"The spirits of the Elements of Harmony are right here!"
Applejack wasn't sure what Twilight was talking about, but she knew the unicorn needed her help, and as she took her place beside her newest friend, she knew she wasn't going to back down now. The little piles of stone at Nightmare Moon's hooves began to glow with a mysterious light, much to the dark mare's bewilderment. "Applejack, who reassured me when I was in doubt, represents the spirit of Honesty!" Twilight continued. Several stones began circling the orange earth pony, glowing with a strange orange light.
Twilight continued to highlight each pony's strengths, from Fluttershy's kindness to Rainbow Dash's loyalty. Another orb appeared in the air above her and transformed into a magnificent crown. Together, the six ponies unleashed the magic of the Elements of Harmony, stripping Nightmare Moon of her dark powers once and for all.
The effort took a lot out of them, but it didn't take them long to recover. "Gee, Twilight," Applejack said once everypony had calmed down a little. "I thought you were just spoutin' a lot o' hooey, but I reckon we really do represent the elements of friendship."
It was a lie.
Of course it was a lie. Sure, everypony thought she was an honest, hard-working, strong-willed farm pony, but as Applejack stared at her reflection, she had to face reality. When you got down to it, she wasn't any more honest than anypony else. The only difference was her lies mattered.
Applejack stared into her own green eyes for a long time. The sun was setting, and shadows were creeping up the green floral-print wallpaper that decorated her room. Her old Stetson hung over her green lamp on the nightstand. In front of her lay a blue brush. She undid the red ribbon that held her mane in a ponytail and let the yellow hair fall naturally over her shoulder. Her eyes never left her own image in the mirror.
She carefully strapped the brush to her hoof and began running it through her mane in a slow, familiar rhythm, knocking loose several stray twigs and leaves that had lodged themselves in her mane during the day. All the while, her green eyes stared back at her, forcing her to face the truth. The Element of Honesty had chosen her, or so Twilight and the princess had said. She had used that privilege to save Equestria not once, but twice, so it must have been true. But always in the back of her mind was that doubt, that question that she could never ask or answer. Why?
Applejack saw the stallion walking up to the farmhouse and ran outside to meet him. "Pa! Pa! Guess what Big Mac and I did today? Guess!"
"Slow down there, Jackie," Pa said with a laugh. "Your daddy's had a long day."
"Aw, come on," Applejack pressed, skipping alongside her father. "I'll give you a hint. It has to do with the southeast orchard."
"The southeast orchard, huh?" Pa repeated. One look at the mountain of apples in the barn told him everything he needed to know, but he decided to humor his daughter. "Let's see. Did you catch a rabbit?"
"Nope!" Applejack answered with a giggle. "Guess again!"
"Hmm." Pa scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Did you find buried treasure?"
"Pa!" Applejack fell to the ground, her laughter doubling. "Come on! One more guess!"
"Gee, I dunno, honey," Pa said, laughing along with her.
"Pa, Applejack and I finished buckin' the southeast orchard," said Big Mac as he trotted out of the barn.
"Big Mac!" Applejack yelled, glaring up at her older brother. "You ruined the surprise!"
"You two did that? All by yourselves?" Pa smiled at his children, though they weren't smiling at each other at the moment. "You must have worked hard today. I bet you're plum tuckered out."
"Naw, I could buck them apples all day," Big Mac replied.
"Yeah, right!" Applejack said. "You're the one who wanted to quit halfway through!"
"What do you know?" Big Mac demanded. "All you do is carry the baskets."
"Now, now, kids," Pa said. "Don't you start fightin'. You know your mama hates it when you quarrel."
"Yes, Pa," the two youngsters murmured.
"Good. Go get cleaned up for supper. I'm sure your mama has whipped up somethin' delicious."
Applejack felt the brush snag on a tangle of hair. She carefully worked her way through it until it came undone. The brush caught in the same place for a couple more strokes before it ran smoothly once again. If only every tangle and twig could be worked out so easily.
