Title: The reboot of- The Ballad of Dusk and Dawn (a sequel to Out In Ponyville)
Author: Shatterpath
Feedback address: shatterpath@shatterstorm.net
Date in Calendar: 30 June 2012
Fandom: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but a slightly alternate universe version of it. That, I admit, is getting more and more AU as time goes by!
Pairing: Applejack/Twilight Sparkle, aka Applesparkle
Rating: Teen, slightly mature. Slightly.
Date Written: May and June 2012
Word Count: 12347 & ongoing!
Summary: Applejack and Twilight's relationship deepens, which includes the drama of telling more of their families about them. New friendships are forged and a new and chaotic adventure looms on the horizon.
Advertisement: Part of the FSAC:DD12

Authorís Disclaimer: "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic", the characters and situations depicted are the property of Lauren Faust, Hasbro Studios, Studio B Productions, and The Hub. This piece of fan fiction was created for entertainment not monetary purposes. Previously unrecognized characters and places, and this story, are copyrighted to the author. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. This site is in no way affiliated with "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic", The Hub, or any representatives of the actors.

Author's Note: The original of this piece was too rough for me to leave alone. Sometimes, the overpowering need to just get a thing written can overcome sense and talent. That said, I want this to be a better project, not for others (include some really rude SOBs on an archive that shall remain nameless) but for the sake of my own talent and peace of mind. In addition, I have added in season 2 canon information such as Shining Armor. This reboot allowed me that freedom. I hope you enjoy!

Oh, and this is written in 1st person and every chapter changes point of view, so keep an eye out.

Artist: Ilthit

Dedication: To the fans in Ariestess' circle of friends who got us to watch in the first place!

Beta: Ariestess


Chapter 1

++ Twilight ++

Winter may now be my favorite time of year.

While snow and cold has Equestria in its grip, I have long hours to while away with my lover in indolent solitude. Yes, I spend not quite so many endless hours reading, but I believe the exchange of my priorities is worth it.

Things were awkward there for a while. I'm so very new to this circle of friends, to this community, to this way of life. Finding out the courageous, beautiful, and valiant Applejack wanted to be more than friends had been profoundly shocking. So shocking that I reacted without thinking, jumping in without analyzing my feelings or the possibility of consequences or anything!

I'm still shocked.

However, I wouldn't trade a moment of the ride I've been on since I shyly took Applejack up on her stammering, awkward proposition. Through her I've learned to live more in the moment, not always with my head in my books or so deep in my thoughts. The physicality of her existence has been thrilling and I've learned so very much. And I've gotten to be included in her amazing family, even if I had to work hard to find a place to fit in with them. I swear, I have never flirted and cajoled so hard in my young life! I still regret my first meeting with the intriguing parents of my lover, Pink Lady and Apple Cider, being so regrettably short. In them, I wanted so much to see how Applejack became who she is. Not to mention I would have really, really liked to have had a shot at warming up Pa! Applejack's Mama seems as though she could grow to like me, seeing more than just an undersized violet unicorn bookworm from the big city. Frankly, I donít think Apple Cider was impressed.

Sigh.

At least Big Mac has warmed up after watching me suspiciously for weeks. Granny Smith couldn't care less who or what I am, as long as Iím respectful of her and hers. No problem there! Young Apple Bloom peppered me with questions, some of them uncomfortable, but with Applejack's help, we got through them and now the filly is at ease with me. Our mutual friends have shifted our group dynamics around to accommodate this new relationship, even if there are still a few awkward moments. Rainbow Dash is still oddly standoffish and ever so often Fluttershy still seems completely puzzled as to the why of Applejack and me. Not to mention the gossip circles in town! Dear Equestria can ponies talk! And stare and whisperÖ Being under such judgmental scrutiny has been wearing, but as the winter passes, it happens less and less frequently. There are some that will never stop being idiots, but I ignore those few.

The awkward moments are jarring and exhausting, but I do my best to cope. This love, warm and uplifting, has made all of it more worthwhile. Just seeing Applejack's frisky stride makes my heart race; her smiles can make an entire day's research fly from my mind, at least temporarily. We have made careful effort not to isolate ourselves from friends and family, even at the cost of alone time. The nights spent out at the farm see me just as likely to sleep curled on the couch, often with Apple Bloom tucked under my chin, as in the questionable privacy of Applejack's room. At the library, Spike is there, of course, and we are respectful of that.

But there have been enough moments of privacy that the memories make me blush furiously and tuck my face into that favored hollow behind Applejack's jaw. It's been some time since Winter Solstice, an event that will be burned into my memories. After several weeks of Applejack's sly, secretive smiles that left me squirming with anticipation, I was at last treated to a romantic night that would make a terrific ballad. That's my cowpony, sweet and loving in at least equal measure to her trustworthiness and hardworking ethics. My gift of a tailor-made set of carry baskets and the saddle they match seemed so utilitarian by comparison, but she had been delighted with them.

At first, Iíd thought it was just my romantic night messing with my perceptions, but turns out a terrifying storm blew through, uprooting trees and knocking over a full three buildings in Ponyville. There was so much snow that it still lays in piles higher than many of the homes in town. It's worrisome and the pegasi have no idea what happened; a rare occurrence to be sure. As a powerful sorcerer, I've done my best to figure out if anything odd was the cause of the storm, and the endless string of them that have come since, but outside of a lingering oddness to the inherent magics of them, Iím baffled.

Letters magicked back and forth to the princesses confirms that the storms are widespread, but have hit our area particularly hard. Hopefully this is nothing more than an usually rough winter!

We'd had plans to go to Canterlot after the solstice, but a series of freak storms have kept the pegasi busy and too much snow on the ground for ease of travel. So, I'd sent my small gifts to my folks and the princesses via courier. New to the process of such extensive gift giving, I had despaired what to do for my new friends until, of all ponies, the Cutie Mark Crusaders had come to my rescue. Those had been fun afternoons, full of noise and fun and chaos, where we created many lovely trinkets for our friends. Who knew that arts and crafts could be so fun? In turn, I had received some marvelous little things from my loved ones. Not the least of which is some new and fashionable warm clothes that I've been delighted with over this long, cold winter.

The latest of the seemingly endless Winter Wrap Up meetings has once again dissolved into chaos and most of us are taking a breather. Iím only here out of curiosity, as I have no established role here yet. Applejack has noted how nervous I am about where I fit in for this important holiday and has been trying to be helpful. As captain of the plant team though, sheís usually so very busy. My only strong skill is magic and this town was settled by earth ponies. To my continuing astonishment, they use no active magic to help the seasons turn. Itís mind-boggling. My friends and my lover keep reassuring me that the festival will give me a chance to find a place to fit in, but still I worry. The constant chaos of the preparations is not reassuring either.

"Whatís wrong, Sugar?"

I love the endearment and it never fails to make me smile. "Can't these ponies agree on anything?"

Applejack's voice is mildly startled when she answers me. "Ah guess we are arguin'. Never really noticed before, since thatís what we always do. Huh."

I love that I can make her see things with fresh eyes, too. Itís not only me learning and adapting and growing.

"If you have better ideas," Dash's voice comes from above us. "Go stick your nose in the mayor's face and volunteer." We look up to see our pal effortlessly sprawled out on a tree limb as though she weighs little more than a cloud. "Pinkie Pie is done with that new celery cake she's subjecting us to," she adds with a shrug.

"Is that why yer bein' a peepin' pony?" Applejack mocks and Dash blows a raspberry before streaking off with her trademark jet wash of rainbow color. Things have been better with our resident jock, but there's something there I can't quite put my hoof on. It makes a pony wonder if she really isn't jealous.

