her raspberry aura. “You’ve got three days before it closes. I...”
I looked at her when she hesitated. She seemed like she was struggling to say something.
“Twilight?” I asked.
She turned away, using her wing to adjust her bangs. But for a second, I thought I saw it flick across her eye.
“Just, say hi to the girls for me, ok?” she said.
I nodded. “I will, Twi.”
I turned towards Applejack and hugged her.
“You got this, sugar,” she whispered. “Ah’ve got your back.”
Words couldn’t express the way I felt in this moment, so I just nodded and slipped through the portal. The sensation of pins and needles pricked across my skin, and I felt stretched as I stepped through to the other side.
The summer sun beamed down and I found myself clad in shorts and a midriff baring tank top with a loose vest over it. Light sandals adorned my feet, which I stretched out, feeling the various joints crack and pop as I adjusted to a form I was five years out of practice in.
That’s when I heard a cry of surprise and a slight sound of rushing air behind me, as a blonde girl tumbled out. She was dressed in a pair of denim shorts with a cotton work shirt draped over her muscular frame, and a very familiar Stetson on her head.
I caught Applejack as she stumbled. “AJ?” I stuttered. “What are you…”
“Ah said Ah had your back, Sunset,” she drawled as she shakily stood up. “Ah mean to be here - this is plum unreal.” She flexed her hands a few times, the fingers curling as she tested them.
I couldn’t help but stare. The Applejack I had known, when I lived here, was inherently strong but still had retained a rather petite figure. My Applejack, on the other hand, was tall and visibly strong, her arms and legs like they had been chiseled from stone.
She saw me staring.
“What, do Ah look weird?” she asked.
I smiled and led her to one of the mirrored sides of the statue. She gaped at her reflection, reaching out to feel the foreign face.
“Land’s sake,” she breathed.
“Hey!” A voice shouted from the steps of the school. “Who are you, and what do you...Sunset?”
I turned and smiled at the woman standing at the foot of the steps of CHS.
“Hey, Twilight,” I said. “I’m back.”
Twilight fidgeted with her drink as she sat down across the table from us. “This is sort of unexpected,” she said simply, not quite meeting my gaze. “When you left, none of us thought we’d ever see you again.”
“Yeah, I know. And, well, I should’ve at least offered to come back once in a while.”
I sipped the milkshake in front of me. The smooth strawberry taste was still as good as I remembered.
Applejack was being quiet, apparently still getting used to her new form. I glanced at her and gently took her hand, using her presence to bolster me.
The movement was not missed by Twilight. She smiled softly and took a sip of her own drink.
“So, how long have you two been a thing?” she asked.
“Been near to three years, as Ah recall,” AJ said, speaking for the first time since we arrived at the Sweet Shoppe. “A little while after she started working at the farm.”
“I thought you looked a little fitter,” Twilight said. “Are you happy?”
There’s that question again,
I nodded as a smile plastered itself on my face. “Yeah, I think so. I just felt a little guilty for bailing on you guys so suddenly.”
“It was a pretty sudden choice,” Twilight agreed. “But we understood why, after the shock wore off. We missed you at graduation. It just wasn’t the same. Wallflower was especially torn up over it.”
“But it helped us all grow up a bit. Me especially.”
I looked at the young woman sitting across from me. “How so?”
“I learned not to hesitate as much,” she whispered, meeting my eyes for the first time since I crossed over from Equestria. “I missed out on a great thing because of it.”
I felt myself flush, but before I could respond, she waved me off.
“I’m sure the rest of the girls will want to see you too!” She pulling out her phone and began typing away. “We’ll have to video conference Pinkie since she’s in Trottingham this semester. But everyone else is still nearby.”
I was about to turn the offer down, when a steady squeeze on my hand made me glance over to Applejack.
“Do it,” she drawled.
Then she looked to Twilight, she smiled. “Maybe we can do it at Sweet Apple Acres?”
Twilight grinned at the idea, still typing.
The farm was similar to the one back home, but different at the same time. Human proportioned doors and tools, less chatty livestock, even the trees were different.
“These trees seem a mite small,” Applejack said. “Ya sure there ain’t some sort of blight goin’ ‘round?”
