Twilight is faced with a choice: leave Ponyville to pursue her dreams or stay with her new marefriend, Applejack. Meanwhile, Rainbow Dash helps Fluttershy deal with the harsh realities of rejection.
Twilight and Applejack have just discovered their feelings for each other, and all is well until their budding romance is interrupted by an urgent missive from Princess Celestia. Now, Twilight finds herself at a crossroads. Will she leave Ponyville and achieve all that she once desired, or will she decide that she has all she needs on an apple farm in Ponyville?
Meanwhile, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash are faced with their own choices. Are they just friends, or could they be something more?
This is the sequel to Three's A Crowd. Reading that story isn't required, but it'll give you some additional background.
A sickening rattle filled the air as the barn door creaked open, revealing the midday sun as it illuminated every patch of rot and every speck of dust in the old, decrepit building. Applejack crinkled her nose as she smelled a stench somewhere between filth and decay, and blew out a long sigh as she and Twilight Sparkle entered the aging barn.
The barn had been a fixture of Sweet Apple Acres for years, but few visited it anymore. It was old, a defunct relic of a bygone age. New structures, new technologies, new fields—they had all conspired to leave this barn unused, unneeded, and unwanted. The Apple family was in the process of expansion and renewal, though, and it was far easier to let the old barn fall into disuse than to spend valuable time and effort tearing it down.
Twilight barked a laugh and shook her head. "I can't believe it, Applejack. You really just left this barn rotting here all this time?"
Applejack chuckled and looked away. Lots of things had changed in the month since she and Twilight started dating. Apparently, that includes how I run the farm. "I know it's not ideal, sugarcube, but we've had other priorities lately."
"Come on, Applejack. You know I—" Twilight blushed and cleared her throat. "You know I like you very much, but this barn is positively ancient. When's the last time you actually used it for anything?"
Applejack tugged on her hat and glanced away. "Uh, I don't quite know. A few years maybe."
Twilight arched an eyebrow and exhaled sharply. "Well, it's good you have me here, AJ. We'll get this fixed quick as can be."
With a roll of her eyes, Applejack nuzzled Twilight's cheek. "And I'm glad to have you, Twilight, but really? AJ?"
"What?" Twilight took a step back, scoffing loudly and holding a hoof over her heart. "I thought it was endearing," she drawled. "Besides, you call me sugarcube, so I ought to have a nickname for you too."
"I call everyone sugarcube, Twi—" Applejack began, but Twilight thrust her hoof forward, eyes wide.
"There's another one!" Twilight shouted, a broad grin on her face. Her expression changed to a smirk as she said, "You know, there's a better nickname if you just let me use it."
"Oh no, Twilight." It was Applejack's turn to hold up a hoof. "I already told you, I'm not about to let anypony call me Jackie. You know darn well that's off the table."
Twilight's shoulders drooped. "But, Applejack, it's such a beautiful nickname!"
Applejack grit her teeth and tapped one of the barn's support beams. A rattling sounded off from somewhere over head and a renewed plume of dust engulfed the two ponies. "Whoops," she mumbled, blushing and hiding her face. "Sorry about that."
Twilight only giggled and shrugged her shoulders. "That's why we're here, honey," she said, tilting her head and arching an eyebrow. "How was that one?"
Applejack let out a loud guffaw and offered up a lopsided smile in response. "If you like it, sugarcube, then it's fantastic."
A smirk found its way onto Twilight's face as she looked up at the roof of the barn.
"What are you thinking?" Applejack asked, stepping forward and looking up with Twilight.
Twilight bit her lip. "I'm not sure," she mumbled, taking a moment to glare at Applejack when she chuckled in response. Clearing her throat, she began to pace about the middle of the barn. "I mean, it should be simple enough to salvage the materials with the help of a little magic, but there's so much rot around here. It'll be tough to sort the good from the bad."
Applejack grunted and lowered her head, but Twilight sucked in a quick breath and held up a hoof. "Hold on," she said as she rubbed her chin. "As long as you don't mind waiting a week or two, I might be able to find a spell to repair the rotten wood."
"Well shoot, Twi." Applejack let out a low whistle and drew Twilight in for a hug. "Are you sure you don't mind going to all that trouble?"
Twilight's cheeks reddened as she hid her face in Applejack's shoulder. "Um, it's nothing really."
Applejack gave Twilight a brief squeeze. "Thanks for being such a huge help, sugarcube."
"I'm just sorry we can't make any progress today." Twilight pulled away and smirked at a particularly decayed corner of the barn.
Not even a shadow crossed Applejack's face as she chuckled and grinned back at Twilight. "I wasn't planning on doing any real work today, sugarcube." She pointed out the barn door at the sun, which was already beginning to sink toward the horizon. "Aren't you supposed to be the one who's planning first and jumping headfirst into things later?"
With a roll of her eyes, Twilight began to trot out of the rickety building. "You've had years to plan this, Applejack." She nudged Applejack's shoulder and winked. "If somepony's dragging her hooves all day, I don't mind doing a little role reversal for once."
Applejack arched her eyebrows. "I'm dragging my hooves now, am I?" She tossed her hair back and scoffed. "Well, at least I'm not extremely ticklish." Before she finished her sentence, she was on Twilight, moving her hooves from her marefriend's stomach to her neck, and everywhere in between.
"H-ha—hey!" Twilight sputtered, gasping for breath as Applejack continued her relentless assault. "Stop i—ha ha—stop, Applejack!"
Applejack didn't notice when Twilight's horn began to glow, but a gasp escaped her lips as she felt her legs being lifted skyward. Before she had time to react, she was floating upside down in midair, and she could only offer a toothy grin as Twilight slowly stood up.
"Uh, I stopped for you," Applejack said, still smiling wide enough to show every one of her teeth.
Applejack's smile finally began to waver as she saw the lopsided grin on Twilight's face. "So you say you're not ticklish?" Twilight asked, pouting as she trotted to Applejack's side.
"Ah, well I wouldn't say that now." Eyes wide, Applejack shook her head. Her smile only existed as a pale shadow as Twilight's grew with each passing second. "I just meant to say that you're more ticklish than me is all. You know what I meant, right, Twi?"
"Oh, I know what you meant, honey," Twilight cooed. A feather materialized in the air next to her as she gripped it with her magic. "I know just what you meant."
"Twilight, no—oh!" Applejack howled with laughter as the feather darted all over her body. From head to toe, nothing was safe from Twilight's magical onslaught, and Applejack could only shout an incoherent mix of laughter and protest as the feather did its mischievous work.
Twilight's magical field left plenty of room for Applejack to squirm and spasm in a vain attempt to escape the relentless feather, but before too long, she was too exhausted to do even that. By the time she was gently lowered to the ground, she could do nothing but gulp loud, deep breaths and roll onto her side. Her chest rose with each wild breath, and Twilight stroked her mane as she struggled to regain her bearings.
"Okay, Twilight," Applejack finally gasped. "You win." She stood up on shaky legs and leaned into Twilight for support. "And now I'm definitely too tired to do any work on that barn."
Twilight glanced at the horizon one more time and nodded. "Fair enough. Are you still up for dinner tonight?"
"You still want to do it at your place?" Applejack began to walk toward home and arched an eyebrow.
"Hey!" Trotting up to keep step with Applejack, Twilight frowned. "What's with that?"
Applejack smirked. "I don't know what you're talking about, sugarcube."
"That," Twilight replied, pointing at Applejack's face. "All that." She huffed and tilted her chin up. "I'll have you know that I am a very capable cook, AJ."
The arched eyebrow returned to Applejack's face as she leaned into Twilight. After a moment, Twilight backed away, lowering her head and blushing. "Okay. Spike will be there to help if that makes you feel better."
Applejack laughed and shook her head. "I'm just teasing, Twi. I'd feel wonderful either way." She nuzzled Twilight's cheek.
Twilight tried to hide the furious blush that erupted onto her cheeks, but Applejack just chuckled. With a sigh, Twilight straightened herself and said, "I already told you, it's only fair that I get to treat you to dinner once in a while. You and your family go out of your way to spoil me, and it's really sweet of you." She planted a rushed kiss on Applejack's cheek before she could react. "I just want to do the same for you every so often."
"I won't argue," Applejack said, kissing Twilight back and rubbing against her as the two mares continued to approach the Apple family home.
As they neared the house, Twilight began to slow down and bit her lip. Applejack stopped in front of her and asked, "You okay, sugarcube?"
Twilight flashed a grin. "Oh, I'm fine, AJ. I was just wondering, um, if you…"
"If I what?" Applejack stepped toward Twilight, who began to blush once more.
"Would you like to sleep over at my place tonight?" Twilight's hooves fidgeted as she asked the question, and she bit her lip again as soon as she finished asking it.
Applejack stood stock still, eyes widening as she absorbed Twilight's offer. "Uh," she managed, gulping as she glanced away for a moment.
"I could put Spike in the guest bedroom, and that way you wouldn't have to walk back here in the dark." Twilight opened her mouth and closed it before opening it again. "But, um, you know, it's fine if you don't want to."
"Well, it sure sounds great, Twi." Applejack began to rub the back of her neck. "It's just that I've got to get working on the farm bright and early, and I, um…"
"Yeah." Twilight lowered her shoulders and fixed her gaze on the ground. "Yeah, it's fine."
Applejack grabbed Twilight's shoulder and shook her head. "I didn't say no, sugarcube," she said. "Let's just focus on dinner first, okay?"
Twilight hesitated a moment before smiling in response. As she resumed her walk to the Apple family home, she said, "That sounds good." Her voice dropped to nearly a whisper as she added, "We can figure that stuff out later." She reached the porch before Applejack and opened the door. "C'mon, AJ. Let's grab your things and get going."
Rainbow groaned as sunlight filled her weary eyes. "I hate mornings," she mumbled to no one in particular, rolling over on her cloud bed in an attempt to shield herself from the sun's unwanted intrusion.
Her eyes snapped open as she realized that she was now plummeting toward the earth. Above her, all she could see was the blue sky and a small, pillowy cloud.
Oh yeah, she thought as she pieced together her situation. That was an afternoon nap. She chuckled as she opened her wings and leveled off her ever accelerating descent. Well, mornings still suck.
Blowing out a deep sigh, Rainbow flapped her wings and straightened herself to slow down. Glancing at the sun, she figured that it was about two o'clock. Probably part of my weather duty shift, she thought, scratching her head and pursing her lips. The truth of that statement was quickly proven meaningless, because when she scrutinized the wide open sky before her, Rainbow Dash saw nothing but clear blue skies.
"That seems about right," Rainbow mumbled, biting her lip as she thought back on the schedule she'd been given at the beginning of the week. Thursday: Sunny. She snorted and crossed her forelegs. Of course, the one day I need something to do, the rest of the weather team has its act together.
As she exhaled out of the corner of her mouth, Rainbow turned her gaze earthward, looking for something—anything—to do. Ponyville itself looked typically busy, with the market in full swing and plenty of ponies out enjoying the warm sun, but nothing seemed too terribly interesting to Rainbow. As her gaze wandered farther away from the town, though, her eyes fixed on a particular little cottage near the Everfree Forest.
Fluttershy's house, Rainbow thought as a small smile found its way onto her face. Let's see what she's been up to lately.
Just as Fluttershy returned to her cottage from feeding a nearby rabbit warren, she heard a whoosh of air. She stifled a squeal as her eyes twinkled and a grin burst across her face. Here comes Rainbow Dash.
As if on cue, Rainbow zoomed into view, landing next to Fluttershy and flipping her rainbow-hued mane as part of it threatened to fall over her eyes. "Hey, Fluttershy," she said, trotting alongside her friend as they approached Fluttershy's cottage. "What's up?"
Fluttershy lifted her wing slightly, jostling her saddlebags and drawing Rainbow's attention to them. "I was just feeding the bunnies down by the Everfree Forest." She hid her face behind her head, but Rainbow could still see her smirk. "You know, Rainbow Dash, I can almost tell time by when you stop by."
Rainbow halted, but she quickly shook herself and flew into the air when Fluttershy turned to see what was the matter. "I'm just making sure you get your daily dose of awesome, Fluttershy," she said, hovering above her friend with her forelegs spread and her chest puffed out.
Fluttershy took a step back and lowered her gaze. "Oh, I was just teasing, Rainbow," she said.
Landing on the ground, Rainbow laughed and rolled her eyes. "What do you think I was doing?" she asked, giving Fluttershy a light jab in the shoulder.
Fluttershy flinched from the contact, but she smiled up at Rainbow from behind her mane even so. "Well, would you like to help me take care of the animals?"
Rainbow's lopsided grin never left her face even as she sighed. "I thought you were just doing that."
"It's all a process, Rainbow," Fluttershy replied, tossing her mane. "It takes time."
Rainbow shook her head. "Sometimes I don't understand how you can stand to spend so much time, though."
Fluttershy stopped and reached a wing into one of her saddlebags. After a moment of rummaging, she pulled out an acorn and held it out in front of Rainbow. "Do you know who gave me this, Rainbow Dash?"
"A squirrel?" Rainbow asked more than answered, arching her eyebrow.
With a shake of her head, Fluttershy replied, "Oh, no. I wouldn't have let a squirrel or a chipmunk give me something like this. It was a blue jay. I helped her fix her nest this morning and she was so grateful." As Rainbow rolled her eyes, Fluttershy put the acorn back in her pocket and resumed her stroll to her cottage. "I know it doesn't look like much, Rainbow Dash, but it's not just the acorn that counts."
"I'd hope not." Rainbow snorted.
"It isn't." Fluttershy frowned at Rainbow, eliciting, a grimace from her friend. "It's about the love behind the gesture, Rainbow, and you can't get that by just dropping off some food and saying 'Hello.' Love is a process, Rainbow. It takes time, but it is always worth it in the end."
"If you say so, Fluttershy." Rainbow threw her head back and trotted up to join Fluttershy once more. I guess it makes sense with how long it took her to fall for Twilight.
Rainbow shook her head. That had been weeks ago—almost a month, in fact. She took it hard, but we got through it. She got through it. I just helped her along.
She'd been helping with a lot lately. Ever since Fluttershy heard that Twilight and Applejack had started dating, Rainbow had been by her side almost every day. She provided an extra set of hooves and wings around the cottage, a shoulder to cry on, and a sympathetic ear to talk to. Fortunately, Rainbow thought, I think she's worked past most of the pain.
"So, how's Twilight?" Fluttershy asked after a moment of silence.
Rainbow held off from answering for a second. She always asks the second question.
"How are Twilight and Applejack, I mean?" As Fluttershy sighed, she entire body seemed to deflate. Her shoulders and wings drooped and her ears were press flat against her head.
Rainbow furrowed her brow and grabbed Fluttershy's shoulders, pulling them up despite Fluttershy's best efforts to keep them down. "They're doing their thing. I haven't really seen them lately." Rainbow forced Fluttershy to look her in the eyes. "You know you asked me that same question yesterday, right?"
Fluttershy took a step back. "Maybe."
"And the day before, and the day before." Rainbow put a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes." Fluttershy's lips trembled, but she forced the words out. "It just takes time, is all."
Rainbow draped a wing over Fluttershy and pulled her close. "It's been almost a month, Fluttershy. You need to stop living in the past and look forward to the future."
Fluttershy buried her face in Rainbow's feathers. "Have you ever loved somepony so much it hurt, Rainbow Dash?"
Rainbow blinked and fixed her gaze on Fluttershy's cottage. "I don't think so," she said, drawing out every syllable as her brow furrowed.
Fluttershy sniffled under Rainbow's wing. "You can't just let go sometimes. There needs to be somepony else to fill in that space, if that makes sense."
Rainbow pulled away from Fluttershy, a smirk on her face. "Yeah? Well, I'm here, and I've got more than enough awesome for the both of us."
A giggle escaped Fluttershy's lips. "Oh, Rainbow Dash, not just anypony can fill that kind of hole." She bit her lip and looked away as she saw a slight frown on. "I mean, no offense."
After a moment's hesitation, Rainbow waved a hoof and flipped her mane. "I was kidding, Fluttershy," she said. "Just remember, I'm still here. Matter of fact, I think you've got too much time on your hooves, so starting tomorrow, we're gonna start hanging out more often."
Fluttershy smiled and shook her head. "But Rainbow, you already see me almost every day."
"Well let's drop the 'almost' and start actually going into Ponyville," Rainbow said, resuming her trot toward Fluttershy's cottage.
"But I couldn't impose," Fluttershy protested as she caught up with Rainbow. "Besides, you have your job and I have my animal friends."
Rainbow snorted. "We can work something out. I know for a fact that these animals don't take up all of your time, and you know me. I can clear the sky in ten seconds flat!"
Fluttershy finally reached the front door of her cottage and opened it. "If you say so, Rainbow Dash."
"I do say so." Rainbow flew a few feet into the air and puffed out her chest.
"You know what?" Fluttershy shifted her forelegs glanced toward her kitchen. "I was planning on starting dinner. Would you like to join me, Rainbow Dash?"
Rainbow exhaled sharply. "Would I?" She trotted into the cottage and pulled the door closed behind her. "What are we having anyway?"
"Oh, I hadn't decided." Fluttershy made her way over to the kitchen. "Would you like to help me make it?"
Rainbow shrugged as she joined Fluttershy and grabbed a jar of spices. "Sure. Why not?"
Fluttershy stood tall in front of Rainbow Dash, spice jar in hoof. "Now, what have we learned?"
Rainbow rolled her eyes, shoulders slouched. "Lots of control."
Fluttershy smirked. "Good."
"Cleaning and measuring." Rainbow's frown knew no depths.
Fluttershy on the other hand, seemed on the verge of laughter. "Yes, and most importantly?"
Rainbow let out a sigh of titanic proportions. "Caution."
Finally, a giggle escaped Fluttershy's lips and lingered in her voice as she spoke. "That's right, Rainbow Dash. Now that you know the elements of a good meal, let's get started."
Rainbow exhaled for what seemed like an eternity, but when she finished, even she couldn't suppress a soft chuckle. Walking with Fluttershy over the kitchen counter, she mumbled one word: "Yay."
Fortunately for Rainbow, preparing her dinner with Fluttershy took far less time than Fluttershy's impromptu training. It was just a simple salad. Rainbow tossed in the lettuce, tomatoes, celery, carrots…
Rainbow blinked and scrutinized her ingredients. None of these are carrots.
Rainbow looked around the kitchen for Fluttershy, but she was nowhere to be found. "Hey, Fluttershy," Rainbow called, scratching her head. "Where are the carrots?"
Suddenly, Fluttershy came in through the front door with a few carrots in her hooves. She shivered as she said, "Sorry, Rainbow Dash. I went out to get some carrots for the salad." She rubbed her shoulders and shook her head. "Brr, it's cold out there!"
Rainbow glanced out a window at the clear night sky. "Yeah, there's no cloud cover to keep the heat in. It'll be pretty chilly tonight."
Fluttershy's mouth dropped open. "Oh, Rainbow Dash, you'll be freezing out in your cloud home, won't you?"
Rainbow shrugged. "Eh, it's not that bad."
"You could stay here, you know," Fluttershy insisted, placing the carrots on a cutting board. She picked up a knife and started to slice the vegetables. "Angel's in the guest bedroom, but you could use my bed if you want."
Rainbow crinkled her nose and shook her head. "Come on, Fluttershy! I'm not going to steal your bed."
Fluttershy paused in her cutting to gaze directly at Rainbow. "But I couldn't bear to have you out there in the cold, Rainbow Dash."
With a sigh, Rainbow threw up her hooves. "Alright, fine." She pointed at Fluttershy and added, "You keep your bed, though. I can sleep on the couch or something."
Fluttershy's eyes glimmered as she stopped and gave Rainbow a hug. "I'll set things up after dinner, okay, Rainbow Dash."
Rainbow rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah." She thrust a hoof toward the half-cut carrots. "Now hurry up on those carrots, will you?"
Fluttershy picked her knife back up, but she continued cutting at the same methodical pace she had been using. "Caution, Rainbow Dash, remember?"
"I know." Rainbow threw up her hooves again. "I'll be happy when we get to the eating part."