Not that I can blame her. I know for a fact that I'm annoyingly happy and that might make others wish for some of this magic. That aside, Dash has a point and I make a mental note to talk to the mayor later. Once this latest contentious 'meeting' is finished and tempers cool, of course.

In the meantime, I'm perfectly content to sit in the snow and snuggle with my lover.

It will be amusing at some later point, how disastrously my first Winter Wrap Up has gone. Thankfully, the Mayor remembered my organizational skills and accepted my offer to help. With Spike manning my clipboard, I quickly whipped the Ponyville denizens into some semblance of order and we managed to get winter cleared and spring begun. It was exhausting but completely worth it. Particularly because the town has given me my own vest, resplendent with the colors of all three teams, and organization was now my official job. Yay!

My pleasure in the day is still marred from being dressed down by my lover in public over my breaking the rules, even if it was my own fault for using magic and destroying hours of hard work by the plant team. Still, it smarts. In fact, I'm off in the darkness, away from the rollicking festivities in the town square, sprawled out in the tender new grass raised by the ceremony. For a town unwilling to rely on magic, they sure can raise plenty of the stuff to get the job done! The chill of winter lingers in the air, a reminder of how we ponies manipulate the seasons for the good of the animals and the growth of plants. As wonderful as the winter has been, I'm happy for the new life of spring.

"Twilight?"

If I stay silent, she'll find me in a few moments anyway, but I'd rather get to the making-up part of the day. "Over here, Applejack."

Her familiar body is a deeper shadow in the night, melting from the trees of my favorite grove behind the library. With only a moment's hesitation, she steps over and burrows her face into my mane, sighing heavily. "I'm a really sorry, Twilight. Ah shouldn't a yelled like that."

"I'm sorry for breaking the rules. I just got so caught up in wanting to fit in that I over-reached myself. Apology accepted."

"Me, too, Sugar." With the exchange of words, Applejack lays to rest beside me, tucking up her strong body as close to mine as possible. We've become expert cuddlers with practice and shift around to accommodate the other. "We Apples are an obstinate bunch a ponies," she muses, resting her chin on my withers. I twist my head around to touch noses with her and smile.

"I know, but I still find it charming. It took some work and experimentation, but in the long run, I found a useful place in the Wrap Up. So, none of it was for naught. Even the snakes." My shudder is not feigned, remembering the creepy-crawlies that I woke when trying to help Fluttershy rouse the hibernators. It's been a very long day. Nudging my lover where she's growing heavy with exhaustion, I squirm away and stand to stretch. "I love you," I murmur, nosing at Applejack until she rolls onto her back and smiles up at me.

"Ah love you, too, Twi. Happy Spring Equinox, by the way."

"Mmmm, you too, lover."

And there in the dewy spring grass, hidden from prying eyes by the deep darkness, we usher in the new season in the loveliest way possible.

Chapter 2

++ Applejack ++

Oh, I get such a kick out of my sweet girl gettin' all aggressive on me. She's my equal in every way and I love that. Yawning, I stretch my legs and raise my muzzle to kiss her nose and cheeks, whatever I can reach. This time our lovemaking felt different, something like wildfire under the skin. Perhaps the daring location? Out here kinda in the open and all. Not that I'm worried, because no sound will carry over the noise of the festival across town in the square. In fact, I'm in the mood to rejoin the festivities!

"Stop it, AJ," Twilight giggles as I nose her ear, lightly chewing at it to get a reaction. Expertly avoiding a wild swipe from one purple hoof, I snort playfully and jump up to teasingly nip at my girl's cutie mark. With a mocking gasp of outrage, she's scrambling to her feet and we're off, wildly racing across town, laughing and kicking and prancing.

"There you are!"

Startled by the cry, we look up to see Rainbow Dash hovering over us. Twilight speaks before I can. "Hi, Dash. What can we do for you?"

"What, are you two that oblivious? Just feel it!"

For a moment, all I feel is mild irritation at her tone, before the icy fingers of a wintry wind caresses my damp fur. "What in tarnation?"

"I know! We just cleared all this cold junk! Why is it suddenly back? Everypony in town is as confused as I am. Any blip on your magic radar?"

Twilight is deeply thoughtful, her horn glowing, eyes closed. After a moment, she opens her eyes and shrugs. "This wind has that same odd magic feeling I can't place. Is it a problem?"

Dash looks torn between confusion and irritation, so I speak up. "Does it feel cold enough to harm the seeds?"

Shaking off her negative emotions, our talented pegasus pal contemplates that for a moment before racing off in a blur. My girl and I trade smiles and wait for a moment. Our patience is rewarded after a couple of minutes as Dash returns to hover near us again. "It doesn't seem to be cold enough to cause any damage, I just feel like this makes all our hard work pointless."

Grinning warmly, Twilight steps forward to nose Dash in the side. "No cold wind will negate the pegasi's hard work today. That said, if it makes you feel better, Iíll study it a bit more extensively if it's still blowing later tonight. Fair enough?"

Landing, Dash is all smiles now. "Thanks, Twilight, that'd be great. Do you smell that?"

"Oh yeah!" With my enthusiastic agreement, we three are off at a dead gallop for the town square. "Ah call dibs!"

"Only if you beat me!"

And, like the Running of the Leaves, we are neck and neck for the finish line. Only this time, Granny's special Hard Applesauce Fritters are on the line!

I'm still feeling a little wired and hyper-alert, the extra energy beating out Dash's lightweight speed, fair and square. Crowing with success, I endure a smack to my skull from my granny's hoof and prance around like a show-off. After a moment, Dash stops scowling and joins Twilight in laughing at my friskiness.

Chuckling through her mock scowl, Granny shoves a big, steaming bowl of the fritters in my face and sends me off with a smart swat across my rump. "Git outta here, ya ruffian!"

"C'mon, girls, I got 'nuff for all a us," I urge around my mouthful and we find some space at a gaily decorated table. There's enough of the goodies for twice our numbers and we dig in. Seems like every pony old enough to indulge in raw salt or a spot of alcohol is lining up, many eying our prize longingly.

"Oh gosh," Twilight marvels as she chew one of the treats. "These are so good! No wonder you two were excited."

This is a spring treat, the apple mash having slowly fermented in the winter cold, becoming intensely sweet with just a hint of alcohol bite. Like the cider in late summer, there is never enough to go around which makes the treat even more special!

"Fluttershy! Rarity! Come help us eat these. Have you seen Pinkie?"

Eagerly, our friends leave the growing line and join us at the table. "Oh, thank you, Applejack! And they're still delightfully warm." With none of her usual prissy manners, Rarity scoops up a couple of the little dough balls and snaps them up before smiling blissfully. Dash licks her sugary chops like Winona after a treat while Fluttershy smiles and quickly nibbles away her own fritters. Twilight mockingly growls at Dash, snatching away one of the treats, leaving the pegasus blinking in surprise and the rest of us cracking up. Pinkie is attracted to our enjoyment like iron to a magnet, appearing out of no where to squeal over the half-empty bowl. Which is very quickly half again as empty and we playfully bat the bottomless pit away so that we can snatch up a few more each before she attacks the bowl like a starving piranha.

These moments are priceless.

After a long, quiet winter, time seems to speed up, just like always. There's so much to do with taking care of the seedlings and prepping the apple trees for flowering. With white and pale pink blossoms making the groves a wonderland for just a short couple of weeks, the drone of the helpful bees is sweet music as they busily flit about. My days are quick and intense with all the tasks that must be done and I fall into bed exhausted every night. Despite that, I miss my girl intensely, the feeling a hard knot at the base of my throat when she can't make it out to the farm some days.