Apple Bloom's laughter drifted into the room from somewhere outside. Applejack stopped brushing and gave her reflection a hard stare. Her sister had never asked her about their parents, not directly anyway, but Applejack knew she'd had plenty of opportunities to tell her. Granny Smith and Big Mac knew, but they wouldn't tell. They would leave it to Applejack, and no matter what she told herself, Applejack couldn't bring herself to tell her sister the truth about what had happened. She didn't need another angry, accusing glare to haunt her memories.
"Applejack, dear, will you fetch me that pie tin?"
Applejack retrieved the tin with a sigh and resumed staring glumly at the countertop. "This is borin'," she murmured.
"Well, somepony has to do it," Ma said as she placed a carefully-crafted pie crust in the tin. "We can't all be out in the orchard. Otherwise, who would cook?"
"But why do I have to stay inside?" Applejack asked, hoping her pleading stare would convince her mother to let her venture outdoors. "I'm no good at cookin'."
"Pony feathers," Ma said with a chuckle. "You're the best apple slicer I've ever seen."
"I don't want my cutie mark in apple slicin'," Applejack muttered as she picked up the knife and resumed her work.
"Well, what's wrong with that, sugar cube?" Ma asked as she filled her pie crust with apples. "Your Granny Smith has a pie-making cutie mark."
"But that's not me!" Applejack cried.
"Well, then you've nothin' to worry about," Ma replied, placing the top crust on the pie before sliding it carefully into the oven. Soon, the smell of fresh apple pie filled the kitchen, making Applejack's stomach rumble. "Whatever your talent is, you'll find it soon enough."
Applejack winced as a beam of sunlight bounced off the mirror and struck her eyes. She walked to the window and pulled the blue flower-print curtains closed. She caught a glimpse of Big Mac hauling some apples towards the house. It looked like Granny Smith was getting ready for another batch of apple pies, but Applejack didn't feel like helping, not today. Besides, Apple Bloom was more than happy to slice apples.
A photo on her nightstand caught her gaze. It was an old picture of her mother's brother and his wife, her Aunt and Uncle Orange. The memory of her brief stay in Manehattan brought a momentary smile to her face, but that smile disappeared when she remembered why she'd left in the first place. She returned to her mirror and continued brushing her mane, though she knew she'd done it for long enough already. The feel of the bristles running through her hair helped her remember a time before she learned what her lies could do.
"Hold still," Ma said, trying to hold Applejack in place with one hoof and brush her mane with the other.
"But Ma, Pa said I'd be workin' in the orchard today," Applejack protested, crossing her forelegs with a scowl.
"That's no excuse to leave the house with a messy mane, even if there is a big storm coming in tonight," her mother replied, tying Applejack's mane back with a piece of ribbon. "There. You look lovely."
Applejack kept pouting, but when she looked in the mirror, she had to admit Ma was right. "Can I go now?"
Ma sighed. "All right, but be careful." Applejack leapt to her hooves and bolted from the room before Ma could change her mind.
"Pa! I'm ready!" Applejack shouted as she skidded to a halt in the barn.
"There's my Jackie," Pa said with a smile. "You ready to hit the Braeburns?"
"'Course I'm ready!" Applejack paused and raised an eyebrow at him. "You mean the apples, not my cousin, right?"
Pa chuckled. "Right."
"Good! I'll go get my baskets."
"Hold up there," Pa said. "I have something for you." Applejack turned to see him pull a brand-new Stetson out of his saddlebag. "I know how much you love mine, so I decided to get you your own. What do you think?"
Applejack's eyes widened, and she had to remind herself to breathe. "My very own Stetson?" she gasped.
"Your very own."
Applejack squealed and leapt at her father, wrapping her forelegs around his neck as far as they would go. "Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"Anythin' for my little Jackie," Pa replied as he placed the hat on his daughter's head. "Run along now. I'll see you out in the orchard."
She stopped brushing her mane and turned around. Apple Bloom was standing in the doorway. "Hey there," Applejack said, putting on her best smile. "Is somethin' the matter?"
Apple Bloom pawed at the floor. "I was just wonderin' if I could ask you about somethin'," she muttered.
"Sure thing, sugar cube," Applejack answered. "What is it?"
