As much as Applejack liked to work she enjoyed the provided work breaks even more. Since learning long ago not to work herself so hard all the time, she made sure to take advantage of any and all breaks that were offered to her.
So there the farm mare was, in the middle of one of these breaks in the middle of yet another harvest season. As was the case for most of them she was not alone. Her older brother Big Macintosh was there too.
Usually the break would pass in silence with neither sibling saying a word. Big Mac was never much of a talker even to his family, and Applejack usually cared about getting back to work as soon as she was able. Maybe occasionally they would have a brief word and discuss something, but even then the conversation would be lucky to last more than a minute or two.
This was not the case today though. Applejack was thinking about something and her mind would not be satisfied until it got what it considered to be a valid answer. "Big Mac?" She called to get her brother's attention.
"Eeyup?" Big Macintosh replied in his usual manner of speaking.
For but a moment Applejack seemed to be silent. Whatever it was that she was thinking about troubled her deeply. But she was never one to stay silent for long and she soon found the words she wanted to use. "You ever wonder what your purpose in life is? The reason why you exist?"
Big Macintosh was unsure of how to respond so he just answered with a firm. "Eenope."
"Guess I kind of expected that," Applejack sighed while adjusting her hat. "I've enjoyed life on the farm, but I can't help but feel like I could be doin' more with my life. My friends all have goals or dreams. Rainbow Dash is a Wonderbolt, Rarity's got her boutiques, Twilight's gonna be the future ruler of Equestria, Fluttershy has her sanctuary, and Starlight's gonna run the school. Heck, even Pinkie Pie's got lots of parties to keep her busy, and there's always bakin' at Sugarcube Corner. For me though, I reckon I'll probably just be here on the farm for the rest of my days."
Big Mac opened his mouth, the first sign that what his sister had just told him was of great concern. "Applejack, you're not bound to the family farm. If anypony's likely to spend their days at Sweet Apple Acres it's goin' to be me. And there's Apple Bloom too."
"I know, I know. It's just... you've got Sugar Belle, and Apple Bloom has her Crusader friends. That'll keep the both of ya pretty busy," Applejack confessed and sighed again. "I really couldn't ask either of you to give all that up. I reckon you and Sugar Belle will have a family of your own to raise and take care of. And Apple Bloom could go all over Equestria with her friends."
"Well what about you? You've traveled all over Equestria countless times. I'd never even heard of places like Mount Aris or the Peaks of Peril until you and your friends traveled there," Big Macintosh commented. "And don't forget all those bad guys you've faced."
Applejack nodded her head. "Still, that's really the most I've traveled. And it feels like anypony could've filled that role. You're just as honest as me."
"Don't know about that, your reputation is honesty and hard work is second to none." Big Mac insisted to his sister.
The farm mare just adjusted her hat. "I know it's probably just stinkin' thinkin', but I still can't help but wonder. Ever since Twilight told me and the girls about what went on between her, Starlight, and the map, I've wondered if there's a world where I'm not around. How much of a difference do you think it would make?"
At that Big Macintosh slammed a hoof down and glared at his sister. "Applejack! I don't even wanna hear another word out of your mouth about that! You're my sister, and I couldn't bare the idea of ever bein' without you! I'd sooner want there to be a world without me than to live in a world where you don't exist!" And that was all that was said on the matter. The break ended a short time later and both siblings went back to work, giving the discussion nothing more than an occasional passing thought.
Had it stayed that way for the rest of the day, Applejack probably would've forgotten all about that thought which had so troubled her earlier.
But be it an unfortunate coincidence, a bizarre twist of fate, or just plain old dumb luck, a particular spirit just happened to make Sweet Apple Acres his resting place in the heat of that day. As the sun began to set off to the west, casting a golden glow over the landscape, said spirit was jolted awake from his impromptu nap in what to him felt like the rudest of ways possible: A bucked apple square to the face.
Granted it was only one apple, hardly enough to even leave a bruise. And Applejack hadn't bucked it particularly hard. But Discord still saw fit to complain about the impact. "Ow!" He shouted quite audibly and stood up. "Can't a draconequus take a nap in peace around here?!"
"Mighty sorry about that, Discord," Applejack sincerely apologized. "But if you're lookin' to nap I suggest you try elsewhere. I'm a might busy at the moment as you can see. These apples ain't gonna buck themselves you know."