After the long winter to spend so much time to spend with her, the nights we're apart are hard. Thankfully, she comes to help out at the farm some days and I stop in to see her when I have errands in town. But the separation is still keenly felt by us both.

To make matters worse, two more of the odd storms roll through, destroying some of the fragile seedlings. Dash's frustration has no bounds as she knows how much trouble losing plants can cause for the whole town. Thankfully, the pegasi weather teams beat back the worst of it, though that second one that hits at night causes some injuries. Sweet Apple Acres isn't hit as hard as the Carrots and we're spread even thinner as Big Mac and I pitch in a couple of days to get their smaller farm productive once again. The Cherry family came through okay and between the three farming families, we get replacement crops planted and watch the skies warily.

It's odd to have the weather so unpredictable and it makes Granny nostalgic and chatty about the early days when she helped settle this land. The rambling tales make me all the more grateful to the pegasi and the unicorns who have made the weather and seasons so much more predictable over time!

Thankfully, the spring weather holds long enough for the apple trees to get pollinated and the brave shoots of the crops to begin reaching for Celestia's warm sun. It also brings out some of my friends to the farm to help out, their own spring chaos winding down by this time.

None too soon, either, as the skies over the Everfree Forest are growing dark and threatening. Dash has already told us that there's nothing the weather teams can do about this one, it's just too big. All anypony can do is hunker down and wait it out. We'll do just that, but there's some insurance that needs to be taken out to protect the tender young plants.

Fluttershy and Pinkie help the Cutie Mark Crusaders carefully hold the slim stakes that prop up the thin fabric covers over the tenderest shoots. With glowing horns, Rarity and Twilight adjust the long sheets and Mac uses strong hooves to pound pins through the edges once Dash lines them up in the right spot. Her reflexes are good enough not to accidentally get stomped on, unlike the fillies. It hadnít been my girl who asked me permission to use magic, but a petulant Rarity basically telling me to get over my stubborn earth pony self. She's not wrong, exactly, but I have made some massive concessions now that I'm involved with a unicorn. After all, it would hardly be fair to completely keep Twilight from helping with her magic. It is just as much a part of her as hide and hoof. Rarity hadn't needed to harangue me much to concede.

The storm has finally gathered darkly overhead, grumbling with thunder and pulsing with lightning. Though I'm not completely convinced the last row covers over the tiny celery sprouts will hold, it will have to do. "Git back to the house, now!" I bellow over the gathering violence, and grab Scootaloo by the base of her mane to toss her onto my back. Mac has collected Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, also grabbing a cowering Fluttershy to toss her up with the girls as though she weighs little more than a feather. Dash hovers worriedly, finally touching down and running with the rest of us in mad flight through the fields.

"Whoo hoo!" The blue pegasus marvels through the glass once we're safely indoors. "I think this one is gonna be even bigger than we thought. Is it just me or are these storms just weird?"

The big mudroom is crowded so I hold off on shaking out my damp hide while the others get as dry as they can and move further into the old house. "Ya alright there, Scoot?"

"S-sure," the filly tries to bluster bravely, but doesn't loosen her grip on my neck just yet. Dash chuckles and moves to pluck her warm little body off me and returns to the window, cradling the little pegasus.

"Check this out, Squirt, 'cause someday you'll have to help out with a mess like this."

A towel tossed over blue shoulders and rainbow mane gets a grin from my pal and I can turn my attention to my brother. The girls are ready to jump down and I stand up to place a hoof on Mac's ribs and offer a foreleg. "Come're, Sweetie Belle; you first."

"Wee!" she squeals as she leaps fearlessly into my offered foreleg and I easily swing her to the floor. Apple Bloom doesn't need any direction and I barely manage to catch her eager free fall.

"Thank ya, Big McIntosh," she gushes and touches noses with him. "That was tons a fun!"

The girls race off and that leaves me to eye the huddled Fluttershy. She looks unexpectedly small on my brother's strong back, curled up in an impossibly tiny bundle. So I reach up and touch her shoulder gently, speaking softly, "Ya'll ready to come down, Sugar Cube?"

The pink mane shudders in a distinct 'no' gesture and I force myself not to sigh in exasperation. Still a 'fraidy pony even after all she's accomplished! Mac has snaked his head around and smiles lopsidedly. "That's a'right, purdy lady," he says softly, a faint blush darkening his apple red hide. "Y'all can stay there long as ya like."

Nearly nose to nose with him, I can only wear a flummoxed look. Is my big lug of a brother actually flirting with Fluttershy? One turquoise eye peers out from a concealing yellow wing, accompanied by Flutter's soft voice. "You Apples are so nice."

Both of us puff up with pride at that, though we refrain from snorting and pawing the ground like hot-blooded colts. "Sure we are," I agree vehemently and poke my shy pal in the ribs, glad to hear a giggle. "Our Mama wouldn't have it any other way."

Chuckling, I shake out my damp hide as best I can and leave them alone.

Chapter 3

++ Twilight ++

The moment I step hoof in the kitchen, Granny Smith drafts me into helping with warm soup and cider. I love that she so naturally treats me as one of family now, bossing me about. By the smell, there is pie in the oven, making my mouth water. Oh how I love it here, the chaos of the big family and an endless array of tasks that need to be done. Granny doesn't object to my using magic to carefully float over the cluster of mugs to the massive farmhouse table for the damp, chilled masses. The soup I take in jaw and walk it carefully over. The Apples have taught me the value in doing things without magic unless my arcane gifts can truly make a task easier or safer.

Applejack steps into the kitchen with a bemused smile on her face, shaking her head at my questioning look. Quickly, she gathers bowls and carries them over in a tray tightly gripped in strong teeth. Spike will be disappointed that he's missing all of this, but he'd been adamant about staying in the library to keep it open for the public. He's so responsible, my number one assistant!

A familiar nuzzle behind my ear makes me giggle and turn away from my thoughts. That almost arrogant smirk on AJ's face would be faintly annoying were it not completely justified. After all, she can turn me to goo with a caress, and I couldn't hide the reaction even if I wanted to. Aware of our audience, I press a quick kiss to her forehead and squeeze in between the Crusader's bench and Rarity's body. Pinkie is spasticly gesturing along to some insane story she's telling, somehow not knocking over a single cup, bowl, or lighting fixture. Sometimes I still can't help but wonder how a supposedly mundane earth pony manages the feats that she does. For the most part, I've just learned to accept it or lose my sanity to the inexplicable nature of it all.

It's not just the hovering Fluttershy that freezes in shock when the front door suddenly bashes open, sending a gust of cold wind blasting through the kitchen. "Tarnation! I ain't missed this blasted weather," bellows a familiar voice. "Dang it, foals, get yer rumps out here and lend a hoof!"

The Apple children only gawk for a moment before scrambling for the door. "Pa?" Apple Bloom yells joyously as a very bedraggled Apple Cider clomps into the kitchen. "Pa! Yer home!"

Smiling sweetly at his youngest, the older stallion sweeps her up in a foreleg and cuddles her close. Plucking a towel off of Rarity, I approach and toss it over the green back and withers, noting the painful-looking saddle sores. What in Equestria has he been up to?

"Mama!" Apple Bloom squeals deafening as an equally wet and disheveled Pink Lady steps in. She looks as tired as her husband, if not more so. Instantly, Granny is fussing over them both and my friends approach with their towels to get the Apple parents dried off. Pink Lady in particular seems a bit taken aback by the attention, but is clearly too tired to do more than stand there wearily. Though she neck-hugs Apple Bloom, kissing the filly warmly. "You grow so fast, Sugar."

