(Pony Permutation Project: Episode 8)
"...and that, Spike, is the official meaning of life," said Twilight Sparkle as they walked along one of Ponyville's roads.
"Whoa, Twilight," said Spike, his voice laced with awe. "Really?"
"Really really!" said Twilight, smiling with pride. "At least, as applied to bunnies. Ponies and dragons are a teensy bit more complicated, so our answers will take me a lot longer to come up with. Probably years!"
"Well, I'll help you find them however I can." Spike chuckled. "Though somehow, I don't think Angel will be all that pleased with your findings..."
"Oh, wow, good point. Well, maybe Fluttershy can talk him dow-" Twilight paused, thought about the possibility for a few seconds, then said, "You know what, you're right. Let's just not tell him. He seems to have fun with his life--if all of a sudden we tell him that he actually has no true free will, who knows what might happen?"
Spike grinned. "And that's just to Fluttershy."
Twilight giggled. "Oh, Spike, you're such a card. Anyway, after a long and hard magic session like last night's, a quiet morning stroll like this is just what the doctor ordered-"
"Somepony, help!" shouted a distinctly country accent from the distance.
Twilight and Spike looked in the direction of the voice, then at each other.
"Applejack!" they both gasped in stereo...
"Anypony around out there?" shouted Applejack again in the distance. "Anypony at all, I need help over here, pronto!"
"So much for that quiet stroll," said Spike, now on Twilight's back.
"Welcome to Ponyville," said Twilight as she galloped towards the hill where she'd heard the voice. When she arrived, sure enough, the pony she expected was there, chasing after five wheelbarrows stacked full of apples which were rolling down a long and inclined trail.
"Applejack!" Twilight Sparkle shouted. "Are you okay?"
The orange-coated pony slowed momentarily. "Twilight? That you?" she shouted back. "These gosh darned laws of physics're tryin' to take my whole mornin's haul of apples without my permission! Y'all get back here!" she said before chasing after them at full speed again.
"Twilight, we've been here before. Isn't there a pretty deep lake at the end of this trail?" Spike asked.
Twilight gasped. "There is! Applejack, situation understood, preparing to correct!" In seconds, her horn began to glow...
"But you told me your magic power was down to reserves after last night! You sure you can handle all that weight?" asked Spike.
"Nope," said Twilight, "but Applejack's a dear friend, and that means she gets everything I've got! Brace me, Spike!"
"You got it!"
Spike held onto the sides of Twilight's head, turning it towards the carts, and Applejack...
...who had just lost her footing, and begun rolling down the hill in the same fashion as her haul!
"AJ! Hang on!" A beam of light shot out from Twilight's horn, and once the light engulfed everything in her field of view, she concentrated with all of her mental might. "Hnnghh... come... come on..."
"You can do it, Twilight!" said Spike, purposefully ignoring the fact that Applejack, the carts, and gravity were actually winning the tug-of-war.
"I-I want to..." said Twilight, "...so bad, but I don't think I-"
"Yes you can!" said Spike. "I know you can! Just a little more power and you've got this!"
"I..." a now-visibly sweating Twilight groaned, "...it's... it's not gonna... I can't-"
With a flash and a pop, the light faded, and all were rolling again--only this time, with Applejack directly in the path of the still-moving carts.
Spike pointed. "Twilight-"
"I know!" Twilight shouted, firing again. This time, the light from her horn covered only Applejack, who she found far easier to pull back up and to safety.
Several loud splashes were heard moments later as Twilight, at last pushed to exhaustion, collapsed.
"Twilight! C'mon, speak to us!"
Twilight Sparkle's eyes slowly fluttered open to see Spike and Applejack standing over her. "You're safe," she said. "Thank goodness."
"Yep. Thanks completely to you," Applejack said, helping Twilight back on all fours. "I owe you big time. With I could say same 'bout the apples, though."
"It's... it's no problem," said Twilight, still gasping for breath. "Wait... your apples! What happened to-"
"Oh, that haul's a bust. Went down at the bottom of the lake. Couldn't no one short'a the Princesses themselves save those babies anyway, the way they were headed." Applejack sighed and looked at the ground. "Guess I'll have to do all that work all over again. Shame, that."