With a giggle, Fluttershy finished chopping the carrots and dropped them into the salad bowl. "Not everything can be fast, Rainbow Dash—not even the fastest flier in Equestria. You just need to slow down sometimes and enjoy life."
Rainbow began tossing the salad, sending vegetables up in the air with reckless abandon. "Well how am I supposed to enjoy it all if I'm as slow as a snail?"
"Hey!" A flash of irritation passed through Fluttershy's expression. "I have some very good snail friends who wouldn't appreciate that comment."
"Of course you'd have snail friends," Rainbow muttered.
"Snails aren't slow. They're calm. They let life come to them." Fluttershy walked over to Rainbow's side and put a hoof on her shoulder. "You see, Rainbow Dash, life is a process. Snails know that sometimes, you just have to let it run its course." She glanced upward for a moment added, "You're getting tomato seeds in your mane."
"Ack!" Rainbow stopped tossing the salad and began running her hooves through her mane. "I for one think you need to actually get things done every once in a while. Sure, it can all be a process, but at some point you just have to mare up and take action."
Fluttershy smirked and patted Rainbow's back. "I know," she said, sauntering over to her cutting board and picking it up. She carried the board over to her sink and said, "You need to take opportunities when you find them." She turned back to Rainbow, still smirking. "Sometimes, though, you have to let the opportunities find you."
Rainbow furrowed her brow and stared at Fluttershy for a few seconds. After a brief pause, she shrugged and picked up the salad bowl. "Whatever, Fluttershy. You think this is ready?"
After grabbing a serving spoon from a nearby drawer, Fluttershy nodded and pointed to the dining room. "I'm sure it's perfect, Rainbow Dash."
"You don't have to tell me twice." Rainbow rushed to the dining room table with salad bowl in hoof, placing the bowl at the center of the table between two small plates. Sitting down, she picked up her fork and pointed at Fluttershy's chair. "You coming?"
"Of course, Dashie." Fluttershy took her seat and put the serving spoon in the bowl.
Rainbow chuckled as she reached for the serving spoon. "'Dashie.' I don't think you've ever called me that before."
"Oh." Fluttershy's ears flattened as she lowered her head. "I'm sorry, Rainbow Dash."
Rainbow held her hooves up and shook her head. "No, no, it's not a bad thing," she insisted. "It's just different." She grinned and began to scoop salad onto her plate. "I like it."
"Oh, okay." Fluttershy's ears perked back up and she smiled broadly. "How's the salad, Dashie?"
Rainbow smirked and shrugged. "I haven't had the chance to try any yet, but I'm sure it's awesome. I helped make it, after all."
Fluttershy's grin grew wider. "Definitely."
While some of the tomatoes had been squashed by Rainbow's overzealous mixing, the salad was, indeed, awesome. Dinner passed by in a dash, or so it seemed to Fluttershy and Rainbow. Before they knew it, the salad was gone, and both ponies sat in their chairs with full bellies.
Eyes closed, Rainbow smiled and moaned quietly, patting her stomach. "That was delicious." She stood and said, "I'll take care of the dishes."
Fluttershy grabbed her plate and said, "But, Rainbow Dash, you're my guest."
"Yeah, but you need to get some blankets out for me if I'm going to be sleeping here tonight." She hugged Fluttershy and grabbed her friend's plate. "I'll take care of this. Thanks, by the way."
Fluttershy nodded and trotted out of the room. It only took a few moments to find extra blankets and bring them out to her living room, but by the time she returned to the kitchen, she found that it was entirely clean.
"See?" Rainbow said, smirking as she hovered off the ground. Her wings flapped briskly as she said, "Sometimes, you just have to get things done."
All Fluttershy could do was giggle. "I know, Dashie. I was just saying that, sometimes, you have to relax."
"And what do you think we're going to do tonight?" Rainbow held up her hooves and smirked.
Fluttershy grinned and Rainbow touched down next to her. "I'm looking forward to it, Dashie."
The Golden Oaks Library was much warmer than normal when Twilight and Applejack entered, and it didn't take long for Twilight to notice why.
"Spike!" she shouted, pointing at the crackling fire in the fireplace. "Did you do this?"
Scaly feet skittered against the library's wooden floor as Twilight's baby dragon, Spike, rushed out of the kitchen. "Uh, yeah." Noticing the scowl on Twilight's face, he quickly backed away and held his hands in front of him. "Whoa. What's the big deal, Twilight?"
"Don't you know you could have set this whole building on fire?" She wrapped Spike in a tight embrace, but a reproachful glare led his gaze to Applejack, who seemed torn between shrinking away and stepping forward.
Finally, the latter idea triumphed in Applejack's mind. Tapping a hoof on a the floor, she waited for Twilight to face her and said, "Maybe you're being too hard on him, Twi. It's not like he did any harm or nothing. A growing dragon's got to learn to take care of himself."
Twilight didn't release her grip on Spike. If anything, she tightened her vice-like hug as she answered, "He can learn all he needs to know under controlled conditions, with me by his side, and with careful supervision."
With a groan, Spike pulled away from Twilight. "C'mon, Twilight. I've got it under control." He ran over to the fireplace and pointed at it. "Look, the wood's put in there just like you do it, and I made sure to only ignite part of the pile to start so it wouldn't spread."
Twilight put a hoof on Spike's shoulder, stopping short of pulling him in for another hug. "Just tell me about these things first," she said. "I don't want you to get hurt."
"Fine," Spike grunted, walking back to the kitchen. He hesitated and turned back to Twilight. "Oh yeah. What did you two want for dinner tonight?"
Twilight coughed and did her best to save face with a short giggle. "Don't worry, Spike. I can handle things tonight."
Spike rolled his eyes and continued his walk to the kitchen. "You'll thank me later," he said. "Both of you."
Applejack stifled a laugh in the face of Twilight's excessively toothy grin. As Twilight's smile began to falter, Applejack said, "Sounds good." She pulled Twilight close to her side and added, "That way we can spend more time together."
"Yeah," Twilight said, letting a smile return to her face. "Thanks, Applejack."
"I ain't the one making dinner for us." Applejack chuckled. "Twilight says 'Thanks,' Spike!" she shouted. A scaly claw came into view from the kitchen and gave the two ponies a thumbs up before retreating back into the kitchen.
Silence hung in the air for a moment, broken only by the muffled clanging of bowls and utensils in the kitchen. Twilight shuffled her hooves as her eyes began to dart about, examining the many bookshelves lining the walls of the library.
"You know, if you'd like, I could start looking for that wood repair spell now." Twilight spoke slowly at first and sped up with each word. Before she finished, she was already up and moving toward her books, but a hoof on her shoulder stopped her.
Applejack's lips were drawn into a thin smile. When Twilight saw it, she offered back a toothy grin and backed away from the shelves.
"How about we just take some time to relax for once, sugarcube?" Applejack asked. She sat down and patted the ground next to her.
Twilight beamed as she took her seat next to Applejack. Leaning into her marefriend, she closed her eyes and sighed.
"Something wrong, sugarcube?" Applejack shifted her head gingerly, trying not to disturb Twilight.
"He's growing up so fast," Twilight whispered, blinking back tears. A smile crept onto her face. "I'm so proud, but I don't know what I'll do when he leaves."
Applejack furrowed her brow. "He's still just a baby, sugarcube, and he loves you like a mother. You could see that from a mile away. He's not leaving anytime soon, Twi. I know that much."
Twilight drew herself closer to Applejack's side and nuzzled her marefriend's cheek. "You're right. I'm just being neurotic."
"Uh, definitely." Applejack nodded, silently thanking Celestia that Twilight couldn't see her upraised eyebrow. Whatever neurotic means.
Neither pony spoke for a few seconds. After a while, Applejack bit her lip and asked, "Have you seen Fluttershy lately?"
Twilight's ears flattened momentarily, and her eyes were downcast as she smiled and nodded. "We've bumped into each other a few times in town. I think she's in a better place now."
"I sure hope so." Applejack sighed. "I know what she's going through, more or less."
Twilight nudged Applejack's shoulder lightly. "You should go talk with her. See how she's doing. Have you even seen her since… You know…"
Applejack's flattened ears and slouched shoulders told Twilight everything she needed to know. "I'm not in town all that often, and she lives outside Ponyville, too, so it's not like I'm avoiding her."
"Applejack, things are only as awkward as you choose to make them." Twilight pursed her lips and paused. She giggled and shook her head. "Well, not always, but that's how it is here. Just talk to her. The longer you keep away from Fluttershy, the worse she'll think things are between you two."
"But what if she's—I don't know—bitter or something?" Seeing Twilight raise an eyebrow, Applejack rolled her eyes. "I know, I know, this is Fluttershy we're talking about, but still. I didn't just spill juice on her carpet or something. I… You know—"
Twilight leaned in and planted a quick kiss on Applejack's lips. "I know that you're worrying too much, AJ. She's doing fine, and she's lucky to have Rainbow Dash by her side."
Applejack tilted her head. "What about Rainbow Dash?"
"She's been helping Fluttershy out lately." Twilight draped a forearm over Applejack's withers. "It's a good thing she's there to keep Fluttershy company, don't you agree?"
Applejack chewed her lip for a moment before nodding. "Yeah. That is good. Maybe I should pay a visit to both of them sometime."
"Exactly." Twilight brought her mouth close to Applejack's ear and whispered, "So what do you want to do tonight?"
"Huh?" Applejack's cheeks went bright red at the same time that a tingling chill went down her spine. She tossed her head and tapped the floor in front of her. "I'm fine with this right here, Twilight."
Twilight rested her head on Applejack's forearms and exhaled slowly. "Alright," she murmured, closing her eyes. "That sounds nice."
Applejack's eyes shimmered as she nodded and said, "It does." Laying her head down on Twilight's withers, she added, "It sounds wonderful."
The two ponies laid there silently for what seemed like an interminable time. Their world shrank down to the size of one quiet library, down to one silent room in that library, down to a small patch of ground where only they existed. Nothing else mattered. Everything melted away until only two ponies, two loving marefriends, remained.
At last, a loud clanging shattered the moment. As Twilight and Applejack stood and turned toward the kitchen, Spike walked in, serving spoon and bowl in hand and said, "Food's ready, guys."
"Alrighty." Applejack beamed and nudged Twilight's shoulder. "I'm starving right about now."
Spike beckoned the two ponies and walked over to the dining room. "Come on. I've got the table set already."
Twilight and Applejack joined Spike and made their way to the dining room table. Sure enough, the food was warm and ready. Two salad bowls awaited the ponies, and they took their seats under the soft glow of candlelight.
"Let me know when you're ready for dessert," Spike called, leaving the dining room and returning to the kitchen. "I hope you like apple fritters, Applejack."
A smirk spread across Applejack's face as she nodded and turned to Twilight. "Where'd you get that idea?"
Twilight matched Applejack's smirk and added a languid roll of her eyes. "Oh, I don't know," she drawled, letting her tongue roll over every syllable. "Lucky guess."
Much as Twilight had hoped and Applejack had expected, dinner was excellent. True to his word, Spike had prepared their meals with competently, if not perfectly. More importantly, they talked throughout the meal, enjoying the simple fact of each other's company.
Toward the end of dinner, as Spike cleared their plates, Twilight bit her lip and looked to Applejack. "AJ?"
"Yeah," Applejack replied, reaching for a fritter with a twinkle in her eye.
"About tonight…" Twilight trailed off almost before she began. Her ears drooped slightly, and they went completely flat when Applejack let out a long sigh.
"Maybe some other night. Okay, sugarcube?" Applejack glanced toward Spike, but he had already run off.
"That's fine," Twilight said as she stood up, eyes downcast.
"We can do it soon," Applejack hastened to add, standing and walking up to Twilight's side. "It's just that things are busy at the farm. I need to be there first thing in the morning."
"No, no, really, Applejack. It's fine." Twilight forced a tight smile onto her face, but her eyes remained misty.
Applejack frowned and reached a forearm across the table. "Tell you what, Twi, I'll stay the night the first chance I get. I promise. I'm not really sure when that'll be, but it should be in the next couple of weeks. That sound good?"
The two ponies exited the kitchen and reached the front door. As Twilight opened it for Applejack, she nodded and said, "Sounds good."
Applejack kissed Twilight on the cheek and walked out into the brisk night air. Just before Twilight closed the door, she turned and called, "Good night, Twilight."
Smiling back, Twilight said, "Good night," and closed the door. She let out a long sigh and turned away from the door, but before she could make the long climb up to her room, Spike came rushing down the stairs towards her.
"What now, Spike?" she asked, her frown deepening as his wide eyes and the envelope in his hand.
In one breath, Spike replied, "I'm sorry, Twilight, and please don't be mad at me, but you got a letter from the princess earlier, and—"
"What?" Twilight practically squawked, grabbing the letter with her magic. "What's it about?"
Spike shrugged. "I didn't want to poke my nose where it doesn't belong."
With a half-smile on her face, Twilight sighed. Opening the envelope, she pulled out the letter and said, "Thanks, Spike. Now, let's see what all this is about."
Spike tapped his foot and rolled his eyes as Twilight offered no response. All she could do was stare at the parchment floating in front of her, struck dumb by its import.
My dearest Twilight Sparkle,
First, I would like to congratulate you on how far you have come in your studies. You have exceeded all my expectations these past few years as you studied the magic of friendship in Ponyville, and I am proud to call you my student.
Today is a very exciting day for you and I both. After careful consideration, Princess Luna and I have decided that you are ready to proceed to the next stage of your studies.
"Oh my goodness," Twilight murmured as her eyes widened and her face grew pale.
"What is it?" Spike asked, poking Twilight in the shoulder. "Come on! Let me see."
"In a minute, Spike," Twilight snapped. Nudging him away, she returned her attention to the letter.
Princess Luna has decided to become more active in performing our shared duties as princesses of Equestria. She has spent the past few years acclimating herself to the modern world, but she will need advisers as she joins me in leading the kingdom. With my approval and recommendation, she requests that you return to Canterlot to serve as her chief adviser and personal assistant.
Twilight blinked rapidly and sat down. The letter fell to the ground as she relinquished her magical grip on it, and Spike snatched it into his hands before it hit the ground.
"Dude, what does this even say?" Spike held the letter close to his face and began to read it. "You look like you just saw a…" His knees began to buckle and he sat down in front of Twilight. "Whoa."
"That's right," Twilight said, her voice scarcely a whisper. She picked the letter back up and continued to read.
This request is not made lightly. You have been my student for many years now, and I could not be prouder of all that you have achieved. You have known Luna for only a fraction of the time that you have known me, but she has been similarly impressed by your experience. More importantly, she believes—much as I do—that you have incredible potential, much of which has yet to be revealed. With my help, she will help you realize that potential in the course of your employment. While your time in Ponyville has without a doubt been more productive than the entire lives of most other ponies, we believe that your time as Luna's assistant could prove even more so.
Be that as it may, please do not think that we are forcing this change on you. If you would prefer to continue your studies in Ponyville, we will happily oblige. Do not feel pressured to accept this position in an attempt to please me. I will be proud of you regardless of your choice.
We understand that we are asking much of you, Twilight. As such, we will give you four weeks to make your decision. If you choose to decline the position, simply have Spike send us a letter to that effect. Beyond that, we only ask that you travel to Canterlot for one day in the coming weeks so we can discuss this offer in person. We look forward to seeing you then.
Silence enveloped the library, and Twilight could only stare into space as her world collapsed into a single pinpoint. Not now, she thought, shaking her head with increasing speed and vigor. Not now. Not so soon. Her thoughts flashed to Sweet Apple Acres, to the farm, to Applejack…
"I have to go, Spike."
Spike scratched his head. "You're taking the job already?"
"No!" Twilight took a moment to realize she was shouting. "I just need to go see Applejack," she continued, more quietly this time. "Make sure not to stay up too late."
"Yeah." Spike yawned and pointed at the stairs. As he began to walk toward the upstairs bedroom, he said, "I'll probably hit the hay now. See you in the morning."
"Good night, Spike!" Twilight called. Opening the front door with her magic, she galloped off into the night, heart pumping as sweat beaded on her forehead.
Applejack's eyes were downcast and her ears drooped as she trudged back from Ponyville to home. Nice going, she thought, snorting as she did so. Maybe I can make it up to her tomorrow.
She had just reached the edge of town when Applejack heard the sound of hooves galloping toward her from behind. She wheeled around, jaw clenched, but relaxed when she saw that it was only Twilight.
Moments later, the importance of that fact reached her, and she furrowed her brow. What's Twilight doing out here? She called out, "Is something wrong, Twi?" and trotted toward her marefriend.
Applejack's heart dropped when she got closer to Twilight. Her eyes stared out blankly and her mouth was slack despite the great speed at which she was running.. Applejack opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say a word, Twilight gripped her in a tight embrace.
"I need to talk to you," Twilight murmured. "I'm so sorry, Applejack, but I need to talk right now."
"What is it, sugarcube?" Applejack returned the hug as Twilight buried her face in Applejack's chest. "Just tell me what's wrong."
Twilight let go of Applejack and fell to a sitting position. "The princess set me a letter," she managed, her eyes fixed on some patch of dirt to Applejack's right.
Applejack pulled Twilight's chin up and looked her marefriend in the eyes. "What did it say?"
"I'm done." Twilight shook her head and closed her eyes. "I'm done. I'm done. I'm done."
The pit in Applejack's stomach widened as she wrapped Twilight in another hug. "Twilight, please, just tell me what the letter said. Please."
A long silence followed, which was in turn followed by more silence. At long last, Twilight stood up and gulped, turning back toward her library. "Maybe it'd be best if you read it yourself," she told Applejack. "I'm sorry to keep you out so late, but I think I need some help."
"It's fine, sugarcube." Applejack up a hoof on Twilight's shoulder and smiled. "We'll figure this out, whatever it is."
Both ponies began to trot toward the library. Twilight, eyes darting back and forth throughout the trip, kept pulling ahead of Applejack before remembering herself and slowing down. Applejack only bit her lip and watched the panic grow in Twilight's eyes. I need to know what this is all about first, she thought. Can't do much to help before then.
Before too long, the two ponies reached the library. The door creaked open at the command of Twilight's magic, and she gestured for Applejack to enter first. Once both mares were inside, Twilight levitated the letter over from the spot on the floor where she had dropped it. "Here it is," she said, her heart dropping just thinking of its message. "Take your time, Applejack."
After Twilight spoke, silence fell on the library, and each moment crawled at a snail's pace as the world seemed to be creaking to a stop. Twilight's eyes dug into Applejack as the latter scrutinized every word in Celestia's letter. She read it once, twice… again…
"Did you finish it?" Twilight asked, her voice quavering.
Applejack nodded and let her head hang limply. "Yeah," she murmured. Her eyes, wide open and blank, fixed on Twilight. "I guess I know why you asked me to come back now."
Twilight leaned forward, and Applejack rushed forward to wrap her marefriend in an embrace. "What am I going to do?" Twilight asked, knowing that Applejack had and would give no answer. The two cradled each other for what seemed like an eternity, neither pony saying a word as they rocked themselves slowly and rhythmically.
Pulling her head away to look Applejack in the eyes, Twilight took a deep breath and said, "I guess you need to get going." Her ears drooped and she bit her lip.
Applejack shook her head and pulled Twilight closer. "Big Mac can handle things till I get back in the morning." She got up, and Twilight followed suit.
Twilight glanced at the door that led to the guest room. "I think Spike put himself to bed already, but I can set up the guest bed for—"
"Only if you stay there with me." Applejack fixed her gaze on Twilight. Twilight bit her lip and blushed, but Applejack only smirked in reply.
"Are you—I mean—are you sure?" Twilight finally managed to splutter, stepping back as her blush grew deeper and spread across her cheeks.
"Sure as sugar, Twi," Applejack answered with a grin. "There's not a chance I'm letting you go to bed on your lonesome."
Applejack's words only served to further fuel Twilight's furious round of blushing. Red-faced, she avoided Applejack's gaze and giggled sheepishly. "I guess I'll get the bed ready," she whispered. She galloped to the guest room with as much speed as her hooves could offer, slowing down only to swing the door open and light a few candles with her magic.
"Don't worry, sugarcube." Applejack couldn't stifle a laugh as she followed Twilight into the guest room. "I just figure that you need me now more than ever." She sighed as a frown began to overtake her smiling face. "Maybe I need you, too."