Discord yawned and stretched as he stood up from his resting spot beneath a nearby tree. "Oh, never mind. I can live on however much or however little sleep I want. Chaos can happen regardless of energy level."
"Yeah? Well I know I can't function without a good's night sleep. I should know, I tried to go without it to get a harvest done on time all by myself," Applejack told the draconequus. "That's an experience I don't ever want to repeat if I can help it."
Discord nodded as he made his way over toward Applejack. "So I've heard. You have quite a reputation in this town, don't you?"
Applejack paused briefly in her bucking to reply. "I suppose I do. I try not to focus on it too much though. Probably helps that Ponyville's been the town I was born and raised in. Though you know, it seems like there are times where I don't feel like the town wouldn't be worse off if I wasn't around."
The spirit's ears pricked up. "Is that a wish you're hoping to have granted?"
The farm mare shook her head. "I don't want that to happen. But at the same time I... am kind of curious. Have been ever since Twilight mentioned all those other realities without the Rainboom. If somethin' like that could be so important, then what exactly does that make my life?"
Discord stroked a paw across his chin. "What if I told you there was a way for me to show you? You and I would still remember that you exist, but everypony else would forget. It would be like you never existed to begin with."
"Now hold on there! I know how you work!" Applejack protested as she spun around to face Discord. "If this is your way of gettin' me to disappear so that you can be free to do whatever you want, you can forget it!"
But Discord wagged a finger in front of the farm mare. "Applejack, must you always jump to conclusions? I'm reformed, and I'm doing you a favor as one friend to another. The two of us will be going on a little trip. A trip to a world that's like ours, except you're not in it. You'd only be an observer though. You'd get to see just what, if anything, is different when you don't exist. What do you say?"
Applejack pondered the proposal for a bit. One nagging concern troubled her and refused to leave her be. A concern she voiced to Discord when she got the chance. "It's not a one way trip, is it? I can come back to this world at any time if I want to, right?"
"Oh of course. You didn't really think I'd leave you stuck in another world forever, did you?" Discord laughed. "Though it wouldn't be any fun if we just got there, looked around a little, and came back. We'll stay for a good while, so you can see just what that other world is like. And you can decide for yourself if you think it's better. What do you say? Are you still interested? Or should I go find somewhere else to cause chaos?"
This time the earth pony with a coat the same orange color as the sky in its current state didn't hesitate to answer yes.
Discord appeared to be delighted by this decision. "Splendid! Now let's get going, shall we?" Then a thought struck him. "Ooh! One thing I should warn you about: When we get to this other world you can look but don't touch."
"What do you mean by that?" Applejack questioned.
Discord grinned. "You'll see in a minute!" And with that, with a snap of his talons both he and Applejack disappeared from Sweet Apple Acres all together.
In a flash of brilliant white light, spirit and pony arrived at their destination. It looked almost similar to the place they had just left, even down to the position of the sun in the sky and the shade provided by the trees.
"I don't get it," Applejack immediately commented. "Seems like everythin's the same. Is there really no difference at all whether I exist or not?"
Discord was quick to dismiss the idea with a wagging finger. "Patience, Applejack. We just got here. Why not have a look around before you jump to conclusions?"
The farm mare nodded. "Reckon I will. I'm mighty curious to see what, if anythin' is different about this here world where I never existed." And she trotted off towards the first destination that came to mind, the farmhouse attached to the barn. The place where her family could usually be found at this time of day.
Applejack soon reached the door of the farm house and knocked on it. She was curious as to who would be there to greet her (even if they probably wouldn't recognize her).
To the surprise of the earth pony, the door was opened by a lanky unicorn stallion with a pale, light grayish olive coat. He had unmistakable green eyes and a mane and tail that were moderate red with white stripes. To say nothing of the bowler hat, black bow tie, blue and white striped button shirt, and mustache. "Greetings, stranger," The familiar stallion spoke as he took off his hat. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Looking to buy something?"
Applejack let out a gasp. "Flam?! What in tarnation are you doin' on Sweet Apple Acres?!"
But Flam simply adjusted his mustache. "Sweet Apple Acres? You mean Flim Flam Fields. My brother and I took over this farm years ago, as part of a partnership with the Apple family. We split the profits seventy five/twenty five, with the seventy five percent going to us of course."
The earth pony with a coat of orange stumbled back and blinked. "No, it can't be. How could this happen?!"