"So?" Spike said suddenly. "You've got tons of those things, right?"
"Well, yeah," said Applejack, "but-"
"He's right," said Twilight, stepping forward. "You can grow and harvest more apples with time... but we can never grow another Applejack. Like I said, I'm just glad you're safe."
"Twilight, I... yeah. Y'all are right." Applejack beamed widely at both of them. "Y'know what? Ponyville would be a lot worse off without you two folks in it. And I hope y'all never forget it."
"This time, Twilight didn't fight the blush. "Thanks, Applejack."
"Gratitude's all mine." Applejack looked towards her farm, then trotted off towards it. "Well, guess I oughtta go tell Big Mac the news. Catch y'all later! And thanks again for that whole savin' my life thing!"
"No need!" said Twilight as she and Spike waved... then, when she was far enough, her gaze shifted towards the lake.
Eventually, Spike realized where his partner was staring. "Twilight? Twilight, are you..."
In response, Twilight turned towards Spike and looked at him with a forlorn expression... along with determined eyes which he recognized all too well.
"Come on, Spike," she said. "Let's go home."
He recognized her tone of voice as well.
It was her "back to work" voice.
That night, after she and Big Macintosh had finished up the day's work (for the second time), Applejack found herself in much higher spirits as she walked to Twilight's library.
She soon spied the tree-house in the distance, and her heart momentarily sank. The lights were off--had Twilight already gone to bed?
However, as she walked closer, every so often, Applejack would see a flash from the window. Not in bed, then... just up to her usual experiments, Applejack concluded.
She picked up the pace, peered in through the window, and indeed found Twilight Sparkle, wearing an expression she'd never seen before... and which spooked her just a tiny bit.
In the darkness, Twilight Sparkle chanted, intoning rapid-fire syllables which made not one lick of sense to the earth pony, but which suggested an endeavor massive in scale just the same.
As she chanted, lights and stars swirled around Twilight, Spike, and a miniature cauldron set over a burner. The intensity of the light show taking place momentarily reminded Applejack of one of her few happy moments as a filly in Manehattan...
...suddenly, Twilight's chanting stopped. "Now, Spike! Throw it in!" she yelled.
"You got it, Twilight!"
He tossed an object Applejack couldn't quite identify into the cauldron... and seconds later, an explosion rocked the library, knocking everyone present--including Applejack--on their hind quarters.
Twilight and Spike groaned as they came to, and they instantly checked the cauldron... which was now covered in a pale, lumpy mush. On instinct--and his pride as Twilight's one-dragon hazardous waste management system--Spike dipped his claw in and licked it.
"Well, if nothing else," he said, "you've come up with a hooves-free recipe for applesauce." He took another lick. "Huh. Still warm."
With a sigh, Twilight slumped over. "Got it. Well, time to start over."
"Twilight," Spike began, "maybe-"
Twilight simply stood, and stamped a hoof. "Starting. Over."
"Somepony say 'applesauce?'" A thickly-accented voice interrupted them both.
Twilight yelped, jumping half a foot in the air. "A-A-Applejack!" she greeted the orange pony when she landed. "Uh, hiya... what's up? Didn't expect to see you here so late..."
"That makes two of us. Don't worry, sugarcube. Just stopped by to borrow a few farmer's almanacs." Applejack went to a particular library shelf she was quite familiar with, and picked out what she needed. Her actual work done, she then turned to Twilight's mush-covered workstation and smiled. "Y'know, if y'really wanted applesauce, all y'all had to do was ask."
"Y-yeah," said Twilight, "I guess you're right. I'll definitely keep that in mind. Got what you needed?"
"Yep! We'll max out the ol' food supply before winter yet!" She peered closer at Twilight, who, from mane to tail, currently appeared very much unkempt. The bags under the unicorn's eyes, however, belied the most problems. "Twilight? You... feelin' okay?"
"Huh?" said Twilight, shaking her head to clear it. "I mean, yeah, I, um..."