"Are you home?"

This should be a private conversation between mother and child and we all discretely fade back, but I still hear Pink Lady's reply. "Yes, my sweet little blossom. Ah'm afraid that your grandsire passed on a few days ago and your father and I just had to get home. That storm caught us by surprise."

Well, that certainly is a mix of good and bad news. I head for the open front door where I can see and hear that the older Apple siblings are struggling with crates and bulky objects. This seems like a good opportunity for magic and I concentrating on stabilizing their efforts in the whipping wind. Not to mention doing my best to hold down the laden wagon at the door. "Thanks, Love." Applejack grins at me briefly before she returns to her task. Soon, the mud room is so full of things that McIntosh has difficulty picking his way back to the kitchen. Now the family reunion can truly warm up. I note the rest of the gang has discretely vanished, off to the living room no doubt, and I follow suit.

In the living room, the gang has found a board game and are setting up for a game. Dash and Scoot are arranging logs in the fireplace and the former grins at me. "Too bad Spike isn't here!"

"I've been thinking the same thing. Let me pop over to the library and see if he'd like to join us." It's a spell that I need to keep honed anyway. Concentrating, I feel the magic flood through me, filling me like water in a vessel. With a pop, I've gone from here to there in a flash of energy. The dark quiet of the library is a shock after the chaos of the Apple house and I blink to adjust my eyes. "Spike?"

A bright shaft of light from the kitchen door opening makes me shy away as my eyes have begun adjusting to the dark. "Twilight? What are you doing here?"

"Hi there. The gang is having so much fun that I wanted to know if you'd like to join us."

For a moment, Spike eyes his snack before shrugging. "Sure! Let me put this away and I'll come along."

In a few moments his familiar weight is on my back and I can concentrate to teleport back the way I just came. "Now it's a party!" Dash crows and plucks Spike from my back where she hovers overhead. "Come help with the fire, buddy."

I find myself squished in beside Pinkie and Sweetie Belle to play a board game. I haven't played 'Pony Life' in years, so this should be fun. At some point, I feel a warm nose nudging my rear and glance back to see Applejack there, looking melancholy and yet happy. Since Sweetie Belle is mostly asleep against my shoulder anyway, I nudge the filly. "Sweetie Belle, honey, would you please climb up on my back to snooze so that Applejack can squeeze in?" Nodding drunkenly, she does as asked, clumsily rasping little hooves into my sensitive hide until AJ gives her a gentle nudge. That sends Belle rolling into the warm valley where Pinkie and I are pressed together, snoozing away in uncaring abandon that her hooves are pointing at the ceiling. Scoot has sprawled atop Dash and the larger pegasus looks a little squished when Apple Bloom joins her. So cute.

"You okay, AJ?" Rainbow Dash asks quietly and instantly the game is forgotten.

"Yeah, I guess. Been a long time a comin', my grandsire passin' on. Ah'm sure glad to have my folks home, though."

"Ah-yep," Big Mac agrees quietly where he's made himself comfortable on one of the big couches. We play quietly for a bit longer, but even Pinkie's normally inexhaustible energy winds down and we're all ready for sleep.

"Hey, bro," Dash calls out pointedly at Mac, who raises his big head. "Give a pony a hand? I'm too bird-boned to be a mattress."

Chuckling, Mac nods, but before he can move, I concentrate and his little sister rises up in a purple cloud of unicorn magic. She weighs even less than Spike and is easy to maneuver over to curl up between her brother's big body and the back of the couch. Scootaloo is even lighter and soon joins her, followed by Sweetie Belle's little body. The thick, soft rug and a few pillows provided by Applejack will suffice the rest of us. With the promise of sleep, I find myself drooping with exhaustion suddenly. That must be how I find myself unaccountably curled up against Rarity's ribs, her head tucked up around my front hooves. Pinkie and Fluttershy mimic the pose, Pinkie's rump warm against my hind feet. I smile sleepily when I feel Spike's familiar weight settle onto my ribs, the book he'd been looking at still half open where it falls against his hip. After perching on the back of the couch to check on the fillies, Dash flutters over to settle with a pegasi's weightless effort against Spike and the book, hooves in the air and Pinkie's poofy tail warming her belly. I share a smile with my lover where she stands for a moment, watching the mass of us, before shrugging and imperiously wedging her strong body under Dash's rear end.

There was a time, not so long ago, that this sort of easy familiarity with ponies, even those considered friends, would have unnerved me at best. Now, even with my lover out of my reach in the pony pile, I'm completely comfortable. Nestling down into Rarity's soft, sweet-smelling coat, I sigh deeply and relax. Sleep comes easily, despite the angry storm outside.

Small sounds chase back the darkness and I blink awake with a yawn. After a bleary moment I note that I'm wrapped around Spike's scaly body and Pinkie's mane is seriously tickling my nose. When I shift my right foreleg to stand, Rarity mumbles a protest from behind me and I move more carefully. When I shift my rump to stand, I manage to wake Dash, who blinks sleepy fuchsia eyes at me. "Sorry, Dash, go back to sleep." Nodding, the party-colored pegasus wiggles over Spike's little body and takes my place as I step away. Good, now everypony will stay warm. Applejack isn't in the pile anymore, though Mac hasn't moved, one green eye tracking my movement across the room.

"Well, good mornin' there, Sugar," Pink Lady greets me as I step into the dimly lit kitchen. To my embarrassment, I yawn at her, though she only chuckles lightly. "Would you care for some tea?"

"Oh, that sounds lovely, thank you. Are you feeling rested today?"

With the same effortless dexterity she passed on to her children, the elegant pink pony has prepared a steaming mug and delivers it under my nose. "Oh, I'll be needin' a nap once we can take stock of the storm damage, but ah'm fine for now. Thank you for helpin' out yesterday, you and the others."

"Our pleasure. This farm gets in your blood." It sounds so pretentious when I say it like that and my loose tongue makes me cringe. "If you know what I mean."

Pink Lady only smiles gently and her eyes flicker over my head. "Yes, Twilight, ah know exactly what you mean."

The deep-voiced 'harrumph' from behind me makes me jump up and whirl around in surprise, only to find myself snout to snout with Apple Cider. "Can't love an Apple without lovin' Sweet Apple Acres," he grumbles, but I swear I can see a glint of what seems like humor in his eye. Wait, what did he just say? Could the old stallion finally be giving me some slack?

"Yes, sir, that is so very true."

Apple Cider nuzzles his wife's cheek before heading over to the tea pot. The moment of acceptance feels surreal, but I'm determined not to freak out and say or do something stupid. With that in mind, I decide that my hooves may not be steady and take a chance at magically raising my mug to drink. It's just so yummy that my nerves settle and I can't fight a smile. "You like that?" Pink Lady teases affectionately and my smile deepens blissfully. Whatever spices she added in make the tea and honey positively intoxicating. Then her elegant ears perk up and I instinctively do the same. "Sounds like Applejack is comin' back, Pa."

Sure enough, there is rhythmic, muffled clopping for a moment before the door opens. With a quick smile at the Apple parents, I gallop to my lover, who is a soaking wet mess. "Mornin', Sugar." She grins brightly from beneath a dripping hat and forelock. "Sleep well?"

"I slept fine. What a mess you are!" Chuckling evilly, she crouches a bit and instinct tells me to back up. Sure enough, she braces all of those fine muscles and shakes out her sodden coat, flinging water droplets everywhere. I can't help my girlish squeal of outrage at the sprinkling and duck back into the kitchen for a moment until the indoor rain ends and I can affectionately pseudo-tackle her with a hug and kiss. I'm quite certain that I hear chuckling from the kitchen. "What in Equestria were you doing out in this?"