"Flam, what's all the commotion?" A familiar elderly voice called out. "Is it another angry customer complain' about their cider?" Soon, the voice's owner came trotting out, revealing itself to be none other than Granny Smith. Aside from wearing an outfit similar to Flam's she didn't look at all different.
Flam turned to the elderly mare. "Oh no, Granny Smith. It just seems that this pony here hasn't kept up with the times. She thinks this is still Sweet Apple Acres."
Granny Smith frowned and shook her head as she locked eyes with Applejack. Just like Discord had said she didn't recognize the mare at all. "Listen, whipper snapper. I don't know who you think you are, but Sweet Apple Acres is a thing of the past. When Flim and Flam came along with their new fangled cider makin' contraption, we had no choice but to take the first deal they offered us. 'Cause if we didn't they'd run us out of business for sure."
"Eeyup," Called the familiar voice of Big Macintosh as he trotted out. "I didn't like the deal myself, but it the was only way my family could hope to survive. We needed the profits from cider season or we wouldn't last through the winter and would lose the farm. Small wonder why I'm the one who's gonna take over runnin' this here farm one day."
Applejack blinked anew in renewed surprise. "But... but that can't be! You hate big ideas! You always said 'You can't plow a field with 'em'!"
Big Mac replied with a shake of his head. "I don't know what you're implyin', but I don't take kindly to folks lyin' to my face. I never said that. Ask my friends if you don't believe me, I wasn't the Element of Honesty for nothin' ya know."
"You're the Element of Honesty?!" Applejack gasped in surprise. The idea of the element passing to somepony else in her absence had never quite stricken her the way it had just now.
"The key word is was," Big Mac explained to Applejack (he too did not recognize her). "The elements stopped workin' a long time ago, reckon it was only a couple of months after Flim and Flam took over. Though if you want to know more about that I suggest you talk to Twilight at the Golden Oak Library. Now if you ain't lookin' to buy somethin', kindly go away and leave my family in peace."
"W...wait!" Applejack suddenly realized. "Where's Apple Bloom?"
Granny Smith shook her head. "If I know that youngin' like I think I do, I reckon she's down at that old clubhouse hangin' out with her friends. They call themselves the Cutie Mark Crusaders, 'cause they used to go 'crusadin'' to find their cutie marks." Then she, Big Macintosh, and Flam all turned and trotted away, closing the door behind them.
Taking the advice of this alternative world's version of those ponies, Applejack decided to call upon Twilight at the Golden Oak Library. "I guess in whatever world this is in, Tirek never showed up to destroy it. So that means no table map and no glowing cutie marks," She thought to herself. "Between this and the changes to Sweet Apple Acres, what else is different?"
The farm mare didn't have long to find out. When she knocked on the door of the library she was soon greeted by the familiar presence of Twilight. But a noticeable feature caught the mare's wandering sap green eyes. Or rather a lack of a noticeable feature. Twilight didn't have her wings. She was just a unicorn (not quite a plain old one, Applejack had to remember that Twilight was perhaps the most powerful unicorn since Starswirl the Bearded).
For but a brief moment Twilight eyed Applejack as though she might recognize the earth pony. But the moment faded and she did not acknowledge Applejack by name. "Oh, hello. Are you new to Ponyville? I don't think I've seen you around before."
"Twilight? You don't recognize me?" Applejack blinked in surprise.
The unicorn with a coat the same color as the sky during the time of day she was named after shook her head. "No. I'm sorry, should I? I'm really trying to get better at recognizing faces. Especially ever since Spike pointed out how much of a bad friend I used to be back in Canterlot."
"Your old friends of Moondancer, Minuette, Twinkleshine, Lemon Hearts, and Lyra Heartstrings?" The farm mare questioned.
Twilight nearly gasped as Applejack listed off the names of her old friends so quickly and so accurately. "How did you know about them? I'd never told anypony about them."
"Because I..." Applejack began but then hesitated. If she told the truth she'd probably be laughed and dismissed outright. Despite her knowledge she was limited by the restraints of this world, a world that she wasn't supposed to exist in. "Er... lucky guess?"
Twilight eyed Applejack closely, appearing to glare at the earth pony. "Pinkie Pie? Is that you? Is this another one of your pranks?"
"Pinkie Pie's another one of your friends, isn't she?" The farm mare questioned Twilight, hoping beyond hope not to hear a no.
The unicorn nodded her head firmly. "Yes. It's kind of hard to live in Ponyville and not be friends with Pinkie Pie. Are you perhaps one of her friends that she hasn't introduced me to yet?"
