A Working Title
A divine aroma fill Ash's nostrils, teasing his tongue. The waft reminded him of the castle kitchens he and a young prince had snuck in, hiding from both their teachers and the cooks. It all just a game, really; Sead, the head cook, was always willing to share a few delectable morsels, even if they threatened to kill the two boy's appetites.
Ash opened his eyes and found himself in an unfamiliar yet warm room, very welcoming. Antique furniture decorated the space. Framed pictures covered the desk next to the chair he laid in. The sight of a young cream colored filly wearing a diaper as a hat brought a smile to Ash's lips.
A hearty chuckle drew his attention to an old green mare with a grey white mane nearly as white as his own sitting in a rocking chair. Next to her was a pie, the source of the angelic fragrance.
"See, don't need no smellin' salts when yah've got a fresh baked pie." The old pony laughed again.
"Argh, what happened?" Ash sat up and rubbed his head carefully.
"Eh?" The elderly mare leaned forward. "Speak up sonny. Mah ears arn't what they use tah."
"I said...no, forget it."
"What happened? Shoot, Ah wasn't thar tah see it. Bettah ask mah grandson and daughter, they found yah. Hay, here they are now."
Ash turned. Thought the accent sounded familiar he said to himself as Applejack walked in with an unfamiliar stallion, probably her brother despite their different colorings. Then again, their grandmother was green so God knew how or if these were inheritable traits or not.
"Yah feelin' alright there, Ash?" Applejack asked.
"Been better, I'll admit. Not exactly sure I want to know what happened but go ahead. What happened?"
"You ran intah a tree."
Ash waited for more information. When none came, he asked, "That's it?"
"Yep, short n' sweet. Ran right intah a tree. Bit surprised yah didn't leave ana marks."
"Oh, heaven forbid. Good thing the tree's fine." Ash shook his head, wincing slightly. "Sorry. Just a little sour from the...incident."
"Hoo, what's wrong wit this generation?" Applejack's grandmother scoffed. "Why, a stallion yer figure shoulda plowed thru tha tree. Ah'm tellin' yah, back in tha day we had tougha bones, thicker skulls."
"Ah dunno, Granny. Big Mac said he was runnin' awfully fast n' hit tha tree real hard. Why were yah runnin' in tha first place."
Ash shrugged. "Oh you know, running. From stuff. How long have I been out anyways?"
Just as his mouth finished talking, Ash's stomach began to speak.
"Jus' long enough fer lunch," Applejack said with a chuckle as Ash blushed, his grey cheeks glowing. "Here, tastes as good as it smells."
The farmpony took him to a dining table and slid a slice of pie over to him before cutting a piece for her grandmother, her brother, and herself.
The mere sight of the pie caused Ash to salivate and yet that's all he did. He just looked at it.
"Is something wrong?"
Ash looked up. None of the Apples had touched their food, waiting for their guest to start first, an example of country hospitality. Contrary to what the city perceived, country ponies had their manners and watched them carefully. These manners just didn't include the correct usage of specific silverware or the right bite size to take.
"Oh, no. Nothing's wrong."
"Then go ahead. Take a bite. It won't bite back." Applejack was slowly growing impatient however as her own slice was getting cold.
Ash did. And it was delicious. Sweet apples mixed with tangy cinnamon wrapped in a flaky crust. The stream of flavor was followed by a flood of memories. Memories in front of a stove as snow raged outside the castle walls. Sharing pies with a friend, of all sorts of recipes. Every type of berry. Apples, grown from the royal orchards. A plump man wearing a stained apron nodded to himself as the Prince and the Mage shared his latest creation...
Sead, if only you were here now. When was the last time I tasted your cooking? A year? Two? Two thousand?
"Are yah shore yer alright?"
"Yeah." Ash wiped the tears away. "Everything's fine. Pie's great. Just trying to remember the last time I had a pie this great." He tried to force a smile.
He was lying, she knew, but Applejack did not pry. Instead she said, "Flattery won't get yah another slice, if that's what yah thinkin'."