"Checkin' things out best ah'm able, a course! The damage is minimal, thank goodness," AJ happily explains as she rinses muddy hooves in the low sink in the mud room. When did all the boxes and crates get moved? "Sorry ta get ya wet."

The faint leer in her comment makes me blush girlishly and give her flank a playful nip. "Not in front of your parents, you beast."

Getting dry turns into a playful giggle fest, finally stopped with sweet kisses and a brief cuddle.

"I missed you last night," I whisper into one ear and kiss behind the stiff peak. "Having you so close and yet so far away."

"Me too, Love. Let's not let that happen again, huh?" Good smells coax us away from the questionable privacy of the mudroom and we join the Apple parents and a bleary-eyed Pinkie Pie and Sweetie Belle for leftovers from last night. There is also the usual assortment of delicious apple recipes, all of which I love. "Y'know," AJ muses, tapping her chin with a hoof. "This storm's gonna hang up our trip to Canterlot."

Rubbing my eyes, I sigh deeply. "That does keep happening. At this rate, I'm never going to get to tell my folks, much less Princess Celestia, about us. It feels so dishonest."

"Twilight," Apple Cider says gently and I look at him in surprise. This is the very first time that he's used my name and Iím tickled to hear it. "This relationship with mah daughter took some gettin' used ta. Would it help if yer folks came ta visit and stayed with us? Neutral territory and all. 'Sides, we kin talk to 'em as peers."

Yes, I'm gawking, but I can't help it. This is the recalcitrant pony I never thought would accept me. The tears aren't feigned and I can't help myself from rushing over to hug him, hard. After a stiff moment, he hugs me back. "Thank you, sir," is all I can get past the lump in my throat. When I lean away, he shocks me further with a paternal hoof smoothing over my forelock, brushing my horn.

"Well, you sure ain't what ah ever expected fer my eldest girl, but yer family now. Come're, Applejack and giver yer stubborn old pa a hug."

We girls happily oblige him.

Once I've calmed down and finish my breakfast, I wake the rest of the pony pile to get some food in them. With quill and paper, I pen a note to Princess Celestia that I once again will not be able to make it to Canterlot as the weather has once more gone strange. There has to be something to it, but I confess that Iím baffled. With a request that my mentor inform my parents of the delay, I sign it and hand it off to Spike to immolate it a blast of dragonfire. The green flames impress the elder Apples and make the Crusaders cheer.

"Disappointed, Sugar?" Applejack consoles me with a nuzzle and I sigh heavily.

"I really want to see all of them. Oh well, eventually this odd weather will break and we'll find the time to visit." Forcing cheerfulness to my voice, I straighten up from my mope. "At least the weather seems more normal today."

The crowd makes agreeing noises and Dash leaps away from the table to stretch mightily and shake herself out. The showoff, I chuckle affectionately to myself. "On that note, thanks for breakfast, Apple clan, but I gotta run and help out breakin' up this storm. Later, guys!"

She's gone with a slammed door and Pink Lady eyes Fluttershy curiously. "Not you, Sugar?" Our shy pal cringes away and looks to a smiling Big Mac for support.

"I... I'm not a very good flier," she whispers, though her voice is heard because we've all habitually quieted.

"Like yer hooves on the ground, huh?" Apple Cider chuckles, looking between the shy pegasus and myself, shaking his head. So he sees it, too, the soppy way Mac looks at our demure pal and the way she shyly returns the gaze. The Apple family charm strikes again!

Only I can stay at the farm for clean up, as the other all have their own responsibilities to tend to. Luckily for me, Spike is more than capable of running the library without me and Pinkie is happy to give him a ride home. So, once the rain has reduced itself to slightly less than a downpour, we all go our separate ways. The day is busy cleaning up the mess from the storm and I am stunningly filthy by the time the sun begins to set. Applejack smiles sympathetically as she hoses me off and Iím too tired to even squeal at the icy water. Toweling off only enough to not drip, sloppily kiss my lover, and toddle upstairs to relax for a few minutes.

Only to be woken by soft hoof falls in the hallway and a painfully empty belly. It's full dark and Applejack is heavy and warm against my side. Moonlight is faint in the window, the stars twinkling in the blackness. Is it morning? Disoriented, I wiggle away from AJ and nuzzle her back to sleep before heading for the bathroom and then downstairs.

"Good morning, Granny Smith," I greet the elder and she smirks at me and nods to a pile of apples nearby.

"Heard that stomach o' yours halfway down the stairs! Eat somethin' and ya kin help me with breakfast."

"Yes ma'am!"

Achingly stiff and sore, Iím grateful for the mild exercise of meal preparation to loosen me up, not to mention the lovely heat of the old potbelly stove in the corner. With Granny directing me, I manage to actually be helpful and soon there is a hearty breakfast ready at the table. Right on cue, the household stirs like every pony in the building shares one mind.

Day two of the clean up, I start out relatively strong, but it's backbreaking work and I have real trouble keeping up. I'm just not as sturdy as this stock and nothing will ever change that. I can't be an earth pony any more than the Apples could be unicorns. After lunch, Pink Lady takes me in hoof to work as her partner and finds more appropriate tasks to my strengths. With a snort and a chuckle, Cider assures me that no pony thinks any less of me for it.

Pleased by that reassurance, I do as I'm told and shadow Pink Lady. The cows are happy for our attention as we ensure their cozy barn is fine after the storm, fix what we can, and make a note of what we cannot. There isn't a lot of chatter with my pony companion, but that's okay with me. The quiet isn't awkward and that's all that matters. With practice, I've gotten adept enough with a broom that I can use one normally and a second one with magic, a skill Iím justifiably proud of, so I take that need on a lot while I'm here at the farm. Yes, it's busywork, but it's busywork that somepony else doesn't have to do if I make the effort. I've just about finished in the barn, slowly backing my way down the aisle between stalls, stepping once more into the seemingly endless mud, when I hear strange whinnying.

When I look around, both brooms fall to the ground in my shock.

Rearing and whinnying with frisky energy are two pegasi of the royal guard... harnessed to the royal chariot... with Princess Celestia... and Princess Luna... and my parents... and is that?

Apple Cider and his children are just straightening up from a bow to meet Celestia's gentle smile, when I squeal like a happy yearling and race over to tackle hug the blue and white stallion grinning at my parent's side. "Shiny! Ohmigosh! I'm so happy to see you! When did you get home? How was Prance?"

"Hold up, Twiley," my big brother grins and rubs noses with me. "I only just got in yesterday and the princesses were kind enough to wait a day to visit so that I could come along."

Flushing with embarrassment, I turn to my parents and the royal sisters, bowing awkwardly. "Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, I'm delighted to see you! Welcome to Sweet Apple Acres."

"It's good to see you, Twilight Sparkle." My beloved mentor smiles and leans down to give me a neck hug. Only when I turn to my grinning parents do I realize just how filthy I am. I am a walking mud spatter literally from nose to tail, an extra layer of the sticky stuff splattered all the way up to my belly. Oh, this is not fair! Then I have to sigh and set vanity aside. My filth is legitimately earned and I refuse to be ashamed of that.

"Guess Iíll have to hug you later, huh?" I grin sheepishly and my father actually laughs. "I'm so happy to see you both! Have introductions been made yet?"

When the visiting party shakes their heads, I quickly remedy the problem, including Apple Bloom who stares in awe from behind her brother's leg. Princess Luna looks awkward, but the rest of the introductions go smoothly. Luckily, it's been sunny all of today and most of yesterday, so the mud isn't quite as bad as it had been. Though, a pony would hardly know that looking at the Apples and myself!