"That's one o' them 'rhetorical' questions," Applejack said, sauntering closer. "Don't take no master magician to see you're way out of sorts. And I think I know the culprit right... here!" In a flash, she grabbed the workbook off of Twilight's desk with her teeth, tossed it into the air, and let it land directly into her saddlebag. "There! Problem solved... at least halfway."
"Wha-" Twilight did a double-take in surprise. "Hey! Give that back!"
Applejack shook her head. "Sorry, Sparkle, but nothin' doin'. Doc AJ's come to call, and she says you're no good to anypony if you're constantly tired and drained. Even an earth pony like me can see when a unicorn like you is just working too danged hard. Which is probably why you keep missin' your spells, too."
"I..." For exactly one second, Twilight appeared genuinely pained... then she took a deep breath, and slowly spoke again. "Applejack. Okay. You're right, I am a bit... overworked, but please. Give me back my workbook. I really, truly need it tonight."
Applejack nodded. "And I sure do plan to give it back. On one condition."
"You go to sleep right now, and you don't leave that bed of yours until noon."
"Wha..." Twilight's voice rose a tiny bit. "B-but noon's way too late!"
Applejack shook her head. "Nah. I've slept way later than that every once in a while... especially after a really long day of pickin'... hoo boy..."
Twilight's voice took on even more of an edge. "No, I mean, noon'll be too late for... look, you just don't know, okay?"
"An' I don't care," Applejack shot back with a sympathetic, yet firm, grin. "This here's what we call tough love." She turned and trotted toward the door. "Noon, sugarcube! That's the earliest I might bring this book back... and that's if you're lucky-"
That was when Applejack realized she wasn't getting anywhere. Literally. She looked down, and saw her hooves hovering three inches above the ground.
"What in tarnation..."
With some doing, she managed to turn herself back around to face Twilight... who was suddenly wearing that spooky expression again, with closed eyes, and speaking in a tone that was half a growl:
"I said... give it back..."
Her horn glowed, the room darkened, and the wind picked up, sending loose papers and books flying indiscriminately around the library.
"Twilight?" An alarmed Applejack gaped at her surroundings. "Hey, now, no reason to get all-"
"Give it back!" Twilight yelled, her outburst punctuated by a flash of lightning and crash of thunder. "It's mine! You've got no right!"
Applejack's eyes grew wide as she witnessed the tip of Twilight's horn grow brighter in the indoor storm. "Twilight, it's okay! Seriously, girl, no need to make with all the magic! We can talk about this..."
"Why?" Twilight's voice cracked as she shouted through the storm. "Nopony ever listens when I just 'talk!' Nopony ever trusts that I might just know what I'm doing! I'm sick of it!"
Applejack shook her head. "Twilight, I..." At a loss, she closed her eyes, bracing for imminent wrath, when suddenly:
The indoor storm died down, and everything that had been flying overhead clattered to the ground. Applejack opened her eyes to see Spike slumped over Twilight--the aftermath of a desperate rushing tackle.
"Nnnngh... Spike! Spike, get off of me!" said Twilight, struggling to get the clinging dragon off of her head.
"No way! Twilight, have you gone nuts?" he said. "This is Applejack! Think about that for a minute!" After taking a second to think, he added, in a softer voice, "Twilight... we're not in Canterlot anymore. Remember?"
"R-right... that's... that's all over..." Twilight groaned as she calmed down, her struggles subsided, and her horn's light slowly faded...
"That's right," said Spike, still clinging to the unicorn. "We're in Ponyville now. They care here."
Twilight let out a shuddering sigh at Spike's words. "They... they do. It's true, I... Applejack...?" She snapped alert and to her hooves, looked around for her friend... and eventually found her, staring and shivering. "Oh my gosh, Applejack, what did I just-..."
She took a step forward. Applejack took one back. The pattern continued until realization hit Twilight, and her heart sank so low she figured it could keep her cutie mark company.
"All right, girl, you've convinced me." Applejack took off her saddlebag, and laid it down in front of Twilight. "I don't want no more trouble... or this anymore, for that matter. Here. Y'all keep it." She turned around, and walked out at a brisk pace.