"Well, I was wonderin'," Apple Bloom started. "Why did you decide to leave Sweet Apple Acres and live with Aunt and Uncle Orange?"
Applejack blinked a couple times before turning quickly to face the mirror and continue brushing her mane. "I already told you. I wanted to get a taste of the city life."
"But why?" Apple Bloom asked as she walked closer.
"T-There's no reason," Applejack said quickly. "I just wanted a change of scenery. Yeah. That's it."
"You don't sound too sure," Apple Bloom said.
"Oh, I'm sure."
"Don't you think you're brushin' your mane a little too quickly?"
Applejack threw the brush down next to the mirror. "Apple Bloom, I've had a very long day, and I don't need anypony questionin' my answers. I went to Manehattan to see what it was like, and when I didn't like it, I came back to the farm. End of story."
Applejack picked up the brush and ran it furiously through her mane while Apple Bloom stared at her. "Well, fine," the filly said at last. "Granny Smith said to tell you supper'll be ready soon."
"I'll be down in a minute."
Apple Bloom sighed and walked out of the room. Applejack watched her go out of the corner of her eye, her brush coming to a halt mid-stroke. The farm pony let out a long sigh and buried her face in her forelegs. It was yet another lie to add to her growing collection.
"How're you doin', Jackie?" Pa asked, wiping the sweat from his brow.
"Great, Pa," Applejack said, forcing her mouth to make a smile. She understood now why her father liked his Stetson so much. The sun showed no mercy to ponies, and the wide-brimmed hat kept the sun out of her eyes no matter which way she turned.
"You're lookin' a little beat," Pa said with a laugh.
"Uh-uh," Applejack replied with a vehement shake of her head. "I'm ready to handle everything."
Pa smiled at her, but his smile quickly vanished when he looked up at the sky. "Was that storm today?" he muttered.
Applejack followed his gaze and gasped. A wall of black storm clouds drifted slowly towards the farm with an occasional flash of lightning. "What do we do, Pa?" she asked.
"I want you to head home," Pa said. "Tell your mother I'll be there soon. I have a couple things I need to take care of out here."
"But what about the apples?" Applejack asked. "That storm could cause a lot of damage."
"Apples grow back every year, Jackie," Pa replied. "Promise me you'll run straight home."
Applejack's mouth hung open for a moment. "I promise," she said at last.
Pa nodded. "I'll see you when I get home," he said before turning and galloping away.
Applejack began her journey home, passing tree after tree bursting with fruit waiting to be bucked. Pa and Big Mac worked so hard to take care of the trees, and this storm was going to ruin it all. The words of her promise echoed in her mind, but she had no intention of honoring them, not quite yet. It would only take a moment to buck a couple more trees, and then she would head home.
Supper was unusually and uncomfortably quiet, and Applejack excused herself quickly. She lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering if perhaps anypony was looking back at her. Turning her head to the side, her gaze rested on her beat-up Stetson, still lying on the lamp where she'd left it. No matter how long she lived, she would never forget the day her father had given it to her. It was a gift from a loving father, and she'd turned it into the hat of a liar, a pony unworthy of the love of the stallion from whom it came.
Applejack heard a knock at her door. She turned to see Apple Bloom poking her head in. "Hey, sis," she said, "I'm sorry about makin' you upset earlier."
Applejack closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. "It's nothin', Apple Bloom. I was just in a bad mood is all."
Apple Bloom took this as a good sign and walked inside. "Applejack, why don't Big Mac and Granny Smith talk about Ma and Pa?"
Applejack didn't notice how close the storm clouds were until the first raindrops struck her orange coat. She walked quickly, telling herself she still had time. A flash and a boom immediately let her know that wasn't true. She ran through the orchard, dropping several apples as she went.
"It's a hard thing to talk about," Applejack said.
Apple Bloom sat down next to the bed. "I know, but I feel like I don't really know them," the filly said. "I know Ma died a little after I was born, but nopony will tell me anything about Pa."