Logically, introductions lead to an impromptu tour and I fall in between parents and mentor. Luckily, unlike Celestia's first visit to Ponyville, the Apple clan recovers from their shock and awe quickly and are remarkably normal in the face of not one, but both royal alicorns. As we fall into step, I try to not self consciously paw at the clinging mud and look up when Celestia speaks gently to me. "How has my favorite student been?"

"Busy," I tell her truthfully. "There's always something to learn, especially here at Sweet Apple Acres. I'm very glad that you could come see it in person."

"As am I. Oh, Apple Cider, are these zap apple trees? Won't you excuse us, Twilight?"

Demurring with something polite and inane, I turn my attention to the younger princess. Once my enemy, almost destroying the wonderful ponies who would become my friends, freed from a madness I have never really been able to comprehend, this is the pony who was once Nightmare Moon. There are changes in her, she has grown taller and slightly darker in coloring and her mane and tail have begun to look like a starscape, fluttering with magical movement like her sister's. The changes are striking, reflecting how she has been changed, freed from the evil that consumed her and then reunited with her sister. Moonlit blue eyes watch me warily, tinged with respect and... fear?

Well, the Elements of Harmony did defeat her handily.

The blue eyes flicker over even as I become aware of my lover's presence at my shoulder. I watch the mysterious gaze move from Applejack's face, down to where the golden necklace of the Element of Honesty once lay around her throat.

"Princess Luna," I find myself saying quietly and her eyes return to me. "We started off on the wrong hoof. Could we perhaps start again?" Surprise and humor lighten the dark face.

"Yes, we would like that."

And with the traditional touching of hooves, we have sealed the deal. Applejack is a bit warier, but also offers peace to the younger princess and I can at last turn my attention to my bemused family. The smears of mud on my brother's pristine white coat make me giggle sheepishly and he mock glowers before laughing. My family is a collection of cool colors, shades of blue and violet with only my stripe of pink contrasting that. Not every pony in Equestria looks so like a mix of dam and sire as I do. Mom is near white, her mane striped white and a violet lighter than mine while Dad is dark blue with an even darker mane and tail. Shining has the elegant white coat of a noble with a two tone blue mane lighter than our father's. Both are handsome, though Shining is larger and stronger from his training. I am the spitting image of mother in looks, despite my darker colors.

"I've missed you all so much! Thank you for coming. It really did seem like every time I tried to come see you, a storm would blow in and stop me! Even my pegasus friend, Rainbow Dash, commented on how strange the weather has been."

"Oh, Kitten, we've missed you too. Ponyville is just so far away," Mom tells me, using her magic to fuss with my dirty forelock. "You are in quite a state, dear."

"The storm made a real mess; though it's much harder to tell now."

Dad hugs me tight, unconcerned about my dirty hide, and smiles affectionately. "Now didn't I always say that you could do anything? Now you've gone and become a farm pony! What brought this on?"

And here it is, my opening for the truth.

It shames me to admit that I freeze up in a blind panic. Strangely, I barely note my parents' puzzled expressions, but instead, I am caught up in the odd, thoughtful way that Luna regards me, head cocked off to one side. I cannot decipher her expression or whatever thoughts lie behind it. Because of that, I cannot look away. She seems both baffled and pleased by my panic for a long moment before shaking it off and resolutely stepping forward. Whatever she was going to do or say will forever remain a mystery as Apple Cider's voice suddenly comes from beside me.

"Y'all are welcome to look around the farm all ya want, but it's getting' close to supper time and we ain't lettin' no pony leave without a good, home cooked meal. My ma'll tan mah hide if'n I did any less. 'Sides, ah think y'all might want ta be sittin' down for the why of what brought ya here. Ah know ah needed ta."

His heavy foreleg over my shoulders gives me the strength to nod weakly. With that somehow settled, I'm given a push in the direction of Applejack where she stands with her mother and Princess Celestia. Oh curses! I have to tell her, too! My hangdog face brings my lover to me, her head coiling under mine to give me a throttling neck hug. "That time, huh?"

Oh, those indescribably beautiful green eyes are so tender and full of adoration that I can't help choking up. Before Applejack can get concerned at my tears, I throw both forelegs around her shoulders and squeeze until she chuckles and calls uncle. "Princess Celestia," I try to say and my voice cracks like a teenage colt's. "If you'd join us inside, I'd really rather only go through this once."

Pink Lady's sympathy makes me want to cry again as she steps over to Princess Luna to extend the invitation. As we step into the mudroom, the scents of Granny's cooking is an intoxicating cloud that makes Princess Celestia inhale so deeply I'm almost surprised my mane doesn't flutter. "Oh," she breathes out with wonder. "That smells so heavenly. I can't remember the last time I had fresh baked apple pie."

"Then yer in the right place, yer highness," Applejack chuckles and leads the way in, me meekly at her tail. "Come have some tea and pie while we rustle up some more grub. If y'all will give Twilight and myself a moment to clean up, we'll be right back."

Much later, I will realize how deliberately calm and relaxed our hosts are. Unlike the Cakes, who were in fits over Celestia's visit last year, the Apples are deferential but not fawning. The princesses seem delighted by the relaxed treatment, even Luna relaxing and smiling. Once we've cleaned up and returned to the assembly, Pink Lady's tea appears under my nose and Applejack urges me to drink. As it has before, the sweet and savory brew instantly calms me and I stare into the steaming liquid for a long moment.

"I've fallen in love."

Yes, that was my voice blurting that out like some barely articulate filly over the quiet murmur of conversations. And yes, every eye is now on me.

"Why, Kitten, that's wonderful," Mom gushes. "Who's the lucky stallion?"

Big Mac freezes as her eyes slide slyly to him, though I admire his not choking on his pie. Applejack is making great effort not to facehoof in exasperation, but when she opens her mouth to speak, I find the courage to finish what I've started.

"Not a stallion, Mom, but Applejack here."

Shocked silence descends; no surprise there. In a show of solidarity, AJ drapes a foreleg over my withers and straightens up her posture proudly.

"I've wanted to tell you for months, but I couldn't bear writing it down in a letter. It seemed soÖ impersonal. And I've been agonizing this whole time what I would say and worrying that you'd disown me or something horrible like that, or you wouldn't like AJ or something equally as awful orÖ"

"You can do that?"

Luna's curious comment is so like Pinkie's all those months ago that I cannot stop bursting into slightly hysterical laughter.

Celestia smiles warmly at her sister before turning back to me and Applejack. "I think this explains why I have been feeling as though you have been holding something back in your letters. As you did not appear to be in any sort of jeopardy, I did not press. This is an unexpected twist in friendship, is it not?"

Looking deeply into my beloved's gaze, I nod. "Very." A quirk of the finely shaped mouth makes me fight a shiver of sensual reaction and force my attention back to my mentor and family. "Unexpected and truly the most amazing feeling that I have ever had. I hope that you can be happy for me."

Chapter 4

++ Applejack ++

The ringing silence is like a living thing, threatening like glowing eyes in the darkness. As Twilight's brave face starts to fall and my temper starts to warm up, my father noisily clears his throat. It makes Twilight's folks jump and Shining Armor's gaze jerk from his sister to me. There's something calculating and judgmental in the pale blue eyes. They are the eyes of a warrior and a brother that has made up his mind.

"I need to be excused, please," Shining murmurs and rushes out before anypony can react.

"Shiny, wait," Twilight whispers, eyes full of tears, the purple hoof reaching out helplessly.