Twilight's ears drooped as a similar melancholy overcame her expression, but it seemed as if her heart hadn't slowed its beating in the slightest. "It's still—you know…" She turned away and began making the bed, placing blankets and pillows on with less than her usual degree of precision.
Tossing one pillow to the far side of the bed, Twilight gasped loudly when it maintained its momentum and bounced off the bed entirely. Glancing back at Applejack's smirk, she could only offer a toothy smile and a chuckle. Applejack sat against the wall and giggled.
"That was something new," Applejack commented, still smirking as Twilight returned to her work. "I don't think I've ever seen you so flustered."
Twilight snorted. "Yeah, well there's a reason," she snapped, but her eyes softened when she saw Applejack flinch. A pregnant pause filled the moments before Twilight spoke another word. Finally, with her ears flat against her head, she added, "Maybe you're helping, though." Another pause followed. "I'm glad your here."
Applejack closed her eyes for a second. By the time she opened them again, she had replaced any hint of a frown with a beaming smile, and she stood up with a spring in her every movement. "I'm glad I'm here, too," she replied.
Without warning, Applejack jumped into bed just as Twilight was in the middle of spreading out the last blanket. Before Twilight could blurt out any sort of reply, Applejack patted the spot next to her and said, "Come on, Twilight. Don't keep me waiting."
Twilight hesitated for a moment but when she crawled into bed she pulled herself as close to Applejack as she could. Draping a forearm over Applejack's midsection, she snuffed the candles with a flare of her horn. "Good night, Applejack."
In the darkness, Applejack smiled and closed her eyes. "Good night, Twilight."
The night air outside the Everfree Forest was, to put it delicate, quite brisk. So brisk, in fact, that even Rainbow Dash, tucked safely away in Fluttershy's cottage, felt the slightest chill creeping into her hooves as she sprawled herself across the large green couch in Fluttershy's living room.
Thankfully, the blankets Fluttershy gave her took away some of the cold's bite, but Rainbow was shocked to feel herself on the verge of shivering. I live in clouds, for Celestia's sake! Rainbow shifted her blankets, grumbling all the while.
When tossing and turning proved ineffective at keeping the night chill at bay, Rainbow groaned and slowly lifted herself off the couch. Bleary eyed and scowling, Rainbow trudged upstairs to Fluttershy's bedroom. I'm sure she's got some other blankets to spare.
Rainbow moved with singular purpose and constant speed on her way to rouse Fluttershy, but she hesitated when she reached the bedroom. Fluttershy had left the door open, and Rainbow could see her chest rise and fall with each slow, deep breath. Her mane draped itself over much of her face, lending the illusion of an all-encompassing cocoon protecting Fluttershy's prostrate form. Each time she exhaled, she made a sound that fell somewhere between a squeak and a sigh. Through it all, Rainbow could still see the soft smile on Fluttershy's face.
Staring at Fluttershy, Rainbow took a step forward through the doorway, then stepped back. She frowned and furrowed her brow. Maybe I can find something in another room, she thought, scratching her head as she took yet another step back.
"Is that you, Rainbow Dash?"
Rainbow froze in place, one hoof still lifted as she stopped in mid-step. She stayed silent for a moment before whispering, "Yeah. Sorry."
"It's fine," Fluttershy mumbled, brushing her mane out of her face. "Is something wrong?"
"Nah." Rainbow waved a hoof and tossed her head back. "It's just a bit chilly, is all."
"Oh." Fluttershy began to curl into a ball before stopping and shuffling to the side of her bed. She seemed as if she could hardly keep her eyes open. "I could let you use my bed if you'd like."
Rainbow's wings flared as she yelled, "No!" louder than she intended. The sound grated on her ear, and she refolded her wings as her ears went flat. "I mean, that's fine. I didn't mean to bug you."
"Um, okay." As Fluttershy grew more awake, her eyes opened wider as she began to frown."I'm sorry. There are some more blankets in the closet." Fluttershy glanced and nodded at the closet door on the opposite side of the room.
Rainbow lifted her foot to take a step and held it up for a moment. She grimaced and let out a weak chuckle. "Thanks," she mumbled, finally mustering the courage to dart over to Fluttershy's closet and grab the blankets she needed.
With her goal already achieved, Rainbow left Fluttershy's bedroom on shaky hooves. As she rushed out, she whispered, "G'night," over her shoulder. She didn't look back to see Fluttershy's reaction.
Back on the couch, Rainbow shook her head vigorously. "What the hay?" she hissed, slapping a hoof against her face. "Way to make things weird." She pulled the additional blankets over herself and snorted. "She was only being nice," she muttered as she rolled onto her side and closed her eyes—
"Good morning, sleepy head."
"Augh!" Rainbow pushed herself backward only to find that she was sending herself tumbling off the couch she had been sleeping in moments earlier. Hooves flailing in the air, she landed with a loud thud.
Almost before Rainbow hit the ground, Fluttershy was at her side inspecting Rainbow's wings and legs. Her ears went flat and her eyes grew wide as she gasped, "Oh, Rainbow Dash! Are you okay? I'm so sorry."
Rainbow waved her away and grinned despite the blush spreading through her cheeks. "I'm good. I'm good." It took her a moment to stand, but when she did she jabbed Fluttershy lightly in the shoulder. "Come on. You know it'd take more than a little spill to take me down." Suddenly, she noticed how bright it was outside. "What time is it?"
"It's around noon." Fluttershy walked toward the front door and picked up a small basket. "I'm sorry to wake you, but I wanted to ask if you'd like to go to the market with me."
"Sure." Rainbow shook herself and trotted to Fluttershy's side. "I'll make sure none of those shopkeeps try to to take advantage of you."
"Oh, they're just trying to make a living," Fluttershy insisted, opening the front door for Rainbow.
Rainbow rolled her eyes. "Then we'll give them a fair price—and nothing more." She emphasized her point by stomping a hoof.
A bubbly laugh erupted from Fluttershy's throat, and she said, "Would you mind going now?"
Rainbow was already out the door. "I figured we were doing that anyway."
Applejack woke with the rising of the sun. Twilight did not. As the light grew brighter and she felt the urge to rise with the new day, Applejack smiled and snuggled closer to Twilight's sleeping form. The day can wait, she thought. Right now, I've got something more important to take care of.
Fortunately, Applejack's waiting did not take long. As Applejack brought herself closer to her marefriend, Twilight began to open her eyes. Soft groans and squeaks escaped her mouth as she stretched and yawned. Just as the yawn ended, her eyes shot open as Applejack planted a kiss on her muzzle.
"Morning, sugarcube," Applejack said, drawing Twilight into a hug.
"Did I keep you waiting, AJ?" Twilight returned the hug, burying her face in Applejack's chest.
"No, Twilight, of course not." Applejack stroked Twilight's back with a soft smile on her face.
"I'm sorry I made you waste your time here," Twilight murmured, still wrapped in Applejack's embrace.
Applejack pulled Twilight's head up and looked her in the eyes. "There, there. There's no need to say something like that. Nothing's a waste of time as long as I'm with you, Twilight."
Twilight rolled her eyes, but her smile shone all the same. "I'm glad you're here, too."
The pair lapsed into comfortable silence as they got out of bed. Twilight immediately set herself to the task of making the bed, and while the blankets were being spread and the pillows were being fluffed, Applejack glanced at the clock. "Ten o'clock," she muttered, turning to Twilight. "Land's sake. I think that's the latest I've slept since the end of your first Applebuck season in Ponyville."
"The one when Big Mac hurt his shoulder?" Twilight never took her eyes from the bed as she shifted the comforter one way, then another. "Why won't this come out even?" she hissed under her breath.
"That's the one." Applejack walked up to Twilight's side and gave her a half-hug. "And the bed's fine, sugarcube. Look's right as rain."
Twilight shook her head violently. "No, it's not! It's crooked, and I've got to fix it."
Applejack end her half-hug and took a step back, putting a tentative hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "Relax, Twi, it's just—"
"I've got to!" Twilight didn't know when it had started, but she suddenly realized that she was panting. "I've got to," she repeated, her voice quavering. "The princesses just gave me the chance of a lifetime. I can't slack off now."
"If this is about the letter, Twilight, I think you need to take a step back," Applejack said, straightening herself and staring down Twilight's crumbling expression. "I know it's an honor, Twi—heck, only one pony can be chief adviser to a princess." Applejack paused and rubbed her chin. "Maybe two, but that's not the point. It's just a job offer, Twilight. I know the princesses would never force you to leave your friends behind, and you know it, too. Just calm down."
Twilight could barely force words past her own incoherent spluttering. "Really? 'Calm down?' Have you ever read a book on counseling, Applejack? Or an advice column? Do you even have a newspaper?"
Applejack raised a hesitant hoof. "I thought they banned newspapers after the whole Gabby Gums thing."
Twilight threw her forearms in the air and scoffed. "Who the hay would do something like that?"
Applejack scrunched her muzzle up and her gaze drifted upward. "I might've done that." She slouched her shoulders and scowled. "I don't trust them anymore."
Twilight blinked and shook her head limply. "I don't even…" She kept shaking her head for far too many seconds, continuing to speak only when she was finished. "Anyway, don't you ever tell me to calm down. It's so—do I even have to explain this?"
Applejack frowned, but the expression soon changed to a sort of smirk. "Not at this point, I guess not."
"Good." Twilight exhaled sharply and walked past Applejack into the living room. "Sorry for getting so upset, by the way."
"No problem." Applejack exited the guest room and bowed her head. "I'm sure it was warranted." Her eyes snapped wide open as she stiffened and glanced back at the guest bed.
Tapping Twilight in the back, Applejack rubbed her own shoulder as she asked Twilight, "Have you seen my hat around here?"
Twilight furrowed her brow. She pursed her lips for a moment before she snapped to attention. Without a word, she trotted into the dining room and emerged with Applejack's stetson floating behind her. "You must have left it after dinner," she explained, levitating the hat over to Applejack's head.
With the stetson returned to its rightful place on her head, Applejack breath a deep sigh and smiled. "Good thing I came back," she said, chuckling.
"Yeah." Twilight giggled, but the laughter died down almost as soon as it began. Both ponies shifted about in silence for a moment. Then, at once, the two ponies opened their mouths to speak.
"I guess you should be going." Twilight spoke first as Applejack recoiled and shut her mouth.
"Guess so," Applejack replied, head held low as her stetson cast a shadow over her face.
"I…" Twilight stopped and bowed her head. She took a deep breath and, after a moment lifted her gaze again. "I'll be out and about if you need me today. I think I'd like to go on a nice, long walk with my thoughts."
Applejack nodded, blowing out a sigh. "Have fun with that," she said, forcing a weak smile onto her face.
Small as Twilight's answering half-smile was, it positively glowed in Applejack's eyes. "I'll try." Twilight opened the front door with a flare of her horn walked up to Applejack's side. "Want me to walk you out?"
A laugh escaped from Applejack before she could so much as react to it. "Sounds like you're going to anyway, sugarcube," she said, rolling her eyes as the two ponies made their way out of the library.
As the two ponies left the buildng, Twilight shut the door and, without thinking, flipped the sign hanging in its window from "Closed" to "Open." As she did so, she hesitated and glanced at her bedroom window. "I don't think Spike's up," she mumbled. After a moment, she shrugged and trotted up to Applejack. "Well, if anypony needs him they can wake him up."
"My, my." Applejack let out a long and low whistle. "Somepony made a hairpin turn overnight."
Twilight shrugged again and gave Applejack a peck on the cheek. "He's the one who wants to be all grown-up, after all."
Applejack snorted a chuckle. "Careful what you wish for," she commented.
As Applejack's words hit her ears, Twilight seemed to deflate. Her ears flattened, her shoulders slouched, and she bowed her head as Applejack winced and pulled her up in a tight hug.
"I didn't mean it, sugarcube," Applejack hurried to whisper. She stroked Twilight's mane until she felt her marefriend return the hug. Lingering for a moment, she pulled away and said, "I'll see you later, Twi."
Twilight nodded, eyes misty despite the smile on her face. "See you later, AJ."
With that, Applejack left. Once, when she was around a block away from Twilight, she turned back and waved back at her marefriend, but Twilight only stood and watched. When Applejack finally trotted out of sight, Twilight sighed and began to trudge away from the library.
I think it's Friday. Twilight fixed her gaze in the direction of Ponyville Town Hall. Cantertrot Avenue should be that way. She began to walk over to her new destination, but the oppressive weight did not leave her steps. This is going to be a long day.
With nopony nearby as Twilight walked toward the busier areas of Ponyville, Twilight had only her sighs and her thoughts to keep her company. "If only I could just…" Twilight let out a long sigh as she trailed off. Though the end of her sentence remained unspoken, the thought screamed with perfect clarity in her mind.
Cantertrot Avenue in Ponyville had been the location of the town's marketplace since its founding, and Ponyville was a town that stuck by its traditions. When Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash arrived, the street was filled with ponies buying and selling goods. It was a typical Friday afternoon, and any Ponyville vendor worth his salt knew that Friday was the busiest day of the week on Cantertrot.
Needless to say, Fluttershy was terrified.
"I should have done this earlier," she mumbled, keeping close to Rainbow's side. "Maybe I can wait till next week to get my groceries."
Rainbow stopped and grabbed Fluttershy by the shoulders. Forcing her friend to look her in the eye, Rainbow said, "We're doing this, Fluttershy. They're just ponies. There's nothing to worry about."
Fluttershy took a deep breath and nodded. "I'll try," she said, forcing a smile onto her face.
"That's what I like to hear." Rainbow approached a nearby carrot vendor. "Now, how many carrots did you say you needed?"
Fluttershy didn't respond. After waiting for a moment, Rainbow turned to see a Fluttershy blinking rapidly and pointing across the street. "Is that Twilight?"
Somewhere in the crowd, Rainbow caught a glimpse of lavender, then another, then more than a glimpse. True to Fluttershy's word, Twilight was walking along Cantertrot Avenue.
That, however, was not the thing that surprised Rainbow. What surprised her—and what caused her to crinkle her nose—was the frown on Twilight's face, the heaviness of her steps, the slouch in her shoulders.
Apparently, Fluttershy saw the same things. Gasping, she immediately rushed to Twilight's side. "Oh, Twilight, are you okay? What's the matter?"
Twilight lifted her bowed head and chuckled. "Hey, Fluttershy. I guess it's appropriate that you're the first pony I see here."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Rainbow rushed to Fluttershy's side, shielding Fluttershy with one wing as she glowered at Twilight.
Twilight flinched and grimace. "Sorry." She sighed. "I've been saying that a lot lately."
"It's fine, Twilight." Fluttershy took a moment to cast a sharp glance at Rainbow before stepping closer to Twilight. "Just tell us what's the matter."
Biting her lip, Twilight glanced about before answered. "Okay. I guess the only way to say it is that the princesses offered me a job."
Rainbow cocked her head. "What, like egghead-in-chief?"
Twilight glared at her. "Yes, Rainbow. That's exactly it." Turning her attention back to Fluttershy, she said, "Princess Luna wants me to be her chief adviser. Celestia herself recommended me."
Fluttershy nodded, a frown on her face. "I think I understand, Twilight."
"I don't." Rainbow shrugged and tossed her mane. "That sounds like the coolest thing ever. So how're you gonna advise her from out here? Do you have some sort of crystal ball or something to reach her with or…" Rainbow trailed off as he saw the deepening frown on Twilight's face. "Oh." Her wings drooped as her voice grew quiet. "Bummer."
"Don't you have any choice?" Fluttershy asked.
Twilight began to nod but just shrugged instead. "They said that I shouldn't feel obligated to accept, but what does that even mean? My whole life has been building up to this. How can I say no to the opportunity of a lifetime?"
"Maybe you should talk with them," Rainbow suggested, her posture straightening and voice rising in volume with each syllable.
"They said they want me to visit them in Canterlot so we can discuss the position," Twilight said. "I'm not sure when I should do it, though."
"Do it as soon as you can," Rainbow answered without missing a beat. "Sometimes, you've just got to get things done." She nodded at Fluttershy. "Isn't that what I say?"
Fluttershy giggled and nodded. "It's true."
Twilight shook her head. "I'll need to talk to Applejack about it. We already have so many things to do and plans to make…" She flared her nostrils and snapped, "Why does it have to be now?"
Fluttershy's heart sank, and she could think of nothing to do but pat Twilight on the back. "There, there. Just let it out, Twilight. It's okay."
With a sigh, Twilight let out a quiet chuckle. "Not really, but thanks, girls." She pulled away from Fluttershy and began to walk away. "I think I'll be going now."
"Are you sure?" Fluttershy asked, eyebrows furrowed and mouth agape.
Rainbow nodded. "Yeah. You sure you don't want to talk about this?"
Twilight shook her head and offered a small half-smile. "I think I ought to sort things out in my own head first," she said. "Thanks for the offer, though. I'll see you around."
"Yeah," Fluttershy and Rainbow both said, looking down at their own hooves. By the time they looked up, Twilight was lost in the crowd, trotted off without a hint as to where she had gone.
As soon as Twilight left, Rainbow felt a chill course through her body. She shifted her wings, stretching each muscle as she tried to drive out the strange discomfort, but it refused to disappear. Fighting the urge to fly off, Rainbow turned and put a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder.
"What was that stuff you needed again, Fluttershy?" she asked. She shook her head when she noticed that she was speaking much faster than intended.
"Um, just some ingredients for a vegetable soup I'm making tonight," Fluttershy answered. Leaning in, she asked, "Are you alright, Rainbow Dash?"
Rainbow grimaced and tossed her head back. "Yeah. Sure. I'm fine. I guess I'm just bummed out for Twilight and Applejack."
Fluttershy frowned and looked at the ground. "I hope they can figure things out soon. It must be so hard to make a choice like that."
"Yeah." Rainbow furled and unfurled her wings, gritting her teeth as she shifted about. "Look, can we get moving. I just want to go back home and try to get this out of my head."
Rainbow raised an eyebrow at how Fluttershy's shoulders slouched, but then Fluttershy said, "You mean you don't want to go back to the cottage?"
Rainbow's eyes snapped open as Fluttershy's gaze fell earthward. Rainbow shook her head violently. "No, no," she said, firmly grabbing Fluttershy's shoulders. "That's not what I meant." She chuckled as she pulled Fluttershy in for a quick hug. "I was talking about your house, I guess." She laughed again. "Weird."
Fluttershy joined in the laugh, albeit somewhat louder than Rainbow. "It's not that weird," she said. She grabbed a slip of paper from her saddlebag and handed it to Rainbow. "Here's my shopping list. If you want, we could split it. Divide and…" Fluttershy crinkled her nose and shook her head. "Divide and buy things faster."
Rainbow failed in her best attempt to stifle a guffaw. "Alright, Fluttershy," she said, tearing the list roughly in half and giving the smaller piece back to Fluttershy. "See you when you finish up." She leaned in and whispered, "We'll see who can conquer their shopping list first."
Fluttershy sighed and rolled her eyes, but that didn't mask the hint of a blush that blossomed in her cheeks. "Sounds good," she said. "Would you mind meeting back up at the Carousel Boutique? I'd like to visit Rarity while I'm out here."
"Sure," Rainbow said, unfurling her wings and turning toward the myriad shops. "Anything you want." She stretched her hind legs and glanced back at Fluttershy. "I'll be done in a dash," she said, and she was gone in a multicolored blur.
A smile crept onto Fluttershy's face as she watched her friend rush off. "I'll see you later, Dash," she murmured. She took a moment to watch the streak of color Rainbow left behind as it began to fade. As Rainbow's trail slowly diminished into nothing, Fluttershy checked her part of list and trotted over to a nearby tomato stand.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of ponies mulled about the marketplace. Ponyville's busiest street was awash in colors and voices and emotions and conversations, and everypony seemed in high spirits as they basked in the warm light of the midday sun.
All, of course, except for Twilight.
What do I do? The question echoed in Twilight's mind endlessly, refusing to leave or indeed to soften its constant clanging in Twilight's head. What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?
There was no easy answer. Twilight Sparkle, the pony who had defeated Nightmare Moon, Discord, and King Sombra, could not overcome the dilemma posed by one simple letter by with one simple purpose. But what is my answer?
