Twilight Sparkle was up late studying, again. After Winter Wrap Up had wrapped up, there was more time for everything. A pony could only prepare so much for the oncoming season, and much of the work had started to fall to the weather team. It seemed like everypony was spending most of their time just enjoying being able to leave their homes freely. Since the school was covering her room and board, there wasn't much for her to do but help out when someone asked. Not that she ever complained about a chance to read.
A knock came from the library door. Twilight blinked and floated her quill back to the desk before turning and glancing out the window to see Applejack peering right back.
"It's open," she said, giving the handle a little tug with her magic. "What are you doing out here so late?"
The orange pony trotted into the library, still standing tall in spite of the hour. She put on her best smile and tugged her hat down. "Oh, just burning the midnight oil. Gotta make sure all the crops are off to a good start."
"Uh huh." Twilight poured herself a cup of tea and offered one to Applejack, who stared at it for a moment before shaking her head. "Not that I mind, but it is a little odd to see you come by at night. Is there something you need help with?"
"There is, actually." Applejack sighed. "Fact of the matter is... well, I'm having a little trouble with one of my apple trees. Something's wrong and no one's got a lick of an idea what that is. So I was hoping maybe you could dig through some of your books for me."
It took a moment for Twilight to understand the gravity of the request. She sipped her tea, and then choked, nearly spilling the cup before letting it clatter on the table. The unicorn offered a smile to her friend, who was growing incredulous. "There's a few volumes on botany here," she said, "but I thought you knew... well, everything about apples and apple trees."
Applejack flustered. "I wouldn't go that far, Twi, but you're right that there isn't a lot I don't know. That's why this is a real stumper." She sighed a heavy sigh, head hanging. "This isn't easy for me, you know."
"I know," Twilight echoed. She put a hoof to her forehead and pondered. Spike was in bed. Anypony in their right mind was getting some sleep, and she was starting to get tired herself. "I promise I'll help you first thing in the morning."
The orange pony shook her head. "I don't think I'll be able to get a wink of sleep until I know what's going on with my dear Sunny."
Twilight muted a sigh. If it was that important to her friend, then she knew she wouldn't be able to just brush her off. The unicorn nudged Applejack's head up with her own. "Alright, then. Let's go have a look at her."
"Pardon?" Applejack blinked.
"I'm not going to have much luck finding what's wrong with them unless I can see exactly what it is we're looking for," Twilight explained.
"Oh," Applejack said. "Right then. I'll let you have a looksee, then we can fix her right up."
Twilight nodded. She cleaned her quill and put it away in a hurry, and magiced her scarf off of the stand and around her neck. Then she blew out the candles one by one and slipped out of the library with Applejack, careful not to wake Spike.
* * *
Sweet Apple Acres was a different world after dusk. What little light there was only served to further blot out the trees, casting them as shadows against the night sky. A light wind made the leaves rustle, a sound that seemed to stretch forever. Twilight stayed close to Applejack, finding her shelter from the chill and her overactive imagination.
"This place sure is different after sunset," Twilight said conversationally. Applejack chuckled.
"You think so? Guess I'm just used to it. Same old slice of home I've been seeing since I was a filly. Sometimes me or Mac gotta take rounds through the place after hours just to make sure it's safe. You wouldn't believe what I've caught someponies doing around here."
Twilight tilted her head. "Stealing apples?"
The earth pony blinked and then laughed, nudging her friend on the flank. "Uh, yeah. That's it, sugarcube. Now come along. We're just about there."
The two ponies crested another hill of trees. Twilight could tell right away why Applejack was worried about Sunny. There was barely a leaf left on the apple tree and certainly not any fruit. Its branches were sickly thin and ivory white, appearing even more gaunt and pale under the hanging moon.
"It looks like it's dying," Twilight said. She'd seeing dead trees in the orchard before, and usually Applejack went about the task of taking down and replacing them quietly, but with little protest. This one was different. Even Twilight's words seemed to bring up resistance in her.
"She's just sick," Applejack explained. She sat in front of the tree and put one hoof up on the trunk. "Not in any way I've ever seen a tree get sick before. 's real weird, too. Always seemed to be the healthiest even when the seasons got rough."
"That is weird." Twilight sat and stared up at the bare branches, at a tree that she would have written off as dead and gone the second she'd laid eyes on it. But if Applejack knew it was still hanging on, she wouldn't be willing to give up, either. "This tree... Sunny must mean a lot to you."
Applejack sighed and settled down between its roots, looking at the ground. "There are a lot of them around, I know. But this was the first tree I planted, Twi. The very first! I was younger'n Apple Bloom, and our folks were still around. Always all on about tradition and the responsibility of bringing on new life. Was just a bit of a pain at the time, but I kinda grew up with this tree in a way. Simpler times."