"I'll... I'll find him," Star Sparkle murmurs and follows her elder child into the gathering evening. Thank all that's holy, before I can get angry or console my distraught lover, Crescent Moon comes around the table to hug his daughter.

"Now, Kitten, take it easy. Give them a chance to process, okay?" Sniffling miserably, Twilight nods against his shoulder and I helplessly set a gentle hoof on her back. After a moment, I'm suddenly pinned by the gold-green eyes, her father's gaze calm and probing. Frankly, we were only casually introduced in the crowd and I have suddenly changed so significantly to him. So I accept the silent calculation as calmly as I can, surprised when the corner of his mouth turns up. "I see why your folks suggested we come in and sit down."

It's a lame stab at humor, but the effort is truly appreciated and I smile widely. "Yes, sir. Ah'm sorry 'bout this craziness. We really have wanted ta tell you and Twi's mom all winter. Sorry it got so all fired Ö awkward."

"You're one of the Elements of Harmony, aren't you?"

I didn't expect the sudden change in topic, but nod. "Yes sir. The Element of Honesty."

For some reason that makes him happy, I can see it in the widened smile. Leaning back a bit, Crescent Moon tilts his daughter's chin up so that she can see that smile. "Nice work there, Kitten. Hooked yourself an honest one. That's important."

"Thank you, Dad," she whispers around the tears that break my heart. With a quick kiss near the base of Twilight's horn, Cresent Moon straights up and becomes businesslike once more.

"Well, I think I may have to pass on the lovely smells of dinner and go track down the rest of the family to talk some sense into them. Now, Kitten, give us a chance to talk things over and we'll come back."

"Promise?"

"Cross my heart."

"Thank you, Dad."

That was some time ago.

No surprise that I had little more appetite than Twilight, though our guests ate well. At the moment, I'm staring longingly at the entryway where Twilight disappeared with her teacher, leaving me with a notably quiet Luna.

"Are you well?"

The question catches me off guard, drawing my attention back to the Princess of the Moon. She's a striking pony with her night-dark colors and the magical mane of glittering stars. She's blurry around the edges and I run a rough foreleg across my watering eyes. "The rejection hurts, that's all." Something wounded and empathetic flashes through her blue eyes and she nods slowly. "Ah'm sorry if ah'm keepin' ya from raisin' the moon and whatever other night stuff ya hafta do."

"Yes, it is near that time. If you will all excuse us."

She talks strange and is clearly uncomfortable with the whole lot of us, but she's making a careful effort to do her best. Sure as zap apples cause electrical storms, I'm a big enough pony to do the same. "Princess Luna, wait."

Taken aback, the younger royal looks over her shoulder as I trot over to her.

"Would you care fer some company raisin' the moon t'night?"

Whatever she had expected me to say, that clearly hadn't even passed through her mind. I remember Nightmare Moon ranting about how ponies never appreciated her beautiful night. No pony should feel unappreciated. Even an immortal, cosmically powerful, and really important one.

The expression on her dark face is priceless. "I... uh..." Honestly, you'd think a pony'd never been nice to her before. Then again... After a long, puzzled moment, her expression goes shy and pleased. "Yes, some company would be... nice. Thank you, Applejack."

"Lead the way."

I can nearly feel my Mama's smile as I follow the Princess of the Moon outdoors. The rain has returned, an annoying drizzle that chills the fur and annoys the eyes. Except... I'm not getting wet. "Nice trick," I grin at my unexpected companion, who merely smiles but does not look away from the darkened sky. The loneliness of this unique individual is as inherent to her as the night tones of her coloring and the white crescent moon on her hip, forever trapped against its black, cloud-like background.

"Y'know, ya ain't ever really alone at night."

The awakening glow of the alicorn's horn falters a moment as Luna looks at me, once again taken aback.

"No, ah mean it. Yeah, sure, most of us are sleepin', but there's all sorts of critters and even ponies that rely on yer night. And none of us would survive without it. Ah'm sorry if our ancestors never told ya that."

If it's possible to look both grateful and faintly annoyed, then that's exactly how the younger princess feels. After long moments, she clears her throat and turns her nose towards the sky, her horn once again glowing. I don't take her silence as rejection because, as the keeper of the night, it makes sense that she is quiet and introspective. Just like those that rely on her darkness. I'm a creature of the land, of the natural rhythms of days and seasons. I understand.

"Element of Honesty indeed."

The warmth in her voice makes me smile as I watch the slow spectacle of the moon beginning its slow progression across the starry blackness beyond the dissipating clouds. It's nice not to feel the cool of the night, just as I had not felt the earlier drizzle. Though I have to admit the lack of heat coming off the nearby body of my unexpected companion is a little odd.

"Y'all should stay the night. Y'know, if ya'd like ta."

"That is a lovely offer, Applejack, thank you." The voice is unexpected and I jump up to whirl around, but manage to fight down the urge to bow. Princess Celestia seems out of place in the darkness as she seems to gleam faintly with some inner light. The dawn sky colored eyes are soft and sympathetic. "I am so very sorry to have inadvertently been party to hurting you and Twilight both."

"You couldn'ta known. Thank you for the apology, though. It's nice ta know that you don't feel that same way."

"Of course not, Applejack," Celestia says almost vehemently. "Love is never to be criticized, no matter what form it may manifest."

Sounds like there's a story behind that the loaded look the sisters share. Well, at least they have each other to confide in again.

"Is Twilight alright?"

"She is brooding in the barn if you would like to go to her. Luna and I will wait in the house until you are ready to rejoin us."

"Thank you," I smile gratefully and pause before racing off. "And thanks for the company, Princess Luna."

"You... you are welcome."

Her voice trails after me as I gallop off to find my hurting mate. The barn is dark, but moonlight shines in through open windows here and there. The cows are all quiet with sleep and I take a chance on calling out quietly. "Twi? Sugar, ah'm here for ya."

The quiet is deafening for long enough to make my worry deepen. Then, there is a faint rustle from above me. "I'm here, Applejack."

Well, not a ringing invitation, but Iíll take what I can get. Picking my way up the metal ramp to the hayloft, I strain to find her purple colors in the deep shadows. When I do spot her curled up beneath the big loading door, nose tilted up at the moon, I quickly go over and wrap my larger body around hers.

It takes time for her body to soften and lean into mine, her head lolling over to press against my neck. My tears join hers as we soak up the peace of the night.

"Shining and I used to be so close," she whispers, voice strained. "It hasn't even been a year since I've seen him and suddenly he feels like a stranger. And Mom leaving, too? Oh Applejack, it hurts!"

"Ah know, darlin', ah know. Let it out."

She cries for a long time, body growing heavy in my embrace. Just as I think she's fallen asleep, she shakes herself out and looks up at me with those big, beautiful eyes. "Are the princesses still here?"

"Yup. Would ya like ta go see 'em? Be warmer in the house."

Nodding, Twilight painstakingly gets to wobbly hooves and I only get halfway standing before Iím being lovingly suffocated in a hug. "Thank you so much, AJ. I don't know what Iíd do without you."

"Mah pleasure, Sugar. Ah love you and will stand by you whatever happens. Now, c'mon then."

Neither of us cleans up the salty tracks of tears, the physical proof of the pain we've suffered. Though we do take the time to shake off the clinging hay, nibbling away the most stubborn of the leaves.

The subdued murmur of conversation ceases as we step in to the mudroom and my wry, vulnerable expression is echoed by my lover. We each quickly rinse our hooves, take a deep breath, share a quick nuzzle, and step into the house proper. Oh good, Twi's mother has come back, her eyes sad and apologetic. Our elders make a fascinating collection of ponies, my country folks, Twi's city slicker parents, and the exotic princesses of the sun and moon.