"Wha--no, Applejack, wait! You were right," Twilight called out. "Come back, please! I-I'm sorry, I can explain, I..."
Applejack didn't look back.
"...I..." Trailing off, Twilight looked at Spike.
Spike simply sighed, lowered and shook his head.
"...I told you I'd mess this up sooner or later," Twilight told him, before running upstairs in sniffles.
Applejack was still trotting away as fast as she could, when she heard a voice calling from behind.
"Applejack! Wait up!"
"Huh?" Applejack turned around. "Oh, Spike, it's you. Whaddaya ne-" Applejack paused for a second, then huffed. "Look, Spike, I know you and Twilight are close. But I also know what I saw! Princess Celestia clearly sent that girl here with some of her screws still loose, and-"
Spike shook his head as he cut Applejack off. "Nah. That's where everypony slips up," he said with a sigh.
Applejack cocked her head. "...what you talkin' 'bout, dragonboy?"
"This," said Spike, laying down the workbook he'd brought with him and opening to a pair of pages. "Go on and take a look."
Applejack peered at the book with reserve. "I... I dunno..."
"Please, Applejack? I promise, it won't bite. At least, I'm pretty sure it doesn't do that anymore."
"Oh, all right..." Applejack huffed again, and pored over the two pages Spike had left open. After half a minute, she said, "Head hurts from all this magical unicorn mumbo-jumbo..."
Spike nodded. "Hyper-advanced magical unicorn mumbo-jumbo that I only follow by looking at the pictures. I actually think she puts them in there for me." He turned to the next pair of pages. "Tonight was no exception."
Applejack studied the pictures until she could make out the shapes, and then the objects they represented. Once she'd figured all of them out, her eyes and mouth grew wide in tandem.
"Well, slap a blouse on me and call me a city girl! She was...?"
Spike nodded. "Whole time."
"B-... but if she was working on this, she coulda just told me-"
Spike shook his head. "Twilight... isn't the type. At least, not anymore."
A full hour later, Twilight Sparkle was no closer to following Applejack's slumber advice--though certainly not for lack of trying. As she tossed and turned in her bed, her thoughts continued to wander back to experiences she'd wished she could have forgotten long ago...
"What have you done? Everything I worked so hard on--it's all ruined!"
"I-I'm so sorry! Here, I'll help clean it up..."
"NO! No, I, um, think it's best if you just go now. Honestly, it's my own fault for letting reputation decide who I call on for help..."
"Oh. Well, okay, then..."
"I-it's okay, Twilight, really! W-we can totally take care of this ourselves!"
"Yeah, Twilight, it's all right. No need for you to get involved..."
"You sure? It's a really simple spell that would save you tons of time! Here, I'll show you-"
"NO! Really. We, uh, wouldn't want you to... strain yourself."
"Yeah, strain! That's it! You're kind of... unstable when you do."
"Oh. Well, okay, I suppose that's fair. See you around..."
"TWILIGHT SPARKLE! Look what you've done! Look at all of this chaos! You beg me to give you a chance against my better judgment, and this is how my benevolence is received?"
"B-but I... I honestly don't understand what could have happened! I did everything according to procedure, and even double-checked-"
"Then why didn't you triple-check!? Now everything's twice as bad as before we started! Honestly, you're a walking disaster! What does Princess Celestia even see in a failure like you?"
"NO!" Twilight shouted, sitting upright--equal parts wide awake, distraught and sweaty. "I'm not a failure!"
She looked around, and, upon seeing that she was still alone in her room, her eyes settled on her bedroom window just a muted crash of thunder sounded.
"...I'm not a failure," she said again, softly, towards the rainstorm taking place outside.
"Twilight? Y'all in there?"
The new voice and accompanying knock startled Twilight from her brooding a short while later. Gingerly, she walked over to her door, and looked through the small space where it was ajar. When she saw who it was, she froze and shrank back with a squeak that Fluttershy would have approved of.
Applejack found the door magically sealed seconds later.
"Twilight? Twilight!" Applejack pushed and pulled at the door, without any luck. "Oh, for the love o'..." She took deep breaths to calm down. Right now that nutty unicorn was acting like the last scared baby sheep in a roundup, and Applejack knew she'd have to dig into the same patience reserves she held for just such an occasion.