“No,” I smiled. “They just aren’t boosted by Earth Pony magic like ours are.”
“But they ain’t any less tasty,” a familiar drawl called from the direction of the barn.
Human Applejack stepped out, brushing hay from her jeans. “Mercy sakes, Sunset, you really put on some muscle since Ah last saw ya.”
“Well, you’d know better than anyone how toned farm work can make you.” I quipped. “Applejack, meet Applejack.”
As the two nodded at each other, the human Aj whistled softly. “It sure does, if it packs em on like that. What kind of work have Ah been missing out on? Or is this just a pony thing?”
“Pony things, plus some mirror shenanigans, I think.” I nodded to the trees. “Farm still doing ok?”
“Better than ever, actually,” AJ resettled her hat. “Trees just seem to be growing faster and heartier. Putting out fruit twice a year almost.”
My AJ tipped her hat. “Eeeyup.” She jerked a thumb towards the orchard. "Seems like a second buckin’ season’s right around the corner, from the look of things.”
A look of confusion passed over the human farmer’s face. “Say what now?”
I couldn’t help the giggle. “She means harvest time.”
“Oh. no, that’s still a few months off. These here are late bloomers for cider and whatnot. Most of the main orchard was already picked over already.”
“As much as I love discourse on horticultural dealings, could we maybe go inside?” Twilight asked.
She was being pestered by Winona, the excited collie hopping around her.
“Winona, simmer down, girl!” both Applejacks barked.
The twin commands made the dog look over at both of her owners and cock her head in confusion. This did rescue Twilight as the dog went over and sniffed both of them. She whined in distress, looking back and forth between them.
“I know, girl,” I knelt down to rough up her fur. “Hard to tell, huh?”
Her tail was wagging again as I pointed her towards the human AJ. “We should come up with a way of separating you two.”
“Well, seeing as Ah’m the guest,” my AJ said. “You could use my full name instead.”
“Ew,” the other AJ said. “Ah hate Jacqueline, but more power to ya.”
“Ah’m not overly fond of it myself, but Jackie will work just fine for the time being.” She smiled at me. “And for a special pony.”
“Oh ho, someone’s got a crush?” A raspy voice carried over.
Winona’s ears perked up before rushing off towards the voice.
I turned and was shocked to see Rainbow Dash pushing her way up in a wheelchair. Her left leg was held stiffly out in front with a cage of metal.
She grinned that smug grin that I remembered. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
“What happened to you?” I asked, fears flaring up.
Was it because I had left?
“Oh, this?” She made a pssshting sound. “Some kid chased a ball into the street and nearly got run over. Managed to get him out of the way, but I got tagged by the fender. Only got three more weeks and I’m back on my feet!” She eyed the human AJ. “And ready to give you the rematch of your life!”
A slight blush appeared on Applejack’s face before she hurriedly ushered us towards the house. I noted a couple of small ramps added to the doors and stairs.
“Seems Ah’m not the only one with a crush,” Jackie teased.
This made both AJ and Rainbow blush beet red.
I snickered. “Oh, this is going to be a fun night.”
Morning came quickly and I woke up the same way I did every morning.
Cranky and wanting to write a letter to Celestia about her schedule.
But, not being a morning pony aside, there was a simplicity in early mornings on a farm. Both Applejacks were already up and gone and I appeared to have the house to myself. Well, mostly, if you don’t count the outrageous snores coming from a room up the hall where Dash had bedded down the night before. The rest of the girls were coming over tonight for a proper sleepover, excited to see me again.
I slipped quietly away and found my way to the bathroom, splashing water on my face and using the facilities. I was stepping out when Jackie came up, hands a little dirty and a sheen of sweat on her brow.
“Mornin’” she said.
She slipped past me to wash her hands and face.
“Morning.” I gave her a firm hug from behind. “Early work?”
“Mmhmm,” she replied. “Ah didn’t feel right being here and not doing some of the morning chores.”
“Well, you aren’t one to take days off, you know.” I rested my head against her back.
“Sunset, can Ah ask you for a favor?”
I pulled back, frowning. “You never ask for favors.”
“Just this once.” She turned and locked eyes. “Could you show me where you used to live?”
