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A Humble Return [Closed, SteelEagle]

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Naj arrived in Ponyville, feeling somewhat anxious.  The place was an old home of hers, and it had never really lost those positive connotations.  It was her situation, on the other hoof, that was weighing on her nerves.  Simply put, she was late.  Very late.  Days late.  Or so she believed.  That was the other part of her anxiety: her recent schedule had left her a bit of a mess, and while she'd known there was an important event she was supposed to come down here for, she'd forgotten exactly when that was.

 

As the train pulled into the station, she pushed down her anxiety and gathered her things.  She knew Applejack didn't appreciate her being in disguise, even if other ponies often seemed to prefer it that way and even if she wasn't doing it so much to hide so much as to 'put on a friendly face'.  And so, while it wasn't doing any good for her nerves she was going without, at least for this trip.  Things were getting easier for changelings from what she could tell, but it would be a while before she could kick that particular habit.

 

Naj's bag, now thrown over the changeling's back, was filled more than usual.  She wasn't sure how long she'd be here, and there were a couple things she didn't quite want leave alone if she was going to be out for a few days, so she brought them with her.  She was wearing fairly heavy clothing.  She could handle the cold, but she wasn't particularly suited for it.  Secretly though, she was also hoping it would add a bit of a barrier between anyone who sees her without outright hiding her appearance.  Finally, she had a well wrapped package with her, mostly to prevent damage, which she picked up last.  She took one last look around the room, making sure she'd left nothing behind, before making her way off the train.

 

Naj was familiar with Ponyville, so she didn't spend any time sightseeing, or needing to spend any time finding her way through the town, so it didn't take her any particular length of time to get from the train station to her destination.  Or at least, it didn't take any extra time until she reached the orchard itself.  There she hesitated.  She was a little nervous coming here, having missed an important opportunity before.  But hesitation was unbecoming of a soldier, and in this case only delayed the inevitable.  She stepped in, moving up to the farmhouse, before knocking on the door.

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It had been a busy few days for Applejack. Like most of her life, events transpired in rapid succession after long periods of modest stillness and humility replaced by being the center of everypony's attention. Unlike saving the world or being called on to guard a Princess however, she at least could plan on part of it. She knew when the wedding would be months in advance, of course. That part was easy. And being pregnant? Well, she knew all about that. And between it being magically aided and ballparkin' based off of Zap Apple, she knew it would happen around the time of the wedding. So two days after the wedding when she went into labor, she wasn't shocked. And a full day afterwards when Ambrosia Apple was born, she wasn't shocked. She was just really, really tired.

 

Not that she'd let it stop her. It had been a rough labor and delivery and everypony in the whole world demanded she remain in the hospital but Applejack couldn't help herself, she had to get home. The most they could extract from her when she was released the next day was a promise for her to not work the fields or overextend herself . She was trapped when they asked for her to give them her word, but if it meant she could go home, so be it. She was escorted home and fell asleep for what felt like forever, waking up only fitfully to take care of her newborn and look at Rainbow Dash in a potion-induced haze. Now, on the fifth day, she was up and about and out in the fields. Not working them, just examining them. The outdoors did her some good, that was for sure.

 

Her body was still in a good deal of pain and she was more fatigued physically than she had ever been before. Ambrosia had been very comfortable and didn't really want to come out after she had decided to set it all in motion. What a beautiful and demanding little princess. She was still dealing with the occasional well-wisher and letter from abroad regarding the wedding, let alone the birth. Being outside gave her, oddly enough, just a tiny bit of that ol' privacy she used to have. And a little time to relax. She walked gingerly to a tree and prepared to rest against it, a nap in nature. But even as she went to lay down her eyes caught the image of somepony at the front of the house, knocking on the door. Well, luckily RD was inside napping with Ambrosia. Nothing'd wake them up.