She did just that, and moved closer to the door. Her speech was slow and reassuring, practiced from years of coaxing farm animals, and some pointers from Fluttershy. Even so, she was confident of her chances--she'd actually used this voice on Twilight once before, with positive results, during a far more intense situation.
"Twilight?" Applejack knocked again. "Twilight, I... look here, sugarcube. Y'already know I can be trusted with my word--so I'm askin' you to trust me now: I ain't mad. Or scared! Not anymore, anyway." She waited for a few seconds to let her words sink in before continuing. "So please... don't be scared of me, either? I just wanna chat. Things got kinda heated for the both of us, and I'd like to set things right. Can... can I come in?"
Silence ruled the air. After some time, Applejack shrugged, sighed, and turned to leave... which was the exact moment the door creaked open a tiny bit--just enough for Twilight to poke her head through, her face a true vision of guilt.
"Ahh, there y'all are," Applejack said. "Glad to see you."
"You... sure you want to talk?" said Twilight in a half-whisper. "If our places were reversed, I'm not sure I would."
"Well, they ain't," said Applejack in her firmest voice as she opened the door all the way. "So one side, girl."
Twilight stepped aside and allowed Applejack in. "I'm... really sorry about earlier, Applejack. More than you know. You didn't deserve what I did." She walked towards the window and looked outside at the still-falling rain. "Honestly, you don't deserve someone like me who just never was very good at this whole 'friendship' thing."
Applejack joined her. "So I keep hearin'--but you know what? The more I hear it, the less I believe it."
Twilight blinked. "Applejack?..."
"Look at you right now! Beatin' yourself up six ways from Summer Sun over the tiniest bit of crankiness! Y'all know how many arguments me and Rarity get into on a daily basis?" Her voice went from derisive to serious in the space of a second. "And yet there's still not too many ponies I'd more rather have my backside in a pinch. You fit that bill--that is, if y'all can ever learn to stop bitin' off more than you can chew by yourself." She opened Twilight's workbook in front of them. "Really, restorin' a whole orchard chunk? Ain't something I reckon a bad friend would ever even think of attemptin', what say you?"
Twilight let the tiniest hint of an embarrassed smile cross her muzzle. "I guess Spike told you."
"Yeah." Applejack closed the workbook, put it to the side, and moved closer to the violet unicorn, her voice still soft and emphatic. "Told me a lot more than I bargained for, actually..."
Confusion crossed Twilight's face. "Huh?"
Spike shook his head. "Twilight... isn't the type. At least, not anymore."
Spike walked back to Twilight's makeshift laboratory, sat down in the middle of it, and motioned for Applejack to do so as well. "I try not to tell this story if I don't have to. It takes waaaaaaaaay too long. But-"
"-but I just got a taste of what would happen if your best friend ever lost it," Applejack finished. "So I've got all the time in the world to learn how to prevent it."
Spike nodded. "Fair enough." He took a deep breath, wandered over to a box of his jewel reserves, popped a couple in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. "Ahh, that's the stuff. Okay. Back when we were growing up in Canterlot, Twilight spent a lot of time being gifted, and not a lot of time being, well, social."
"...how's that any different from now?" asked Applejack.
"Because it wasn't always that way," Spike said. "You remember the story of how Twilight got her cutie mark, right? Well, when Celestia declared her to be some kind of 'gifted unicorn' with an 'untapped great magical power,' word spread like wildfire. Her parents were super-proud, and so was Twilight for the longest. Everyone was either in awe or totally jealous of us."
Applejack nodded. "Endorsement from the Princess herself. Sounds great on the one end, but..."
Spike nodded back. "You're catching on. For the next few years while she studied magic, everypony would want to see her try out new spells. With me as her assistant, it was like putting on a magic show every day! Even when she messed something up, it was all in good fun, and totally awesome."
Applejack smiled and held back a giggle at the mental image of a junior magic show.