On one hoof, this has to be the opportunity of a lifetime, Twilight thought, weaving through the throng of ponies walking along Cantertrot Avenue. It's what I've wanted since I was a foal. She could feel a sour taste spreading across her tongue, unable to determine whether it was real or imagined. Of course, things have changed since then. How can I just leave Applejack here when we've only just started dating?
Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight saw a mint-green unicorn—Lyra was her name, if she recalled—waving. She forced a herself to smile and waved back, but she lowered her head as soon as Lyra passed her. Nice pony, she thought as some small fraction of a smile returned to her face. A bit odd, maybe, but she really has a passion for her studies. I probably wouldn't know half the things about advanced scrying magic if it weren't for her.
A thought screamed into Twilight's mind, bringing her to a stop and leaving her face pale. She probably wouldn't know half those things either. In the years since her arrival in Ponyville, Twilight had found a role for herself in that quiet little town. She was a source of knowledge, expertise, organization, and leadership for everypony. I've helped Lyra with her studies for all these years. If I go, who will run the library? Who will run Winter Wrap Up? Who will substitute teach for Cheerilee?
Yet again, her train of thought led only to more questions. She grit her teeth. I could just scream! I could slam the ground with my hooves, growl and shout and gnash, call down fire with a flare of my hooves, run and run and never stop running…
But she didn't. All she did was stand stock still in the middle of Cantertrot Avenue, eyes staring straight ahead as ponies glanced her way before passing by without a second thought.
The meeting. The thought broke Twilight out of her daze and she shook her head. I should go see the princesses. Soon. Really soon. Now.
Suddenly, Twilight found herself cantering along, unable to stop, unable and unwilling to slow down. I should probably send a letter ahead of time so they can prepare, but they should have some time this weekend. She glanced toward the northwest end of town and the Ponyville Train Station. They should have trips well into the evening, she thought, but she slowed down as yet another thought struck her.
I should probably let Applejack know. She sighed. Her ears went flat and she closed her eyes as she pictured her marefriend's face. Poor Applejack. She probably won't like that one bit. She blinked as she realized how misty her eyes were and shook her head. I'll have to make sure she's okay first.
Either way, she thought, I can leave first thing tomorrow morning, as soon as I get anything squared away. I'll have Spike write a letter— She furrowed her brow and hesitated. What will happen to Spike?
She brushed the question away with a shake of her head. I can only deal with so much. It's like Rainbow Dash said. Right now, I need to get things done. She put on a smile and lifted her gaze, finally giving her meandering walk some direction. Stop one: the library. Stop two: Sweet Apple Acres.
When Rainbow, gripping bags full of various vegetables with her wings, arrived at the Carousel Boutique, Fluttershy was nowhere to be seen. No surprise there, Rainbow thought, smirking as she approached the door to Rarity's home and place of business. She walked in and waved as she saw Rarity and Fluttershy talking near the kitchen.
Rainbow stopped and blinked. "Huh?"
Fluttershy was the first to notice her. "Hello, Rainbow Dash," she said, waving and trotting up to her.
Rarity was soon to follow. "Why, Rainbow Dash, how are you?" Her eyes seemed to sparkle as she gasped loudly. "I haven't seen you in so long."
"It's been, like, three days," Rainbow deadpanned. She set her groceries down and nodded to Fluttershy. "Did you have any problems getting anything?"
Fluttershy tapped one of her saddlebags with a hoof and grinned. "I got everything we need."
Rarity's lips were starting to curl up, and her nose was crinkled up. It took Rainbow a moment to notice, but as soon as she did, she lowered her head a bit and said, "Sorry for interrupting."
Rarity raised her head and painted a smile onto her face. "Oh, it's fine, Rainbow," she said stiffly. "We were just talking about Twilight's unfortunate predicament." She turned to Fluttershy. "Do continue, Fluttershy. Please."
Fluttershy nodded, a frown beginning to dawn on her face. "Like I was saying, she has to go to Canterlot to speak with the princesses. I just hope she can figure things out. Poor thing."
"That's just dreadful." Rarity covered her mouth with a hoof. "And just imagine how Applejack must feel. Opening her heart to somepony and just watching it all unravel. It's so tragic."
Rainbow bit her lip and cleared her throat. Rarity glanced at her, and she seized on the opportunity. "Things aren't over yet, Rarity. They'll figure things out." She averted her eyes. "I'm sure they will."
Rarity stiffened and looked away. "Ahem, well, yes. Perhaps." She patted her mane with a hoof and lifted her muzzle skyward.
"So, uh, how are you doing?" Fluttershy ventured. Her eyes darted between Rainbow and Rarity.
"Oh, same old, same old," Rarity said with a shrug. "I haven't seen you around too much lately. We barely even have our regular spa appointments any more."
Fluttershy flinched. "I know," she whispered, hiding behind her mane. "I promise I'll visit more. It's just… things get busy."
Rarity arched an eyebrow and leaned forward. "Busy? I don't recall you using that excuse since, well, you know." She cleared her throat loudly and grinned at Fluttershy, but she killed it as soon as she saw a glare flash across Fluttershy's face. She straightened herself and brought her head back up. "Well, erm, indeed. We will simply have to enjoy each other's company when we can."
Rarity took a peek outside a window and nodded. "I don't want to keep you two. I heard that it'll be a new moon today. You should get home before it gets too dark."
Fluttershy nudged Rainbow and turned to the door. "Okay. Thank you for the warning. It's been nice catching up with you."
Blinking rapidly, Rainbow grabbed her bags and nodded. "See you, Rarity," she said, hastening to join Fluttershy.
"Yes." Rarity followed her two friends as they exited the boutique. "Do come back soon. Take care, Fluttershy. Goodbye, Rainbow Dash." Not too long after her friends walked out, she reached the door and pulled it shut with her magic. Smirking, she started to whistle a tune and walked upstairs to her studio.
Outside, Rainbow fixed her gaze on Fluttershy and raised an eyebrow. "How'd you finish up so fast?"
"I guess I just got lucky." Fluttershy smirked and nudged Rainbow. "You also gave me the short end of the list."
Rainbow chuckled and hefted her bags. "Yeah, I guess so."
"So how much do I owe you?" Fluttershy began to pull out her coin purse, but Rainbow shook her head.
"It's on me," Rainbow said, grinning as she shifted her grip on the groceries.
"Oh, no," Fluttershy gasped. She pulled out her purse anyway and began to open it. "I couldn't just take all that from you, Dashie. I don't want to take advantage of you."
Rainbow laughed loudly, almost dropping her bags in her mirth. "I insist, Fluttershy. It's the least I can do since you when you're letting me hang around your place." The two ponies continued their walk in silence for a few moments, watching the Everfree Forest come into view as they reached the edge of Ponyville.
Suddenly, some impulse gripped Rainbow. Stopping the the middle of the street, she pulled Fluttershy into a tight, if brief, embrace. "You're my best friend," she said. "You know that, Fluttershy?"
Fluttershy giggled even as she shrunk away and blushed. "I know that," she mumbled. She shook herself and hugged Rainbow back. "You're my best friend too, Dashie."
"I mean it." Rainbow stared directly into Fluttershy's eyes. "You've been my friend since flight school, and you stuck by me for all these years." She set her jaw and took a deep breath before continuing. "I don't know what I'd do without you, Fluttershy." She broke eye contact and turned away. "Just, uh, I guess I wanted you to know that, or something."
Fluttershy let her mouth hang open for a moment and raised an eyebrow. "I don't think I've ever heard you talk like that before, Rainbow Dash." She nudged her friend and giggled as they both resumed their walk out of town. "Why aren't you like this more often"
"I know." Rainbow started to wave a hoof before thinking better of it and just shrugging. "I mean, I've got a reputation to keep, you know? I can't be all sappy in front of everypony."
Fluttershy pouted and looked Rainbow in the eyes. "Why not? I'm sure nopony would judge you for being yourself."
With a snort, Rainbow shook her head. "That's the thing, Fluttershy. Of course you'd say that." It wasn't that cold out, but she felt the urge to lean against Fluttershy. "You're not like most ponies. You're just… I don't know. I can just be myself around you. It's cool."
Fluttershy just nodded and leaned back into Rainbow. "I'm glad to hear that, Dashie. And you really shouldn't worry about it so much. You're wonderful just the way you are."
"Yeah. You too." Rainbow faced Fluttershy and grinned. "Thanks for being a friend, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy nuzzled Rainbow's cheek and beamed back. "Thanks for returning the favor, Dashie."
Getting a letter sent to Princess Celestia was simple enough—just as Twilight expected. After so many years, it was almost second nature for Spike to transcribe Twilight's words. Her stop at the library was brief—she wanted to see Applejack before sundown and couldn't afford to waste time—but she still left with a smile on her face. Spike had promised a nice dinner when she got home, and that promise left Twilight with something to look forward to at the end of her impending conversation with Applejack.
Before long, just as the sun began to set, Twilight arrived at the Apple family's front door. The wooden porch creaked with her every step, and the noise left her paralyzed as she prepared to knock. Just as she broke out of her hesitation and began to lift a hoof, the door swung open, revealing none other than Applejack.
Almost on instinct, Twilight backed away, then stepped forward to give Applejack a hug. Applejack, on the other hoof, wasted no time reaching forward to embrace Twilight. She wore a grin and held Twilight close as she murmured into her marefriend's ears, "I'm glad you stopped by, Twi. Oh, Celestia! I'm glad you're here."
"Hi, Applejack," Twilight replied, forcing herself to grin in the hopes that it would mask her faint blush.
Twilight needn't have worried. The two ponies rocked back in forth in their embrace. Applejack closed her eyes and buried her face in Twilight's coat, letting everything wash away. Unfortunately, the hug couldn't let forever, and Applejack finally pulled her head away from Twilight. She squeezed her marefriend one more time and asked, "What're you doing out here?"
Twilight sighed. "Well, actually, I sort of had a reason for coming." She reached for another hug, and Applejack gave it without hesitation.
"It has to do with the letter, doesn't it?" Applejack asked in a low voice.
"Yes." Twilight nodded slowly.
Applejack gulped. She opened her mouth, but it took her a moment to speak. "I… Do what you think is right. Don't just try to do what you think I want to you to do or anything. This is about you, and… Uh." Applejack drew her lips into a thin line before speaking again. "Yeah. I'll support you no matter what you choose."
Twilight smiled and kissed Applejack on the cheek. "I still haven't decided, but thanks. I actually wanted to talk about that trip to Canterlot the princess want me to take."
"You trying to figure out when to go?" Applejack shrugged. "I thought you'd try a few weeks from now. Give us some time to square things away here so we don't have to scramble too much when you've got to choose. How long are they giving you to accept, again?"
Twilight's face fell. When she started speaking, she started slowly. "Well, they said I have four weeks, but I was thinking that I shouldn't put things off too long." She paused and lowered her gaze. "I was thinking that I'd go tomorrow."
Applejack's eyes snapped wide open. "What?"
Twilight stepped back. "I'd be back by Sunday night. It'd only be a two day trip, and that way I could talk to them in-person before I make a decision." She straightened herself and leveled her gaze back at Applejack. "I have to go some time. It might as well be now."
"But, Twilight, so soon?" Applejack hung her head. "What about all the things we have to do? There's the old barn we've got to tear down, there's telling everypony else, and that's not even counting just run-of-the-mill, everyday stuff."
Twilight crinkled her nose and frowned. "I sent a letter to the princesses already, Applejack. I'm going tomorrow. I promise I'll come back as soon as I can. Besides, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy already know."
"Well what's the point of asking me for feedback if you're just gonna up and do whatever you feel like?" Applejack planted her feet, stopping short of a full scowl.
Twilight had no such reservations. Glaring at Applejack, she said, "Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy thought it was a good idea."
Applejack rolled her eyes. "Rainbow told you so? Well I guess I'd obviously listen to her and all. No reason to doubt her or nothing."
Twilight continued to glare for a moment, but her resolve soon faltered, and all she could offer was a sheepish smile. "I guess that's fair," she said. Taking a deep breath, she wiped the smile off her face. "I just wanted to let you know what was going on. Look, I'm having a tough time with all this too. We have a whole four weeks before I have to make a final decision. This way, I can be here the rest of that time."
Applejack nodded, and after a moment her glare dissipated into a softer frown. She grabbed her hat and held it against her chest. "I'm sorry, Twi," she said. She grit her teeth and forced herself to keep speaking. "I… I'll miss you. Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Yes." Twilight lifted a hoof, hesitated, and shrugged. "I'll miss you too. Will you meet me at the train station tomorrow morning?"
Applejack flinched and as her muscles tensed up. "I… can't," she managed. "I've got so much to do, and I'm…" She growled, letting the sound build up to a guttural scream. "I'm sorry."
Twilight nodded as her ears went flat and her shoulders slouched. "That's fine," she said. "I'll be back in a couple of days. The farm comes first." She leaned forward and hesitated. "Uh, good night."
"Good night, Twi." Applejack leaned forward and kissed Twilight on the lips. The contact was hesitant, fleeting, but it was there. Both blushing, they began to shuffle away from each other.
"Well… I'll have Spike let you know what time I'm coming back." Twilight stopped short of lifting a hoof and kept her head low. "Maybe you can be there when my train pulls in."
"Yeah." Applejack followed suit, seeming as if she'd collapse into herself. "Maybe."
"Well, bye." Twilight turned and began to walk away. She forced her head up, but it hung limply from her neck all the same, and she walked back to the library on heavy hooves.
The afternoon sped by in a whirlwind for Rainbow Dash, and the night came before she had time to realize it. As much as she loved speed, her heart sank when the realization finally sunk in.
"Would you just look at the time?" Fluttershy remarked. She glanced out a window at the gathering darkness. "And it's so dark outside. I guess Rarity was right about that new moon. Don't you think so, Dashie?"
Rainbow nodded limply. She knew where this was going.
She noticed that Fluttershy's face was creased with worry. Before Rainbow could do anything, Fluttershy was upon her, draping a wing over her withers and leaning into her side. "Are you okay, Dashie?"
"Yeah." Rainbow shrugged. "I guess I'm just tired or whatever."
Part of a smile returned to Fluttershy's face, but she stayed by Rainbow's side. "Well, it is getting late."
Rainbow nodded. "Yeah," she said with a shrug. "I guess so."
Fluttershy pointed at the couch. "Well, I left your blankets out, so let me know if you need anything."
Rainbow nodded and scuffed a hoof on the floor. "Okay." She stepped forward and reached for a hug.
Grinning broadly, Fluttershy wrapped Rainbow in a tight embrace. It didn't last long, though, and she was heading off to her room in a matter of moments. "Good night, Dashie."
"Uh… Yeah." Rainbow blinked a few times and began to meander back to the couch. "Night." With nothing left to do, Rainbow doused the lights and wrapped herself in her blankets, ready for another good night's sleep…
It only took a few minutes for Rainbow to realize that she was cold. Again. Even after Fluttershy had given her extra blankets the night before. She rolled her eyes and tried to pull the blankets closer to her body, but it was no use. She couldn't keep away the creeping chill that nipped at her hooves. After trying to squeeze her eyes shut and overcome the cold through sheer force of will, Rainbow threw up her hooves and groaned.
Time for another trip to Fluttershy's room.
Rainbow flicked her tail as she stood to go see Fluttershy. With no moon to light the night sky, darkness surrounded her, and it took a mammoth amount of attention to keep from banging into one or another of the pieces of furniture Fluttershy filled her house with. Everything served a purpose, and Rainbow could hear the quiet breath of sleeping animals coming from many of the would-be tripping hazards, but Rainbow could only furrow her brow and push forward. Great day for a new moon.
Despite the unusual blackness, it didn't take long for Rainbow to reach Fluttershy's room. If anything, the cold was more severe this night, so Rainbow didn't hesitate to walk right up to Fluttershy's sleeping form. Poking Fluttershy in the shoulder, she said, "Hey, Shy. Fluttershy."
After a few prods, Fluttershy's eyes slowly opened. A quiet squeak escaped her mouth as she yawned and rolled over to face Rainbow. Her eyes drooped as she smiled and asked, 'Is something wrong, Dashie?"
"Nah." Rainbow waved a hoof and tossed her head back. "It's just a bit chilly, is all."
"Oh." Fluttershy's grin grew wider and her eyes narrowed. She rolled over so her back faced Rainbow, glancing to her friend as she said, "I'm pretty cold too."
"Um, yeah." Rainbow bit her lip and poked Fluttershy again. "So, uh, sorry for waking you and all."
"We can snuggle, if you want to." Fluttershy buried her face in her blankets, but Rainbow could see her ears redden.
In fairness, Rainbow was blushing just as furiously. "Uh, you sure?" she forced herself to say. Her wings began to spread, and she quickly unfurled them before forcing them back to her side.
"Of course." Fluttershy drew in a deep breath and rolled over to face Rainbow. "I mean, if you don't mind."
Rainbow nodded silently. She opened her mouth and let out a strange strangled sound. Clearing her throat, she said, "Sure."
Fluttershy shifted herself to the far side of the bed. "Come on in, then."
Rainbow wasted no time. She buried herself in blankets and wrapped her hooves around Fluttershy. She didn't know what Fluttershy was talking about—She doesn't even feel cold—but she didn't say a word. All she did was smile and close her eyes as Fluttershy nestled her head in the crook of Rainbow's neck. This feels nice, Rainbow thought.
"Good night, Fluttershy," she said after a moment, eyes still closed.
Fluttershy nodded, tickling Rainbow's neck with her mane. Rainbow couldn't see it, but her smile was almost impossibly wide as she said, "Good night, Dashie."
Twilight trotted up to the only platform of the Ponyville Train Station. Her luggage levitated beside her and Spike trailed a few feet behind her. She stepped up to the edge of the platform and peered out into the distance, seeing nothing but train tracks stretching southward to Ghastly Gorge.
It was dark. It was quiet. The train wasn't scheduled to arrived for quite some time. Twilight sighed.
"Come on," Spike called, pointing in the direction of a nearby booth. Inside, a pony sat with his head resting against a hoof, eyes drooping along with his entire body. "You've gotta get your ticket, Twilight."
Twilight forced herself to smile and nodded. Trotting over, she flashed her grin at the pony inside, who smirked and snorted.
"Not a trip for pleasure, I take it," he said, glancing down at a sheet of paper. "Where'll you be getting off?"
Twilight stopped and tilted her head. "Uh, Canterlot," she stammered before leaning in and narrowing her eyes. "What are you talking about?"
The pony shrugged. "You just looked like you weren't too happy. That'll be twenty bits."
Twilight scowled and dropped her bits onto the counter. "Well, that was pretty rude of you to say either way."
For a moment, the pony's eyes went wide, and he sat up and cleared his throat loudly. He offered up a toothy grin and said, "Uh, sorry. Look, lady, just don't tell my manager."
Now it was Twilight's turn to snort. "I don't know," she snarled. "I might just go find him and tell him about how rude you just were."
Before the ticket pony could respond, Twilight jumped when she felt a scaly claw poking her in the side. On reflex, she glared down at Spike, who backed away and chuckled. "Uh, sorry, Twilight, but maybe we should, uh, watch for the train," he said. He pointed to the end of the platform farthest away from the ticket booth. "Over there."
Twilight glowered at the ticket pony out of the corner of her eye and snatched up her ticket in her magic. "Sure, Spike. Let's." Without a word to the ticket pony, she turned and stomped back to the edge of platform.
The ticket pony pressed his hooves together and said, "Good day, miss." When she only swished her tail in reply, he bit his lip and buried his face in his hooves.
"Don't you think that was a little harsh, Twilight?" Spike asked. "Like, what the hay?"
Twilight huffed and rolled her eyes. "He was being rude. Didn't you hear him?"
Spike crossed his arms and stared back.
Twilight let out a sigh. "Okay, maybe I'm a bit testy this early in the morning, but he still shouldn't have said those things."
Spike's arms remained crossed.
Twilight rubbed her face and groaned. "Why can't I just disappear, Spike? Just curl up in a ball and let everything go away?"
Twilight sat down and shook her head. "It's not," she said. "Not really. I just hope Applejack will be okay over the weekend."