Something squeezed Applejack's chest, making it hard to breathe or think clearly. She didn't know what it was, but she somehow knew it would go away once she reached the farmhouse. Lightning flashed again and again. A dying tree just ahead tipped and fell. Applejack darted around it, but a sudden yank on her mane brought her to a screeching stop. Her apples flew through the air and landed with little squelches on the muddy ground. She tugged against the branches that held her mane, but after the day's work, she didn't have the strength to free herself. "Help!"
Applejack took several deep breaths to calm her racing heart. "You all right, sis?" Apple Bloom asked. Applejack squeezed her eyes shut and turned her face away from her sister. How could she lie yet again to someone she loved so deeply? But how could she possibly tell her the truth?
"Somepony! Help me!"
"Jackie!" Pa's distant voice carried through the wind and somehow reached Applejack's ears. There he was, charging toward her as though the storm was powerless to slow him down. "Jackie! Are you all right?"
"My mane! It's stuck!" Applejack cried. Pa grabbed her mane in his teeth and yanked hard. Her mane broke free with the loud snapping of wood, and she shook her head vigorously to get rid of the twigs and branches tangled in her hair.
"Come on," Pa said, pushing her forward with his nose. "Let's get home before this storm gets any worse."
"Applejack, talk to me!"
The farmhouse came into sight after what felt like hours of running. Applejack had long since lost track of which drops of water on her face were raindrops and which ones were her tears. "Come on, Jackie," Pa gasped. "Just a little further."
Applejack's hoof struck a stone, and she hit the muddy ground with a grunt. She heard her father's hooves slide to a stop next to her. A second later, her fur stood on end as a lightning bolt struck a nearby tree. The next thing she knew, she was flying through the air, the sounds of snapping wood and raging wind filling her ears. There was a loud thud when she hit the ground. By the time she got to her hooves, she could no longer see her father, only the tree that lay where he'd stood a moment before.
Applejack tried not to let her body shake, for Apple Bloom's sake. She felt the filly's hoof on her shoulder and squeezed her eyes tighter, willing the tears to stop. "What's wrong, sis?" Apple Bloom asked. Applejack took a deep breath and met her sister's wide eyes with her own. How could she tell her? How could she not? She looked at the mirror once again. Her eyes were red and puffy, and her mane was starting to get tangled again.
"It was my fault," she whispered.
Apple Bloom frowned. "What was your fault?"
Applejack couldn't bear to look at her own reflection. "It's my fault he's dead."
Ma refused to let Applejack leave the house, and for once, the orange filly didn't argue. She watched from her window as four stallions cleared away the fallen tree while Ma and Big Mac watched. She couldn't get a good look at what was going on, but her mother's anguished cries were more than enough for her.
Applejack turned away from the window and looked at her muddy Stetson, which lay on the floor near her bed. She picked it up and put it on before crossing the room to look at herself in the mirror. Her mane and coat were coated in muck, and for a moment, she couldn't believe she was really looking at her own reflection. This wasn't her. This was the face of a pony who broke her promises. This was the face of a pony who put her loved ones in danger. She tore the Stetson off her head and threw it across the room. Pa had given that hat to Applejack, not the imposter who looked back at her from the glass.
Applejack heard the stairs creek and ran to her door. Big Mac was walking slowly up the steps, his head bowed. "What is it?" Applejack asked. "Did they find him?"
Applejack gulped. "Is he
Applejack took a step back. Big Mac's accusing glare was more than she could bear. She slammed the door shut behind her and huddled on the floor, trying not to hyperventilate. "Pa," she whispered, as though saying his name would make everything okay. "Pa, come back."
She didn't know how much time passed before Granny Smith quietly opened her bedroom door. "I brought you lunch, dear," she said softly, placing an apple and daisy sandwich on the floor beside her. "Bring your plate down when you're done." Applejack stared at the sandwich for a long time. The next day, she returned the plate to the kitchen.
"I was runnin' away, Apple Bloom," Applejack said. She couldn't believe how much she'd just told her little sister, but once she started, it was almost impossible to stop. "After what happened, I couldn't bear to face Ma and Big Mac. So I ran away to the city, hopin' to leave the past behind me."
"So why did you come back?" Apple Bloom asked. "What changed?"