“What brought this up?” I turned away. I had a brief flash of sirens and multiple chains on a door.
“Got to talkin’ with the other AJ, and she told me you used to stay in a rough neighborhood.” Her eyes held sincerity when she tilted my face to look at her. “You don’t talk about your time here much, outside of happy memories. Ah wanna know what life was like for you here. See where you came from.”
She pulled me into a hug. “Ah wanna see what kind of soil gave me this kind of fruit.”
I laughed at swatted her shoulder.
“Fine. But first, you need a shower.”
The old neighborhood had changed a lot in five years. A lot of the place had been gentrified. Where I remembered there being an abandoned warehouse, was a brand new set of shops, and the simple apartment building I had once rented a loft, had a brand new exterior and windows.
“This don’t seem so bad,” Applejack said.
“It’s been given some polish,” I said. “I liked it more when it was a touch dirty.”
Talking to a clerk in a plush carpeted lobby got us the chance to tour a vacant apartment, and it just happend to be my old one.
It was still much the same. They had covered the exposed plumbing with some panelling, replaced the ratty carpet, and added railings to the loft, but I remembered every nook and cranny of my old home. As I walked forward in silence, AJ asked if we could have a moment, gently ushering the clerk out.
I shook my head. “There’s a lot of bad memories here, AJ. This was the one haven I had, back before I got Ray or even stole Twilight’s crown, this was also a prison.”
I put a hand on a windowsill, looking out at the street.
“I had no documentation when I came here, and I looked maybe fourteen at best. Too young for a human to be on their own.”
“How did you —“
“Afford anything?” I chuckled ruefully. “This place was crooked, AJ. Crooked landlord, crooked lawmen, the whole lane was filled with crooks. A few weeks of cleaning apartments got me the money to pay for my forged documents. A few more and I found a way to make money that you might not approve of.”
She wrapped me in her arms. “It’s ok. You don’t have t’ tell me.”
I looked around the old apartment. “This is where I used to live. Years of exile, stuffed into this tiny little flat.”
“Seems cozy to me.”
“You’re seeing the new and improved place,” I whispered. “But all I can see is the rundown place it used to be. Adding extra chains to the door to protect me, not sleeping some nights because of what I heard outside. We may live where there are dragons and sea serpents and Discord, but here there were real monsters.”
I rubbed my arm as my skin crawled. “And I could’ve become one. I did become one, for a few minutes.”
She pulled me into another hug, cradling me as I shivered. My voice was tiny as I spoke.
“Let’s go back. I don’t want to stay here any more.”
“Sure thing, sugar.”
As we left, she looked around. After a few blocks, she posed the question.
“Why didn’t you move away, or see if one of your friends could take you in?”
“It’s not that simple here, AJ,” I supplied. “Most legitimate lodgings require deposits and sometimes the first and last month’s rent as well before you can move in. You also have to be eighteen or have someone over a certain age cosign for you. I couldn’t have afforded a nicer place on my own.”
“What about one of your friends, then?”
“That’s a even more complicated. If, say, Rarity had taken me in, her parents become responsible for my well being. That includes any bills that might arise, like medical issues, school enrollment fees, the list goes on. I couldn’t have asked that of any of my friends.”
“Ya took me up on the offer readily enough.”
I turned and poked a finger against her arm, the warm flesh barely yielding. “It’s different in Equestria, Applejack, and you know it! There was no extra burden placed on your family because there, I’m legally an adult, I’m not worried about a doctor finding out I’m a pony, and I was trading work for lodgings.”
I spread my arms to indicate the bustling city around us.
“As much as I love my friends, I don’t belong here.” I turned to her. “I would miss home too much.”
“Home being Equestria?”
“Home being that weathered old cottage sitting on three hundred acres of apple orchards.” I smiled. “With you.”
And she smiled back, understanding all the things left unsaid.
It was just as good as I remembered any get together being. Rarity and Shy sat off to the side, talking softly, AJ and Dash getting into another heated competition on whatever game they had brought, and Twilight and I talking science. The only difference was the lack of Pinkie's exuberant energy being around, despite her cheery voice coming over Twilight’s tablet.