Spike sighed soon afterward. "But later on, things got kind of weird. The other ponies--usually more grown-up ones--started asking her for magical favors for... more important things. Things that could actually affect lives. Sometimes it'd be simple stuff like cleaning up houses, or it'd be bigger things like helping with food or managing weather. By this time, everyone thought she was going to be Canterlot's most powerful unicorn, so why not seek out the best, right?"
Applejack shook her head. "I was afraid the story would go this way."
"Wish we had been. Since Twilight's really nice, she never refused any requests. Unfortunately, like Celestia told her, she still had a lot to learn about controlling her powers back then, and, well... you don't get to learn about being in control without first going out of control... and blowing a lot of spells."
"Exactly. Eventually everypony got fed up... and so did Twilight. She finally came home one day, swearing to never perform magic in public again unless it was absolutely perfect--and she totally stuck to that. She learned to second-guess everything she tried, check her checklists, and leave absolutely no room for error--and to her credit, because of all that, she really did become the best she is at what she does." Spike's gaze lowered. "But I never saw her look as sad as she did that day... and what really got under my scales was that there wasn't anything I could do to help."
Applejack nudged the tiny dragon's face back upwards, and took his claws in her hooves. "Spike, just so you know... you didn't fail her."
"I know. But sometimes I have to remind myself. Anyway, it took a long time to cool down, but eventually it did, and ponies started talking to us again. But as far as Twilight was concerned, it was too late. Since the only ones who ever cut her any slack while she was learning the ropes were me and Celestia... she kept to us and her books. You know the rest."
Twilight Sparkle gaped. "He told you everything?" Her hoof met her forehead with surprising force. "Sheesh, remind me to zap him later!"
Applejack chuckled. "I'll do no such thing. S'probably the best thing he coulda done, to be perfectly honest."
"I know, I know." Twilight sighed. "Being called the 'Princess's Pet', I could take. It even made me a little happy inside. When I started hearing names like 'fake prodigy' and 'walking disaster', I decided it just wasn't worth it anymore. The ones I feel worst about, though, are the few ponies who were still actually nice to me despite it all. It was nice to know there were still a few out there who were able to look past my growing pains, whether out of pity or otherwise. But by then I'd closed myself off--I knew I'd just mess things up sooner or later. After I moved here, I started to wish I hadn't." She turned to Applejack and smiled. "Because now that I think about it, they remind me a lot of all of you."
At that sentence, Applejack gasped, and remembered Spike's final words:
"Here's the part you can't tell her I told you. Having friends is still new to her--especially ones who don't care about how much stuff she can move with her mind. Now that her powers are actually pretty up there, solving ponies' problems gives her a total rush. You can sort of see it in her eyes if you look hard enough. Problem is, she hasn't quite learned how to take the hint when ponies don't want her help."
Applejack shook her head. You're wrong, Spike, she thought, and thank goodness for it. She does get it. She just needs a little push. And so do I, I think.
"Twilight?" she said, placing a hoof on her unicorn friend's shoulder.
"Something I had to learn long ago is that there's no cheatin' in any aspect of life. Even when it seems like cheatin', it ain't."
"What do you mean?"
"Remember the apples from this morning? If'n you just up an' recreated 'em, that'd hurt more than it'd help. Scout's honor."
Twilight suddenly looked genuinely perplexed. "...how so?"
Applejack hesitated, poking at the floor for a short while before finally answering. "You weren't around to see it, but that morning I got in over my head again, and tried to pick more apples than I could handle. Wasn't long 'fore I lost control of all of 'em. Now, what kinda lesson would I learn if you came around with a 'get outta stubbornness free' card anytime I did that? If I gotta do double the work instead, that means I've got no choice but to learn from my mistake. And that'd help me during harvests for years to come, instead of just this week. Y'get my meanin'?"
"I..." Twilight turned Applejack's statement around in her mind until: "...I think... yes! I do! I mean, I think I do.... yes. I do. Okay, sort of...?"
"Awww, don't fret none about it. Ain't no secret earth ponies an' unicorns get taught different values growin' up. But I've been thinking--Princess Celestia has to know how all of us think in order to watch over us as proper as she can. I think she put a little bit o' earth pony in your training without you knowing it."