Applejack let out a heavy sigh as she watched the sun rise over Manehattan. She didn't like the city. Everypony was so polite and sophisticated, and she was just a little lost farm pony failing to fit in. She thought leaving her memories behind would help her forget the hole in her heart, but it had only grown worse.
She heard a loud boom, and as she watched, a rainbow flew across the sky towards a small town in the distance. She squinted and realized it was Ponyville, and right then, she decided to leave the city behind. She thanked her aunt and uncle for their hospitality and ran all the way to Sweet Apple Acres. She didn't know what she would do or say when she got there, but of one thing she was certain. If there was any place that could fill that hole, it was home.
Granny Smith and Big Mac were waiting for her when she arrived. "Howdy," she gasped. "I'm back."
"And we're glad to see you," Granny Smith said with a smile, wrapping her granddaughter in her embrace. "Big Mac here's been lost without you to help him buck the apples."
Applejack was hesitant to look at her brother after the glare he'd given her that fateful day. To her surprise, he was smiling at her. A couple tears slid down her face as she hugged him. "I'm sorry, Big Mac. It was all my fault."
Big Mac shook his head. "Nope."
Applejack smiled up at him. "So you forgive me?"
"There's my little Applejack." The orange filly turned to see Ma walking towards her, her belly bulging. "Welcome home."
"Ma, what happened to you?" Applejack asked. "Don't tell me you've been eatin' all Granny's pies."
"Oh, no," Ma said with a chuckle. "It's nothing like that."
"You're going to have a younger sister in a few weeks," Granny Smith said with a wink. Applejack gasped. Ma just smiled.
"You have her mane, you know," Applejack said. Apple Bloom glanced up at her red mane and smiled. "She didn't get to spend a lot of time with you, but she loved you just as much as me and Big Mac."
Apple Bloom didn't say anything as she continued to brush her sister's mane. She'd even inherited her mother's touch with the brush. Applejack looked in the mirror, and for one strange moment, she thought it was her mother patiently working the tangles out of her mane. If only she'd appreciated it more back then.
"Pa really was a great pony, wasn't he?" Apple Bloom said at last.
"He sure was," Applejack agreed. For the first time in years, she felt a smile coming to her face at the mention of his name. "He was the best stallion I ever knew. I just wish you could have met him."
"Maybe I have," Apple Bloom said. Applejack looked at her sister with a frown. "Granny Smith says you're just like him."
"'Stubborn as a bull, but with a heart of gold,'" Apple Bloom explained, doing a decent impression of Granny Smith. Applejack giggled. "I reckon if I don't have a father, at least I have the best big sister a filly could ask for."
"Aw, shucks," Applejack said, trying to hide her blush. "I wouldn't say that."
"Well, I would," Apple Bloom replied. "And since I'm the one with the big sister, I'm the one who gets to decide."
"All right," Applejack said with a laugh. "I think you've brushed my mane enough. Off to bed. You have school tomorrow."
Apple Bloom unfastened the brush from her hoof and placed it carefully by Applejack's mirror. "Good night, big sister."
"Good night," Applejack replied. Apple Bloom shut the door behind her, leaving Applejack alone with her thoughts. She grabbed her worn-out Stetson and walked towards her mirror. Bags were starting to form under her eyes, but as the orange mare studied her reflection, it seemed more familiar somehow.
There was a knock at the door, followed by a creak as somepony pushed it open. Big Mac stood in the doorway, yoke around his neck. Applejack frowned, wondering what he wanted.
"The baskets," Big Mac said.
"Oh. Right." Applejack wondered how she could have forgotten. "We said we'd put 'em out tonight so we could get an early start tomorrow."
"All right, I'll be down in a moment." She heard Big Mac walking down the stairs. Applejack tied back her mane and put on her Stetson. Now that she thought about it, she did look a bit like her father. The thought made her smile. "Well, Pa, it's time to buck the Braeburns again," she said softly. With a chuckle, she added, "The apples, of course. Not my cousin." She gave herself a tip of her hat and walked away. She'd told the truth. The hole was gone. She had a lot of work to do.