Spike hid a roll of his eyes by glancing away toward the train tracks. "I'm sure she'll be fine," he said. "I'm more worried about you right now."
"Oh, Spike, that's sweet of you to say." Twilight nuzzled him, but he pushed her head away.
"Not really," he said. "Twilight, this is, like, the most important thing ever. You just got a job offer from the princesses, and all you can think about is Applejack."
Twilight frowned and narrowed her eyes. "I'm worried about her."
Spike sighed and nodded. "I know." He put a claw on Twilight's leg. "But remember to worry about yourself, too. Make sure you're doing things for the right reasons."
Twilight was silent, her face unreadable. For a long moment, she stared at Spike, then tore her gaze away with a sigh. "Make sure you don't just eat junk food all day," she mumbled.
Spike's gasped and put his claws on his cheeks, but Twilight wasn't looking. With a loud harrumph, he crossed his arms and said, "I've got it covered. And by the way, I can keep the library running while you're gone."
Twilight, with downcast eyes, chuckled. "I hadn't even thought of that," she remarked. "I'm… glad you're on top of things."
Spike poked Twilight in the side again. "Dude, you're acting like this is the end of the world or something. All you're doing is having a meeting with the princesses. No big deal."
Twilight nodded. "We'll see."
The sound of a train whistle flew in from the south, and Twilight glanced down the tracks to watch the Friendship Express as it pulled into Ponyville Station.
"Well, that's my ride." Twilight offered a thin smile to Spike. "I'll see you in a day or two, okay?"
Spike saluted her before giving her a hug. "I've got it covered. Have fun in Canterlot."
Twilight guffawed and shook her head. "We'll see," she said. "I'm not counting on it."
Just as the train came to a full stop, Spike threw his arms up and rolled his eyes. "You've got to be less of a grump," he said. "What would Pinkie say if she saw you like this?"
"Pinkie…" Twilight sighed and lowered her head. "I can hardly remember the last time I saw her. I should visit her when I get back. Can you make a note of that." She turned to Spike to find that he already had a scroll in hand.
"Done and done," he said, grinning as he scribbled away with his quill. After a moment, he rolled the parchment back up and put it away—where to, Twilight had no idea.
Twilight smirked. "I guess I need you more than you need me," she said, which only prompted another, tighter hug from Spike.
"I'll miss you, okay?" Spike squeezed Twilight's leg again as Twilight embraced him with her other foreleg.
"I'll miss you too, Spike." She blinked back the tears that were rapidly forming in her eyes and pulled away. She lifted her luggage with her magic as she said, "I need to go. I'll see you soon."
Spike smiled. "See you!" he said, turning to run away as Twilight walked onto the train. It only took a moment for Twilight to find a seat, and from there it was a matter of minutes before the train resumed its long steady crawl to the capital city of Canterlot.
As always, Applejack awoke with the sun. She got out of bed and sighed. Twilight's probably gone by now.
Twilight would be back soon, but that did nothing to fill the hole in Applejack's stomach as nibbled at her breakfast. She didn't enjoy it much. The food was tasteless. Just got to work. Put one hoof in front of the other. Keep moving forward.
Applejack made her way out to the fields before the sunrise had ended. Best to get the day over with as fast as possible. I'll feel better tomorrow. The thought rang hollow even in her own mind, but she just pressed on. She had orchards to tend to, fields to plow, crops to plant, and barns to check.
Applejack hesitated on her way to the apple orchard and rubbed her chin. Might as well check the barn first.
Twilight was right: the barn long overdue to be demolished. As she approached the building, she could see the peeled paint and rot that covered every inch. It was a relic of a bygone time, and Sweet Apple Acres couldn't afford to cling to the past. Things had changed. It was best not to let things drag out.
Applejack suddenly realized that she was sweating. She blinked and shook her head, taking a deep breath to slow her heart's rapid beating. I'm just worried that I can't get this thing torn down right away, is all. She took another deep breath and opened the barn door.
Instantly, the acrid taste of musk and decay washed over Applejack. Her cheeks bulged as she fought the urge to vomit. Land's sake! It's even worse than before. Fighting down her breakfast, she forced herself to walk into the barn. Each step filled her nostrils with more of the barn's stench, and before long her eyes began to sting as well.
"This barn needs to go," she muttered, gagging as she continued to struggle against the noxious odor. She stumbled and reached out for the wall so she could lean into it. I hope Twilight's can learn those spells she was talking about fast. I don't think this can wait much longer.
Applejack scowled. Twilight, she thought with a snort. If she were here, there wouldn't be a problem. I could just go get her right now. She grit her teeth. Why didn't she just talk to me?
Applejack raised a hoof and aimed it at the barn door only to let it fall back to earth. She sighed, blinking back tears caused by far more than the barn's noxious odor. She stomped around looking for somewhere, anywhere to go. To start, she galloped out of the barn.
I need to talk to somepony, she thought as she continued to gallop, covering as much ground as possible as quickly as possible. I need to talk… to who?
Almost as soon as she thought of the question, Applejack had the answer: Fluttershy. She slowed to a canter and blew out a sigh. I know she had it bad for Twilight. I know I basically stole the love of her life from her. I also know that it has to be her.
Applejack slowed again, this time to a trot. She should be alone. She smiled and nodded to herself. So what if Rainbow Dash has been spending more time with her lately? Rainbow's day won't start for hours to come. She's probably sleeping away on some cloud up there. She glanced at the sky and snorted.
Picking up her pace, Applejack found the road out of Sweet Apple Acres and left the farm. Better get there before anypony else does, she thought, checking the sky again with a frown on her face. Fluttershy'll set things straight. She'll calm me down.
Fluttershy woke from the most wonderful dream. A smile was still plastered across her face as she awoke, and it grew wider as she remembered how her dream had played out.
For a moment, her face scrunched up as she thought she felt a hoof on her shoulder. She rolled over onto her other side…
And there was Rainbow Dash.
Fluttershy's stomach filled up with butterflies as her smile grew impossibly wide. It was no dream, she thought. It was no dream. She hugged Rainbow's sleeping form tightly and nuzzled her nose, stifling giggles all the while.
It happened, she thought. I did it. She wondered who she should thank. Celestia? Luna? Rainbow Dash herself? It didn't really matter. All that mattered was her best friend, her closest of friends, her something-more-than-a-friend snuggling up against her after a good night's sleep.
Fluttershy nuzzled Rainbow, who promptly began to snore in her face. Fluttershy only smiled and snuggled up closer, burying her face in Rainbow's chest. No reason to wake her up. No reason to make this end.
Small clouds of dirt flew up with each step of Applejack's hooves as she trotted up the windy road that led its way, slowly but surely, to Fluttershy's cottage. She plastered a broad grin over her face, and though her misty eyes belied her true mood, one could see a slight shimmer in them that grew more pronounced with each step.
When Applejack reached the front door, she could feel a tingle in her hooves that reached up her legs and seized her heart. Her stomach filled with butterflies, rabbits, and all manner of tiny critters as she raised a hoof, and her anxiety reached a crescendo just as she moved forward to knock.
Suddenly, the door swung open, and Applejack yelped as she nearly fell on her face. Clearing her throat, she straightened herself and opened her eyes. And blinked. She blinked repeatedly as she realized that it was not Fluttershy, but Angel who had opened the door. The tiny rabbit, by some means Applejack could only guess at, had let her in, and he was standing in the doorway with a paw over his mouth.
Applejack crouched down and said, "Hey A—" but stopped when she saw his piercing glare. Flinching, she lowered her voice. "Sorry. Where's Fluttershy, little guy?"
Angel removed his paw from over his mouth and pointed at Fluttershy's bedroom. He shook his head vigorously for a moment before putting his paws together and resting his head against them as he pantomimed snoring.
Applejack nodded. "Well, sorry about this, but I really have to talk to her, so…" Applejack shrugged and stood. With Angel pulling at her hind legs the entire time, she walked over to the bedroom door and opened it just a crack. She whispered only one word:
In the bedroom, Rainbow's eyes snapped open. She knew that voice. What's she— "Augh!" Before Rainbow could gain her bearings, she tumbled out of bed and landed with a loud crash.
Rainbow was still sprawled one the ground when the door swung open. Applejack rushed forward just as Fluttershy rolled over to see what was happening.
"Are you al—" Applejack stopped as her gaze fixed on Rainbow's prone form. She looked up at Fluttershy, then back to Rainbow Dash, then Fluttershy…
Rainbow grinned and stood up on shaky legs. She chuckled. "Uh…"
Fluttershy pulled her blankets close. "Uh…"
For a moment, Applejack's right eye began to twitch, then both eyes snapped open. A broad grin spread across her face, stretching her cheeks as she threw her head back and laughed.
"Howdy, girls," she said, continuing to cackle as she took a step back. "Can't say I was expecting this."
"What the hay are you doing here?" Rainbow shouted, stepping forward. She began to take another step, but the sound of Fluttershy clearing her throat reined her in.
"Do you need something, Applejack?" Fluttershy asked. She glanced down at her sheet and pushed them away so she could stand.
Applejack shook her head and let out a guffaw. "I guess I needed a kick in the flank, but y'all got that covered already." Her whooping laughter filled the room, but it failed to cover her tears.
In Applejack's mind, everything collapsed in on itself. She needed to run, needed to talk. Couldn't stay, couldn't leave. Couldn't look, couldn't look away. Couldn't believe… Couldn't stand…
Applejack fell to a sitting position as the last of her giggling died away. She stared down at the floor, letting her tears flow silently down her cheeks.
Fluttershy was the first to step forward. "I'm sorry, Applejack," she said. "I know you must miss Twilight, but she'll be back soon."
Rainbow joined her and reached to put a hoof on Applejack's shoulder. "Yeah," she said, though she failed to work up anything more.
Applejack brushed away Rainbow's hoof and turned away from her friends. "It's fine," she said as she got back on her hooves. "I think I've got things figured out just fine."
Rainbow reached out, wings flared. "Look, Applejack, we didn't—"
Applejack stomped a hoof. "This isn't about you," she snapped, drawing a flinch from Rainbow. She hung her head and squeezed her eyes shut. "I've got something I have to deal with."
Rainbow pulled her wings back in and hung her head.
Fluttershy, on the other hoof, stepped forward with eyes narrowed and wings spread wide. "I can't let you leave here like this," she said, trying to stop the tremble in her voice. "Let us help, Applejack. I mean it."
Applejack didn't even look up. She just shook her head and smiled. "I'm fine." She swallowed and finally met Fluttershy's gaze. "Really. I just need to get back to the farm."
"Don't you walk away." Fluttershy's voice could have been blown away by the wind, but she stood firm. "I won't let you leave her acting like this." She stepped forward. "Feeling like this."
Applejack turned away from her advancing friend. "You don't have to let me," she said. "I'm leaving." Fluttershy reached for her, but Applejack was already off. The sound of her galloping filled the cottage until she rushed out the front door, and Fluttershy could hear Applejack's clattering hoofsteps for what felt like an eternity as her friend fled with as much speed as she could muster.
Twilight grew up in Canterlot. She earned her cutie mark in Canterlot. She studied in Canterlot. Canterlot was more than just another beautiful city. It was Twilight's home.
That fact was lost on Twilight, however, as she trudge off the Friendship Express at its final stop in the Equestrian capital. She felt as if a pit had opened in her stomach, and the gaping hole grew wider with each step she took toward the royal castle. Before her, majestic spires and glittering windows arched skyward in the finest city in all of Equestria. Twilight let her gaze fall to the worn and dusty cobblestone.
Morning was long gone by the time Twilight's train arrived, and the streets were filled with ponies as she made her way to the castle. As more and more ponies brushed past her, Twilight lifted her gaze. Need to stay aware. She shook her head and held it high. I can do this.
Matching pace with the throng of Canterlot ponies all around her, she sped up to a trot. She puffed out her chest and grinned. It won't be that bad, she told herself. She forced her smile to widen as the pit in her stomach only widened.
After trotting for a few blocks, Twilight stopped and took a deep breath. When she continued forward, her hooves shuffled forward like dead weight. After a few lame steps, she took another deep breath and pressed onward. She made her way to the castle in fits and starts, standing tall for some time before collapsing back into herself. All the while, her heart fluttered in a way that no amount of deep breathing and brief pauses could fix. Through the entire journey, Twilight never turned away from her purpose. It's time to get this over with.
Unfortunately, she didn't really know what "this" was. It couldn't just be her meeting with the princesses. That was only the beginning of her problems. She still had weeks left to make her decision. That was what she truly dreaded, what she feared most. What will I do? What can I do? All she could summon were more questions. Any answers hovered just out of reach.
She entered the castle almost before she realized it. She had spoken to a guard at the gate—she must have, at least that was how things normally worked. Either way, she found herself already in the palace. The Gothic arches in the halls reached for the sky, dwarfing Twilight and providing plenty of room for the sound of her hoofsteps to echo loudly. She flinched with each click and clack against the palace's marble floors. Each step drew her closer to her meetings, and she didn't even know what questions to ask—let alone what answers to she might find.
When she reached the doors to the throne room, she hesitated and inhaled. She kept breathing in, letting her lungs fill as much as they could, drawing out the moment. As her chest puffed out, she closed her eyes and exhaled, letting the air flow out of her slowly and evenly. When she finished, she turned to the guards who stood at the doors, one to each side. The stallions—one white, one grey, both unicorns—smiled at her. She smiled back and nodded.
She had hoped for the doors to open slowly, drawing out the last few moments before she confronted the princesses. Of course, she knew that hope was in vain. The guards swung the doors open with the aid of their magic, and before Twilight could flee, she could see Celestia and Luna standing just inside. They stood tall and erect before her, and while Celestia wore a serene half-smile, Luna's jaw seemed fixed in something just short of an outright scowl.
"Greetings, Miss Twilight Sparkle." Luna stepped forward stiffly and held out a hoof. "We are most grateful that you would come to meet with us so promptly.
"And she really does mean 'we,'" Celestia added. She smirked and walked up to her sister's side. "It's wonderful to see you, Twilight."
Twilight bowed before the princesses before shaking Luna's hoof. "The pleasure is all mine." She had to force the words out, but her smile came naturally. So did her next words. "It's great to see you, Princess Celestia, Princess Luna."
Celestia chuckled. "Please, Twilight, we have known each other for long enough. Call me Celestia—just Celestia."
"And call me Luna." Luna tilted her chin up. She had yet to offer so much as smirk to Twilight.
Twilight nodded. "Of course, Prin—" She coughed. "Of course, Celestia."
Celestia walked past Twilight on her way out the door. "Now, we could always meet here, Twilight, but I find that I think better when I am on the move. Would you mind if we take a walk while we discuss things?"
Luna nodded to Twilight and followed her sister. "I believe the ancients called it the peripatetic method," she said. When Twilight hesitated, she opened a wing and nudged Twilight with. "Please join us, Twilight Sparkle."
Butterflies filled her stomach, but Twilight smile and cantered along to catch up with Celestia. "I probably need a breath of fresh air anyway."
Celestia grinned. "Well, you're in luck. I was thinking we might go to the garden."
The path to the garden was more or less simple, but it was by no means instantaneous. The palace's titanic halls loomed over Twilight as Luna took the opportunity to discuss the purpose of their meeting.
"I am greatly pleased to restore royal tradition and introduce the Night Court to this generation of pony kind." She held her head up and beamed. "Acclimating myself to this new world has been a long and arduous process, but we believe the work is finally done." She glanced at Celestia before turning her gaze to Twilight. "We ask that you aid me in this process."
Twilight nodded, feeling as if her stomach were doing back flips. "I am honored, Luna. I mean it. I just… May I ask you something?"
Luna slowed her pace, and her companions followed suit. Without a word, she strode in front of Twilight and stopped, standing tall before Twilight. A frown creased her face as she said, "You do not need my permission to ask questions, Twilight Sparkle. Elsewhere, decorum may dictate otherwise, but for this moment, we are equals."
Twilight plastered on a strained grin and let out a high-pitched chuckle. "Thank you," she managed before gulping. "What I meant to ask was: Why me?"
Silence ensued for a moment, and the three ponies resumed their stroll before Luna replied. "My sister thinks very highly of you, Twilight Sparkle." Celestia smirked and nudged her sister in the shoulder, but Luna didn't so much as flinch. "It has always been the case that I would eventually return to my normal function in the Equestrian government. With your achievements, your intelligence, and your devotion to your work, it would have been difficult to overlook you as a candidate."
Twilight pursed her lips and could scarcely do more than shrug. "I… Thank you, but certainly there were more qualified candidates in Canterlot. They know the city better, and they could probably make the change much easier than…" Twilight blinked and trailed off, shaking her head.
Celestia frowned and furrowed her brow. "We knew you would worry about leaving Ponyville," she said. "This is just an offer. You needn't feel obligated to do anything."
Twilight opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. By the time she started again, Luna had already seized upon the silence.
"You are our first choice for this position, but you are correct. We can find many willing candidates in Canterlot. I know a handful we could speak with if you decline." She narrowed her eyes as her words became slower, more deliberate. "However, do not fear that you are unqualified, Twilight Sparkle. I assure you that your resume rivals that of any Canterlot oligarch."
"It may be better to call them bureaucrats," Celestia commented. "They're chosen by merit nowadays." She grunted and smiled. "Here we are."
The trio rounded a corner and entered a great hall whose many windows opened out to the garden. Light filtered in from the tall, pointed windows, and Twilight could smell the flowers outside as she drew nearer to the lush foliage.
"It's been a while," Twilight said, picking up her pace as she glanced out the windows.
Celestia and Luna kept pace. "I know," Celestia replied. "I thought you'd like to return here. You used to love coming here to read."
Luna tilted her head, but Twilight slowed when she noticed the princess stiffening at the same time. "Are you okay, Luna?"
Luna nodded more vigorously this time. "I am, Twilight Sparkle." She quickened her pace to a canter. "I merely regret that I could no be here to witness your studies."
Twilight blinked rapidly, her pupils widening. "Oh." She worked her mouth soundlessly before forcing out, "Well, um, yes." She clamped her mouth shut and smiled.
"My crimes were my own." Luna tilted her chin up and raised her voice. "It is by no fault of pony kind or my sister that I served my sentence. I have spent these years readjusting to society and reintroducing myself to the populace. Now I can finally make reparations."
The trio exited the hall and began to walk about on the grass. Stopping out in the open air, Celestia took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Twilight followed suit, but Luna kept moving along, letting her eyes drift skyward. "I wronged many all those years ago. They are gone, but perhaps their descendants will appreciate my efforts."
"They will." Celestia nuzzled her sister and draped a wing over Luna's back. She glanced back to Twilight and added, "And while we would be grateful if you helped her through this process, we understand the sacrifice we are asking of you."
Twilight sighed. "Yes," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "I…" She took a deep breath and brought a hoof to her chest. After holding the breath for a moment, she let it out in another sigh, extending her hoof out as she did so. "Sorry. It's just that the timing isn't ideal."
Celestia nodded, her expression unreadable. "It never is, but something tells me that something in particular has you bothered."
Luna arched an eyebrow and drew closer to Twilight. "Please tell us what is the matter, Twilight Sparkle. You may be forthright with us."
"I will," Twilight said, "but can we keep walking? I'd like to see the garden while we talk." She gulped down another deep breath, but it did nothing to fill the widening abyss in her stomach.
The princesses nodded and followed her, ears perked up. "Well?" Celestia asked after a moment.
Twilight bit her lip for a moment before speaking. "Well—and I've been meaning to write you about this—but I have a special somepony now."
Celestia arched an eyebrow and smirked. "Oh, really?"
Luna, on the other hand, furrowed her brow. "I have heard this term, but I am not certain what it means."
"It's a somewhat vague term," Celestia answered, turning her attention to Luna. "In this case, I think Twilight has a suitor."
Luna straightened herself as her eyes widened slightly. "Truly? Well, my congratulations, Twilight Sparkle." She shook Twilight's hoof and asked, "May I ask the name of the stallion?"
Twilight froze for a moment, but it only took a moment for Celestia to see her student's unease. "Who knows, Luna? She never said it was a stallion."
Luna frowned as she let go of Twilight's hoof. "Society has changed much in the past millennium."