“I’m sooooo jealous you came back while I’m working on my degree, Sunny!” She exclaimed. “You couldn’t have waited another month or two?”
“Thirty moons, Pinkie,” I explained again. “Unless you want more magic to seep through, we have to let the mirror work as normal.”
Talking with the girls, while waiting for Pinkie to log into the video app, had revealed that magic had slowly drained away following my departure, save for the residual power in their geodes. Their days of fighting Equestrian magic had long since ended.
It seemed like the only thing I had cost them, since leaving, was one less girl to share food and gossip, one less girl to braid hair, and one less friend to vent about life to.
Jackie pulled me back into her arms. “Ya feel any better?”
“A little,” I said. “Though I still kind of feel like I just abandoned them without looking for an alternative.”
I apparently wasn’t as quiet as I thought, because Rainbow looked at me with an incredulous look on her face.
“You didn’t abandon us!” She put down her controller, not even bothering to pause the game. “You saw a problem and sacrificed your happiness to help this world! Yeah, it sucked that we couldn’t talk to you everyday, and you should have given us more of a heads up, but you were taking one for the team!”
“Quite right,” Rarity chimed in. “Especially after that incident with poor Wallflower, or with Vignette. I can see why you wanted to nip any more problems in the bud.”
“I could’ve come back sooner, or had Twilight rebuild the apparatus that opens the portal whenever.” I ran a hand through my hair. “I was just worried I had left you all facing magic without help and, well…”
“We missed you too, Sunset,” Fluttershy whispered.
Her soft voice honed in upon the one thing I couldn’t quite place, and I nodded as a few tears welled up.
She stood and rushed over, pulling me into a hug. Then I felt another pair of arms, and another, until everyone was holding me in their embrace.
“No fair, you guys!” Pinkie protested. “I want to be in on the group hug, too!”
“Howsabout Ah hug her for ya, Pinkie?” Jackie asked.
“Only if you come with her next time so I can return the favor!” Pinkie demanded.
“Next time?” Twilight asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Next time.” I looked around at my friends, finally putting in place what it was I was missing. “And it won’t take thirty moons this time.”
There’s something about your own bed, which is so comforting after you’ve been away. I discovered this as I laid down, horn glimmering as I pulled the blanket over me.
“So,” AJ drawled as she climbed under the blanket with me. “Ya feel better now?
I nodded. “Knowing they’re not in danger helped. And I’m glad they don’t hate me for leaving. They seemed to understand my reasons.” I stared at the ceiling. “And don’t get me wrong, the girls here are great. But they…”
“Ain’t the same ones you were close to.” She faced me for a moment. “Sugar, all you had to say was you were feeling a lil’ homesick. Ah know we’re pretty similar, but there ain’t no comparing us. It’s like when Ah stayed with the Oranges back when Ah was a filly. Ah was with family, but it weren’t my family.”
She leaned in and kissed the tip of my horn, sending tingles along my spine. “Ah know where Ah belong, and Ah know you do too. But a vacation every now and again isn’t too bad. Ah might even go with you sometimes. Ah’d love to see the other orchard in full bloom, or try that ‘hang gliding’ thing Rainbow mentioned.”
I looked at her, and I had never felt more in love. Sure, we could make the springs sing some nights, but this was more intimate. The feeling of her close to me, not just physically, but emotionally as well.
She smiled as she saw the look in my eye. “So, are you feeling better?”
I sighed contentedly as I draped a forelimb over her. “Mmhmm.”
“Sunset,” she whispered sleepily. “Are you happy?”
And I thought about it. I had amazing friends that I saw every day. I had the chance to go and visit the friends that had helped me become the pony I was today. I had an amazing teacher in Twilight, and a stronger relationship with Celestia than I had ever had before.
And I had an amazing marefriend who was willing to stand with me, against even my own demons.
And I realized something as I held her. In the end, that was all I needed. Somepony to help me see past my own worries and reassure me when I needed it.
I smiled, relishing the simpler parts of our relationship. I treasured the warmth of her body next to me, her quiet breathing, and the smell of her mane as I snuggled into her.
“Yeah,” I whispered sleepily. “I’m happy.”