"Oh, Twilight, Iím so very sorry for running out on you," Star Sparkle mourns, approaching her daughter but hesitating. "Please give me a chance to make it up to you." The blue eyes flicker to me nervously, flicker away, and return with determination. "To make it up to both of you."

I will not add to this stressful night and nod in agreement. "Apology 'cepted."

Chapter 5

++ Twilight ++

A small, petulant part of me wants to cling to my hurt, but I can't. With a jerky nod, I start to reach for my mother, but she beats me to it, wrapping me in a crushing hug. "I'm so very sorry, Kitten. For reacting so badly."

"Thank you, Mom. Shining didn't come back with you, did he?"

"Give him some time, sweetheart. He's feeling a little... raw right now. Your announcement just took him off guard."

Nodding again, I allow myself to be drawn over to the table for more of Pink Lady's miracle tea. AJ says something about checking to see if Apple Bloom is okay and excuses herself. In the lull of conversation in her wake, my dad pipes up.

"She's nice," he says thoughtfully and I see Apple Cider swallow a smile.

"She's the best," I add vehemently with a grin that I bet is bordering on dopey. Just thinking about my mate and her family cheers me immensely. "This whole family is."

As though conjured up with magic, Granny Smith bustles over with a tray of steaming bowls that she deposits at the crowded table. "Pumpkin apple soup. My daughter-in-law's specialty from Bridleham. Just the thing to settle nerves and bellies!"

It's sweet to see how delighted my beloved teacher is with being here, eating these wonderful foods with her subjects. Luna levitates up her bowl with some trepidation, but looks delighted at the first sip. There's a ruckus at the door, Granny's voice haranguing someone outside, and to my amusement, the pegasus guards are bullied to crowd in at the table. They are clearly uncomfortable, looking pleadingly at our liege, but she only smiles and shakes her head. When the Apple matriarch sets bowls in front of the matched pair and orders them to eat, they fidget, but do as they are told. Some wild sense of perversity urges me to bother them once again about their identical looks and if there are cutie marks hidden beneath their elaborate armor. It was an endless game when I was a filly. Honestly, for all I know, these are the same stallions! Rather than embarrass myself, I sip my soup before looking at my mother. She seems distracted and is unusually quiet.

"Are you okay, Mom?"

Startled from her thoughts, she blinks and smiles weakly. "Still processing, Kitten. But your dad is right, she does seem nice."

"She is nice," Apple Bloom suddenly pipes up indignantly where she has appeared from the living room and I smile warmly at the youngster. Her happy personality has been missed in all this emotional upheaval. "She's the best."

Granny Smith nods briskly and mutters something none of us hear, but it makes Celestia smile again. Right on cue, Applejack appears at the heels of her little sister, nudging the youngster into the kitchen. "That smells mighty good, Granny."

"Get yer tail in here, foal, and eat up before it gets cold," the oldster grumbles good-naturedly at her granddaughter. "That pie oughtta finally be cooled to the perfect temp. Apple Bloom, gimmie a hoof here."

"Yes, Granny."

It's impossible to miss how Celestia's expression lights up as Apple Bloom trots over, holding a plate in her teeth and another balanced perfectly on her head. With a shy smile, she serves the perfect slices of apple pie to our royal guests while Granny brings over two more to place them before the guards. Apple Cider retrieves the last two for my folks, in addition to a big bowl of flaky pastries for everypony else.

"Eat up," Granny barks like we're a room full of her grandfoals, testing her patience. "That pie best not be goin' ta waste!"

After hesitating politely, my mentor takes a big chomp from the fat slice of pie and her blissful expression makes me giggle. Intrigued by her sister's reaction, Luna nibbles a bit and lights up with delight. "We do not have such delicious treats such as this at the castle!"

The Apples look understandably smug.

"Told you they grow the best apples in Equestria," I boast and make the Apples smile. "It's terribly late now. Travel may be difficult with all of this erratic weather."

"Our home is your home," Pink Lady offers immediately. "A full house makes for a warm house."

"Well, we can hardly refuse such a nice offer, thank you," Celestia agrees graciously and there are smiles all around.

With a collection of apple cider in mugs as colorful as all of our various coats, we retreat to the big living room to rest and talk. It's a bit of a shock when the quiet Luna accepts Applejack's invitation to settle beside her. Has my charismatic lover made an unexpected friend? How lovely! Celestia takes the spot beside me, leaving my lover and I wedged in warmly between our leaders. This sort of intimacy doesn't faze me, after all I've been Celestia's personal student since I was a small foal, but I have to say I'm glad to see my mate adapting so well. The guards hang inconspicuously by the kitchen, one curling up to sleep while the other keeps watch. Mac takes the couch as is his custom and cuddles his little sister, who is clearly barely awake, while Granny relaxes in her rocking chair to knit. The two sets of parents complete the two half-circles on the luxurious rug.

"Thank you for having us." Celestia breaks the quiet that settles and Pink Lady beams, despite the lingering worry in her eyes.

"Not at all, highness. It's our pleasure."

I'm comforted by the singular sensation of Celestia's magical mane and tail whispering over my hide, a familiarity that I hadn't realized that I missed. For a long moment, I curl my head around, resting on my forelegs, so that I can breathe in the completely unique and otherworldly scent of my teacher. Unlike anypony else, she smells of summer skies and warm sun, rather than flesh and fur. It comforts me as it always has. For so very many years, she was my rock as I have spent more time with her than my parents.

"Ya can ask, y'know," Applejack pipes up suddenly and I smile to myself for a moment before raising my head. "Ah don't mean ta make anypony uncomfortable, but avoidin' the subject don't make things any easier."

"How did you know?"

Unexpectedly, the question comes from Princess Luna, her head cocked curiously. Does her mane and tail feel the same as her sister's? Stay on track, Twilight!

"Well, the crush was right off," Applejack answers readily, turning her attention to Luna. "But it grew and grew over time until I was right sick with it. Not a bad sick, just weighed down by how strong it was and I really thought it was just me. I hid it best I could for a long time, but our friend Rarity figured me out and called me out on it. So I 'fessed up to Twilight here and she shocked me by sayin' yes. Coulda knocked me over with a feather. And then we got to know each other better and love came a callin'." Luna looks confused, almost skeptical and Applejack's voice gentles to something almost maternal. "Mah mama always told me that it's important to like somepony before you can love 'em. Darned if she wasn't bang on." There's still confusion on the dark face, but I force myself to hold my tongue and see what my mate will say. "She also told me that ah'd know it when ah felt it. And she was right again."

Swiveling her head around, Applejack nuzzles my ear, delighting me with the affection, before she returns her attention to Luna. "We will do our best to remember." The sentiment is awkward from the immortal one, but I think she has much to think about. My loving smile must say volumes, because I see my folks share a loaded look before looking at me like they just might really get it for the first time.

There are more questions for us as the night grows deeper, but I'm happy to answer all of them. As a scholar, I understand questions and the curiosity that drives them. So I explain and hold back no secrets. Luckily, nopony asks me anything that I can't answer easily. Eventually, Mom even laughs as I tell tales of my lover and my friends, and she shares some of her own. Dad is characteristically a stallion of few words, adding in his two bits here and there while watching both myself and Applejack. Luna monopolizes my lover to my amusement and I'm glad to see the burgeoning friendship.

Eventually I grow to weary to stay awake, despite my delight at my company and my lingering hurt and worry about my absent brother. Both of my parents kiss my forelock, making me smile at the love behind the gesture. Like the recent pony pile with my friends here in Ponyville, I sleep surrounded by my loved ones.


TO BE CONTINUED...