"What if I ask nicely?" Ash joked. "And offered to do your chores."
"Shoot, that'll get yah an entire pie. Whada say, Big Mac? We could always use a little help, right?"
"Granny, you don' have any objections, do yah?"
Granny Smith snored in response.
"Guess not." Ash pushed his plate forward. "So, about that extra slice..."
"Ah thought you were gonna ask nicely."
"Yup. Jus' git all tha bruised ones in here bucket. All thar is to it." Applejack tossed a few rotten apples into the bucket. They hit the bottom with a sickening squish. "Normally, Applebloom does this wit me but she's got school tahday n' spends more time with those friends of hers nowadays."
Ash picked up an apple with his mouth and immediately spat it into the bin after confirming that it was indeed bad. " Applebloom?"
"Mah sister. Yah saw in the market the other day."
"Ah, the aspiring salesman, er, pony. Wait, you're having me do the work of a child?" Another messy squish.
"Well, Ah guess yah could feed tha pigs after if yer up for it."
Ash frowned. "Come on, I know I'm not a farmer but I think I'm a little stronger than a child. I can handle more than this."
Applejack thought for a moment. "Well, Big Macintosh could use some help plowin' the field but we've only got one plow right now."
"Then what do you do?"
"What do you do?" Ash repeated, pointing a hoof in the orange mare's direction.
"Ah run tha farm. Ah make shore we've got enough apples tah last us, watch the apple stand on market days, buck apples."
"What was the last one?"
"Ah said, apple buckin'." Applejack trotted over to a nearby tree, turned around, and kicked it with both legs. Before the tree even stopped ringing, apples rained down like a fruity hail storm. "Ah, shoot. Shoulda had some baskets beneath tah catch 'em. Ah well, jus' be shore yah don't mix tha goods ones with the bads."
"Hold on." Ash walked under a different apple tree. "So you just kick the tree and apples fall?"
"Buck, not kick. An' it's harder than it looks."
"Whatever. I'm harder than I look too."
"Never thought you'd admit yer thick. Ah really don't think yah can handle this sort of work. Ah mean, Ah've seen Twi out run me n' Rainbow Dash but there's a reason why she n' most Unicorns rely on magic."
Ash ignored her as he focused on the tree behind him. The stereotype that Mages were all eggheads that spent their entire lives without being able to do a single pushup was, like most stereotypes, a gross exaggeration. On many occasions, when magic failed him, Ash would have to rely on his fists. Oh, and on his friends too; his lovely little meat shields he would call Sethiop and Dorian and Arlrand. The nickname had lost what little charm it had.
Ash took a deep breath and with all his might, struck the tree with both hind legs. He felt the tree shake and the leaves fall on his face. Leaves, but no apples. No, wait. A loose one seemed to take pity and fell directly on his head
With his legs still propped on the tree's trunk, the grey Unicorn turned to Applejack, who hid her face behind her hat as she shrugged not to laugh.
"What did I do wrong?" he asked.
"Jus' a, heh, sec. Heh." A snort escaped the farmpony as she tried to control herself. "Ehem. Well, yah kicked. Yah've gotta buck."
"What's the difference?" was Ash's irritated response.
"If you would kindly step away from tha tree, Ah might show yah."
"Actually, the tree's the only thing keeping me up. I'm, well, I'm stuck. Hey, don't you turn around. I can see you laughing. You're laughing, aren't you?"
"Ah won't deny it."
With the back of his hoof Ash wiped the sweat from his brow and proudly examined the baskets filled with apples before him. He tried not to look over to Applejack's side, who no doubt had more full baskets in front of her.
"Not bad, not bad at all." The veteran apple-bucker grinned. "Tho' Ah think yer better off usin' yer head. Yah got more apples down when you ran tha tree tha first time."
Ash smiled back. "Argh, I don't think I could handle the following headaches."
"Well, are yah ready for the backaches?" Applejack threw a basket onto her back. "Now we've gotta git these apples inta tha barn."
The Unicorn lost his grin. "What, all of them?"
"Yeah. Whada think we were goin' tah do after?"