 

She squinted- oh, it was Naj! He was good folk, that one. She still remembered her anger at his revelation of being a Changeling. Not the fact he was one. She would be the first to admit there was a time when she had a well-earned bias against 'em but that died off much quicker than it was built up. Nah, she was just upset 'cause she didn't much like living a lie. For all of that he was a good fellow and they had become good friends. He had been invited to the wedding and she was a little let down he couldn't make it, but he was busy. She knew all too well the time costs of being a Guard or in the REA. Grunting, she removed herself from her half-sloped position and started walking back towards the door.

 

"Howdy there, stranger," she said with a weary chuckle, the bags under her eyes and ginger pace not conducive to the greeting he deserved. "What, did mah invitation get lost in tha mail?" She said as she got close. "Nice ta see, Naj."

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Naj jumped a bit at the sudden voice to her side, having been expecting the door in front of her to open rather than having someone approach her from another angle.  Whether from self-control or some sort of exhaustion, her reaction was fairly muted.  “Ahh!  Hello!  Good to see you too, it's been a bit hasn't it?”

 

The changeling grins at first, though her face falls a bit at the topic of the wedding invitation.  She didn't really want to talk about it, but it was kind of the entire reason she was here.  So, while there was some hesitation, it wasn't long before she pushed forward to a reply.  “...No, I got it.  I just...wasn't able to make it in time for the wedding itself.  Sorry.”

 

She reaches behind her for a moment, and retrieves the package she'd been carrying, and holds it out in front of her.  “I, um, I heard it was customary to bring gifts.  I wasn't sure what, so I played it safe and brought pasty.  Pumpkin pie, I figured anything remotely apple related wouldn't remotely compare to what you already make here.”  She falters a little, adding, “I hope it's acceptable.”

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Applejack finished getting close and she immediately went in and gave her friend a hug, one with the strength that she possessed normally and none of the weariness that she felt. "Been far too long, more like it!" She said as she let him go. "Ah reckon its been...gosh, Ah seem ta have lost track a time, but it might as well be years. Lookin' good, though!" She said as her face lit with a smile, exposing the many bags and lines that now marked it. She even managed to keep it up despite Naj saying she just couldn't make it. Well, that may as well have been enough. They barely had enough food as it was. She'd look on the bright side of it at least. It hurt not having friends show up to something so important, but she couldn't expect it from all of them.

 

"Ah understand. Reckon you couldn't get out of yer bein' a Guard an' such. Ah understand it. Ah'm rearing ta get back ta tha Twilight Guard mahself. Come on inside," she said as she opened the door and ushered her in. The house was...well, maybe calling it a mess was a bit much, but certainly not tidy. All the evidence of a young colt and a recent party of some size being cleaned up with unusual tardiness was there. Also there? a recently used changing tables and some still-settling pictures of a newborn unicorn filly. What interested Applejack most was this pie. She licked her lips. "Pumpkin pie? Well, shuck me clean and call me a cornstalk if that don't just sound tha tastiest," she said as she took it into the kitchen. She'd have to find a place for it among the other sealed pies. She had been in a bit of a baking craze before the wedding! She found a space for it and, overcome by a sudden bout of exhaustion, found a seat on the couch. 

"Thank ya kindly for that- oh, fiddlesticks. Ah forget- want anythin' ta drink?" 

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Naj scratched the back of her head.  “Yeah, that's about the short of it.  My schedule lately has been...a bit of a mess.  I got the letter, I wish I could have gotten here sooner, but...”

 

She followed the farmpony inside, taking note, but making no immediate comment, on the state of it.  For the most part she just listened to Applejack talk.  She did start to move to catch the farmpony when the latter seemed suddenly tired, a look of concern on the changeling's face, but AJ was already seated by the time she could have done something. “You, erm, you look like you've seen better days.  I guess that's motherhood for you.  Though you seem happy, and that's probably most important.  Drinks...maybe I should be getting those.  Give you a moment to rest.  Otherwise, I'm not picky.  Anything you were thinking of having?”