"Um, yes." Twilight coughed and took a step back. "It's true. You remember Applejack, right?"
Celestia chuckled. "It would be hard not to."
Luna narrowed her eyes silently.
Twilight edged away from Luna and closer to Celestia. "Well, we've been dating for a few weeks now." She smiled as her eyes grew distant. "We're marefriends now."
Celestia let her gaze drift among the trees and flowers. "Love is a thing of beauty." She unfurled her wings and walked forward with firm, deliberate steps. "Do you love her?"
Twilight hesitated. "Well, I…" She scratched her chin for a moment. "I can't be sure—I don't know how you can ever be sure about that—but I think I do." Her eyes grew misty and she grinned broadly. "I love Applejack."
Luna frowned and grit her teeth. "I understand." She turned away. "If you will excuse me."
Celestia's wilted a bit and fixed her gaze on Twilight. Forcing a smile onto her face, she said, "I'll talk to her. I'm terribly sorry."
Celestia stopped Luna not too far from Twilight. If she wanted to, Twilight could easily have listened in on the conversation, but she was wrapped in her own thoughts. I love Applejack. The thought was strange, perhaps even foreign. It wasn't just the adolescent fretting about whether she "liked" somepony. Love carried an air of permanence in her mind. It was something that could transcend relationships themselves. It was, in a way, irreversible.
For a moment, the idea filled Twilight with terror. Her chest felt tight, and she began to hyperventilate. Taking what seemed like the thousandth deep breath of the afternoon, she shook her head. I love Applejack, she told herself again, and this time, the thought seemed less alien. She bit her lip and nodded. I do. I love Applejack. She closed her eyes, focusing only on breathing in and out… in and out…
The sound of hoofsteps reached Twilight's ears, and she opened her eyes to see Luna standing before her. "Twilight Sparkle, what is the matter?" she asked.
"Please, Twilight Sparkle, it is I who should be sorry." Luna hung her head. "I apologize for my rudeness. I truly am happy for you. If I showed any semblance of displeasure, it was due to my own selfishness."
"She means it." Celestia walked up to Twilight's side. "We're just sorry to hear that you won't be able to—"
"Actually…" Twilight bit her lip and looked at he ground. "Maybe… Can we keep talking about the position? I don't want to rush into any decisions, if you don't mind."
Luna nodded immediately. "Most certainly," she said. She flashed a grin and began to walk farther into the garden. "Let us converse. Surely we will reach an accord based in reason."
Twilight and Celestia followed, and before long the three ponies were trotting alongside one another.
Twilight's shoulders were relaxed and an easy smile spread across her face as they resumed their strolled through the garden. Her eyes wandered among the plants as she asked, "Princess Luna, this may be a silly question, but would this position necessarily be year-round?"
Luna's frown returned. "The Night Court must be a permanent fixture if it is to be taken seriously. Of course, it will have occasional recesses, but I need somepony committed to her work."
"You know how my court works," Celestia added. "You wouldn't necessarily work here every day—perhaps three days a week—but there will be plenty of research involved. If you are not in Canterlot every day, you would have to be frequent correspondence with Luna."
Luna huffed. "Do not dismiss the difficulty of this endeavor, sister." She stared at Twilight. "What she says is mostly true, and we can make some adjustments to accommodate you. However, these first few months will be the most arduous. You must be willing to meet that challenge, even if it requires some level of sacrifice."
Twilight looked to Celestia, who nodded after a moment. "The first step is always the hardest," she said.
"I understand." Twilight's words hung in the air as nopony spoke. Finally, she said, "This won't be an easy decision."
"I'd imagine not," Celestia said. She glanced up at the sun and said, "Time flies, doesn't it?"
Luna shrugged, but Twilight nodded vigorously. "It really does. But we still have so much to talk about."
Celestia laughed and gestured back up to the sun. "It doesn't fly that quickly."
Luna snorted. "If anything, it seems to crawl in my experience."
Arching an eyebrow, Celestia nudged her sister. "Do I detect a hint of bitterness in that comment?"
A hint of a smirk flashed across Luna's face. "I can't imagine where you would gather that from."
"Can't imagine? I guess that's why I'm the creative one," Celestia retorted without missing a beat. Luna giggled, eliciting a grin from Twilight.
Luna unfurled her wings when she finished laughing and stretched them as she said, "Since we seem to be negotiating terms at this juncture, are there any other aspects of the position that concern you, Twilight?"
With a laugh, Twilight stroked her chin and nodded. "Well, I'm sure I should know this, but do government officials get any sort of discounts for transportation?"
Celestia shrugged. "Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends." A toucan flew over the trio, and Celestia smiled at it as she spoke. "I'm sure we could get you what you need, but everything has a price."
"Quid pro quo," Twilight intoned.
Luna put a hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "We have time to finalize these plans. I hope I can work something out, Twilight Sparkle."
Applejack shouldn't have run from her friends. She knew that now. She knew it when she looked Fluttershy in the eyes and lied to her face. It was impulsive. It was irrational. It was… stupid.
She squeezed her eyes shut and scuffed her hoof against the dirt road. Inside, her thoughts and emotions raged, kicking up a storm Applejack could not escape. Her lips quivered, and all she could do was force herself forward. One step, two steps, and she strode through the gate that marked the beginning of Sweet Apple Acres.
She glanced back in the direction of Fluttershy's cottage, but she didn't stop. A walk became a trot, then a canter. Before she knew it, she was galloping at full speed through the apple orchard. She didn't know why. All she knew was the storm raging in her head. She couldn't fight it off, so she ran.
As she ran, she blinked rapidly. Her eyes stung with what would no doubt become tears, but she could not let them come. Without slowing, she squeezed her eyes shut. They remained closed for a moment, two… three…
She grit her teeth, and when her eyes opened once more, the tears were gone. All that remained was an unending fire.
Fluttershy watched as Rainbow Dash flared her wings. Fluttershy knew what would happen next. As Rainbow stretched her wings skyward, she paced about Fluttershy's bedroom. She knit her brow and darted her eyes every which way. After a few moments, Rainbow snapped her wings back to her side. She stopped pacing, but the furrowed brow and shifting eyes remained.
"Come here, Dashie," Fluttershy said. She took a step forward and extended a hoof. "I know you're upset. Come here."
Rainbow took Fluttershy's hoof and pulled her friend in for a quick hug, but the embrace only lasted a moment. Before long, she grit her teeth and pushed Fluttershy away. "I've got to go," she said.
The breath caught in Fluttershy's throat, but she shut her mouth and nodded.
Rainbow turned toward the door. "Maybe I'll be back for dinner?" She glanced back at Fluttershy and offered a smile. "Sorry to bail. This can't wait."
"Do you want me to come with you?" Fluttershy pushed her mane out of her face and gave a firm nod. "I'll come with you."
"No. It's fine." Rainbow massaged her forehead and sighed. "I'll take care of it."
Fluttershy frowned and creased her brow. "You can't just blame yourself, Dashie," she said, taking a step forward with each word. "Applejack a friend to both of us, and if you think she needs your help, then she needs my help too."
Rainbow shook her head. "No, you just… I've got to do this myself, okay?"
Fluttershy wilted and lowered her head, but she still stared up at Rainbow. "Why won't you let me help, Rainbow Dash?"
"Please…" Rainbow stiffened, then sighed and slouched her shoulders. "Please, don't make this harder than it needs to be." She put a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder. "I'll be right back. I promise."
Fluttershy forced on a smile. Her lip trembled, but she still leaned into Rainbow and nodded. "As long as you promise, Dashie, I'll trust you."
Rainbow grinned and puffed out her chest. "Well what did I just do?" She glanced out the bedroom window and saw the sun hanging high in the sky. "Not sure what I'll have to do, but I'll be back by sundown." She nudged Fluttershy and smirked. "I think it's gonna be another cold night, don't you think."
Red exploded onto Fluttershy's cheeks, and she stepped away as she tried to find refuge in her mane. "Oh… my."
Rainbow couldn't wipe the smile from her face, but she pulled away as well. "I mean, I can always sleep on the couch again if you'd like."
"No." Fluttershy answered immediately. She hesitated before shoving her mane out of her face and rushing up to Rainbow. Her embrace nearly knocked Rainbow off her hooves, but the two ponies quickly found their balance and began rocking each other slowly as they hugged.
"Hey, Fluttershy," Rainbow whispered.
"Yes, Dashie?" Fluttershy replied.
"This is pretty cool." She let her hooves linger on Fluttershy's coat as she slowly moved away. "I'll see you this evening."
Fluttershy nodded and walked her friend to the front door. "I'll have dinner ready."
"Awesome." Rainbow trotted out the door and down the road to Sweet Apple Acres.
Before she was out of earshot, Fluttershy stepped out the door and hollered, "Wait!"
Rainbow glanced back. "What?"
Fluttershy grinned sheepishly and blushed. "Good luck."
Rainbow beamed and opened her wings. "Thanks."
Applejack had to work. Time stopped for no mare, and she couldn't let the farm waste away just because of a stupid relationship problem. She had things to do, apples to harvest…
From the top of a hill, she could see the old rotting barn. The useless, disgusting barn. She glared down at it and snarled. That barn!
Twilight told her that barn needed to go. She promised to help. As if she'd even have time for that anymore. Applejack rolled her eyes as she galloped down to the decrepit structure.
The stench of decay filled Applejack's nostrils and burned her eyes, but did not hesitate as she stomped into the barn. She threw her gaze all about, glowering at every plank, every stake, every nail. Stupid, stupid stupid! She squeezed her eyes shut and bucked out behind her.
Her hooves sailed through the air, but when they finally stopped on the ground again, she wasn't finished. She lunged forward, feeling a satisfying crack as she pounded a nearby barrel. She struck the old, brittle container again.
From there on, she couldn't stop. The containers went first. Barrel and crate alike were no match for Applejack's rage. They crumbled like so many cupcakes on Pinkie Pie's plate.
But soon enough, those distractions were gone. All that was left was the barn. Its walls, its rafters, its support beams. This was where it would get tricky, but she had to press on. I've got to get along on my own. There are no guarantees in life. She trudged over to the barn door and aimed at the hinge. She picked up her back legs. Here goes nothing.
Before she could carry through with her strike, Applejack was stunned by a flash of color that blew by the outside of the barn. Blue, red, yellow, and all the colors of the rainbow zoomed through the air right by her. She blinked. Rainbow… Rainbow Dash?
Another streak of color, and Rainbow was in front of her. She flapped her wings hard as she touched down and tossed back her mane. "I thought I saw you there," she said. Then she saw the destruction inside the barn. "Whoa! Dude, Applejack, what are you doing?"
"I'm just dealing with things," Applejack shouted. She pointed inside the barn. "It's fine."
"Applejack, come on." Rainbow took a step closer, shaking her head. "I know you're upset, but you can't just go breaking all your stuff. We can talk about this."
"Go kick a cloud," Applejack spat. "I don't need you flying around telling me what to do."
Rainbow scowled right back at Applejack. Her wings flared out as she hissed, "Yeah, well you can…" She stopped herself short. Her wings fell to her sides and looked down at the ground. "Look, I know things are tough with you and Twilight, and I know we haven't always gotten along so great." She bit her lip for a moment. "I know that's sort of my fault a lot of the time."
Applejack shook her head and pulled Rainbow close. "It's not your fault," she said, her voiced much quieter than it had been moments before. "It's just… Things are tough, you know?"
"I know." Rainbow nodded and straightened herself. "That's why I came out here. I wanted to help you," she pointed at the smashed boxes, "and stop you from doing stuff like this."
Applejack raised a hoof. She shook her head and made her way over to the wreckage. "Wait up just a moment," she said. "I'm not just doing this 'cause I'm angry. I've been meaning to take this barn down for a while now." She frowned despite herself. Twilight was supposed to help.
"Okay." Rainbow trotted over to Applejack and draped a hoof over her withers. "That's fine. You need some help?"
Applejack sighed. "Sure," she intoned.
Rainbow grit her teeth and looked away. She exhaled sharply and turned back to Applejack. "What's is wrong with you, Applejack?"
Applejack wilted under Rainbow's gaze. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just, Twilight was the one who was so dead set on tearing this barn down and, well, she told me she'd help out."
Rainbow furrowed her brow and peered closely and Applejack's face. "Do you want her to help or something?"
Seeing Rainbow's face, Applejack let her jaw drop slightly. "Of course I do. Marefriends do stuff together." She threw dirty look Rainbow's way. "You obviously know plenty about that."
Rainbow glared right back. "Okay. First, that's not at all what was happened. Second, we're friends, but don't you dare say something like that about Fluttershy."
Applejack dug a hoof into the ground. "You know what? Yeah, let's talk about this. Right now." She waved a hoof at nowhere in particular and said, "Fluttershy only just got shot down by the mare of her dreams, and where do I find you? In her bed!"
"It's not like that!" Rainbow flared her wings and creased her brow. "She just didn't want me out in the cold. And besides, it's been weeks since you and Twilight started dating."
"Oh, sure." Applejack began to take a step forward, then stopped and put a hoof on her forehead. "Look, I don't care about what happened between us. It's all in the past." She finally took that step forward and brought her face within inches of Rainbow's. "But if you think you can walk all over Fluttershy just 'cause she's hurting, you've got—"
There was a loud smack as Rainbow punched Applejack in the jaw. Applejack went down in a heap, but she had only fallen for a moment before she was back on her feet. She lunged at her assailant, but Rainbow was already in the air, hovering up near the top of the doorway.
"Get down here, Rainbow," Applejack snarled. She stomped a hoof, but Rainbow only shook her head in response.
"I'm not coming down until that stops." She pointed at Applejack's scowling face. "I'm sorry I hit you. We just both need to help you."
Applejack's scowl remained, but she softened her stance. "Fine," she growled. "I won't do anything. Let's just talk things through."
Rainbow nodded and slowly floated back to the ground. After touched down, she closed her wings and took a step closer to Applejack. "I swear, I'm not trying to do take advantage of Fluttershy. She asked me to stay with her—honest."
Applejack raised an eyebrow. "You sure you don't have any sort of angle you're playing."
Rainbow shifted about as a deep blush spread across her face. "Well, um, I mean…" She giggled, then straightened herself and cleared her throat. "I mean, she's cool." She looked away for a moment before glancing back at Applejack. "You know?"
Applejack didn't smile, but she nodded. "I know what you mean," she said. "But I'm warning you. If do wrong by her, you do wrong by me. And I'm not in the forgiving mood."
Holding out her hooves, Rainbow nodded. "Look, Applejack, I get it. I mean it. Could you just, like, cool it for a sec?"
Applejack chuckled. "Sure."
Rainbow finally exhaled. "Thanks. Anyway, back to the subject. Why does Twilight need to help you do something boring like this?"
Applejack's gaze flew in all directions. Finally, she looked back at Rainbow and stomped a hoof. "It's just… It's what marefriends do."
"No it's not." Rainbow pointed at the barn and said, "Marefriends don't do boring stuff together. They have fun." She flew into the air and knocked on the rafters. "You're supposed to do the boring stuff on your own so you can surprise your marefriend." She chuckled. "In fact, uh, I haven't really had the chance to do that so much lately."
"I just think you're missing the point," Applejack said as she glanced at the dirt.
Rainbow flew down and grabbed Applejack's shoulder. "Sorry, AJ, but you're the one who's missing the point. Look, you and Twilight won't always be right next to each other. You've got different things going on in your lives. That's just how life works. What you've gotta do is make the best of what life gives you."
Applejack took a deep breath and smiled. "You just might be right, Rainbow."
"Of course I am." Rainbow puffed out her chest and brought up a hoof. "So what's the plan?"
Applejack glanced at the ground and pulled back. "Actually, do you know when Twilight gets back from Canterlot? I mean, I know there's no reason you'd know, but—I don't know—maybe I'll meet her at the station or something." She scuffed the ground and bit her lip.
"Aw." Rainbow clasped her forehoofs together and smirked. Once she was finished, she pursed her lips for a moment, then shrugged. "Sorry. I've got nothing. You could probably go ask Spike sometime if you really need to know." She flared her wings and pointed up at the rafters. "Anyway, you want me to help you tear this thing down or what?"
Applejack smirked. "I guess so. It wouldn't be the first time we did something like this."
Rainbow nodded and held out a hoof. "Just like old times?"
Applejack's face fell. "I don't think it'll ever be like old times," she whispered. She managed a thin smile. "It can be like good times, though."
Rainbow grabbed Applejack's hoof and shook it vigorously. "That's good enough for me, AJ."
On the way out of the garden, Twilight felt lighter on her hooves. She noticed a bit of a bounce sneaking its way into her steps. She grinned, but a quiver of worry lingered in her eyes. She could still feel the gaping hole in the pit of her stomach.
Celestia was asking her, "Are you planning to return to Ponyville today, or might you stay for the night?"
"We would be most pleased if you stayed," Luna added, leaning closer to Twilight.
Twilight blinked repeatedly and shook her head. Her smile disappeared as she forced herself to focus on the present. "I'm sorry, Celestia. Could you ask that again?"
"I was just wondering if you were staying the night." Celestia furrowed her brow and peered at Twilight's expression. "Is anything wrong, Twilight?"
Painting a smile back onto her face, Twilight nodded. "No. Nothing's wrong." There was a long pause. "I still have a lot to think about," she murmured. "Maybe I will stay the night." She took a moment to glance toward the ivory tower where she once lived and studied. "I wonder if you've kept my old room in the castle."
"It's there if you want to visit." Celestia draped a wing over her faithful student. "You could even stay the night there if you like."
"No." The word escaped Twilight's mouth before she even had time to think, but a moment's contemplation told her that it was the right answer. She cleared her throat and said, "No, but thank you, Celestia." She bit her lip and rubbed her chin. "I don't know how to put it, but I feel like I should stay somewhere different." She looked about and said, "I think I might find a hotel out in the city—not that I don't want to spend time with you two, of course."
Celestia let out a melodious laugh. "I understand," she said, beaming. She pulled in closer and whispered, "I am so proud of you, Twilight."
"Thank you." Twilight grinned and nuzzled Celestia as the princess nuzzled her in turn.
Luna, for her part, shuffled her hooves and stared at the ground.
The sight caught Twilight's eye, and she immediately trotted to Luna's side. There was silence before she decided to say, "I don't know what I'll end up choosing, but it would be an honor to work under you."
Twilight held out a hoof which Luna shook. "Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. I look forward to working with you as well."
"I believe she just said she couldn't make any promises," Celestia said.
Luna cast her gaze back at the ground and scuffed a hoof. "I apologize. It was not my intention to presume."
"Don't worry." Twilight grinned and trotted up to Luna's side. As Luna straightened herself, Twilight said, "What happens will happen. Either way, I'm sure you will be working with only the best Equestria has to offer."
A brief silence hung in the air before Luna spoke. "You speak true, Twilight Sparkle." The three ponies resumed their walk to the castle. Luna flared her wings briefly and said, "I believe that whatever happens in this case, we shall work together soon enough. Ambition and talent are powerful forces indeed."
Twilight forced out a chuckle and looked away. "Yeah," she managed. She hunched her shoulders, and though Celestia raised an eyebrow, the princess said nothing.
The edge of the garden had barely come into view before Twilight said, "Oh, look! There's the castle." She sped up to a canter and waved to the princesses haphazardly. "Thanks for talking with me. This was really great, but I should get myself squared away for the night."
"What is the matter?" Luna trotted forward a few steps and reached out to Twilight. "Did we offend you in some way?"
Before Twilight could respond, Celestia draped a wing across Luna's back and drew close to her sister. "If Twilight wants to spend some time in the city, we may as well let her. She's been gone for so long, after all."
Luna's eyes softened as she looked at Celestia. She turned her attention back to Twilight and nodded. "I understand that sentiment. Farewell, Twilight Sparkle. Should you wish to speak with us again, you need only ask."
Twilight rushed away the moment Luna finished speaking. "Bye, princesses," she said without turning.
In a matter of moments, she had rounded a corner and escaped the princesses' presence, but the castle corridors wound all about her. Her head swam in the twists and turns that surrounded her. She took a gulp of air, but it did nothing to stop her cartwheeling stomach. A tremor coursed through her legs, and before she knew it they were wobbling like pillars of jello.