"I dunno," he answered as he lifted one of the heavy containers. "Eat 'em?" As he spoke, Ash lost holding of the basket, dropping it and spilling red and green fruit everywhere.
Applejack put her own apples down and helped the grey Unicorn recollect the fallen fruit. "Use yah hooves, not yer mouth. How can Ah sell these if they all've got teeth marks on 'em?"
"You could always give them to me."
"Yeah, then me n' mah family can go live on the streets. Might sell tha farm tah make it thro' tha winter."
"...I was kidding."
"So was Ah. Yah seen how dirty Ponyville's streets are?" Applejack shook her head, her hat shifting side to side. "'Sides, Ah know mah friends wouldn't leave us starved n' homeless."
"That's nice to know." Carefully, Ash lifted an apple, his hooves shaking. "God, how do you do this?"
Ash turned to Applejack and marveled at how she managed to hold an apple in each hoof. "That. How are you so dexterous?"
"Dexterous. You know, skilled at using your hands, I mean hooves."
The orange mare examined her forelimbs carefully, then shrugged. "Yah might as well ask a centipede how it knows which legs goes after tha other or a Unicorn how she can use magic. Come to think of it, why arn't you? That horn ain't jus' for decoration is it?"
"Oh right." Why hadn't he tried using magic. In hindsight, he really would have been better off using his head to collect apples. Magic would have spared him much time and many embarrassing moments.
Then Unicorn remembered what had happened the last time he tested his horn. Spike would later describe his experience as a potted plant quite enlightening and tried to swear off vegetables, which was later discovered to simply be an excuse to go on an all-gem and ice cream diet. Twilight was not amused.
Still, Ash had suffered similar situations when he had just begun developing his abilities, albeit with less plant people and more violent barbecues and medical bills. Practice leads to perfection he reminded himself as he closed his eyes and began concentrate.
It was only a simple levitation and should have been just that: simple. His problem was finding the right amount of energy to use to lift the basket. Any lack of self-control and these apples would have been thrown straight to the moon.
"Heh, careful there. Yer face might stay like that."
"Is my thinking face that silly?"
"Eeyup. You should try thinkin' less. Or 'least not as hard."
The Unicorn sighed and focused on the basket. Grey aura flowed from his horn and covered the basket. The thing moved slightly. Another chuckle escaped Applejack as Ash doubled his concentration. He cried in triumph as the basket soared onto his back. His victory was short-lived as the grey stallion collapsed beneath the weight of the apples.
With a grunt, Ash got to his feet, miraculously balancing the basket of fruit on his back. "Not a word." Applejack merely shrugged in response and began to walk in the direction of the red barn. Ash followed closely behind.
"So, these lands have been your family's for a while I take."
"You can bet yer tail on that. Sweet Apple Acres' been in tha Apple's hooves for four long generations. Mah great-grammy and great-grand pappy settled here before Ponyville was even founded. Heck, Granny Smith is tha only reason Ponyville's on a map." Applejack stopped in front of a tree. "This was one of tha first apple trees they planted. An' tha last of tha first remainin'."
"Doesn't look very old. But I'm not the tree expert around here." That was Darlene's title, not his.
The farm mare shook her head sadly and let out a sigh. "It'll break 'er heart when this one's gotta come down. Always told us she met Granddad under this tree. C'mon, we've got apples to harvest."
With a final grunt, Ash carefully put the last basket down. His pile was embarrassingly small compared to Big Macintosh's and Applejack's and so resigned himself to at least beating the absent Applebloom. The thought didn't exactly
help his self-esteem.
Still, today had been a good day and he was proud of the hard labor he did. Ash took a step back to admire his handiwork.
"You did good, man. You did good."
"Talkin' tah yahself?" Applejack walked over and stood next to him. "But Ah have tah admit, yah did good,"
"Fer a city slicker."
"Ouch. Regardless, I'll take the complement."
"Hope that'll substitute as a payment then. Ah feel horrible not bein' able tah pay you fer yer services but money's kind of tight this season."
"No problem. Besides, I did this for pie, remember?"