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"Aww, that's real nice of ya. Sure, Ah reckon Ah can stay back if you wanna get tha drinks, thinkin' some water. Y'all know where it all is," she said as she leaned back into her chair, stuffing away all the pain (even though she had plenty of help). She didn't feel all that good about having a guest serve her but she wasn't silly enough to think it wasn't the smarter idea. And if there was anything else in the world worse at that very moment than getting up, she didn't know what it was, nor did she want to!

 

"Ah reckon Ah haven't had a better day or set of 'm in mah whole life," she said reflexively, but no less true. She was still in the afterglow and she had known her daughter for just so long yet she'd already kick a wolf in the aw for her. "Just gave birth to lil' Ambrosia. Married five days ago...feels like a whole generation. Went inta labor three days ago, gave birth ta mah lil' daughter two days ago. An' that was a whole day a'labor ta boot. She was really comfortable in thar. Ah'm still on a lot of potions for, uhh, pain Ah guess. An' they're telling me ta not work tha fields for a bit," she snorted, rolling her eyes as she did. "'Magine that! Me, not bucking some apple trees. Why, they're as nutty as a snake in a..." she lost her train of thought, then shook her head. "Well, they're crazy, that's tha point. Anythin' excitin' happenin' yer way?"

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Naj nodded happily and moved to the kitchen.  Water was fairly straightforward, and so while she wasn't familiar with the Apple family kitchen she didn't feel the need to get additional instruction.  Though she did start calling back a reply to what AJ was saying.  “I hear that,” she said with a bit of amusement in her voice, “I don't know what I'd do if I was told I have to just drop guard duty.”

 

As she brings a pair of mostly full cups back, passing one to the farmpony, Naj adds, “I can't help but imagine it's better for the foal though, so they're probably right, in the long run.”  She shakes her head.  “Can't say I've been eager to have a child myself, but maybe that's a motherhood thing.”  She settles herself down into one of the seats, before continuing.  “I've been...investigating.  There are a lot of weird little things happening around the continent, things noted but that aren't obviously a sign of an issue.  I've found myself with some free time, I've been following up on them.  A lot of them are duds, but a few of them...” she falters a bit, before continuing, “a few of them have left a mark on me, you could say.”

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Applejack leaned back in her chair, getting lost in the home-spun comfort that she so often bragged about and so rarely took the time to enjoy. It was helped with good company and Naj was always good company. Well, not always. It would be a lie to say that she had always been as good a friend as the changeling deserved, or that she hadn't harbored some hard-earned prejudice for some time. That had melted and been discarded in time and she was happy to have Naj here. Talk about somecreature who knew the value of hard work and a drive to do better than you did before! As he went into the kitchen to get her a drink and she laid back and allowed her screaming insides to settle for a while, she took a breath, closed her eyes, and listened.

 

Something was off. Naj wasn't entirely settled with recent events. She was currently on vacation with the Twilight Guard and wasn't privy to as much information as she could normally claim. But she knew that when a Guard like Naj had an inkling about something and started acting on it and was finding something that left an impact, she knew better than to try and play it off. As frazzled as she was, there was always that reserve of stern stuff that an Apple was made of and if she had to summon it for Naj, all the better for a friend. She got her water- "Thank ya kindly,"- and took a deep sip and leaned back a second, taking a deep breath and allowing the pause to settle herself. "Alright. What is it that yer huntin' down?"

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Naj was starting to settle in, and had at least sat down in another seat, when AJ asked the question.  “Well, it's not really anything specific.  I've been looking into a lot of different, scattered things.  Been running all over Equestria looking into a lot of scattered things.  I might just be tired from running around everywhere chasing leads down.”

 

Then the changeling paused.  “But, knowing you you probably won't buy that.  'Element of Honesty' and all that.”  She sighed, and then leaned forward.  “You ever heard of Yokai?  Some kind of...” Naj waved a hoof in the air, as she searched for the best descriptive words, “Neighponese nature spirits.  I think, I'm still learning about them myself, so that's probably an oversimplification, at least.  Anyways.  Supposedly, there's been some new, troubling activity from one of them.  But our available intelligence of that whole region too limited to say for certain.”  She paused for a moment, then scratched the back of her head and added, “and then there's that thing in Maretonia...”