Twilight slipped in beside Applejack, resting in the dip between the roots She'd never heard her friend talk about her parents, good or bad.
The earth pony sighed and shook her head. "I just thought that she'd always be around. That some piece from the time... from my childhood would always be here. I've tried every last thing I can think of, though, and she ain't getting any better." Applejack tapped Twilight on the shoulder and forced a smile. "But I ain't giving up. That's where you gotta come in."
The unicorn touched a hoof against one of the roots that poked out of the ground. Hard as rock. Hard as bone. And she could sense something else in her horn. Like a spark of magic, oddly vibrant, in the ground below. She scuffed it. "Anything else you can tell me about what happened?"
"Not much more than you see here."
Twilight sighed. "Then I guess all we can do is hit the books."
She stood. Applejack did not. The earth pony tugged her hat down, thinking it might hide the blush in her ears.
"You don't mind if I stay just a couple more minutes, do you?"
Twilight rubbed her eyes. She was more fatigued than she'd thought, but she couldn't say no. She sat back down against her friend and watched the moon hanging overhead. Seeing Applejack bury her head against the tree made her stomach twist. The unicorn didn't think there was a way to help, and she desperately hoped that she was wrong.
* * *
It took Twilight the span of three candles to be certain what was wrong with the tree, all while Applejack hovered over one flank or the other and tried to make sense of all the fancy italicized words in the books.
"Encylopedia of Diseases... I'm not sure I like the ring of that title," the orange pony groused.
Twilight continued to flip through the pages. "Like you said, the tree is sick. With any luck we'll be able to find a cure."
"I think I like that idea." Applejack faded into a wide yawn. "Thanks Twi'. I don't know what I'd do without..."
A faint roll of a snore came from Applejack. Unfortunately, the pony had dozed off in one of her many insistent leans over Twilight in an attempt to be helpful. The unicorn sighed and slumped under the weight of her friend. After all that fuss she was out like a light, and no amount of wiggling seemed to rouse or dislodge the pony.
"Nnh? What are you two still doing up?"
Twilight looked up, bleary eyed, to see Spike looking in from the bottom step. She lifted a hoof to her nose and shushed the young dragon, who raised an eyebrow at the spontaneous pony pile. The dragonling tiptoed over and leaned in close.
"Could you get me that book over there?" she whispered, gesturing to a copy of Super Naturals. Spike promptly obliged. "Thanks," she said. "We didn't wake you up, did we?"
"No." Spike flustered. "Just needed to... get up, get some water. I'll be fine." he nudged Applejack with a claw. "She's out like a light."
"Probably hasn't slept in days," said Twilight. "I don't think I'll be able to make it upstairs tonight, Spike. Sorry."
"I'll manage." Spike smiled and snuck back to the library loft. Twilight flipped through page after page trying to find any way to approach the magical disease that was infecting the tree. Maybe if she could find a similar ailment and a cure that worked on ponies, she could make something work.
Familiar page after familiar page moved by in an increasing blur. She felt her eyes sinking shut. In the dim moments of the night she heard someone come back down the stairs and throw a blanket over her and Applejack. Then a quiet breath blew out the candle, and she fell asleep.
* * *
When Twilight woke up, Applejack was busy carefully pouring hot water from a pot to two cups. Neither of them felt like they'd gotten much of any sleep.
"I had Spike tell me what you fixed up in the mornings," said Applejack, nudging one of the cocoas in front of Twilight. "Ain't a warm cup of cider but if it'll put some life back in you, I ain't complaining."
The unicorn sipped at the tea and felt the heat creep through her. "Spike did? Where is he now?"
"Said he had to take care of some errands for you. New shipment of quills in today and all." Applejack sat at the table and tried to make herself drink in little sips. "So uh, hope I didn't keep you up too late. Did you find anything?"
Twilight buried her face in her drink. She would have to answer eventually. "Kind of."
"'Kind of'?" Applejack repeated.
"I figured out what was wrong with it," she said, and pushed one of the open books towards her friend. Applejack glanced at it, then back up at her.
"Just tell it to me straight."
"It's a magical disease," said Twilight, wincing at the words. "Sometimes it happens when something goes wrong making a cloud. Sometimes it's just a bad patch in the ground. No one's really sure exactly what causes it..."
"Well, now that you know, you can fix it, right?" Applejack leaned forward, eyes on Twilight. "... right?"
The unicorn shook her head. "No," she said. "I'm not even sure if we could have done anything if we knew right away. But the sickness has gotten into all of it. I'm surprised Sunny is still hanging on."
Applejack stared at her, scraped her hooves against the library floor. Twilight wished her friend would say something, break the tension and get it over with. The pony looked down and said nothing. Then she shoved one of the books aside with a hindleg and huffed.