"That's true, partner."
"Besides," Ash said as he leaned against a tree, "it feels good to do some actually work and not just freeload. Man, what I wouldn't do for a job."
"Shoot, yer always welcomed around here. We could always use a set of hooves an' a strong back."
"Thanks." Ash grinned before he continued, "But I've got to pay Twilight back for her hospitality and I'd rather not burden you with demands of wages. Oh, and I should do something for Fluttershy. And Rarity."
"Geez, quite the debt yah've got thar." Applejack tapped her chin in thought. "Hmm, Ah'm shore you could find work in town. Plenty of work n' not enough helpers."
"Thanks for the info." Ash craned his neck to the sunny. "It's getting pretty late though. I might just have a look around."
"No problem. 'Bout time fer Applebloom tah be home anyway. Guess we'll see yah 'round."
Ash waved as he left the farm and headed into town.
"Sorry pal, but we're not hiring."
"But your sign says you are!"
"...It says we're opened."
"Oh. Well. I'll just show myself out then."
Ash stepped out of the couch and quill store and glared venomously at the laughing Pegasus, her cyan body barely visible above the clouds.
"Bahahaha, heh." Rainbow Dash gasped for breath. "Heh, sorry pal but when you said you couldn't read I had to take the opportunity."
"And I am beginning to doubt my decision of telling you in the first place. Did you at least fill out my application for the restaurant position?"
The Pegasus tossed a piece of paper down, which floated for several seconds in the breeze until Ash lost patience and snatched it with his magic.
He looked over the application and tried to decipher what Rainbow Dash had written. For being only able to use her mouth, she had been pretty neat. Now if only Ash could understand what the prankster had written.
The rainbow-maned Pegasus snickered. Ash looked up. "I probably don't want to use this, do I?" he asked.
"Heh, probably not."
"Do I even want to know what you wrote as my 'special talent'?"
"Maybe, but I bet the look on the manager's face would have been priceless." Rainbow Dash jumped down from her cloud and hovered just above the sour Unicorn. "Still, an egghead that can't read. That's hilarious!"
"What makes you think I'm an egghead?" Ash asked defensively. "If anything, my head's shaped like a large apple."
"I've already got an apple-head to deal with and she more than enough. Seriously though." Rainbow Dash was now at eye level, though still in the air. "You were in a library for an entire week and you couldn't read? That's like, I dunno, stuck in a bakery and couldn't eat."
"I had picture books."
Rainbow gave him a look that was a mix between pity and disbelief. One of the Pegasus' eyebrows lifted to the heavens.
"But yeah, it was kind of painful," Ash admitted. "Wasn't exactly all too fun having a baby dragon read aloud to me. Oh, and I can read, just not in Equestrian."
"Does Twilight know about this."
"Sure. Maybe. Possibly. No."
"You didn't tell her?"
"I thought she would have figured it out. Guess not."
"Why didn't you? I'm sure she would have taught you."
Ash sighed. "Twilight's already spent enough time on me. I really don't want to burden her with another thing."
"Hey." Rainbow Dash landed and wrapped a leg over the stallion's shoulders. "Take it from a pony who knows loyalty. Twilight is one of the best friends a pony can have 'cuz she'll do anything for a friend. I'm sure that Unicorn would be more than happy to help you."
"If you're so loyal, why don't you teach me how to read?"
"Hey, have you given me a good look over?"
"Excuse me? We barely know each other."
The Pegasus scowled. "Not like that. Is that all guys think about? I meant I'm an athlete. Sure, I can dig a good book but I'm no teach. I'd might be able to teach you a thing or two on flying and proper cheering but on reading, 'riting, and 'rithemtic, not my job." Rainbow Dash removed herself from Ash's shoulders. "Whelp, gotta dash. See ya around."
Ash waved as Rainbow became a streak in the sky. It was getting late. The grey Unicorn began to walk to the library.
Perhaps it was time to swallow his pride.
"There you are. Twilight's gone ballistic."
"What are those?" Ash asked, pointing to the posters Spike had been working on.