Have to get out.
She cast her eyes in all directions even though she knew the path to the exit by heart. The halls seemed narrower than she remembered. Narrower and longer.
Have to get out.
The breath seemed to have left her lungs, and she couldn't get it back. She took a deep breath, but the effort immediately gave way to panting. She was panting.
Have to get out!
She began to canter toward the exit, keeping her pace just short of a gallop. Her breath came in gulps in gasps, but that was only a natural byproduct of her speed. After scrambling around a few sharp corners, she slowed down, and her breath slowed as well. She sighed.
That's better, she thought. She still stood stiffly erect, though, and her muscles were filled with tension. Still have to get out.
Twilight walked to the end of the hall she currently stood in, only to find herself completely out of place. Must have taken a wrong turn. She backtracked, walking more slowly than before. She breathed deeply and deliberately, and before long she stood before the castle gates.
The operating the gatehouse was different from the pony who let her in earlier in the day. That guard had been a unicorn. This was an earth pony. "Heading out?" he asked, hand on a lever that would open the gates.
"Yes, thank you." With a pull of the lever, the gates swung out toward the streets, leaving the path clear. Twilight nodded to the guard and, without another word, began to trot away.
"Hold on." Twilight blinked as the guard's voice brought her to a swift halt.
She turned around. "Yes, sir?"
"Are you Twilight Sparkle?" He arched an eyebrow and took a step away from the gate lever.
"Yes." Twilight arched an eyebrow as well.
The guard nodded curtly and opened the door of the gatehouse. His hoofsteps resounded sharply against the wooden floor until he exited the building pulling a small suitcase. "The stallion before me said this was yours. I'm guessing you'll want it back?"
Twilight's mouth dropped and she let out a wild laugh. "Thank you," she said, gripping the luggage in her magic. "I was wondering where that had gone. Have a nice afternoon, sir."
"Don't mention it," the guard said with a grin. He blinked slowly and began to whistle quietly. After a moment, his eyes widened and the whistling stopped, but before he could open his mouth, Twilight had galloped away. "Shoot!" he muttered before returning to the gatehouse and shutting the castle gates.
It took longer than Twilight expected to find a hotel to stay in. She remembered dimly how her parents had booked a room on the eve of her entrance exam for Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, but she couldn't recall the name of the place. In any case, she wandered around for at least an hour before she finally settled on a small inn off Mane Street. Once she finally chose the spot, she quickly took got a key from the pony at the counter, and soon it was only a matter of climbing the stairs and walking down a long quiet hall.
The lodgings were spartan, but Twilight didn't mind. I'll just be staying the night, she thought. Besides, it's not like I brought much with me. She dropped her luggage at the foot of her bed and lied down. She squeezed her eyes shut, but they opened only a few moments later. A long sigh followed soon after.
Ambition and talent are powerful forces. Luna's words echoed in her head. We shall work together. Twilight shook her head and groaned, "Why did she have to say that?"
The words carried the menace of an unwelcome prophecy. Everything was moving too fast. Applejack and I have only just started dating. I can only figure out one thing at a time.
Twilight buried her head in a pillow, but her problems wouldn't disappear so easily. A clock stood on the end table, and its ticking warned Twilight of every second that slipped out of her grasp. The sound broke through the shelter of her pillow, thundering in her head and growing louder until it finally reached a crescendo.
Knock. Knock. With that, the ticking grew quieter, leaving an empty silence in its wake.
As reality sunk in, Twilight blinked. That didn't sound like ticking. Just as Twilight lifted her head to glance at the door, two more knocks rang out. Knock. Knock. A voice followed soon after. "Excuse me. Is Twilight Sparkle in there?"
Twilight recognized the voice immediately. "Shining!" She hopped off the bed and threw the door open. Sure enough, her brother stood right in front of her, a wide smile spreading across his face.
"Twilie!" Shining Armor wrapped Twilight in a tight embrace and rocked her back and forth before letting go. "I heard you were in the city and came right over. How are you, little sis?"
"It's good to see you, Shining." Twilight nuzzled her brother and remained silent. After a few seconds, she pulled back and looked into Shining's eyes. "How did you find me?"
Shining laughed. "Celestia told me you'd be here today, so I used a detection spell." She pulled Twilight close and rubbed her mane. "I wouldn't miss a chance to see my favorite sister."
Twilight giggled and pulled away. "I didn't realize you were still in the city. How's Cadance?"
Shining pulled his head back and furrowed his brow. "Huh?" With a shrug, he said, "Uh, I guess she's good." There was a pause as he smiled and his eyes grew distant. "She's so happy to finally live in the Crystal Empire, even if I can't always be there."
"And you still love her?" Twilight still stared right at Shining.
"Yes." Shining's smile wavered as his brow creased even more. "What are you talking about? Are you okay?"
Twilight sighed. "Sorry. I just need to understand something." She hesitated, but Shining's silence held, so she continued. "How can you stand to be stuck here working while Cadance is way up north?"
Shining frowned and straightened himself. "I have a duty to the princesses," he said. "I'm not going to throw that away just because of some personal weakness."
"It's not weakness," Twilight snapped. She cleared her throat as she realized that she'd yelled louder than intended. "I mean, you know the princesses would understand. You're a prince now. I'm sure they have plenty of other ponies who would jump at the opportunity to take your place." Twilight hung her head. "You can only do so much."
Shining took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Okay," he said slowly. "What's wrong, Twilight? Is this about you becoming Luna's adviser?"
"Maybe I don't want to be her adviser!" Twilight shouted. "Maybe I just want to go back to Ponyville and see Applejack and—"
"Applejack?" Shining tilted his head. "Is that the orange one?"
Twilight scowled back at him. "Yes, she's the orange one. She's also my marefriend."
Shining's jaw dropped almost to the floor. He blinked, then blinked again. For good measure, he blinked once more. "What?" he finally forced out. He worked his jaw for another few seconds and managed to say, "What?"
Twilight laughed. "To be honest, you're the first pony to react like that. I was wondering when that would happen."
Shining shook his head. "No, no. I mean, I always knew you were into mares and all, but isn't Applejack an earth pony?" He walked into Twilight's room and sat on the bed. "I thought you'd… You know. Don't you…" He clamped his mouth shut.
"I know what you were going to say," Twilight said. "I'll ignore that, though." She took a seat next to Shining. "You still haven't answered my question."
Shining rubbed the back of his neck. "Could you run it by me again?"
With a sigh, Twilight said, "How do manage to stay down here with Cadance so far up north?"
Shining paused. He bowed his head. "It isn't always easy," he said. He lifted his gaze to look directly at Twilight. "Things get lonely down here without her, but it's not permanent. The princesses give me plenty of opportunities to visit the empire."
"Well that's great," Twilight grumbled. A look from Shining drew a grin from her. "Sorry, I mean it is great, just…" She sighed. "But I'm just starting a relationship with Applejack."
Stepping off the bed, Shining snorted. "I joined the royal guard right after I met Cadance, remember?" He nuzzled Twilight and brought a thin smile to her face. "If love can't deal with the occasional bump in the road, then maybe it never was love to begin with."
Twilight chuckled. "You'd sure feel awful if Applejack and I ended up breaking up," she said, tapping Shining in the arm.
Shining shook his head and grinned. "Nope. You deserve the best, Twilie. This is your opportunity. Don't let Applejack be the one who decides what you make of it."
Twilight bit her lip and stood up. After a moment's hesitation, she hugged her brother. "Thanks, Shining. I'll talk to her and see what we can work out." She pulled away and scuffed a hoof on the floor. "The thing is, I don't know if I want to take the job if it hurts my relationship with Applejack."
Shining frowned. "Well, I'm only one pony, but I'm also your brother, and I know you better than anypony. If you turn this position down because of a marefriend, you'll never be able to live with yourself." He softened his gaze and stepped closer to Twilight. "If she's as great as you think she is, she'll be happy for you. It'll be tough, but it won't be impossible." He winked. "I would know.
Twilight nodded. The gesture grew firmer as she straightened herself and smiled. "You're right," she said. "Thank you so much, BBBFF."
"I think it should be LSBFF," Twilight said with a laugh. "It doesn't really work as well, though."
Shining smirked. "Yeah." He began to make his way toward the door. "Anyway, I should be leaving. I just wanted to stop by and say hello."
"Okay," Twilight said. "It was nice seeing you." As Shining began to wrap his magic around the doorknob, she added, "Hold on."
Shining turned back to face her. "Yeah?"
Twilight furrowed her brow. "How'd you know I was into mares?"
If he hadn't already been white, Shining might have grown paler. "Say what?"
Narrowing her eyes, Twilight said, "You said you knew I was into mares. I didn't even know I was into mares until I starting hanging out with Applejack. How'd you figure it out so fast?"
A strangled chuckle escaped Shining, who backed away and grew closer to the door. "Did I really say that? Are you sure, 'cause… Maybe it was just a slip of the tongue, you know?"
Twilight shrugged and used her magic to lock the door. "Before I was just curious. Now you need to tell me."
Shining glanced at the doorknob. "You know I could just unlock that, right?"
Twilight pouted and said, "That'd be rude, though. Just tell me."
Shining took a step back and bumped into the door. Eyes widening, he slid to a sitting position and bowed his head. "Fine." He stood back up and said, "Uh… First, you're always hanging out with mares. I don't think I've even seen you spend time with a stallion before."
"Really, Shining?" Twilight arched an eyebrow. "There are hardly any stallions in Equestria—especially Ponyville."
"Exactly!" Shining thrust a hoof into the air. "So it'd totally make sense. You know, you have more… uh… options that way." He offered a toothy grin and lowered his hoof.
There was a long pause, followed by more silence. "Alright," Twilight said, sitting back on the bed and folding her forelegs. "You'll tell me eventually."
"I'm telling the truth," Shining said as his eyes examined everything in the room but Twilight.
Twilight giggled. "It was nice seeing you anyway, Shining," she said.
Shining nodded. "I'm glad I caught you," he said. "See you, Twilie."
"See you later," Twilight called as Shining opened the door and walked out. She stood and walked to the open door so she could watch him walk down the hallway to the stairs. She had to stifle a laugh when he saw her watching. His eyes grew wide, and he began to trot away.
A few minutes later, Shining was down the stairs, through the lobby, and briskly cantering out the door of the hotel. Twilight was still suppressing a giggle.
After more than a few hours of work, it was finally done. The barn was gone. Brushing the dust off her coat, Rainbow leaped into the air and spread her wings as Applejack took a step back and smiled.
"Thanks for helping out with the barn, Rainbow," Applejack said, her voice scarcely louder than a whisper. A blush spread through her cheeks. "And thanks for, you know, talking."
Hovering a few feet off the group, Rainbow flapped her wings and snickered. "I'm not sure I did that much talking," she said, "but you're welcome. Sorry I made such a mess."
Applejack glanced at the pile of rubble that lied where a barn once stood. To both ponies' credit, they had set a few planks and other scrap pieces off to the side, but the rubble dwarf that scant collection. "No, it's no problem," Applejack said, keeping her gaze on the demolished barn. "I can clean all this up easy enough. Either way, I think I needed it."
"Yeah, and most of it was junk anyway." Rainbow flapped her wings again and lifted herself even higher into the air. "I've got to go, AJ. I promised Fluttershy I'd be back for dinner." She took a look at the horizon and the small sliver of sun that was quickly descending behind it. "Hope I'm not late," she added with a grimace.
Applejack might have responded, but Rainbow didn't hear it. As soon as she stopped speaking, she was off, watching the trees of Sweet Apple Acres zip past her as she picked up speed. Before long, she flew over the fence that marked the end of the orchard. From there, it was a matter of minutes before she reached Fluttershy's cottage.
Rainbow landed outside the cottage with a loud whoosh and a flap of her wings. She touched down with a smile on her face, but that smile disappeared when she heard a gasp from inside. I must've scared her half to death, she thought. Dang!
For a moment, Rainbow stood outside the cottage biting her lip as an ever widening hole opened in her gut. Thankfully, it wasn't long before Fluttershy came out. To Rainbow's surprise, she had a broad grin on her face and almost pranced to Rainbow's side.
"I wasn't sure if you'd make it back in time," Fluttershy said through her grin. "How were things at Applejack's?"
Rainbow felt her whole body go slack as she trotted into the cottage with Fluttershy at her side. "It was good, I guess." She rubbed the back of her neck. "Somehow got roped into tearing down a barn for her."
Fluttershy formed an "O" with her mouth and nodded. "I was wondering what took you so long." Rainbow started to enter the kitchen, but Fluttershy pointed to the dining room. "Dinner's on the table. I decided I'd go ahead and make some lentil soup."
"Oh." Rainbow's ears drooped for just a moment before perking back up. She quickly put a smile on her face, but the look on Fluttershy's face told her the effort was in vain.
"I'm sorry," Fluttershy said, shrinking away. "Would you like something else?"
"No," Rainbow almost shouted. She winced before stepping forward and reaching out a hoof to Fluttershy. "No, it's great. I'm just sort of…" Rainbow stopped and grimaced. "Sorry I couldn't help out or anything."
Fluttershy took a step closer to Rainbow and started to lean in before flinching back. "Don't worry, Rainbow Dash. You were helping Applejack. I may not be as strong and confident as she is, but I can take care of myself."
Rainbow held up her hooves. "I never said anything. It's just, talking with Applejack… It got me thinking."
Fluttershy nodded toward the dining room and nudged Rainbow along. "Maybe we can talk about it over dinner."
Rainbow chuckled and trotted over to the table, where she saw two steaming bowls of soup. "Sounds good," she said as she pulled Fluttershy's chair out. Once Fluttershy took her seat, Rainbow walked over to the other side of the table and sat down.
Fluttershy forced a smile and tilted her head. "So what were you thinking about, Rainbow Dash."
"Well…" Rainbow paused as she considered her words. She scratched her chin and left her eyes drift toward the ceiling. "Well, I guess it started when I was helping AJ out with her barn. She was sort of bummed out 'cause Twilight was going to help her out with it." She shrugged. "If I were Twilight, I'd be pretty stoked that somepony else did the job instead."
Fluttershy swallowed a small spoonful of soup and glanced out a window. "Sometimes, if you really care for somepony, you can bond over anything." A blush began to blossom across her cheeks. "My mom said that true love is spending the day cleaning the house with your special somepony and knowing you couldn't want anything more."
Rainbow smirked. "Is your mom always that sappy?" She saw Fluttershy wilt and leaning forward, reaching out a hoof. "I didn't mean it like that. It makes sense. Doing stuff together is cool and all, but do you get what I'm saying."
Fluttershy opened her mouth for a few seconds, but after a moment she stuck another mouthful of soup in it and remained quiet.
With a chuckle, Rainbow picked up her own spoon. "I'm just saying that sometimes you want to do something special for your special somepony. You know, like it says in the name." She tasted the soup with a smack of her lips. "This soup's awesome, by the way."
Fluttershy blushed once more. "Thank you," she mumbled. "I know what you're saying." She paused and furrowed her brow. "I don't understand what this has to do with Applejack, though."
"I…" Rainbow glanced about and scrunched up her nose. "Yeah it does. I mean…" She drew her lips into a thin line and hesitated. After a second, she leaned forward and said, "It's 'cause AJ was going to make Twilight help. She thought it'd be good for bonding and all that, but sometimes you've got to do things yourself. You can't just let your marefriend do the work."
Fluttershy blinked repeatedly, and Rainbow realized that she had leaned much closer to Fluttershy than she'd intended. She recoiled with sudden, jerky movements and coughed. "You know, or your coltfriend, I guess."
Both ponies returned to their eating for a while. Every so often, their spoons would clang against their bowls, but a general silence reigned over the table. A few times, the two locked eyes and smiled, but they quickly looked away and returned to their meal.
At last, Fluttershy ventured to speak. "I saw some ponies setting up clouds around the town today," she said. "Is there going to be a storm soon?"
"Yeah," Rainbow said. "Orders from up top. We've gone too long without a good rain, so I had to schedule one by the end of the week." She glanced outside. "It should be starting up soon."
Fluttershy smiled. "I guess we'll have to start up a fire this evening, then."
Rainbow grinned right back. "I guess we will."
Once Fluttershy had finished her soup, she stood and reached Rainbow's empty bowl. Before she could grab the bowl, Rainbow snatched it in her hooves and nodded toward Fluttershy's bowl. "I can get that," she said.
Fluttershy hesitated but, after a moment, she hoofed the bowl over. "Thank you."
The two ponies entered the kitchen, where Rainbow headed directly for the sink. Dumping both bowls in, she turned on the faucet and glanced around the counters. "Where's the sponge, Fluttershy?" she asked.
"Second drawer on the left," Fluttershy replied. She noticed an empty bird feeder hanging outside the kitchen window and walked over to a bag of birdseed. She reached in and produced a cup full of the seed and trotted over to fill the feeder. "Would you mind grabbing some firewood when you're done washing those?" she asked after she had poured in the birdseed.
"Sure." Rainbow soaked the sponge in water and began to scrub the bowls. "Behind the cottage, right?"
"That's it." Fluttershy nodded and put the cup back with the birdseed. She flashed a grin at Rainbow and walked into the living room, where she sat on her favorite wicker chair. Within a matter of minutes, Rainbow joined her, three fire logs balanced on her back.
"That was awful fast," Fluttershy commented. She raised an eyebrow, which only elicited a roll of the eyes from Rainbow.
"The bowls are washed, I swear," Rainbow insisted. "You can check for yourself if you want."
Fluttershy smiled and grabbed a log from Rainbow's back. "I'll trust you," she said as she placed the log on the fireplace. She did the same with the other two logs, and once she'd carefully stacked them together, she trotted into the kitchen once more.
"Aren't you going to start the fire?" Rainbow asked, searching the mantle for a tinderbox. "How are you going to start it anyway?"
"Just a second, Rainbow Dash," Fluttershy called from the kitchen. Rainbow could hear a drawer close, and just after that Fluttershy returned holding a shimmering orange feather.
Rainbow's eyes grew wide. "Is that what I think it is?" she asked.
"It's a phoenix feather." Fluttershy nodded, a wide grin on her face. Celestia gave it to me the last time we were in Canterlot. That way I can always remember little Philomena."
Rainbow snorted. "I don't know what bird you're talking about, but that Philomena wasn't little."
"Well, either way this will start the fire." Fluttershy trotted over to the fireplace. "All I have to do is…" She dropped it onto the wood and it burst into flame. "There we go." Grabbing a blanket hanging from her couch, she sidled up to Rainbow. "Wasn't that nice of the princess?"
Rainbow leaned into Fluttershy and beamed. "I guess that is kind of cool." She closed her eyes and let her head rest on Fluttershy's shoulder. "Fluttershy?" she said.
"Yes, Rainbow Dash," Fluttershy replied.
"This is cool, too."
Fluttershy nodded. "I… I'm glad you here."
"Yeah." Rainbow's smile grew wider. "Me too."
The beaming smile that Shining Armor left on Twilight's face lasted for a while, as far as smiles go. By the next morning, some echo of it might have remained, but the gloomy skies over Canterlot did their best to smother its dying embers. Clouds blanketed the sky, and every one of them was some dull shade of grey that had no business hanging over the glistening capital of Equestria.
Twilight was checking out of her hotel when the rain first started. It was light at first, barely a drizzle, but it picked up. Oh, how it picked up.
Twilight felt absolutely silly using a forcefield spell to block the rain on her way to the station. The curious glances she got from other ponies did nothing to improve her mood. Note to self: Research umbrella spells.
Awkwardness notwithstanding, Twilight found her train without incident. To be sure, the Canterlot Train Station was a labyrinth of intersecting railways and shifting lines, but the municipal planners had done their jobs well. All she had to do was follow the signs, show the conductor her ticket, an hop aboard.
When she finally got her luggage tucked away and found her cabin, Twilight breathed a deep sigh. She was out of the city, out of the rain, and on her way home. A grin began to spread across her face, but when she glanced out the window, she stopped. The sky was still dark and grey.
After a long while, the train finally began to roll along the tracks. With a loud whine, the locomotive announced its departure, leaving Canterlot behind in a matter of minutes. Twilight, for her part, drifted off to sleep.