"Er... yes, I am," Applejack replied as she swallowed a lump in her throat. "The name's Applejack."
"Strange. With a name like that I would've thought you'd be from Sweet Apple Acres and the Apple Family. But that's impossible, the Apple Family here only has two siblings: Big Macintosh and Apple Bloom. The rest consists of relatives that live all over Equestria," Twilight explained. "The family even has an official historian in Goldie Delicious. Though she lives far away from here and I've never met her."
"I have," Applejack firmly answered. "That's actually why I'm here," And she made up a cover story on the spot. "I'm her... fourth cousin twice removed. She told me that she wanted to update the family tree to include me. But she wanted to make sure all her information about the family was still correct since she doesn't keep in touch with every branch all the time. I figured a library would be a good place to start."
Twilight simply gestured a hoof and led Applejack inside with a smile. "If it's knowledge you're after I'd be happy to help you. Though if you want personal information you're better off going directly to the town hall and talking to the mayor."
"Who's the mayor? Is it still Mayor Mare?" Applejack pondered aloud.
The unicorn mare nodded her head again. "Yup. Hard to believe she's been in office for so long, or that she's actually not that old. They say she has a way to look older than she really is, but nopony's ever found out how or if that's true," Once inside the library proper, she gestured a hoof to a huge assortment of shelves stacked with books. "So, what would you like to know about? I've got books on every topic!"
But as Applejack looked around she noticed a startling lack of something she remembered once being in the Golden Oak Library. She also remembered what Big Macintosh had said earlier about them. "Where are the Elements of Harmony?" She questioned Twilight. "Are they back on the Tree of Harmony?"
In response, Twilight blinked her moderate violent eyes several times. The question seemed to catch her completely off guard, if only for a moment. "I don't know what you're talking about, Applejack. There's no such thing as a Tree of Harmony."
"What are you talkin' about? Of course there is!" Applejack firmly insisted as she stomped a hoof down. "If the Elements of Harmony aren't here then they have to be there!"
But with another shake of her head Twilight dispelled Applejack's notion. "There's no Tree of Harmony, and the Elements of Harmony don't work anymore. They stopped working just before the invasion of Canterlot."
"They stopped working?! That's impossible!" Applejack protested with a gasp.
"I'm afraid it is," Twilight glumly explained with a frown. "Ever since Big Macintosh took the deal with Flim and Flam our bonds of friendship grew further and further apart. And then one day the Elements of Harmony just turned to stone, and that was it. Even Princess Celestia and Princess Luna couldn't figure out why they'd stopped working. Luckily, we didn't need them to defeat Queen Chrysalis and her changeling army."
"But what about Tirek?" The farm mare inquired, more out of curiosity than any real concern.
Twilight's response was brief. "The princesses tracked him down shortly after we liberated the Crystal Empire from King Sombra. Tirek was sent back to Tartarus, and this time they made sure he can't escape."
"And your friends?" Applejack questioned though she needn't have asked.
"Aside from Big Mac we all stay in touch," Twilight explained to Applejack. "Pinkie Pie still has her apprenticeship with the Cakes, Fluttershy lives in her cottage, Rainbow Dash is hoping to get into the Wonderbolts, and Rarity has Carousel Boutique to keep her busy. Now, do you have a question that's actually related to the Apple family, or are you just here to ask random questions?"
Applejack firmly answered. "I've got one that's Apple related. Whatever happened to Bright Macintosh and Pear... I mean Buttercup? You know, the parents of Big Macintosh and Apple Bloom?"
Any hopes Applejack might have had for a different fate for them were dashed when Twilight gave the somber reply. "They died. Apple Bloom was barely a year old when it happened. Everypony took it hard, but Big Macintosh took it the hardest. I think he felt responsible for it somehow, especially with the way he started taking charge of the farm's day to day operations after the tragic accident. Before it he used to be such a chatterbox, so opposed to big ideas. Afterward it was like he was a different pony entirely."
Unable to think of anything better to say, Applejack just commented. "I see."
Twilight sighed anew, hanging her head. "It's still painful to think about it, even for ponies like me who weren't here to witness it. For a time, everypony thought my arrival here had given Big Macintosh hope. When he became the Element of Honesty, they thought maybe he'd turned it all around. But then Flim and Flam came along and he took the deal as soon as they offered it to him. Didn't try to negotiate, didn't try to settle, he accepted the seventy five/twenty five profit split and let them take over."