Twilight gasped. "Celestia would never keep-"
Applejack held her hoof in front of Twilight's face. "Hold on now--hear me out, sugarcube. A lot of us earth ponies are taught to accept that since we don't have magic or flight, there are just some things that we can't change--and life goes on. Every time we trip up, we take it in stride and work twice as hard. It's what makes us strongest in will, and sometimes in bench-pressin'." The two took a moment to giggle before Applejack continued. "Think about it. What was stoppin' Celestia from just... I dunno, comin' down from on high an' tellin' everyone to stop harassing you? Or to not give up on you? For that matter, she ever tell you to not take on any of those 'big favors' in the first place?"
"...no to all of those," Twilight slowly replied. "She just told me to 'be careful.' A lot. And to always write down what I learned in whatever studies I was doing at the time. Even after I completely shut myself in... she was still always nice to me, but she didn't intervene on my behalf, or force me into the public eye. Wondered about that a lot in the back of my mind..."
"Well, from an outsider's point of view? I've been to Canterlot twice now, and no offense to your hometown, but I don't think any o' those upper-crust unicorns have known a day of hard work in their lives! I think Celestia knew that too, and wanted to cut you from a different cloth. You learned what it was like to take on things bigger 'n yourself and fail. You learned what it was like to have no friends. So when she sent you here, where nopony knew you and y'all could start fresh..." Applejack stepped next to Twilight, removed her hat, nudged her forehead against the unicorn in subtle affection, and brought her voice to a near whisper. "...not only did you save the world, but you also gained five friends so close to you that they would would do absolutely anything to stay friends. Risk and reward, sugarcube."
Twilight froze. Proven or not, Applejack's theory certainly made more sense than anything she'd come up with in her life so far! "Anything?" she repeated.
"Anything. Which includes putting up with unexpected magical outbursts, as many times as it takes."
Twilight blushed. "Again, I'm really sorry about-"
"No need. In case it wasn't obvious from our talk, I forgave you 'bout an hour ago."
And finally, Twilight Sparkle, more than once called one of Equestria's greatest minds, was at a loss for words... except for one. "Applejack..."
The orange earth pony sat on Twilght's bed, and held out her hooves. "C'mere, girl. We both knew this was gonna happen sometime tonight."
Without a single word of protest, Twilight climbed up on Applejack's lap and was quickly warmed by her embrace. She hugged back, and the two nestled each others' heads together.
"Hey, Applejack?" Twilight murmured.
"What is it?"
"Could you... do me a favor and not tell the others about this?"
"Pinkie swear. But on one condition. And this one's non-negotiable."
"Done. What is it?"
"Applejack ran a hoof through Twilight's mane. "Don't let your or Celestia's hard work be in vain. Love yourself... just as much as we love you."
Twilight smiled. "I promise I'll do my best, but be warned... I'm still learning."
Applejack smiled back. "Wouldn't have it any other way."
With no idea how he had gotten there, Spike woke up in his own bed in Twilight's room. As soon as he realized where he was, he sat up and looked around frantically. "Twilight? Where are you?"
Twilight was gone. He looked at the clock by his side--an hour past noon. Seeing this, he jumped out of bed frantically, making a beeline for the door. "Yikes! I'm totally late!"
Honestly, why hadn't Twilight woken him? Who knew how many projects and lessons were being held back without his presence? Who was going to send progress reports to Princess Celestia-
And why did he just crash headfirst into a pile of jewels?
He came to his senses, got up, and gasped as he saw a wall of shiny baubles, in all colors of the rainbow, surrounding him from all sides.
Walking around, he spotted an envelope bearing Twilight's cutie mark on the front. He picked it up, took out the letter inside, and read it:
To The Best Dragon A Unicorn Ever Had:
One mountain of jewels, and one day off. You deserve more, but I prefer to have you back at my side as soon as possible... now and always. It appears I'm still lost without you.
Enjoy--and thank you for everything.
Ever Your Partner, Ever Your Friend,
Spike chuckled to himself. Twilight always overdid things--even the perks.
Just another reason why being her assistant was the best job ever, as far as he was concerned.