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"Yokai? Well, Ah know a bit about 'em. Did ya know one of 'em took part in tha Runnin' of tha Leaves a few years back? He did real good. Got second place," she said as she leaned back and looked at her first place medal from that year's Running. "Not quite good 'nough ta beat me, mind you. Let me tell you what, Ah was real shocked when I learned Ah had managed ta outrun some sorta immortal canine spirit or what have you. These legs got tha right stuff for sure," she said as she stretched them out. It felt good, good enough for her to neigh in a moment of weakness before she fell apart like a wet noodle in her seat. "He came ta work in mah fields for a while as part of a wager. He said a Yokai's word is very bindin', Ah take that ta mean it is magically so. Anywho, learned a lot. Felt like Ah could go right on ahead and add ta tha book that Twi gave me," she said as she got up and trotted over to her bookshelf. She pulled out a book and hooved it over to Naj.

 

"This here is tha updated 'Compendium of Curious Creatures' by Ash Ravencrest. One of only a few copies, Ah reckon. Twi said that was only one of two copies the Royal Archives had an' that's sayin' something! Can't say it'll help too much, but thar's all sortsa interesting stuff there. What is this yokai doin' thats making ya so nervous? Could always writ Taira ta learn more," She asked as she sat back down with a heavy sigh. The subject turned ever so briefly to Maretonia. There was always something going on there. "Maretonia? What's happenin' now?" she rolled her eyes. "Ah swear that place is more prickly than a durian in tha cold, and Hippostion smells just as good ta boot. Ah started tryin' ta sell mah apples there not too long ago and some sorta mafia stallion tried ta strong arm me into signin' some sort of protection deal. Well, tha only protection Ah need is from Twi if Ah wring his neck and start a war or somesuch. Heck, the only place that didn't try to screw me over was Acroneighos and that was only for one shipment, as a courtesy becayse of what we did for 'em in Puerto Aguila."

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Naj took the book carefully, particularly wanting to avoid any damage to it after hearing just how rare and valuable the book was.  As such, she took a little extra time making sure the book was safely settled and herself comfortably so, before she opened it up and started looking through it.  Then she continued.  “Maretonia, someone's riling up the locals.  You might think that's not really our problem, and ordinarily I'd agree with you.  But whoever it is, is organized, and their reach is growing.  There've been small groups all across that region with no obvious connection, but who are nonetheless a little too coordinated with each other's actions.  And there might even be a some ranging farther out.”

 

“As for the yokai...” Naj sighed, and flipped through the pages.  “Honestly, I'm not even really sure that's what I'm looking into, but it's the best lead I've got right now.  There was a cache of stolen goods found and recovered from that general area.  Ordinary stuff really, lots of little trinkets of some value or a little magical significance.  Only problem was that up until then the records said they were all stolen in unrelated incidents.  No one really has a clue, save for a few legends of spirits operating in all those areas.  I'm trying to see if I can either rule it out, or find some truth to it.”

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Applejack frowned. Maretonia was a land of misfortune and ill-harmony and it was no shock to the system to imagine that the state of affairs grew more complex and distasteful by the day. They weren't a lot that paid any heed to the ideals of friendship and as a result their land was one of sorrow and  "That seems like it could be some trouble, Ah guess. Ah mean, Ah'd reckon there is a bunch of fellas out there we don't know much about. It'd be right ignorant of us ta think that there ain't some other groups an' cities, minor as they might be. 'course tryin' ta organize them 'round 'thing other than racial lines is tougher than tanned leather on a ca-yote. So if somecritter is up ta that, then yeah, Ah reckon y'all be havin' cause ta worry," she said as she gave a wry smile. While it was bad news, it was exciting. She liked a bit of danger herself, even if she were currently very much sidelined.