"Just giving up like that, huh, Twi?" Applejack muttered. "I can't believe you."
"There's really nothing I can do," Twilight pleaded. "Magical diseases aren't very well understood as it is. If only we had more time..."
"You said it yourself, Sunny is still holding on," said Applejack, storming past Twilight. She kicked the door open and glanced back. "Holding on so somepony can help her. All that magic and none of it can help. I'm sorry I wasted your time, Twilight." Then Applejack fled, closing the library door just a little too hard.
Twilight crumpled at her desk and sniffed a breath. "Oh, Applejack..." she sighed. She knew it was going to be very hard for her friend. And she couldn't help but feel like if she looked a little bit harder, tried a little more, that there would be something she could do.
She lifted the stack of books to her desk with her horn, and several others on basic magic concepts, and flipped one over. The same words she'd looked at time and time again seemed meaningless now, as she tried to force herself to pry new answers out of them.
* * *
For the rest of the week Twilight devoted every bit of spare time to her studies, even resorting to looking at fairy tales of magic illnesses. It yielded nothing. She went as far as to ask Princess Celestia for advice, but her answer was discouraging.
I'm afraid there isn't much we understand about this ailment right now. With some close study, our scholars will be able to develop a treatment in time. Don't feel discouraged, though. Your friend still needs you in other ways.
And Twilight knew that her teacher was right. She was going to have to face Applejack again, and try to make up for lost time. With a sigh, she pushed herself away from her books, bleary eyed, and quaffed down a cup of tea before she forced herself out into the crisp Spring air.
All of the young ponies seemed to be out playing that day, taking advantage of the first sliver of warmth of the season. Twilight huddled her scarf a bit more and hurried down the road. What would she say when she got there? Maybe Applejack wouldn't be as mad as she thought.
"Twilight! Is that you?"
The unicorn looked back in time to see a pink pony prancing towards her.
"Oh, good," Pinkie continued. "Are you and Applejack fighting? I've barely seen either one of you for days. Maybe I need to get together with the rest of our friends and have an intervention. An intervention party?"
Twilight winced. "Fighting? Not really... kind of. Is she still mad?"
"Mad? I dunno," said Pinkie, tilting her head. "Last time I saw her she was leaving in an awful hurry, didn't want to see anyone. I think she might have been crying?"
"Oh," said Twilight. She could feel her own eyes watering. "It's just... something between the two of us. I should go talk to her."
The pink pony bounded ahead. "Good idea! I'll go with you, and together we can definitely cheer her up."
"I'm really..." Twilight Sparkle swallowed. "I need to talk to her in private--"
"Don't be silly, Twilight. She needs all of her friends right now."
"She's probably going to need more than that if I don't fix things." Twilight frowned. "Please."
Pinkie tilted her head until she was looking at Twilight upside down. Then she clapped her hooves together. "Righto! You might need the big guns. You go on ahead, and I'll try to find my tuba."
Twilight laughed nervously. "Thanks, I think."
"You're welcome!" Pinkie Pie chimed, then sprung off. Twilight shook her head and let it hang low as she trotted on. She hoped it wouldn't come to that. There were some things that not even a tuba could fix.
* * *
Applejack wasn't at the barn, but Twilight knew where to look. She traveled through the orchard, trying to remember the way to the hill where Sunny was planted. When she got there she couldn't believe her eyes.
The tree was gone. Applejack was standing at the edge of a field of fresh soil where it once stood, widening a sizable hole in it with her hooves. Twilight watched her work, preparing the soil in silence for a while. She couldn't go unnoticed forever, though. Eventually the earth pony looked up and saw her.
Applejack nearly knocked her over when she ran over to hug the startled unicorn. "Oh, Twilight. I was... gosh. I'm sorry."
Twilight blinked, struggling to stay up under the weight of her friend against her neck. "I-it's okay, really!"
"No it ain't." Applejack sighed and pulled her friend into a proper hug. "You did everything you could, I know that. And still I said some of the rottenest things to you after all you've done for us."
"You were grieving," Twilight said, squeezing Applejack close. "I don't hold it against you."
Applejack smiled and wiped a tear from her eye as she pulled back. "That ain't no excuse. I mean to make things right, though. Fact is I was about to go looking for you. Would've come sooner, but I didn't know how I could face you..."
"And it looks like you've been busy," Twilight said, looking down at the fresh soil. "What exactly is going on? What happened to..."
"Sunny? She was just an apple tree." Applejack smiled around the words that seemed to hurt her coming out. "No, I know it isn't true, but in the end I had to let her go. Looks like she took most of whatever was in the soil out of it... probably saved a buncha the other trees." She drew a deep breath and looked at the orchard around them. "So in a way it's probably best. The princess asked if I wouldn't mind letting Canterlot U take Sunny and try to work on a cure, in case this sorta thing pops up again. I couldn't hardly say no to that, could I?"