"And what about Apple Bloom and Granny Smith?" Applejack questioned. "They seem to be doin' alright."
"Apple Bloom has her friends, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, to help her out," Twilight explained. "When they stopped pursuing their cutie marks so rigorously, they started to realize what their talents were. Now they're doing their best to help others find their special talents, whatever they may be. In between doing things such as making potions, singing songs, and building machines. It's amazing that they still have time to do anything else."
"And what about you? You seem to be doin' pretty well for yourself as the town librarian." Applejack commented.
Twilight shook her head. "Books are my only friends nowadays. They remind me of what I used to have. I hate to say it but my younger self was right: Friendship wasn't worth the effort. I tried it, and for a time I was happy. But I should've known it was temporary, just an illusion. Something that was not meant to last. Nowadays my 'friends' barely talk to each other, let alone me. We mostly just go about our lives, and they all seem happy enough with their pursuits. If not for them I probably would've moved back to Canterlot already. At least Spike seems happy though."
"It beats just being Twilight's number one assistant all day," Spike replied as he came walking down from upstairs. "I enjoy helping Twilight a lot, but after awhile you get tired of having to stack and re-stack bookshelves and dusting, mopping, and cleaning. By the way, here's the book you wanted, Twilight." The book in question was very old and very worn. But the title was still as unmistakable as ever: Predictions and Prophecies. It didn't take a genius to figure out why Twilight would want to keep that book around.
But Applejack had seen enough and heard enough. "Well, I think that's a good enough start, Twilight. Sorry to bring up old wounds."
"It's okay," The unicorn librarian somberly answered with a heavy sigh. "You couldn't have known. Most ponies don't like to talk about stuff like that."
Applejack left the library mere moments later. To her surprise she found Discord waiting right outside for her, and nopony seemed to be aware of him despite the increased activity that was occurring with the night that was soon to come.
The spirit simply commented. "So, what do you think of this world? It certainly has an interesting history, wouldn't you agree?"
Applejack only hung her head and looked down at the ground. "I've seen enough, Discord! This world is a horrible, messed up world!"
"Oh come now, Applejack. It's not that bad," Discord reassured the farm mare. "There's no war with an encroaching empire. There's no changelings roaming around and attacking refugee camps. And the day and night both exist, so there's no Nightmare Moon. You wanted to see what it would be like if you never existed, and you got your wish."
Applejack just sighed. "And now I know why they say to be careful what you wish for. Big Mac was right all along," Then looking at the witty maker of chaos she pleaded. "You gotta send me back! Without me, a world like this will exist!"
"Funny, I thought you believed you didn't make much of a difference. I thought that was the whole reason why you wanted to see a world like this." Discord commented.
"That was before I saw all of this and heard all of this!" Applejack firmly declared and dug in her hooves. "Come on, Discord! Take us back to the world we know! The world where I exist and everythin' is as it should be! The world where everypony's happy!"
"Very well, if you insist." The spirit insisted and snapped his paw, causing him and Applejack to disappear.
The two returned to Sweet Apple Acres a short time later, and it seemed like no time at all had passed. Everything looked just the way it had before. So it was impossible to tell if they were truly back in the regular world, or still in the world where Applejack didn't exist.
But the earth pony's doubts were soon cleared up when she heard a voice calling out. "Applejack?" She recognized it at once as belonging to her little sister, Apple Bloom.
Applejack called back. "I'm here, Apple Bloom."
The filly came rushing up to Applejack as Discord vanished behind a tree. "Oh thank heavens, Applejack! I've been lookin' all over for ya! Granny Smith says supper's ready, but Big Mac couldn't find you anywhere in the orchard. Where have you been?"
Applejack replied as stroking Apple Bloom's mane with a hoof. Never in all her life was she more pleased to see her little sister than she was at the current moment. "To a world unlike any other. A world I never want to see again," She answered. "And hopefully I never will."
"That's great, maybe you can tell us all about it over supper," Apple Bloom insisted. "Now come on, hurry up! Supper's gonna get cold!" And she took off running.
"Hey, wait for me, Apple Bloom!" Applejack shouted as she chased after her little sister. "You know I've got an appetite the size of a full grown stallion!"
As Applejack took off across the orchards, lit up by the setting sun, Discord watched the display from afar. "My work here is done." He declared, and snapping his talons he disappeared.