 

The yokai conversation was just a little funny to her. Trickster spirits were being their trickster selves? Panic! "Well, Yokai can be a tricky lot. Y'all-" she started out, thinking she could help set his mind at ease some. Not all the way, just some. But life had other plans, as she heard her daughter's cry from the other room. Her ears moved as if seeking them out and she got up quickly and near robotically. "Sorry, got a screamer on our hooves," she said with a mirthless laugh as she vanished deeper into the house. She would return some time later gingerly, cradling a swaddled foal whose tiny horn poked out of the swaddling ever so slightly. "Now now, momma's got ya nice and tight, sugarcube. Hey, say hi ta Naj. This here's Ambrosia," she said as she unveiled a peach-colored unicorn with her momma's eyes and her grandmare's curly mane, or the start of one.

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“That's just the thing,” Naj replied after a nod, “that region's not very well organized, meaning anyone planning anything untoward won't necessarily get any kind of response.  Someone could start building strength for years, maybe even decades, without anyone learning something's coming.  That's what I'm most worried about, on that front at last.”

 

The conversation is interrupted by by a cry from another room, followed by Applejack getting up and going to address the issue before Naj could do anything to stop her.  She ended up sitting quietly, and maybe a little awkwardly, sipping her water and flipping through the book, until the farmpony returned carrying a foal with her.

 

On 2/22/2021 at 2:37 AM, SteelEagle said:

"Sorry, got a screamer on our hooves,"

“Ahh, that's alright.  That might be about enough work talk for now anyways.”  Naj makes a mental note of the page she's on, and then closes the book and sets it aside.  She leans closer, though a little hesitantly.  She knew her natural appearance could be intimidating, and to be honest she wasn't sure how to interact with a young pony.  “Erm, hello,” she says to the tiny pony, after a moment.

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Applejack was, for a moment, lost in her daughter. Well, not just a moment. Many moments that would form a lifetime of love and affection but in this particular event it was but a few moments. Lost in her curly mane, so reminiscent of her momma. Ambrosia would never know Pear Butter and Bright Mac, would never know their voices and affections the way Applejack would. But every time Applejack looked at her daughter she saw that tiniest of resemblances and it took her breath away. Hopefully she would grow up to be as strong, wise, and kind as her grandparents were. Zap Apple was her first born and nothing could ever change how much she loved him and always would, but nopony could argue that a mother's heart wasn't attached stronger than the foundations of the earth to their newborn. And when she looked this cute, it was easy!

 

She grabbed one of Ambrosia's hooves and waved it lightly at Naj. "Howdy there, Naj. Ah'm tha cutest lil' filly there ever was," Applejack said with a babyish coy to her voice as the little foal looked around in confusion. And hunger. She fake-giggled a moment before starting to cry again, which still only caused Applejack to smile. She pulled her daughter close in and took a seat, pulling for a blanket to cover herself as she started to feed her ever hungry daughter. "Being a momma...ah really thought that Ah'd felt everything, ya know? But Ah tell you something right and true, Ah ain't loved a thing near as much as Ah love mah kids. An-" she winched, "-Ah better, since she's a bitter, for sure," she laughed and took a deep breath. "Y'all got somecreature special lightin' you up, sugarcube?"

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Naj laughed despite herself, as AJ wiggled her daughter's hoof and “spoke for” the foal.  She didn't feel like she'd normally react this way, but there was something unquestionably adorable about it.  Maybe it was Applejack, seeing a mare she knew so much for toughness act so...so...she wasn't quite able to come up with the right word.  She also still wasn't sure how to react, but only had to get as far as giving a small wave to Ambrosia before the problem was solved by the foal demanding feeding.

 

She listened as AJ spoke about being a parent, quietly smiling at, though only abstractly understanding the feelings the farmpony was describing for her offspring.  Or at least, she was until Applejack asked the question about the changeling's own loved ones.  Her expression fell, changing to that of a carefully neutral one.  “I've never had kids, if that's what you're asking.”  She hesitates, before adding.  “Had a special somepony at one point, but we drifted apart.”

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