When Twilight next opened her eyes, she was greeted by a considerable amount of light. An uncomfortable amount of light, as a matter of fact. Taking a few seconds to let her eyes adjust to the brightness, she finally looked out the window and saw the sun. The sun and the bright blue sky. The clouds were gone, long gone, Twilight noted with a smile. As Twilight looked ahead, that grin grew wider. Out toward the horizon, she could see Ponyville. She could see home.
This is so exciting! I'll have to go see Applejack this afternoon—oh, maybe it already is afternoon—and… Her thoughts trailed off as her smile fell and her ears went flat. What will I even say to Applejack? I didn't resolve anything! I mean, I guess I know I can spend some time in Ponyville, but… A pit opened in her chest. What am I going to do?
Twilight felt that horrid emptiness in her chest for the rest of the ride. The train's whistle didn't drown it out, and it didn't disappear when the train stopped at Ponyville Junction. As the wheels screeched against the tracks, Twilight took a deep breath and went to grab her luggage. When the train came to a full stop, she pulled it out of the luggage compartment and walked to the exit. She down the steps at the edge of the car—one, two, three—and took the final step down to the platform.
She was home.
The sun shone bright and the air smelled of a fresh rainfall. The birds were out and about, chirping loud enough to drift even over the noise of the train station. Still, Twilight didn't smile, at least not at first. That changed not long after she left the train. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of orange. Before she could react, she was struck from the side as two strong hooves wrapped around her. She stumbled and turned her head to see the brown Stetson, the orange coat. It was Applejack.
Twilight gasped and twisted about until she could hug Applejack back. "Applejack! What are you doing here?" she asked, burying her face in her marefriend's shoulder.
"I figured you'd be a tad homesick once you got back and wanted to give you the ol' Apple Family welcome." Applejack rocked Twilight from side to side for a moment before pulling away. "Well, not the real Apple Family welcome," she added with a chuckle. "I guess it's just me."
"I wouldn't want it any other way," Twilight said, pulling Applejack back in for another hug. "This is such a wonderful surprise. How did you know what train I'd come in on?"
"That was the easy part. I just stopped by the library and asked Spike."
Twilight raised an eyebrow. "And the hard part?"
Applejack laughed. "There wasn't one. All I had to do was get here on time."
"So it was inevitable," Twilight said with a laugh. She picked up her luggage and began to walk away from the train with Applejack. "Did you do anything interesting while I was gone?"
Applejack stopped and rubbed the back of her neck. "Uh, yeah. Kind of."
Twilight's smile faltered as she stopped a few feet in front of her marefriend. "What's wrong, Applejack?"
"Rainbow came by the other day and we… We sort of…" Applejack bit her lip.
The breath caught in Twilight's throat. "Go on," she insisted, nodding vigorously.
Applejack grit her teeth and finally said it. "We took down the barn without you."
The two ponies were silent for a moment, Applejack hanging her head in shame. Finally, Twilight began to giggle. The giggles grew to laughter, and before long, Twilight was guffawing loudly and clapping a hoof on Applejack shoulder. "Applejack, silly, that's great," she said, planting a kiss on her marefriend's cheek.
"Really?" Applejack blushed and tilted her head.
"Of course it is." Twilight picked up her luggage and resumed walking off the platform. "Why wouldn't it be? I'm surprised you didn't take care of that years ago."
"But…" Applejack closed her eyes and shook her head. "We were going to work on it together." She opened her eyes and glanced at Twilight. "So you're not upset you didn't get to help."
"Are you upset that I didn't help?" Twilight tilted her head.
Applejack smirked. "Well, I guess not." She followed Twilight off the platform as the two began to make their way through Ponyville. "I could take you there if you like, show you how it looks."
Twilight nodded. "I've got to drop my bag off at the library first. You mean now, right?"
Applejack sped up to a trot and nodded. "Course. If you have the time, I mean."
Twilight leaned into Applejack's shoulder. "For you, Applejack, I have all the time in the world."
When Rainbow opened her eyes in the morning, Fluttershy was gone. She blinked a few times, but every time her eyes reopened, they opened to an empty half of the bed.
Brow furrowed, Rainbow began to get up, but just as she rolled toward the edge of the bed, the bedroom door swung open. In walked Fluttershy balancing a tray of food on her back.
As Rainbow propped herself up against the headboard of the bed, Fluttershy made her way to the side of the bed and began to slide the tray onto Rainbow's lap. "I made you breakfast," she said, pointing out the slices of toast and scrambled eggs on the tray.
Rainbow grimaced and glanced at the food before looking up at Fluttershy. "Thanks, Fluttershy," she said before blowing out a sigh.
"Is something wrong?" Fluttershy furrowed her brow and began to scrutinize the meal.
Rainbow held up a hoof and shook her head. "No," she said. "No. It looks awesome. It's… Thanks." She patted the bed and said, "You gonna sit here with me or do I have to eat this on my own?"
Fluttershy tentatively got into bed with Rainbow, eyeing their breakfast all the while. "Are you sure there's enough for us to share?"
"What are you talking about?" Rainbow her up her hooves and shrugged. "You made it, after all."
Fluttershy glanced away. "It's just that… I mean, I could make my own breakfast if you think you'll eat all of this. It was for you, really."
Rainbow glanced at the tray and noticed only one set of silverware. "Well as long as you don't mind sharing a fork, I say we share. Either that, or I'm cooking your breakfast."
Fluttershy gave a thin smile and shook her head. "No, no, thank you, Rainbow Dash," she said, perhaps a bit faster than Rainbow would have liked.
After that, the two ate in silence for a short while, taking turns as they split the eggs. Finally, as Rainbow shoved another mouthful of toast into her mouth, Fluttershy asked, "Are you going to work today?"
Still chewing, Rainbow nodded. After a deep swallow, she said, "I've got to check up with the team, make sure the rainstorm went as plan. By the way," she added, checking out the window, "do you know what time it is?"
"Sometime around 9," Fluttershy answered. "Why? Are you late?"
Rainbow rolled her eyes and snickered. "They don't expect me till noon most days." A mischievous gleam flashed across her eyes. "I should get out there early today. Keep them on their toes."
Fluttershy covered her mouth and giggled. "Those poor pegasi!"
Rainbow shook her head and straightened herself. "No, it'll be totally hilarious!" She shifted around under the sheets and picked up the nearly empty tray. "Uh, do you mind if I go now?"
Fluttershy's face fell. "Are you sure?"
Rainbow put the tray back down on her lap and twiddled her hooves. "I mean, I don't need to or anything. Like, I can help you out with the animals, or—"
"No." Fluttershy picked up the tray and stood up. "It's okay, Rainbow Dash. You have your job, and that comes first." Once the tray was nicely balanced on her back, she offered up a smile.
"That's not… I just…" Rainbow bit her lip as her brow creased deeply. "I'll wrap up work early," she said at last. "Are you going to stick around here?"
Fluttershy nodded. "I'll just tend to the animals till you get back." She shifted the tray on her back. "After I clean these, of course."
With a grimace, Rainbow nodded and got up. "Thanks for that again," she said as she followed Fluttershy out of the bedroom.
"You're welcome," Fluttershy replied, making her way to the kitchen sink.
Rainbow shot right past her toward the front door. "No, but I'm serious," she said. "I'll get you back for that. I'll do…" She waved a hoof around indistinctly. "I'll do something, I guess."
Fluttershy giggled. "It's fine, Dashie," she said as she turned on the faucet. "Just have fun at work."
"I will." Opening the front door, Rainbow trotted off and opened her wings. As the door to Fluttershy's cottage swung closed, Rainbow flapped her wings and lifted off, dashing off to the skies above Ponyville.
Twilight was stunned. Her jaw hung open and her eyes were wide, and Applejack watched with a chuckle and a smirk. Out in the fields of Sweet Apple Acres, where once stood a rotting old barn, there was now nothing.
Well, perhaps nothing was a bit of an overstatement. Some few bits of debris still cluttered up the area, and the musky odor from the barn certainly remained, but the building itself was gone. Twilight turned to Applejack and gave her marefriend a hug.
"You really did it," she said. She sniffed the air and crinkled her nose. "It's still a bit smelly, though."
Applejack laughed and patted Twilight on the back. "Well it's only been gone for about a day," she said. "Besides, you didn't gag or cough or anything. I call that progress."
Twilight nodded, still crinkling her nose. "I guess you could call it that," she mumbled as she walked onto the bare dirt that had once housed the barn. "Even the dirt floor looks cleaner when you get it out of that wreck."
Rolling her eyes, Applejack trotted up to join Twilight. "Oh, now you're just making things up."
Twilight shook her head. "It does. For one thing, the sun is finally shining on it, and the fresh air is surely doing wonders for the soil."
"You been reading books on farming, Twi?" Applejack asked as she arched an eyebrow.
Twilight averted her gaze and blushed. "Maybe," she said before breaking out into giggles. She trotted to Applejack's side and rested her head on her marefriend's shoulder. "Either way, it looks beautiful now." She pulled away and faced Applejack directly. "Thank you."
Applejack smiled and gave Twilight a hug. "Anything for you, sugarcube."
Once the hug ended, Twilight glanced away and began to trot away. "It really is great, but can we walk somewhere else?" she asked. "I think this place still needs a few days to air out."
With a laugh, Applejack cantered along in pursuit. "Sure thing. But wait for me." Both ponies laughed as Twilight picked up her pace, and before long they were both galloping and giggling through the apple orchards.
Rainbow left work early with a broad grin on her face that came as soon as she found her weather team and stayed until well after her departure. She'd been right. They never expected her to show up so early, and sneaking up on them hours before noon had been more satisfying than even Rainbow could have anticipated.
Needless to say, Rainbow's arrival gave her subordinates a jolt of energy, and it didn't hurt that Rainbow herself was working at full throttle. When the team finished cleaning up from last night's storm, the sun still hung high in the sky. A black-coated pegasus with a sky blue mane flew over to Rainbow and cleared his throat
"What is it, Thunderlane?" she asked after busting one last cloud.
"Is there anything else to do today, boss?" he asked, glancing around the sky.
Rainbow joined him and looking about, then shrugged. "Well, Cloudsdale called for sunny skies this afternoon, and I can't see a cloud in the sky." She winked. "Guess we can head home early."
Thunderlane shook his head and blinked. "Really?"
"Sure," Rainbow said, holding up her hooves. "If anything comes up, I'll handle it." She turned to her nearby coworkers and cleared her throat. "You hear that, guys? Shift's over."
With a smattering of cheers, the ponies flew away in different directions, leaving Rainbow slowly soaring through the sky. Her smile still clung to her face, but as she began to may her way toward Fluttershy's cottage her pace slowed and her smile faded.
She's probably going to insist on making dinner again, Rainbow thought, and though the notion made her mouth water, her ears still drooped low. She blew out a sigh and floated down to earth.
When she touched down, she snorted and threw her head back. What am I getting all bent out of shape about? She's just being nice. It's awesome really. Rainbow tried to smile, but the expression quickly fell away. I've got to do something for her.
She glanced to Ponyville, then to the sun. The market's probably open, she thought, turning away from the Everfree Forest and toward the town. Before she got far, though, a shadow passed over her. She glanced up, wondering who would be flying so far from Ponyville, when she saw it: A cloud.
With a loud whoosh, she zoomed into the air until she was level with the cloud. Turning about, she turned to give the cloud a firm kick, but before she could follow through another idea struck her.
Flapping her wings as delicately as she could manage, she turned back around and poked the cloud with her hooves. It squished a little with her touch, but it reformed as soon as she pulled back. Seems firm, she thought. Glancing around to check if anypony was around, she flopping onto her back and landed on the cloud. She let out a soft moan. Nice…
Still grinning, Rainbow rolled over and wrapped her hooves around the cloud. After a moment, she found Fluttershy's cottage against the backdrop of the Everfree Forest and began flapping her wings. She quickly picked up speed, and before long she and her new cloud were at Fluttershy's doorstep.
From around the back of the cottage, Fluttershy trotted up with a wide smile. "Hello, Rainbow Dash. I…" She saw the cloud and tilted her head. "What's this?" she asked.
"I've got the best idea ever!" Rainbow said, flying into the air and spreading her hooves wide. She zipped down to Fluttershy's side. Fluttershy jumped, but she didn't move far as Rainbow grabbed her with one hoof and pointed at her with the other. "You, me, cloud bed," Rainbow said, her eyes gleaming as she did so. "Doesn't that sound awesome?"
For a moment, Rainbow's grip relaxed, and Fluttershy took the moment to pull away. She glanced nervously at the cloud a few times as she said, "Well, I don't know Dashie. I haven't used a cloud bed since… Well, it's been a long time."
Rainbow threw up her hooves. "Well then of course we've got to get this thing set up! You probably forgot how awesome these things can be." A lopsided grin covered her face, but Fluttershy only gave her a small smile in response.
Rainbow lowered her head and her hooves, folding her wings to her sides. "Could we just try for tonight?" she asked, looking up at Fluttershy with shimmering eyes.
Fluttershy paused before stepping forward and nuzzling Rainbow in the cheek. "I guess so," she said. She nodded at the cloud. "You'll have to set it up, though."
Rainbow grinned and saluted Fluttershy. "That was the plan."
As Fluttershy began to walk around the house again, she glanced back at Rainbow and added, "Oh, and you'll have to move the old bed, too." Rainbow's flank fell to the ground as Fluttershy continued. "You can put the mattress in the closet and put the cloud in the frame. Have fun!"
With that, Fluttershy rounded the side of her house, humming an airy tune.
Rainbow, for her part, stood and yelled, "I was going to do that anyway."
After a moment, Fluttershy's head poked back around the side of the house and she said, "No you weren't, but thanks for doing it now." Without another word, she rushed away to her animals.
Exhaling out of the corner of her mouth, Rainbow tapped her hoof and looked to her cloud. "Well, I guess I'll need to get you inside somehow."
The cloud made no response.
As the sun began to set on Sweet Apple Acres, Twilight and Applejack were still meandering through the orchard, albeit at a much slower pace than before. The two ponies leaned into each other as they walked, moving in silence as one.
Finally, the Apple Family home came into view, lights on as the sound of clanging plates and silverware drifted toward Twilight and Applejack. As they approached the building, Twilight nuzzled Applejack's shoulder.
"This has been such a wonderful day," Twilight said. "It's almost made me completely forget about how nervous I was with the princesses yesterday."
Applejack stopped and stood stock still for a moment. When Twilight turned around, Applejack rushed toward her and put her front hooves and Twilight's shoulders. After a moment, she began to speak.
"I… I know you've got one hay of an opportunity out there in Canterlot," she managed. "I know it's what you've always dreamed of and… Well, I won't stop you." She pulled Twilight in for a hug and buried her face in Twilight's chest. "
"Applejack, what's wrong?" Twilight hugged Applejack back and began to rock her gently back and forth.
"You took the job," Applejack said. "You must have. That's why you haven't said anything, isn't it?" She sniffled and picked her head up. Looking Twilight in the eyes, she said, "You can tell me. Be honest."
Twilight shook her head. "I didn't make any final decisions, Applejack, but I'm not just leaving for Canterlot," she said. "Even if I take the job, I want to be here with you, with our friends. I need Ponyville, but I especially need you."
Applejack blinked a few times and chuckled. "You mean it? You told them that?"
Without answer, Twilight leaned forward and planted a kiss on Applejack's lips. Applejack's eyes went wide at first, but they fluttered and closed as the kiss lingered. Their lips remained locked for a few moments, and when they pulled away, they did so with broad smiles on their faces.
Applejack opened her mouth, but all that came out was a strangled laugh. "I never quite get used to that," she finally managed.
"I hope I never do." Twilight kissed Applejack again, and her eyes shone against the sunset as she pulled away. "I'm sorry I can't give a full answer. I promise that whatever decision I end up making, you'll be the first thing on my mind.
"It's okay," Applejack said, pulling Twilight back into a tight embrace.
Twilight buried her face in Applejack's shoulder. As they both rocked slowly back and forth, she said, "I know. It's all okay. More than okay."
Twilight paused, then gave Applejack another kiss.
"I love you, Applejack."
"I love you, too, sugarcube."
Late in the evening, Rainbow and Fluttershy finished their dinner and cleared their plates to the kitchen. Before Rainbow could reach the sink, Fluttershy snatched her plate and turned on the faucet, smiling and humming all the while.
"I can clean those," Rainbow commented, but Fluttershy kept humming. "It was just salad," Rainbow continued. "It'll be easy."
The smile never left Fluttershy's face as she said, "Don't worry, Rainbow Dash. You showed me how good you are at cleaning yesterday."
Rainbow scoffed. "I cleaned those soup bowls in ten seconds flat," she said.
"Exactly," Fluttershy replied without missing a beat.
Rainbow opened her mouth, then clamped it firmly shut. She walked in a circle for a moment and said, "Well, you'll like the cloud bed, at least. It's going to be so awesome!"
Fluttershy nodded, not turning her attention from the dishes. "We'll see."
Rainbow thrust a hoof forward and grinned. "Yeah, we'll see. You'll see how awesome it is, and you'll be like, 'Oh, Rainbow Dash, you were so totally right and awesome.'" Seeing Fluttershy roll her eyes, Rainbow added, "True story."
Fluttershy scrubbed the last few bits of food off the dishes and turned off the faucet. Lifting one dish for Rainbow to see, she said, "Look at how clean this is." The dish sparkled in the light of the setting sun. "Isn't it just amazing?"
Rainbow smirked and poked Fluttershy in the side. "When'd snarky Fluttershy get here?" she asked, poking Fluttershy again and drawing out a high-pitched squeal.
Stifling her giggles, Fluttershy lowered her head and said, "I'm sorry. I can stop being snarky if you want."
Rainbow pulled Fluttershy closer, shaking her head vigorously. "Of course, not, Fluttershy. This is awesome. I like you this way."
A blush spread across Fluttershy's face as she put the plate back into the sink. "I can dry those off in the morning," she murmured, still in Rainbow's hooves. "It's getting dark."
Rainbow's lopsided grin grew wider. "I know a certain cloud bed we could go to." She swept a hoof toward the bedroom. "Shall we?"
With a giggle, Fluttershy nodded. "Yes."
As the two ponies trotted into the bedroom, Fluttershy's eyes grew wide. "I knew this was supposed to be a cloud bed," she said, "but cloud blankets?"
Rainbow patted the side of the bed and pulled back the blankets she had made just hours earlier. "Isn't it cool?" she asked. "A friend from Cloudsdale taught me how to make them. I figured if I'm making you a cloud bed, it ought to be top of the line."
Fluttershy wrapped Rainbow in a warm hug. "That's very thoughtful of you," she said. "Do you want to get in first, or…?"
Rainbow nudged Fluttershy forward. "It's your bed. You try it first," she said.
Smiling softly, Fluttershy shook her head even as she slipped into bed. "It's really ours," she said as she settled under the covers. "I mean, if you want to keep staying over."
Rainbow's wings flew open, and she chuckled as she folded them back against her sides. "Yeah, that'd be cool." She walked to the side of the bed. "Now make some room for me," she added. "Scoot over."
Fluttershy willingly obliged, letting out a soft purr. "It's so soft," she said. "And… fluffy."
Rainbow got into bed next to her and grinned. "I told you you'd like it." She closed her eyes nuzzled Fluttershy's neck, eliciting a giggle. Rainbow was practically beaming when she rolled over and draped a hoof over Fluttershy's chest.
"Rainbow Dash?" Fluttershy said, lifting her head from her pillow.
"Yeah, Fluttershy?" Rainbow moved a bit closer to Fluttershy but kept her eyes closed.
Fluttershy ran a hoof through Rainbow's mane. "This is the nicest thing anypony has ever done for me."
Finally, Rainbow lifted her head and opened her eyes. "Well, you deserve it," she said, blushing just a little. Her blush grew deeper as she fixed her gaze on Fluttershy's face. "You're… You're pretty awesome, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy leaned down and gave Rainbow a kiss on the forehead. "You're the most wonderful mare I've ever met," she replied.
Mouth hanging open in a dumb grin, Rainbow nestled her head in Fluttershy's long soft mane. "Cool," she said as she closed her eyes, letting her thoughts drift away in a sea of yellow and pink.