"Lost pony flyers." The baby dragon put his quill down and jumped off his stool. "Where have you been?"
"Eh, here and there." Ash ruffled Spike's spikes. The dragon huffed in annoyance. It was bad enough when the girls treated him like a child. "Where is Twilight anyway?"
The door exploded open. Spike ducked behind the grey Unicorn, allow him to catch the majority of the debris. At the library's doorway stood a very angry purple Unicorn. Her mane seemed to flow like flames. Ash saw his entire life pass by before him as Twilight took a step closer.
Ash gulped. "H-hi Twil--"
"DON'T YOU 'HI' ME!" The grey Unicorn flinched and looked behind him for help. Spike had already fled.
"I CHASED PINKIE PIE ALL AFTERNOON JUST SO SHE COULD TELL ME SHE SAW YOU WALK INTO THE EVERFREE FOREST! THE EVER-BUCKING-FREE FOREST! WERE YOU TRYING TO GET YOURSELF KILLED?"
They should have given it a better name. Like Death Forest or something. The grey Unicorn kept his thoughts to himself as he subjected himself to Twilight's rage.
"I ALMOST SET UP A SEARCH PARTY BEFORE APPLEJACK TOLD ME YOU WERE ON HER FARM AND THAT YOU WERE IN TOWN! I ENDED UP SEARCHING ALL OF PONYVILLE FOR YOU ONLY FOR RAINBOW DASH TO TELL ME YOU CAME BACK HERE! WHAT WERE YOU DOING?"
"YOU'RE SORRY? YOU'RE SORRY?"
Twilight was getting closer. Ash could feel her anger radiated from her body. Ash shut his eyes, waiting for the worst.
Twilight's expression softened. She sighed. "I'm sorry for raising my voice but you really worried me. I can't believe you just left like that."
"I left a note."
Twilight's features hardened once more. "You left me a piece of paper with a bunch of chicken scratch."
"Hey, my handwriting isn't that awful."
"I can't read Human."
The purple Unicorn groaned in frustration and sat next to Ash. "I'm sorry," Ash repeated. "It's just, well I had a pretty bad nightmare. And, well, I wanted to be alone for a little while. To relax."
"Well, I guess if you wanted to be alone, the Everfree Forest is probably perfect. Relaxing though..." Twilight looked up. The stallion looked away. "If you're having nightmares, you should have just come to me."
"I didn't want to bother you. Not after all you've done already."
Twilight shook her head. "You're not a bother. I'm here for you, as a friend. You don't need to keep you troubles bottled down like that."
The purple Unicorn gave the grey one a hug. A few seconds passed before Ash awkwardly returned it. "Thanks," he muttered before releasing the embrace.
"Um, actually." Ash rubbed the back of his neck. "You brought up a good point. The note. Yeah, you can't read Human and, well..." He took a quick breath to strengthen himself. "I can't read or write in Equestrian."
"What?" Twilight exclaimed in disbelief. "But how did you get through all those books and scrolls when we were working on a transformation spell?"
"I had Spike read out loud and I transposed what he read into a language I understand," Ash explained.
"Oh." Twilight seemed a bit disappointed. "I thought you were writing in some ancient magical language I was hoping that you could've taught me."
"Nope, just regular old Human." Now comes the hard part. "I was kind of hoping, that is, if you didn't mind..." Another deep breath. "If you could teach me how to read and write in Equestrian. That way, you know, we could avoid this kind of situation."
"I'd be more than happy to..."
Well, that was painless.
"...I don't think I can."
"What do you mean? I mean, not to sound rude or demanding or anything."
Twilight got up. "I'm not exactly a teacher. I don't think I'd be the right pony to be teaching you something this important."
"Didn't you teach Spike?"
"Princess Celestia did that actually. Spike was just as much a student as I was." Twilight began to scour the shelves. "I might be able to find a few easy readers and help you get started but it would be best if you had a proper instructor. Wait a sec." Twilight turned back to the white-maned stallion and grinned.
"I think I know a pony that can help."
A/N No Rainbow Dash, some guys just think about ponies...