Twilight cleared her throat. "Sorry, that's my fault. I kind of..."
"Hush now," Applejack said. "You were trying your best to help and it really means a lot to me. Truly. But the time has come to move on. That is, if you'll forgive me and all."
The unicorn leaned in and bumped her nose against Applejack's cheek. "Oh, Applejack. I already have."
The two sat next to each other and looked over the farm, the orchard, all of it, ready for a new year of growing. There would be so much work, and so much of Ponyville depended on the crops that would be grown there. They all had their part to play to make life in Equestria as good as possible.
Twilight glanced back at the fresh patch of dirt again. "What are you working on here?" she wondered.
Applejack chuckled. "Well, that's part of what I was gonna fetch you for. Just wait a minute. She ought to be along any second now..."
Twilight blinked in confusion. And not soon after her friend spoke, Apple Bloom poked into view, hauling a small wagon with a young apple sapling inside of it.
"Now why'd you have me haul this all the way up here for?" she groused. "I'm gonna be late for the next Crusaders meeting."
Applejack helped her sister off of the wagon and tugged it over to the hole. "I know, and I'll apologize to 'em for ya. This is important, though. Was younger than you when I put my first apple tree in, and I didn't think much of it at the time, but it was something really important to me."
"Don't see why you didn't just let big brother Macintosh do it..." the young filly grumbled.
"Come on." Applejack gave her sister a little bump to the flank. "It won't take long. Just think, we're gonna give this tree a place to live and take care of it, and it'll take care of us. As a family." She tilted her head to Twilight. "You, too, sugarcube. Get on in here."
Twilight cautiously hoofed her way over. The three of them together held the tree upright before carefully guiding it to its new home. They planted it and took care in getting it secure in the soil until Applejack was happy. It didn't take long at all, and soon a new tree was in the place where Sunny had grown for all those years.
Apple Bloom was the first to break the silence. "Well, you gonna name it?" she asked, eyebrow raised. Her sister laughed.
"Probably. You got any suggestions?"
The yellow filly hummed. "Why not Apple Bloom? Since it's supposed to be so important to me and all."
Applejack shook her head. "Now we can't be getting the two of you confused," she said, with more than a little gravity in her voice. If something bad happened to a tree named after her sister, Twilight imagined it would be all the more painful. "Why don't we compromise?" Applejack continued. "How about 'Apple Blossom.'"
"That's good," said Apple Bloom, shrugging. Still, she reached up and brushed one of the tree's leaves. "Hear that, Blossom? We're gonna take good care of you from now on." Then she flustered and looked up at her sister. "Can I go now?"
Applejack straightened her hat. "That'll be all," she assured the little filly. "You can run along and play, just be back by suppertime."
"Thanks, sis!" Apple Bloom smiled, all too happy to get back to her day, and galloped out of the orchard.
Twilight was still staring at the tree. "I'm not sure I understand why you wanted me to be here. Not that I don't appreciate it..."
Applejack shook her head and put a hoof up against Twilight. "I thought I made myself plenty clear, Twi. Planting trees is something we've always done together on the farm, and ever since you've come here you've always been there for us. 'course we consider you part of the family."
The unicorn felt herself go flush. Family? Had she really become that close to her friend? Still, it felt right. She couldn't help but smile and cry a little in the same breath. "Applejack," she breathed. "Thank you. But I... I don't know how things are going to go. I might not be in Ponyville all my life..."
Applejack gave her a little headbutt. "Don't matter. You'll always be a part of Ponyville, and part of the farm. It's too late to change your mind." She chuckled and kissed the unicorn on the cheek. "You'll always be welcome here, Twilight Sparkle."
Twilight squeezed Applejack with all the strength a unicorn could muster. "Thank you," she said again. She was beginning to realize that Ponyville was more than a place where her friends lived. It was another home. Her friends, another family, and being with them made her incredibly happy. Even if she would have to leave, someday, they would still be there, and she was going to cherish them forever.
"I think Pinkie Pie is worried sick about us," said Twilight, "after all the fuss we made. We should probably let her know things are okay before she does something drastic."
Applejack leaned away and lifted her ear to the wind. The two of them could pick up the faint sound of tuba music. "Looks like we're too late," she chuckled. "Suppose we just gotta bite the bark and see what she's come up with this time."
They laughed, and turned towards Ponyville together. "You aren't too busy?" Twilight wondered.
"Never too busy for my friends," Applejack winked. "And certainly never for one of Pinkie's making-up parties."
The two continued to yammer happily as they followed the road back to town. Their friendships, like all the best, would be a part of them forever.